What does the cross mean to you?

Someone posted in social media recently and asked the question, “What does the cross mean to you?”

ImageI find this intriguing because I am teaching a course on the cruciform church at the moment. I looked at the responses to the question, and here is my paraphrase of the answers.

  • Grace.
  • I come to the cross to tell Jesus how much I need him.
  • Unconditional love.
  • Everything.
  • It means that my life will never be the same again.
  • It tells me how much he has done for me.
  • It symbolises two thousand years of effective protection for Christians.
  • Forgiveness and hope.
  • When I look at the cross, I know that he answers the prayers of the individual.

The other responses are very similar.

I certainly think that the cross represents the unconditional love of God. And I share the experience of a totally changed life when I came to faith in Christ. At a personal level, the message of the cross—the cruciform death and resurrection of Christ—has the most profound impact on my life.

But I wonder whether the above answers highlight some issues we have to face as a church at large?

First, almost all the responses above are about what God has done for us, or will do for us. There is very little about what the cross demands.

For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about cross-bearing.

Then he [Jesus] said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (NIV; Luke 9:23; cf. Matt 10:38; Mark 8:34)

And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27; Matt 16:24)

The cross is certainly very important to the apostle Paul. In Galatians he talks about his co-crucifixion with Christ.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal 2:20a)

Paul also speaks of a cruciform leadership pattern that is about identifying with Christ’s death so that the life of Christ may manifest through his weakness.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Cor 4:10–11)

Much more can be said. But it is clear that the New Testament does not only talk about what the cross does for the followers of Jesus. It also has much to say about what the cross means to the daily life of Christ-followers.

No wonder Isaac Watts says in his great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,

Love so amazing, so divine. Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Second, almost no-one cites or alludes to the Scripture in their responses to the question “What does the cross mean to you?” in the above question raised in social media. This (at least partially) explains why the responses are all fairly similar, and that they ignore cross-bearing and the cross-shaped faith. I think many will agree that biblical literacy has been declining in recent years, and this is a very unhealthy trend.

Third, I wonder whether the responses also reflect a “what’s in it for me” church culture today? I am glad to see that people do love Jesus because of the cross. But one’s love for God needs to be expressed through cruciform commitment to Christ. I personally find this commitment very challenging. But nonetheless this is what we are called to do, and so let us do so by relying on God’s grace and the help of his Spirit.

Four, I wonder what teaching we receive in our churches and on the Internet today? Do we still focus on the Scripture? Do we challenge Christians to focus on the cross and be faithful to God? I hope we do.

Fifth, I really hope that Christians in the West do not export a truncated understanding of the cross to other parts of the world. I mean, we need to present and live out a gospel message that truly reflect the meaning of the cross. The cross is about the good news of the Jesus for humanity, and at the same time it demands Christ-followers to embody the self-giving love of Jesus in the world.

Let me close by citing the words of Miroslav Volf.

In a world of violence, the Cross, that eminently counter-cultural symbol that lives at the heart of the Christian faith, is a scandal . . . there is no genuinely Christian way around the scandal. In the final analysis, the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take up one’s cross, follow the Crucified—and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge. (in Volfs book, Exclusion and Embrace, page 26)

I find this very challenging. May God give us the courage and grace to follow Jesus.

New book on Suffering in Romans (Foreword by Professor Todd Still)

A new book Suffering in Romans will be released soon.

This is from the Foreword.

Dr Wu treated with clarity and care the theme of suffering in Romans 5–8 with special reference to 5:1–11 and 8:14–39 and persuasively demonstrated the centrality of the subject in that pivotal portion of Paul’s magisterial letter to Roman believers . . . Herein you will find a serious, scholarly study that offers salient insight into a long-neglected topic in an oft-interpreted text. Indeed, it is the most comprehensive and persuasive treatment to date.

Todd D. Still, DeLancey Dean and Hinson Professor, Baylor University, Truett Seminary

More endorsements of the book can be found by clicking here.

Draft Book Cover—Front

Spirit-led cruciform leadership (insights from Gordon Fee)  

I am reading Gordon Fee’s commentary on Galatians (Deo Publishing: Blandford Forum, 2007). In his reflection on Gal 6:11–18, Fee says the following (page 255).

Whatever “authority” we might have in the church — and I doubt whether it is very much at all — it is totally derived, and it has nothing to do with position and everything to do with what has been earned by one’s character, as that is in process of being shaped into Christ’s own character by the indwelling Spirit.

And . . . my experience with those keen on their own authority in the church is that to a person they are not very keen on being shaped by the cross. That is, they may preach the cross well as the means of salvation; but that is only part of Paul’s concern in this passage [Gal 6:11–18]. His greater concern has to do with living cruciform, to have his life “shaped” by, and in the likeness of, Christ’s own crucifixion. (Emphasis added)

I like Gordon Fee as an “older” scholar, who is passionate about the Scripture and is a devout follower of Jesus. Here I feel that he is speaking as a father in the faith to encourage us to practise Spirit-led cross-shaped leadership.

But of course we should, most of all, hear from Paul himself.

But as for me, may it never be that I boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14; Lexham English Bible)

The crucified Christ in 1 Corinthians (Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still’s insights and my reflections)  

I am reading 1 Corinthians at the moment. Yesterday I thought I might take a look at Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still’s Thinking Through Paul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), expecting that they would provide me with a good overview of the letter. I was not disappointed, for I came across some succinct and insightful comments about 1 Corinthians.

Longnecker and Still think that the centre of the letter’s vision is “nothing but Christ crucified,” which I wholeheartedly concur.

A good passage to cite here would be 1 Cor 2:1–5.

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (NIV; emphasis added)

I do wonder how often preaching today is characterised by eloquent speech, human wisdom and power, rather than weakness, fear and trembling?

I do believe that well-prepared sermons and thoughtful biblical reflections are very important. But that’s very different from eloquent motivational talks that say little about the crucified Christ and primarily appeal to the emotion.

This is what Longnecker and Still say regarding the crucified Christ.

As Paul unpacks the phrase “Jesus Christ crucified,” he shows that it involves a radical redefinition of life and a sweeping reconfiguration of lifestyle. If “Jesus Christ crucified” is something of a slogan for Paul, it is a slogan that informs the repatterning of whole sectors of life—individual and collective, ethical and ecclesial . . . (Page 116; emphasis added)

These words from [1 Cor] 2:1–5 exemplify what Paul does throughout much of this letter. That is, he highlights a strand of the gospel that subverts the Corinthians’ cultural norms and expectations and applies it to their situation in ways that reorient them along the path of the gospel’s outworking. (Pages 116–7; emphasis added)

The cross is not only for our benefit. The grace of God through Christ also calls for a radical reorientation of every sphere of life.

Longnecker and Still continue to say,

At the heart of all this is what Paul calls “the message of the cross.” As he readily recognizes, that message is “foolishness” when analysed in reference to the quest for honor that enraptured the Corinthian ethos. Paul calls the Corinthians to look beyond that perception of foolishness in order that they might be empowered with “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18; also 2:4–5), enabling them to be reoriented to the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. (Page 117; emphasis added)

The challenge for us, then, is to abandon using our human wisdom to achieve the mission and purposes that God has given the church. Instead of asking how “successful” we are, and measure “success” in terms of the value system of the world, we should ask whether our message is “foolish” from the perspective of the world.

This does not mean that we don’t use wisdom or that we should abandon learning. Neither should we present the gospel in ways that are not thoughtful. But we should always be careful that we don’t deviate from the message of the crucified Christ and a (corporate and individual) life that embodies the cross, which will always appear to be foolish in the eyes of the world.

Longnecker and Still make the following comments regarding Paul’s own life.

The apostolic pattern of Paul’s ministry itself demonstrates that God’s wisdom runs against the grain of cultural constructed systems of honor. So Paul characterizes his ministry as, among other things, foolish, weak, and dishonorable by cultural standards (4:9–13), concluding that he has “become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.” (Page 120)

Here is something that every Christian leader needs to take heed of. Our celebrity culture today is fertile ground to foster leadership patterns that seek honour and glory in front of the world. Personality cult in the Christian circle is all too common. Paul would have nothing to do with it.

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Some unhealthy trends in Christian leadership  

I know of young Australian Christians who enjoyed Mark Driscoll’s preaching. Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church had thousands of worshippers in fourteen locations across four states in the US, with annual revenues of more than US$30 million. But in October 2014 Driscoll stepped down from leadership amidst multiple allegations. As of January 2015, Mars Hill was dissolved. Ben Tertin helpfully outlines some of the issues around Driscoll’s leadership and Mars Hill in his article in the Leadership Journal (Christianity Today, December 2014).

The article can be found by clicking here.

Since I am not an American, I am reluctant to comment on this matter. But the comments made in the article remind me of some unhealthy trends I observe in churches and Christian organisations in recent years. I would like to mention a few here.

Gifts and ability over faithfulness

Although this is not explicitly stated in the mission statements of Christian organisations or the official documents of the church, increasingly, leaders are chosen primarily because of their gifts and abilities. In fact, leaders themselves prefer to work with gifted people who are able to achieve tangible results. At the same time, Christians look to charismatic speakers because of their eloquent speeches and power of persuasion. But of course God is more interested in faithful people who are willing to give themselves totally to serve him. Faithful disciples produce faithful followers of Jesus, and often the process is long and the numbers are few. Gifted leaders, on the contrary, have crowds surrounding them. Their followers are many, but often they have not considered the cost of following Jesus.

Corporatisation and over-reliance of business models

Over the past 30 years I have been involved in not a few churches and Christian agencies. Operating in the context of a changing world, where financial management is increasingly tricky, leaders find that they need people with business and professional skills to run their churches and organisations. As a result, committed Christians with those skills are appointed to take up key leadership roles. Churches and agencies then adopt business models used in the corporate world in order to improve efficiency.

There is nothing wrong in this approach—not in and of itself anyway. But my observation is that this is often done without careful consideration of any inherent conflict with the values of God’s kingdom. In the worst scenario, money is the bottom line, which drives everything that the church/organisation does. For example, in the face of falling revenue, staff members are retrenched despite their faithful service over the years. In other instances, popular leaders and highly efficient workers are given greater pay increases because of the numeric or financial success they bring, while faithful and diligent—but less “productive”—workers are less valued.

We must guard ourselves from this management philosophy and corporatisation of the church. Surely we need sound management of our finances and efficient organisational structures. But we must learn to be love-centred with the help of the Spirit, so that we can truly be an alternative community to a value system that treats people as commodities and money-making machines. In times of financial hardships, we are to stand in solidarity with one another and learn to trust a God who will never fail us and who will provide all our needs.

Celebrity culture

I think celebrity culture has a more subtle effect on us than we think. We all have our faith heroes and we desire a role model to follow. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look up to someone. But it is very easy to turn a leader into some kind of celebrity figure, to the degree that we start to worship them. And we do so without knowing it.

This can happen when a pastor becomes famous because their church membership grows beyond a few thousands. This can also happen when a Christian writer or blogger becomes famous, and when their tweets have gained many followers. But we should never blindly follow well-known leaders, for no one is infallible, regardless of their gifts, charisma, the size of their churches, and their popularity in social media. We should never spend more time on their books and online teaching materials than on the Bible. We are followers of Jesus, and our job is to study the Scripture so that we may know God better.

We should not think that celebrity culture is only found in large churches. It can happen anywhere. Some years ago I met a young man who was well known for his involvement in community development, social justice, and being a peace activist. His punchy writing style and radical peace-making activities were beginning to attract many young people. At the time I was working in the aid and development sector, and I was asked to spend half an hour with him over a cup of coffee. I was surprised that over that short time he repeatedly told me that he had shared the platform with the most well-known peace-activists and those who lived and worked among the poor in the US—those who spoke to thousands of people at conferences and whose books were best-sellers worldwide.

Obviously these famous figures have had an immense impact on his life, and indeed they are his faith heroes. I don’t want to undervalue his (and his faith heroes’) contribution to poverty alleviation and peace-making. But I am afraid that, with a mentality like that, Christians are unwittingly reproducing celebrities in the name of the poor, so much so that we are producing followers of people rather than disciples of Jesus himself.

Power, influence, expansion and world domination

The last trend I want to mention is perhaps not new at all. It seems that there is a renewed trend to use power to extend God’s kingdom. I am concerned when the rhetoric of Christian leaders is about power, expansion, and world domination. The church is not about conquering the world to gain universal dominance through power and influence. Rather, its call is to embody the death of Jesus, so that the world may see the living Christ and risen Lord in its solidarity with the pain and suffering of people in this world.

A (mis)understanding of mission that is based on an expansion mentality can easily lead into empire-building. We are not called to extend God’s kingdom or influence culture by means of (social and economic) power. Rather, Christ-followers are to faithfully live a cross-shaped life and create cruciform Jesus-centred communities that embody the values of God’s kingdom. We are to rely on God’s power in our weakness. We find this in the apostle’s Paul’s teaching.

Paul repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians (6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10).  In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him. A life of affliction in fact displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ, and in the process believers reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). In his own words, Paul says,

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

This notion counters everything that celebrity culture symbolises. It is about faithfulness, not charisma, gifts or abilities. It does not rely on the best business models, but God’s power to provide. And it is not about expansion or dominance. Instead, it is about a cross-shaped pattern of ministry that bears witness to the crucified Christ and risen Lord.

Jesus-shaped VS worldly leadership: Tim Gombis on Christian leadership

Over the past 20 years I have been an active participant of a number of churches, Christian organisations and theological colleges. I have met some wonderful people, and am thankful to their leadership and their desire to serve God.

But at times I come across leaders, whose style, ethos and practice are, I am afraid, shaped by the values of this world rather than the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. I don’t think it is a healthy trend.

Recently Tim Gombis wrote a series of blog posts that are particularly insightful, and I think it is worth re-blogging here. In the following I will list the links to those posts, as well as some quotable quotes there.

Whether you are a pastor, an elder of a church, a board member in a Christian organisation, a Christian school teacher or principal, or a professor/lecturer in a seminary/theological college, I think Gombis’ thoughts are helpful as you ponder your leadership in your context.

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Cross-shaped Leadership

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/12/cross-shaped-leadership/

The cross of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith, and it shapes  and determines everything about being Christian. Cruciformity – or, being “cross-shaped” — means having our lives and church community dynamics oriented by the cross-shaped life of Jesus.

Cruciformity is a powerful reality because it is the only way to gain access to the resurrection power of God.  When we shape our lives according to the life of Jesus, we experience his presence by the Spirit, and God floods our lives, relationships, and communities with resurrection power.

When I talk to people training for Christian leadership about cruciformity, however, I discover the assumption that it isn’t easily practiced in ministry.  Many assume that cruciformity may be good for ordinary Christian people, but it won’t work in leadership situations.

I wonder if this is because our imaginations are shaped by worldly conceptions of leadership and of power.  We assume that at some point cruciform leadership would fail.  It wouldn’t be up to the challenges of “real world” situations where power must be wielded over others.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 2

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/13/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-2/

Worldly leadership: A desire to increase in prestige, status, and influence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve these things, even if it means neglecting or hurting people who do not appear to be means of one’s own personal advancement.

Jesus-shaped leadership: An unrelenting commitment to the delivery of the love and grace of God into the lives of others (or, the life of another), and taking the initiative to see to it that this happens.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 3

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/16/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-3/

Cross-shaped leadership constantly adjusts to God’s agenda.  This is significantly different from worldly forms of leadership, which are oriented by the leader’s agenda.

Worldly leadership is leader-determined.  It’s all about “my dream,” or “my vision for this church.”  Churches with charismatic leaders are often compelling communities for a time, but they seldom manifest cruciformity.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 4

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/17/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-4/

Cruciform leaders do not view people as the means to achieve other goals.  The people to whom we minister are the goal.  The whole point of Jesus-shaped leadership is to take the initiative to see that God’s grace and love arrive into the lives of others.

Christian leaders are servants of others on behalf of God, so people are the point—not my goals, plans, vision, or ambitions.

We talk about “results,” or we want our ministries to be “effective.”  We look for ministry strategies that “work.”

When we talk like this, we reveal that we are envisioning something bigger than or beyond the people to whom we minister.  We subtly become the servants of that other thing and we look at the people as the means to get somewhere else.

This is one way that pastors’ hearts function as idol factories.

When we set our hearts on certain goals and ends, we can become very frustrated at our people when they don’t perform the way we want them to.  When we’re not seeing the results we expected, we put pressure on people, demanding more from them.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 5

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/18/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-5/

Worldly leaders are captivated by a craving for more and more influence.  Cruciform leaders, on the other hand, are content with current responsibilities given by God and seek to grow in faithfulness.

In any and every case, cruciform leaders are focused on faithfulness to the task.  This involves self-sacrificially serving others, getting to know those to whom we minister.  Cruciform leaders take the initiative to cultivate relationships of mutuality and authenticity shaped and oriented by the love and grace of God.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 6

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/19/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-6/

Cruciform leadership is marked by a determination to live authentically and relate honestly.  Jesus-shaped, cruciform leaders don’t hide their weaknesses, inadequacies, and failures.  They aren’t self-promoting, they don’t seek power, and they don’t trumpet their strengths.

Worldly leadership, on the other hand, is consumed with image-consciousness.  Worldly leaders manipulate situations in order to put the best face on things.  They try to control how people see them and what others think of them.

Cross-shaped Leadership, Part 7

http://timgombis.com/2014/06/21/cross-shaped-leadership-pt-7/

Cruciform leaders have ultimate aims to bless others, to give them life, to see to it that God’s goodness, love, and grace are always arriving into others’ lives.

Worldly leaders, on the other hand, have selfish ends and will use others to achieve those ends.  Other people, therefore, are means to my own ends, and others are valuable to me only insofar as they serve my purposes.

Seeking to resolve a broken relationship is a well-motivated desire, but it’s possible to approach such situations manipulatively.  We might find ourselves plotting and planning how we’ll graciously expose the other’s fault; we anticipate responses and prepare counter-arguments.