Christian life and ministry involves making decisions. Living through this period of COVID has meant making decisions. Usually around this time of year our diocese meets as a synod and makes a variety of decisions. On what basis do we make them? No doubt the new year will bring with it a raft of decisions we as a diocese will have to make. Might it be helpful if we were a little more conscious of the basis on which we make them?
Our diocese has a long history of theologically-driven decision making. We do not just decide what to do on the basis of what works, or on the basis of personal preference, or on the basis of institutional mandate. We want to operate on principle. More specifically we want to operate on theological principle. We might not always have been consistent in this. We are certainly not perfect. We have most definitely made mistakes. Yet this has long been our goal and this, we trust, explains why we do what we do.
What exactly do we mean when we talk like that? It can sound rather abstract or even grandiose. In can be mistaken for arrogance, insisting we are always right — and that is certainly not the case. It can sound like the ultimate trump card to be played when we disagree with others. In reality, though, theological thinking or being theologically-driven in our decision making, is quite simply thinking about everything in relation to God. Theology, it is often said, doesn’t try to say everything about everything, but it does try to say the most important thing about everything, and that is that everything is related to God. So we approach decisions—especially ministry decisions, but really all decisions—with an awareness of who God is, what he is like and what is his grand purpose for all creation.
What is God really like? If we are viewing everything against the backdrop of his person and his purpose, then we need to be very clear in our answer to that question. The very last verse of 1 John warns us about the danger of creating idols. Another John, John Calvin, warned that the human heart is ‘a perpetual factory of idols’. Our tendency, ever since the Garden of Eden, has been to fashion God to suit our person and purpose. ‘I like to think of God as …’ is really a ridiculous way to begin a sentence when you think about it. It doesn’t really matter what I like to think of God as. That is not likely to cut much ice with him on the last day! Instead we need to make sure we are thinking of God, and responding to him, as he really is.
The basic truth about God is that he is deeply relational. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit from all eternity. Love and self-giving are the core of who God is, the core of who he has always been and will always be as the Holy Trinity. Of course our thinking is stretched almost to breaking point as we speak of God as eternally one and yet eternally three. There is no precise analogy to the Trinity in creation. All our illustrations have serious limitations. Yet the love of the Father for the Son from all eternity, the faithfulness of the Son to the Father from all eternity, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit with both Father and Son from all eternity — this we can and must affirm.
To think about everything in relation to God is to think about all things enjoying the overflow of the Father’s love for the Son, the Son’s faithfulness to the Father and the Spirit’s presence and power, among much else. The decisions we make have to take account of the priority of relationships because God is fundamentally about relationships. This one simple truth has profound consequences. Decisions which exploit others, or devalue others, or treat others as simply a means to an end (‘punters’, ‘consumers’, ‘participants’ etc.) are not decisions that have been thought through theologically. If God is as he is, loving, self-giving relationships take on an importance that can reshape what we do.
A second important truth about God is that he and he alone is the Creator. There are, when everything else is boiled down, only two realities in the universe: the Creator and everything he has created. Everything depends upon God for its existence and for its continuing existence. God depends on nothing other than himself for his existence. He has life in himself (John 5:26), while we all have life as a gift from him (Acts 17:25). We will never cease being God’s creatures. Even at the end, when all things are brought to the conclusion God intended from the beginning, we will not transcend that fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creation. Alongside a deep and unavoidable dependence upon him, this distinction reminds us of an inescapable accountability to him.
The Creator alone has the right to order the creation according to his will. He has expressed his mind on how we ought to respond to him and how we ought to behave towards each other. He has made quite clear that all things have been created through, by and for Jesus (Col. 1:16). He has told us of his intention for men and women in marriage (Matt. 19:4–6), for integrity and generosity in our business dealings with each other (Mic. 6:11), for the sanctity of human life (Gen. 9:6), and for a priority borne of the urgent need for gospel proclamation in a lost and broken world (John 4:35; Matt. 24:14). Human beings have a long track record of seeking to set up their own agenda, of refashioning priorities, relationships and much else to serve our own interests. Yet we do so always as creatures who must one day give account to our Creator (2 Cor. 5:10). To insist we know better than the Creator is just plain foolishness when seen in that light.
To think of everything in relation to God is to remember that he is the Creating Lord and we are those he has made and are sustained by him. It means he must set the agenda and he has a right to tell us how things do and should work in the world he has created. His word becomes critically important in all our thinking and decision making, even challenging the enlightened consensus of today’s opinion makers. He determines what are appropriate ministry priorities, what is an appropriate pastoral response to the varied situations and conditions that we encounter, and how we should live in a world which is always finding new ways to assert its independence of him with the breath, the heartbeats and the brainwaves he graciously gives them.
A third wonderful truth about God is that, despite his eternal self-sufficiency (he needs nothing and no one, is never lonely or unfulfilled), he is determined to redeem a people for himself. He is our Maker and our Saviour. Through sheer grace, since it could never be deserved, he calls men and women out of darkness and into his marvellous light (1 Peter 2:9). Redemption is not a goal in itself, it is the means towards the great goal of new life, of reconciliation and restoration, a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). Even at the end, when all is as God intended, the centrepiece in the new creation remains the Lamb (Rev. 5:6). God’s redeeming love, his costly determination to save those who were utterly lost without him, is a cause of eternal thanksgiving and joy. In this way we see again that all things were created not only through and by Jesus, but for him.
To think of everything in relation to God is to see everything in the light of God’s redeeming purpose and on the trajectory to God’s goal of people from every tribe, nation and language gathered around the throne of the Lamb, rejoicing in the salvation he has effected for them (Rev. 7:9–10). Growing like Jesus, being conformed to the image of God’s son (Rom. 8:29), is quintessentially growing in concern for the salvation of the lost from every nation. That is what he is like (Luke 19:10). That is what God is on about in this world. That is where everything is heading.
Theologically-driven decision making means thinking of everything in relation to God. It means who God is and what God is on about, and the word which God has given us so that we might know who he is and what he is on about, is the prime consideration in our decisions. What we might call his deep personal investment in relationships, his unique power and sovereign authority as the Creator (while we and everything else remains his creation), his determined love which bears the cost of our sin in order to redeem us and both justly and graciously to give us life, and reaches out to those still lost — these three great truths are not all we would want to say about God but they are important things to say.
Our diocese is not perfect. No human fellowship is or can be this side of Jesus’ return. Yet we can rejoice in a long history of seeking to order ourselves and our life together under God and in accord with the word he has given us in order to know him. That is why we talk about being theologically-driven or operating on theological principle. That is why theology matters to us. Whether in synods, or parish councils, or individually as disciples of Jesus, thinking theologically is our responsibility and our privilege.