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Eternal Word and Changing Worlds

Since 2002, I have been intimately involved with Spirit and Truth Fellowship, a CRCNA church in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Hunting Park.  Our late Pastor, Dr Manuel Ortiz, was a professor of Urban Mission at my alma mater, Westminster Seminary, and he often spoke to me and the other pastors in our community about his dear friend and mentor, Harvey Conn, who was also a professor of missions at Westminster.  In 1992, Dr Conn published a book called “Eternal Word and Changing Worlds,” and in this book he argued for the need to reevaluate our Western-centric approaches to ministry and theology, particularly in light of the changing epi-center of the Christian movement from the West to the Global South.

I was the lead pastor of a church plant out of Spirit and Truth in NW Philadelphia for 10 years, and I now work in Christian climate advocacy with the CRCNA’s Climate Witness Project as well as the World Evangelical Alliance’s Sustainability Center.  Throughout my church planting work, my climate work, and my ongoing experiences in life, I have found that the title of Dr Conn’s book rings deeply true.  It also sets the parameters for some of the divisions we see today within the church.

We have an eternal Word from God – Scriptures that have been passed down from generation to generation at great cost, and which we believe to be God’s eternal and authoritative words, breathed into our world through the histories, eye-witness accounts, poems, songs, wisdom, observations, and oral traditions of broken people and communities as they encountered the works, signs, wonders, voice, and ultimately Person, of God in our world.  Because of this, we hold dearly and passionately to these words in the midst of a changing world filled with countless differing ideas, philosophies, and experiences. 

We are involved in the constant and intentional activity of taking these eternal words and deriving application for our constantly changing world.

On the other hand, while we cling to God’s Words, we also have a world that, while many of the basics may remain the same, has nevertheless changed quite substantially over the course of the writing of the Bible, as well as from Jesus’ resurrection to the present day.  The way people think, the technology we use, the way societies are organized, the mixing and mingling of cultures, the size of cities, our understanding of science, the scope of our vision of life (now pointing tantalizingly beyond earth itself), and countless other factors have changed substantially since the time of Jesus.  And these changes have created, again and again, new situations that are not addressed directly, or in quite the same way, or sometimes at all, in the Bible.  And yet as Christians we must continue to engage this world as salt and light, which in turn demands that we are involved in the constant and intentional activity of taking these eternal words and deriving application for our constantly changing world.

I believe that right now our church is divided over this principle.  On the one hand, we have those who are so focused on the changes in our world that they are giving up on the eternal nature of God’s Words and simply adapting them to our cultural moment.  This party tends to remain highly engaged with society’s changes but can become increasingly untethered from the Scriptures.  On the other hand, we have those who are so focused on the eternal nature of God’s Words that they cannot see how to apply long held faith and practice to new realities.  This party tends to be so rooted in traditions of faith that they equate long-held and culturally-influenced theological interpretations and ministry practices with the Scriptures themselves, making them unable to engage with a world that is continuing to look less and less like the world their traditions were established in.  

And so we have churches that are intimately involved with the world but are losing the Scriptures.  And we have churches that are intimately involved with the Scriptures but are losing the world.   

In my current moment, I see this need profoundly in my work in Christian climate advocacy. 

And yet we follow a missionary God.  The Scriptures themselves are a missionary adaptation from a divine and otherworldly being into human language, culture, and experience.  Imagine if God had only been willing to speak the unchanging words of heaven to us – what could we possibly have understood?  On the other hand, imagine if God had only told us what we wanted to hear – then the Scriptures would have been meaningless.  But God took his eternal words and adapted them to numerous different cultural moments and languages so that we could be engaged, and reached, and changed.

The Church is called, emphatically, to be a people who are rooted deeply in the authority of God’s eternal Words – yet who are never settling into one generation’s, or culture’s, or community’s application of those Words to their moment.  Rather, they are constantly applying them to the changing world around them, so that God’s mission might remain engaged with the real people in our real world.

In my current moment, I see this need profoundly in my work in Christian climate advocacy.  Again and again, I have run into church communities that are very deeply rooted in the authority of God’s eternal Scriptures, yet are profoundly disconnected in faith and practice from one of the greatest challenges humanity is currently facing.  The climate crisis is destroying peoples’ homes, displacing whole communities, wiping out species, creating massive drought, flood, wildfires, and starvation, and doing it all in ways that are most severely impacting the individuals, communities, and nations that have the least resources.  An entire generation of young people is growing up facing despair over their own future because of what my generation and the generation before me have refused to change. 

The work of the church cannot be done without God … and it will not be done without human beings

The climate crisis is a perfect application of this calling for the church to be rooted in God’s eternal Words, while at the same time never giving up the work of applying it to our changing world.  The Bible says literally nothing about “climate change,” because climate change is the result of the global burning of fossil fuels that did not begin until the industrial revolution – a full 1,850 years after the birth of Christ!  And so, many churches that are faithfully holding to their old traditions, interpretations, and priorities have found no reason to be engaged in the climate crisis at all.  And yet this is one of the most all-consuming realities humanity is facing, impacting literally every aspect of life on earth.  And so, through their lack of engagement these churches are becoming increasingly irrelevant to what is happening in God’s changing world.

Other churches have understood the gravity, human suffering, enormous justice implications, and ultimately existential realities of the climate crisis, and have poured themselves into the work to combat it.  And yet while they themselves have remained relevant to the suffering of the world, this has sometimes been done not as an application of the Scriptures, but rather as a separate act, leaving the Scriptures behind and making them increasingly irrelevant.

As these two church camps diverge, they are beginning to view the other in a negative light.  The eternal Word camp views the changing world camp as being overly fickle and focused on the world, and ultimately not faithful to the Scriptures.  The changing world camp views the eternal Word camp as locked into the past and at best irrelevant, at worst uncaring towards the suffering of the world. But both sides are missing each other, and ultimately both are missing our calling as Christians.

We will find that while the Bible does not mention it explicitly, it speaks constantly of justice

The work of the church cannot be done without God … and it will not be done without human beings.  This is why the church exists in the first place.  Through the Holy Spirit, by faith the people of God are meant to be the living, breathing, hands, feet, and voice of Jesus and his ministry in the world today, tomorrow, and into the future.  God has chosen to do his shalom work not alone, but in partnership with us, his image-bearers.  And so we need to be grounded in his eternal Words – and we also need to be engaged in the very human process of adapting and applying these words of heaven to the changing realities around us.

If we apply God’s Words to the climate crisis, we will find that while the Bible does not mention it explicitly, it speaks constantly of justice, love of neighbor, stewardship over creation, giving the thirsty something to drink, clothing the unclothed, feeding the hungry, etc. etc.  The human and natural realities of the climate crisis point to very powerful and deep eternal themes in the Scriptures.  These should galvanize Christians to take action – and (most importantly) to take action not on their own strength, but in partnership with the Holy Spirit and one another. 

As a divided church, we must listen to one another.  We both have things to teach, and to learn.  Right now, one part of the church is holding faithfully to God’s Word but is sometimes doing it in a way that cannot or will not adapt to a changing world.  Another is adapting missionally to God’s changing world but is sometimes de-prioritizing the Scriptures and is therefore untethering itself from its power source.  We need one another.  Can we come together?  If we can, the world will see Jesus.

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