Review: Planning Small Groups with Purpose (Gladen)

Steve Gladen is the Pastor of Small Groups at Saddleback Church. This book compliments his other work by focusing on small groups and how to plan for them. The subtitle captures the book well: “a field-tested guide to design and grow your [small group] ministry.” The goal is to help readers build a good and successful small group ministry from scratch.

Gladen emphasizes that the whole church needs to have a single vision that the small group shares. The small groups are meant to be part of the church, not their own autonomous entities. They should be team-led. This ministry will probably entail having a certain amount of structure in how people at various levels of the ministry relate and report to one another.

The main part of the book is structured around five areas in the home: the kitchen, the family room, the study, the front door, and the dining room. Each area includes four questions that must be answer.

The kitchen is focused on connecting people to small groups. The questions: (1) how will you align your ministry with other church leadership and ministries?; (2) how will you communicate the value of groups to your church?; (3) what is your plan for connection people into groups?; (4) how will you measure your progress?

This naturally leads into the family room, which focuses on group people in the small groups. Here one must answer: (5) how will you define and develop mature disciples?; (6) what outcomes do you want from small group life?; (7) how will you develop leaders for your ministry?; (8) what support resources will your small group leaders need?

The study is focused on investing in God’s kingdom. (9) how will you develop group members into leaders?; (10) how will subgrouping develop people?; (11) how will you encourage people to serve?; (12) how will you create opportunities for groups to serve?

Next is the front door. Here you focus on reaching others through small groups. Thus: (13) how will you promote reach and spiritual awareness?; (14) how will you engage every group in global outreach?; (15) how will you engage every group in local outreach?; (16) how will you involved every group in personal evangelism?

Finally comes the dining room, focused on long-term success. The final four questions are: (17) how will you ensure your ministry’s long-term success?; (18) how will you celebrate stories of life change to reach your vision?; (19) how will you remain true to your call?; (20) how will you help your groups cultivate an attitude of worshipful submission?

The book ends with a chapter on putting it all together. Here you list your high-priority goals for each question and rank them. You then choose five to seven of these that you want to complete in the next 12 to 18 months. You then mark the goal dates on your calendar in order to have a set mark.

As can be seen from the questions, one of the great strengths of the book is that it is practical and clear. It forces one to actually put down real answers instead of vague generalities. It is also laid out in a clear way. Each question has an accompanying chart where you list your long-range (1-5 years) and short-range (1-12 months) dreams, their obstacles, actions one must take to complete them, and the timing. These also have a chart above with the labels “crawl,” “walk,” and “run,” which give suggested tasks that fit the stage.

Two weaknesses of the book should be noted. First, while the book does quote and discuss Scripture a bit, this is not big focus by any means. Accompanying this, the fact that there is no Scripture index is, at the very least, an oversight.

Second, throughout the book Gladen talks about the structure they used and how it worked for them, but that it might not work for others. The underlying philosophy seems to be that Scripture does not have much to say on this topic. In fact, one gets the sense that the structure owes more to modern managerial philosophy than anything else. The church should be invested in thinking deeply about the ways Scripture can bear witness on this topic. Since there is no clear-cut command on what structure should look like on this matter, the church needs to read with a deep sense as to the way Scripture forms us, the Holy Spirit works, and the Spirit-led and wisdom-guided role of the congregation. This is no easy task, but we cannot simply buy into the latest and greatest fads or whatever works best for us. We think we are only using tools, but the tools end up using us.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


Jesus’ Emptying and Capitalism

Philippians 2:1-4 (ESV):

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

In vv. 5-11, Paul will go on to say that the Philippians should have the same mind as Jesus, who emptied himself, took the form of a slave, and died shamefully on a Roman cross. We should be clear here that Paul is talking to the Philippians having this attitude amongst fellow believers. This is because Paul was establishing community of the kingdom that gave proof of God’s new creation in the present. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that he would say that it is therefore okay for the Philippians to have selfish ambition around non-Christians or that they can count themselves as more significant than non-Christians.

In discussions about gay marriage, one of the prominent points was about how God created marriage to be between one man and one woman. True enough. This, then, should be reflected in our laws because this is the way marriage is supposed to be. That is fine too. But what then do we make of this passage and its implications?

After all, Paul thinks modeling one’s behavior on Jesus is to be truly human. Jesus is the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). So when Paul tells the Philippians these commands and to have the mind of Jesus, he is telling them to be how God created humans to be. Obviously this does not mean humans can be this way apart from following Jesus and being empowered by the Spirit, but this is true humanity nonetheless: to not be selfishly ambitious and to count others as more significant than oneself.

As the title indicates: what does this say about capitalism? Is the rat race really compatible with not doing anything based on selfish ambition? When we seek promotions over others, try to compete with others for the boss’ approval, and so on, is this what it means to count others as more significant? And is humility seen in the exorbitant wages that CEOs make?

We cannot escape these problems by saying this is only for Christians. After all, we noted above that this is what it means to be truly human, to be how God created humans to be. So if we take it that God’s establishment is largely indicative of what the law should be (like we do with marriage), then what about capitalism?

Maybe capitalism does not need to be this way. The point isn’t that therefore we should be socialists or communists. There might not be any easy answers. But the fact that we never ask, well that doesn’t seem very self-emptying.

John Owen’s White and Ruddy Jesus

In his Communion with God, John Owen reflects on Jesus’ grace in his “personal presence and comeliness.” During the discussion, he cites Song of Solomon 5:9-10 (his wording is used). The others say:

What is thy beloved more than another beloved,
O thou fairest among women?
What is thy beloved more than another beloved?

The woman replies:

My Beloved is white and ruddy,
the chiefest among ten thousand.

Reading Song of Solomon as speaking about Christ and the church certainly has huge precedent in Christian history. John Owen is not doing anything strange here. However, he goes on to expound three ways Jesus is “white and ruddy” in his “beautiful complexion.”

First, “He is white in glory of his Deity and ruddy in the preciousness of his humanity.” He cites Daniel 7:9 with the Ancient of Days having white garments and hair like pure wool. He also brings in the transfiguration here. As to his ruddy humanity, “Man was called Adam, from the red earth whereof he was made. The word here used points him out as the second Adam, partaker of flesh and blood, because the children also partook of the same, Heb. 2:14.” He cites the Hebrew text of Song of Solomon 5:10 where the Hebrew word translated “ruddy” seems to have the sense of “red” and seems to be connected to the word for “Adam.”

Second, Jesus is “white in the beauty of his innocency and holiness, and ruddy in the blood of his oblation.” Jesus was a Lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet. 1:19). However, he was also crucified and blood and water came from him (John 19:34). Moreover, he was ruddy “morally, by the imputation of sin, whose colour is read and crimson. ‘God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin,’ 2 Cor. 5:21.”

Lastly, “His endearing excellency in the administration of his kingdom is hereby also expressed. [footnote of Rev. 6:2] He is white in love and mercy unto his own; red with justice and revenge towards his enemies, Isa. 58:3; Rev. 19:13.”

There is a decent chance none of these points are original to Owen. In fact, for all I know, they might be rather common. Nonetheless, they are fascinating to consider. To take a text that many today read simply as love poetry and say that the word includes all of this about the Word goes against the grain of so much of our reading. This reading might make us see red in the ways it does violence to the text in our eyes, but possibly it is holy, pure, and white in God’s sight.

Review: Paul’s New Perspective: Charting a Soteriological Journey (Anderson)

I’ve been doing a long reading project on debates concerning Paul about Second Temple Judaism, justification, works and works of the law, and so on. Basically, digging into the whole old perspective vs. new perspective debate, for lack of better terminology (for a summary, see here; the whole series is worthwhile). I am nearing the end now and I finished Garwood Anderson’s Paul’s New Perspective: Charting a Soteriological Journey. It has been one of the most stimulating reads in quite some time.

Basically, Anderson argues that the new perspective is correct about Paul’s early view of soteriology while the old perspective is correct about Paul’s later view of soteriology. So Anderson argues for development in Paul’s thought.

Chapter 1 delineates the debate and gives some “yes, but” affirmations. Chapter 2 argues that the new perspective cannot handle Pauline texts like Philippians 3:1-11, Romans 3:28-4:8, and Ephesians 2:1-22. Chapter 3 looks at various contradictory views in Pauline scholarship and attempts to bridge the gap between the two.

Next, chapters 4 and 5 attempt to establish the chronology of Paul’s letters and argues for the Pauline authorship of the disputed letters. This is important because one needs a rather large corpus and established chronology in order to argue for development. He then confirms his views of development with respect to various aspects of Paul’s thought like works of the law/works, grace, justification, salvation, and more in chapters 6-8. The final chapter then summarizes the arguments and conclusions of the book, puts justification in its proper place, and shows union with Christ to be central.

As I said at the beginning, this book was amazingly interesting. Anderson says near the beginning and end of the book that he thinks nearly everyone in Pauline scholarship gets something right. That is definitely my disposition too: to see what exactly a differing view is looking at and find the value in it. His delineation about how certain words and concepts are used or not used in the various letters in a way that seems to show development is intriguing. His readings are level headed and continually brimming with insights. This book will be near the top of my list of recommendations for anyone who wants to enter the fray.

History, Right Reading, and the Providence of God: Proposition 1

We started out by exploring the problem underneath this series. If you have not read that post, then you should do so before continuing on. The goal intimated was to explore each proposition at the bottom in order to figure out what exactly we want to affirm and deny. This may seem laborious, but it strikes me as rather important. Thus, the first proposition is the subject of this post:

(1) Both the providence of God and the practice of the church (historically and globally) show that historical criticism is not necessary for faithful interpretation.

One of the points made in the original post is that this proposition does not justify every reading. That is, the providence of God and the practice of the church does not mean every interpretation is a faithful one. There still are poor interpretations.

It seems to me that one of the key points is what is meant by “faithful interpretation.” I take it that this is not necessarily a method. It might include a method, but thinking in terms of method strikes me as a pretty modern phenomenon, especially when it comes to figural/theological reading. To put it another way, “faithful interpretation” is not about following certain steps. Certainly there might be steps involved, but that is not the whole of it.

Examples of this faithful interpretation are plentiful, but we can make the point more concrete with a more controversial one. In On the Incarnation, Athanasius writes this:

“He [Jesus] accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those others His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat. Therefore it is also, that He neither endured the death of John, who was beheaded, nor was He sawn asunder, like Isaiah: even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church.”

It is the last sentence that is of interest. Athanasius reads the undivided body of Jesus as showing that there is no excuse for those who would divide the church, the body of Christ. Of course, this sort of view plays off many Scriptures and has various resonances, but, so far as it goes, it is certainly not made explicit somewhere in Scripture. If we could ask Athanasius whether he thinks such a point is the intention of the original human authors of any of Scripture, I find it doubtful that he would think so. Maybe that is incorrect, but let’s suppose it’s right.

The point, then, is that Athanasius is engaged in a certain way of reading: not a method, more of a practice within a communal tradition. So faithful interpretation is not so much about this or that interpretation, but about a practice within a communal tradition. This does not mean that all readings that flow from there acceptable, only that this is the sense meant within our proposition. This also does not mean that there is some essential part of this practice, although there might be.

With that in mind, what we want to affirm by (1) is that by God’s providence and the witness of the church, historical criticism is not necessary for this practice. There are still bad readings. There are still bad readers. There are still faults within this practice. And so on. But what cannot be admitted is that historical criticism is necessary for this practice. The point is almost banal since this practice has clearly been around well before historical criticism arose. But it is the verbiage used that makes the point significant: faithful interpretation. This practice is right reading.

So what does (1) mean? That God in His providence and through the church’s witness show that historical criticism is not necessary for the way of interpreting Scripture rightly. To bring it back to Athanasius, we need not show that Athanasius’ reading is correct or incorrect by the canons of historical criticism. They might shed light on the issue, but they are not the final authority. For to read Scripture as Scripture is not up to historical criticism’s word, but is based upon it being God’s Word.