This article appeared in the September/October 2001 issue (Vol. 10, No. 5) of The Baptist Preacher. The original article is found in the September 2001 issue (Vol. 8 No. 9) of Aletheia under the title “Is There An Alternative Point Of View? (To The Traditional vs Progressive Debate)”.
An ancient saint once said, “It is equally wrong and stupid to censure what is commendable, and to commend what is censurable.”1 G.K. Chesterton once argued against a false premise by stating, “It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths.”2 That is what I often think after hearing or reading comparisons of today’s ministry philosophies.
Should we be traditional or progressive in our ministry? Are these two ways of approaching “how we do church” mutually exclusive, two sides of the same coin, or are they even choices at all when trying to be biblical in church ministry? I think we have become, like the world around us, champions of the definition! That is, we spend more time arguing to make the definitions of those buzz words fit what we already do, than evaluating our ministry in light of Scripture and changing to fit it.
None of us wants to be seen as anti-traditional because we realize we have an historical faith that is filled with traditional teaching. Yet none of us wants to be seen as non-progressive because that would mean we are not visionary and up-to-date with today’s culture. So it seems that good people from both points of view go out of their way to convince us that they are really both.
On the one hand
To be “traditional” ought to mean that we realize the value of our history, a history that is rooted in the historical person and work of Christ. Christians are still doing what Christians have always been doing: praying constantly, studying an old book, singing scriptural songs, witnessing of the resurrection of Christ. It has not historically included unswerving loyalty to one Bible translation, nor only one expression of modesty as opposed to others just as modest. Those things are more ritual than traditional and, as James Draper wrote, “There is nothing wrong with ritual as long as we understand that ritual is like a telescope—not something to look at, but something to look through.”3
Regardless of its difficulties, I am more inclined to be called a traditionalist today than a “progressive.” It seems to me that those who have misused the definition of “traditional,” have done so out of a positive desire to honor Christ and a willingness to be identified, not with the world but with Him. I can live with that and argue with these fellow believers about definitions.
On the other hand
To be “progressive” ought to mean that we see clearly where a lost culture is going and we take the steps outlined in Scripture to speak to it regardless of the consequences. That would be truly progressive in the biblical sense. Though I believe most progressives truly love souls and desire to see them saved, many, I am afraid, simply do what the Apostle John warns us about apostates: They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world hears them. (1 Jn 4:5). To do such a thing is to love the world and its praises more than the praise of God. Much of today’s “progressiveness” becomes simply worldliness. It is not, like its “traditional” counterpart, willing to be despised by the world. In fact, many “progressives” see that as an error to be avoided at all costs even though it is the clear biblical teaching such as when Peter writes, If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the Spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified (1 Pet 4:14). Such an approach wins us to the world, but is misguided at winning the world to Christ.
It is not the purpose of this article to simply criticize the traditional and the progressive approaches, though, as I have stated, I believe they both have their faults. I do not question the evangelistic sincerity of either. Nor do I doubt that spokesmen for either approach could produce verses to support their point of view. I do believe, however that too often we read our perspective into the Bible, seeing wording that supports our preconceived ideas and thus merely confirm what we already think. We all know this is a fatal flaw of anyone’s Bible study, including, of course, mine.
In my own circle of Christian friends, many of whom are ministers and instructors, I have, for a number of years, been left in “no-man’s-land” when it comes to whole-heartedly supporting either of these two sides. I have felt that neither is what I read clearly in the Scripture, nor what I see is the need of the lost world. On numerous occasions I have been unable to say “Shibboleth” (see Judges 12:6) as was requested of me in order to have the blessing of participation in either side. This was all of God, at least for my account. It drove me back to the Scripture for my help and my foundation (aren’t you glad I didn’t use the tired misnomer “vision” at that place?).
I think sometimes we have to lose any hope in man’s blessing, which all of us by nature wants, in order to find help solely in God. It is my own opinion that far too many Christian leaders are desperately desiring far too much approval by their peers. But the Apostle admonishes, For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. (2 Cor 10:12).
From the Gospels to the book of Acts and the Epistles to the church letters of Revelation, I find an overwhelming call in the Scripture for sacrifice: sacrifice of our wills, our life’s possessions, things, and even our own life; sacrifice to the point of danger to the body whether by harm or ridicule; sacrifice of the praise of men in this life for the praise of our Savior in the next life. This is biblical patience. We are called to give of ourselves in this life; to wait for our rewards; to live an inward life of contentment though the outward man is perishing day by day.
We are living sacrifices, having no ability of our own toward our outcome. We are stewards of God, entrusted with divine instruction for the household of God. We are heralds of the gospel, having no right to embellish or bargain with the message from the King. We are earthen vessels, made to be broken and disposed. We are priests, offering up spiritual sacrifices to God. We are sheep and branches and lively stones and a host of other analogies that make us totally dependent on the Lord for any usefulness we may have.
Personally, I have not found this type of thinking in services where participants shout, wave hankies or black Bibles and brag about how tough they are; nor have I found it in services of loud, unsettling music accompanied by casualness, shallowness and bragging about how accepting of everything they are. Rather, Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28-29).
A Biblical Model
This “sacrificial” model of New Testament ministry is seen in virtually all Bible writers. One of my favorite passages is Second Corinthians, especially from chapter 3 to chapter 6. Paul’s own ministry is put forth as an example against the false apostles who “commend themselves.” Paul, on the other hand, is always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body (4:10). He is an “earthen vessel” (4:7); bearing the “light affliction” (4:17) of this life; ready to be “absent from the body” and “present with the Lord” (5:8); an “ambassador for Christ” (5:20) who proclaims a message of reconciliation of the sinner before a holy God.
This ministry must not be “blamed,” Paul says in chapter 6. Therefore, in order not to “give offense in any thing” and to “approve ourselves as the ministers of God,” we must enter into a three-fold approach to a sacrificial ministry. I say “three-fold” due to the various cases of the prepositions used in verses 4-10.4
I am proposing that we are sacrificial servants . . .
In Propitiatory Relationships
The believer finds himself in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, etc. Paul was the example of evangelism that often resulted in antipathy with the world. I call these “propitiatory” because the sinner is taking out his anger at our Lord through the believers. Just as sinners crucified Jesus because His perfect life aggravated their sinful soul, so His servants are to speak of Him to sinners and enter into the same persecutions brought on by their guilty consciences.
Is this not the “fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable to His death?” Yes! And it is this that brings to our evangelism the “power of His resurrection” (Phil 3:10). It is when Jesus is lifted up in the way of a cross, that all men are drawn to Him. The evangelist must be willing to enter this frame of mind if he is to minister. Suffering for our Lord is primarily to be rejected and resisted, even hurt, by the sinner for Christ’s sake. Paul knew this fellowship well. He also knew the power of such preaching.
By Passive Responses
How did our Lord and His Apostles respond in such circumstances? By pureness, by longsuffering, by kindness, etc. Peter says of our Lord, Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously (1 Pet 2:22-23). Should those who represent Him respond any differently?
The effectiveness of our witness does not come through human instincts. We are preservationists by human nature. We would protect, strike back and defend ourselves when others attack us. But the true minister does not because his Lord did not. If the kernel of wheat dies, it will produce more wheat than can be imagined!
As Perceived Realities
How was Paul perceived by those who persecuted him compared to what Paul really was? As unknown, yet well-known; as dying, and behold we live; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, etc. Just as sinners perceived Jesus to be different than what He actually was, so His servants are to be perceived differently by the world than what they really are in Christ.
Aren’t people more concerned with how they are perceived by others than with anything? That is why true evangelism is so difficult. It truly takes a dying to self, a willingness to be seen in a bad light in order to be effective. The believer knows, of course, the way God really sees him and is content.
And So . . .
The Corinthians were poor evangelists because their own selfishness restricted the power of their witness (vss 11-13). They could not bring themselves to such sacrificial action. They were unequally yoked to the world (vss 14-16) to the point that God Himself could not be as a Father to them (vs 18).
It is spiritual near-sightedness to preserve our image before the world and lose them, rather than concede our image in order to win them.
Notes: 1. Gorgias, “The Encomium on Helen,” Orations: Homer To Mckinley, Vol I (New York: Collier, 1902) 49. 2. G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Image Books, 1956) 93. 3. James Draper, Jr., Colossians: A Portrait of Christ (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1982) 8. 4. All Greek texts agree in the prepositions used. The A.V. does the best job of dividing the en into locative and instrumental cases in vss 4-7. Other versions follow the word for word translation of en being “in” (usually taken as locative) where the A.V. recognizes how en can be instrumental as well. Lenski says, “This en differs from the en found with the preceding plurals which = ‘in the midst of’ the experience of tribulations, etc. The present eight en = ‘in connection with’ purity, etc.”