Working Through R Paul Stevens' Book a Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

working through R. Paul Stevens' book, a reader is struck by how different this approach is to the ministry and the laity. In fact some of the ideas and passages are radically different from what one might expect in a book like this. The fact that Stevens places such enormous emphasis on laity is in fact refreshing to the reader; maybe it is special to me because my father was a minister and put tremendous faith in the lay "pastors" in our church. Those laypersons carried out many functions in the church that otherwise fall into the responsible hands of my father. But, in the bigger picture, all believers can be ministering to the world about the good news of Christianity. This is the overriding point in Stevens' work. It shouldn't be left up to the clergy alone to minister to the congregation and the community; in fact laypeople are very competent to handle much of the spiritual and hands-on practical responsibilities.

One of Stevens many appealing ideas is to help mobilize the church and put people up on the pulpit who are from a diverse community, and interview them in front of the congregation about how God works through them. Many times these stories are far more realistic in terms of how humans are moved by the Word of God than fancy sermons with a lot of emotion and raising of voices. Of course Stevens is saying we need leaders in the church, and of course he recognizes the value of a strong ministerial program for churches, but he is also saying that the average person as a believer can become a competent, effective missionary; and the average believer should have a bigger role in the church, as well.

Portions of the Book that are Particularly Compelling

On page 4 of his book, Stevens gives the reader a taste of what's to come in this book: what is needed now is "…a comprehensive biblical foundation for the Christian's life in the world as well as in the church." He is talking about a theology that embraces the lives of nurses, doctors, stockbrokers, plumbers, farmers, homemakers and even politicians. He borrows a phrase from President Abraham Lincoln in the process of his push for a theology "…of the people, for the people, and by the people," and he breaks down his search for a more worldly theology in four components.

First, and this is vitally important, there is no theology of laity in the New Testament; instead, there is the word "clergy" which translated into the "appointed or endowed ones." His point is the church has been defined as being composed of two categories -- those who are ministers and those who are not. But he insists that the church shouldn't have a "minister" per say because the church is "a ministry"; and the church shouldn't have a "mission" because the church "is a mission" (6). Secondly, he is proposing there be a "…biblical understanding of the whole people of God"; in other words, take the clergy off the pedestal and create a theology that applies to all people, "…without distinction except in function" (8).

His third component is to create a theology that applies to "…earthly realities" and embraces such mundane things as washing, cleaning, playing, doing art, working, struggling with the powers that shape individual lives. This would be a theology that fits in the workplace, in schools, in homes, in the government places and in the marketplace (8). Fourth, his theology would never be completed and would take the contemporary situation in the world very seriously. The bottom line for this section of the book is simple: every member of the church has gifts to share, and should be allowed to participate and to share in God's work.

It is important to Stevens that Christians not separate God's desire for humanity's salvation into two different mandates; the two he offers are The Creation Mandate (Genesis 1:27-30) and The Great Commission (Matthew 28: 19-20). To put great emphasis on one, and play the other down to a lesser emphasis, would have negative outcomes, Stevens believes. The covenant that believers should adhere to embraces "…creation, redemption and final consummation," he explains. And salvation rescues Christians from the lost vocation in Eden but salvation is also a path to closure and preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Stevens alludes to the universality of the Church and its people when he writes, "Every legitimate human occupation (paid or unpaid) is some dimension of God's own work," whether it be a volunteer position helping an animal rescue center or beautifying the neighborhood.

He quotes Alister McGrath, who, like Stevens, is put off by much of academic theology because is it not down to earth, and it doesn't truly serve the Church. McGrath wrote in fact that "Theology must come down to earth…and if it will not come down to earth, it must be brought down to earth," and this is one of the most meaningful parts of Stevens book.

Frankly, some faiths have set their leaders and missionaries on such a high perch that the ordinary church going family is obliged to look in awe at these authority figures. Academic theology has its place, of course, but ordinary people with ordinary vocations are just as worthy in the sight of God, Stevens is saying. Taking the point a step further, he mentions (17) that some of the most important theologians in history were not professional theologians or clerics. Among those are Socrates and Sozomen; Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria; and John Calvin.

Calvin wrote in a letter that he has "…never been anything else than an ordinary layman as people call it" -- and Luther hit the nail on the head as far as Stevens' philosophy is concerned when he wrote: "What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it up in heaven for our Lord God" (79).

Part II -- Calling in a Post-Vocational Age

In Part II of Stevens' book, he discusses "Calling in a Post-Vocational Age, which had particular interest to me -- not because I was raised in a minister's home, but because the author uses his father's vocation (a seller of fish) as an example of one's "calling." Everyone who remembers a hard-working, honest, productive father, can relate to Stevens' remembrances of his dad, who struggled through the Great Depression but came out stronger following the many challenges.

In fact his father peddled his fish from the "handlebars of a bicycle in the grim 1930s." He was a man who worked hard "without complaint, past temptations, always in faith consecratedly cutting up fish before the face of the Lord," Stevens writes (71). His dad's hands -- "big beefy hands with broad stubby fingers," twice the thickness of his son's fingers -- were in effect working for the Lord in his small store. This is an example of Stevens' point; vocations according to the author are a "calling" and vocations are central to the theology of "the whole people of God" (72).

After explaining why "vocation" should actually be referred to as "calling," Stevens notes that before being called to "someone" humans are called to do "something." But sadly the author asserts that the loss of vocation -- of being called -- in the modern and "postmodern world" is further complicated by the fact that most people who say they received a "call" from God are missionaries and pastors.

This is why he insists the society is living in a "post-vocational age"; given that there is no longer a theology of vocation, individuals are lapsing into what he calls "debilitating alternatives." Thos alternatives (72) include: a) fatalism (doing what is absolutely required of us by the "powers" that be;…

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