In 1993 Dallas began teaching an intensive two-week residential course for Fuller Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program. His task was to teach about spiritual life in a systematic way so that its full connection to the work of the minister was clear. These sessions from 2012 are from Dallas’s last year of teaching the course before he died. Though a bulk of the course was usually centered on the nature and practice of disciplines, the beginning of the course dealt with more theological themes like the nature of spiritual reality and the end of the course dealt with topics in spirituality like vocational issues. [Editor’s Note: We know that the class was taped on other occasions and would be glad to find these recordings.]
What I want to talk to you about now is really extremely important. It has to do with how you take your ministry and your life into your world and your community and your churches and I’ll just start out with the statement, which is on the screen:
“The historical displacement of the content of Christian
tradition out of the category of knowledge and into the
category of mere ‘faith’ has destroyed the standing of the
Christian teacher in contemporary society. Nothing is more important today than the recovery of the church as the
unique purveyor of essential knowledge in response to
the four great questions of life.”
So, please make a note to retie this to the questions—What is reality? Who is well off? Who is a really good person? How do you get to be? Now, what I want to impress upon you is that what is provided to you by Jesus Christ and the tradition in which He stands is knowledge of the answers to those questions. [1:26]
So, we have to talk about knowledge and how it differs from belief and faith and also how it differs from commitment and profession. See, most of our Christian groups now try to operate on profession and because of that, in many cases, we don’t even have belief or perhaps we only have commitment but that undercuts the role of the pastor and teacher. I’m going to use pastor in a sense where it just refers to spokespeople for Christ, okay? I’m not limiting it to those who have officially the title or role of Pastor just for brevity sake. I mean anyone who stands as a spokesperson for Christ in the world. OK? So, now have we time to look at this? OK, all right. [Some talking from students that can’t be made out.] Yes, it is in the book, Knowing Christ Today. [3:10]
So now, who has knowledge of the answers to those questions? Well, the idea today is in many quarters, no one does; and in some quarters, that the secular institutions of learning have at least some of the answers but you will notice that when you go into those institutions and ask who has the answers, no one shows up. So, you have people now who write books like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and people of that sort; they are not in their activities of writing books on these questions. Some of them, they don’t represent a body of certified knowledge within the context of the universities and research institutes and so on. So, now, take a moment and sort of soak that in.
See, this has to do with what you are doing when you stand up to speak. What are you doing, by the way? Well, through the history of the church, it has been assumed that you were bringing knowledge and if you were to go back to Calvin and Luther or Wesley or Edwards and say, “Well, you don’t have knowledge, you just have faith.” They would say, “What is wrong with you?” And indeed that was pretty well the position of thinkers and writers in the Christian tradition, at least until through about half of the 1800’s and in many quarters, into the 20th Century. This is one reason why through most of the history of American universities, the Presidents of the universities were more often than not “ministers of the Gospel” as they were called. I can show you a book by the President of University of California-Berkley that was in the 30’s or the early 40’s and you read it and you think you are reading sermon. It is very difficult to convey the shift that has occurred. There is a book by a Swiss man named Max Picard called the Flight From God which is a lovely portrayal of how the switch that happened. It’s a social realty. It wasn’t an advance of research or knowledge. It was a social shift and Max Picard just called The Flight From God. It is well worth your time to understand this because we are talking about my position and yours as we stand in the pulpit. What are we doing? [6:40]
The traditional idea that comes all the way of course from the Bible and Jesus and the apostles and so on was, “we are bringing knowledge—bringing knowledge.” Now, since the “shift,” the idea is we are trying to get people to do something. That’s a very different job but when you understand that, you see a part at least of what has been involved in the degrading of the position of the minister in western culture from someone who is regarded as, even if you disagreed with them, they were generally regarded as bringing the most important knowledge we have to bare on the most important questions and of course, most of that time, the minister, like in American history, the minister was regarded as the most intelligent and well-educated person in the community. Of course, that has radically shifted but the underlying question is, “What are you doing when you speak as a Christian minister?” [8:12]
Now, how are we to be teachers of the nation? [TEACHERS OF THE NATIONS-MATTHEW 28:18-20 overhead on the screen] So, you go back and you look at the “Great Commission.” What is that telling us to do? Is it telling us to go get people to do things? Not fundamentally! It’s telling us to make students. Now, students are appropriate in a context of knowledge. Cheerleaders are appropriate in context of other things than knowledge. Cheerleaders—people who push and force things and threaten and so on. Knowledge is communicated. You bring knowledge and then of course not everyone will respond to it but most people will respond to knowledge by acting in appropriate ways in response to the knowledge and knowledge of that is one reason why the hope of the world since Plato has repeatedly turned back to education. What’s the solution to any problem? Education. Well, that’s right in principle, but it depends on the education and if for example, the Christians have no knowledge, they can’t do education or if the non-Christians are mistaken in what they think is their knowledge, then they will perpetually mislead people. For education, you have to have knowledge. What kind of knowledge? Knowledge of what and so on so I am saying here that for the pastor, that is the spokesperson for Christ, they are the only ones who can be the teachers of the nation because they alone have the knowledge content, the social position, the power from God, and the position in God to do it. They are the only ones who have it.
Are you sort of staying with me because you may not have heard this before? [11:06]
So, you stand in your community—whatever that community is—as someone who brings knowledge to people in desperate need of it. See, I am trying to get you to rethink the whole issue of how you stand in your community and of course, as I’ve said, it used to be something that you were conceded with no discussion because for 2,000 years or so, it had stood up as the guide to life but in the 19th century, things came to a head where the teaching of the church was—speaking loosely of course, the teaching of the church was displaced and something else—call it modern thought or science or something of that sort—takes its place and so there was a huge battle. It was not a battle between religion and science; it’s a battle between two segments of humanity and one has an association with religion and the other has some association with science but not an awful lot, to tell you the truth. See, that’s one of the illusions of the period is that there is this thing called science that has all this body of knowledge and so on and that in particular it addresses life and tells us what to do, right? [13:12]
So, now the Great Commission is what pastors are called to do and empowered to do and if they don’t do it, humanity is a perpetual lost cause and that means the afterlife too. Now, nearly everything I am saying requires a large volume of elaboration but I can’t do that and I think I can get the simple points over to you, I hope. Are you sensing something of the dignity of your calling?
OK, what is it to know something? [Another overhead] You know something if you are able to represent it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. Knowledge requires accuracy and foundation—basis, you can’t know out of thin air. You can believe out of think air but you can’t know. Now, most of the things we know, we actually know by authority; nothing wrong with authority. Authority is a perfectly good basis for knowledge. Most of us in this room know the multiplication tables on authority. You rarely meet anyone who has actually worked them out and come to know that they are right because of the thought they have put into them; nothing wrong with that. Most of the things we know, we know on the basis of authority. Good authority is authority you can question. So, if you want to check it out, you can check it out. And, of course a lot of things that were said in the church in the past turned out to be false, right?—Or at least, groundless. And that’s where the gradual undermining of the position of the pastor begins to take place and continues and you see this showing up sometimes in very silly ways in newspapers and magazines and all of that because it is still a “live “ issue. You know? It really is. People who try to sell magazines and so on know that they can get some attention and pick up a few bucks if they have something to say about religion and science and what science is doing and so forth. So, this is a “live” issue and you know something if you are able to represent it. Now, that’s what you want your dentist, right?—you want your dentist to know things, not just to warmly believe them. You want them to know what they are doing with your teeth. You probably want your mechanic to know about your car and you might even want your politician to know something about government—it’s a little risky but actually that’s the way, you know, Obama says, “I know about healthcare” and the other side, says, “No, it’s a disaster.” Nearly everything that is involved in that arena is about knowledge. Who has knowledge and who doesn’t? And that runs very deep. [16:48]
Now, a belief is true if what it is about is as it is represented in the belief, right? So, you believe grass is green. Well, that’s true if grass is green and that’s true of all beliefs. It’s all the same. Now some beliefs you can’t check them out but many you can, most you can, you know? Watered grass is green. Well that gets into an explanation of why it’s green if it’s green. You might say, “Water will help the grass be green.” That’s probably true. [17:39]
So, now truth is very simple actually—very simple. Children pick up on it immediately and one of the devises to undermine your confidence it to suggest that truth is something very inaccessible. In some cases it is; most cases, it is not. A child very quickly learns the difference between truth and falsity. You tell them that you are going to do something and you don’t do it, they are right on you. Right? And very soon, they learn to reproach you and they might even say, “You lied.” Truth is very simple. Truths are not always simple but truth is very simple. That’s what it is right there. So, now when you get into some mess with a post-modern thinker or something of that sort, just remember that, okay? Of course, there are different ways of thinking about things and sometimes more than one way is true and that’s all fine. There is nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t change this basic idea of truth.
Now knowledge involves truth and evidence (or basis) and truth is like the aiming device on a gun. If it is true and you use it well, you’ll hit your target. If it’s not true, you will miss your target. If you believe you have gas in your tank and you get out on the freeway and you don’t have any gas in your tank, you will miss your target. You have a false belief and that in general is true of the beliefs. If you think that a good person is someone who feels good about themselves, you are going to pretty quickly run into some cases where you have people who feel good about themselves and they are not good at all. Right? So, that’s just how it works. [Comment from student about repeating the truth comment.] Truth is like the aiming device on a gun if it is correctly set; that is, if it is true and you use it correctly, you will hit your target and that will show up in action. If your beliefs are not true, pretty soon, your actions will be running crosswise of reality. Now, that’s really important for us as we think about our job under Christ. That’s why truth is important. [20:59]
I heard a case the other day of a young lady in a church and she was practicing some sexual things that at least used to be thought wrong and the pastor showed her the Bible and said this is—and her reply was, ”Well, that’s your interpretation.” That’s your interpretation. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Well, that’s your interpretations. See, that’s the safety valve for people to do what they want to do and to disarm any claim that what they are doing is wrong and if you argue without the Bible, you use ordinary reasoning or other sources, that response is always there for the person who has been bitten by the post-modernist bug and it’s always in terms of interpretation—“oh, well that’s your interpretation.” Well, of course some interpretations are correct and others aren’t but see, that’s the slippery premise here is that interpretations are never right. They are just interpretations. [22:24]
I want to just focus you on that statement there and this is a part of what lies back of that response, Tom. “Well, I have knowledge; I have a degree.” So, now knowledge has this character of conferring the right to act, to direct action, to form and supervise policy and to teach. [Referring to another overhead] That’s just the way it works and so someone who has a reputation for knowledge can then claim to have the right to say things, hold things, act and so forth. And this of course is one of the things that makes claims to knowledge so dangerous is that they play this social role and makes the importance of undermining your claims to knowledge so important, right? Because since you don’t’ have knowledge-dah, dah! You don’t have the right to act, or direct action, to form and supervise policy and to teach. You don’t have that because you don’t have knowledge. Does that make sense? OK, because I am really trying to strengthen things here together that will help us in responding to our world with the things that we have been talking about. [24:10]
So, now this brings us back to our concern with our churches, so let’s distinguish now—Belief and Knowledge and Commitment and Profession. You believe something when you are prepared to act as if it were so. It doesn’t have to be so. You still believe it. Now, if you act on it and it’s not so, it may kill you and a lot of other people. That’s a part of what happens when we act on false beliefs. A lot of people get hurt. So, that’s belief and our question that we want to think about is—Is belief the basis for being a Christian? [25:17]
Now, ordinarily, belief is thought to be the same as faith. Faith is belief. Faith is readiness to act as if something were so. Right? Ordinarily, every day you will act on many beliefs; most of them will be true and everything will turn out fine but if you get out here in the brush and you pick up a stick and it turns out to be a rattlesnake; that will be different. Probably not everything will turn out to be fine. There will no doubt be a flurry of activity. See, the thing about belief is that it can be totally ungrounded. You don’t have to have reason; it can be irrational. It can be false and it’s still belief. We pick up our beliefs like a suit picks up lint and little children pick up the beliefs of the people around them and so, that has tremendous consequences. So, now you have faith in lots of things. You believe lots of things here in this room about where you are and what day of the week it is and all sorts of things. Those are your beliefs and most of them are true.
Now, commitment is different from belief. Commitment is choosing and implementing a course of action. You can commit yourself to something you don’t even believe and sometimes Christian leaders and speakers try to lead people to commitment and it’s possible to lead people to commitments with no beliefs. You just tell them, “You’d better and if you don’t, you are going to suffer” and you convince them of that and then they, “OK, I commit myself to it.” There are some situations in life where you have to commit yourself without regard to your beliefs because you don’t have any beliefs and there is nothing you can do about it. You are lost in the woods; well, you’ve go to do something. You don’t know what to do but you’ve got to do something—even if it’s standing still. Commit yourself to that; you might say, “Well I believe someone will find me if I’ll just stand still.” Right? So, commitment is a part of life—very necessary and then finally, there is profession. [28:37]
Profession is saying that you believe something. You may not believe it but you might still say it. You could even be committed to it without believing it. Right? And in this world we live in, a lot of people have had to profess something to save their lives or their jobs or their family or their property. We live in a world like that now and it’s been worse in the past. The western world has developed the idea that you should not make people profess things. Of course, commitment and belief and knowledge are different but in other parts of the world now, you can be forced upon pain of losing your life to profess things you don’t believe. OK: you can see the difference here? I hope, right? [29:55]
Now, then, our question is whether or not we try to get people to profess things, commit to things, believe things or do we enable them to know things? See, now that’s where—come back to the very start of this little discussion. Am I here to provide knowledge to the people I am speaking to as a Christian teacher? Well, that’s one thing. Now, if I don’t think that what I am bringing is knowledge, I won’t do that so then what will I do? I will invariably try to get people to do things and for many of our situations, people think that is your job as a minster. Your job is to get people to do things. Get people to profess Christ or to commit themselves to something and we often put it explicitly in those terms. We baptize people in some context. We baptize them upon their profession of faith in Christ. Now, you can profess faith in Christ and not have any and one of the distressing things that will come out of that is you don’t do what Christ said because you don’t actually believe in Him. You believe in professing Him and sometimes we have people who are brought into our churches on the basis of professions, which someone has got them into. Right? So, these distinctions which look so airy and all of that, turn out to be extremely important with reference to spirituality and minsters because if you aren’t careful as a minister, you wind up where your whole job is getting people to do things or you may inherit a church where the members are members because someone got them to do something and then your job is to keep getting them to do things; probably things they don’t want to do. Does a minters ever find themselves in that position in a church?—Trying to get people to do things they don’t want to do? I am afraid so; then when you come around to things like giving or witnessing or all kinds of things, you are trying to get people to do things they don’t want to do. It’s not a good job but a successful minister may be a person who is able to get lots of people to do lots of things that they do not want to do. Now, you contrast that with someone who brings knowledge, gives it to people and then let them decide what to do. [33:54]
One of the things that has come up several times is “whatever happened to hell?” Well, in other times, at least the minster communicated what he took to be knowledge and so, you have the famous occasions like Jonathan Edwards and “the sinners in the hands of an angry God” and that sermon and he’s here bent over his pulpit reading and people are falling all over the floor and finally an elder crawls up and grabs him by the leg and says, “Look, why did those people respond that way?” Well, I think it was because they thought they were hearing knowledge. They were being given knowledge and that what they were learning was something really awful and so, he didn’t have to persuade them to fall on the floor, right? They were ready to go.
OK, well, this is a lot of heavy stuff and I kind of hate to lay it all on you like this but I am thinking that we really need to talk about this. We really need to talk about it because if we stand in our world as bringing knowledge, it’s an entirely different configuration—entirely different configuration. For us, first of all, can we think of ourselves in that way? For example, the spiritual life? Is there such a thing? If so, how is it lived? What’s’ at work in it? What’s our part in it? Practicing spiritual disciplines, is that knowledge or what? See? But that’s an issue with everything we say if we don’t talk about spiritual disciplines. Whichever side of the board we fall on, it’s still the same issue and between the two sides, there is a lot of disagreements about who knows what. So, now this is not the sort of thing I think that we can consume quickly but we can start thinking about it because it has to do with the entire posture we take in our world. What am I doing when I get up to preach or teach? What am I doing if I am not communicating knowledge? Just think about that. What am I doing if I am not communicating knowledge? I come here and you folks come here and I rag on you for two weeks. What am I doing to you? Right? What do I “think” I am doing to you? And then, how do you think about what I am doing to you? See, that’s always the issue in our work. And issues like well, if we say that we are bringing knowledge, and then what’s our basis? See, that’s a perfectly legitimate question and it’s perfectly legitimate to say things like “well, the bible brings us knowledge,” but then you have to be ready to go into that. You don’t have to become a scholar over it but you have to be ready to think about it or many people in our country and the western world today really think that what they bring is something like social scientific knowledge or psychology or something of that sort but, the question comes up the same. Where do they get that knowledge? And very often, it retreats to an authority issue, right? That’s what they were asking of Jesus when they said, “Where do you get your authority?” [Comment was made by a student] That’s exactly right. Yep! Which rabbi did you study with? And so now then, it’s really crucial for us to be able to present things that we are confidant is representation of reality to people and invite them to test it out, right? If it’s not something that they can look into that they just have to take our word for, they probably will never have something like knowledge or confident belief that is well founded or something of that sort. [39:17]
Now, given the content of the New Testament, one might expect local congregations of Christians to be entirely devoted to spiritual formation of those in attendance. [overhead] You might think that, you know. You are coming in from Alpha centauri and you are checking things out and you find a New Testament and you read it and you say, “Oh, well those people over there represent the New Testament and you go over and you say, “Well, I expect them to be bringing people up in love—1 Corinthians 13 love—be free of domination by the lust of the flesh and the angers that arise out of it? You might think that’s what they will be doing. Then you know, we don’t need to get sticky about the words—spiritual formation or discipleship or whatever but the activity you would think that’s what they would be doing. Someone might even –or you might find your way to Matthew 28 and read it and think well, of course that’s what they’ll be doing. There will be disciples making disciples and coming together in fellowship under the Presence of God and teaching people how to do everything Jesus said. And, I think if this was regarded as knowledge that we are teaching, probably that would very likely be what was happening but what we actually find in most cases is constant distraction from this as the central task. Distraction! We’ve just got so many other things to do so that as you look at the activities, you might not find anything that looked like spiritual formation or—now, I’m just rattling on here just to help you think about stuff, okay? And of course there are differences in our churches and one certainly wants to recognize that and do justice to it but I think that we do suffer from distraction from the task of spiritual formation and the demands of the organization, the requirements of our faith and practice; that is, our traditions and minsters very often wind up recognizing that what they have to do is not what they really feel it should all be about. [42:13]
Now, you know, actually that is true in most professions now: medicine—even law. What is law about? Or what is medicine about? Well, there is some general idea but there is a problem in all of the vocations now with being able to focus on the good, which the profession is supposed to bring about. Education—that’s a real beauty to study now and to listen to teachers and administrators and others talk about all the stuff they have to do other than education. Troublesome, isn’t it? [43:06]
Well, I just suggest now three things we can do to begin to move our church into the VIM pattern [overhead] and now we are talking about not the individual but the organization because the VIM pattern works for organizations as well and so for example, General Motors went through a rather radical VIM revision a few years ago and a lot of other institutions and frankly our churches go through that on an individual basis and we struggle with that. Sometimes we don’t exactly understand what we are struggling with but, if for example we are in a church that is in the middle of a sociological transition in a neighborhood, probably we are going to have to look back at VIM and try to figure out what we are going to do now. What’s our Vision? What’s our Intention? What’s our Means? [44:14]
So, here are some things we can do: Focus our preaching and teaching on entering and living in the Kingdom of the heavens now. Talk it! Preach it! Explain it! Live it! That’s the Good News! OK: I understand. Not everyone says that but I am saying if we would like to begin to see a transition to where spiritual formation was like as “business as usual,”—I really urge people not to try to start there but to start with what is preached. What is preached? What is preached? I encourage people not to make a big fuss over it; just start doing it. You make a bid deal over it, you will just have a big battle and you will have a lot of mad people but you know, you give them the parable of the hours and you talk about these guys that were waiting for work and how the landowner responded and what that meant and what kind of a world is that? Hey, would it be better if we had that kind of a world? Where do you fit into it? Suppose you are the guy that came out and started slaving away at 7:00 in the morning and now you are exhausted and worn out and filthy and you are going up and getting paid and you think “Wow, I’m going to get paid more than that guy,” and he pays you the same. So, you see, all the teachings of Jesus are precisely remember “upside down?” Upside down. And so then you can begin to say, “Well, now who’s upside down and who is right side up here?” And that’s very fruitful thing for people to think about. So, first thing I think is focus our preaching on the Kingdom of God. [46:37]
Make sense of discipleship and help people to move into it in realistic terms. So there are several dimensions to that; we talked about several of them and Keith brought us around at the end of his talk to where we have to go; namely, discipleship as something that we practice in our work; of course, in our community and in our family also. Right? When we start doing that, then all of a sudden, the world at work begins to be very different. Maybe simple things like people stop stealing or trying to climb the ladder of success. You start thinking about—well, you know—business, for example; what is business for? Hmmmm. Well, business is God’s arrangement for people to love and serve one another in community. That’s what business is for. Well, what about profit? OK: it will take care of itself but that’s not what it’s for. Business is not for profit. Now, of course, that’s exactly what is taught in the Business Schools; business is for profit. And, of course, you never tell that to your clients. You never say that. You say things like we care, over and over—we care. You have a name like “Care-Owes,” you can make a little jingle our of it but that’s what is presented, “We Care!” Well, suppose we did? Hmmm? [48:29]
And then of course, take just a few things that Jesus taught us to do and help people learn to do them. Stop living for lust and see if you are still breathing. Yeah, I’m still breathing; well, maybe I don’t need that and it really causes me a lot of trouble anyway so I’ll just step out. OK: how will you do that? Ah, I’ll teach you. I can show you how to do. We know in the Christian community how to do that—anger or whatever else it is but then of course, also how to live positively—“whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are pure.” You didn’t run out of anything to do when you gave up lust, did you? [49:29]
So, now I just conclude with this point—this does not require extra budget or facilities. It is by far the most successful “Church Growth” program the earth has ever seen. This simply requires some clarity and an intention and experimentally learning how to do it; that’s all.
OK: I’ve run out of my time so, I think what I would say is, let’s start here in the morning. We have a few other things we will try to do but take some time to think about this. Could we do that?—the people in this room?—Could we do that? Take some time to think about it with the point, “Can we do that?” [Yes]
Well, actually, it’s been done and that’s encouraging. Often, when I am a little discouraged about these things, I flip back to Count Zinzendorf or
Calvin and Geneva and I think all the bad stuff, you know, it wasn’t a good thing to burn that guy. He shouldn’t have done that but you know you gotta—we’re gonna make mistakes also. I hope we won’t burn anyone.