We’ve all sat watching those relay races in which one team, striving hard to stay in medal contention, just overcooks it a little. The third to fourth runner can’t catch up as her colleague sets off, conscious not to run out of the hand over zone. The resulting baton change often ends in disaster.
The runners either run out of the exchange zone during exchange (that’s a DQ), or in their efforts to pick up the baton and keep going (not a DQ), they impede another lane and upset another team’s baton change (a DQ). Besides, if you retrieve a baton at that race pace your race is as good as over unless you have four Usain Bolts running. Finally unless the baton is held by both team members at the same time during the cross over it’s considered a throw (also a DQ).
There’s a lot to get right in a baton relay.
In Christian ministry we have all used that example of what we must do with the gospel in getting the baton handed on. The handing on of the gospel to the next generation of leaders and Christians is grounded in the understanding that the gospel is both unchangeable and easily lost within one generation when dropped. We take seriously that command from Paul to Timothy in 2Tim 2:2:
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.
You can see the baton change right there. Paul to Timothy to reliable teachers who are qualified to teach others, who presumably contain the next generation of teachers. And so on it goes, generation to generation down to our day. The importance of that is grounded in the obvious reality that the gospel is not something we merely believe, but something we receive, from God through others. It is not our gospel to change, hence we hand it on the same as we received it.
And that’s a salutary lesson in an era in which, sadly, many gospels are promulgating that were not received, but simply made up. Heresy and error spring forth all of the time. We counter this two ways. By speaking against error, cutting error down. But primarily, through speaking for truth, crowding error out. That’s the role of the Christian teacher leader, so get on and do it! Don’t drop that baton.
But having said that there are some batons that we’ve just got to drop. And they’re not gospel ones. The problem is that so many hold so tightly on to them as if they are gospel batons, and then, inevitably, hand them on to the next generation to run with them. And the problem is that if you’ve got a non-gospel baton in your hand, it’s very easy to be distracted by it, and inadvertently drop the gospel baton in the process. Result? A confidence that the race is being won, even when you may well find yourself disqualified at the end of it.
So what batons are worth dropping instead of handing on? Here are a couple for starters:
The Gospel Plus Baton:
Gotta love a baton that is covered in ribbons and buttons and sparkly stuff. So much stuff in fact that it’s hard to see the baton underneath it. So much encrusted detritus that sometimes the baton could fall right out from within it and land on the track, and the runner would’t even notice.
That to me is the most pernickety baton doing the rounds, and it has been since Paul contended with the Judaisers who followed him around the track, trying to convince converts that their freedom wasn’t truly freedom without a whole bunch of Jewish laws such as circumcision.
What are the modern day equivalents? Oh the buttons and baubles are many and varied: political stances one should take if one is to truly be Christian; experiences that are final proof of conversion; the oppressiveness of “do more”, “attend more”, “witness harder”, which is a particularly difficult one to let go of.
There are obvious ones of course such as versions of the Bible and dress codes, spiritual experiences one must have. but we’re much more sophisticated these days. Now we hand on the “Christian way to do parenting”, the “Christian way to do family life”, or “work and home roles”. There are enough books doing the rounds in the Christian bookstores to lull any one of us into clinging on tightly to any one of these batons.
The thing about this baton is that those who hand it on think they are handing on a better version of the gospel when it it in fact no gospel at all. A wise man once told me that whenever you add to the gospel you subtract from the gospel, and whatever you add to the gospel is what ends up counting for you. That’s exactly how it plays out.
The Gospel-less Baton
This is the equivalent of running around the track and not realising you were not holding a baton in the first place. Lots of energy expended, lots of puffing and panting, lots of hoo-ha and hoopla, but no result.
What does it look like? It’s the well maintained, well considered, well appointed ministry that has all of the trappings of success, but doesn’t have the cross of Christ, its constant announcement, its practice as a first-port-of-call pastoral strategy, its underpinning as a guide to leadership and ministry practice, and its centrality to the answer “What is the problem with the human condition and what is the solution?”
It presents itself in sermon series that are big on how to get stuff done, how to further oneself and how to have a happy whatever. Nothing wrong with those things in and of themselves. Everything wrong with them by themselves. At best they become bon mots in a world saturated in bon mots, memes and slogans. At worst they become burdens around our necks that we cannot bear. They seem to offer hope, but without gospel power we are indeed powerless to change.
This is an Olympic sized problem in the West by the way, and we’re importing it all over the world.
The Anti-Gospel Baton
Sometimes someone tries to sneak a different baton onto the track. What’s the difference between the anti-gospel baton and the gospel-less one? I put it this way: Many ministries that week in week out don’t showcase the gospel, nevertheless, when push comes to shove, do believe it. It’s in their statement of faith and they are of the “Of course we believe the Bible” crew. It’s more the case that they are trying to eke out gospel fruit among their people without attending first to the gospel root. And that is not the most joyous or liberating of experiences, hence the need to keep the rah-rah going.
Others, however, are opposed to the gospel message in the first place. This can be downright opposition to it, especially the idea of Jesus’ finished salvation work on the cross as the solution to the human condition of being dead in sin. There are plenty around like that, albeit it a shrinking number with a shrinking, ageing populace. In some sense their loudness is simply the last flourish of a dying tree.
However, and this is where things get complicated, there’s a growing trend among evangelical groups to start to slowly abandon the central gospel doctrines. Well, slowly at first, but once one is dropped, it gathers apace.
The irony is, of course, that this is often presented as the true gospel baton. Hence we have to get rid of “overlaid theological, modernist readings of the text”, or we have to, in this age of violence, jettison atonement doctrines such as Penal Substitution, which is, after all, simply a case of cosmic child abuse.
The future for the gospel is a much more inquiring expression of the faith which, like the secular humanities framework from which it draws so much strength, exposes “power plays within the text”. Notwithstanding this is as much a “power play” as any other, it is an endless exercise of deconstruction that in its quest ends up not merely exposing the power plays of the text, but removing the power of the text altogether. Scripture is subverted by that most modern of all authorities – the authority of the self. It’s actually the most violent power play of all, placing the reader firmly over the Scriptures, free from all rules of the race or fear of disqualification for anything.
The great problem with this of course is that too many of the celebrity athletes, er pastors, who graced our stages over the past twenty years have taken this baton in hand. And they have morphed from holding a baton that was more or less gospel, to exchanging it for the anti-gospel baton, often at the behest of a culture that is more pressing and hostile towards the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.”
It’s painful for me to listen to talks from men who once proclaimed the Bible in memorable ways. I recognise too that I am treading on some toes close to home saying this, and I want to give leeway to some genuine valid differences, but I’ve been around a few years now and I see the trajectories that almost always begin with the questioning of a central doctrine and move to the loathing of it within next to no time. It’s almost addictive.
The obvious concern – pastorally from my perspective – is that they may reach the finish line having thought they have won, only to be told that they have been disqualified.
4. The Baseball Bat Baton
Okay, my tribe, I’m talking to you. I’m talking to those guys who as they are running with the baton give it a look over and think, “You know what? If I just beefed this thing up it would come in mighty handy to keep people in line with the odd biff across the back of the head.”
I’m becoming extremely tired of the prickly, almost sectarian approach I see in some “tick all of the boxes blokes” who have a zeal that has left love in the starting blocks, or at least is leaving it dragging in their wake.
Either through heavy shepherding and bullying, an inability to cope with genuine questions, or a tendency to shut people down who are pretty much on the same platform, but hold one or two things differently, they treat the baton as a baseball bat to crush all dissent.
The obvious problem is that this is the crew that most thinks it is handing on the baton. That thinks it is its role to ensure that baton is polished to within an inch of its life and placed in a trophy case for exhibition.
Okay, that may be taking it too far (or not), but I caution against a growing muscular version of doctrinal correctness that is almost gleeful about who it runs over, or how it can shoot down error.
The same Paul that tells Titus to “sharply rebuke” those who are in error on Crete is the same Paul who tells the same Titus that an elder must not “be arrogant”. What does sharp rebuke look like for a non-arrogant leader? Very different to what it looks like for an arrogant one, that’s for sure.
In Acts 20 Paul said he warned the Ephesian leaders “with tears”. All too often these baseball baton leaders think that the tears should be coming from those they warn instead of themselves. Incidentally, when was the last time you cried over someone’s theological error or life choices, rather than Facebook, blog, tweet or scorn over it?
Well, that’s a couple of batons not worth handing on. I am sure there are more. Of course the best way to ensure that you hand on the gospel baton is to do a couple of things. First KNOW the gospel very very well. Study it, learn it, memorise it’s central spine. Second, live out its fruit in your own lives, and encourage its fruit in others. You will find that as you do this, much of that other stuff falls away in both yourselves and your hearers. And third, and most importantly, run with that baton in the knowledge and love of the one who will give you the victor’s crown and the winner’s medal on the dais – the Lord Jesus, the one who ran the race before us in order to give us the baton in the first place.