J. Michael Feazell: How has Trinitarian theology made a difference in how we do ministry?
Ted Johnston: I think it’s making a huge difference, and it’s a journey that we’re on. I don’t presume to say that we’ve got it all figured out. That’s not the case. But going back several years, as we began to think more deeply about the implication of the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of Jesus’ Incarnation, those are all fundamental biblical scriptural teachings that on the one hand can be sort of looked at as an academic exercise where you begin to understand this Jesus that is expressed in those doctrines, and it causes us to think about everything differently, and that certainly includes Christian ministry.
There is a tendency to look at Christian ministry as “what we do for Jesus” or “what we accomplish on his behalf even with his blessing and his help,” but with this new understanding, this vision of Trinitarian theology, it is about our participation in what Jesus is actually doing in our world. We can’t participate in everything he is doing, but he has a calling on our lives individually and collectively to participate.
So the ministry training and equipping I do covers a couple of areas. One is more generalized to the leaders, pastors, ministry workers of congregations in general; the other is in Generations Ministries, which tends to be more age-focused, equipping adults to work with children, teens, and young adults. Across the spectrum of all of that is, seeking to understand who Jesus is, what that says about us as ministers, and identify what he is doing and seek to participate in that. The word participation is not a buzz-word, it’s about real life and real ministry.
JMF: The participation is not just a matter of us deciding, “Well, I think this what Jesus is doing, so I’m going to get involved in it,” it’s also recognizing that wherever something good is going on, there Jesus is. My part in that may be weak and flawed, but Jesus takes up me and what I am doing, sanctifies it, and makes it productive in a way that I couldn’t, if it were just me.
TJ: It’s a cultural thing to some extent, I suppose. We’ve all been “inculturated” in a way of trying to think about things in sort of a more programmatic way of measuring results. I’m not against measuring results, but the point is we often measure things to signify achievement, when Christian ministry fundamentally is about living life, and it’s not a life that we begin to live by injecting ourselves into something like we weren’t present. It’s just understanding that presence of Jesus in all of life.
It might be helpful for me to back up a little bit, because thinking about the theological basis of this, I grew up in a church that taught the doctrine of the Trinity, and I suppose it was explained to me as a child in Sunday School. But it didn’t seem to have any particular practical reality, or it didn’t really make a practical difference, at least in what I ascertained.
Then I became a part of a denomination that repudiated the doctrine of the Trinity for a variety of reasons. I came to the place in my own personal life, and it was part and parcel of the journey of our denomination, that we began to see that the Trinity is not merely an academic exercise in that sense, but it’s a description of the actual reality of who God is in his being, and that out of that, flows all that God does.
So Christian ministry is not merely doing things on behalf of God from a distance, it’s about being included in his life. That inclusion is something that occurs in Jesus himself. With the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation of Jesus is fundamental.
JMF: So that transformation of the doctrinal understanding of the Trinity and embracing of that …was that, probably 12, 13 years ago or so?
TJ: I suppose so. For me it was, at first (this is how I’m wired), it got into my mind and began to make some logical sense. But as it sort of trickled down from there, it began to cause me to see just everything with a new set of eyes.
JMF: It turns ministry, leadership, and day-to-day Christian walk into a focus on relationships as opposed to on “getting the job done” or “getting the numbers or results,” as you were saying. The relationship becomes the whole focus, and you can’t measure relationships.
TJ: No. There are measurable indications of a relationship happening, but its very heart and core is a dynamic that is difficult to measure. Often a healthy relational dynamic may not have much tangible evidence at first. What was stunning to me, and if you don’t mind me giving you some personal credit for this, quite a few years ago you recommended that I read The Mediation of Christ, by Thomas Torrance.
I must say, the first time through that book, I found it interesting, but after a while you begin to sort out, as it were, this amazing truth that Jesus in himself is the mediator between God and man. As God, he mediates between man and God as God, and as a human, he mediates between God and man as a man. Added to that, I think, is the reality that in his humanity and his divinity he stands as the mediator between all human relationships. So it’s not about bringing Jesus into a relationship, like my ministry has to grab Jesus and bring him over to this relationship, “let’s have some Jesus talk”…
JMF: We talk like that, though, don’t we?
TJ: Yeah, he’s sort of the transportable…
JMF: “I’m going to introduce you to Jesus,” or “I led someone to Jesus.”
TJ: The reality is that Jesus is already present in all his relationships. So here I am, I’m a Sunday school teacher, and I’m ministering to this child. Who is this child? This child is already in relationship with Jesus, with God through Jesus. In his humanity and his divinity, he has brought all humanity into a relationship with God. So that child is in a relationship with Jesus whether that child knows it or not, whether I know it or not.
JMF: The child is a beloved child of God already.
TJ: Absolutely. On top of that, I’m in a relationship with that child already, in Jesus. So I have the opportunity as a Sunday school teacher (I could say the same thing about a parent, I could say the same thing about a husband or a wife) of exploring the nature of Jesus in that relationship, embracing that. Not trying to bring Jesus to it, but to see what Jesus is there doing, and to submit myself to that, to yield to that, to participate in that. Participation, Christian ministry, to a large extent, is trying to discern who Jesus is here, what he is doing, what he has created.
I work a lot with adults who work with, and I also personally work with, many young adults. We have, in this nation, and this is true outside of the U.S. as well, entered into what many would refer to as a post-modern, post-Christian world. I think some people say “Well, if that’s the case, then I guess Jesus has exited the building.” It may seem that way superficially, but Jesus never exits. He’s present.
As I talk to a 25-year-old who, let’s say, repudiates the idea of Christianity, who thinks about a lot of things quite differently than I do having grown up in a different culture, I want to understand what Jesus is doing in this young person’s life already. It’s not me bringing Jesus to him, it’s not me trying to impose Jesus into the conversation. Jesus is already there, already ministering.
The passions, the depth of understanding that that young person may not have much Christian language associated with it yet. I was working with a young man not long ago who has a very deep passionate love for creation and is deeply concerned about what we’re doing with it. Where does that come from? Where does that love, where does that passion come from? Part of Christian ministry is to identify that and help that person explore that, understand that, and recognize the truth of who Jesus is behind that.
So I don’t have to bring Jesus in, I just need to help that individual understand who Jesus is and how they’ve been experiencing him, his life, his love already. That understanding, that experiencing is transformational. I’m not talking about leaving people where they are, because not knowing Jesus they’re in a certain degree of spiritual darkness, which has devastating consequences.
Christian ministry is not about bringing Jesus somewhere, it’s about helping people to see the life, the love of Jesus. When we talk about the life and the love of Jesus, we’re talking about Jesus sharing in the life and the love of the Father and the Spirit in the Trinity and in union with all humanity. We call that the doctrine of the Incarnation.
In seminary, and I don’t mean to be critical of any particular seminaries nor make a big deal of out of this, but I remember one of the theology classes that you take is typically the Doctrine of God. Very appropriate. What often happens in those things, and I think this comes across sometimes in the way teaching is done, we have, “Let’s talk about the attributes of God: God’s omniscience, God’s omnipresence,” the “omnis,” as they say.
And down number seven on the list is God as a Trinity. Sadly, that idea, that doctrine of God being triune, has been relegated to sort of an attribute of God rather than a descriptor of who God is. God is a Trinity who is omniscient and all of those kinds of ideas. You can’t think about God without thinking out of the reality of who he is.
God, in his very being, is relational. And having drawn us into that relationship in Jesus through the Incarnation, all of Christian ministry, all of life, is necessarily about a relationship. So, it has altered a lot of the way we think about ministry.
JMF: It helps us care about the people we’re serving as opposed to caring first and foremost about the task at hand, and the getting numbers or measurements. We care about the people. So we treat them differently. We train them differently. It transforms our foundation in a way that makes ministry bear fruit of a spiritual nature that is invisible, rather than just building a building or getting numbers.
TJ: Sure. The fruit is the fruit that is borne of the work of Jesus. In our union with him, if we can then participate in that union, we get to share in his fruitfulness.
JMF: His relationship with the Father is that he is already accepted and loved, and he brings us with him into that acceptance and love, and we share in that relationship. So naturally, we can enter into that kind of relationship with each other.
TJ: Yeah. It’s a beautiful thing. There are programs that help us place ourselves in a position of more active participation,. Tom Torrance likes to refer to those as scaffolds. They are simply means, systems that we appropriately erect. But the reason for the scaffolds is not to be in the scaffold business. The reason for the scaffolds is that we can place ourselves. Paul says in Romans 12:1 that we are to make ourselves living sacrifices. The imagery there is putting yourself up on the altar.
TJ: We don’t create the altar. Jesus is the altar, and we are included in his life, whether we want to participate or not. But it’s our great privilege, and indeed it’s the Spirit of God who calls out to us and invites us to an active participation. So part of what we try to do in training ministers is to understand who Jesus has made them in the Spirit.
There are issues there of spiritual gifting. There are issues there of what I refer to [as] looking at your life and going on a “God sighting”: What has God done intervening in your life, his gracious working, making you this unique being that he wants to share his ministry with? That’s both very humbling but also really challenging and exciting.
Part of what we seek to do in equipping ministers is simply to see Jesus with new eyes, and in doing so, to see ministry through his eyes, because it’s his ministry, not ours. But he won’t do it without us! It’s a remarkable thing. Why would he want to do it with us? Because he loves us. Because he created us to be with him, and he won’t let us go.
We are given freedom to tell him no, but even then, he doesn’t let us go. That’s very, very reassuring. It takes a lot of that sort of performance-based view of ministry away, because Jesus is perfect and powerful and he will do what he will do with or without us. But we can be with him. In fact, he wants us with him, and we are included in what he is doing, but we have to open our eyes to see it. There are issues there of discernment. I think one of the fundamental skills of ministry is that of discernment. Even there, it is discernment with Jesus’ discernment. It’s seeing with his eyes.
JMF: And by discernment you mean…
TJ: Seeing what Jesus is doing. Trying to ascertain in this life, in this circumstance, with this child in this Sunday school class, what are they doing? If you look at the Gospels, Jesus so often modeled it for us. Look, he had a plan, he had a program, he had a strategy, if you will, but so often he would lay that aside and simply be in the moment.
I tell people, he invites his disciples to go camping with him. We have a lot of camps, so I like to think in camping terms. They’re walking down the road going camping, and here comes this leper and Jesus says, forget the going camping thing, guys. Here is one of my beloved children who is suffering. Let’s just be here.
JMF: Jesus’ ministry is about healing, deliverance. It reminds me of the passage where it says he gave authority to the disciples to cast out demons and heal the sick, deliverance and healing.
TJ: Yes. They were given authority in the sense of opportunity to participate in what Jesus is and does.
JMF: Our natural use of authority is to be in charge and to call the shots.
TJ: Self-aggrandizement .
JMF: Exactly. And even for Christian ministers it’s no different. You can get the high of being in charge of everything and everybody has to check everything with you, and you can be an authoritarian. So you have all these relationship problems because you are not focused on service, you’re focused on keeping your authority and not being thought of as infallible or making a mistake. It just ruins the ministry opportunities and the blessing that, if rightly used, the authority can be for a congregation.
TJ: It turns ministry into a power-trip. The nature of our culture, because of the sin that is present, there’s a tendency to say look, leadership is about power and authority, and the only other alternative is to back off and be passive. Those are the only ways you can go.
JMF: Yeah. The opposite extremes.
TJ: To participate in ministry with Jesus is not to sit down and do nothing. Jesus is very active. Now, we can’t participate in everything he’s doing, even though someone with my personality type might try.
TJ: He doesn’t expect us to, doesn’t need for us to, doesn’t ask for us to. But he does give us the opportunity, the Holy Spirit gives the invitation. That’s the genius of the Holy Spirit. He has this means to give us eyes to see, and, as they used to say years ago, give us this unction, this urging.
The way the Spirit speaks into our hearts and gives us those urgings, that’s a powerful thing. I think that’s part of the discernment. In talking to young people, especially trying to help them discern the call of the Holy Spirit in their lives to ministry…and I want to be sure that we understand that ministry is about all of life, it’s not just about some slice like church or something, though it certainly includes that…
JMF: The spiritual side as opposed to the secular side.
TJ: Yeah, there’s that dualism that’s very unhelpful. If the Holy Spirit is calling a young person to be a passionate participant with Jesus in forestry or something, do it. Do it in a way that is conforming your thinking and your life and your loving to the way Jesus is passionate about that aspect of the world, his creation. At a time when so many young people are looking about at the mess we’ve made of the environment, for example, there are many young people who understandably have a passion to do something about that.
JMF: What about the mess with the economy?
TJ: That’s practical. You’d better believe it. I’m not an economist, and I don’t know how to sort all this out, but I don’t think it takes great intelligence to say what I’m going to say: A lot of our economic problems are nothing more than the result of bald-faced greed. A lot of people see that, and I think there are a lot of people, young and old alike, who say, “You know what? That’s not right.”
JMF: When you approach economics from a standpoint of healing, deliverance, service, love, it makes all the difference in how you’re going to manage.
TJ: Sure. And so part of the teaching ministry of the church, and of parents and others who stand in that role and participate in Jesus to try to help others grow, is to declare those things. But the declaration has to be out of the passion, the life, the love of Jesus. He is the center, he is the way, and so even when we go and take Scripture, as well we should in teaching, we teach the Scriptures out of who Jesus is, not out of some other model.
As we have begun to understand and embrace Trinitarian theology and teach it, a lot of questions arise. Many of them because of a strength in our fellowship of really seeking to understand and to apply the Bible.
JMF: What are some of the basic questions?
TJ: I’ll give you a couple. Some of them are simply an individual “how can this be true if that is true?” Some of that happens. Trinitarian theology declares that indeed in Jesus, God has included all humanity in his life. That issue alone raises some questions, both existential questions, philosophical questions, but also specific scriptural questions, because you can find individual verses in the Bible that sounds like, God not only has not included these bad people, but absolutely wants nothing to do with them. So one has to sort that out. The sorting-out process, which always happens when you read the Bible, because there are a lot of Scriptures in there, has to be on the basis of some organizing framework, right?
JMF: And that being…
TJ: Why don’t we make the organizing framework the one the Scripture itself presents as the organizing framework, and that is Jesus? So the question becomes, how do I understand this particular passage in the light of the declaration of Scripture as to who Jesus is? When we say “who Jesus is,” the answer to that not only speaks to Jesus himself, it speaks to God as Trinity and it also speaks to the reality of all humanity, as Jesus is the union of God with all humanity in himself.
So that becomes the organizing framework. It’s not something being imposed on Scripture, it’s something that Scripture declares. You have those kinds of things, but then people wrestle with it. They go, well, okay, you meant to tell me that nasty next-door neighbor of mine is included in God’s life in Jesus? Then they start thinking in broader terms, more sort of historical terms… “If you think that is true, you must be naïve, because there’s terrible evil in this world.” This is how the thinking goes.
I understand that thinking. If you think deeply about this, you will come to those sort of impasses where you probably haven’t thought too much about it. How could there possibly be such horrendous evil in this world? And there is.
JMF: If God actually loves everybody, and everyone’s included in his love…
TJ: Right. It then gets back to, “Let’s answer that question on the basis of the great truth of all truths…who is Jesus?” That truth, in Scripture, that truth is proclaimed. This is the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, who took into himself all of our humanity, inclusive of all of our humanity, not just the cleaned up and nice version of it.
That’s the difficulty for many people. They say, God can’t coexist with evil. They will say things like that. Or they wrestle with that, because there are scriptures that seem to make that case. But you go back to Jesus. Jesus was called not the one who passively coexisted with evil, he was called the friend of sinners. The stunning truth is that Jesus actually then sort of factors in his solution to evil. He is the solution to evil in his own person by taking our evil up into himself, there it is transformed. That would be very hard, I think, for many of us.
JMF: This is the very reason that we preach repentance, and faith, and turning to Christ, and belief, so that people can turn to Christ and embrace this love that is already present for them.
TJ: Yeah, that’s one of the questions you get, “Well, if everybody is all included, I guess there’s no need for repentance.”
JMF: There’s no way to appreciate and enjoy the love, unless you actually believe it and accept it.
TJ: Yeah. I’ve always believed that repentance is not a one-shot deal, it’s a lifestyle. The repentance in my life over the last seven or eight years, in allowing this stunning truth of who Jesus is, to break everything in my life and reorient it, is deep repentance, where indeed repentance means to change your thinking.
JMF: Yeah. And it doesn’t happen at once.
TJ: No, it doesn’t. And I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve not yet wrestled with. I don’t say maybe, for sure! My wife would tell you that [laughing]. But that’s ok! That’s the way it is. The Holy Spirit’s beautiful, wonderful, powerful ministry is to conform us to this Christ, and that’s a journey. Our ministry is really to be with the Holy Spirit as he leads us on this journey with Jesus.
TJ: We don’t have to be panicked about it. I think we should be excited about it. I think we should be focused and whatever words you prefer, but there’s a tendency either to be against or to be passive, disengaged, or just going ballistic! I’ve tried both extremes.
JMF: Haven’t we all, in everything?
TJ: I prefer the rhythms of Jesus. Although I must tell you, with my personality structure, sometimes Jesus is too slow for me. However, I’ve come to understand that he is really, really smart.
JMF: He’s patient, and works with that, too.
TJ: Of course he does. I don’t mean to be glib about my walk with Jesus. But you know what? It’s a beautiful ride, and it’s quite unexpected. It takes all kinds of twists and turns.
JMF: Unfortunately, we’re out of time, just as we start to get to the exciting part. I’m really appreciative that you were able to be here and spend time talking to us.
TJ: Thank you, Mike. My privilege.