Michael Flynn is the Vicar of St Columb’s Hawthorn, Vic.
Last year I had the privilege of speaking at the Melbourne Diocesan Curate’s conference on the charges given in the ordinal. We considered how the charge, ‘Be a pastor after the pattern of Christ the Great Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep’, can become a heavy burden in long-term ordained ministry and we turned to 1 John 3:16-24 for wisdom.
The key text is: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3:16). The context of the apostle John’s letter is schism. The church had split, people had left (2:19) but those who had left were still in the local community accusing and misleading those who remained in the church. John’s treatment for a difficult pastoral situation is to provide theological guidance based on tested authority (1.1-4) because we need meaning that is reliable. That is how we hope. John provides four interwoven tests of genuine Christianity to encourage those who remain. Three are observable tests and one is a subjective test. They are:
1. The social test or test of love. Love is defined as the love God showed us in Christ - self sacrificial love. (2:9-11; 3:13,16-18; 4:10-12)
2. The theological test of Christology and Incarnation. That Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ the Son of God. Or, to put that another way, the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. (2:22,23; 3:23; 4:1-6)
3. The moral test. John is realistic; where there is pastoral and theological confusion there will be moral failure. (1:8-10; 2:3-6; 3:7-10)
4. The subjective experience of the Holy Spirit and answered prayer. (3:21,22,24)
What is of interest to pastors under pressure is how John applies these tests to our consciences and motivations. In 3:16-21 John is practical and unsentimental about love. Love means to share possessions, because that is literally to lay down life by giving up livelihood (time and the possessions gained by our time) to serve others. John applies the cross of Christ, the atonement, directly to his people as a model of Christian living (3:18). He then goes on to apply this evidence of practical, atoning love to his people’s consciences. The living out of atoning love, by the practical sharing of material possessions and giving life is evidence to our consciences that we belong to Christ.
This is a hard thought for biblical believers as we are nervous of any hint that our works may contribute to our salvation. Our mental habit is to discount the value of the Christ-like works we do but, it turns out, that is to dishonour the work of God. John is clear; our attempt to imitate the atonement of Christ in practical love is not evidence that we can save ourselves. In 2:2, Jesus alone is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, in 4:19 we love only because he first loved us. However, our love is evidence that we have been saved, that God is at work in and with us. So, when our hearts condemn us (3:21) we can set out hearts at rest in his presence (3:19). This is akin to the kind of spiritual self-talk we see modelled in the Psalms, when the Psalmist gathers up the evidence of God’s promises and actions to rebuke his discouraged soul (eg. Psalms 37, 42). In 1 John, part of God’s action is the stumbling practical love he enables us to do; we can speak to our conscience even when it wavers and condemns us and tell it no, we belong here, in the presence of the living God.
Because having an argument with your conscience is one of the toughest, long-term debates we ever have — especially if others around us are also accusing us (2:26), John adds to the evidence of sacrificial love the evidence of belief; belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He weaves together the social test (love as Christ loved) and the theological test (what we believe about Jesus, 3:23) into a practical outcome; that we will see answered prayer in the life of the church (3:22) and experience the presence of Christ through his Holy Spirit (3:24. It is worth noting that for John this fourth subjective test accompanies the objective ones or it is not true. 2:20-27).
I am deeply encouraged that though John was not writing to perfect people (2:1) in a perfect church, nevertheless their hard won growth in Christ seen in the tests of sacrificial love, theological understanding, moral effort and the experience of God’s Spirit can be held up to their consciences as evidence of God amongst them. Ladies and gentlemen, here is how to measure ministry success. Here is help for sustaining the long-term work of laying down our lives for the sheep. Rebuke your conscience.