Tough Words from Owen

Early on in my summer break I’ve been enjoying the writings of John Owen (a man of impeccable fashion sense).  Chapter XXV of “The Greater Catechism” in volume one of his published works asks, “What is the communion of saints?”  The prescribed response:

An holy conjunction between all God’s people, wrought by their participation in the same Spirit, whereby we are all made members of that one body whereof Christ is the head.

Interestingly, in a footnote attached to “conjunction,” Owen comments, “By virtue of this, we partake in all the good and evil of the people of God throughout the world.”

The statement is, I think, a compelling warning against distancing ourselves from the church in moments when we wish only to criticize it.  For those of us immersed in the study of theology, it implies, among other things, that we’re not free to berate a perceived theological stupor in the church without acknowledging that we ourselves live and move in the sphere of God’s people.  The real question, then, concerns how to help in the pursuit of theological maturity with and among the people to whom we are stubbornly (and blessedly!) linked.

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4 thoughts on “Tough Words from Owen

  1. Steve, well said. What do your remarks here say about the role you envision the theologian to take in relation to the church? In other words, what is the Christian theologian’s relationship to the local church?

    • Well, I can’t speak from the vantage point of someone who has finished up their education and is teaching theology in an academic setting, so I’ll hazard a few comments with the acknowledgment that they come from limited experience.

      Apart from teaching future pastors involved in formal theological training, I think that, given the typical church model in the U.S., serving in the capacity of Sunday school teacher (or some similar role) is a viable option. In our current church I’ve had the opportunity to do some teaching on the perseverance of the saints, some eschatological themes in the book of Revelation, and the Christ-and-culture question and I think it’s safe to say that the laity are really interested in exploring issues in Christian doctrine. The trick may be balancing delivery of content with offering space for dialogue in which people can actually practice reasoning theologically together.

      If the sermon is the focal point of theological reflection in the church and, if theologians can help there without being overly critical, churches will be better off. I would be curious to hear more from theologians who have healthy relationships with their pastors wherein they are truly shepherded by their pastors even as their pastors can pose theological and spiritual questions to them and receive feedback from them on their preaching and teaching.

  2. Many inside and outside the church approach community the way they approach the grocery…always looking for the best deals. How can I get more and give less.

    Owen reminds us to commit to people and our communities through thick and thin. Community that never get sticky or difficult at times probably isn’t real or healthy. Thanks for sharing this gem from Owen!

  3. It is often assumed that theologians must humbly learn from working pastors, so as to avoid the sins of vanity and esoterica.

    But consider this from another perspective: do ordinary churchgoers and pastors, really know more than theologians, about theology and God? Or do they know less?

    And if ordinary folks know less, then how can theologians working with ordinary folks, avoid being tainted by, dragged down into, their bad theology?

    Especially, how can theologians, by publically associating themselves with such persons, as one of them, avoid the appearance and even actuality, of in the end supporting not only them personally, but also inevitably, unwillingly, appearing to stand behind, their worst theological sins and errors?

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