Calling and Temptations
Local congregations discerning on their calling

Frederick Marais
Stellenbosch South Africa
26 March 2008

I will focus in this paper on the importance of discerning capasity in leadership in local congregations. I will try to unpact discernment as a theological task, and not a strategic one and try to point to ecclesial temtations where we might get stuck. I will argue that we need to understand how easily temtations can be mis-understood as calling. If Jesus of Nazareth’s mininstry is a guidline to us, we should take note of the interplay between calling and temtation.

1. How should we discern our calling at the end of Christendom? The temtation to be powerfull and the calling to disengage with dominant cultures

• Denominations behave as if nothing had happened – as if we were still living in a basically Christian civilization; as if the Christian religion were still quite obviously the official religion of the official culture; as if we could go carry on baptizing, marrying, and burying everybody as we have always done; as if governments would listen to us, and educational systems would respect us.

• Too many acts of discernmetn do not succeed because they still assume a Christendom framework. They speak as though from positions within the power centers of society. Therefore they almost always fail to convince anyone outside the fold or even to raise significant questions. If not expanding the church’s sphere of influence and territory, what are churches for?

• In its response to this, the temtation often is to consentrate on the wellbeing of congregations in becomming the  a “friendly church”.

• The Question is: What would be the diffirence be between the “friendly church”and the church that welcomes the stranger to use Patrick Keiferts famous title? The friendly church can so easily becomes the victim of the dominant culture, being servant to the domestic needs of the community they serve.  On the other hand, in welcoming the stranger or being welcomed by the stranger, is something totally diffirent from being friendly. To be in communion with the stranger will ask for a deap listening attitude, giving up the privilge to speak, attending to the needs of the outcasts, practising the attitute of giving away our power in order to excend the peasce as Luke 10 encourage us to do. Like lambs into the midst of wolves.

In line with this, Douglas Hall argues that our the theological task should be to relinquish our power position:

• We must relinquish the social status that belongs to our christendom past: the comfortable relationships with ruling classes; the continuous confirmation of accepted social values by means of which we sustain those relationships; the espousal of “charities” that ease our guilty consciences while allowing us to maintain neutrality with respect to the social structures that make such “charities” necessary; the silent acceptance of racial, sexual, gender and economic injustices, or their trivialization through tokenism; the failure to probe the depths of human and creaturely pathos by confining sin to petty immorality or doctrinal refinements drawn from the past, and so on.

• We must give up the redundant role of official religious cult in society. In doing that we must disengage from the dominant culture. This is the necessary precondition for a meaningful engagement of that same dominant culture or society, Hall suggest.

• Intentional disengagement from the dominant culture is a vital part of the discerning porcess. It means that every Christian should learn how to distinguish the Christian message from the operative assumptions, values, and pursuits of the host society. The Christian message is not just a stained-glass version of the worldview of that same social stratum.

2. How do we in Southern Afica discern our calling in a time of radical modernisation. The temtation to be relevant.

• Dirkie Smit(2007) convincingly argues  that the political transformation from apartheid to a democratic society based on a liberal constitution has been the most visible part of our transformation, but in reality the fall of the apartheid state has only been the tip of the iceberg, when the real and long-term effects of this transformation are considered. The country moved overnight into a process of what could be called radical modernization and in many ways it still finds itself in the dynamics of this historical process. It is in fact too soon yet to look back – since everything is still in flux.

• This underlines the crucial insight that the churches in South Africa are themselves, as integral part of South African society, on the receiving end of these contemporary global processes of modernization. They undergo these processes, they are recipients of these processes, they benefit from and suffer these processes, whether they want it, or not. They are not merely actors, but they are being acted upon. It is not as if they are totally free to decide whether they will contribute to modernization, to development and progress. They themselves first of all undergo modernization, development and progress in these particular forms. Their own convictions and values, their spiritualities and their practices are being affected by this modernizing globalization. They themselves experience both opportunities and challenges.

• Accordingly, the more helpful question may be in which ways churches resist processes of modernisation and in which ways they accept them and attempt to contribute to them, strengthen them and serve them.

• Churches  themselves are taken up in the processes of modernisation. Together with all of society, the churches are experiencing the dramatic “collapse into modernity” (Ulrich Beck; Anthony Giddens). The real question is how they respond.

• In this plead I hear ego’s  Lessely Newbigin’s concern on the impact of modernity on Christianity in western culture. 

• The response of the post-modern theology do not take into account how deeply we have all been shaped by modernity, it is more often a theology in denial, and denial has never been a good companion when it comes to discernment.

3. How do churches traped in a mono ethnic culture discern their calling

• We have all been shocked by the incidents of blatant racism in the past few weeks in South Africa and the unexpected ethnic violence in Kenya after their elections. I for one do not belief we have the right to make statements on racism and ethnocentricity without confessing our failure to free our churches and congregations from a mono ethnic culture.

• Already in 1991 (one year before he died tragically) David Bosch warned that the Dutch Reformed Church should take up the challenge   of dismantling the symbiotic relationship between the Afrikaner “volk” and the Dutch Reformed Church. He warns that the DRC could be tempted to provide stability rather than taking up the challenge to liberate the church from its ethnic identity.

• Since 1991, the DRC has officially moved away form a “volkskerk” theology, but has failed to embody the vision of a church for all nations. For most members the church is still creating a comfort-zone of a mono ethnic and cultural reality in their local experience. The Ephesians moment (Walls:2005) still has to come in most local congregations.

• I agree with Bosch in his assessment that the embodiment will only come if we will be able to move to a theology of liberation rather than a theology of stability. The temptation to comfort and care for our “own”people should be framed as a temptation became it resist the important task of dis-engagement in order to re-engage.

• One should go further. Welcker claims that “ The community of those upon whom the Spirit has come is to grow out of diverse concreteness of individual life and suffering, the fullness of which cannot be taken in from any one perspective.  This community of those who have themselves become bearers of the Spirit is filled with the power of God. This community bears and reflects this power, lets it benefit others, and is itself strengthened in return.” (1994: 185). Mono ethnic churches lacks discerning ability because the diverse concreteness, that Welcker reveres to is absent in their experiense.

• Of course this is not only the challenge for white churches, a challenge to almost every local congregation in Africa if not across the globe.  What impact we could and still can make if local congregations can become Christian communities that embodies the reality of a cross-cultural reality.  Will we still have the racial incidents on our campuses, the after election violence in Kenya or Zimbabwe if thousands upon thousands of local congregations create a human web of interconnectedness across our continent?


4. What can we learn from Jesus calling and temptations?

According to the synoptic writers (Mark 1:12-13; Matt 4:1ff & Luke 4:1ff) the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness, into a situation of isolation or disengagement, and He was offered bread for the hungry masses, universal power through the reunification with of God and the worship of Satan- these were all messianic signs for the liberation of Israel in the temple of the holy city.

• Seizure of power: Through the temtations, Jesus lead by the Spirit is denied the economic, political and religious means for the seizure of power. “Instead, in the temptation story Jesus demonstrates the power that He already has in relation to Satan by the very act of declining a spectacular moral or political seizure of power, bound to a particular time or a particular people, and by choosing the path of messianic suffering. This demonstration of his power – mediated by the leading of the Spirit – remains unrecognizable and incomprehensible to the world all the way to the cross and the resurrection.” (Welker:1994, 187)

• Taking up the cross: In this story we find Jesus on His way to the cross and mesianic suffering. On this journey, there was no room for the seizure of power.  In the discernment of our calling we will ultimately be confronted with the call to become disciples by taking up the cross, and by doing that being liberated from the dominant culture in order to be trustworhty disciples



Christendom wanted to be great, large, magnificent. It thought itself the object of God’s expansive grace; it forgot the meaning of its election to worldly responsibility.

Today we are constrained by the divine Spirit to rediscover the possibilities of littleness. We are to decrease in order that the Christ may increase. We cannot enter this new phase without pain, for truly we have been glorious in this world’s own terms. It seems to many of us a humiliation that we are made to reconsider our destiny as “little flocks”.

Can such a calling be worthy of the servants of the Sovereign of the Universe? Yet, if that Sovereign be the One who reigns from the cross, could any other calling be thought legitimate?



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