Just after I arrived in Chicago in 1965 to study and to minister, the Community Renewal Society published an article suggesting that theological conservatives can’t make it in the city because they take their Bibles too literally. They said that when you take the Bible literally, you swallow an essentially rural milieu: “God builds gardens; men make cities. God prefers shepherds to vine growers and certainly to city dwellers.”

I began then in 1966 to look at the biblical data. That became extremely important for me because in my tradition and in my own experience, biblical materials were normative for deciding whether I had a mission in the city at all or whether I would have to abandon Scripture and stay in Chicago for other than biblical and theological reasons.

So I began a study of some 1,400 scriptural references to cities, including case studies of biblical cities, philosophy, the theology of corporate solidarity, and other kinds of biblical data. I suggest that we have biblical and theological resources for urban ministry. Let me use a simplistic outline and talk about principles, places, and persons.

A Theology Of Principles

Under biblical principles, let’s return to the principle of materialism. The Bible begins with creation; it centers on resurrection; it anticipates re-creation.

In Exodus 31 there is a little post-Red Sea vignette about two of my favorite fellows, Bezalel and Oholiab, who are given a special ministry by the Spirit to design and build a tabernacle. God is suggesting that this first-generation migrant group cannot exist worshiping only an invisible God, even with the benefit of fire, cloud, and pillars; even with such people as Moses, and with such institutions as worship, Sabbath, and codes. Some visible representation of the deity and some worship center upon which the people can focus are needed.

Luther understood this principle of materialism well when he told my forefathers, the Anabaptists, not to shatter the statutes or the liturgy or the calendar until they had replaced them with something else. Moses understood it too.

I think that such a concept is important, and I have seen it fulfilled. This thing that happened to Bezalel and Oholiab—this gifting of these former mud-brick makers by God with architectural and other skills to teach Israel in the wilderness—I have seen happen to Spanish immigrants and migrants. I have seen a real mess of a three-bedroom suite purchased for a Spanish-language seminary in Chicago. And I’ve seen the skills of Puerto Rican Christians emerge within our community as they fixed it up.

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I see this “materialism” as scriptural and as the only way the church can take on the city and at the same time fight the escapist options presented by the Oriental religions.

There is also the principle of corporate solidarity in both Testaments. Ever since H. Wheeler Robinson’s essay on this topic appeared about the time of World War I, people have noticed that in the Bible individuals are often appendaged with a tribe or a place. You are “Bar Somebody” or “Ben Somebody”; you are from some place, you are part of a tribe. You are known by something other than just your individual self.

All the way through Scripture we see a principle of corporate solidarity: man and community. That principle gets us beyond the atomization or individualization of the Christian experience and makes it possible to deal with the city as a collection of people and interlocking institutions. We have a theology that says we are a part of a whole. As John Donne said, “No man is an island.”

Also important is the principle of incarnation. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That perhaps is the most powerful of all biblical principles. Our Lord did not wire the universe for stereo, put a woofer on Mars and a tweeter on Venus, use heavenly angels to sing the “Hallelujah” chorus to us, and, in multilingual vapor trails in the sky, beg that we repent. Instead, the Word became flesh, dwelt among us, and experienced human life. I think that at Christmas we ought to rehearse for our people not only the facts of the Incarnation, but the significance of those facts in our ministry as we incarnate ourselves in the life of the city.

A Theology Of Place

A few years ago evangelicals were developing a theology of persons, and we became very person centered. Then it began to dawn on me that there was another area that we had not explored: the theology of place. So I began to look at biblical places, particularly at cities referred to at least 30 times.

There are two chapters, for example, given to the study of Sodom (Genesis 18 and 19). Everything that prejudices anyone against all cities everywhere will prejudice you against the city if you look at Sodom. And yet there are some lessons there.

One is a godly motive for urban concern. The entire eighteenth chapter of Genesis is devoted to prayer, a prayer of negotiation. It is stylized to be sure, but it is a prayer in which the justice of God comes through. In verse 25 Abraham asks, “Will not the righteous Judge of the whole earth do what is right?” It is a confession of Abraham, a man of faith. It is also a prayer for a place, not for a specific person or program. It is a prayer for Sodom, and I think that is important.

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Another lesson I see in the Sodom story is that God can distinguish one person, Lot, from the many. This happened also in Jericho, with Rahab, and in the case where Jesus is walking through the crowd and a woman touches him (Luke 8). Jesus says, “Who touched me?” His disciples respond, “You’ve got to be kidding—look at this crowd! It’s like rush hour.” He says, “No, I felt the power go out.” One of the lessons I see there is that the Lord can distinguish the accidental touch of the multitude from that one person who touches him by faith. That kind of understanding is important for anyone living in a city with a population in the millions.

In the book of Jonah, God struggles to get a man and a message to a city. No person in Nineveh is mentioned by name.

And then there is Babylon, another interesting city. It is so bad I call it a “corporate Judas.” By destroying the temple and cutting off the monarchy, Babylon did what Judas did in cutting off Christ. And yet Babylon is given the grace of God. The choice Hebrew sons and servants (Daniel, Ezekiel, and others) worked within its structures of government to make it more just. It seems to me that the intertestamental period and the theology of the New Testament are enriched because of Israel’s ministry in Babylon itself.

A Theology Of Persons

The careers of biblical persons are also important, for patterns and principles fall together in the lives of individuals. As I look at the story of Joseph, for example, I see 13 chapters of sacred text given over to the career of an Egyptian economist. He socialized the economy of Egypt. He moved the people into cities, put them on food stamps, and had two seven-year plans: one for budget surplus and one for budget deficit. And I see not a single disparaging word said about that ministry in either Testament. It’s full of Egyptianisms, and never once is it “knocked.”

Why is that story in Scripture? My conservative friends say it’s not normative: it is there because Joseph is a type of Christ. They refuse to deal with him. My liberal friends say it is not normative either; they don’t even necessarily believe there was a Joseph.

I say both of these traditions have joined hands, and have cut themselves off from the data. The story shows that a man can work in the government of a pagan pharaoh and use the instruments of the state to feed the entire Middle East, including God’s people. And if a man can work with pharaoh, for goodness’ sake, we should be able to work in any city ward.

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The Bible repeatedly presents characters who work in and with city governments. Nehemiah, another such biblical character, was a Persian layman and builder who set up God’s first Model Cities Program in the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the captivity. He rediscovered the principle of the tithe and said, “I don’t expect everybody to move into Jerusalem. I would like 10 percent of each tribe of the nation.” And they had a little ordination service and blessed those who were willing to live in Jerusalem. It was very creative work.

There are also urban men such as Paul, whom (as church historian Stephen Neill says) the church was most fortunate to have as the architect of its mission. The apostle Paul was from the fair-sized city of Tarsus and never went anywhere in mission work or did anything we know about in a city smaller than Thessalonica. This was not necessarily because he had a conscious urban strategy but bcause the Jews were there. He was acquainted with that communications web. If you can believe the historian Philo (and sometimes you can in spite of his biases), 40 percent of Alexandria, for example, was Jewish.

It was to places like that—not only to Alexandria, but to many cities of the Empire—that the early church went; and its mission was synonymous with urban mission. Ian Blaiklock, the “Auckland classicist,” says in the preface of his book Cities of the New Testament, “The early church followed the contours of the urbanized Roman Empire.”

In an article a number of years ago, Gabriel Fackre said, “Revolutions accomplish two positive things. They inform people and they define policy.” This has always been true for the church. The way in which Gnosticism forced the church to grapple with its canon, creed, and organization is not unlike the way in which the city has challenged you and me to define ourselves and our own theology and to search for resources in Scripture to meet that challenge. What we discover in that search is that the biblical material does provide a wealth of ideas as we attempt to minister and think theologically about the city.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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