Editor’s note: Sarah Bessey's new book Out of Sorts explores how our faith can change over time. The following excerpt comes from a chapter encouraging readers to not be intimidated to raise questions and study theology as a way to foster their own spiritual growth and evolution.
Robert Farrar Capon writes in The Supper of the Lamb, “There, then, is the role of the amateur: to look the world back to grace.” It’s for this reason that, while I love professional hockey such as the NHL games, nothing gets Canada more excited than the World Junior Ice Hockey Tournament. There’s something about a bunch of kids who play just for the love of the game that is so sweet to us. They’re amateurs, sure, not as skilled as the professionals, but oh, do we love to cheer them on.
John Wimber, one of the founders of the Vineyard church movement, used to say, “Everyone gets to play.” He meant that everyone gets to minister, everyone gets to hear from God, everyone has a part to play in this church and in this world, everyone gets to speak life and healing, to pray and to serve, to lead and to follow. When it comes to the kingdom of God, everyone gets to play.
In 1 Peter 2:9-10, Peter writes, “You are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted” (The Message, used throughout).
That’s us; we have all gone from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted. And so we are priests to one another, and for one another. We all get to play.
One of our final tin gods as a church might be the belief that not everyone gets to “do” theology. Unless you have been to seminary and have a lot of letters after your name; or, unless you’re in full-time vocational ministry, your thoughts about or experiences with Jesus aren’t considered as valid or trustworthy.
There are folks who believe that I—as a woman who hasn’t been to seminary—can’t possibly play with the big boys when it comes to theology. My opinions don’t matter as much; my experiences with Scripture and church, life, and the Spirit don’t count. But I still believe that everyone gets to play.
I get to read theology and study the master thinkers, and form my opinions. I get to be challenged and to challenge, even if I’m doing that work far from the ivory tower. (That’ll be the Western Canadian kid in me coming out: we have a lively horror of the elite.) Of course I grapple with these questions. What thinking person doesn’t find themselves wondering? Theology belongs just as much to the mother folding laundry, the father coaching basketball, the university student training to be a nurse, the construction worker, the artist, the refugee, as it does to the great scholars.
In Acts 4, Peter and John were brought before the religious elite because they had been preaching the resurrected Christ. The disciples had just been to the temple, where they encountered a man crippled since birth. When the man asked them for money, Peter replied, “I don’t have a nickel to my name, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!” and pulled him to his feet! The man was immediately healed. Then Peter addressed the crowd with a rousing sermon about repenting and turning our faces to God. The religious elite promptly arrested them and threw them into jail. The rulers met with Peter and John to interrogate them, but Peter wouldn’t back down, declaring (v. 12) that salvation comes in no other way than Jesus.
They couldn’t take their eyes off them—Peter and John, standing there so confident, so sure of themselves! Their fascination deepened when they realized these two were laymen with no training in Scripture or formal education. They recognized them as companions of Jesus, but with the man right before them, seeing him standing there so upright—so healed!—what could they say against that? (v. 13-14)
Later on in the chapter, when the religious leaders and scholars threatened Peter and John, warning them to stop preaching about Jesus, they shot back, “We can’t keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard” (v. 20).
Theology is simply what we think about God and then living that truth out in our right-now lives. So theology matters, not only as a vast scholarly exercise, but also because those ideas trace their way back to what we truly believe about the nature and character of God, which informs everything in our lives. The Spirit leaves evidence of one who had, as the religious leaders identified, “been with Jesus.” Oh, I long for that! I love for my work and my witness to testify to Jesus Christ. Anytime we wrestle with our theology, with how we live out the hope of glory, with what we know or believe or think or even hope about our God, I pray that we will have that same boldness to testify, to bring healing, to speak the truth, to worship.
And God continued to use wise and learned men and women throughout Scripture. Look at Paul, who was so well educated and trained in religious thought. As he wrote to the church in Philippi, “You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.” And yet he writes,
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness. (Phil. 4:6-9)
I’m not against credentials—far from it! But as Paul says here, credentials are not righteousness. Credentials are no replacement for knowing Christ. And when we encounter someone who knows Christ, well, that person gets to play, and we get to play with them.
Perhaps this is the danger of dualistic thinking—this is right, so this is wrong. We need to hold the “yes, and” more than the “either/or.” Yes, we need scholars and academics, leaders, and minister. And we need people like me—low-church, untrained laity who are a bit sloppy at times—to grapple with the deep theological issues, bringing our stories, our wisdom, our knowledge to the larger conversation. Everyone gets to play. (Later in the chapter, I discuss more about the experiential focus of my Charismatic upbringing, and how that influenced my approach to theology.)
In Matthew 11:25, Jesus prayed aloud, “Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that’s the way you like to work.”
We have much to learn from the ordinary people, from people on the margins, from people who experience God and life so differently from ourselves. I’m still a recovering know-it-all.
Excerpted from Chapter 3 of Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith(Howard Books). Used with permission.
Sarah Bessey is an award-winning blogger and the author of the bestselling book Jesus Feminist and the new release Out of Sorts. She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and their four tinies. You can find her on Twitter at @sarahbessey.