All posts by David Newton

A More Ordinary Jesus?

I was in youth group when I first heard that God had an extraordinary plan for my life. This plan would include seeing revival, winning converts, helping the poor, and traveling overseas to preach the gospel, dig wells, and serve orphans. I attended youth conferences like Acquire the Fire where I learned what it meant to be an “on-fire-for-God” Christian, and was then sent out to be—in the words of Delirious?—a “history maker.”

The idea that I had an incredible destiny was only reinforced by my own study of Scripture. When I read the Book of Acts for the first time as a senior in high school, I concluded that the lives and habits of the first Christians were the norm. Like Jesus, they healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, opposed corrupt power structures, and preached to the masses. As Christians, our lives should take on the same quality as Jesus’ right?

Right. But…

could it be that the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus of history, is less extraordinary than the Jesus of Christian conferences and our guilty consciences?

About a year ago, in the CT cover story “Here Come the Radicals,” Matthew Lee Anderson explored “radical” Christianity books from David Platt, Francis Chan, Shane Claiborne, and Kyle Idleman. Radicals, he noted, aim to understand what Jesus really meant in his teachings, what “radical abandonment to Jesus really looks like,” and “what it really means to follow Jesus.” For them, the “real” Christian life is radically abnormal.

Right now we’re in the middle of a backlash, with critics asking if radical Christianity is realistic or even sustainable. Instead of Radical, Greater, Weird, and Not a Fan, now we’re getting Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life by Michael Kelley, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World by Michael Horton, Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down by Tony Merida, and The Making of an Ordinary Saint by Nathan Foster. These books—even when they disagree—all have important and biblical things to say about ethics, discipleship, spiritual growth, mission, and church life. But they generally don’t focus on how the Incarnation determines the nature and trajectory of our lives as Christians.

I’m not talking about “What Would Jesus Do.” The doctrine of union with Christ, a major theme throughout the New Testament, is much deeper. In a nutshell, it tells us that we are one with Christ, like a husband and wife are one flesh. Christ lives in us, and we live in him. What’s ours is his, and what’s his is ours. The Son of God joined himself to humanity so that we might be joined to his divinity. But this doctrine doesn’t simply describe an association; it tells us that we actually participate in Christ’s life. We go where he goes—from the Cross to the grave to new life and the heavenly places. Our lives take on the very quality of his.

So will our lives be extraordinary? Most likely not. Most of his wasn’t.

The Incarnation in Full View

Jesus Christ is God incarnate. That’s the most extraordinary thing I can imagine. God the Son became a man; eternal, incorruptible Word put on frail human flesh. The infinite God subjected himself to the limitations of our world. Yet he remained fully God. He walked among us, performed countless miracles, publically shamed demons, confounded the most erudite men in his nation, and rose from the grave after being three days dead. And then he ascended into heaven and took a seat next to God the Father. His earthly life was one of a kind. He wasn’t simply a history maker; he forever altered history.

But this is only one part of the story, one volume in the series, as it were. Certain evidence—and the lack thereof—suggest that Christ’s life was also ordinary. Apart from Christ’s birth and a brief episode at the temple when he was 12, the Gospels tell us nothing of Jesus’ life before he entered ministry at about age 30. Sure, we know he was a carpenter (Mark 6:3) and that he regularly attended synagogue (Luke 4:16). He must have been fairly educated to be able to read Hebrew scrolls (Luke 4:16–20), so he most likely went to school. But apart from a few minor details like these, we know nothing about Jesus’ adolescent and young-adult years.

Maybe because there’s little from Jesus’ pre-ministry years that was “written that you may believe” (John 20:31). But the silence about this period in Jesus’ life indicates that the majority of his life—not just his childhood—was ordinary and unremarkable, at least when compared to his ministry years. After all, when Jesus started his ministry, people responded, “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3) The crowd’s response implies Jesus didn’t stand out—at all. He was just like everyone else. So naturally, people were shocked when he revealed a different side of himself. They couldn’t believe that such an ordinary person, a carpenter from the small village of Nazareth, the son of Mary—who was likely suspect, at one point or another, for conceiving out of wedlock—could preach like the prophets of old and perform miracles like superstars in the Hebrew hall of fame.

When God the Son embraced our humanity, he didn’t just become a human. He took on our broken humanity and everything it entails, even the ordinary and mundane aspects of human life. He embraced work, family life, learning, growing, and monotony. Jesus lived an ordinary life for most of his years, and in so doing affirmed its goodness.

It’s Great to Be Ordinary

If Christ is the prototype for what God intended for humanity, our lives will certainly be marked by the ordinary and the mundane. In fact, the Incarnation tells us that God prefers to work through humble, run-of-the-mill circumstances.

Fourth century martyr Theodotus of Ancyra explained it like this: In the Incarnation, God “chose surroundings that were poor and simple, so ordinary as to be almost unnoticed, so that people would know it was the Godhead alone that had changed the world.”

The unfortunate, commonplace, or embarrassing conditions of our lives then, do not limit God’s work. We don’t have to be ‘somebodies’. The Incarnation turns the logic of our world on its head. As Paul said, “The weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25). God loves to work in and through the ordinary.

Still, many of us feel we would be more pleasing to God if our lives were extraordinary, if we were involved in some spectacular ministry, whatever that means. We like to venerate celebrity Christians—sometimes to our detriment. All too often we iconize people who lead megachurches and influential parachurch organizations, serve orphans overseas, or move into impoverished neighborhoods to minister to underprivileged minorities. If you’re like me, you’re probably filled with mixed emotions when you read the stories of these Christians: you’re encouraged, challenged, and perhaps overwhelmed. You might feel empowered by their work: “If they can do that, so can I!” You’re probably challenged: “Maybe God is calling me to serve more.” But you probably feel bewildered and somewhat ashamed as well: “My life doesn’t look like that. I’m a lousy Christian.”

Thankfully, the gospel doesn’t require us to live an exceptional life. It actually points us in the opposite direction. Paul encourages us to “lead a quiet life.” He explains, “You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thess. 4:11–12). Some commentators interpret Paul’s instruction this way: Try earnestly, and consider it an honor, to live an ordinary life.

Mother Teresa, in her book No Greater Love, encourages us to do the same:

Do not pursue spectacular deeds…. In the work we have to do it does not matter how small and humble it may be, make it Christ’s love in action…. What matters is the gift of yourself, the degree of love that you put into each one of your actions.

That is good news! The Christian stay-at-home mom or dad, barista, janitor, or injured construction worker on disability can lead just as meaningful and “Christian” life as the business person, academic, social worker, or conference speaker. The homely side of the Incarnation tells us it’s okay to attend an ordinary church, to have an ordinary job, to live in an ordinary house in an ordinary suburb. We can spread the gospel and the love of Christ in whatever context God has placed us.

In no way, however, does this justify spiritual lethargy. God wants all Christians to embody and live out the gospel in some form or another. And to be sure, he indeed calls certain people to express their faith in singular ways. If so, “God will surely let him understand and in that case will also help him further,” as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard explained. But for most of us, life will be ordinary.

At the same time, our lives will often be necessarily countercultural. Christian faith defies cultural norms and human reason. We profess faith in a triune God and in a Saviour who is both fully human and fully divine. Scripture calls us to celebrate crucifixion, rejoice in suffering, and hope for a physical resurrection. It instructs us to love our enemies, help the poor, care for orphans and widows, and tend to the sick.

Our faith is radical indeed when compared to the world around us. But radical is not synonymous with extraordinary, as some are wont to conclude. Neither is ordinary synonymous with complacent or hypocritical. In Christ, we can live meaningful, gospel-centered lives in the midst of the ordinary and the mundane. That plain truth is a relief.

Kevin P. Emmert is assistant online editor for CT. You can follow him on Twitter @Kevin_P_Emmert.

Continue reading A More Ordinary Jesus?

Why Arguments Against Women in Ministry Aren’t Biblical

Food for thought from Ben Witherington.

Surprisingly, this has proved to be a perennial issue over my last 30 years of ministry. You’ll need a cup of coffee followed a slug of red to get through this but worth the effort…

Witherington’s argument certainly doesn’t spring from an Anglican perspective (he clearly has no time for the three fold order of ministry and even less time for the Constantinian settlement – apologies to Leslie Newbigin in this last respect). Rather, he comes from the conservative Protestant stable. This is what makes his argument all the more interesting since he takes on other conservatives on their own ground.

His argument is a bit patchy in places. His view on the particularity of some of the texts (e.g 1 Timothy 2 and Romans 6 passages), raises more questions than it solves for me and he ignores the ontological issues raised in Ephesians 5:23 even though he cites Ephesians 5:21 to support his reading of following teaching. His treatment of women deacons and elders in the pastoral epistles is also very vague and he makes no mention of Romans 16:7 which many argue suggests Junia was the first woman apostle.

Being fair, it would be interesting to read his commentary rather than this summary post. Just the same, Witherington covers a fair amount of terrain so it’s a useful read…

Continue reading Why Arguments Against Women in Ministry Aren’t Biblical

On being an ordinary follower of Jesus

The following article by Phillip Carey first appeared as a review of Michael Horton’s book The Case Against ‘Radical’ Christianity in the 1 October issue of  Christianity Today. 

Like all opinion pieces, Carey’s review and Horton’s book cannot be read uncritically. Just the same, in an age of tumult, when the nations—and peoples within nations—are in uproar and Kingdoms fall (Psalm 46:6), when the bloodiest century ever, seems to be followed by a time of extremism of every kind, something seems to resonate here…

Horton’s message to restless believers:
stay put, and build the church.

ordinary crop1

Sometimes you can tell quite a bit about a book from its cover. On the outside, Michael Horton’s Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan) looks a lot like David Platt’s bestseller Radical, and that’s no accident. Horton, editor of Modern Reformation magazine, a founding figure behind the White Horse Inn teaching ministry and host of its radio show, aims to provide an alternative to trendy calls for radical living. Continue reading On being an ordinary follower of Jesus

On voting this election – a discipleship issue

If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the isle in the opposite direction”.                                                                                                Dietrich  Bonhoeffer

Wrong train?

We are on the wrong train. It is rattling along the tracks of billowing debt and over consumption. It is held together with oppression and exploitation of the poor. It is burning up resources that cannot be replaced. It is heading for catastrophe.

What to do about this is not easy to figure out. The choices are not always clear and, as the end of the line looms, we are under the pressure of time…

It has been said by many, that the moral test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.

In the last speech he gave, Hubert Humphrey expanded, “…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Jesus put this more succinctly: “I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)


It is ironic that those who would naturally recoil in horror at the butchery of innocents in Iraq or the destruction of dolphins off our coast, seem to be in the forefront of championing both abortion and euthanasia as unassailable rights.

It is one thing when individual politicians, in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’, vote in contradiction of a fundamental principle of justice – protection of the most vulnerable. It is another when parties seek to enshrine policies in statute that threaten the unborn and elderly, the poor and even the earth upon which we all depend.

Jumping off a moving train is risky. The alternative of inaction is worse. We can at least grab the emergency stop lever.

We need to get off this train and get on one heading in the right direction.

Retreat at Waiorongomai Station

Hi there Covenanters. Just a reminder that our away retreat at Waiorongomai Station is this coming August 22-24th. 

Waiorongomai Home page

We’ll be leaving Friday evening returning Sunday afternoon. Please email the vicar to register and be sent details. In brief – transport provided, child care available, subsidies for unwaged, plan on being there the whole time.

This is a lovely venue with its own chapel, great accommodation and refreshing environment. Have a scroll around the Waiorongomai web site for more… Thanks to God for the availability of this place… Looking forward to hearing from you soon…


Jesus never said, ‘Be true to yourself’

So where does desire fit with God’s will?

Discussion about the place of desire in discipleship has been around since Augustine. Some will remember my modest series some three years ago Cultivating Love and Desire. I thought those reflections were inadequate at the time, leaving much unexamined, and so intend to come back to this at our next Covenanters retreat.

Many will also be aware of my frequent quoting of Kenneth Leech and his warning that Christian spirituality is not about ‘self-cultivation’, but maturity in Christ and the dedicated service and sacrifice this entails (see Phil.2:6; Eph.4:12-13; Col.4:12; Heb.5:13-6:2; Jms.1:4; 2 Pt.1:3-8).

Yet there are some inherent tensions here for anyone who professes to be a follower of Jesus. The article below by Jen Pollock Michel, first appeared in Christianity Today’s Her-meneutics. Michel provides some useful pointers to the issues involved.

Peggy - Mad Men

If it feels good, do it.Desire can’t be repressed; it has to be expressed. Nothing you want is ever wrong

For all that the AMC series Mad Men gets wrong about desire, they know this to be true: to be human is to want. Continue reading Jesus never said, ‘Be true to yourself’

Emotion Isn’t the Caboose to Faith

Francis Spufford’s “pugnacious defence” of Christianity Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense has been something of a surprise best seller in the UK. Spufford even made a brief appearance at the Wellington Festival – niche… Now Tim Keller seems to be saying something similar – if not in such a racy, entertaining way.

With our recent discussion around the motivation for and the ‘how toos’ of evangelism it seems to me both are onto something. Bishop Stephen Cottrell‘s observation is on the money here:

You can’t give what you haven’t got. Our sharing of the gospel flows from our own lived experience and our own receiving of the gospel“...  

Read Owen Strachan’s interview with Keller below while you keep an eye out for these books in the parish library…  

Tim Keller

Tim Keller says Christianity needs to make emotional sense before it can make rational sense

Interview by Owen Strachan/ MAY 30, 2014

Several years ago, Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, published The Reason for God, a book that introduced sceptical readers—and many a believer—to logical arguments pointing to the existence and goodness of God. Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions, based on previous talks given to students and businessmen, is a kind of companion volume, that lays an emotional groundwork for embracing the rationality of Christian faith.

Owen Strachan, professor of theology and church history at Boyce College, spoke with Keller about how discovering Jesus can change people’s hearts and lives.   Continue reading Emotion Isn’t the Caboose to Faith

Openness to God

Our theme at this weekend’s retreat is around our fourth Covenanters discipline – Openness to God.

Those from an Evangelical tradition are inherently suspicious of headers such as this. We’re more comfortable with clarity in exegesis and theology than talk of “openness”. St. Michael’s people will be familiar with my loathing of the “light a candle and think of God” culture that pervades our contemporary church (only marginally better than the “light a candle and think of nothing” culture we’ve seen in certain circles over last decade or so).

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking here literally about lighting candles or falling over in services or rock’n roll worship or café church (or bungy church or aqua church or any other ‘fresh expression’), the dumbing down of our worship and theology has resulted in the breaking down of our common life as the people of God—and with it our authentic witness to the Gospel of Jesus the Christ as the way, the truth and the life – end of rant…


So what, then, are we doing in Covenanters when we practice our centering exercises, chant our ‘Jesus’ mantras, practice imaginative prayer, lectio and spend time in “silent reflection”?

Christopher Harding’s blog ‘Silent Communion’ from the Aeon on-line magazine (don’t go there dear reader—no, don’t click that link… oh well, I warned you)… anyway, Harding’s blog is a serious essay that attempts to address this question and others of central concern to Covenanters—such as the shape of discipleship in our ever day lives, the nature of revelation and its importance for how we act, the primacy of penitence and dependence for those who would follow Jesus, our relation to the church and the renewal of its core.

Harding’s meandering prose (3300 words—I took the liberty the internet affords and chopped it a bit from 3500), masks a dense text that rewards patient and careful reading. His insights aren’t so much startling as useful. Give it some time.

Grace and peace to you


Silent Communion

“Christian meditation may sound like an uneasy hybrid but that awkwardness is hiding something important”, writes Christopher Harding.

Vito, a novice monk, at prayer in his cell in the Carthusian monastery of Serra San Bruno.
Vito, a novice monk, at prayer in his cell in the Carthusian monastery of Serra San Bruno.

How do you know when you really belong somewhere? When you’re truly welcome, beyond the politeness of good people? The simple wooden cross a few feet away from me on the carpet is offset—aesthetically and theologically—by some ambiguously spiritual pieces of crumpled coloured linen that are strewn in front of it. The linen says: ‘Don’t worry about the cross so much.’ The cross says: ‘Take the linen seriously.’

Just how happily those two words sit together—’Christian’ and ‘meditation’—is part of my difficulty…

We sit down on the floor. Others come to join us, choosing cushions, wooden chairs or little kneelers according to taste and physical condition. Eight of us in all, gradually forming a horseshoe around this enigmatic centrepiece, whose final touch is a Tibetan singing bowl. With the cross and the crumples, it makes up the holy trinity of contemporary Christian meditation. Just how happily those two words sit together— Christian’ and ‘meditation’—is part of my difficulty here, as I get used to my surroundings in this Edinburgh prayer group.

That same question has been a matter of some controversy ever since the movement to revive the contemplative dimension of Christianity got going in the 1970s. Talking about ‘revival’ gives away one’s sympathies, of course. It insists that this isn’t just Western Christianity’s rear-guard action against its rivals in the New Age and Asian philosophy camps—that it represents an authentic strand of Christian tradition, albeit one long left for dead by our obsessively verbal modernity.   Continue reading Openness to God

On ploughing

Dear Covenanters

I trust this finds you doing well in God.

This last week has been a bit of a struggle for me as the reality of returning from a lovely holiday begins to bite. I had spent the previous six days on our land at Kinohaku (southern end of Kawhia Harbour), digging and hacking and weeding and planting and sawing and spraying and fixing and rewiring and putting up a clothesline and painting and drinking beer and eating whitebait fritters and stuff like that.

Kinihaku Bay

As I worked, I also saw what this place is becoming. I was helped in this by the view of the wetlands and bay beyond, by the marked growth of the trees we have planted over the years and even by the Kikuyu grass now covering scars of recent earthworks. All these things are beginning to give shape and substance to our plans and hopes for our little piece of GodZone – an outline of the future sneaking up on me.    Continue reading On ploughing

Being Jesus in the Kill Zone

Amid Baghdad’s daily carnage, 2014 Wilberforce Award winner, Andrew White, models reconciliation to Muslims, Christians, and Jews…. it’s challenging for us to ask how White’s witness connects to ours in an increasingly divided post-Christian Aotearoa ~
New Zealand?

Let’s be honest, Iraq is a turn off. When was the last time you sat down to read a serious news item, let along an article, about Iraq? Like Syria and Southern Sudan or any number of places, it’s just too hard. 

Yet the only thing between Iraq, Andrew White and us is geography (would we be indifferent to what is going on there if it were happening in Australia or the South pacific?) It’s easy to see Iraq as an extreme context, but I think it’s challenging for us to ask how White’s witness connects to ours in an increasingly divided post-Christian Aotearoa ~ New Zealand?

In Christ, David…

Andrew White

Iraq is worse than ever. So says Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, where he pastors the only Anglican church in Iraq. Since March, 2,100 people have died in sectarian violence. With 260,000 Christians left in the country, where 1.5 million Christians used to live, White works for reconciliation between religious and political factions in one of the world’s most volatile areas.

As Beeson Divinity School’s Timothy George puts it in First Things,   Continue reading Being Jesus in the Kill Zone