At the recent Festival of Theology, we heard eight fascinating presentations on a range of subjects, and I am hoping to post them all here in due course. This was the text of John Allister’s presentation “What has Wall Street to do with Jerusalem?”
In November, I was at a gathering of local church leaders. We were shown a video of business thinker Patrick Lencioni summarising his book The Ideal Team Player, saying that there are three qualities people need in order to work really well on teams: they need to be humble – more interested in others than themselves; the need to be hungry, with a strong work ethic: and they need to be people-smart – good at working with those around them. After the talk, we were asked for questions and observations, and one of the first to speak pointed out that his son was autistic, and therefore that it felt like Lencioni was saying that his son should never be fully involved in the life of the church.
That’s one example – there are hundreds of others. Secular leadership thinking “Wall Street” is increasingly influential in the church “Jerusalem”. In some quarters it is welcomed and encouraged; in others it is causing a lot of resistance, some but not all of it thoroughly deserved. This isn’t new, of course. It happened in the early Christian centuries with Greek philosophy. The African theologian Tertullian famously challenged it in around AD 200 with the question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” but ultimately he was on the losing side. It’s generally agreed that the church let Greek philosophy have far too great an influence, whether Augustine’s Neoplatonism leading him to see sex and the body as bad things, or the church absorbing Aristotelian physics and the Ptolemaic model of the universe so deeply that Galileo was accused of heresy for questioning it.
Arguably you see the process starting in 1 Corinthians. Paul is writing to a church that is starting to take its values from the Greek secular culture, rather than from Christ and the Scriptures, and he strongly rejects the wisdom of this world. In Britain, the loudest rejections of management thinking tend to come from who have more of a priestly or caring picture of the role of the minister, but in the US, there’s also a strong backlash from the more conservative end. Here, for example, is John Piper:
We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness (Matt 18:3); there is no professional tenderhearted-ness (Eph 4:32); there is no professional panting after God (Ps 42:1).
Banish professionalism from our midst, Oh God, and in its place put passionate prayer, poverty of spirit, hunger for God, rigorous study of holy things, white-hot devotion to Jesus Christ, utter indifference to all material gain, and unremitting labour to rescue the perishing, perfect the saints, and glorify our sovereign Lord (Brothers, We are Not Professionals, extracts from pp 1–4)
Many of us would want to say ‘Amen’ to that—but there’s a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You see, there’s a better model for how to react to those kinds of ideas from outside the faith.
It’s all to do with the Book of Proverbs. Lots of other cultures at the time did similar sorts of things to the book of Proverbs – the Egyptians did, the Akkadians and Sumerians in modern Iraq did; it’s likely that the Arabians did as well. And it’s clear that there’s some level of sharing going on. We’re told that Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of the East and the wisdom of Egypt (1 Kings 4:29-30) and that people came to listen to him, which tells us both that those sources of wisdom literature were known in Israel at the time and Israelite wisdom was known there. It also seems that some foreign wisdom literature had an impact on Proverbs. The enigmatic King Lemuel, whose mum wrote a bit of Proverbs 31, for example, isn’t on any of the lists of Israelite kings. Another example would be Proverbs 22:17-23:11, which is often said to borrow from the Egyptian book The Wisdom of Amenemope (shown on the right), which probably dates from the period of the Judges in Israel. Here’s an example. Amenemope says this:
Beware of robbing a wretch, of attacking a cripple.
Proverbs 22:22-23 says this
Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
and do not crush the needy in court,
for the Lord will take up their case
and will exact life for life.
Does Proverbs lift bits from Amenemope? I’m not qualified enough in comparative ancient languages to say. There are certainly similar ideas, expressed in similar ways in Proverbs to Amenemope and some other texts from the period, and even the conservative scholar Tremper Longman argues that chunks of Proverbs 30 and 31 are by non-Israelites. But Proverbs doesn’t just accept pagan wisdom wholesale, like the church often accepted Greek philosophy.
There’s a process – the wisdom of Solomon, if you will, for how to relate to secular wisdom literature:
- filter out the bad. For example, the bit of Amenemope that corresponds to Proverbs 22:28 has those who move boundary markers being caught by the might of the Moon (a symbol of the god Thoth). You don’t get that in Proverbs.
- re-theologise the good. We see that with the quotation we saw earlier. What Amenemope says as a bit of advice, Proverbs notices ties in with the Law, adds God’s name, and is clearer about the motivation being that it’s wrong to gain unfairly at others’ expense because of God’s judgement.
- Treat it as wisdom, not law. It’s striking that Proverbs is the big example of this in the Old Testament, because Proverbs is also the book that is happy contradicting itself. By and large, it doesn’t offer binding commands; it offers advice, and that sometimes contradicts itself (e.g. Proverbs 26:4-5). The whole idea of Proverbs is that we need to think and pray about it, and use what is best for our contexts.
- Use it. It’s striking that after filtering out the bad, re-theologising the good, and treating it as wisdom, not law, the ancient Israelites were willing to include in Scripture even literature written by outsiders to the covenant, like Lemuel’s mum, Agur and maybe Amenemope.
It seems likely that Paul follows the same process. After all, he passionately rejects Greek wisdom and rhetoric at the start of 1 Corinthians, but then goes on to use a number of rhetorical techniques in the rest of the letter. If you read the commentaries, it’s generally agreed that what Paul is rejecting isn’t all of Greek wisdom, just the very popular style known as “public display oratory”, which is all about getting applause and making people think what a wonderful and clever speaker you are. [At this point, we all offered some ironic applause for John as a wonderful and clever speaker!] Instead, Paul uses every means at his disposal, including logic and rhetoric, to show how amazing Jesus is and what he accomplished through his death and resurrection.
And when it’s done well, even the likes of John Piper approves – he wrote a glowing foreword to a book which takes secular wisdom on time management, re-theologizes it, and applies it effectively to Christians.
So what does it look like to read Lencioni’s book and apply it to church the way that the writers of Proverbs treated pagan wisdom literature?
Well, there are a couple of things we need to filter. In the secular world, the leaders of organisations choose who they want in their teams. Lencioni assumes that. But we aren’t really the leader. God is. He picks the team, and he often picks those who are weak and foolish in the eyes of the world. As a church, we are the local body of Christ. Each member is gifted individually with gifts that ought to be used for the benefit of the whole body, and indeed the world. Another key factor is that God is in the business of transforming hearts. Especially, we are told, he humbles the proud and gives grace to the weak. When he commands us to love our neighbours, he also helps us to do so.
What’s good in Lencioni’s work? Quite a lot. For example, it’s interesting to look at his three key attributes for a team player theologically.
Humble – humility is one of the key effects of understanding the gospel. In Philippians 2 we read that our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, therefore we should look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others.
Hungry – strong work-ethic. In the church context, isn’t this fundamentally about loving God more than life, about seeking his glory far above everything else, about that stuff that Piper was talking about in the extract I read earlier?
People-smart – this is fundamentally about loving others well, isn’t it? It’s about caring about them enough to find out what they like and how they want to be treated, and then doing that.
In the church context, this sounds like it boils down to “trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection”, “love God”, “love one another”. I’m sure I’ve heard those before somewhere, and we’re all called to do all of them! But Lencioni unpacks how these enable us to get on well, and to work productively together, as well as seeing what can go wrong. Which for those of us church leaders who have the privilege to hire staff or to put people in positions of responsibility in church, is a wonderful reminder that we look for signs of gospel humility, of loving God and loving neighbour before we necessarily look for technical competence.
It also means if a team in church isn’t working, according to Lencioni, the problem is often basic discipleship – loving God and loving others. We can use Lencioni to help to find the problem and then what we do about it. There’s a lot of wisdom here about how to speak the truth in love, and how to help us hear the truth spoken in love about where our strengths and weaknesses lie.
As Solomon recognised, we should neither go along blindly following the wisdom of the world, nor should we reject it outright. We need to engage with it, and to do so intelligently and faithfully. When we learn to do that, then we will surely be even more effective in using the gifts that God has given us for his kingdom and his glory.
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