Last week I spent a very enjoyable few days in snowy Harrogate at the New Wine National Leaders’ conference. The times of sung worship were engaging and refreshing; conversations with friends old and new invigorating; and the teaching was thought-provoking though rather variable. It was fascinating to hear David Stroud (leader of Christchurch London, originally part of the Newfrontiers network) advocate for an understanding of lay ministry as people fulfilling their vocations as God called them into different sectors of society—something similar to what I heard Bill Hybels talking about 25 years ago and the subject of the recent Church of England report on lay leadership, ‘Setting God’s People Free‘. I confess that I didn’t find Sophia Barrett of !Audacious Church Manchester very easy to listen to (in contrast to her write-up on the church website), but others clearly did, as many responded to the invitation for prayer.
But the most fascinating to listen to was Kris Vallotton from Bethel Church in Redding, California. His fellow minister, Bill Johnson, has been a favourite as a New Wine summer speaker in years gone by, but has also been controversial because of his relentless emphasis on the miraculous, and David Parker (influential in the US Vineyard movement) thinks his teaching is dangerous. Kris clearly struggled with the cultural transition from warm California to cool Harrogate, as was evidenced by his repeated coaxing us into making some sort of response (rather than sitting and looking as though we were thoughtful, which he interpreted as us being asleep), and his teasing comment to his (single female) assistant about giving out free books to someone she’d like to date, which a good number found seriously inappropriate.
Despite this, there were many things that I enjoyed about his speaking. The first related to his genuinely moving personal testimony, which he delivered without laying on the emotion, of finding faith as an 18-year-old from a background of bereavement and suffering—his father drowned when he was three years old, and he suffered both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of two violent step-fathers. He shared painful experiences of later life as well, and all this was done in a straightforward and (what felt like) non-manipulative way. The dark ground of experience served well as a foil for the bright light of the grace of God.
The second thing that I appreciated was the refreshing contrast with some other strands of teaching coming out of the US. He was singularly dismissive of end-times doom-mongers who see the world as going to hell in a handcart, and the return of Jesus as the only hope for any change—which inevitably means you simply stop engaging with social change, and don’t pay attention to what is actually happening in the world. The interesting thing here was that Vallotton’s resistance to this was theological, rather than sociological: if the followers of Jesus are supposed to be the light of the world (Matt 5.14), then if the world is growing every darker, God’s people are not doing their job! (For the alternative secular viewpoint, that the world is just getting better, see Stephen Pinker’s latest on Enlightenment Now). Vallotton also rejects the theological scheme behind such end-times gloom, dispensationalist premillennialism, and in fact checked out before coming to speak at New Wine that that was not our theological position (which again illustrates some of the issues in cultural translation, given that he had to ask the question). Alongside this, Vallotton asked some seriously self-critical questions about the ministry of Bethel church: how come, as the church was growing, the social and cultural life of its community in Redding was actually getting worse? Why was a healthier church not leading to a healthier community around it? (Some critics continue to ask that question.)
The third thing that I appreciated was that he repeatedly returned to passages in Scripture in his speaking, and at times made some interesting and helpful observations about texts, often on a large scale. So the move in the Exodus story was from Egypt, through the wilderness, to the Promised Land—a move from a time of not enough, through just enough, to more than enough, changes which demanded a change in outlook and mindset in the people themselves. He made some interesting contrasts between the narrative of the healing in the Pool of Bethesda in John 5 with the healing that is made available in the visionary narrative of the stream flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47. He provocatively asked the question: why, when Jesus left them alone, were the Twelve arguing about who was the greatest (in Luke 22.24)? It seems that just being in the company of Jesus made people think more of themselves and grow in confidence. (He also offered an interesting explanation of the unusual comment by Jesus of the least in the kingdom being greater than John the Baptist in Matt 11.11 and Luke 7.28.)
Perhaps most striking was his theological configuration of the nature of the kingdom, where his focus on the Lord’s Prayer meant that the direction of travel in Jesus’ teaching (and in the rest of the NT) was not from earth to heaven but from heaven to earth. We are to pray for the kingdom to come here, and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven—and the eschatological goal is not for us to leave earth to go to heaven but (in Rev 21.1) for the New Jerusalem, as an image of heaven, to come to earth. In that regard at least, Tom Wright would have felt quite at home—and it is yet another illustration of the curious connection between the theology of an Anglican academic and the narrative readings of Pentecostals and charismatics (Tom Wright’s theology is also popular in the ‘new churches’ in the UK). Whatever other problems there are with the theology coming out of Bethel, this is quite striking when the doctrine of the rapture and the tribulation are so widespread in Vallotton’s context.
Vallotton’s practical focus in leadership and training was strongly on the encouragement of others. He contrasted a ‘denominationalist’ approach which relies on conformity and agreement which suppresses questioning and difference, with what he believes is the proper ‘apostolic’ approach to leadership that involves taking risks and allowing mistakes to be made—though whether that allows errors in teaching or just in practical matters begs the question he is answering. And it was refreshing to hear someone in his position talk about allowing others to grow in confidence; real leadership is about allowing others to excel, and not needing to make ourselves look better in comparison with them.
Alongside these positives, Vallotton’s teaching also raised some quite big questions for me—and I found them writ even larger in his book Heavy Rain than in his teaching sessions. (Note to self: a book will sell well when it has a dramatic, archetypal metaphor for a title.) I was a little shocked to find that the early chapters read like a transcript of some of the things Vallotton had said in the teaching sessions. I guess that happens when you teach the same thing in a number of different places—your words become well rehearsed.
The first was his language of ‘epochs’. Although he appears to reject the chunking of history into the dispensations of dispensationalism, in his teaching he made much of the different ‘epoch periods’ (which he pronounced ‘epic periods’ to keep us all guessing) and this comes over even more strongly in the book. His observation of the change in the Exodus episodes (not enough, just enough, more than enough) was connected for him not just with the need for the people to respond differently—but with the idea that God treats his people differently in different seasons. That comment made me raise my eyebrows, not least because one of the repeated emphases in Scripture is that, despite our different seasons and circumstances, God actually treats us with the same grace, generosity and accountability. For Vallotton, we are currently going through an epoch change, moving in church from the pastorate model (using the five gifts of Ephesians 4.11) to the apostolic model that he is now advocating. I am also curious when the new thing that God is doing from a cosmic theological perspective happens to be the thing that the person speaking is most committed to.
There are some genuine oddities about this—not least that the word ‘apostle’ appears in the list of the five ministry gifts. But for Vallotton, this apostolic ministry has been practised in the static pastoral model, not in the dynamic, community-transforming way that he is advocating. I am not at all clear that the New Testament understanding of apostolic ministry corresponds to what he is offering—it appeared to be more concerned with evangelism and church planting than with transformation of wider society. But what is most fascinating is his rational for this: in a prophetic word, God revealed to him that the five porticoes of the Pool of Bethesda in John 5 symbolised the five-fold ministry exercised in this static, pastorate model, but that the stream from the temple in Ezekiel 47 symbolised the new epoch of apostolic ministry of community transformation.
This is characteristic of Vallotton’s reading of Scripture, which is not immediately evident in his teaching, but again is more evident in his writing. Whilst he does make observations about the details of the text, and does at times engage with the narratives in their own terms, his most common way of reading is a strongly symbolic one, in which the text becomes a place to mine symbols and metaphors which fit with his prophetic understanding—so that, very often, a text only makes sense when it is given its meaning by a prophetic word from God or a dream. Whilst this sits very uncomfortably with traditional evangelical interpretative approaches, which highlight the importance of historical context and semantic content, this way of reading is actually closer to the way that many New Testament texts make use of the Old Testament (most notably in the early chapters of Matthew, and of course throughout Revelation). The key question, then, is whether Vallotton’s symbolic readings correspond in any way with the symbolic connections made by the different texts themselves.
I think Vallotton’s reading stumbled in two particular areas. The first is that his eschatology seemed to be ‘over-realised’ at almost every point—that is, he focussed on the promises of power and miracles available now as the kingdom of God is made real through Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, and underplayed the equally strong emphasis in the New Testament that there will be struggles and setbacks as well, as we await the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom which will only be realised when Jesus returns. Hence I tweeted:
I like @kvministries on the realisation of heaven on earth. We need it. But Rev 1.9 says 'kingdom, suffering AND patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.' We need courage for the realisation of the kingdom…but we need patient endurance for what's not yet realised #NWLC18
— Ian Paul (@Psephizo) February 28, 2018
In particular, Vallotton asserted that we should not think of ourselves as sinners saved by grace, (notwithstanding Paul’s own self-description), but as saints, since this is the language consistently used by Paul of the people he addresses. This is actually an important point around theological self-perception, but Vallotton needed to make it with more nuance, or at least set it in a wide context. I have just been sent a copy of Paul Mallard’s new book Invest your Disappointments published by IVP, and he does the job much better, listing all the positive things said about the church in the NT—but then pointing out the rather contrasting reality. Mallard’s isn’t as racy a read as Vallotton’s—but he does a much better job of locating personal disappointment, including disillusionment with church, within a proper biblical understanding of what God is doing.
The other blind spot for Vallotton relates to questions of politics and power. It was interesting to have heard him talk of leadership power and enabling others, and then to watch him from the stage pick out individuals in the audience and give very specific prophetic words to them. I think that this can be very valuable, but it is also a very particular exercise of spiritual and personal power, and is not without its dangers. In the panel question session, when asked about the possibility of involvement in politics for Christians, Vallotton appeared unable to understand the question, let alone offer a convincing answer. And the reason for this is revealed in the book, which offers a desperately naive reading of Romans 13, suggesting that Paul believed that governments simply must be obeyed without question—ignoring the challenges in the passage itself (that government is accountable to God), the context within Paul’s wider understanding, or passages in tension with this like Revelation 13 or the OT prophetic tradition.
In the end, Vallotton is wrestling with questions that challenge all of us in our thinking about the kingdom: how do we take hold of the radical realisation of the kingdom of God that we see released through Jesus’ resurrection, and how do we also live with the frustrations of the not-yet-realised? And what does it mean to be agents of transformation in our society? This cannot be detached from the imperative for proclamation, since (as John Stott used to say) it is changed people who change the world. Neither can the gathered church be dismissed as a static pastorate, since (in another useful slogan) ‘the meeting place is the training place for the market place’. This training surely should include the need to pray for others and see God do remarkable things in their lives. But it must also include training in understanding what it means to be a Christian teacher, a Christian artist, a Christian accountant, a Christian lawyer, a Christian roadsweeper or administrator—and I suspect that is going to be a longer and more complex task.
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