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Coveting a Seat at the Table: Embracing a New Testament Theology of Weakness

At my small country church in Missouri, we once had a Sunday School lesson in which we talked extensively about the Holocaust. Honestly, I don’t remember what the lesson subject was that sparked this discussion. However, one lady’s comment has stuck with me. She said, “Just imagine what good could have been done if Hitler had been saved – how many people could have heard the gospel!”

Her comment did not produce snarky cynicism in me, but genuine curiosity. I wondered, “What makes us think that?” Her sentiments are not unusual. It seems we evangelicals exult in the high-profiled who are outspoken about their faith. We love the politician who tweets out Bible verses. I learned that Philippians 4:13 is the reference for “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because of Tim Tebow’s eye black. Biblically speaking, Peter at Pentecost becomes our metric in preaching. Why wouldn’t God want us preaching the gospel to thousands? So, we become beside ourselves with joy when famous people do exactly that.

Hear me: I am not at all mad when thousands of people hear the gospel proclaimed or the name of Christ praised. But I think the lady in my Sunday School class reflected a sentiment many evangelicals hold: famous people can do more for the gospel. With their platforms and influence, they can do more good and reach more people in one 5-minute TV slot than we can do in years of ministry. We clamor for a seat at the table of the powerful, hoping that the powerful will use their influence for the sake of the gospel.

But I wonder if we have this exactly backward. I wonder if the ethic of Christ is not “get a seat at the table with the influential,” but actually “leave the house altogether and share a table with the poor, the outcast, the marginalized.” In other words, Christians are not the most powerful when we have powerful people on our side; we are most powerful when we are weakest. Obscure. Away from the spotlight.

You do not need to go far in Scripture to learn that it is precisely the weak who inherit the kingdom of God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Luke is so bold to omit “in spirit” altogether so that what he really means are the materially poor. 1Of course, it’s not enough to be poor – it’s the poor who know their need for God who are blessed and receive the kingdom. The disciples later quarrel over who is the greatest(!). You might insert in their argument who can do the greatest. Jesus turns this worldly understanding on its head. “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43). Even the Lord of creation “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

It’s easy to memorize these passages and to have them on our lips. We exegete them and preach them. But do we really see the woman who teaches 5-year-olds from low-quality teaching material as greater than the preacher? I was having this discussion with my wife a few days ago. We had a lady who had only just returned from taking care of her mother-in-law 24/7, hand-and-foot. Did she talk about how hard it was? Nope. She only expressed her joy in being able to serve and her gratitude to God for always providing. And then she willingly sat out our Sunday service in order to serve more by teaching our elementary kids. It’s an honor to be in the presence of someone who is truly “the greatest in the kingdom.”

So, my question is, do we actually believe she is doing more for the kingdom than our great, Christian leaders and influencers? Does the widow who only gives two copper coins truly give more than the wealthy? The church that gives joyfully and sacrificially a fragment of much larger churches? The thing about leaders that we love is that it is easy to see their influence. Sunday school teachers, nursery workers, volunteers, and church secretaries don’t have near the same kind of output. Yet, are they truly the greatest? Greater than the amazing output of seminaries and seminary presidents, authors, and high-profile pastors?

I believe that’s the radical nature of what Jesus teaches us. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). There is something to be said about child-like faith, but the context for this appears in questions about “who is the greatest.” Children, in Jesus’ culture, were not the greatest. They were the least – no rights, no say-so, no influence. In fact, children are weak and often helpless. Yet, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). Indeed, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Under the cross, you have no power. You have no rights. Under the cross, you are stripped of everything that makes you human.

We often think of weakness in terms of bodily feebleness. That is, our weaknesses become sicknesses, broken bones, cancer, or something of that nature. I’m not denying these are weaknesses – they certainly are. But in terms of the New Testament weakness is a political, social, and cultural weakness. What does Paul’s list of weaknesses include? “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one.” How? “With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger form rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

These are the things that made Paul great. The conclusion from all of this, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Weakness is the hallmark of a great Christian. And, believe it or not, it is weakness that propels the gospel forward. Paul will write from prison to the Philippians, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). Not the gospel has spread despite my imprisonment, but because of it. Really? Yes. The gospel spreads because of prison-bar obscurity.

These days, you’ll often hear the phrase, “Speak truth to power.” When and where do we do that? Throughout the New Testament, when Christians had audience with power, they were in chains. They were prisoners. John the Baptist (Mark 6:17), Jesus (Matthew 26:57-27:26; Mark 14:53-15:20; Luke 22:66-23:25; John 18:12-19:16), and the disciples (Acts 4:1-22, 23:1-25:32) all stood before councils and kings and governors in the weakest possible posture, as prisoners. The pattern of the New Testament witness of speaking truth to power happens in chains, that is, in weakness.

Seeking a place at the table of the powerful isn’t wrong in itself. In fact, much good can come from it. But based on the consistent New Testament calls and witness, we must ask ourselves why we are so eager to find a place among the powerful. We think we are most powerful at the table; but the reality is, we are most powerful when we are most weak. After all, it is in our weakness that the power of Christ rests upon us and our ministries (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

References   [ + ]

1. Of course, it’s not enough to be poor – it’s the poor who know their need for God who are blessed and receive the kingdom.
Filed under: Columns, Features, Pastorate
Willis Covington

Willis Covington is the senior pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri.

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