I have been pondering the questions Marshall Shelley raised in response to yesterday’s post. Marshall wrote: “My sense is that “strategic thinking” is the commercial vernacular today. The artistic vernacular today would be “self-expression.” What would have been the equivalents in Paul’s day? Was there a “trade language” or an “artistic language” or worldview that the apostles chose NOT to use when they opted FOR “Spirit-led intuition”?” These are questions worth considering. We know that the apostles were intentional about their leadership decisions. We also know that at strategic points they resisted cultural or group norms.
Two examples come to mind immediately. The first was early on in the church’s development, when the apostles chose to give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word rather than personally handle the daily distribution of food to the widows (Acts 6:1-4). What interests me about this decision is its emphasis on the place of prayer. Prayer was one of the priorities that shaped the outcome of their decision but does not seem to have been employed in making the decision. That is to say, they chose not to handle the problem themselves so that they would be able to make prayer their priority, but did not need to pray in order to make such a decision.
It is possible, of course, that they did pray and that Luke simply does not mention it. But if we take the text at face value, this seems to have been a “no brainer”–a decision made on the basis of previously established priorities. The other example that comes to mind is Paul’s decision not to employ the kind of rhetorical techniques that appealed to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:1-5). This involved an intentional decision not to speak in a culturally accepted rhetorical style out of a concern that it would obscure the cross. This seems closer to what Marshall describes as a “trade language” but is not directly related to “Spirit-led intuition.”
So what is the biblical equivalent to the contemporary commercial vernacular of strategic thinking? I find myself struggling to find an answer. In a way, it feels like comparing apples and oranges. The apostles’ decision to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word rather than the daily distirbution of food was “strategic” on multiple levels. Personally, it enabled them to fulfill their pastoral responsibilities without being distracted by other necessary and important work. Corporately, it enabled the church to fulfill its biblical responsibility to its widows. Missionally, it set the stage for the expansion of the gospel to the Gentiles. Indeed, the root of this conflict was ethnic in nature, a result of the tensions that existed between Hebrew culture and Hellenistic culture. The cultural dimension is further reflected in those who were selected to handle the distribution (note the preponderance of Greek names).
But what about the sort of ministry choices we usually associate with “strategic” thinking? The selection of fields of ministry, choice of personnel, and timing? This is where we move into more difficult territory. When the church of Antioch sent out Barnabas and Paul, they did so in response to a directive by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:1-3). On another occasion Paul turned towards Macedonia as the result of a vision (Acts 17:2). While I believe that the Holy Spirit continues to direct the church, I do not think the means described in these verses are normative for today. At least, they have not been normative in my own experience. But this does not mean that they have nothing to contribute to one’s “theology” of strategic thinking. They indicate that apostolic strategy was pneumatic in origin (i.e. guided by the Holy Spirit) and relational in nature.
Here, I think, is where we find the positive answer to Marshall’s question. We cannot know for certain what “trade language” they chose not to use. But we do know the kind of language that they did use. It was the language of relationship. The kind used by those who have been personally called by the living God. It was the language of accountability, the kind employed by those who are under orders and who must one day give an account to God for all that they have done. It is this personal, spiritual dimension that I fear we have lost in the contemporary church. We too are in relationship. We too are under orders. Like Paul, we too need to be “obedient to the heavenly vision.”