Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Humanism and the Goodness of God

Written by: on January 30, 2020

I am three days into the Context, Culture and Mission intensive course with Dr. Len Sweet at Southeastern University. I would be lying if I did not admit that my brain is hurting. Several years ago I had a conversation with Dr. Sweet where he remarked that Jesus did not come to make us more spiritual but to make us more human. I was looking after the Spiritual Formation area at my church so you can imagine the disorientation. Were we not trying to help people become more spiritual, and in some unspoken ways I guess, less human? And it has made me wonder ever since who should have the highest view of humans and the deepest commitment to human worth and dignity – Christians or atheists?

When I picked up Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West and read about his admission into the Theos Think Tank community around the peak of the New Atheist movement, I wondered what his tone would be in this battle. I found it to be respectful and curious and thoroughly Christ-centered.

In his essay “Saving Humanism from the Humanists”, Spencer gives a historical overview to the rise of humanism. Partly he concludes that those without a Judeo-Christian worldview have a difficult time explaining why humans are ascribed worth and dignity.[1] They espouse human dignity and hold a high view of humanity (what else is there but us immanent humans?) but Spencer finds their reasoning and foundation for it to be vague at best. He also points to the human rights track record of non-Western nations as another possible correlation that something is faulty.[2] Humanism without the infrastructure of being made “in the image of God” is tricky business.

But he goes further in his discourse with the three most common biblical definitions for the image of God and offers a caution. The “substantive” claim is that we share some of God’s characteristics or qualities and this is what it means to be made in the image of God. The “functional” definition refers to job we are given to do, that of stewardship as seen in the creation account. The “relational” explanation is that being made in the image of God is seen in our primary relationships and is reflective of God’s relational character.[3]

Spencer calls all of these definitions “defensible” but warns that that they are all based on the ideal human behavior. And we all know that we often fail to act ideally and this creates a great deal of pressure. And then he makes a powerful statement:

“Human worth is dependent not on how loving we are but how loved we are.”[4]

The Christian ethic stands the test of time and culture because ours is oriented more toward how good God is than on how good we are. Good news indeed.

The connection I discern with reflections on humanism and fast-paced church staffs is partly the following: our theology and cognitive schemas inform the way we treat those we lead. These implications are enormous for our interactions with those outside of the Church certainly – respect, dignity and honor. And it holds just as important implications for our ministry team members and lead volunteers. Staffs are not just tools or resources for God’s mission but actually are God’s mission. Once someone becomes a Christian and joins the team, they are not exempt from their dignified human status and should be held as one made in the image of God.

Obviously the orientation described above is not typical of all senior leaders; I am simply revealing my personal journey’s path and temptations. I believed myself to be solely a resource for God to use. And I felt the pressure to try to live up to the ideal and be good enough to earn God’s love. Of course I needed those I led to get with this moralistic approach to increase my chances of success. But I have learned that it is a great deal more about who God is than I thought. And He is much better than I previously believed. Consequently, the longer I consider why I am ascribed worth and value, the more I am changed and the way I treat others changes. I want to see the imago dei everywhere I turn.

I am grateful to spend part of my week with people that are curious, respectful and Christ-centered like Spencer, this cohort and Dr. Len Sweet, who said today that he believes that “Jesus is your best shot at being truly human. You may not believe that and that is your decision. I can still work with you, learn from you and respect you.”

[1] Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values [Expanded Edition], (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 65-73.

[2]  Spencer, Evolution of West, 74-5.

[3] Ibid., 75.

[4] Ibid., 75.

About the Author

Andrea Lathrop

I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ, a wife, mom and student. I live in West Palm Beach, Florida and I have been an executive pastor for the last 8+ years. I drink more coffee than I probably should every day.

7 responses to “Humanism and the Goodness of God”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Great post! Dr. Len is a headache as soon as he opens his mouth LOL!

    My pastor did a whole series on this when he was taking Len’s course and I’m still trying to dissect everything he talked about years later. One of the big things for me is that I learned that I lived a sperate life in that part of me “worked for God” and the other part “lived for God”. I wonder how many people who work in the church/ministries live this double life and God has never called us to do this? I wonder if this leads to burnout and failures in leadership.

  2. Hi Andrea. I loved the section on human rights. I think this is one of those things we can absolutely own and show our secular age that apart from God there really isn’t any rights at all, much less the human kind. I’m convinced it’s one of those under utilized line or argumentation against the skeptic.

    That’s why in many ways our secular age is perfect for doing apologetics because they themselves bring those topics to us. Love it.

  3. Jenn Burnett says:

    I wish I were sitting next to you in your course right now Andrea!! My love for theology was greatly spurred on by my love for Len Sweet’s work! Isn’t it interesting how easily we can create double standards in ministry? We, along with our ministry teams, become ‘instruments’ to be used by God. We cry out ‘less of us, more of you God’…all so that those we reach out to or serve can become more fully who they were meant to be? How would our ministry differ if we insisted on being fully who we are meant to be and trust that would lead to others being released to become fully themselves as well? What if we started our day by delighting in God and allowing Him to delight in us? That is, we celebrated that the fully spiritual God takes delight in us as fully human? How might this alter how we approach others? Co-ministers and community alike? What is the tension between model recipient of God’s love and co-servant with Christ? Be blessed on the journey my dear friend!

  4. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Andrea. I really enjoyed this chapter as well. Your post reminded me of much of what I’m researching and what it would mean to the church to truly become a deliberately developmental organization. What if the one goal of the church was to help every person become the whole human God intended, fully developed in maturity, character and gifts? Oh that we would really grasp the goodness of God so that we don’t follow him to be loved, we are loved so we follow him.

  5. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Well written and very thoughtful post. Your succinct statement, “The Christian ethic stands the test of time and culture because ours is oriented more toward how good God is than on how good we are.” is solid gold! Thanks for breaking it down for your older brother.

  6. Sean Dean says:

    There’s an Orthodox saying that “the life of Christ is the work of Christ”. There’s something about our humanness or just the way we have been raised as Christians that makes us want to believe that the only thing good about us is how high we ascend – both spiritually and physically in the workplace/church. But this idea that the work of Christ was to life a fully human life fully integrated with his spirituality sort of revolutionises all the previous thoughts about what it means to be like Christ. Thanks for the post.

  7. Digby Wilkinson says:

    That’s why he teaches semiotics. it as going to be my primary course, but didn’t work out – for which I am pleased btw. Great thoughts about the redemption of our humanity as opposed to our spirituality. Theologically speaking you are diving into the meaning and outworking of the incarnation, it’s perplexing yet hugely encouraging all the same. With you, I liked the the title, Rescuing Humanism from the Humanists. So what does human incarnation tell you about God?

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