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

Public Theology

Written by: on February 5, 2015

Public Theology

So, what did the disciples hear Jesus say?  While we have a written record of many things spoken by him,what they heard him say was undoubtedly different than what was recorded and preserved in the biblical texts.  Without being present with them, smelling the air, tasting the tastes, feeling the textures of the fabrics and earth, being present in the socio-cultural space where they were present, we can’t truly hear what they heard.  Consider, for example, the conversation recorded in Matthew chapter 16.  “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!”  We’ve all heard it, preached it, reveled in the glorious dominance communicated in it.  “We’re the winners!  Yes!”  But what did the disciples really hear?  In their context, what did they understand Jesus to be communicating?

When we read this through the filters of our human-centric brands of theology, we mostly hear about how good things will be for us and how that mean ol’ devil can’t push us around anymore.  We are the “church” after all!  Jesus said it, bless God!  Isn’t it odd (and somewhat discouraging) that most of what passes as theology in our current societal construct somehow always circles back to “me,” “mine,” and “self?”  Further investigation of the text reveals that Jesus was as far away from church-cheerleading as he could be.  He was actually engaging in a pretty mean piece of public theology.  In Steven Garner’s contribution to the book The Bible, Justice and Public Theology, he helpfully defines public theology as “the offering of something distinctive, and that is the gospel, to the world for the welfare of human society.”1  That’s what Jesus was up to…

Time will not permit a full exegesis of the text but suffice it to say, Jesus’ careful selection of a word commonly understood to be descriptive of a judicial assembly2 to describe the organism he was planning to leave behind is telling.  Jesus was saying to his disciples that his “body” left behind after his departure would be constituted of people called out of the local communities, deliberating on behalf of the local communities and acting in the best interests of the local communities.  Ekklesia.  Kathryn Tanner makes special note of this in the book Spirit in the Cities.  “The early Christian ‘household of God’ also described itself in the language of a political assembly, the ecclesia.”3  The reason behind this self-description was simple, that’s what Jesus said.  That’s what he intended to levee behind to finish his work.  Not a new religious order, a collection of real people, called from real communities, to deliberate and take real, transformative action.  Public theology is action-oriented theology and immensely practical.

Neville regards public theology as “the attempt to address matters of common or public concern in society in light of the special-truth claims, insights and moral convictions of Christian faith, in the pursuit of peace and justice for all.”4  Not just for Christians, for all!  Public theology demands we align behaviors with divine imperatives.  Public theology requires us to look differently at any who fall under our gaze.  Public theology forces a conversation about how things are in reality as contrasted with God’s design and how to put right what is presently wrong.  That conversation should originate with “ortho-pathy,” which informs and stimulates ortho-doxy which ultimately fuels ortho-praxy.5  Right behavior then in turn, stimulates right thinking, resulting in right feeling.  This will be end result of sound public theology.


1. David J. Neville, ed., The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology (The Bible in the Modern World) (Sheffield England: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 190.

2. It is unlikely that Jesus and his disciples were conversing in private using the language of the conquerors, Greek.  Yet when the words were finally scribed on some form of print medium, the Greek word Ekklesia was selected to convey his thoughts.

3. Kathryn Tanner. Spirit in the Cities (Kindle Edition). Locations 327-328.

4.  Neville.  24

5. Dave Young’s reflections on “ortho-pathy” in his article entitled “The Praxis Triad” (http://blogs.georgefox.edu/dminlgp/the-praxis-triad/) were instrumental in forming my thinking on this matter.  Ortho-pathy being defined as “right feeling.”

About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

8 responses to “Public Theology”

  1. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Jon, You nailed it! Our “human-centric brands of theology” are the lense we try to understand and orient our lives and this world to. Going a little further, I think it is self-oriented. I wish I considered humanity, but my rear view mirror tells of a self-centeres reflection and interest. Do you think it is our day and the culture that is causing the great shift in how we are talking about “evangelism?” Right? Isn’t that all we are talking about? Yet our language, perspective, scope has to wake-up, broaden, interface with a much more complex world emerging and that we are becoming aware of. ???

    • Nick Martineau says:

      Phil & Jon…This seems to be the very thing this program is doing to me. Waking me up and giving me a broader (yet deeper) way to think. Jon you said, “Public theology demands we align behaviors with divine imperatives.” I instantly start from a self-centered place…it’s hard to make this shift but I can now see just how important that is.

  2. Jon Spellman says:

    Phil and Nick, it seems that self-centeredness is a part of our natural condition. What has been stirring in me lately is, do we in church leadership — by our messages, programs, scheduling, evangelism, activities, etc. — reaffirm that tendency and strengthen it or do we push people towards a God/community-centricism? I mean even if we consider our primary evangelistic message, what does it communicate? Does it point people to God, through Christ and his great plans for his creation? Or does it point people to a “get out of hell free” personal safety net?


  3. Dave Young says:

    Jon, I like how you circled around to how we can have a real impact in the real world. Jesus’ kingdom showing up through his people.
    I was troubled by the idea (presented in our reading) that Praxis starting with right action, and considered orthodoxy to shape that action for the good of all. What troubled me most was the potential do almost anything and God’s name, or to shape theology so that it’s in bed with the actions we wanted in the first place. Adding right-heart into the mix is simply another way to saying it takes: head, heart and hands all of which need God’s discernment and power. And allow me to also add I believe the orthodoxy has a more objective tendency and needs to be given greater weight – but I know others will disagree

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      I hope we get to talk about this some….I think you bring a good point about what’s important. Does it require that we choose one as the priority or can we live in the tension of all three? Is the ortho-pathy/ortho-praxy/ortho-doxy approach require a certain process that makes it most effective? Is it based on personality? Or is there something about truth – God’s truth – that supersedes all else?

      • Jon spellman says:

        I’m seeing the three as an interconnected cycle where one influences the other at whatever point in the continuum one enters… Neither of the three are necessarily more important but the whole is incomplete wither either.

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      My thoughts went in the same direction as I was reading. There is a careful line that we cross when we allow outside influences to shape theology. In our efforts to contextualize theology, we must be cautious that we don’t “embellish” God’s truth. I’ve been thinking back to my childhood days at church camp as evangelists tried to contextualize theology with the goal to “save” all of the lost souls. Out of their attempts came much legalism. Today, I see pastors water down theology in an attempt to contextualize it. Orthodoxy teaches us to live life according to the teaching of Christ, undistorted by human invention. In other words, orthodoxy helps us to avoid false teaching.

  4. Mary Pandiani says:

    Oh darn – I just wrote this long response, and I lost it. Bummer. Ok, let me see if I can repeat it:
    I’m curious about your words on Public theology – how can we move and operate in our world and culture in such a way that aligns with Christ’s life and message that doesn’t become legalistic or moralistic alone? I so agree that theology needs to be demonstrated (and “distinctive”) not just in church but in every arena of life. I’m wondering about the way in which it’s demonstrated.
    Also, as I read your synthesis, Jon, I can see how God is using this material, much of which you already are aware of, to be offered in a new fresh and dynamic way in this new season. Isn’t it amazing to see how God knows each step that is needed to encourage, strengthen, challenge, and teach us?

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