On leadership and building bridges – a response to David Runcorn.

Where David Runcorn and I disagree.

In his article ‘Living in Love and Faith ‘is building the bridge as we cross it’ published in the Church Times on 19 June 2021 David Runcorn declares that Living in Love and Faith (LLF) says to:

…. those in leadership — national, local, and all expressions between. Your task is not to take front stage, guarding received understandings, or ‘telling’ people what the truth is. It is to stand in the midst, to enable others to think, to be alongside them, to journey with and guide the discernment of the mind of God within that.[1]

I agree with David that this is what LLF says. Where I disagree with David is that, while he thinks this is a good thing, I do not. In the rest of this essay, I shall explain why.

The key issue is that David seems to be in favour of what I would describe as a ‘non-directive’ approach to Christian leadership, whereas I think the calling of Christian leaders is precisely to give direction.

The meaning of shema.

In his article David accepts the claim made by the late Lord Sacks that the Hebrew Bible has no word which means ‘obey.’ This idea is misleading. The reason that it is misleading is that the Hebrew verb shema, although it has the basic meaning ‘to hear,’ also has the wider meaning of ‘hear and obey.’

This point is helpfully made in Lois Tverberg’s article ‘Shema: to hear is to obey.’ In this article she writes as follows:

‘Biblical Hebrew includes only about 8,000 words, far fewer than the 100,000 or more we have in English. Because Hebrew has so few words, each is like an over-stuffed suitcase, bulging with extra meanings that it must carry in order for the language to fully describe reality. Unpacking each word is a delightful exercise in seeing how the ancient authors organized ideas, sometimes grouping concepts together in very different ways than we do. For example, the word shema (pronounced ‘shmah’) is often translated as ‘hear.’ But the word shema actually has a much wider, deeper meaning than ‘to perceive sound.’ It encompasses a whole spectrum of ideas that includes listening, taking heed, and responding with action to what one has heard.

I discovered the wideness of the word shema in my first Hebrew class. One classmate had a smattering of Hebrew knowledge gleaned from other places, and he let us all know it. He’d come late, leave early, and goof around during class. The teacher would pose a question to someone else, and he’d blurt out the answer before they could respond. Annoyed, one classmate pointedly inquired, ‘How do you tell someone to obey?’

‘Shema,’ responded my instructor.

Later that afternoon, curiosity prodded me to search for verses that contained ‘obey’ in my computer Bible program. In almost every case, the Hebrew behind ‘obey’ was shema!

For instance, in the English, we read Deuteronomy 11:13 as, ‘So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today…’ Literally, though, this verse reads, ‘And it will be if hearing, you will hear…’

And after Moses recited the covenant to the people of Israel, they responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey’ (Exodus 24:7, NIV). But the Hebrew here actually reads, ‘All that God had said we will do and we will hear.’ The two verbs here are really synonymous—to hear is to do, to be obedient.

This became even more clear one sticky summer evening when I was visiting an old college friend. As we chatted together in her front yard, we could hear squealing and laughter coming from behind her house. Her kids were drenching each other in a water fight, a duel between the garden hose and a big squirt gun.

As the sun sank below the horizon it was getting past their bedtimes, so we paused our conversation so that she could call them inside. ‘It’s getting late—time to go in,’ she announced. But the giggling and chasing didn’t even slow down. She repeated her command, louder and louder. No effect.

‘My kids seem to have a hearing problem, Lois,’ she sighed, wearily.

Since I knew that she had studied some Hebrew, I commented, ‘You know, actually, what I think your kids have is a shema-ing problem.’ Her words were vibrating their eardrums, but not actually moving their bodies toward the door to her house. She could have been talking in Klingon for all their response. She knew as well as I did that the natural outcome of listening should be response.

Grasping the wider meaning of shema yields insights to other biblical mysteries. In the psalms, David pleads, ‘Oh Lord, please hear my prayer.’ But he wasn’t accusing God of being deaf or disinterested. Rather, he was calling on God to take action, not just listen to his words. When the angel appeared to Zechariah to announce that his wife Elizabeth was pregnant with John, he declared that their prayer had been heard—that God was answering the barren couple’s prayerful longings to have a child. (Luke 1:13)

Understanding the word shema also helps us see why Jesus often concluded his teaching with the words ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear!’ What he really meant was, ‘You have heard my teaching, now take it to heart and obey it!’ He wants us to be doers of his words, not hearers only (James 1:22).’ [2]

Obedience and the role of leaders in the New Testament.

This Jewish understanding of the need for hearing to result in obedience is also found in Matthew 28:19-20 and Romans 1:5, two key passages which summarise the missionary mandate given by Jesus to  his Church.

In Matthew 28:19-20 we read

‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’

Here we see that making disciples involves teaching people to be obedient to what Jesus has commanded. Jesus is the new and better Moses who gives God’s commands to God’s new covenant people drawn from all nations, and the Church’s calling is to teach people to obey these commands.

In Romans 1:5 we read that Paul has received ‘grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.’ In other words, the apostolic task given to Paul by the risen Christ is, as in Matthew 28, to establish obedience to God among people from all nations. This obedience consists first and foremost in obedient acceptance of the gospel message taught by Paul (‘faith’), but, as Paul’s letters make abundantly clear, it also involves living a new way of life in which this obedience of faith is manifested in daily life.

In neither of these passages is there any idea that the task given by Jesus to the apostles was to accompany people as they discerned for themselves what obedience meant. Just as Jesus taught the apostles what obedience meant so they were to teach others in their turn. Moreover, contrary to what David suggests in his Church Times article,  this did not involve simply telling stories, either the story of what God had done in Jesus Christ, or their own personal stories. What we see in the New Testament. as in the Old , is that teaching people to live obediently involves teaching people the overarching story, the ‘meta-narrative,’ of the mighty acts of God in creation and redemption, but not stopping at that point. People also need to be taught how to live rightly in the light of that story rather than being left to try to work this out for themselves.

Leadership in the Early Church and in the 1662 Ordinal.

In the earliest days of the Church such teaching was undertaken primarily by the apostles, but as time went on and they knew that death was coming they passed on this responsibility to a new generation of leaders as we see in Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts 20:17-38), in 1 and 2 Timothy, James and 1 Peter, and in the testimony of writers from the Patristic period.

In this way the leadership of the Church by bishops and elders was established, with bishops in particular having responsibility for teaching their flocks the path of Christian obedience, a path which involved both right belief and right conduct. That is why the bishop had a cathedra, a teaching chair, with the cathedral being the place where the chair was situated. [3]

At the Reformation the Anglican Reformers sought to re-emphasize the teaching responsibility of both bishops and elders (‘priests’). That is why in the 1662 Ordinal both are asked whether they will ‘instruct the people committed to your charge’ on the basis of the teaching of Scripture, such instruction to include both belief and behaviour as we see, for example, in the Prayer Book catechism.

Because deacons are assistant leaders and therefore do not have people committed to their charge in the same way as bishops and priests the Ordinal does not ask deacons the same question. However, it does say that instruction is part of their role too since they are to ‘instruct the youth in the catechism’ and to preach if authorised by their bishop to do so.

The standard criticism of this view of the role of leaders is that it gives insufficient responsibility to the laity, but in fact they have very important responsibilities. They have the responsibility to listen with attention and understanding to what is taught to them, to take it to heart, to act upon it, and to pass it on to others.

The view of the role of leaders that I have sketched out remains the pattern to which the Church of England remains officially committed, the major change being that the responsibility for instruction is now given to authorised lay ministers as well as to bishops, priests and deacons.

The problem with LLF.

The reason why, unlike David, I have a great problem with LLF is that I think that it involves a failure by the bishops to fulfil their responsibility to give instruction to the people given to their charge.

There is now great confusion not only in society, but also in the Church, regarding sexual ethics. In this situation the responsibility of the bishops is to teach those in the Church of England, and anyone else who is willing to listen, that obedience to God means living as the men or women God created us to be (as determined by our biology) and refraining from all forms of sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage, same-sex marriage included. It is in this way, and only in this way, that people can fulfil the biblical injunction to ‘glorify God in you body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20).

Tragically the bishops have failed to fulfil this responsibility. Instead  In LLF they have essentially told the faithful to try to work out a pattern of sexual ethics for themselves on the basis of material that only adds further to the existing confusion because of the way it combines orthodox and unorthodox views of sexual ethics with no criteria for how to distinguish between them.

Contrary to what David thinks, the task of Church leaders, and bishops in particular, is precisely to tell people ‘what the truth is.’

One of the standard images used for a bishop in in the early Church is a physician of souls, the idea being that like a doctor they are responsible to helping people to live healthy lives, but in this case spiritually rather than physically (see for example Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule). Now, imagine someone saying that a doctor should not tell you the truth about your condition and what you need to do about it. You would think that they had entirely failed to understand what a doctor is for. Similarly,  anyone who thinks that a bishop should not tell people what the truth is and what they should do about it has entirely failed to understand what a bishop is for.

The calling of bishops is to tell people the truth about what obedience to God involves on the basis of the teaching given to us by God himself in Scripture. In the case of LLF the bishops of the Church of England have failed to live up to this calling.

Why do we need to build a bridge?

A final issue raised by David’s article has to do with the idea that LLF involves ‘building the bridge as we cross it.’  The image itself is confusing as it is not entirely clear how you can cross a bridge while you are still building it. However, the more fundamental question is why the bridge needs building in the first place.  

Imagine a group of travellers approaching a river. They see a bridge, but rather than going across it in order to continue their journey, they stop and build a bridge of their own. Assuming that they are not mad, or simply like building bridges, the reason for their action must be that they do not trust the existing bridge to get them safely across the river.

If we use this as an image for the current disagreements in society and in the Church about human sexuality we can say that there is already a bridge built by God himself, namely the teaching about sexual ethics given in Scripture and the orthodox Christian tradition drawing on Scripture. If people are now seeking to build a new bridge this must be because they think the existing bridge is inadequate. That is to say, it must mean that they think that the teaching that God has provided is inadequate as a guide for human sexual conduct.    

This means that they implicitly are denying the wisdom and goodness of God. They are saying that God cannot be trusted to teach us how to live our lives. And, of course, this is something which no one can ever rightly say. It is a repetition of the primordial sin recorded in Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve conclude that they can decide better than God whether they should eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

As Christians we do not need to build our own bridge. We need to thankfully use the bridge that God in his wisdom and goodness has already built for us.


[1] David Runcorn, ‘‘Living in Love and Faith ‘is building the bridge as we cross it,’ the Church Times, 19 June 2021 at  https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/25-june/comment/opinion/living-in-love-and-faith-is building-the-bridge-as-we-cross-it.

[2] Lois Tverberg, ‘‘Shema: to hear is to obey’ at https://ourrabbijesus.com/Shema-to-hear-is-to-obey.

[3] For a good overview of Church leadership in the Early Church see Christopher Beeley, Leading God’s People (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).  

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