Transcendence and Immanence in Parenting, Pastoring, Evangelism, and Discipleship
1. Transcendence and Immanence in Parenting
The topic of parenting isn’t something I choose to think about. It’s something that’s thrust upon me day by day, even minute by minute. Praise God for my 3 young girls. What a gift!
Lots of good Reformed literature on parenting has been teaching me about training my children. But here’s something which some of the literature can miss, which my wonderful wife has taught me so well: I need to get down on my girls’ level and be with my children…at their level…talking their language.
Now, some of you dads are thinking, “Duh! Isn’t that obvious?” Well, I suppose, but I confess it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m dumb. And I envy you. It’s easy for me to teach. It’s not easy for me to talk at my children’s level.
Example: I take my two year old on an errand with me in the car to the store. My temptation: listen to music or some interview I have downloaded. But here’s what my wife is teaching me to do: “Hannah, what do you see? What color is the light? Are those trees? Look at the truck. Yeah!”
Generalization 1: Reformed and Fundamentalist approaches to parenting emphasize training and God’s transcendent posture: “Johnny, you need to obey me all the way, right away, with a happy heart.”
Generalization 2: Mainstream evangelical approaches to parenting emphasize God’s immanent posture: “So what do you want to talk about?”
My working thesis (as a parent of three young girls still trying to figure this parenting thing out): Good parenting requires us to image both God’s immanent and transcendent postures. That is, we need to train and require obedience. But we also need to get down at their levels and patiently and tenderly relate to them. Doesn’t God so draw us to obedience with cords of kindness and love (Hos. 11:4)?
Two assumptions: I assume that most parents naturally do one or the other better, and we should learn to compensate for our weaknesses. I also assume whole cultures can lean toward one posture or the other. Our culture, I believe, propels most parents toward the immanent posture, which makes the transcendent-emphasizing Reformed literature on parenting a helpful corrective. But we must not forget to pursue both.
Your homework (for Reformed dad’s who lean toward the transcendent posture like me): Do what my friend and fellow elder Andrew does and lie down in your kids’ bed tonight, last thing, and ask them this question: “So what do you want to talk about?”
2. Transcendence and immanence in pastoring
Basic idea: I suspect there’s a temptation for pastors to lean either too far toward imaging God’s transcendence (all they want to do is teach from on high) or too far toward imaging his immanence (all they want to do is visit and hand hold). But good pastors, like good parents, do both.
Example of Jesus: Jesus, the exemplar shepherd, demonstrates this best.
- On the one hand, he taught with authority and cast out demons.
- On the other hand, he knows his sheep, and they know his voice. He dwelt among them.
- The very phrase “God-man” captures the simultaneous transcendence and immanence we see in the person of Jesus Christ.
Example of Paul: Paul, as apostle, also demonstrate both the transcendent posture of authority and the immanent posture of empathy. Consider his charge to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. The immanent posture is clear.
- Verse 18: You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time. Verse 19: he served with humility; he didn’t Lord it over them. He says he served with tears.
- Even in his teaching, he didn’t just do it publicly. Verse 20 says he taught them privately going from house to house.
- Verses 36-38: They all pray together, weep together, embrace, and kiss; and they escort him to the ship.
Yet the bringing-God’s-Word-authoritative posture of transcendence is evident as well:
- Verse 20: I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that that was profitable.
- Verse 21: testifying of repentance toward God and of faith in Christ.
- Verse 24: testifying to the gospel of grace
- Verse 25: proclaiming the kingdom.
- Verses 26 and 27: he’s innocent of any man’s blood, because he has declared the whole counsel of God, like Ezekiel’s watchman.
Both are necessary for pastoring: It’s striking to me how much the imminent posture (being with your people) works together with the transcendent posture (teaching them God’s Word), which I think is captured together in Paul’s famous charge to elders in verse 28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock.” How does he pay careful attention? Well, the following verses tell us that wolves will come and speak twisted things. In other words, paying careful attention seems to be about… teaching in a way that’s informed of the false voices speaking into the heads of the flock. Again, you must know the flock to teach them well.
Homework: Pastor/elder, spend some time considering what direction—transcendent or immanent—you more naturally lean in? Ask those you trust. Consider several practical steps you might take to compensate for your weaker area.
3. Transcendence and Immanence in Discipling
Basic Idea: Discipling other Christians involves us in imaging God’s transcendent posture and his immanent posture toward his people. On the one hand, discipling typically occurs in the context of friendship—two individuals who have affectionately drawn near to one another for the purposes of enjoyment and care. This is the immanent posture. On the other hand, discipling is a friendship with a Christward direction. The goal of the enjoyment and care is to help the other person look more like Jesus. This is the transcendent posture.
Friendship: Think about what friendship involves. Our friends are the ones we imitate and follow. We adopt their language and life patterns. We tend to spend money where they spend money. We value what they value. We raise our children like they raise their children. We pray like they pray. We trust their counsel and heed their rebukes more easily than someone who is not a friend. There’s a reason that Paul says, “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33; cf. Deut. 13:6). It’s because our friends play a large role in forming who we become as we imitate one another (see James 4:4).
The intimacy and trust afforded by friendship (immanence) makes it a perfect vehicle for instruction and teaching (transcendence).
This is why there is no better friendship a person could have then the friendship of the Lord, a friendship which is given to those who keep his covenant and do his commands (Ps. 25:14; John 15:14). To say he is our friend is to say that we imitate him. To be a friend, on the other hand, is to give, just as God gives. God gives to those whom he befriends, just as Christ has befriended us through his sacrifice (John 15:13, 15). Likewise, we should befriend the members of our church by giving ourselves to them.
Discipleship: What is discipleship? Again, it’s friendship with a Christward direction or purpose—the purpose of seeing another conformed increasingly to the image of Christ as one or both give in order for the other to receive. Indeed, Christian friendships take humility, because it requires humility to both give and receive.
Sometimes people laugh at how particular phrases and mannerisms become contagious and overused within a group of friends or a church community. But that’s exactly how discipleship works among imaging creatures. We watch and mimic, hopefully in the right direction. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” Paul said to the Corinthians twice in one letter (1Cor. 11:1; 4:16; also 2 Thes. 3:7, 9). The author of the Hebrews likewise told his readers to imitate the faith of their leaders (Heb. 13:7). And John told the church he was writing to imitate what is good, not evil (3 John 11).
Church: As God gives humility to churches, those churches should be increasingly characterized by such discipleship friendships: young men befriending other young men for the sake of encouraging one another in the faith; young women doing the same with other young women; older men befriending one another and younger men; and so forth.
Christian friends are surely valuable inside or outside the same local church. But friends within a local church will be formed by the same ministry of the Word, giving them the opportunity to extend that ministry more carefully into one another’s lives throughout the week. Friendships are a God given vehicle through which the church’s ministry of the Word travels.
Practical take aways:
1. Pastors have busy schedules, and frankly they cannot afford to become good friends with everyone whom they disciple. Still, we can generally expect that the discipling relationships which occur in the context of a friendship will have the highest impact. In other words, the amount of time I spend drawing near to a brother (immanence) will directly affect how far I can draw that brother toward Christ (transcendence)—all things being equal.
2. Drawing near to a younger brother in the faith doesn’t mean telling him everything about my life. Questions of his maturity and trustworthiness will help to answer how much I can wisely tell him about my life to assist him in the path of discipleship.
3. At the same time, I need to make sure it’s not my own pharisaical aspirations of looking impressive to the younger man which keep me from drawing near and being transparent.
4. After all, at the heart of what we want to teach younger Christians is the glory of the gospel and the pattern of a gospel life. If the younger Christians around me never see me demonstrate confession, contrition, and repentance, how can I expect them to learn it?
(Paragraphs 2, 4, and 5 to 8 of this section have been adapted from The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline—coming from Crossway Jan 2010).
4. Transcendence and immanence in evangelism
Basic idea: When you are doing evangelism, you are, by definition, doing something to represent both God’s transcendence and his immanence. You are speaking authoritatively true things about God’s work in Christ (transcendence) to fellow humans and sinners (immanence). You are issuing an authoritative call (“repent and believe”) to people who are just like you.
Biblical basis: In the incarnation itself we see how God’s evangelistic activity presents itself both transcendently and immanently. In all the Scriptural material related to Christ’s work as king (transcendent) and priest (immanent) we see both postures, as well as in the identity of the church as a “royal priesthood.” We see it in the Scriptural idea of the church being in but not of the world. And this list could continue.
Wise evangelism: What’s especially worth observing here is that doing evangelism well requires us to give attention to both postures. There’s a place to say, “Hey, I’m a sinner, too” (immanence). And there’s a place to say, “God calls you to repent and believe” (transcendence). All the talk these days about “contexualization” and “cultural engagement,” as well as perennial questions about Bible translation, stems from the desire to do the immanent posture well. And the talk about making sure we are clear about the unique gospel message, the need for conversion, and the distinct witness of the local church (involving things like church membership and church discipline) stem from the desire to do the transcendent posture well.
In short, I’d say good evangelism involves both empathy and relatability (immanence) and confrontation (transcendence).
Know thyself: Personalities and cultures incline us toward one posture or another. Socially attuned people are good at the empathetic posture. Truth people are good at the transcendent posture. Likewise, cultures can lean one way or the other. I believe Western culture today leans heavily toward the empathetic and relational posture. We’re afraid to confront. Our philosophies as well our sense of manners tells us that it’s “wrong” and “inappropriate” to confront. Even among evangelicals, “relational evangelism,” several decades ago, occurred as an immanent reaction against the heavy transcendence of “contact evangelism.” These days, evangelicals don’t even like to talk about “evangelism” and “conversion.” We like to talk about “kingdom building” and “conversation.” This shouldn’t be surprising, though, since we also don’t like talking about God’s transcendence or authority.
Lessons from a bad evangelist: In short, it’s easy to lean too far in one direction or the other, which I know quite well from personal experience. I try to be faithful in evangelism, which I think is the most important thing. But I don’t consider myself a very good evangelist, and one way I can see this is that I often veer too far in one direction or another.
1)We can be too immanent—too empathetic. Sometimes, I have let either fear of man or worldly wisdom impel me toward avoiding sharing the gospel’s command with someone (“God calls you to repent and believe”). I focus too much on “relating” or “being understanding” or “talking in their language” or “giving my testimony” or just not being weird. So I’ll put everything in terms of my personal experience, which has a way of playing into our culture’s happy acceptance of the subjective. It’s a little scarier to put things in terms of authoritative universal truth and to use the second-person pronoun “you.” But we must warn people of the jeopardy they are in! It’s only a demonic blindness which keeps us from seeing this.
I once shared the gospel with a man sitting next to me on an airplane, and he was very interested in what I was saying in part (I think) because I was very forthright about the gospel’s relevance to him. As it turned out, he worked six blocks from where I work. So we agreed to get together for lunch. We did have lunch a couple of times, but then he lost interest. There could be many reasons why he lost interest, but in my own post-game analysis it occurred to me that I began to care about what he thought of me, and I began defaulting toward the purely empathetic. I wanted to seem “normal” and “like him.” But when an evangelist is “all empathy,” there’s no longer any unique message to share! If you’re just like me, why should I listen to you?
2)We can be too transcendent—too confrontational. Sometimes, I have plowed into an evangelistic encounter motivated only by a sense of duty rather than by love. Christians do have a duty to evangelize, but when we act in duty and not in compassionate love, we tend to be doing it for legalistic, merit-earning reasons (at least I do). When we’re focused only on the transcendent, authoritative truth, we can forget we’re sinners just like them. And we enter the conversation somewhat self-righteously.
I once shared the gospel with a cab driver in the last minute or so of the cab ride. Right before I got out of the car, I told him that one day he would stand before God and give an account, and that he needed to be ready for that day because God would judge his sin. Now, I honestly do think that something like that needs to be said from time to time in evangelism. On that occasion, however, I know my heart was motivated not by love but duty. The Lord may well use those words for good in that driver’s life; but generally speaking I would not encourage people to evangelize by walking up to someone they don’t know and telling them the wrath of God is coming (but Jonah?).
3)Compassionately confront; empathically urge. My guess is that most evangelicals these days need to be reminded of the confrontational or transcendent aspects of evangelism. I say this in part because it feels like everyone is talking about the relational, contextualizing, and immanent aspects of evangelism. And, sure, good pastoral sense should tell us that there are times to lean more toward one posture or another. The more immature and hard-hearted a person is, the more empathy and immanence is required (sometimes). And our culture is, in many ways, hard-hearted and immature. Still, we must remember to confront and to empathize.
Don’t we all think of the apostle Paul as the exemplar of both? Of course, I’m no Paul. The great news for me is that God can use even donkeys to speak his words.
5. Summarizing the transcendent and immanent postures in leadership
What is the transcendent posture in leadership, whether in parenting, pastoring, discipling, or evangelizing? It’s standing in a position of representing God’s authoritative Word. What is the immanent posture? It’s standing in a position of representing the person under God’s Word—standing with that person.
We’re called to do each in leading others, because God in Christ has done each. Both ideas are intrinsic to the “imaging” language of Scripture, particularly as the imaging language develops in the direction of a royal priesthood as well as in the direction of sonship. Christians should be interested in God’s transcendent truth, but they should also be interested in his immanent compassion.
Part of the wisdom of pastoring and parenting, I think, is knowing which is called for when. As I suggested in the last post, the more common thing to do when the people you’re leading are hard-hearted and immature is to adopt an empathetic, relational, and immanent posture in order to win trust. And much of the time that may be correct. But sometimes what the immature and hard-hearted need most is a line in the sand and a requirement that’s inflexible. Sometimes God draws us with cords of love; sometimes he breaks us with the sharp rebuke of exile.
The desire to be a good leader, finally, should sends us to our knees, begging him for the wisdom of knowing when to stand near to those we love, and when to stand far off.