What Does It Mean to Walk Worthily?

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*This is part 1 of the Laity Leadership Institute Missional series with Senior Fellow Darrell Guder, who is the Princeton Theological Seminary Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

Fourteen years after World War II, Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Darrell Guder began doctoral studies in Germany.

“My experience there was actually the experience of the trauma of the whole society realizing, after two horrible wars, that Germany was a country in which the traditions and structures of Christendom were disintegrating,” said Guder.

This revelation started the missiologist on a pathway that eventually led him to study how the church in the post-Christian west can regain its missionary footing.

“I’ve never felt that I had an exciting story to tell because I just went through the open doors and did the work that needed to be done,” said Guder, but he has felt a sense of being called by God ever since he was eight or nine years old and knew he would be involved in Christian education by the time he was in high school.

During high school and college, Guder served on the staff of Hollywood First Presbyterian Church under the influential Christian educator Henrietta Mears. From there he went to the University of Hamburg in Germany to complete his doctoral studies and later served for 10 years as a theological educator with Young Life and as academic dean at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.

“At age 51, I finally knew what I was going to be when I grew up,” Guder joked.

That’s when he was called to an academic chair in missiology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Everything he had ever done coalesced.

“It all made sense,” he said. “My sense of vocation has been refined and focused at every step along the way. It’s exciting now to realize that God’s call was always happening. I just had to let it happen.”

Guder’s life verse had been Philippians 1:21, which says, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” It has recently “migrated” to Philippians 1:27, in which Paul tells the Philippian community that the most important thing is for the community to lead its public life worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“My passion as a theologian of mission is teaching future servants of the church so that they’ll be equipped to equip congregations to lead lives that are worthy of the gospel,” said Guder.

Theologian Karl Barth has been a significant influence for Guder on this topic.

“Karl Barth, lecturing on Philippians in Gottingen in 1924, dwelt on the public and corporate meaning of ‘walking worthily’ in Philippians 1:27,” Guder said in a lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2007.

“The root of the verb here is polis, and Barth works with that ‘political’ understanding of worthy walking when he translates, ‘Your state must be worthy of the gospel of Christ.’ He explains, ‘In their state, their ‘form,’ their bearing, under the invisible discipline of that kingdom, they must be en route here and now, moving along in ways corresponding with the ‘state’ that is to be reflected in their conduct, ‘worthy’ of the gospel,” Guder told the seminary audience.

“Worthiness has, then, to do with the ways in which the community members practice their calling toward each other. It has to do with the ‘mind’ they share in the imitation of Christ. …Worthy walking is characterized by lowliness and meekness, patience, forbearing one another in love, eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” said Guder.

Congruence between the communication of the gospel and the church’s visible conduct is a further crucial dimension of walking worthily, he said. “This is often a matter of integrity of their life and witness—speech and act cannot be separated.”

Referencing Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Guder told his audience that the church is not equivalent to the gospel. Because of its fallenness, the church should understand itself instead as a parable.

“It shows the watching world what the kingdom of God is like. …Its witness can describe the inbreaking kingdom of God in Christ but never in a way that fully captures this wonderful event,” said Guder.

This idea is at the heart of what Barth believed it means to walk worthily of the calling to which we have been called. The parable and the witness of the church function like St. John the Baptist pointing to Christ in Matthias Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion in the Isenheimer Altar, which Guder said Barth loved.

“Like John, the missional community … testifies to Christ, makes Christ known, anticipates Christ, and rejoices in both his truth and his presence in their midst. In doing that, it is walking worthy of its calling,” said Guder.

  • Have you ever thought of the church as a parable that complements its witness?
  • What does this perspective make possible?

Image by Jenny Rain. Used with permission via Flickr. Post by Christine A. Scheller.