Participation Has Thirteen Letters (not four)


Todd Billings at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan wants to remind mega-cool pastors like Mark Driscoll of a few things with regard to Calvinism, and there is a lot of good take away from his suggestions. It is true that the so-called New Calvinists, in their quest to make Johnny C. everybody’s five-point homeboy, miss more nuanced traits that make for a better simmered Reformed witness. For those of us who trek out of a broad evangelicalism steeped in world-flight piety, and perhaps even more especially for those of us who also previously inhabited a secular life where the world was nothing to be feared, one of those vital traits is the affirmation of the created order as indeed “very good.” And from such a theology comes the subsequent doctrine of vocation.

But statements like these seem to keep matters a little confusing:


This community exists in the world and has eyes for God’s kingdom as it shows up in hospitals, homes, schools and nature preserves. Some call this emphasis the “cultural mandate” in the Reformed tradition—a mandate not to “take back” American culture through the formation of a Christian subculture, but to send a people formed by Word and sacrament to be salt and light in government, the arts, education and all areas of society. The Reformed tradition provides an alternative both to cultural triumphalism and cultural disengagement. Living ever deeper in their God-given identity in Christ, Christians are to act as agents of cultural transformation without collapsing their calling into uncritical advocacy of a particular cultural-political movement.


It is always a heartening thing when one hears the attempt to chart a course between cultural triumphalism and cultural disengagement. Like the drunken mounter, much of Christendom does seem to fall off Luther’s proverbial horse, rushing either headlong into worldly victory or shrinking back into monastic withdrawal. But while the spirit may be willing the flesh is weak. And spirits go flaccid when the narrow path is that “Christians are to act as agents of cultural transformation.” For one thing, it is not altogether clear how those who traffic in what might be construed as cultural triumphalism are finally any different from those who conceive of themselves as being culturally transformative. It may be true that not all transformationists are triumphalists, but don’t all triumphalists at least begin by being transformationists? After all, not all those who wield worldly power are tyrants, but all tyrants seem to begin with a quest for power.

For another, is there really something so wrong with suggesting that believers are to be cultural participants rather than agents of cultural transformation? It would seem that to speak of participation instead of transformation makes all the difference. One gets the sense that to participate instead of transform is to live something of a less-than-victorious Christian life. Where transformers are bred to expect achievement and dominion, participants are asked to live with loss and be patient in the midst of frustration. Transformers stand out, participants blend in. It’s easy to see how the language and doctrine of transformation appeals to westerners over that of mere participation.  True, to transform one must also participate. But if the Christian life really is marked by the ordinary over against the extraordinary then it would seem that, from beginning to end, participation is the category of choice with a careful intent to resist the siren song of transformation.

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19 Responses to Participation Has Thirteen Letters (not four)

  1. Paul says:

    Zrim, you leave something out. “Participation” is fairly nebulous. Participating is simply “to be a part of a whole.” Those who “participate,” participate “in something.” So, I actually get “no sense” of your position by your chosen term, “participator.” You even seem to acknowledge this when you claim that transformers participate. They participate in transforming, of course. To just leave it at “participate” is to say nothing helpful whatsoever. But I fear that once you list the “something” and the “end” the participation brings about, you’ll bee seen to be a transformer who escapes transformationalism via the liberal politicians favored tactic of employing euphemisms to make previously unpopular words magically turn into palpatable ones.

  2. Paul says:

    “palatable ones.”

  3. Zrim says:

    I wonder if you’re making it too complicated, Paul. Consider your typcial day. Have you done more participating or transforming? I do way more participating than transforming, even the small bit of earth which I’ve been given. Maybe I’m not victorious enough?

  4. Paul says:


    I don’t think I’m making it too complicated. You claim to be a participator. Well, that means that you are a cog in a wheel and that there is a “something” you are participating in. What is the wheel and what is the something?

  5. Zrim says:

    “Cog in a wheel”? Isn’t that the modern put-down of all that which is routine and ordinary, like that popularly disdained “brick in the wall”?

    But I am participating in my heavenly appointed vocations.

  6. Paul says:


    No put down intended, but you excel at red herrings. If that’s the heavenly vocation you speak of, there are crowns a plenty waiting for you!

    I see that you wish to remain in the saftey of vague and ambiguous parsings. That’s fine, but it makes your position entirely uninteresting in terms of your attempt to demarcate yourself from the transformers.

    I’ll just assume that you’re still trying to work all of this out.

  7. Zrim says:


    I suppose I don’t understand what you’re driving at. What exactly is so complicated, vague or ambiguous about the difference between participating in something as opposed to transforming it? It seems crystal clear to me.

    Merriam-Webster says that to participate means “to take part; to have a part or share in something,” and that to transform means “to change in composition or structure; to change the outward form or appearance of; to change in character or condition; to convert.” So defined, when I consider all of my vocations (work, play, family, worship, etc.) I see myself doing way more participating than transforming.

  8. Paul says:


    Right. So, what is the whole” you participate in and what is the “something” your participating is intended to bring about or do.

    Football players participate in a team, for the purpose of winning the game. Children participate in families, and fulfill certain roles leading to certain ends.

    Minus your answers, I have no clue what “whole” you are a participant in, nor do I know what the “something” your whole has as its aim.

  9. renee says:

    I think Zrim is participating in this blog with his thoughts and opinions for the purpose of transforming some of his Reformed transformationists brethren into non-transformationists.


    Merry Christmas Zrim.

  10. Zrim says:


    How about this: I participate in God’s world in order to glorify God, which seems (at least to me) altogether different from participating in God’s world in order to transform God’s world.


    Good one. Happy Festivus.

  11. sean says:

    One should add that glorifying God primarily entails doing whatever you do well! Even the pagan glorifies God when he does his job well. Some of my pagan neighbors are tremendous participators

  12. Zrim says:


    Well, I’m not so sure. It seems to me that, to the extent that believers do all things in faith, we glorify God even when we’re being mediocre. Unbelievers never glorify God, as they do nothing from faith.

    Doing temporal things well is just doing temporal things well, and both un/believers have an equal shot at doing well or poorly. But only believers can be said to glorify God. And I’d rather be mediocre (even sinful?) and right with God than excelling and still under judgment.

  13. sean says:


    I’d disagree on this score; unbelievers still are made in the image of God and as such, whether they intend to or not what they do will redound to God’s glory. Either in what they do or in the manifestation of God’s judgement against it.

  14. Paul says:

    “How about this: I participate in God’s world in order to glorify God, which seems (at least to me) altogether different from participating in God’s world in order to transform God’s world.”

    Um, that’s because you must be puring some meaning into “participating” that demarcates it from “transforming.” Of course, you must know that transformers say the exact same thing, so your claim still leaves on scratching his head. So, while itmay “seem” that way to you, those not inside your head are left, like Homer’s cyclops, groping blindly.

    As I said, maybe after you’ve chewed the cud here a bit you’ll post some more refined thoughts.

  15. Paul says:

    “puring” = “pouring”

  16. Zrim says:


    Transformers may say the exact same thing, but they don’t mean the same thing. I mean that I am still as much a part of the problem as the next sinner. I mean that I have an equal shot at doing any creational task well, or poorly, or with medocrity. I mean that I am at least as much hinderance as help. I mean that I am glorifying God even when an unbeliever outpaces me. I mean that the only thing that distinguishes me from an unbeliever is faith.

    Transformers don’t mean any of that. They mean that they are bettering God’s world by simply existing.

  17. Paul says:

    Well, Zrim, you claim that’s what transformers mean. Of course, it is uncharitable to claim that transformerfs mean they are bettering God’s world by simply existing. When one must resort to straw men, that is often an indication that one sees the weakness in his own position.

    Anyway, you still haven’t told me the whole you are a participant in and what the goal of your “team” is.

    Also, your claims about what you mean are vague and ambiguous. I don’t get it. And some of them are downright false. Being a new creation is more than just “faith.” It is an actual reality that you are. You may have it by faith, but it is still a reality. Accordingly, I can think of many differences between you and unbelievers besides faith. Furthermore, why call yourself a participator? Your estimation of yourself doesn’t seem like you’re participating. That’s an abuse of the term. Languge has gone on holiday. Indeed, one could call you a sabotager.

  18. Zrim says:

    I suppose all that is possible, Paul. But just as easily, it could be that you disagree with what I am trying to say and find it easier to complicate it.

  19. Pingback: Ecological Folly and Ecclesiastical Disasters « The Confessional Outhouse

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