Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God

Stephen Seamands is professor of Christian doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He received his PhD from Drew University in 1983.

In this interview, Dr. Seamands explores how we were created in the Trinitarian image of God.

Edited transcript

Michael Morrison: Steve, you’ve written a very interesting book on Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service. There’s a lot packed into each of these words. What I found particularly interesting is, as a starting point, maybe we could talk about the image of God. How are you developing that or where are you getting this from? Am I supposed to look like God does?

Stephen Seamands: Yeah, that’s what Archie Bunker used to say. Remember on All in the Family, he said, “Well, I was created in the image of God. That means God looks like me.” When you think about those words in Genesis, chapter 1, verse 26, God says, “Let us make man [Adam] in our own image,” and then it says, “in the image of God God created us, and we were created, in the image of God he made us.” Then he talks about male and female being created in the image of God as male and female. I’m suggesting in this book that we were created in a Trinitarian image of God. Let the “let us” suggest the Trinity there.

MM: “Us” being some plurality.

SS: Exactly. The plurality in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and so then God creates us in that Trinitarian image, with a Trinitarian imprint. If we’re going to understand what that image is, we’ve got to think not just about… Sometimes theologians have thought about the image as like just a capacity that we have that differentiates us from animals, like our ability to make choices or our ability to reason. No, that passage understands that there’s a relationship that constitutes the image. Just as the persons of the Trinity are created in relationship or in relationship to each other, we’ve been created in relationship. In a sense, it seems to be saying that to have the image of God, you need more than one. You need male and female.

MM: For God it’s three, for humans it’s two.

SS: Right.

MM: In a way, humans need the third, we need God in us, too.

SS: Exactly. You think of a family: you’ve got a mother and a father and a child. You’ve got that fullness of the image that you can’t quite have in just one person per se.

MM: As one person, can’t we be persons? Does it take other persons to make us persons?

SS: The Trinity would seem to indicate that to be really a person actually is to be incomplete, in the sense that it does take another, an “I” and a “thou,” to truly be a person. Even the names of the Trinitarian persons, Father and Son, for example, imply relationship. You can’t be a father without being in relationship, or a son. To be a person, does mean, at least according to the Trinity, if we let the Trinity helps up to find what personhood is and looks like, means that I am in relationship to another. I’d make a distinction between being an individual, which you can be, I can be, in of just myself, as opposed to being a person, which means I am myself in relationship to you. I can’t just be “me, myself and I” anymore.

It’s interesting the first time the word “my” shows up in the Bible. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this, but it’s actually when God creates Eve and he brings Eve out to Adam. Remember what he says – the old guy turns into a poet, doesn’t he? He starts, “This at last is bone of my bone,” there’s the word my, the first time it shows up in the Bible. Even to be able to say my, he can only say my when he looks at her. It would seem to suggest that to be me, I need you. To be a person I need another.

MM: That the meaning of my life, at least in part…

SS: Is in relationship. We tend to think of ourselves in a very individualistic way. I can be myself. I can be me just by being me. It’d be nice to add a few other people; that makes you healthy and kind of rounds you out.

MM: Especially if they do what I want them to do.

SS: Exactly. We tend to think, “Well, those are optional, though, to being a person.” Whereas, I think the Trinitarian vision would say, “No, I am myself only in relationship to you. Adam can’t say my until he sees her – until there’s a thou.” It takes an I and a thou to be fully personal.

MM: This image that God has created me to be isn’t complete until it has these relationships.

SS: Right.

MM: Maybe that leads into the concept of ministry, that there are relationships.

SS: Right. That has profound implications for ministry. Often, the places where people really fail in ministry are in their ability to form and to function well in relationships. Relationships are at the heart of what makes ministry work. It’s interesting in the field of counseling, for example. They’ve discovered that often it’s not what a counselor says to someone or a technique they use that fixes the problem or helps the person. Or it’s not the kind of therapy approach that they bring to the table as a counselor. Is this a cognitive therapy or whatever. It’s actually the forming of a relationship with this counselor. It’s the relationship itself that seems to heal.

MM: There’s something healthy about that.

SS: There’s something healthy about that. This says to me as a Christian leader that I need to be one that’s working first of all, at growing in the ability to be healthy in a relational way. Most of us tend, if you put us on a spectrum of being too attached to others, to being too separated or aloof from others, most of us because of our lives we tend to gravitate toward one extreme or the other. I tend to be not too attached. I tend to be too aloof. I tend to want to separate too much, to be alone; to be a lone wolf sort of guy. In ministry, the challenge for me, then, is to work on that and deal with that in myself, and to learn how to move toward people more.

For some people, they have the other problem. They tend to be maybe almost co-dependent on their congregation or someone. They almost become an extension of someone else, and that’s not healthy. To be working toward healthy relationships in ministry, to be in relationship. For me, an important part of my ministry has been being a part of a small group of three or four other like-minded persons over the years, realizing God can’t do all he wants to do in me if I’m just going to insist on “me and Jesus.” Even though I have an important life of prayer, that’s something I do as just an individual. I need to be in relationship, in close relationships. I need that community, a small group-type of community to really become the person I’m supposed to be.

As the last thing I would say about us ministers and people in the ministry is that we need to attend to our families and understand the importance of our family unit. We can’t sacrifice our children and our spouses on the altar of our ministry. We’ve got to be intentional. Sometimes, maybe one of the most powerful and best things we can do, for example, as a pastor of a local church, is just to be a model of what a healthy family looks like, as a husband and wife and also as a father or a mother with children. If that’s the heart of God and if relationship is at the heart of things, we’ve got to take it seriously.

MM: That also means sometimes saying no to what the congregation wants and saying what the congregation really needs is an example of this family involvement.

SS: Right. Yes, there’s a price to pay for that, but if I let productivity and if I let function, for example (and usually those are the kinds of things that create a lot of congregational demands on us – we want you to do this or do that) – if I become the kind of person who measures my own self on how well I produce or what I do for others rather than who I am in relationship to others, then I’m a part of that problem. In order to make relationship at the heart of things, I think you’re right, its going to mean saying no to some things in our lives.

MM: Your book is titled Ministry in the Image of God and you’ve talked about ministry, but it seems like what you’re saying isn’t exclusive to ministry at all.

SS: Right. Actually this is the heart of reality. When you go with the flow of the Trinity, it’s like you have the whole universe behind you. That applies what I just said, what we’ve just been talking about relationship, that applies to a business person in their place of business. It applies to a coach working with a team. Same principles work. They’re universal, I think.

MM: By seeing the Trinitarian interrelationships as our model, then it gives us perspective with which to view our own work and relationships, and that perspective can clarify some of the things we need to do.

SS: Right. If you’ll think about the Trinitarian relationships, particularly based, I think we get a window into this in the Gospel of John, where Jesus talks often about his relationship with the Father and so forth. You see full equality. The persons of the Trinity are distinct but they’re equal: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You see joyful intimacy between these persons. They love each other. They delight in each other. They delight in the otherness of the other.

Then you also see this glad submission. They surrender. The Son says, for example, “I only want to do what I see the Father doing.” His desire is to submit to the will of the Father. The Holy Spirit comes along and says, “I don’t want to glorify me. I want to glorify Christ.” Each person; there’s a sort of quality of laying their self down for the sake of the other, and they get their identity as persons not through self-assertion but through self-denial, which is counterintuitive, not the way our culture would tell us. They lay themselves down and then they find … as when Jesus says, “If you want to find your life, you need to lose it,” he’s talking about what’s been going on through all eternity in the Trinity.

MM: Right. Paul writes it in Philippians 2.

SS: Yeah.

MM: “Look at Jesus.”

SS: Exactly.

MM: “Model this. That he became nothing to serve us.”

SS: Right. That’s how they gain their self-identity, as it were, by laying themselves down, not by asserting themselves.

MM: The Father serves in this way; the Son serves in this way and there’s service everywhere.

SS: Yeah. We tend to look at another person as somebody to fear or someone that’s a threat to us.

MM: A rival. Yeah.

SS: The Trinitarian persons, there’s no competition among them because they’re all about giving themselves over to the other for the sake of the other. In doing that, they find their joy. You find some of these characteristics. There’s also a deferring characteristic where the Father says to the Son, “Judgment, I’m probably the one that should do that but you do it.” They place things, they give it the other, they defer.

MM: Even though there’s like an equality and agreement. There’s also distinction there.

SS: Yes, there is. That leads to a Christian understanding of differences being significant and important. The Christian vision isn’t that there’s going to come a day when we’re all going to get absorbed into one.

MM: Some Eastern religion.

SS: Right. I think Richard Neuhaus calls it sort of a tapioca pudding of homogeneity; we’re all going to get put back into that. But the Christian vision is there always be three, and so it prizes distinctives. Even around the throne in the book of Revelation, there’s people there from every tongue and tribe and nation. That’s led to Christians wanting, for example, to translate the Bible into the vernacular of every culture rather than wanting just one language to be the language that everyone has to learn and you can’t translate the Bible; it’s got to be in that language.

MM: Right. It’s interesting. The Koran has to be in Arabic.

SS: Exactly. Interesting that even in the Koine Greek here you’ve already got a language that the founder of the religion didn’t speak. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. You’ve already got that principle. I think it goes back to the Trinity, because those distinctions that matter. Differences.

MM: Again, that’s a relationality.

SS: Within relationship, yeah. Yeah.

MM: Sometimes we have difficulty in setting some boundaries for ourselves and we put expectations on ourselves. Maybe we think that other people have these expectations of us and we’re trying to match up to what we think they’re thinking. That seems really destructive.

SS: Right. To learn to accept who we are and to be who we are, and not to try to be someone else. I think there’s an old Jewish story about the rabbi that when he gets to heaven, he says God is not going to ask me why weren’t you Moses when you lived on earth. He’s going to say, “Why weren’t you you?” For whatever his name was. There is sometimes a tendency for us to try to let other people tell us who we’re supposed to be – or sometimes we do it to ourselves. Sometimes those of us in ministry spend five or ten years trying to preach like to somebody else.

MM: Right. Get one of these books and say, “Why am I not more like this fellow?”

SS: I remember years ago when I was a student in school. We had a few Billy Graham impersonators among the student body. We tried to preach like Billy Graham. “The Bible says,” or whatever. What the Trinity would say is “be who you are and prize that, and lay down your attempts and quit hating yourself for the person that you are.” Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy. There’s a right kind, a good kind of self acceptance that comes out of a Trinitarian vision where I accept the person that God has made me to be that’s distinct from you or anyone else.

MM: Different giftings.

SS: Yeah. I don’t try to be a 10-talent person when I’m a 3-talent or a 1-talent person. To simply be who I have been created to be, that’s what the Trinity would say I ought to do. That’s very liberating to me.

MM: Free to be who you are.

SS: Yeah.

MM: In your book, you tell a story of one of your students who wasn’t making the grades that the student wanted to make.

SS: Right.

MM: It was just a fascinating reaction there. Could you tell us?

SS: Yeah. I’d given her a B+ on a paper. Actually she was in that very chair right there. I can remember a number of years ago when this happened. She came in and wanted to know how can I do better on this. As we began to talk, I knew she was doing a lot that semester. She was working. She was doing some counseling. She had some issues she was working through, so there was a lot going on in her life. I said to her, “I think at this point, for this semester, that a B+ is a good grade for you to get. You’ve got to accept your limitations.” She looked back at me and she said, “Oh no. I can’t do that. I’m an A student. I’ve got to have As.” I said, “You know, it’s not a sign of weakness in a person to accept limitations. Sometimes it’s a sign of strength and maturity.” “No, no, no.”

She went back and forth, and finally I just got tired and impatient with the whole thing. I said, “What do you think Jesus thinks of your B+?” She sort of got quiet, she’s a little sheepish, but she said, “I’m afraid to ask him.” I was sort of surprised at that and I said, “Why are you afraid to ask him?” Her answer shocked me. She said, “It’s because I’m afraid his standards for me will be lower than mine.” Sometimes we have these perfectionist standards that we’ve set for ourselves. Or that maybe we had a parent who demanded that from us or whatever. We put those on ourselves. Sometimes I think to accept ourselves, we’ve got to smash that idol that we’ve made. It’s because it becomes a false god. We bow down to it. We could feel OK about myself if I get that A. That’s a part of the virtue of true self acceptance.

MM: It’s a false image of God.

SS: It is. Yeah, it’s a false god.

MM: It’s interesting how we try to out-perform God.

SS: Right. I think maybe going right back to Adam and Eve, somebody told us we could be like God and we believed the lie, and it’s gotten us into this idea that somehow we could in fact be perfect, the super person that we’re not. That’s a part of the delusion that we run to. It’s our pride system.

MM: The whole book is in a way that we are like a god. We were created already to be like that but that’s the temptation. Maybe it’s the individualism and relationship difference again.

SS: Right. Yet I think that sin is in a sense refusing to accept our proper being like God, but that’s mean, and sort of striving for a way of being like God that we were never designed for. It’s not in keeping with who we are, but as a part of our fallenness and our brokenness and it’s a part of the delusion and the lie.

MM: All right. Thanks very much.

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Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2019, 3:48 PM