Christianity 201

March 27, 2021

Today’s Church Needs a Dose of Tov

One of the most talked-about books among pastors in the last 12 months has been A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and his daughter Laura Barringer. I would love to have posted an excerpt here, but instead decided to peruse various reviews to see what I could stitch together. For those who are concerned that this is a sales pitch to get you to buy a book, I assure you there is no link at the end for you to make a purchase, their publisher doesn’t send review copies to Canada so I did not receive a copy and C201 is not monetized in any way. Still, I feel the book worth mentioning, and if nothing else, you learned a new Hebrew word today!

What is Tov? For that I went to “And Sons” Magazine:

Tov is an almost ludicrously small but infinitely expansive Hebrew word. Today’s native English speakers may be vaguely familiar with tov only because of hearing the Jewish/Yiddish saying “Mazel Tov” (“Good Luck” in English), but it’s arguably one of the richest words out there. The explosive power in tov can be felt right from the beginning.

Tov first arrives on the scene in the creation story—the first story detailed in scripture. It’s the word God uses to describe what God sees after completing various acts of creation. God’s use of tov in Day 3 of creation does a spectacular job of unveiling for us what tov is.

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good [tov].” (Genesis 1:11–12 NRSV) …

…The difference between how modern society uses the word good and how God uses the word good is staggering. In our day and age, it’s not uncommon to hear good being used to describe a new craft beer or an entertaining sitcom or the latest pithy tweet by a celebrity. Scripture, on the other hand, is significantly choosier when it comes to applying the label “good” (tov) to something.

Let’s explore the story of Solomon receiving the gift of extraordinary wisdom and exercising it with the two-prostitutes-and-the-one-living-baby predicament. This story fleshes out what tov in action looks like. In the first part of 1 Kings 3:9, Solomon says to God, Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good [tov] and evil….”

What frequently gets translated as “an understanding mind” is לֵב שֹׁמֵע in Biblical Hebrew (pronounced “lev shomea”), which is “a hearing heart” if translated with simple literalness. The purpose behind God giving Solomon a hearing heart is so Solomon can govern God’s people and discern between good (tov) and evil…

I strongly encourage you to make that article your study for today, so much so, that here is the link again.

The book is designed, as I said at the outset, for church leaders. Reviewer Liam Thatcher writes,

This is a not a book designed to create scepticism about the church, or stir up division, but rather to call the church to be what it is meant to be: a safe and beautiful place of healing. A family.

The authors write,

‘This is a book about defending the redemptive value of the church while at the same time accepting the truth that broken and fallen people within the church – including pastors and other leaders – will sin, sometimes in shameful and damaging ways… Above all, this is a book of hope – about a better way, a way we’re calling the Circle of Tov (from the Hebrew word for good), and what it takes to form a culture of goodness in our churches that will resist abuses of power, promote healing, and eradicate the toxic fallout that infects so many Christian organisations’

A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p7-8

He then includes one more citation from the book and ends with a point form outline of its major thrust. (You can sometimes gain some good thoughts just from studying a book’s table of contents!)

The Hebrew word tov means ‘goodness’ and appears more than 700 times in the OT. You could say that the Bible is the book of tov. In fact,

‘The word gospel could be translated as “the message of tov.” … The gospel is about God’s tov coming to us in Jesus, who is tov, and thus making us into agents of tov.’

A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p94

A tov church will proactively:

  • Nurture empathy, and resist a narcissist’s culture (ch6)
  • Nurture grace, and resist a fear culture (ch7)
  • Put people first, and resist institution creep (ch8)
  • Tell the truth, resist false narratives, know Yom Kippur, and form a truth-telling culture (ch9)
  • Nurture justice, and resist the loyalty culture (ch10)
  • Nurture service, and resist the celebrity culture (ch11)
  • Nurture Christlikeness, and resist the leader culture (ch12)

The book was written to deal with the issue of toxicity in the church, and so much of its aims were prescriptive; this is a warning. Mary Stahl writes at CBE,

…For those who feel they are in a safe, healthy church community, it highlights any subtle messages that may be “warning signs” of negative aspects which may not be evident on the surface. It also gives a good summary of topics to study which can be introduced to a church if not already part of its culture. On the other hand, for those who feel they might be in a toxic church environment, the book outlines characteristics that will help put “words to feelings” for the messages that are being projected. The seven characteristics of a good/healthy church also can be used as a barometer for how any church is faring with actively pursuing goodness in its culture.

Read that last phrase again, “…how any church is fairing with actively pursuing goodness in its culture.” (italics added) May that be so.

To that end, Michelle Van Loon quotes the authors,

Church culture matters. As we live in our culture and also into our culture, our culture begins to live in and into us. A good culture will shape us toward goodness; a toxic culture will shape us toward evil. Yes, we can resist and change the culture of a church, but resisting, at times, is like trying to slow down a hurricane

She was once a student of Scot McKnight, and in her own words she adds,

I was brought to tears more than once as I read their descriptions of tov culture, in part because my old scars still ache when I read words like these, and in part because I have tasted tov in enough other faith communities to know what Scot and Laura describe is not ivory-tower theory, but submission to the kingdom of God at work shaping and refining church culture.

Again, that last phrase, “…submission to the kingdom of God at work shaping and refining church culture.” (Italics added)

Ray Miller summarizes the practicalities of what the book calls “the circle of Tov.”

The circle of TOV nurtures empathy (a resistance to narcissistic culture), nurtures Grace (resists a fear based culture), puts people first (resists institutional creep), tells the truth (resists false narratives), nurtures justice (resists loyalty culture), nurtures service (resists celebrity culture), and all those habits nurtures Christlikeness (resists the leader culture).

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