What is "Sonship"?

Comments (19)

When we think of promoting spiritual growth and discipleship in individuals, churches, and even our denomination, many ideas come to mind. Certainly ministries and materials, including the Faith Alive Disciples Series, Coffee Break, Navigators, Alpha and many types of small groups are just a few key programs that have been effective in assisting people in their spiritual journey.

In the past several years, Christian Reformed individuals and churches, particularly in the Northeast US, have been introduced to Sonship a ministry that comes out of World Harvest Mission. The material from this ministry comes in various formats, and is also known by the title, Gospel Centered Life.

Outside our denomination, churches and individuals have been spiritually changed by its perspective and perhaps the most well known individual who has integrated the material into his ministry is Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NY City.

What is Sonship? It gets its title from a ministry that encourages Christians to live out the gospel in all areas of life. It was first developed for ministers and missionaries when it was observed that sometimes those individuals in ministry could not get along with each other. Often those who seemed quite mature in their faith, and theologically knowledgeable, had professional and family lives that were not very healthy.

Many Christians will say they believe that Jesus’ death on the cross saves them, but as they grow in their Christian life, they begin to trust more in their own righteousness. They forget the incredible love of the Father who has adopted them as sons and daughters. This can lead to attitudes that harm their closest relationships as well as their outreach in the community. Sonship also encourages repentance as a lifestyle as individuals begin to deal honestly with their sin on a daily basis.

Two other important aspects of the Gospel centered approach include forgiveness and how that differs from reconciliation, as well as how to have healthy conflict. Both seem to be areas where many Christians struggle. People are not just told they have to forgive, but where they can get the power to do  so. In addition, they learn how they normally handle conflict and how to deal with conflict with a Gospel centered approach.

In summary, Sonship is written and taught from a Reformed perspective, and it moves our great theological truths from our heads into the nitty gritty of life. Its perspective is life changing and practical and sets a foundation for other forms of discipleship. In other words, it is not just another program or ministry, but rather a key to help other programs and ministries in the church succeed through the power of the Holy Spirit.

What about the description of the Sonship material has resonated with you?

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I would never use it and am surprised that you are recommending anything with the title "Sonship".

Seriously. . .do we still need to have the conversation about how language "speaks", and how this title disenfranchises and demeans half of the population?

I'm sorry if this seems antagonistic, but this kind of thing matters. And it matters because of the Gospel! It's not a side issue, something - despite the Gospel - to which we can continue to turn a blind eye. Adoption means everyone. Sonship means only those with a. . . male anatomy.

I agree that adoption does include everyone and that the title `Sonship' is not inclusive. My ministry for 18 years was with the organization, World Harvest Mission, that created the `Sonship’ discipleship material. I have been discipled and deeply impacted by the material and have also had the privilege of discipling many others with the material over the years. A little history might help: The 'Sonship' curriculum was created over 20 years ago and in many ways is dated.... and is certainly not at all slick. The title is based on Romans 8:15. When the curriculum was created the NIV and many other translations of Romans 8:15 said: "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of Sonship. And by him we cry, "ABBA", Father." Since that time World Harvest has created newer discipling curriculum such as `Gospel Transformation' and `The Gospel Centered Life' that do not use `Sonship' in the title. The thinking was that the `Sonship' curriculum might eventually be retired and replaced by these newer excellent curriculums.And indeed these newer curriculums are becoming very popular as discipleship tools. However, people keep using the 'Sonship' course. Even though it is somewhat quirky and could use revision, the gospel applications it contains are  profound and practical for walking daily with the Lord. Many lives have been positively changed by the focus on adoption, learning how to repent of sin and what the righteousness of Christ means in day-to-day relationships. On a personal note It was during my time of using the `Sonship' course that i became convinced  and convicted to adopt an egalitarian position on women for church leadership.  The `Sonship’ course is best used one-on-one in a deep mentoring relationship and takes almost a year to complete.  The ‘Gospel Centered Life’ curriculum is easier to use in a small groups, is user friendly and also has more current language and sensibilities.

I agree that adoption does include everyone and that the title `Sonship' is not inclusive. My ministry for 18 years was with the organization, World Harvest Mission, that created the `Sonship’ discipleship material. I have been discipled and deeply impacted by the material and have also had the privilege of discipling many others with the material over the years. A little history might help: The 'Sonship' curriculum was created over 20 years ago and in many ways is dated.... and is certainly not at all slick. The title is based on Romans 8:15. When the curriculum was created the NIV and many other translations of Romans 8:15 said: "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of Sonship. And by him we cry, "ABBA", Father." Since that time World Harvest has created newer discipling curriculum such as `Gospel Transformation' and `The Gospel Centered Life' that do not use `Sonship' in the title. The thinking was that the `Sonship' curriculum might eventually be retired and replaced by these newer excellent curriculums.And indeed these newer curriculums are becoming very popular as discipleship tools. However, people keep using the 'Sonship' course. Even though it is somewhat quirky and could use revision, the gospel applications it contains are  profound and practical for walking daily with the Lord. Many lives have been positively changed by the focus on adoption, learning how to repent of sin and what the righteousness of Christ means in day-to-day relationships. On a personal note It was during my time of using the `Sonship' course that i became convinced  and convicted to adopt an egalitarian position on women for church leadership.  The `Sonship’ course is best used one-on-one in a deep mentoring relationship and takes almost a year to complete.  The ‘Gospel Centered Life’ curriculum is easier to use in a small groups, is user friendly and also has more current language and sensibilities.

Some responses have confirmed my fear that individuals would reject the material based on the title. Words matter, and I should have be more sensitive with my explanation.  It is also true that actions speak louder than words. I can only speak to my experience, but as a woman I have found that those who have been discipled by and who live out the principles of this material have not been demeaning toward me. In fact, they have encouraged me to use the gifts that God has given me.

Guide

I took it as referring to "Son" as in Jesus and not referring to male children in general. I have to admit I did roll my eyes a little bit though - reminds me of singing "A Sonbeam, a Sonbeam."

Thank you for the background - I did understand the biblical reference and the emphasis on adoption and the freedom that comes from being united with Christ. I'm not surprised that a study on this topic, with the intensive, mentored approach that you mention would be effective.

Yes, there were many books published before and during the years when gender equity issues were nascent and beginning to be better understood. That is no reason to continue to use this kind of language. Books and print materials of all genres are regularly re-issued with new and/or edited material, with new covers and imagery and with different titles and by-lines. This is a common and effective method of updating material that has become out of date.

If the publisher wants to continue to promote this material, they should change the title. And we should not purchase or promote material that is insensitive to this issue. We should, instead, be telling the publisher that, no matter how good their material, we won't buy it with that title.

While it may be only one instance of demeaning language, it points to the still deeply imbeded use of words that hurt and disenfranchise. We could strive to do better. We should take every step possible to lift up the radical insistence of the gospel - we are all one in Christ, and none should lord it over the others.

 

Really?  The concept of adoption including the full rights of sons for male and female is offensive?  For Paul, the awesome news of the gospel was that all of us, male and female, could share the full rights of sons (Romans 8:14, 19 etc).  This means we get the full inheritance!  It is a concept that needs to be explained, but not forgotten in a struggle over language.  Sonship describes and defines the incredible love given to us in adoption.

This  discipleship course is about understanding God's love and grace in Christ so as to apply it to every area of life.  In other words, it has nothing to do with "lording it over others."   It emphasizes humility brought about by repentance and faith.  I struggle to see how such biblical concepts are out of date.  

I can positively affirm that the Sonship material has been an incredibly powerful tool of transformation in my life, in the life of my wife, and within my congregation.  It has opened the hearts and minds of many to see the radical, life-transforming power of the gospel.  It has changed the language of our church to be focused on repentance, faith, forgiveness, reconciliation, and gospel-inspired evangelism.  In other words, this discipleship program has brought authentic revival and renewal to a congregation that desperately needed it.  

So what does it teach?

1.) Cheer up, you are a lot worse than you think.  The first third of the course deals with our need for the gospel.  This message is not merely the key to heaven, but the key to authentic Christian living.  Theologically speaking, the first third of the course deals with the topic of total depravity so as to pastorally affirm our current need for the gospel.  It points to repentance and faith as the true marks of faith.  It focuses on how we do so many things to change the subject so we do not have to deal with our need.

2.) Cheer up, God loves you more than you think.  The second third of the course deals with the good news of the gospel.  It pastorally applies the concept of justification by faith to every area of life.  This section continues to probe deep within our hearts to illuminate how the Love of God allows us to give up the idols of control, addiction, anger, and lust which are nothing but cheap substitutes for God's grace and love in Christ.

3.) Cheer up, God can use you more than you can imagine.  The last third of the course deals with application of the gospel.  The material includes the topics of forgiveness, how to engage in constructive gospel-centered conflict, and gospel-centered evangelism.  

All of these topics are firmly within the Reformed faith, but so often we forget them.  This discipleship course is a reminder of what adoption is all about.  

An interesting concept, Greg.  More bible based than "self-based".   That both men and women can be "sons of God" seems to be much more egalitarian than our present day concepts of gender equality.  It leaves no room for distinguishing any kind of difference between sons of God and daughters of God, in terms of God's love and salvation for us.    Thanks for your words. 

Are you advocating that we take whatever words we find in the modern english translations of our bible and make them mean whatever we like? Son means male. Sonship means relationships between parent and males. Adoption is more inclusive and applies to both male and female.

Sonship is exclusive, not inclusive. And regardless of whether you would like it to be inclusive, or not, it speaks to inequality, not its opposite.

We can argue about words till the cows come home.   Fact of the matter is that "man" is often used to mean mankind,  which includes boys, and girls, and women, and men.   When the term is used, it implies an equality in significance of all of the human race, genders, ages, colors, languages, ethnicities.   Trying to remove that meaning, is simply highlighting the differences rather than the similarities (which is the exact opposite of your intent).  

It is quite obvious that "sons" refers to both males and females.  See below. 

Matthew 5:9
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Romans 8:14
because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Romans 8:19
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.

Romans 9:26
and, “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”

Galatians 3:26
[ Sons of God ] You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,

Galatians 4:6
Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”

Hebrews 2:10
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
   Hebrews 12:1
[ God Disciplines His Sons ] Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

I agree that we can argue about words until the cows come home. We are not talking about the word 'man', we are talking about the word son.

And quoting a list of scriptures does not prove your point.

The english word 'son' is exclusive and does not reflect the witness of the whole story of scripture or of the life and witness of Jesus.

If we agree that God loves the female that he made and there is no distinction in his love between male and female, then we should shout that story from the rooftops. We (those who have the responsibility of telling this great story) should not make those who don't know the story work so hard that they have to twist their language to fit in. They should not have to learn a secret code about what we "really" mean by the word son. . .wink wink. . .in order to get the point.

Participant

I think we should be shouting that God loves people.  I'm afraid that the focus of egalitarianism is side-tracking any discussion regarding the quality and content of the curriculum that others -- as have been vocal here -- have appreciated, both male and female.  To dismiss a curriculum strictly on the title being perhaps "outdated" would be a grave misfortune and perhaps suggesting one's own passionate agenda is more important than the value in the progam and the main point; discipling others into a closer walk with Christ and thus reaching others for the kingdom.

While I agree words are important and how we use language, the nature of this thread is in regard to the content of the curriculum and not "words" per se.  I believe the discussion on the use of language in our denomination belongs somewhere else on the Network but not this particular thread.  It is becoming clear that that discussion is not going to be resolved here.  And as the current guide I do not want the thread to stray from its intent.

I believe that the conversation about language and how we tell the story should be part of every thread, so that we think carefully about how we use language and how we engage with those who may not know the story, or may feel that the story doesn't apply to them.

I commented on this thread because of both the language/wording of the title of the material and because of the content of the recommended study.

But, you have made your point and I will agree to disagree. However, if we can't have a dialogue with dissenting voices, it's not much of a conversation.

Participant

I get that and I think your point was clearly made early on.  And I have no problem with dissenting dialogue, but that issue won't get resolved here but has been highlighted. Points were made and stated and it looked as if it may continue becoming circular or ad hominem in nature.

I have tried to send this as a pesonal email through the network site, but it won't go through, so I'm posting it here. . .

Hi Allen,
Read your last post and wanted to take it "off-line", so that the back and forth between us doesn't get circular :)
I understand your final post and appreciate that you have a responsibility to moderate that thread. I also agree that the issue will not be "resolved" in any text-based, on-line dialogue. However, your previous post (at 3:02) gave me the impression that my comments were not welcome, that they "distracted" from the "real" conversation we should be having, and that I should take them somewhere else.
Your further post clarified in a more effective way, for me. They were less personal (i.e. not directed specifically at me) and I understood that you heard my comments, not just that you wanted them to stop.
The conversations did not seem circular to me, as they were responses from different people, with different emphases.
It's difficult to have a real conversation online. I bless you in your role. I trust, in general, it's more 'fun' than 'friction'. :)
Colleen

This is an old post i can see. But i am doing my own looking into 'sonship' for my own reasons. I am glad i am still able to access this information on the internet and that a select group hasnt spoilt that for me. Persoanlly people have to prove their information to master the concept of christian thinking. I prefer to grow off the spiritual advice of those whom can balance the ability to seek not just mastering concepts but be sensitive to enjoy the mystery and revelations of the holy spirit. I think that is the main problem that is so called disenfranchising...to me that would be a poor use of words.

Thanks for a good review Diane! The ten months my wife and I spent going through the Sonship material with Drew Angus was one of the most profound experiences in our spiritual growth. As a pastor of 15 years and student of discipleship and leader development, I highly recommend this course. The material is solid, reformed in its approach, and carries out its goal of personal transformation. I wish more CRC folks were aware of this rich resource. As Drew pointed out, WHM's more recent "Gospel Centered Life" is also an excellent course and more user-friendly for small groups and newer Christians.

For what it's worth, "Sonship" teaching has been somewhat controversial within Presbyterian circles, not because of its name but because of its theology.  Number 19 in this paper by John Frame gives some of the background: http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2003Machen.htm  An account of a conference on "Sonship and Sanctification," which included presntations "for" and "against" is: http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/news/2001/06/greenville_conference.php

Tim Brown... wow!  lots of interesting  controversies about grace, gospel, faith leading to sanctification, assurance, etc., etc..  in the links you provided   but the bottom line for me is simple.   Saved by grace through faith.   and then, "shall we sin more, so that grace may abound?"   Christ talked more about obedience, than He did about grace.   Although He exhibited grace in his life and actions.  And in his death and resurrection.  

Lately, I've heard the quote, "judge not, that you be not judged", used as a way of muting the commands of obedience.   It is a way of neutering the authority of elders and pastors.   It is often used as a way of reducing the commands of Christ in our daily lives.  

We can debate the theological precepts forever, but the bottom line is that our desire to follow Christ is always fighting with our sinful nature.   We are sinful saints.   When we stop fighting against that sinful nature, then sin wins.   Pray for the Spirit to fill us, to win the victory over the daily sin in our lives.  Scripture says that no one who follows Christ continues to sin.   Don't make excuses for it, and don't try to justify yourself in your sin.    Believe it and do it right.   

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