The Cutting Edge: Technology & Church Ministry

All churches employ forms of modern technology to assist them in the tasks of outreach, discipleship, community, and worship. This raises the question as to whether the Bible provides the church with any guidelines or principles for choosing and using appropriate forms of technology in carrying out her Great Commission. I believe it does. One key text in this regard actually comes from the Old Testament. I’m thinking of Ecclesiastes 10:10, where we read, “Using a dull ax requires great strength, so sharpen the blade. That’s the value of wisdom; it helps you succeed” (Eccl 10:10, NLT).1

Keep the Edge Sharp

An axe is a product of human technology, designed to assist man in subduing the earth. The implication of this text is that people should not only employ the right technology in carrying out their particular cultural task; people should also keep such technology well-honed and up-to-date in order to increase their productivity and likelihood of success. With a touch of humor, Douglas Wilson remarks,

We see in this proverb a little Solomonic understatement. That boy is trying to chop down a tree with a baseball bat. If a man stopped to sharpen the ax, he would get through the cord of wood a little faster. If he undertook a little maintenance, the car would run longer.2

So “wisdom” (Hebrew: חכמה) instructs a person to ensure that his technology be (in this case literally) “cutting edge” technology.

Don’t Miss the Church for the Forest

I know. Solomon is referring specifically to the technology used by lumberjacks for cutting down trees, not to the technology used by pastors for doing church. Nevertheless, we don’t want to miss the application this proverb has for the church by being preoccupied with its application to the forest, as it were. Since technology is a circumstance of worship, our Confession of Faith (following Scripture) gives us leave to employ the light of nature, Christian prudence, and the general principles of Scripture to our modern ecclesiastical context (2LCF 1.6). Hence, we may isolate the basic principle from this passage and, by way of good and necessary inference, apply that principle to the life and ministry of the local church.

Honing Our Definition

Before lumbering ahead in our study, we should pause to hone our understanding of “technology.” If one consults a modern English dictionary, he’ll find that the term “technology” has several different but related uses. In his book From the Garden to the City, John Dyer does a fine job of distilling these different uses of the term into four concise definitions:

  1. technology is “the skill of making things”;
  2. technology is “the study of the skill of making things”;
  3. technology refers to “the tools used to make things”; and
  4. technology is “the things made with these tools.”3

Let’s apply these four senses of the term to the specific technology addressed in our opening text. In the first place, Solomon is alluding to the technology or “skill” of woodcutting. In modern terms, think of the lumber industry or the housing industry.

Secondly, one might conceive of a branch of science and education that studies the skill of woodcutting. Today, students who attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study various kinds of technologies, particularly those related to science and engineering. For the sake of illustration, we might imagine in Solomon’s day something like LIT or the Lebanon Institute of Technology, which specialized in the study of woodcutting.

Third, our text most obviously refers to “tool,” specifically, an iron axe. Today, axe heads are usually made of steel. In fact, we actually have other tools for dropping trees, such as handsaws and motorized chainsaws.

Finally, while our text doesn’t explicitly identify exactly what the woodcutter was seeking to make from the dropped tree, we can assume that it was some other form of human technology, whether building structure, a battle siege ramp, or perhaps some wood handles for iron axe heads! In this case, technology is both the tool and the product made by the tool. Today, the graphic designer, by way of example, uses the technology of a computer and Adobe software in order to create the technology of an Internet website.

With this multifaceted definition of technology before us, it should become apparent that human technology is very closely related to human culture. The first entry in the American Heritage Dictionary, 4thedition (2009) defines “culture” as “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.” Culture is everything human societies think, feel, do and make. Therefore, culture includes technology. Technology is an activity of culture, a tool of culture, and a product of culture. So when we speak of technology, we’re unavoidably addressing an essential aspect of human culture.

Conclusion

We’ve established a general principle that supports the use of the most appropriate and most efficient human technology in subduing the earth. What’s more, we’ve suggested that this principle may be applied to church ministry. We’ve also refined our understanding of technology and underscored the fact that it is an essential part of human culture. In our next study, we’ll seek to provide a biblical theology of technology and culture. We’ll follow that presentation with a post that highlights the benefits, tradeoffs, and dangers of technology. Then we’ll suggest some modern technologies that may be useful for church worship today.

Notes

1 The term translated “axe” in the NLT is rendered “the iron” in the ESV, which provides a more standard gloss for the Hebrew הַבַּרְזֶל (habbarzel). But this noun refers not only to the metal itself but also to various kinds of instruments made of iron. In this context, the Scripture writer most likely has an axe in mind. Not surprisingly, most modern English translations make that specific usage more transparent (cf. NASB; NIV; NKJV; NET; CSB).

2 Joy at the End of the Tether: the Inscrutable Wisdom of Ecclesiastes (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999), 107. Similarly, Tremper Longman III writes, “The meaning of the verse is that success is the fruit of wisdom, and the inference must be that a wise person would have sharpened the axe in the first place, saving himself a lot of wear and tear.” The Book of Ecclesiastes, in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 245.

3 From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), Kindle edition, loc. 946 of 3483. In the larger section in which his distillation of the basic uses of the term is found, Dyer provides a helpful analysis and the term’s etymology and historical development. See also Quentin Shultz’s definition in High-Tech Worship? Using Presentational Technologies Wisely(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), Kindle edition, loc. 584-1849.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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