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Grace, Works and Raducanu

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When Andy Murray won his first grand slam in 2012, writes the journalist Ian Leslie, it was a struggle against adversity coloured by grit and determination. When Emma Raducanu won hers ten days ago, it was tennis on a different level: flowing, blithe, natural, genius. When Murray won, we all felt relief. When Raducanu won, we felt joy. "We laud effortful achievement. We prefer effortless superiority."

Indeed we do. But this century has seen plenty of popular examples of what Leslie calls “the argument against talent.” David Chambliss, Anders Ericsson, Matthew Syed’s Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers have argued that talent is essentially overrated. Innate ability is less important than perseverance, practice, focus, mental preparedness and so forth.

Translated into theological language: works are more important than grace.

We want to believe this for several reasons, Leslie argues. 1) “It accords with the egalitarian, hierarchy-flattening spirit of the age. We are suspicious of elites or elitism of any kind. Once you set your mind against unearned privilege, it’s a short step to believing that nobody is born to be a champion or a great musician; that everyone has the potential to be as successful as anyone else ... It feels right, it feels just, that the highest rewards should go to those who persevere.” 2) “It is good for business. If talent is innate, then you can’t buy it, and nobody ever got rich selling something that can’t be bought. If what we call talent is in fact a matter of how we behave and what we believe then the free market is very much here to help.” 3) “It is reassuringly technocratic. It meets a certain desire to have everything explained and formularised, made routine and transparent.” The theological parallels are striking.

Yet no matter how loudly we insist that we prefer works to grace, there is something deep within us that longs for grace over works:

In 2011 the psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay presented 103 study participants with written descriptions of two classical pianists. One pianist was described as having innate ability (the “natural”); the other was described as someone who had worked extremely hard to develop her ability (the “striver”). The participants, who were a mix of experts and laypeople, were then played a recording attributed to each musician and invited to say which they rated more highly. Before doing so, they were asked for their views on musical achievement. Most of them stated that training and practice were more important than talent. But their ratings showed that they preferred the natural over the striver - and of course, they had been played exactly the same recording.

Tsay called this “naturalness bias”. Unsure if it applied only to artists, she performed a similar experiment, this time with entrepreneurs making pitches. She got a similar result: participants, especially if they were founders or investors, rated the same business proposal higher if they had been told it was from a natural rather than a striver. Our culture has a deeply ambivalent relationship to excellence. We prefer to attribute it to hard work, yet find ourselves inexorably drawn to stories of innate talent. We admire strivers, but we adore naturals.

Totally. We admire Ronaldo; we adore Messi. We admire Muralitharan and Allan Border; we adore Shane Warne and Viv Richards. We admire Joe Frazier; we adore Muhammad Ali. We admire Stephen Hendry; we adore Ronnie O’Sullivan. Something in our hearts is thrilled by the idea that you don’t always get what you deserve, and that sometimes you inherit great blessings through divine benevolence rather than human diligence. There is something magical about it. Ineffable. Supernatural.

Despite the power of the argument against talent, it has, remarkably, never quite overcome our deep-rooted attachment to the idea that there is something mysterious about the very highest level of excellence; something that defies every effort to break it down into habits, practices and feats of willpower. We continue to stubbornly believe that there are human beings who have an indefinable superiority. We have not eradicated the intuition that talent is analogue, immaterial, and unfairly distributed, and that certain individuals have such an abundance of it that they can do unreachable, incomprehensible things ... Emma Raducanu resists explanation. She does not make sense. And that’s OK - in fact, it’s glorious. Genius can be such a joy.

Our minds applaud works. But our hearts pine for grace.

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Vaccine Mandates and Personal Decisions

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A surprising amount of my day yesterday was taken up with people asking me questions around vaccine mandates. It is certainly the latest covid hot topic, and another area where it is easy to see division and polarisation. France has suspended 3,000 of its healthcare workers because they have not been vaxxed, while Italy has decreed that all workers, in all sectors, must be vaxxed or face suspension. Closer to home, there are people in my church who have been told they must now return to the office, but must be vaxxed in order to do so – unless they take a PCR test, at their own expense, every three days. A pastor from Switzerland described to me the division he is seeing in his church as vaccine passports must now be shown to enter a service. How should Christians respond to all this?

My friend Bryan Hart, from One Harbor Church, Morehead City, North Carolina, has written a terrific paper for members of his congregation asking questions about possible religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. The post that follows is a lightly edited version of that paper. (NB Where “I” is used, it is me speaking, rather than Bryan.)

The Ethics of the Vaccine and Mandates
Vaccine mandates have created a number of ethical questions, which can be categorized into three areas. First, there are the pragmatic questions: do mandates effectively increase the number of people who get vaccinated and do the vaccines themselves work? Second, there is the civil question: are mandates constitutional? Thirdly, there is the religious question: do mandates conflict with Christian doctrine, belief and obedience?

Christians and non-Christians alike will answer these questions differently. It is not our aim to take a position on the first two areas in this post (whether the mandate makes practical sense and whether it is constitutional). What we want to do is explore the religious question.

There are two significant areas of concern. The first is over the religious ethics of vaccines in general, and the second is in regard to the use of abortive cell lines in the development, testing and production of the COVID vaccine.

1. Religious objections to vaccines in general.
Here, we also need to distinguish between two kinds of objections.

First, there may be some who have a religious conviction that all vaccines are wrongful and opposed to Christian teaching. We do not support or share this conviction: I am very grateful that I and my children have suffered far fewer illnesses than we most likely would have without vaccines. Vaccines are one of the great blessings of our era. However, for the person who sincerely believes vaccines are morally wrong, we can consider them the weaker brother of Romans 14-15, and thus we should “bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). Though I would disagree with their conviction, it is possible that their opposition to the COVID-19 mandate is made in good faith and according to their conscience, and so we wouldn’t object to their religious objection to the mandate. It is worth saying that people in this category are very few in number.

Second, there are those who have historically received all kinds of vaccines, but are particularly opposed to either the COVID vaccine, vaccine mandates, or both. The problem here is the lack of a consistently-applied religious principle. Though a Christian may have a firm belief that this particular vaccine is bad, if belief is not tied to a scriptural or theological principle, then it does not qualify for a religious exemption.

It is not the responsibility of pastors to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do regarding the vaccine (although my personal position is that adults should get vaxxed). However, we discourage people from inconsistently applying religious principles, and so turn Christianity and the gospel into a tool for personal ends. Religion is not the only basis on which to mount an objection to a law or mandate, either. Christians have the right to protest and engage their government as any citizen does. But they must not selectively apply Christian principles.

2. Religious objection to the use of abortive tissue in the development, testing and production of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Before wading into the ethical questions themselves, the situation can be summarized as follows, which is largely taken from the “Statement from Pro-Life Catholic Scholars on the Moral Acceptability of Receiving COVID-19 Vaccines” published by The Ethics & Public Policy Center on March 5, 2021. (It has to be said that Roman Catholic theologians have often had a far more consistent approach to ethical issues than do we Protestants.)

● The four major vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca) have used, in varying degrees, “immortalized” human cell lines, meaning they have used cells that have been developed from a single source. HEK293 and PER.C6 are the two lines that have been used in COVID-19 vaccine research. The former source was derived from the remains of an unborn child in 1973, and the latter from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985.
● The 1973 case is a bit of a mystery, and many people think the child likely died in miscarriage. On the Gospel Coalition website Joe Carter has stated that, “HEK293T is a widely used immortalized cell line that was made from fetal tissue acquired in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The records pertaining to the origins of HEK293T were lost, so it is not known where the fetal tissue originated. However there are strong reasons to believe the tissue came from a miscarriage, and no compelling reason to believe it came from an elective abortion.”
● Even if the 1973 case was an abortion, neither abortion was performed for the purposes of scientific research, and the scientists involved in developing the cell lines were not directly involved in the abortion.
● “Fetal Tissue Cells” and “cells derived from a fetal tissue line” are not the same. HEK293 cells are no longer fetal tissue cells.
● All HEK293 cells were derived from the same source, and there is no ongoing use of aborted tissue to create more cells.
● HEK293 cells are used in a wide range of applications, to include processed foods (prepared by companies such as Kraft, Nestle, Cadbury and others), cosmetics and medicines. “Thus it seems fair to say that in addition to the use of HEK293 cells by the scientific community, nearly every person in the modern world has consumed food products, taken medications or used cosmetics/personal care products that were developed through the use of HEK293 cells in the food, biomedical and cosmetic industries.”

As for the vaccines themselves, another Catholic source describes the extent to which each has made use of fetal cell lines:
1. Pfizer: Pfizer/BioNTech’s coronavirus/COVID vaccine known as “BNT162b2” was developed using genetic sequencing on computers without using fetal cells. The HEK293 abortion-related cell line was used in research related to this vaccine, but not the testing of the vaccine . . . No cell line, fetal or otherwise, is required for the ongoing production of this vaccine. This vaccine is currently in use and requires two doses.
2. Moderna: Moderna’s “mRNA-1273” vaccine does not require aborted fetal cell lines for production, but aborted fetal cell lines were used in both the development and testing of this vaccine. This vaccine is currently in use and is easier to distribute than Pfizer due to cooling requirements. It also requires two doses.
3. Johnson & Johnson: The J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, “JNJ-78436735” does use the abortion-related PER.c6 cell line for ongoing production. This cell line was also used in the development and testing of the vaccine. PER.c6 is a proprietary cell line owned by Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. This vaccine is currently in use. This is a single-dose vaccine, unlike other COVID vaccines which require 2 doses.
4. AstraZeneca: The AstraZeneca/University of Oxford vaccine “AZD1222” does use the HEK-293 cell line for production. This cell line was also used in both development and testing of the vaccine. The AstraZeneca vaccine is not approved in the United States.
5. Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline: The Sanofi/GSK vaccine is not associated with aborted fetal cell lines for production. GSK produces this vaccine using a modified virus cultivated on insect cells. The HEK-293 cell line was used in the confirmatory testing of the vaccine…The Sanofi company is also developing a different COVID vaccine that did use the HEK-293 abortion-related cell line in the research phase.

So is using COVID vaccines immoral, considering their fetal connection? We can consider what type of cooperation exists in this scenario: formal cooperation (when one person cooperates with another person’s immoral action and shares their evil intention) or material cooperation (when one person cooperates with the immoral action of another person without sharing their evil intention). Formal cooperation is always evil, but material cooperation depends on other matters. For instance, using organs from the victim of a murder would not likely be objectionable to most Christians, nor would they object to a Christian owning a car showroom and selling cars despite their knowledge that a tiny fraction of those who buy them may use them for transporting illegal drugs, or even as a weapon. These are both examples of material cooperation.

The use of the vaccine falls into the category of material cooperation. Given the information already stated above, namely that fetal tissue itself is no longer being used, there are two primary questions. First is whether or not using cells from HEK293 or PER.C6 promotes abortion in any way. Many Christian ethicists have argued it does not, since it is both unnecessary and “medically inexpedient” to create new cell lines. It is worth noting that, if biomedical research created a demand for abortions, it would change the moral calculus of using not only COVID-19 vaccines, but all products that depend on HEK293 cell lines. As it stands, however, this is not the case.

The second question is whether using COVID-19 vaccines makes us guilty of cooperating with the killing of two children in 1973 and 1985. “For a number of reasons, many if not most Christian bioethicists would argue that it is not . . . the primary reason being that this situation is morally analogical to the case of the murder victim/organ donor. No one would say the Christian who received the organ was morally responsible in any way for the murder.”

For these reasons, we would argue that Christians are not guilty of sin for using COVID-19 vaccines. (Given that the HEK293 line was likely not from an abortion, as stated above, Christians who are still concerned with a connection to an abortion should consider Moderna or Pfizer as preferable.) However, some Christians may still have a conscientious objection to any of the vaccines. Similar to the above, we would make two distinctions.

1. There may be some who are so committed to avoiding contact with cell lines derived from fetal tissue that they avoid them at all costs in all areas of life. Again, we can say that their opposition to the COVID-19 mandate is made in good faith and according to their conscience, and thus we do not object to their religious objection to vaccine mandates.
2. There are others who do not have a robust objection or concern to the use of fetal cell lines except in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines. If the concern for the use of fetal cell lines is restricted to the COVID-19 vaccine, then we again find a problem with the lack of a consistently-applied religious principle.

Practically, where does this leave us?

Firstly, from all we have argued here, it should be clear that we would want Christians who object to the vaccine to be very clear about their reasons for this objection: is it genuinely on religious grounds, or for some other reason?

Secondly, if the objection to vaccine mandates springs from a concern about civil liberties (a concern with which I would have significant sympathy) then Christians should feel free to protest and engage their governments as citizens.

Finally, our hope would be that in our churches there is the space and generosity for people with different opinions on these matters to continue to love and worship together. The pandemic has created so many divisions: as children of God we need to demonstrate the reality of His ability to bring us together in unity.

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Thanksgiving is Foundational

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I’ve always found it really interesting that Paul includes a failure to thank God as part of the core of sin when, in Romans 1, he’s explaining the unrightousness and ungodliness against which God’s wrath is being revealed (Romans 1:21). I think I’ve found it interesting because many of us wouldn’t instinctively see a lack of gratitude as a particularly serious issue, and yet here is Paul, identifying it as the heart of all sin, alongside failure to honour God as God. It’s a little detail that’s easily overlooked, but Sam Allberry offers a really helpful reflection on it in his latest book, What God Has to Say about Our Bodies.

‘In the Bible, thankfulness to God is central to our human life, which we see reflected in how Paul describes humanity’s turning away. “They did not honour him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). Ingratitude is actually part of the foundation of all sin. Failing to honour God—removing him from his throne and rightful place in our lives—happens alongside and because of our lack of giving thanks to him.  Not to give thanks is to forget the goodness of God. It is to neglect the truth that he is, at heart, a God overflowing in kindness and generosity—every good gift comes from him—and that we are fundamentally recipients of his kindness (even with all the complications of life). That Paul couples honouring God with being thankful toward him shows us that unless we see God as fundamentally good, we will find little reason to follow and worship him. Thanksgiving is foundational.’

What God Has to Say about Our Bodies, pp.28-29.

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Bad Church Leadership

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The Mars Hill podcast has prompted a host of good questions about bad church leadership and what to do about it. In this week's Mere Fidelity episode I talk about it with Matt Anderson and Alastair Roberts; it was a fascinating conversation (at least for me), in which I learned a lot.
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War: What is it Good For?

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As the last American soldier stepped from the tarmac at Kabul airport the ‘war on terror’ finally petered out.

The phrase has come in for much analysis and ridicule since it was coined by George Bush. Was ‘war’ even the right term to describe what was going on? We’ve had surges, counter-insurgency, and counter-terrorism but in the end it’s been retreat and as counterproductive as the ‘war on drugs’. This has not been a campaign won.

When Covid first hit there was also a lot of talk about war. I used the term myself. It probably wasn’t the best turn of phrase. Is a virus something we can really war against?

In Tribe, published four years prior to the pandemic, war correspondent Sebastian Junger describes the surprisingly positive impact that a real war can have on a society. His thesis, and the evidence he produces to support it, is unsettling. The richer and more urbanised we are, he claims, the more depressed and suicidal we become. War might actually do us good: after the 9/11 attack New York saw a marked reduction in violent crime, suicide and psychiatric disturbances – something also witnessed in other areas of conflict, from the Blitz to Sarajevo, and in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Junger explains these disturbing observations by noting how real physical challenge helps foster group cohesiveness. Following a disaster, “class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group.” (Galatians 3:28 anyone?) It is in these more egalitarian, more tribal, settings that individuals feel more necessary. The battle for survival creates space for autonomy, competence and community in a way which is too often absent in modern societies. Without a sense of autonomy, competence and community mental health issues surge, which is why, “Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico but far more likely to suffer from depression.” A more tribal context provides more space for personal agency, something our modern world is deliberately engineering out.

Covid has been presented as a war-like emergency but it hasn’t created more societal cohesion. Instead we have repeatedly heard about the mental health crisis the pandemic has precipitated. There hasn’t been an increased egalitarianism: rather, those with secure income and comfortable homes and gardens to sit in had a rather pleasant lockdown, and saw a nice increase in their personal savings; while the poor have increased their indebtedness, known greater job insecurity and experienced the pressure of doing life in cramped housing. The divisions in society have widened rather than narrowed because of covid.

Our problem is that the pandemic hasn’t been war-like enough. For much of the last 18 months autonomy and competence and community have been stripped away from us. There hasn’t been an actual enemy we could go and grapple with, or lumps of concrete to pull off buried earthquake victims. Instead we were told to stay at home, mask up, keep our distance. Passivity has been more of a virtue than action. Our medics were like soldiers returning from Afghanistan – they’d been in a fight most of us only saw through TV. No wonder it is reported that so many medics, just like those military veterans, are suffering PTSD. They have returned to societies that seem more divided than ever and in which most people have no idea what they have really been through.

Junger wants us to be more tribal. It is that, he argues, which would make it easier for veterans to come home and for the rest of us to live with greater mental equilibrium and a sense of purpose. As he claims in the introduction to Tribe, “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

September is always a month in which churches do something of a reset. Summer is over, the kids are back at school, students returning. This year that reset feels more pronounced than normal as we start to regather after all the disruption caused by the pandemic. Many of us are not only doing the annual reorganisation of our serving rotas and small group structures but asking the big questions about what we need to do differently. One answer to that could be that we try to become more tribal.

That might mean we do less ‘activities for’ and more ‘you take the initiative’, deliberately finding ways by which we can increase personal agency. It might mean getting our hands dirtier, often literally, creating more ways for people to, as it were, lift lumps of concrete from buried bodies. It might mean doing things that feel a little risky, dangerous even. It will certainly mean emphasising our group-ness: that the church does need to be more egalitarian than the culture we swim in. And it will mean reminding one another that we really are engaged in a war, not against flesh and blood, but one that is no less real for that (Eph. 6:12).

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Why You Should Preach From Leviticus

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What book of the Bible have you rarely, if ever, heard a preach from? There are probably a few candidates, but I bet most of us would put Leviticus pretty near the top of the list.

And you might actually feel glad about that. When I started to tell people that our summer preach series would explore Leviticus, people’s reactions were mixed: some expressed their concern outright, others were politely quiet but struggled to stop their face from showing their real feelings. Very few people were enthusiastic about the idea!

But, as we got into the series, more and more people began to view Leviticus differently, and both their words and their faces were communicating a much more encouraging response. As one Sunday afternoon text put it, ‘I’m really enjoying Leviticus … much more than I thought I would!’

I think Leviticus is a great text for a preach series. Here are five reasons why I think you should consider preaching from Leviticus.

It reveals God’s heart

Leviticus is all about how imperfect people can live with a perfect God. It’s the vital missing piece between Leviticus 1:1 where God has to speak to Moses from the tent of meeting – with Moses outside because God was now inside (Exodus 40:35) – and Numbers 1:1 where God speaks to Moses in the tent of meeting – with both Moses and God inside. It’s a book about how humans can once again dwell in intimate relationship with God, just as was always intended at the start.

And importantly, it’s God who takes the initiative in making this possible. In Leviticus 1, it’s God who starts the conversation. Moses and the Israelites don’t have to try and convince or persuade God to reveal how they can draw near to him. God starts the conversation; he opens the door because he wants people to dwell with him. He wants us. God wants us. That’s the message of Leviticus. That’s the heart of God revealed in this book.

How different that is to what many people – even sometimes we ourselves – assume about God. And what a wonderful message to be able to bring to a culture in which people are longing to be loved and wanted.

It helps people understand Jesus

The subtitle of our series was ‘Finding Jesus in Leviticus’. We found week after week that it is not hard to find Jesus in Leviticus. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s not hard to find Leviticus in the work of Jesus.

Leviticus highlights themes that are central to the gospel and which help us to better understand what Jesus has done for us. Themes such as sin, sacrifice, atonement, purity, holy living, and blessings all help us better understand New Testament teaching.

As preachers, it was great (and easy) to get to proclaim the gospel through a different lens each week and to see people encounter Jesus through a book they have previously avoided.

It’s easier than you think

You may or may not find this surprising, but understanding and preaching Leviticus really isn’t as hard as many might assume. For all of the things we find odd or disgusting in Leviticus, its basic theological points are actually fairly simple. Once you get your head around its overall message and structure and a few of its key concepts, things begin to fall into place and the book becomes a treasure trove of rich gospel truth and godly wisdom.

There are also some really great resources available to help. Both the Bible Speaks Today and Tyndale commentary series have excellent volumes on Leviticus that are a huge help to preachers: Derek Tidball has written the BST volume, and Jay Sklar the TOTC volume. (Sklar is brilliant on Leviticus and has several helpful resources online). L. Michael Morales’ NSBT volume, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord: A biblical theology of the book of Leviticus, is also really helpful for understanding the overall message of Leviticus.

It serves a broad range of people well

Since Leviticus communicates fairly simple, foundational theological truths and does so in, to us, unusual ways, preaching from the book allows us to serve a broad range of people well.

For those who are relatively young in the faith, Leviticus provides the opportunity to get to grips with some foundational theological truths. For those who aren’t yet Christians, Leviticus presents the gospel time after time in various different ways. The oddity of the book also makes it engaging.

And for those who are more mature in the faith, Leviticus gives the chance to be reminded of the sort of foundational truths we all benefit from hearing time after time, but in a way that feels fresh because they are presented in a different form. Preaching Leviticus also brings life to a book that many believers will have read multiple times but may have struggled to understand.

It’s fun

Yes, believe it or not, I think preaching Leviticus can be fun. The oddity and unpleasantness of some of the book’s rituals and laws provide a great opportunity to have some fun with it. We called our series ‘Blood, Boils and Blessings’ and introduced Leviticus as the Horrible Histories of the Bible.

There’s plenty of fun to be had with Leviticus – without actually making fun of God’s word – and that fun helps people to engage.

So, maybe the idea of preaching from Leviticus isn’t as crazy as it might first sound. Why not think about giving it a go?

If you want to see how we did it, here’s the opening preach of the series, and you can find the rest of the preaches here.

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THINK 2021 Sessions Now Available

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The sessions from our 2021 conference with Peter Leithart, on Theological History, 1&2 Kings and the Post-Christian West, are now available. Enjoy:
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A Guide to Finding Faith

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There is a marvellous example of how to do thoughtful apologetics from Ross Douthat in this Sunday's New York Times:

Imagine yourself back in time, to an era — ancient, medieval, pre-Darwin — when you think it made sense for an intelligent person to believe in God. Now consider why your historical self might have been religious: not because “the world is flat” or “Genesis is an excellent biology textbook” (claims you will not find in Augustine), but because religious ideas seemed to provide an explanation for the most important features of reality.

First, the idea that the universe was created with intent, intelligence and even love explained why the world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing: not just orderly, law-bound and filled with complex systems necessary for human life, but also vivid and beautiful and awesome in a way that resembles and yet exceeds the human capacity for art.

Second, the idea that human beings are fashioned, in some way, in the image of the universe’s creator explained why your own relationship to the world was particularly strange. Your fourth- or 14th-century self was obviously part of nature, an embodied creature with an animal form, and yet your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it, with a peculiar sense of immaterial objectivity, an almost God’s-eye view — constantly analyzing, tinkering, appreciating, passing moral judgment.

Finally, the common religious assumption that humans are material creatures connected to a supernatural plane explained why your world contained so many signs of a higher order of reality, the incredible variety of experiences described as “mystical” or “numinous,” unsettling or terrifying, or just really, really weird — ranging from baseline feelings of oneness and universal love to strange happenings at the threshold of death to encounters with beings that human beings might label (gods and demons, ghosts and faeries) but never fully understand.

Got all that? Good. Now consider the possibility that in our own allegedly disenchanted era, after Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein — all of this is still true.

I do not mean to claim that 500 years of scientific progress have left the world’s great religions untouched or unchallenged. The Copernican revolution overthrew a medieval cosmology with a tidier celestial hierarchy than our own. Darwinism created still-unresolved problems for the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Man. Many supernatural-seeming events can now be given purely material explanations. And the modern experience of globalization has had an inevitable relativizing effect, downgrading confidence in any one faith’s exclusive claims to truth.

But there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.

The great project of modern physics, for instance, has led to speculation about a multiverse in part because it has repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. If science has discredited certain specific ideas about how God structured the natural world, it has also made the mathematical beauty of physical laws, as well as their seeming calibration for the emergence of life, much clearer to us than they were to people 500 years ago.

Similarly, the remarkable advances of neuroscience have only sharpened the “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, from the simple experience of color to the complexities of reasoned thought. So notable is the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue that certain materialists, like Dennett, have fastened onto the idea that both conscious experience and selfhood must be essentially illusions. Thus the self that we identify as “Daniel Dennett” doesn’t actually exist, even though that same illusory self has somehow figured out the true nature of reality.

This idea, no less than the belief in a multiverse of infinite realities, requires a leap of faith. Both seem less parsimonious, less immediately reasonable, than a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter, as the mind of God precedes the universe — that the precise calibrations of physical reality and the irreducibility of personal experience are proof that consciousness came first.

In fact, the very notion of scientific progress — our long track record of successful efforts to understand the material world — doubles as evidence that our minds have something in common with whatever mind designed the universe. As much as religious believers (and nonbelievers) worry about the confidence with which our modern technologists play God, the fact that humans can play God at all is pretty strange — and a better reason to think of ourselves as made in a divine image than the medievals ever knew.

I think there is some confusion on this last point among scientists. Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis.

But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”

… The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. It creates an obligation without telling you how exactly to fulfill it. It opens onto further arguments, between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved.

The difficulties of those ancient arguments — along with the challenge of dealing with religion as it’s actually embodied, in flawed people and institutions — are a big part of what keeps the spell of materialism intact. For finite and suffering creatures, religious belief offers important kinds of hope and consolation. But unbelief has its own comforts: It takes a whole vast zone of ideas and arguments, practices and demands, supernatural perils and metaphysical complexities, and whispers, well, at least you don’t have to spend time thinking about that.

But actually you do. So if you are standing uncertainly on the threshold of whatever faith tradition you feel closest to, you don’t have to heed the inner voice insisting that it’s necessarily more reasonable and sensible and modern to take a step backward. You can recognize instead that reality is probably not as materialism describes it, and take up the obligation of a serious human being preparing for life and death alike — to move forward, to step through.

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Beyond Public Toilets, Prisons and Pronouns

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There is a veritable plethora of books about gender and sexuality out there at the moment - my bookcase will soon need some serious rearranging just to accommodate the few I've acquired and read. There is much to say and many angles and aspects to consider. But for those who just want a quick overview of how to think about a godly response to any actual transgender people who might show up in your church or life, Andrew Bunt has written a very helpful - and very short - resource.

People not Pronouns helps us look beyond the fraught debates about which public toilets transgender people should use, which prisons those who commit crimes should be sent to, and whether or not we should use their preferred pronouns. It reminds us instead that behind each of those dilemmas is a real person, created by God and deeply loved by him, and that as believers we are called to model that love to all people, especially those who are experiencing so much pain and distress.

The order of Andrew’s three central chapters is important - instead of starting by helping us think through the ideas and concepts at play in the debate about what it means to be transgender, Andrew starts with the heart. What should be our heart response?

He shares a couple of true stories - real life experiences of people with gender dysphoria who tried to come to Jesus in the midst of their brokenness, but were turned away by those who bore his name.

In case you were wondering, Andrew advocates the opposite of this response. Jesus’ example was one of compassion for all those who were suffering - either physically or psychologically - and of love for outcasts and sinners of every kind. Wherever we think people experiencing gender dysphoria sit on that scale, our heart response must be one of compassion.

Andrew next outlines the head response, looking at the vexed question of identity and what the Bible teaches about how we should approach the question ‘who am I?’ Does my identity lie in who I truly am inside, as our culture would teach, or in what others think of me, or perhaps in something given by God? And having identified the true source of our identity, how should we live that out, especially when it feels uncomfortable for us?

Finally, Andrew addresses the hope response. Hope is what Christianity uniquely has to offer to those who feel trapped in a world of suffering, and Andrew unpacks what that could look like for those who have pastoral responsibility for or friendships with transgender people or those experiencing gender dysphoria.

Importantly, rather than simply seeing them as a problem to be solved or even a ‘victim’ group to be cared for, Andrew reminds us that ‘It may also be that those who live with gender dysphoria are a gift from God to the church.’ Over recent years many of us, myself included, have learned so much and gained such encouragement from the writings of same-sex attracted Christians who have chosen to remain celibate. Their testimony of God’s faithfulness in the midst of trials (such as standing against the immense cultural pressure to believe that a life without sexual intimacy barely qualifies as life, let alone one worth living), and their very obvious surrender of all they once held dear for the sake of knowing Jesus are powerful examples and reminders and encouragements to the rest of us. People living with gender dysphoria will have many of the same trials and the same testimonies of God’s goodness, that they can teach to those who have a much easier walk.

As I said, this is a very brief overview of the issue, and at the end of the booklet Andrew points to four longer resources for anyone wanting to learn more, but for anyone short on time, or perhaps wanting a resource to share with church leadership teams or pastoral care teams, People not Pronouns is a great place to start.

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Introducing ‘People Not Pronouns’

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There was a time in my childhood when I thought I was a girl. I don’t remember much about what else was going on in my life at that point, but I vividly remember the realisation that although everyone thought I was a boy, I was sure that inside I was a girl.

As I grew up, that feeling gradually faded. But it left me with something. It left me with the realisation that it is very possible to feel that inside you are not who you might seem to be. I think this is why when I first learnt about the experience of transgender people, I was instantly interested. This was an experience I had tasted and could fully believe was genuine and powerful. But I also learnt that those impacted by this experience were often misunderstood and sadly sometimes even rejected by Christians. From that point, I set out on a journey of reading, listening, thinking, studying, praying, discussing, and teaching. All of that has led me to write my recently published booklet People Not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender Experience.

What’s it about?

People Not Pronouns is my attempt to give a short introduction to the topic of transgender and to offer the structure for a rounded Christian engagement with the topic and, especially, with those personally impacted by it. It lays down the challenge that we as Christians need to be careful to see the people behind the debates. We need to remember the people, not just the pronouns.

ThePeople Not Pronouns booklet looks at three key elements of Christian engagement with transgender: a heart response – how we should feel about trans people; a head response – how we should think about transgender experience, and a hope response – how we can bring hope to those who experience gender dysphoria.

Within these chapters, I discuss topics such as how we can put love and compassion into action, the importance of understanding how identity is formed, what it means to live as a man or a woman, the impact of gender stereotypes, and the ways that we as Christians are uniquely equipped both to handle suffering in our own lives and to support others who are suffering.

I hope the booklet will prove a useful starting point for Christians who want to engage well with transgender people and with the broader cultural discussion about the topic.

What others are saying

According to a recent survey by Dr Wilson, a small majority of people find book endorsements ‘useful/informative’, so, for the sake of that group, here’s what a few people have said about People Not Pronouns. (For those interested, each of these people have read the booklet and not all of them are close friends!)

 

‘For all who shudder at the thought that “those who experience gender dysphoria and who come to follow Jesus are a gift from God to the church”, this brave book by a pastor who is himself such a gift, is for you.’

Dr. Trevor Stammers 

Chair of Christian Medical Fellowship 2007-2011 and former Associate Professor of Bioethics and Medical Law

 

‘Talk around the topic of transgender rarely offers clarity for the Christian or hope for the men and women living with this physical/identity discordance. Until now. Andrew Bunt has managed to strip away the noise and present a clear foundation on which all believers can stand. Under the headings, A Heart Response, A Head Response, and A Hope Response, Andrew presents a Christ-like reaction and faith-filled remedy to this complex and often distressing experience.’

Jeanette Howard

Speaker and author

 

‘Andrew reflects on transgender experience with compassion and wisdom and I found his integration of head, heart and hope compelling. People frequently ask me what to read about trans from a Christian perspective, and this booklet will now be my new go-to recommendation!’

Sean Doherty

Principal of Trinity College Bristol and author of The Only Way is Ethics

 

‘If you have ever considered anything to do with “transgender” as too difficult, and best avoided read People Not Pronouns. If you know anyone who could do with a good introduction to a complex reality in our contemporary world, suggest they read People Not Pronouns.

‘Andrew Bunt writes about people with real suffering, he explains the lived experience of gender dysphoria, and he calls us to love those who so self-identify with all the love and truth of God.

‘For any of us with pastoral responsibility or for anyone in the body of Christ struggling with “perfect love casting out fear”, People not Pronouns will help us know more fully the reality of that perfect love.’

Keith Sinclair

National Director of the Church of England Evangelical Council and former Bishop of Birkenhead

 

‘An admirably succinct, practical and compassionate introduction to how Christians can and should respond to transgender people in their congregations and communities. Andrew helpfully lays out the heart response, the head response (the order of these is important) and the hope response that we can and must offer, along with a helpful examination of how we discern and live out our identity. This short booklet is an invaluable resource for all believers as they seek to discern how God would have them respond to the people behind the pronouns.’

Jennie Pollock

Head of Public Policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship

 

‘Andrew Bunt writes with a brilliant combination of deep sensitivity and deep insight, of honesty about his own testimony and honesty about the answers that the Bible brings. Andrew is proclaimer of Christian hope into an arena where many Christians feel tongue-tied and confused. I would heartily recommend this booklet to anybody who wants to learn to pastor transgender people with the truth, love and grace of Jesus.’

Phil Moore

Author of the ‘Straight to the Heart’ series of Bible commentaries

 

People Not Pronouns is available now, published by Grove Books.

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The Spirit Promised to Abraham

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Drift seems to me to be one of the most dangerous things in the Christian life. It’s easy to drift in the wrong direction in areas of our life without even noticing. When we do, we can so easily miss out on what God has got for us. I wonder if part of Christian maturity is being able to take stock, notice areas of drift in our lives, and then be active in addressing them.

I’ve had to do this recently in terms of my relationship with the Holy Spirit. Over time, I had drifted. I hadn’t come to believe anything heretical, but I had grown to overlook the Spirit’s activity in my life and, frankly, I was often just failing to engage with him.

When I noticed this, I knew I needed to do something about it. As someone who likes to think deeply, I knew that part of the way I could do this was to read some good stuff on the Spirit. (I’m aware that ‘part of the way’ is a key element in that statement – intellectual engagement is not the full answer; intellectual engagement is only worthwhile if it then helps us with practical and personal engagement.)

One of the things I’m reading is Gordon Fee’s Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (his smaller work drawing on the much more substantial God’s Empowering Presence). I’m really enjoying it. The reminder of the centrality of the Spirit in Paul’s understanding of God, salvation history, and the Christian life is increasing my thirst for the Spirit and my desire to engage with him.

There have also been a few great ‘aha’ moments. Including this gem on Galatians 3:14:

‘[T]he promise of the Spirit is equated with the blessing of Abraham, even though the Old Testament passage does not mention the Spirit. Since the “blessing of Abraham” came in the form of a “promise,” this word is the one Paul uses throughout the argument of Galatians 3 to refer to the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant. In a statement crucial to this argument, Paul says the fulfillment of this promised blessing for the Gentiles is in their having experienced the Spirit as a living and dynamic reality. The blessing of Abraham, therefore, is not simply “justification by faith.” Rather, it refers to the life of the future now available to Jew and Gentile alike, achieved through the death of Christ but applied through the dynamic ministry of the Spirit—and all of this by faith.’

Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (Baker, 2011), p.60.

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The Unifying Power of Singing

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Corporate singing is back, even if it remains cloth-covered in many churches (including mine), and reintroducing it to people who have not sung for nearly eighteen months is vitally important. Why? A couple of nights ago I had the chance to speak to our worship team, and I tried to answer that question, specifically by explaining why song is such a unifying expression of worship. Singing unites five things which are often separated from one another, and the result is beautiful.

Singing unites body and soul. “My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed” (Ps 71:23). It is wonderful to “make melody in your hearts,” rejoicing before the Lord in our innermost being, but singing aligns the body - the tongue, the throat, the chest, the diaphragm, the breath in the lungs and the vibrations in the thorax - with the rejoicing in the soul, and by doing so reinforces it. By making a decision to sing with our bodies, we can lift our spirits and increase our joy (in part because God, by his grace, has created human beings to release endorphins and oxytocin when we sing). Body and soul are brought together as we praise: “my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2).

Singing unites individuals with other believers. Jennie made this point last month: songs unite us to one another, whether we are in church or at a football match, and reach the parts that other beers do not reach. Psychologists could talk for hours about how songs function as a “hive switch,” turning us from self-absorbed individuals into a self-denying collective. But it is obvious from the way music works: if multiple people talk at once, the meaning of each individual is lost, whereas if multiple people sing at once (and especially when they sing in harmony) the meaning of each individual line is heightened and strengthened by being united with others. It is a glorious picture of what the church is intended to be, and especially so when we remember that if we sing from (say) the Psalter, we are united with the dead as well as the living.

Singing unites humans with other living creatures. The first noise you heard when you woke up this morning, if it wasn’t a vehicle or a small child, was probably the dawn chorus. Creation sings. It always has. Some do what we classically think of as singing (like birds); some make deep melodious notes underwater (like humpback whales) or supersonic cheeps (like mice) or rhythmic musical chants with their knees (like crickets). On the one occasion I woke to the sound of a lion making gentle early morning roars, it had a curious musicality to it. And that is without mentioning the angelic creatures whom we cannot see, who have been singing all day every day for thousands of years. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful hymn begins with the line: “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing!” But in many ways it is the other way around. God’s creatures are singing already, and we are invited to join them.

Singing unites living creatures with inanimate creation. Sometimes people talk about their desire to be, or their experience of being, “connected” to everything, with this sense that they and the world are in harmony and everything is lined up together. Phrases like that are often used about travelling to remote places, or smoking weed, but from a biblical point of view the best way to get connected to everything in the cosmos is to sing. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is 55:12). “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together!” (Ps 98:7-8). “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!” (Ps 148:3). If that all sounds a bit hyperbolic to you, bear in mind that on the one occasion Jesus was asked about people singing too loudly, he replied that if the people didn’t then the rocks would cry out instead (Lk 19:40).

Singing unites creation with God. The song of creation begins and ends with the great Singer, the inventor of melody and fountain of harmony, the word of whose power upholds all things and the beat of whose rhythm keeps the seasons in time. I have just been reading The Magician’s Nephew to my son and marvelling again at the sequence where Aslan sings Narnia into being. But the most delightful aspect of God’s song is that it is not just creative, but redemptive. There is a special song which God sings over his beloved people: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph 3:17). So when we sing together as a church, we are not just aligning ourselves with each other, or with the created order as a whole. We are aligning it with the One who sings loud songs of exultation over his children, and who finished the Last Supper by singing a hymn with his friends.

“I will sing and make melody! Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!” (Ps 57:8).

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There Ain’t Nothing Like A Friend

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How much have you missed your friends during the pandemic? In our churches we are working out how to rebuild community and personal interaction as we slowly emerge from restrictions – it feels surprisingly complicated.

In his book, Friends, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar distils the results of years of research into how human beings form and maintain friendships. There is a lot in this research that could be usefully learned from and applied in our churches. Here are my main take-homes.


Friendship is not an optional extra
Friendship is not only nice to have but is essential to our health, making a measurably large impact on life expectancy. Dunbar claims the research shows that friendship is more significant for our health than what we eat or whether or not we exercise. Only stopping smoking will make a bigger impact on health outcomes.

The impacts of friendship start young. The more socially integrated we are when young, the more healthy we will be when older.

Christianity is a faith that – remarkably – calls us into friendship with God (John 15:15). It is not surprising, then, that church is a place where people make friends. This has been made more challenging through lockdown, and has been especially challenging for children and young people. We need to be intentional about creating opportunities for people to connect and make friendships – it’s essential for our physical as well as spiritual health.


Friendship is limited
Dunbar is best known for the ‘Dunbar Number’. This is the observation that human societies consistently organise themselves into groups of 150, this being the maximum number of people we are able to relate to as friends.

There is a scaling of ‘threes’ in this: typically, we have five close friends; fifteen best friends; fifty good friends; 150 just friends; 500 acquaintances; and 1,500 people we know by name.

This is fascinating sociologically, but also has considerable relevance to church life. It is why in church leadership teams there is often a core group of three to five people and why relationship dynamics get complicated – and messy – if the leadership team exceeds fifteen. It is why most congregations number 150 or fewer. It’s why small groups function best when there are around fifteen members. It’s why larger churches have to structure things so that people operate within groups of five, fifteen, fifty or 150.

These limits on friendship do seem universal. It is unwise to ignore them.


Friendship is sexed
Dunbar offers observations, not moral positions, but he steps into territory that is controversial in our current cultural context; one of which is that there does seem to be a significant difference in how the sexes approach friendship. At the most stereotypical level, girls’ friendships are dependent on talking; the friendships of boys on doing. This is why, “men seem to enjoy, and work more effectively, in clubs”, in a way which isn’t the case for women.

This difference in approach to friendship means the sexes naturally segregate. Dunbar states the research reveals that, “Around 70 per cent of women’s personal social networks consist of women, and around 70 per cent of men’s social networks consist of men (with most, but not all, of the cross-gender members being family members over whom we have little choice).”

This insight might reassure us that it is not necessarily wrong for a church to run activities segregated by sex. Doing so could actually be beneficial to the whole church as it provides space for both men and women to make friends in the way men and women prefer to do. It also means we shouldn’t worry too much if looking around at church events we notice the men in one corner and the women in another – that’s just what tends to happen.


Friendship gets our endorphins going
There are certain things humans do together that raise our endorphin levels and are particularly effective in creating a sense of togetherness and belonging.

One of these is music. When a group of people – even if they are strangers to one another – make music together a strong sense of oneness is created. Moreover, singing in large groups has a more powerful bonding effect than singing in small groups. Laughter also has this effect, as does eating and drinking together.

Research on the effectiveness of the Big Lunch initiative showed that, “Four things emerged as common factors predicting how satisfied they were with the occasion: the number of diners (more is better), the occurrence of laughter, reminiscing about the past, and the consumption of alcohol. The occurrence of laughter and reminiscing both resulted in an elevated sense of bonding to the other people than was the case where neither happened.”

The relevance of this to church life is obvious. Church is a place where we sing, and singing is powerful. We need to get back to singing! Church should also be a place where we laugh. I’m grateful it is a rare Sunday when there would not be real laughter in my church. Churches are communities where we should be regularly eating and drinking together, another thing we’ve missed through lockdown.

All this comes into particular focus in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper: eating, drinking, singing, remembering. And yes, at times laughing, as we proclaim the Lord’s death and anticipate his coming. How denuded our experience of the Supper has so often become: it’s meant to be a celebration, that draws us together as friends to our greatest friend.


Friendship builds on story
Reminiscing is a key part of building friendship and the evidence is clear that we remember stories much more than factual accounts. Dunbar explains that this is because in order to navigate our way through the incredible cognitive demands of the social world understanding why someone acted as they did is more useful to us than knowing what they did. Understanding the why helps us navigate life – which is why we love stories.

Every preacher knows this: people remember the illustration more than the factual content of a sermon. At times this can feel very frustrating, but it shouldn’t be. We just need to get better at telling stories that help people to grasp and remember what it is we are trying to teach them.


Friendship has a limited attention span
Something I have often observed is that a group of us can be sitting in a team meeting, having a conversation, when suddenly there are two conversations going on in the room. This can be annoying – ‘Hey guys – don’t you want to hear what X here is saying?!’ – but Dunbar explains why this always happens.

Conversation is very cognitively demanding and we are simply not capable of holding an extended conversation in a group larger than four. A group larger than four listening to someone speak is a lecture, not a conversation. Conversations don’t last with more than four people – a fifth person joins and within seconds two conversations will form. And there is selective sorting by sex here too: when there are more than four in a group, and both men and women in the room, conversations very quickly split by sex.

This observation has all kinds of practical applications in church life: how we organise discussion groups, team meetings, discipleship structures, and so on.


Friendship is discriminatory
This is another area where the research points in directions we might find uncomfortable: the reality is that we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us – who think similarly. There even seems to be a biological and not only psychological basis to this. Dunbar includes the startling evidence that, “You are twice as likely to share genes with a friend as you are with any random person from your local neighbourhood.”

Our preference to choose our friends by ‘type’ is unambiguous. “Not only do we like people who think more like us, we also tend to prefer people of the same sex, ethnicity, age and perhaps even personality.” Does that mean we are all racist? Dunbar thinks not:

A preference for ethnic origins does not of itself necessarily imply racism, in the sense that we currently understand this term (i.e. differentiation based on skin colour). What you seem to be looking for is someone with the same cultural background because that makes it possible to create friendships and community bonding.

This presents issues for the church. We talk a lot now about racial differences but I’ve always thought that culture – or in British terms, social class – often presents a greater challenge. You might worship in a church which displays many different skin tones, but if everyone is university educated and in the socio-economic ABC1 demographic it is questionable if you really have a diverse church.

So this is a missional and ecclesiological issue: how do we best accommodate the reality that most people prefer to be with people like themselves and equip the saints to reach those who are culturally different? In Christ, that should be possible, but it certainly isn’t always easy.


Friendship is harder with age
As we get older it becomes increasingly demanding to make and keep friends. People move away, and then start dying, and we are more set in our ways. The old are less ‘attractive’ because they seemingly have less to offer by way of friendship. Thus we see the reality of many old people living very lonely lives.

There is a real opportunity for the church here, if, as Dunbar says, “The provision of social clubs and activities for the elderly [are] all the more important as a way of maintaining their mental and physical health.” Most of those clubs and activities got shut down during the pandemic – they need to start again.


Friendship needs to be face to face
Dunbar closes his book with an examination of the impact of the internet on friendship. There is a lot that we still don’t know about this impact – only time will tell. But we do know that close friendships require frequent face-to-face contact. Phone calls and email are great but they can’t take the place of actually being together. Zoom is better but works poorly for larger groups. If we are unable to maintain a conversation in groups of more than four people when we’re physically present there is no way we can manage it on Zoom. This is why so many of us have experienced ‘Zoom fatigue’ throughout the pandemic – being on screen with more than three other people is exhausting.

Friendship needs to be face to face. ‘Online church’ has a very limited shelf-life: it can plug some gaps and do some good but it simply cannot replace direct human interaction.


The pandemic has presented us with many challenges. I’ve been grateful for good friends who have stood by me, encouraged me, rebuked me, helped me and laughed with/at me over these months. But friendship has also been stretched. There are friends I have not seen for a long time, meals I haven’t had, conversations postponed. Friendship is precious – we need friends! Do yourself a favour, go and see a friend.

 

 

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Is It Really About the Weak and Strong?

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As legal restrictions lift in England, life has become a lot more complicated. No longer are there clear parameters for us to follow, we must now make our own choices about how to live in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. This is true for us individuals, but it is also true for us as churches. Should we still ask people to wear masks next Sunday? Should we still encourage or facilitate social distancing? Should we sing? These are the questions at the forefront of many of our minds at the moment.

The questions are very complex, and I’m really not sure what I think are the right or best answers. But as I have been listening to and involved in discussions around these matters, both online and offline, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with a particular aspect of the conversation. It’s something I wonder if we could benefit from bearing in mind as we engage with this tricky situation.

Should we talk of the weak and the strong?

Many of us have understandably been drawn to Romans 14-15 and the concept of ‘disputable matters’ that has been drawn from Paul’s teaching there. In a context where there were disagreements over the best ways to honour God, especially, it seems, in relation to food laws, special days, and perhaps also drinking alcohol, Paul calls the Roman believers to imitate Christ in extending an equal welcome to others regardless of their views on these matters in order to maintain unity in the church. In this context, he distinguishes between ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’ (Romans 15:1), calling on the strong to bear with the weak.

Both the teaching of Romans 14-15 and the concepts of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ have been drawn into the current discussions about church life after the lifting of restrictions. Carefully applied, I think the former can be helpful, but I wonder if the latter is unhelpful.

In most of the discussions I have heard, the clear implication is that those who are inclined to maintain some level of restrictions are the weak and those who want to move quickly back to a pre-pandemic norm are the strong. I am not sure that this is a helpful or fair use of the concept.

It seems unhelpful because to brand one group as ‘weak’ can easily be interpreted to convey – and may sometimes be intended to covey ­– disapproval. The irony is that in doing this we do exactly what Paul instructs the Romans not to do – we pass judgement (Romans 14:3-4).

Now, of course, the language is taken from Paul himself, and so how can it be wrong for us to use it if he uses it? Because I’m not sure that Paul’s situation maps closely enough onto ours. There are three important differences I think we need to acknowledge.

1. It’s not a clear right and wrong situation

As Paul looked at the different opinions among the Roman Christians, he knew that the position of the strong was actually correct. He makes this pretty clear (Romans 14:20), and yet doesn’t go to any length to convince those who disagree.

Our situation seems quite different. The matter is not clear-cut. The evidence on masks is not clear-cut. The potential outcomes of different choices we make and the development of the pandemic over the coming months are not and cannot be known. And different circumstances and situations mean different ones of us are understandably inclined to take different levels of risk. Unlike Paul’s situation, this is not one in which we can isolate a clear, one-size-fits-all right answer, and yet also unlike Paul’s situation, some seem rather clearly to claim – or at least strongly hint – that there is.

2. It’s not a fair comparison

The Roman believers were divided over the matter of how best to honour God in the way they lived their lives. Their differences of opinion were based on different levels of ability (‘the weak’ in Romans 15:1 is literally ‘the unable ones’) to accept the wonderfully all-encompassing impact of what God has done in Christ. This is why Paul specifies in his first reference to the weak that they are ‘weak in faith’ (Romans 14:1). They are not people who are just generally cautious or sensitive or uncertain, they are struggling to accept one particular element of truth about the work of Christ.

The Roman situation was in this sense a matter of faith. I would argue our situation is a matter of wisdom and love. The question is not whether we have the faith to go without restrictions – as if God has promised to protect us from illness, including its potential long-term effects and death. The question is whether it is wise to do so at the moment and whether it is loving to those who are more vulnerable – whether that be a physical vulnerability to the virus or a mental health vulnerability to anxiety after a year which has been incredibly hard on the mental health of many people.

3. It’s not clear who the strong are and who the weak are

In Paul’s situation, the identification of the strong and the weak was clear because the truth of the matter was clear. Since in our situation it is not clear which view is actually correct, it is also hard to say who are the strong and who the weak.

Most I have heard have seemed to assume that the strong are those who feel comfortable to go without restrictions and the weak are those who would prefer to take a more cautious approach by retaining some protective measures.

But it would be equally possible to say that the strong are those who still have the stamina, after all this time and all we have been through, to persist under restrictions that are frustrating and uncomfortable, but which may be wise and may be a way we can love others well. On this perspective, the weak would be those who have run out of the energy to endure some minor discomfort for the sake of helping and loving others – and potentially themselves.

It’s certainly not clear who the weak are.

So, what do we do?

This is a conversation we need to have. Many of us have already had to or will this week have to make decisions as to what will happen at our churches this coming Sunday. I do believe the principles of Romans 14-15 can help us: we should be working for unity; we should be sensitive to different perspectives, and we should do so without passing judgement on others. But I’m not sure the use of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ is fair or helpful in this particular circumstance.

Let’s love and honour each other. Let’s not pass judgment on each other. Let’s acknowledge that this is complex and that things are not clear-cut. And as we do this, let’s also agree on the simple, clear fact that we want to love one another well, however we may conclude is best to do that.

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To Mask or Not to Mask? That is the Question

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Sunday 25th July is fast approaching – the first Sunday in a long time that churches will be able to meet and worship as ‘normal’. What are you going to do?

Throughout the pandemic the wearing of facemasks has been a contentious subject and is becoming increasingly so. At first dismissed as having no helpful impact by the WHO and UK government scientists, last July there was an about face, and mask mandates were applied. From Monday 19th that mandate will be removed (in England at least) although the more cautious government line is that they should continue to be worn in crowded spaces. So what about in church?

The two main reasons for churches to insist (or encourage) the wearing of masks are along the same lines that Sadiq Khan is insisting they remain in place on public transport in London: suppress the virus and give people confidence. Should church leadership teams follow Sadiq’s example?

The first of these reasons is a simple scientific call – though the science is, unfortunately, less than clear. A recent study from Cambridge demonstrated that FFP3 masks, which block aerosols, are very effective in preventing the spread of covid, in contrast to other masks which don’t block aerosols. This is hardly surprising given that the coronavirus spreads largely by aerosols, and not by droplets or surface contact. Each church team will have to conduct their own risk assessment on this one, but for me, the very marginal potential virus suppressing effects of masks (unless you can get hold of FFP3 ones) are outweighed by the many downsides of wearing them. It seems that mask wearing is far more about psychological signalling than actual health benefits. Which leads to the second point of whether mask wearing increases confidence.

This is an even trickier one than trying to work out whether or not masks have health benefits because it is even more subjective. Do we follow what we might call the Gareth Southgate approach and continue to exercise extreme caution? Or should we be somewhat bolder?

Christianity has a bias towards the ‘weaker brother’. In favour of the continued wearing of masks we might employ the instructions of Romans 14 & 15 that ‘those who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak’. The problem in this case is working out who is the weaker brother: are the ‘strong’ those who want to ditch masks or is it actually the likes of Sadiq Khan who have significant powers to impose mask wearing on unwilling wearers?

We might also consider the exhortation of Titus 3 ‘to be peaceable and considerate’ towards one another; or the instructions about clothing and hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 – instructions intended, at least in part, to help congregations act in a way that doesn’t cause offence to a brother or sister.

On the other side of the ledger we could call into play scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 4:3-5; Galatians 2:11-13, 5:1-2; or even 2 Corinthians 3:18!

Of course, none of these scriptures speak directly to the subject of facemasks, although they are helpful in providing a grid for how we act towards one another and seeing the significance that items as apparently insignificant as a small square of cloth can have.

In the end this needs to be a pastoral call. At Gateway we are going to make mask wearing a matter of personal discretion – people will be as free to wear masks or not as they are to wear t-shirts or a suit. Those who choose not to wear masks will need to be gracious towards those who do and those who do will need to refrain from judgment of those who don’t. Yes, this will create space for potential tensions, but whatever decision a church makes on masks will do that. It can feel like whatever decision is made will result in a lose-lose, with someone taking offence. It doesn’t have to be like this in the church though. If we display love towards one another, regardless of mask wearing preference, we can turn this situation into a win-win.

Personally, the downsides of mask wearing – the sweaty, spotty face; the barriers to communication; the discomfort, especially as the weather finally improves – are something with which I no longer want to live. Others are free to choose differently.

Finally, an observation: the pastors I’m talking to who say, ‘We’re really struggling to get people back in church’, are also those pastors who have been generally more cautious throughout the pandemic. Lead cautiously and those you lead become cautious too. While we have a responsibility to care for, be patient with, and sensitive to those who are cautious, we also have a responsibility to lead people into faith, courage and hope: that’s harder to do from behind a mask.

 

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The Great Unravelling

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‘Transition is at best a palliative solution to psychological distress. It can never be a resolution because we can never change sex.’ These words are deeply controversial. They’re the sort of words for which some in the UK have lost their jobs. Many would assume they are the words of someone who doesn’t understand trans people, doesn’t realise the deep harm such words can do, and almost certainly doesn’t really care. But these are actually the words of a trans person who transitioned almost 10 years ago.

Debbie Hayton transitioned ‘male-to-female’ in 2012. She is now an outspoken critic of gender identity ideology, calling for the protection of women’s rights and the protection of young people who are quickly being ushered into medical transition. If anyone can talk about the reality of transition, it’s Debbie.

Debbie has written many helpful articles, the most recent of which is a reflection on her own experience: ‘Transition is not the Solution: a Personal Testimony’.

The reflections Debbie shares show how she has experienced the unravelling of gender ideology in her own life. Her story mirrors that of many others. Such stories are increasingly coming into the public sphere.

But Debbie’s experience is perhaps particularly noteworthy because she is not one of the new wave of critics and detransitioners emerging as the first generation of young people who were pushed towards transition reach adulthood. She is also not a ‘female-to-male’ trans person as the majority of the young detransitioners are. And she has many more years of experience of life as a transitioned trans person than most others who are now speaking out. I’m grateful for Debbie’s testimony, for her courage in sharing it, and the work she is doing to try and protect others.

Drawing out some lessons

What can we learn from Debbie’s experience? Several important themes – all of which occur commonly in such stories – are worth noting.

The role of the internet

Very often, the internet plays a central role in the story of trans people. Debbie’s experience was no different. While she had always been aware of a deep desire to be a woman, for many years she ignored this desire and employed coping strategies to keep going. But when the internet came along, and with it an insight into the fact that transition was possible, everything changed. ‘[H]ad it not been for the internet, I suspect that the second half of my life would have been pretty much the same as the first.’

The centrality of identity

In our culture, trans is all about identity. We’re told that how we feel inside is who we are. It doesn’t matter what our bodies or our community or anything or anyone else says; we are who we feel we are. Our true self is the self who lives inside. Therefore, for those whose internal self doesn’t match their body, the obvious thing to do is to bring the body into line with the internal self.

Except, that doesn’t seem to work. ‘I transitioned to try and find my true self. But I had always been my true self. The hormone therapy and gender surgery changed my body but it did not change me.’ It turns out, internal identity doesn’t work. We can’t just ignore our bodies and embrace our true self, because our bodies are part of our true self: ‘[O]ur bodies are more than mere perambulating devices; we are our bodies as much as we are our minds.’

The impact on others

Internal identity says we have the right to embrace our internal self no matter what the impact on other people. Being true to yourself – your internal self – is the most important thing, no matter what cost others might have to pay.

Sadly, the cost others have to pay can be pretty high. Talking of her transition, Debbie notes that it caused ‘so much distress to my wife and children’. Elsewhere, Debbie has written in more detail about the impact on her wife, ‘My transition was hardest of all for Stephanie. While I celebrated new freedoms, her life was made harder. As I crashed through life, she had to pick up the pieces. She counselled our children, looked after the house, and dealt with enquiries. People who walked on eggshells around me unleashed their worries on her.’

Embracing an internal identity is never just a personal decision. It will always have an impact on others.

The deeper reality

Debbie talks about the shift that has taken place in her thinking. Looking back to when she transitioned, she notes that ‘at the time I was convinced that I was some kind of woman’. But now she recognises that her ‘problems were rooted in my sexuality’ and that ‘we can never change sex’.

The consistent thread in those who question their choice to transition is that they have come to realise that their experience of gender dysphoria was in some way tied up with someone else. Since gender was never really the core issue, it’s no surprise that transitioning doesn’t really deal with the problem.

This is why Debbie says that ‘transition is at best a palliative solution to psychological distress’. If we really care about helping trans people, it’s this psychological distress that should be the focus, not the matter of gender. Gender dysphoria is better understood in terms of suffering than in terms of identity.

In another article, Debbie has honestly confessed her uncertainty over whether transitioning was the right thing to do: ‘If I knew in 2012 what I know now, would I still transition? Honestly, I’m not sure … In hindsight, I do wonder whether there might have been some less drastic remedy.’

Applying the lessons

All of these lessons can help us as we seek to understand the reality of transgender experience and to best love and support transgender people.

They are also a reminder of the importance of holding onto the Bible’s teaching and the truth when it comes to this topic. Transgender ideology is unravelling, slowly but surely. As it does, we can be those ready to welcome and support its victims in the years to come, sharing with them the good news of a God who made and loves them, of an identity that is given, not discovered or achieved, and of an eternal hope that can sustain us whatever we face.

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Satire, Social Mores, and the End of the West’s Cultural Revolution

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"The past 50 years or so have seen a cultural revolution in western society comparable in scope to the Reformation," argues Ed West at Unherd. "Most of us have known only that period of transition, when morality and norms were up for debate, but perhaps it is now over. Perhaps we have returned to the sort of world we lived in when England last reached a final, in 1966 – a world of strictly enforced social mores." He explains:

The British and American establishments of the late 20th century were historically quite unusual in allowing themselves to be mocked; from the mid-Sixties onwards, television regularly made fun of the habits and beliefs of the powers-that-be, with Monty Python — the most prominent product of the satire boom — pointing fun at the people who ran the country. Their 1979 film Life of Brian even mocked the beliefs of that old establishment. Two of the Pythons debated an Anglican bishop and Catholic writer Malcolm Muggeridge, but no one serious tried to stop the film.

Life of Brian couldn’t be made 20 years earlier, and neither could it be made now; its satire of Jesus, a prophet of Islam, would risk upsetting Muslim sensibilities, which it’s fair to say people have become slightly wary of doing. At the very least it would need to cut out the scene pointing fun at a man who, absurdly to the filmmakers and audiences, identifies as a woman; absurd in 1979, as it had been in 1879 and 1779 and in every year before that, but a sacred idea in 2021. It’s sacred in the sense that its believers have captured the moral citadel where the most powerful ideas are protected by taboo, achieved either by emotional argument or intimidation (and both can be effective).

This is not some dark new age of cancel culture, however, it’s just a return to normality. Those who grew up in the late 20th century were living in a highly unusual time, one that could never be sustained, a sexual and cultural revolution that began in 1963 or 1968. But it has ended and, as all revolutionaries must do after storming the Bastille, they have built Bastilles of their own. The new order has brought in numerous methods used by the old order to exert control — not just censorship, but word taboo and rituals which everyone is forced to go along with, or at least not openly criticise. You might call it the new intolerance, or woke extremism, but all societies need the policing of social norms.

No one would satirise the transgender movement today; no one would dare point fun at BLM, or Pride month; no one would dare joke about George Floyd, because like the publishers of Gay Times in 1977, they might face jail for blasphemy.  Instead leading satirist Sacha Baron Cohen makes a living making jokes at the expense of the little people. Indeed the only satire made now pokes fun at the old establishment, like punching the corpse of a once-ferocious zoo animal, or the people who still hold the old beliefs; the elderly, the less educated, the rural and provincial. The powerless.

The Nineties and Noughties were a time of outstanding comedy partly because so much of public morality was up for grabs, and in transition; it was a period in between two quite rigid societies ...

The revolutionaries were always going to create new rituals, new speech codes and new forms of censorship. England has changed a huge deal since our great victory in 1966, but in many ways it has barely changed at all.

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A Time to Speak Up

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Imagine living in a country where parents could legally kill a baby because it was a girl but they wanted a boy. Or imagine living in a country where it was legal to kill a fully grown baby one day but illegal to do the same the next, the only difference being the location of the baby – in the womb or in the world. Or imagine living in a country where a nurse could legally provide abortions on their kitchen table. Many of us could soon be living in that country.

Next Monday, it is likely that MPs will be given the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (NC55). The amendment would decriminalise abortion in England and Wales, making the procedure available on demand, for any reason, up to birth. This would be one of the most extreme abortion laws anywhere in the world.

The proposal is full of problems. These problems are so serious that even people who have no ethical concerns about abortion should oppose the amendment. Far from helping or protecting women, the amendment would remove many of the safeguards currently in place to protect pregnant women and it would make sex-selective abortion, a practice that always disadvantages girls, easily available.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time that MPs and campaigners have tried to make radical changes to our nation’s abortion law through amendments on other legislation. A similar attempt was made not very long ago, and more attempts will come if this one fails. For the sake of the babies, women and men who are affected by abortion, we must speak up.

Let’s speak up to our MPs. Do a bit of research and write to your MP explaining that this is not the way to make changes to our abortion provision. Highlight the fact that this amendment removes vital safeguards designed to protect women and would contribute to the furthering of gender inequality through the availability of sex-selective abortion. You can find out more about the amendment and make contact with you MP at Right for Life.

And let’s speak up to our Father in heaven. Speak up for the unborn; speak up for women and men who find themselves facing unexpected or crisis pregnancies, and speak up for legislation that protects the unborn and pregnant women.

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The Turning Tide of Intellectual Atheism

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This is a remarkable conversation with the historian Niall Ferguson on the need for Christianity, along with some fascinating reflections on the journeys of other public intellectuals like Roger Scruton, Douglas Murray, Tom Holland and Jordan Peterson. (There are echoes too of Matthew Parris's Times column on Saturday, in which he argued that human rights are neither fundamental nor unalienable without a Christian foundation.) I was struck by this line in particular: "Viewing Western civilisation with its Christian soul cut out, many are now willing to say: 'We need Christ.' What they are unable, thus far, to say, is: 'I need Christ.'" Have a look:

“I was brought up an atheist—I didn’t become one,” [Ferugson] said. “I regard atheism as the religious faith I happened to be brought up in. It is, of course, as much a faith as Christianity or Islam—and I have the Calvinist brand, because my parents left the Church of Scotland. I was brought up, essentially, in a Calvinist ethical framework but with no God. This had its benefits—I was encouraged to think in a very critical way about religion and also about science, but I’ve come to see as a historian that you can’t base a society on that. Indeed, atheism, particularly in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.”

“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behaviour, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilisation fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.”

For one of the most prominent historians in the world—himself an agnostic—to say that we should go to church is rather startling, but Ferguson’s sentiments also appear to be part of a growing trend. The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at All Saints’ in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith remained cultural; other friends were not so sure. What we do know is that he thought Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilisation, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was utterly indispensable to its survival.

Scruton’s friend Douglas Murray, the conservative writer who was raised in the Church before leaving it as an adult, has occasionally referred to himself as a “Christian atheist.” In a recent discussion with theologian N.T. Wright, he described himself as “an uncomfortable agnostic who recognises the virtues and the values the Christian faith has brought,” and noted that he is actually irritated by the way the Church of England is fleeing from its inheritance, “giving up its jewels” such as “the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer” in exchange for progressive pieties. “My fear is that the Church is not doing what so many of us on the outside want it to do, which is preaching its gospel, asserting its truths and its claims,” he said. “When one sees it falling into all the latest tropes one thinks well, that’s another thing gone, just like absolutely everything else in the era. I’m a disappointed non-adherent.”

Murray believes that Christianity is essential because secularists have been thus far totally incapable of creating an ethic of equality that matches the concept that all human beings are created in the image of God. In a column in The Spectator, he noted that post-Christian society has three options. The first is to abandon the idea that all human life is precious. “Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.” And if that doesn’t work? “Then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.” On a recent podcast, he was more blunt: “The sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive [the disappearance of] Judeo-Christian civilisation.”

Historian Tom Holland’s magnificent Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, published in 2019, makes a similar case. For years, Holland—an agnostic—wrote compelling histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but he observed that their societies were rife with casual, socially-accepted cruelty towards the weak, rape, and sexual abuse towards the massive slave class as an unquestioned way of life, and the mass extermination of enemies as a matter of course. These peoples and their ethics, Hollands writes, seemed utterly foreign to him.

It was Christianity, Holland concluded, that changed all that in a revolution so complete that even critiques of Christianity must borrow precepts from Christianity to do so. (Without Christianity, he writes, “no one would have gotten woke.”) He defended this thesis brilliantly in a debate on the subject “Did Christianity give us our human values?” with atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling, who seemed actively irritated by the idea. Not so long ago, unbelievers like the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that “religion poisons everything”—a sentiment that appears to be retreating as we advance further into the post-Christian era.

Hitchens frequently claimed to be not an atheist, but an “anti-theist”—he didn’t believe in God, and he was glad that he did not. It is fascinating to see intellectuals come forward with precisely the opposite sentiment—they do not believe, but they somehow want to believe. The psychologist Jordan Peterson, who speaks about Christianity often, is a good example of this. Discussing the historicity of the Christian story with Jonathan Pageau, he said, fighting back tears: “I probably believe that, but I’m amazed at my own belief and I don’t understand that.”

He went on: “In some sense, I believe it’s undeniable. You know, we have narrative sense of the world. For me that’s been the world of morality, that’s the world that tells us how to act. It’s real, we treat it like it’s real. It’s not the objective world, but the narrative and the objective world touch. And the ultimate example of that in principle is supposed to be Christ. But I don’t know what to do with that – it seems to me to be oddly plausible. But I still don’t know what to make of it. Partly because it’s too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don’t even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it.”

Not so long ago, the atheists who retreated to their Darwinian towers and bricked themselves up to fire arrows at the faithful wanted to be there. Their intellectual silos were a refuge from faith because they didn’t want Christianity to be true. They hated it and thought we’d be better off without it. Like Hitchens, they were thrilled to find arguments that permitted them to reject it. Increasingly, some intellectuals from across the disciplines—history, literature, psychology, philosophy—are gazing out of what was once a refuge and wishing that, some how, they could believe it. They have understood that Christianity is both indispensable and beautiful, but their intellectual constraints prevent many of them from embracing it as true.

Viewing Western civilisation with its Christian soul cut out, many are now willing to say: “We need Christ.” What they are unable, thus far, to say, is: “I need Christ.” But the political must become personal. Peterson appears to understand that—and is awestruck by the reality of it.

For now, historians like Niall Ferguson recognise that Christianity is a fundamental bulwark of the fragile civilisation we inhabit. “I think the notion that we can deal with these arrows of outrageous fortune without some kind of established and time-honoured set of consolations is almost certainly wrong,” he told me. “I’m one of these people who didn’t come to atheism by choice, and I’ve almost come out of it on the basis of historical study. The biggest disasters that we likely face are actually related to totalitarianism, because that’s the lesson of the 20th century. Pandemics killed a lot of people in the 20th century, but totalitarianism killed more.

“It disturbs me that in so many ways, totalitarianism is gaining ground today,” Ferguson said. “Totalitarianism was bad for many reasons, and one of the manifestations of its badness was its attack on religion. When I see totalitarianism gaining ground not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society, that seems to be the disaster we really need to ward off. Why am I a conservative and not just a classical liberal? Because classical liberalism won’t stop wokeism and totalitarianism. It’s not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilisation and defences against that particular form of disaster.”

The survival of Christianity is essential for the survival of the West. The bad news is that this realisation comes when the day is far spent. The Good News is simpler. “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each of them Christianity has died,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

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Not Just An Emoji

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This past weekend I was part of a gathering of around eighty leaders from a number of churches (Jennie, we sang) during which one of the speakers warned us of the danger of relying on ‘emoji pastoring’.

It is very easy, when someone relates a need in their life, to send them a prayer emoji. It’s an easy way of acknowledging that persons need and communicates that we are praying for them. I like the prayer emoji. The danger of course is that we leave our prayers simply at the level of the emoji, and that doesn’t mean very much at all.

Real pastoring – real Christian friendship – means real prayers. Not just an emoji; not even well-intentioned ‘be with’ prayers. But prayers that really do desire to bring the other person into a greater experience of the height and depth and riches of the love of Christ.

Many have expressed concern that the volume, instantaneousness and ease of electronic communication lead to superficiality and fakeness. Our prayer life can suffer from these trends too. Let’s not allow our prayers to be like this: prayer should be more than an emoji.

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The Rise of the Eunuch

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The human race could be in trouble – not just the troubles of pandemics, economics and politics, but something far more existential: the ability to make babies.

In her book Countdown reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan expands on an eye-popping 2017 study that found sperm counts in western men declined 50-60 percent between 1973 and 2011. Sperm counts are declining at between 1 and 2 percent each year and there is clearly a point at which this will mean widespread infertility.

The reasons for this worrying trend seem to be linked to endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in everyday products, which are now everywhere, and thus very difficult to avoid in the modern world. EDCs cause disruptions in hormone signalling in the womb and have a lasting impact on male reproductive capabilities into adulthood.

It is not just the men that are in trouble though, as research shows women are also experiencing decreased fertility. Added to this, we are seeing an increase in the number of miscarriages and developmental abnormalities, especially in boys, such as small penis development, intersexuality and non-descended testes.

This decline in fertility is so dramatic it is seriously suggested that by 2045 almost everyone will need to use assisted reproduction methods in order to conceive.

That is a problem, on multiple levels.

At the level of national demography we are entering an era in which populations are rapidly ageing and will begin to decline. In order for a population to remain stable every woman needs to have on average 2.1 children but across much of the world fertility rates are significantly lower than this. A particularly stark example is South Korea where the fertility rate stands at only 0.92.

An ageing and shrinking population creates all kinds of problems – not least of which is that it means a smaller number of young, economically productive, people have to support a growing number of older, unproductive, people. A kind of death spiral sets in – as we are beginning to see in South Korea and Japan – where the young make up an ever smaller proportion of the population and seem ever more reluctant to marry and produce children.

How Christians should respond to these demographic and economic issues is worth thinking about; but declining fertility rates raise a number of more pastoral problems. Perhaps Swan’s Doomsday Day predictions will not materialise and we will somehow recover the potency of our grandparents – let’s hope so. However, if fertility does continue to plunge here are some suggestions of problems we are likely to face.


The pain of childlessness
If you have longed for a child and been unable to have one, or if you have walked alongside someone experiencing this, you will know how incredibly painful it can be. In a quarter century of pastoral ministry helping people navigate this has been one of the most difficult things I have had to handle.

With fertility rates plunging as fast as they are childlessness is an exposure to pain we will all be facing more regularly. This will place strain on pastors and on churches as a whole – our churches will increasingly become places where there will be a collective grieving over the inability of many couples to conceive. That will require a great deal of pastoral skill and a new capacity for the kind of godly lament that leads us from despair to hope.


The ethical problems of assisted reproductive techniques
Assisted reproductive techniques are fraught with ethical difficulties, at least for Christians. What of the ‘spare’ embryos often created by IVF? Or the significant issues of donated gametes, that involve a third party in a couple’s relationship (adultery at a half-step remove)? Or the host of ethical problems surrounding surrogacy?

Faced by the pain of infertility many Christian couples will hopefully, blindly, follow the advice of medics, without giving sufficient thought to the ethical bind they may be placing themselves in. Few pastors, even, are sufficiently ethically alert to effectively teach and guide on these issues. That will need to change. If we are to remain a faithful witness it will be imperative for Christians to take often costly stands against the norms of assisted reproductive techniques – and pastors will need to give far more attention to ethics.


Increased sexual confusion
Shanna Swan is far more positive about gender fluidity than I am, but suggests part of the reason for the increase in this could be down to EDCs: “In addition to influencing the physiology of reproductive development, environmental chemicals may be affecting gender identity and sexual preference.”

Whether homosexuality is due to nature or nurture has been a long and inconclusive (and mostly fruitless) argument but we may need to reckon with a world in which human biology is so affected by environmental chemicals that this rather than your DNA, or your relationship with your mother, could be a genuine reason for sexual indeterminacy. We know that exposure to environmental chemicals in other animal species can change both biology and behaviour: an increased incidence of intersex physiology and same-sex mating. It is not impossible that similar factors are at work in humans.

A world in which human biology is significantly disrupted by environmental chemicals would present us with novel pastoral challenges. The Bible has quite a lot to say about eunuchs. We may need to do some more work on that.


Countdown is a rather depressing read. I hope it’s more gloomy prognostications prove false – but those stats about declining sperm counts are real, not modelled. If nothing else it reinforces the obvious fact that Christians should be environmentalists. Our stewardship of the earth should have us doing all we can to reduce fertility-destroying EDCs (this not made any easier in a pandemic-fuelled plastic surge: all those facemasks and wipes). And it should make us think again about how having children is a gift: a gift we need to treasure and cannot take for granted.

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Together We Sing

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Last week's extension of the coronavirus lockdown regulations in England, and the restrictions in some parts of Scotland were a blow to those of us who are longing for the day when we can sing together again in worship. (The Welsh were given permission this week to sing with masks on.)

It hasn’t been as bad as I expected thus far, to be fair. I have felt able to enter into the times of worship-with-music (because, of course, all of life, let alone the service, is worship…!); it hasn’t just felt like standing around watching a performance. And yet, it isn’t the same.

My twitter feed has been buzzing with people outraged that football fans are allowed to sing in support of their teams while we are not allowed to sing with greater social distancing, more ventilation and considerably less raucousness than a train-carriage full of happy footy fans.

And now the Government is urging schools to make children sing an odd little song tomorrow about how united Britain is, how much we love each other, and how we have ‘‘opened our doors and widened our island’s shores”. And of course, our pride. Mustn’t forget that word.

Setting aside the significant faux pas of asking all the nation’s schools to sing it on a date after most of Scotland’s schools have broken up for the summer, why a song? Why is it important to get children to sing together at this time? And why do Christians set so much store on singing?

Setting a message to music makes it far easier to learn. The memory verses I learned to music as a child have stayed with me far longer than those I simply memorised by rote. I can remember the slogans and phone numbers of companies who put their radio adverts to music that I heard decades ago far more easily than I can remember important information that I read yesterday.

And music seems to be lodged in a different part of the brain than other things we hear and learn: a lady with dementia at my parents’ church could play hymns on the piano long after she had lost the ability to perform far simpler tasks.

Music connects in a way other sources of information don’t.

But add in a congregational or collective element, and it has even more power. A ragged, too slow, too high rendition of ‘Happy birthday to you’ may not be the height of musical prowess, but we sing it year after year, embarrassing the birthday boy/girl, but communicating in our rough and ready way something that hasn’t been communicated sufficiently by us all showing up, buying thoughtful gifts, sharing a meal together and generally showering the celebree with attention. Together, collectively, we combine our love and felicitations and bestow them on the person lit by a candle glow (before he then propels his germs neatly across the surface of a cake for us all to participate in). It’s quite a weird tradition, when you think about it.

But singing together unites us. It always amazes me how crowds are able to sing together at football matches, how, out of the general melee of noise, suddenly a unity emerges. Who starts these things? How do they catch on? How do they travel so quickly from one bloke and his mates to a mass of thousands of strangers? It is magical.

Singing together has been found to increase our sense of community and belonging. Some suggest this is an ‘evolved behaviour’, though of course, to the Christian it sounds more like a gift of God - especially when we remember that God gave us a whole book of songs to praise and worship him with, and recorded many other songs throughout the Bible. Singing together builds community, it strengthens our bonds with one another. And it can bring life to one another.

My friend Alianoree Smith explained on Twitter earlier this year:

There are a lot of things I miss about in-person church.

But recently, I’ve been feeling acutely the loss of holding and being held by others’ faith - in liturgy, in song, in prayer.

The ‘*we* believe’ of the creed, even when you’re not sure whether *you* believe it right now.

The inkling that by singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ that little bit louder, you are holding up the faith of the friend standing next to you who can’t quite remember what God’s faithfulness feels like anymore, and somehow praying with them that, soon, new mercies they’ll see.

The communal confession and absolution of sin - knowing that we are all sinners together, but God’s mercy is bigger than we dared imagine.

I miss those moments that form our hearts and secure our faith, and remind us that we’re not taking this strange ol’ road alone.

Singing together binds us together, but what we sing matters, too. The songs we gather around express who we understand ourselves to be and embed those identities within us. That’s why most countries have a national anthem - singing a song together about the glory of our country or its leader both expresses to others what we value and reminds us of it, it reorientates us around what we believe in (or at least what the authorities want us to believe in).

Hence a song for OBON Day (yes, I know).

OBON wants to create a spirit of inclusion with a collective purpose and a common future where we all seek to eliminate hatred, intolerance and discrimination of any kind so that all our people can feel and develop a strong and shared sense of belonging in order to showcase their pride, passion and love for our great nation.

And the most effective way of doing this is by singing a prescribed song together.

This is why churches are so bothered about singing together. It forms us and shapes us around the truths we sing about our God, his salvation and his call on our lives. It embeds those truths in us and binds us to one another in a way that no other practice can. And it is wonderful.

Let us hope and pray that the government will join the dots in its thinking and recognise that singing in Christian worship is not just a warm-up act for the preacher or an opportunity for performance, but is an essential part of the process of being a believer, growing in faith and becoming the bride of Christ.

I can’t wait!

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What is Woke?

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Those of us who write on Think are alert to the culture wars that have raged in recent years and often post on issues such as race and sexuality. We have concerns about the direction of travel in these areas and I assume that most readers of Think share these concerns – or if not, at least share an understanding of the issues and terminology. But what about the majority of people in our churches? I recently heard another pastor say that he didn’t have a clue what ‘intersectionality’ meant; my hunch is that a typical member of my church or yours is similarly un-clued.

A fascinating study from King’s College London (full results here, helpful summary here) reveals that around half the population don’t know what ‘woke’ means.

If you were called “woke”, would you take it as a compliment or an insult?
This simple question sums up a lot about the “culture wars” that have become such a focus in the UK in the last couple of years. Only relatively small proportions of the public have engaged in the debate, but those that have often have utterly different perspectives.
Our major new study suggests the public is completely split on the matter, with a quarter saying it’s a compliment, a quarter that it’s an insult – and the rest having little clue what the term even means.

When asked what the phrase ‘culture wars’ brings to mind 43 percent of people are unable to offer any suggestions while only 1.1 percent raise trans/gender identity as an issue and a vanishingly small 0.2 percent suggest the Covid-19 related issues of facemasks, vaccinations, etc. Race was the most frequently cited example of a culture wars issue, but even that was only among 14 per cent of those surveyed.

This seems remarkable given the media coverage of these issues and perhaps unbelievable to those of us for whom thinking and engaging with these things takes up so much time and energy. But it could offer a useful corrective to Think readers (and writers!) who are pastors – that engaging with these issues from the pulpit and other church settings might not be so important as we imagine. While my personal perspective is that anyone ministering in contemporary culture should have a working understanding of what intersectionality is, it might not be that much of a problem if they don’t. Most people are not woke: they don’t even know what it means.

 

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It Is Obscene

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This is an excoriating comment on fear, social media and ideological orthodoxy from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.

People who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books themselves, while not being able to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by ‘educate,’ they actually mean ‘parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.’

People who do not recognize that what they call a sophisticated take is really a simplistic mix of abstraction and orthodoxy – sophistication in this case being a showing-off of how au fait they are on the current version of ideological orthodoxy.

People who wield the words ‘violence’ and ‘weaponize’ like tarnished pitchforks. People who depend on obfuscation, who have no compassion for anybody genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Ask again for clarity and be accused of violence. (How ironic, speaking of violence, that it is one of these two who encouraged Twitter followers to pick up machetes and attack me.)

And so we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.

I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and re-read their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own. The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.

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When is Enough, Enough?

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They said the vaccine was the way out of the pandemic.

They said that once the most vulnerable were vaccinated we could “cry freedom”.

They said that once all adults over the age of 50 were vaccinated we would be home and dry.

They said that once most adults over 50 had had both jabs, and adults under 50 had been vaccinated we could lose the restrictions.

So we know how this is likely to go…

…July 19th will come and it will be, “Ah, but the children aren’t yet vaccinated and we need these six weeks before schools go back for that to happen.”

And then the kids will go back to school and it will be, “Oh, but now we need to give a booster jab to the vulnerable groups.”

And then it will be the autumn and we’ll hear, “Sorry folks, it looks like there’s going to be a massive flu surge this winter (because there was hardly any flu last winter) and we can’t risk the NHS being overwhelmed, so restrictions need to stay a little longer.”

And then it will be next spring and we’ll still be where we are and we’ll have seen more businesses go out of business, and the poor getting poorer, those with mental health issues suffering more, students still paying thousands of pounds to sit in their bedrooms watching online lectures, churches still not singing, or in some cases even gathering and the ‘precautionary principle’ leading to the general fraying of the social fabric.

So the question (which I first posed last August) arises again: when is enough, enough? When do we start disobeying?

When does our application of Romans 13 submit to our application of Ephesians 5:19, Psalm 96, Psalm 147, etc.? When does our concern for the overall wellbeing of our congregations, and broader communities, override our concern to be seen to be ‘good citizens’ in our punctilious following of the rules? When do the realities of the very limited health benefits achieved by ‘Hands, Face, Space’ become outweighed by the realities of the benefits of more normal human interaction?

When do we finally say, enough is enough?

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Two Sides of the Rainbow

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Pride month, and its commercial sponsors, is an appropriate key to understanding the priorities of the modern West. It celebrates hedonistic self-assertion. It mocks the values of the past. It uses the language of inclusion to exclude anybody who will not wholeheartedly affirm its ambitions. It strikes a posture of iconoclastic rebellion and liberation while actually being an imperious assertion of conformity to the social elite’s moral order. It has domesticated transgression by turning it into a marketable commodity. And it epitomizes a world where virtue is obtained by deploying nothing more than a hashtag, only to be lost by refusing to follow the herd ...

Pride and Christianity do, of course, share one sacrament—or at least one sacramental sign: the rainbow. For the LGBTQ+ community, it is ostensibly the symbol of inclusion, a multicoloured banner that, as Lego now promotes to children, means that everyone belongs. More than that, it asserts that everyone can be whoever they want to be (serial killers and religious conservatives excepted). For Christians (as for Jews), the rainbow is quite the opposite: not an assertion of human autonomy but of human dependence. It is a sign of the gracious promise and forbearance of God in the face of human self-gratification and rebellion. The rainbow is a reminder of God’s covenant with all living creatures. It points beyond itself to something magnificent: the graciousness of a holy God. In comparison the Pride rainbow of inclusion is trivial indeed and those churches that choose to display it have thereby trivialized their God.

- Carl Trueman, Pitiful Pride

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Have You Spoken About The Lord?

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“Have you had the vaccine? Have you had your second vaccine?”

This is the question that seems to start most conversations at the moment. It has even managed to displace the weather as every Brits go-to small-talk standby.

A pastor friend grew frustrated of being asked it again and again, eventually replying to a church member,

“Have you spoken to anyone about the Lord this week?”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Well the vaccine is important to you – but it’s important to me that we speak to people about Jesus.”

I felt convicted by that. It’s a good question to ask. Perhaps every time we find ourselves asking someone if they’ve had the vaccine, or someone asks us that question, we should pause and ask ourselves, “Have I spoken to anyone about the Lord?”

Have you?

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Blindness to Kindness

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If there is a storm at sea and an ocean liner is sunk, or if a hazardous weather condition brings down a commercial airliner and lives are lost, there is often an outcry—both publicly and in the personal grief of family members—about the failure of God to prevent this disaster (“Where was God?”) Intense grief is real and painful and understandable from all who experience loss in these disasters. And very often, even the most mature saints speak ill advised words for the wind (Job 6:26). Wise counselors let them pass without judgment in the moment of crisis.

But where is the corresponding emotional intensity, or even mild recognition, of God’s providence when one hundred thousand airplanes land safely every day? That is roughly how many scheduled flights there are every day in the world. And that does not include general aviation, air taxis, military, and cargo. Where is the incessant chorus of amazement and thanks that today God provided ten million mechanical and natural and personal factors to conspire perfectly to keep these planes in the air and bring them to their desired destination safely—and most of them carrying people who neglect and demean God every day?

Even when a plane with no functioning engines lands on the Hudson River, and every passenger walks out on the floating wings of this 80-ton airliner, or when a plane with ninety-seven passengers crashes in Mexico and bursts into flames after every passenger and the entire crew are safely off the plane, where is the public outpouring of thankfulness to the God of wonders? Where is the heart’s cry of thankfulness to God that we hear in Psalm 107:31 for the rescue on the sea?

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!

The world and even thousands of Christians give no praise and thanks to God for millions of daily, life-sustaining providences because they do not see the world as the theater of God’s wonders. They see it as a vast machine running on mindless natural laws, except where our heart’s rebelliousness and self-exaltation find a suitable opportunity to find fault with God and justify our blindness to a billion acts of kindness toward his defiant creation.

One of my aims in writing this book is to help us see the world another way.

- John Piper, Providence, 241-242

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The Lies That Serve Us

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This is an outstanding twelve minute video from Justin Giboney on Christians and Critical Race Theory. Do yourself a favour and watch to the end: "Some Christians are so worried about the Marxist barbarians at the gate that they’ve been completely ignored the White nationalists who are already in the temple. If we’re ever going to address the race problem faithfully, we must not only confront the lies that offend us, but also the lies that serve us. Because no lie can serve the church. Jesus, after all, was the truth."

A full transcript can be found here. For a great thread on the phrase “white nationalism,” which (though not Justin’s main point) is what many have fixated on, have a look at this.

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An Awkward Question About the Image

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Question and answer sessions are really helpful, not just (hopefully) for the questioners but also for the answerer. I regularly find that allowing people to ask questions after I’ve been teaching helps me to sharpen my thinking or highlights things that I haven’t thought about but which I need to. One question I was asked last year has been on my mind ever since, and I think I’ve finally made some progress on it.

For a few years now, I have been thinking a lot about the image of God. I fear that the image is one of the most widely misunderstood and abused scriptural concepts. Christians, and especially Christian writers, seem to feel the liberty to link our creation in the image of God with all manner of things without providing any biblical justification for their assertions or paying attention to what Scripture does say about the image. It feels like it’s become an empty theory into which we can put whatever meaning supports the point we are seeking to make.

I’ve written before about what I think Scripture tells us about the image – it is a ‘family-like resemblance between humans and God, the detail of which is unspecified, but which is given by God as a marker of value designed to offer protection to human life.’ It is not lost or damaged because of sin, and this is really important because of how the image relates to some key real-life issues.

When teaching about the image, I have often stated that it marks every human life as worthy of preservation and protection. Then one day, after teaching that, I was asked about Genesis 9:6, a text I had used to make my case. The questioner rightly pointed out that Genesis 9 doesn’t just affirm the value of human life made in the image of God, it also says that humans who end another human life should have their own life ended. It would seem, they pointed out, that some lives made in the image of God are not worthy of preservation and protection.

This question had an undeniable logic to it, and I couldn’t easily fit it into my understanding of the image.1 I did, however, start to try and nuance what I would teach. I avoided the blanket statement that the image marks all human lives as worthy of preservation and protection and tried to speak instead of the supreme value of every human life. I also noted that though the taking of a human life through capital punishment did seem to undermine the right to life of the guilty party, Genesis 9 doesn’t link this to any diminishing of the image in that person. I can’t see any evidence that the introduction of the death sentence in Genesis 9 indicates that the image is lost or damaged through sin.

Beyond that, capital punishment in Genesis 9 remained a bit of a thorn in my side, complicating what I have felt is important biblical teaching about the right to life. Until, finally, I noticed something significant.

Genesis 9 isn’t completely clear whether the murderer’s life will be ended by another human (an executioner) or by God himself.2 But it is clear that whoever acts as the direct cause of the murderer’s death, the life is taken at the requirement of God. This point is made three times in Genesis 9:5 (‘I will require’).

And then it struck me that before God we don’t have a right to life. There are many places in Scripture where we see God putting people to death. We often struggle with these stories, thinking, ‘How can God just kill someone like that?’ But of course, in reality, we get that question the wrong way around. The question is not ‘How can God kill someone?’, but ‘How has God not killed us all? How has God not killed me?’ Before the utterly holy God, none of us deserve to live. Every breath we breathe is an outworking of the grace of God to us. As sinners before a holy God we don’t have a right to life, but from this holy God we do receive the gift of life.

So, does the sentence of death for murderers in Genesis 9 undermine the truth that the image of God marks every human life as worthy of preservation and protection? Does it undermine our right to life? When looked at from a human perspective, I don’t think so. Because we are all created in the image of God, every human life, from birth to natural death, is worthy of preservation and protection. It is only God who can choose to withdraw his gift of life.

And this has big implications for the life and death issues we might encounter today. None of the key ethical debates in our society involve situations where God has passed sentence and demanded the life of an individual. Indeed, heartbreakingly, the reality is usually the opposite. In our society, the humans who are often deemed not to have the right to life are those whom God has most called us to advocate for and care for: the voiceless and vulnerable.

So, I don’t think Genesis 9 does undermine the truth that the image of God marks every human life as worthy of preservation and protection. And I do still think that the image of God and the outworkings of that reality indicated in Scripture are some of the most important truths for us to affirm and apply in our day. In the context of a society that continues to end many human lives that have only just begun, and where many want us to start deliberately ending human lives deemed less worthwhile, the inherent value, dignity and right to life bestowed on every living human by our creation in the image of God is vitally important.

Footnotes

  • 1. As it happens, I think there are reasons for assuming that the sentence of capital punishment does not still apply today, but this doesn’t undermine the basic logic of the question.
  • 2. In Genesis 9:6b, ‘by man’ (the preposition ב be with the noun אדם ādām) could be translated ‘by man’ (as most modern versions) or ‘(in exchange) for that man’ (a reading supported by the LXX: ἀντὶ τοῦ αἵματος ‘in return for this blood’ (NETS)). The latter would remove human involvement, but the former is the more natural reading of the preposition.

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In Defence of Being Directive

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Debate continues to rage over the government’s commitment to end conversion therapy. A brief mention in the recent Queen’s speech and an accompanying statement have confirmed that the Government is working towards a legislative ban to protect people from ‘the coercive and abhorrent practice of conversion therapy’. It was also announced that there will be a short consultation before legislation is brought forward and that new funding will be provided to support victims of conversion therapy.

One area of the debate I’m finding rather confusing is the way that some campaigners, even Christian campaigners, are indignant at the idea that a ban might still allow ‘directive’ pastoral care, teaching, and prayer. This has emerged as a prominent point in the debate because of concerns that the Government’s most recent statements pledge only to ban ‘coercive’ conversion therapy practices. The argument being made by supporters of a broad ban is that for a religious leader to be directive is the same as to be coercive.

For example, one such objection written by a Christian states that a ban only of coercive practices ‘will be a licence to continue to pray and give “pastoral support” in a directive way rather than start with the acceptance of a person’s sexuality’. I presume this means that they believe it should be illegal for a pastor to tell me, a same-sex attracted guy, that God has something to say about how I should live out my sexuality. Apparently, all a pastor or Christian friend should actually do is allow me to make my own decision, without wisdom or guidance from anyone else, and then affirm me in that decision.

But surely all Christians should recognise that directive teaching and support are at the core of the Christian faith. In fact, Jesus’ commission to his followers was to make disciples and to teach them to obey everything he has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). To teach people to obey all that Jesus has commanded is an unavoidably directive task. How can we fulfil Jesus’ call to us if we are not able to be directive in our teaching and pastoral care? Every Christian who takes Jesus’ words seriously should recognise that we must fight to retain the right to be directive.

And directive teaching is very different from coercive teaching. Directive teaching lays out a clear position, along with the authority and reasoning that supports that position, and leaves individuals free to choose how they respond to the teaching. That is what I have experienced as a gay Christian and what I do as a pastor.

As a same-sex attracted guy who wants to be a faithful follower of Jesus, I have received directive teaching and pastoral support. At no point has that teaching been forced upon me or been presented in a coercive way or used to manipulate me. I have received teaching (from a variety of viewpoints) and have then engaged with that myself to make my choice about how I will seek to best follow Jesus.

I’ve also always been well aware that decisions I make about how I live in relation to my sexuality will affect the extent to which I can be a part of, and, in particular, to serve and lead in certain church communities. This has always made perfect sense to me: churches are communities of Jesus followers; Jesus laid out parameters by which his followers should live. Therefore, it makes sense that adherence to the teaching of Jesus should be required for certain levels of involvement in a church community. This is not coercion or manipulation, and it’s not an injustice. It’s the natural consequence of the teaching of Scripture.

As a pastor who wants to help others to faithfully follow Jesus, I pastor and teach people directively. These people come to me or listen to me of their own free choice. I present to them what I believe to be true and the reasons why I believe it to be true. I call them to be obedient to that truth, but ultimately I leave individuals to make their choice on what they believe and how they will choose to live in light of that.

My experience and my practice involve things that are directive, but they do not involve things that are coercive. They involve very normal Christian practices, practices that would have many parallels across society: parents teaching children, friends advising friends, doctors supporting patients, teachers instructing pupils.

There is, of course, sadly, in any of these relationships and practices the risk that they could be misused and could become coercive or abusive. This is why safeguarding and accountability are so important, in churches as elsewhere in society. But while directive teaching and support can become coercive and abusive, they are not in themselves coercive and abusive. They are in fact, rooted in key human rights. (Which is one of the reasons the ban being proposed by some would actually contravene human rights.)

In reality, what those who object to directive teaching and pastoral support really object to, is not the nature of the teaching or support, but the direction in which it points. I have no doubt that if I as a gay Christian went to some of the Christians campaigning for this ban and asked them for advice about how God wanted me to respond to my experience of same-sex attraction, they would give me an equally directive answer. But the direction, of course, would be different.

It seems to me that those who are arguing for a broad ban actually want to be more directive than I do and are at risk of using the law to be coercive in their directive practices. These campaigners don’t want me and people like me to have the freedom to explore all the possible Christian understandings of sexuality. They have already decided which should be allowed and which should be illegal. While claiming that they want to stop directive teaching, they are actually fighting for a law that would leave only one legally acceptable understanding of Christian teaching on sexuality. That sounds pretty directive to me.

Any teaching and support can be misused, and we must therefore prioritise safeguarding, transparency, and accountability to make sure that all people are protected from coercive and abusive practices. This is why we should support a targeted ban that will protect people from coercive and abusive practices that attempt to change sexual orientation or gender identity. But directive teaching and pastoral support are not in themselves coercive or abusive. Rather, they are based on our human rights and are necessary to fulfil the commission Jesus has given to us.

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What You Fear Shows What You Love

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Our fears are highly revealing. What you fear shows what you love.

We fear our children getting hurt because we love them. We fear losing our jobs because we love the security and identity they give us. We fear rejection and criticism because we love approval. Some of these fears are healthy, some are overblown, and some betray deeper sicknesses in our character. Some we would hardly label as fears at all. That fear of the leak in the roof, the fear that I left the oven on: they are more like background niggles, anxieties so petty they seem insignificant. Yet they are telling.

So ask yourself: What do my fears say about me and my priorities, about what I treasure? What do they say about where I am looking for security?

Which do you fear more: being sinful or being uncomfortable? God or man? Being a sinner or being exposed before others as a sinner? Our fears are like ECG readings, constantly telling us about the state of our hearts.

- Michael Reeves, Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord

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The Cross or the Machine

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Paul's Kingsnorth's essay at First Things is one of the posts of the year. It is basically the story of his conversion, but told with a depth and beauty that very few testimonies match, and it culminates in a magnificent final two paragraphs:

I grew up believing what all modern people are taught: that freedom meant lack of constraint. Orthodoxy taught me that this freedom was no freedom at all, but enslavement to the passions: a neat description of the first thirty years of my life. True freedom, it turns out, is to give up your will and follow God’s. To deny yourself. To let it come. I am terrible at this, but at least now I understand the path.

In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell. And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through? As we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over ­humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer each day. Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine. We have always been ­offered the same choice. The gate is strait and the way is narrow and maybe we will always fail to walk it. But is there any other road that leads home?

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Twelve Rules for Loftus

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In a superb thread, Matthew Loftus offers a number of statements that are both obviously correct, and widely rejected. If you aren't planning to read Jordan Peterson's latest instalment (and I'm not), these twelve will keep you going:

1. The Church in America, for all its sins and accomplishments, is not much better or worse than any other church anywhere else at any other time.

2. Every church service should include a song that’s at least 300 years old, a song that’s at least 100 years old, and a song that’s less than 20 years old.

3. We’re a lot better off with cops than without them.

4. Getting married and having kids is a good norm.

5. You should watch less TV and read more books.

6. The more money you have, the more you should pay in taxes.

7. Living a good life in every sense of the word requires a lot of compromises between competing ethical principles.

8. Children should spend as much time playing outside as they can.

9. Children shouldn’t have or need smartphones. People who make things so that a smartphone is necessary for a child should be tarred and feathered.

10. You can, should, and must legislate morality.

11. Education is all about character formation and people who disagree shouldn’t be trusted.

12. You should have a daily quiet time.

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On Periods And Placentas And Other Theological Themes

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Warning: The last couple of paragraphs of this post contain a slight spoiler for last week's episode of Call the Midwife (S10 E4). Oh, and the whole thing might gross you out.

Why did God create menstrual periods?

It’s a question many women have asked in eye-rolling exasperation down the centuries. The average woman spends about 500 weeks of her life dealing with the discomfort, inconvenience and general grossness of expelling the lining of her womb, just so it can start to build up again ready for the next month’s ovulation. What was God thinking?

No seriously, what was God thinking? I hadn’t considered it until I received an email inviting me to endorse a book called A Brief Theology of Periods (Yes, Really) by Rachel Jones. 

I spend a lot of time thinking about the theology of the body, what it means that we are embodied beings, what the relationship is between the soul and the body etc. You’d think it would have occurred to me to wonder at least once why women’s bodies bleed once a month for a significant chunk of their lives. And if all our bodily parts and functions were designed intentionally and deliberately by a creator who could have done anything he liked with them, why did he choose to design them like this? If everything in creation points to and speaks of God, what is our menstrual cycle meant to tell us about him?

To be honest, I’m still not quite sure. The book is very thought-provoking, and offers a lot of wisdom and wise counsel for women struggling with this aspect of their embodiedness. Pastorally, it is very helpful. But in terms of understanding how my monthly cycle is meant to point me to God, it has left me wanting more.

Jones talks about the biblical symbolism of the shedding of blood for cleansing of sins - does this link in some way with the rather cryptic verse about women being saved through childbearing? As Jen Wilkin put it in this video that Andrew shared at the Think conference a couple of years back, “Women’s bodies, every 28 days, tell them a parable about the shedding of blood for the renewing of life.” Except that if you’re trying to conceive, the shedding of blood tells you - devastatingly - that once again there has been no renewing of life. And of course, Leviticus 15 tells us that a woman is ceremonially unclean for the duration of her period - the blood isn’t cleansing her then - quite the opposite.

It can’t be to do with expelling that which is not needed for life, as both men’s and women’s bodies already have a parable about that, multiple times a day.

On a practical level, an issue of blood is a marker of your years and seasons of (if all is well) fertility, but did God have to choose such a gross, uncomfortable, embarrassing marker? Perhaps they are a result of the fall, since most other mammals aren’t subject to them (they reabsorb the endometrium back into the body). Jones ponders this too, though inconclusively, as we have no way of knowing (my hunch is no, unless the other menstruating mammals - bats, elephant shrews and spiny mice - also sinned in some way). Though since there will be no marriage, and presumably no physical reproduction in the new creation, we will presumably be period-free then. Hallelujah!

And yet… It is part of God’s design. his plan. All his ways are perfect, so his perfect nature must be, in some way, revealed through our periods. I shouldn’t just wish them away, or try to ignore them. As Jones says, “We can’t leave our soul outside the toilet-cubicle door.”

God can reveal himself through the strangest of things. Fans of Call the Midwife this week witnessed our beloved Sister Monica Joan find her way back out of her dark night of the soul through contemplation of, of all things, a woman’s placenta.

“I have examined placenta in all kinds of lights,” she explained. “I never cease to marvel at its beauty when exposed. This, the least visible of all the body’s organs, laid before us for our scrutiny. ... It grows with us, it fires us. It sustains the very beating of our blood. When I see this, with all its lines and traceries I see the miracle of God himself. I see his handiwork. And I see his love. I see where I began, what fed me, and what feeds me now. It is complete, and so - within his love - am I.”

If a placenta can point a TV audience to transcendence, to beauty and to God’s sustaining love, surely periods can do the same for those who have eyes to see. At the very least, Rachel Jones’ book has made me stop and think. It has pointed me to the intricate miracle of my interior cycle - all the hormones and processes working away like a silent clockwork month after month. The stimulation, release, preparation and expulsion. The anticipation. The possibility. The cleansing. And the starting again.

I don’t know why God made us bleed, but I’m grateful for this prompt to ponder his purposes in periods and placentas, and hope you are, too. (And if you have any further insights, let’s chat on Twitter.)

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Banning What?

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The Queen’s Speech earlier this week, outlining legislative plans for the next session of Parliament, included the phrase, ‘Measures will be brought forward to...ban conversion therapy.’

The way the ‘discussion’ about conversion therapy has proceeded, and the seriousness with which the government is taking it, might suggest that this is an urgent issue, with thousands of LGBT+ people being coerced into therapies they are resistant to and will be harmed by. Reality would indicate something different.

The often helpful Transgender Trend have conducted a thorough review of the evidence for conversion therapy and conclude that,

Our analysis shows that any anecdotal evidence of gender identity conversion therapy is likely to be historical and dependent on the definition of ‘conversion therapy.’ In answer to the question we posed at the start of this post: we have found no evidence that gender identity conversion therapy exists today in the UK, or has ever existed in healthcare settings. Our conclusion? Any draft legislation must exclude healthcare and allow for open, neutral therapeutic exploration of gender identity, in line with normal professional practice and duty of care.

Legislation already exists that protects people against abusive therapies and as the Transgender Trend post makes clear there is “no evidence that gender identity conversion therapy exists today in the UK” – so why the push to legislate?

We need to understand that the demand for legislation in this area is much less to do with actual practices and much more to do with symbolism. The LGBT+ movement has been highly effective in manipulating and capturing important symbols – this is what is going on with the ubiquity of the Pride colours, and the opprobrium that accompanies any reluctance to display them. It is also what was going on with legalisation of same-sex ‘marriage’. This was much more to do with symbolism than substance as civil partnerships already conferred all the legal benefits and rights of marriage; and it is not as if most gay people have rushed to get married since the law was changed. It was more about what was represented than the substance of the thing itself.

So with the proposed conversion therapy ban: something that doesn’t happen, and for which existing legislation could be employed if it did, is going to be banned in order to further underscore the claim of the immutability of gender and sexual orientation. It’s about the symbolism.

What’s the problem with this? Well, apart from clogging up the statute books with further unnecessary legislation there are any number of potential hostages to fortune. As the Transgender Trend post identifies in its conclusion, the proposed legislation could have the pernicious effect of making it criminal for healthcare professionals to act in the best interests of their patients if they are effectively prevented from exploring questions of gender identity. Thankfully the briefing paper released alongside the Queen’s Speech suggests the government is aware of this problem:

People should be free to be themselves in the UK. The ban will eliminate coercive practices which cause mental and physical harm to individuals. We will ensure the action we take to stop this practice is proportionate and effective, and does not have unintended consequences. We will ensure medical professionals, religious leaders, teachers and parents can continue to be able to have open and honest conversations with people.

These caveats are important and we should engage with MPs and policy makers to ensure they are carried forward. The government has said that it will undertake a public consultation before bringing forward legislation and it would be good for those with concerns about the proposed Bill to engage with this process.

A considerable irony in all this is that those groups, like Stonewall, who most support the proposed ban also support gender reassignment surgery – or what we might call gender ‘conversion’ surgery. It certainly doesn’t make any logical sense that it would be considered appropriate to carry out surgery on someone in order to change their objective sexual reality, while making it illegal to talk with someone about their subjective gender identity. But then this isn’t about logic: it’s about the symbols.

 

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Unplanned: Lessons We Can Learn

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Abby Johnson was a clinic director and Employee of the Year at the US’s biggest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood. But, after seeing with her own eyes the reality of what happens in an abortion procedure, she turned her back on her job and her pro-choice position. She is now an active pro-life campaigner and founder of a charity that helps other people leave the abortion industry.

Abby’s story is told in a book and a film both called Unplanned. (I’m not actually the first Think contributor to write about Abby’s story. Jennie posted a summary and some helpful reflections a number of years ago.) Her unusual story and personal experience, both as someone who has been a vocal supporter on each side of the debate and as a woman who has herself had two abortions, make her well placed to share important wisdom on the topic of abortion, and that’s exactly what she does.

There are many things that can be learnt from Abby’s story, but here are a few that have most helped and challenged me.

Mixed motivations in the pro-choice movement

Motivations are funny things. We can be very quick to ascribe them to other people, even though we all know that it can sometimes be hard to discern our own. When it comes to the topic of abortion, you’ll find people from both sides of the debate ascribing motivations to those who have a different perspective. Inevitably, those motivations are sometimes employed to try and undermine the opposing perspective.

One of the helpful things in Abby’s account is the way she acknowledges the variety of motivations among pro-choice people she has known and worked with. Some, it seems, were motivated by the potential for financial benefit. For Planned Parenthood, abortions are the money-makers and some within the organisation therefore take a very business-like approach to abortion. But there are others, as exemplified by Abby’s own journey, who are involved in the abortion industry because they genuinely believe they are helping women.

This is such an important insight. Just because two people disagree on a certain ethical and practical point, doesn’t necessarily mean they disagree on their underlying motivation. And, in fact, recognising shared motivations can be a good starting point for constructive dialogue.

When it comes to the topic of abortion, many people start from the same motivation: care for women in crisis pregnancy situations. The question becomes, how do we best care for these women? Sadly, views on the topic are often so polarised and research into the options so contested that it is hard to have this discussion, but it’s the discussion that needs to be had, and one we should seek to be equipped for, preparing both our heads and our hearts.

A powerful pro-life strategy

At the centre of Abby’s story is the fence that surrounded her Planned Parenthood clinic. That fence separated the clinic staff and patients from a group of pro-life campaigners who stationed themselves on the other side.

Abby talks about how the approach of these pro-life campaigners changed over time. When she first started volunteering at the clinic, there were some campaigners present who would shout abuse at women who came to the clinic. They included one person who dressed as the Grim Reaper and paced up and down the fence. But there were also people who stood there quietly, prayed, and tried to help the clinic’s patients to see that there were options other than abortion open to them and that there were people ready to help them with these options if that was what they wanted. These people also sought to befriend the clinic workers. Greeting them, engaging them in conversation, and praying for them. It was this more gentle approach that became dominant on the pro-life side of the fence. It was also this approach that bore fruit, both in Abby’s life and in the lives of others.

Abby’s account bears witness to the incredible power of a gentle, Christ-like presence that seeks to be present and to love even in the face of sharp disagreement. It would have been easy to look on at the quiet stance of the pro-lifers coming regularly to the fence and to assume it would have no power. The reality, however, was quite different.

The power of prayer

Although perhaps if all they were doing was coming and being a quiet presence, their presence wouldn’t have had much power. But they weren’t only quietly present. They were also praying.

At the heart of Abby’s story is prayer, both the prayer of the pro-lifers who stood outside her clinic day and night and Abby’s own journey of learning to recognise and trust in the importance of prayer and in God’s faithfulness in answering prayer.

When we look at the heart-breaking reality of abortion in our nation it can be hard to have faith that anything can change. It can feel like we are destined to forever be a nation where hundreds of thousands of babies are killed in the womb every year and an equal number of women, men and families are impacted by the effects of abortion.

But maybe that’s not the only option. Maybe we have some power we have not yet unleashed. Maybe we have a part to play. The 40 Days for Life campaign, an international prayer movement that started outside Abby Johnson’s Planned Parenthood clinic, reports having seen over 100 abortion centres close, more than 200 abortion workers leave their jobs, and over 17,000 lives saved through the prayer campaigns they organise. Employees who have left abortion clinics report that on days when there was someone praying outside a clinic, no-show rates for abortions could go as high as 75%. There’s power in prayer.

It’s easy to feel defeated by the reality of abortion, but we have access to true power. What would happen if Christians and churches in the UK cried out to God for the protection of babies in the womb and of women and men impacted by crisis pregnancy situations? What would happen if we decided we aren’t happy to be the generation of Christians who just allowed this to happen because we felt we had no power? What would happen if we prayed? We might find that there is power, and we might find that in the midst of so many experiences that have been unplanned, there is someone who has a better plan.

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Why We Drive

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“Safety is obviously very important. But it is also a principle that, absent countervailing considerations, admits no limit to its expanding dominion. It tends to swallow everything before it…Those who invoke safety enjoy a nearly nonrebuttable presumption of public-spiritedness, so a stated concern for safety becomes a curtain behind which various entities can collect rents from perfectly reasonable behavior…Infantilism slips in, under a cover of democratic ideals.”

Over the past decade Matthew Crawford has produced a powerful trilogy of books exploring embodied cognition. Shop Class as Soul Craft (The Case for Working With Your Hands in the UK edition) argued for a reappraisal of skilled manual labour, showing why such work is both more satisfying and more intellectually demanding than many white-collar occupations. The World Beyond Your Head examined how we can recover genuine individuality in a world where we are increasingly commoditised. And in Why We Drive Crawford uses our interaction with motor vehicles (as well as being an academic philosopher he runs a motorcycle repair shop) as a framework for exploring questions of personal responsibility and freedom.

Why We Drive was published last year, so must have been written just before the coronavirus pandemic broke, but its relevance to the cultural impact of covid (as in the quote at the top of this post) is obvious. The pandemic – or, more precisely, the response to the pandemic in the form of lockdowns and all the other NPI’s we have endured – have accelerated and empowered the technocratic vision for how our societies should be governed. The world is facing Big Problems but the technocratic answers, even when presented by people as apparently genial as the likes of Bill Gates and Tony Blair, seem to have more than a whiff of Big Brother about them.

The appeal to safety is an especially important plank in the technocratic takeover. This has been very clear in the way that anyone questioning lockdowns, facemasks, and all the rest (even though the effectiveness of such measures is certainly debatable), have been shouted down as covidiots and conspiracy theorists – even when they are distinguished academics at Stanford or Oxford.

With infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths as low as they now are in the UK it is not reasonable for us to have to wait until June 21st – and possibly beyond that – before we are no longer breaking the law if we dispense with the masks and hug our friends, but it is this very unreasonableness that creates the space in which the technocracy can consolidate its power. As Crawford puts it, “A proliferation of rules provides a sheen of rationality, but it is in the gap between the rules and reasonableness that officialdom feeds.”

Why We Drive raises arguments that are relevant and important in relation to covid but the framing narrative of the book is around driving and the issues raised by the rush to build driverless cars. That we should move to a world in which cars drive themselves is sold on the grounds – again – of safety: that human beings are inherently a danger to themselves and with computers in control commuters will be in safer hands. Crawford shows why this is a very questionable assumption. A second reason given for why we should relinquish the wheel is that this will be more convenient for us – no longer will we have to undergo the wearisome task of driving but be chauffeured wherever it is we need to go. Apart from the fact that many people actually enjoy driving, Crawford asks some bigger questions: why, for example, is Google – which is essentially an advertising business –  investing so much in developing driverless cars?

Crawford paints an alarming though all too plausible picture of a near-future in which our autonomous car won’t set off until we have swiped through a certain number of adverts, in which the route it chooses for us is determined by how many purchasing options can be presented to us on the way, and in which rather than ‘winning back the time’ of our commutes we are distracted by whatever it is that big-tech wants us distracted by.

An autonomous car may hold some genuine utility for you, but their purpose is not to make the car better for you, and ask for money in return. Autonomous cars may increase the efficiency of traffic and its safety. But their development is not driven by such public-spirited concerns.

The freedom to move through physical space, to travel, is an essential definition of freedom itself. This is not only some romantic dream of the open road (a dream that is rarely realised in the congested UK) but about the ability to make our own decisions and go where we want to go: to wander. I think this is one of the reasons for the growing popularity of cycling – especially among middle-aged men. There is an appealing immediacy to the technology involved: direct contact with the ground with no insulating safety features or electronics. The bike also provides an opportunity for no one else to know where you are. Being out on my bike without my phone and with cash in my pocket rather than a debit card makes me untrackable. It’s only a small taste of freedom but it feels almost subversive in our surveillance economy. It is independent rather than constrained, adult rather than infantilised: which is why dictatorships have always sought to control travel.

The alternative is the technocratic vision. This might look safer and more efficient, but will it bring us more freedom?

We may accept technocratic competence as a legitimate claim to rule, even if it is inscrutable. But then we are in a position of trust. This would be to move away from the originating insight of liberalism: power corrupts.

That power corrupts is not only an insight of liberalism but a spiritual principle. There are ‘authorities and powers’ who always want to seize and manipulate earthly authorities and powers. No matter how benign or well-intentioned the motives of the founders of the likes of Google and Facebook, power always attracts corruption.

Crawford says of the technocratic vision,

Those who aspire to direct human affairs invariably believe themselves to have solved the Universal Calculation, and seek to make it effective in the world by morally disqualifying the various perspectives and projects of individuals that may be rival to the Impartial Point of View. Today, we are to understand that getting human beings to stop driving their own cars is not the project of those particular people who stand to make a lot of money from such a transformation, it is a project demanded by Morality itself.

So the technocracy works through safetyism and moralism masquerading as the route to human freedom and happiness while actually constraining and demeaning us.

What of the theological angle in all this?

Well, the insights of embodied cognition should reinforce for us the essential physicality of our faith. Human beings are not spiritual software temporarily inhabiting an inadequate hardware platform. We are embodied souls, created in the image of God, who need to express our spirituality through our bodies: gathering together, singing, sharing the bread and wine, laying on hands and praying. We are Christians, not Gnostics.

We should also be alert to the dangers of allowing the technocratic vision of safetyism to define how we minister. This is very current. While I have every sympathy with churches that have to rent premises there are still too many churches with their own buildings – some with very large buildings – that are not yet having in-person gatherings. It is hard to see how such timorousness will allow the pastors of those churches to ever again call their congregations to any kind of gospel courage. It is as though they have chosen a spiritual equivalent of the driverless car. They are being driven somewhere, by something, and are no longer at the wheel.

True Christianity is earthy, physical, and requires courage. There are a lot of aromatic hydrocarbons in Why We Drive and no indication that Crawford is a believer, but some of us could do with revving up the engine and inhaling the fumes.

 

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A Cold Take on Deconversion (from Josh Harris’s Brother)

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I've been thinking a lot about deconversion recently, and how we handle it theologically, pastorally, practically and spiritually. Of the various things I've read and listened to on this very painful subject, I think this excerpt is perhaps the most helpful. It's from an interview between Sarah Zylstra and Alex Harris, younger brother of Joshua (well known for kissing dating, and then Christianity, goodbye), and if you've been wrestling with the subject yourself, these few paragraphs in particular are worth your time.

Sarah Zylstra: When someone deconstructs, it can make everybody else rethink too like, “Oh, so you’re changing your mind on that. Should I change my mind on that?” And I’m wondering if that was stronger for you because he was your brother and you looked up to him and you were walking along behind him all the time. Did it make your faith wobble?

Alex Harris: It did. I think, inevitably, when someone you’re so close to question things, or walks away from who they are [inaudible], it raises questions in your own mind. And I say wobble not to suggest some profound crisis of faith, but just to acknowledge that, yes, any person is going to have some of those emotions and some of those questions and doubts when something like this happens. And I’m no exception to that. I think perhaps less for me than for outsiders who had no context and maybe hadn’t walked with Josh through the very difficult years leading up to this time maybe there was more surprise, maybe it was more of a shock. And so it was not as much of a complete shock or surprise for me. And there was, also, in the process of getting to listen and getting to ask and try to understand, I think a recognition that oftentimes these decisions are not attributable to one specific thing or to some intellectual question or doubt that just could not be satisfactorily explained or resolved.

We are whole persons, mind, emotions, physical bodies. It all rolls together when it comes to even these big seemingly life altering decisions and the moments that lead up to them. And so, in some ways, I felt a real sense of comfort in having conversations with Josh and understanding some of the factors that played into it, recognizing God’s kindness to me in that I very easily could have followed down the same path. Not that it would have necessarily led to the same place, but God in his kindness took me off the fast track as a minor evangelical celebrity and allowed me to do some real important personal work and growth and maturing and learning. And so there was a lot of comfort in seeing God’s faithfulness in that, but that doesn’t obviously negate the discomfort and the questions that come when someone you trust and love and look up to has those doubts. And I think it’s hopefully, like we talked about, okay to express that and to share that and to find support within the church when we have those questions and doubts.

He is incredibly loved by many, including his family. And he still has a pastor’s heart. Much of what he has reacted to are criticisms of, at times, a legalistic or fear-based religion that brings on various cultural baggage to the Gospel of Christ that is not really a clear command of scripture. And that critique from someone who actually still has a heart for the evangelical church that he has left is hopefully a message that those of us still in the fold can really listen to. But that doesn’t change the fact that it hurts or that it’s embarrassing and there’s a time to grieve over it. And then all of those are our emotions that I personally experienced as his brother, as someone who loves him and looks up to him. But I think the important thing for us as a family was just to say, first, there’s a knee jerk reaction maybe born out of pain for many Christians to say, “He was a wolf amongst sheep. He went out from us because he was never of us.” And the story’s not over. We don’t know that at this time. And so to avoid throwing Josh into a particular theological bucket, that was one important thing for me.

And the second was just to communicate my continued love for him and to listen and to try to understand, and that’s an ongoing process and I have a lot to learn from listening and seeking to understand. And so that’s a very healthy process I think for both of us. And I think more generally, as a church, you’re right, this is a trend. It’s not the first, it won’t be the last, and part of what makes it so difficult and painful is, one, that so many people have haven’t influenced or looked up to or had their own spiritual journey marked by Josh’s teaching. And that’s true for me, so I fall into both personal, family and the broader Christian community that’s been influenced by his teaching, to process that as it’s really difficult. And I think some of that’s just inevitable, but some of it is a symptom of a celebrity culture within evangelicalism and in the church more broadly where we do lift up skilled teachers and we do treat them like celebrities.

I’ve to a smaller degree experienced that myself. I thankfully found that off-ramp and got to just be another student at a small school and be a student and not the teacher for a while. But Josh never had that. He went straight from writing this best-selling book at 21 to becoming the heir apparent of a mega church outside of D.C. to becoming the senior pastor at the age of 30 before he’d gone to college or gone to seminary. And then he was the pastor of this large influential church that headed up this much larger network of churches that was very influential within evangelical Christianity. He was the figurehead, and when you’re the figurehead, it’s not just that you feel like there’s all this pressure, and I’m sure there’s so much pressure on him, it’s so hard to have genuine community where you can be honest about questions or doubts or struggles.

Because to even admit it is almost like a scandal within so many churches. And that’s a sign of an unhealthy dynamic within our churches that the people who are in leadership, everyone who’s close to them is close to them because of their celebrity, as opposed to out of genuine relationship and there’s a lack of ability to be honest, a lack of ability to question or to doubt. I just can’t imagine that, that helped Josh when it comes to where he is today. And that’s only one part of the story. I don’t mean to suggest that’s the whole explanation. There’s a lot more that went into it and I’m sure a lot that I don’t even know. But just a reminder that our pastors, our leaders, our teachers, our authors, they’re all just broken sinful people just like us and they need to be treated that way, both in not being elevated to a position where their failures devastate us, but also not elevated in that way so that they are isolated and unsupported and feel alone in that.

That’s something that I think, as a church, we need to really think about and seek to cultivate a different culture.

(You can listen to or read the whole thing here.)

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A Few of My Favourite Things

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This was a really stimulating conversation with Jim Mullins and Josh Butler, in which we talked about penguins, bacon, honey, tools, and the God of all things:

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Harry’s Mistake

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It is fantastic that Rebecca McLaughlin has written 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity. (Can you tell my oldest son turns thirteen this year?) She starts the book with a superb analogy that is not only true of teenagers:

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry has just run away from his awful aunt and uncle’s house when he sees an ominous black dog. He’s rescued by the Knight Bus, which picks up stranded magical folk. But throughout the book, this dog keeps cropping up. Harry sees it in the tea leaves in Professor Trelawney’s divination class. He sees it in the grounds of Hogwarts School. He even sees it in the bleachers of the Quidditch field. He’s not sure if he’s going mad, imagining this creature everywhere. But then one night it grabs his best friend Ron by the leg and drags him down a tunnel. Harry dashes after, terrified. At the end of the tunnel, he finds Ron in a haunted house. But the dog has gone. It’s turned into the evil murderer Sirius Black, who betrayed Harry’s parents to their deaths. Now he’s going to murder Harry too.

Or so Harry thinks.

If you’ve read the Harry Potter books, you’ll know that that’s not right at all. Rather than trying to murder Harry, Sirius wants to protect him. Rather than betraying Harry’s parents, Sirius was himself betrayed. Rather than being Harry’s enemy, Sirius turns out to be his faithful friend. In fact, he’s the closest thing to family Harry’s got. When Harry first saw Sirius, all the evidence was against him. But when he found out the truth of who Sirius was, Harry’s mind was changed. So was his heart.

When people look at Christianity, they sometimes make the same mistake that Harry made with Sirius. Many of my friends think Christianity is against the things they care about the most. My friends care about racial justice. They see the ways in which Christians have engaged in slavery and racism and they assume that Christianity is against racial justice. My friends hear Christians saying that Jesus is the only way to God, and they think this is arrogant and offensive to those who were raised with other religious beliefs. My friends think people should be able to date and marry whomever they want, but Christianity says that it’s not okay to marry someone of the same sex. My friends are excited by the discoveries of science, and they think that believing in a Creator God is the opposite of believing in science. My friends believe that women are equal to men, and they think Christianity puts women down. My friends see all the pain and suffering in the world, and they think there couldn’t possibly be a loving God in charge. But just as Harry’s view of Sirius totally changed when he discovered more, when we look more closely at each of these concerns, our view of Christianity might just change as well.

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A Pitch for the Christian Faith

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I read a lot of online articles, but one that I keep coming back to is this piece from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. It is one of the most beautiful short pieces of apologetics I know.

So here’s my pitch for Christian faith, in the most succinct and accessible form I can think of. It’s a pitch. It argues some things, and postulates others, and you may not agree with all, or any, of these postulates. But it tries to be clear about what it postulates, and what it postulates, I think, makes sense, both rationally and intuitively.

So here goes. Let’s start here: the greatest thinkers and artists of history have recognized, and we ourselves know deep in our hearts, that human beings are incomplete; that there’s something within us that craves for something bigger. Call it meaning, call it happiness, call it self-actualization, call it the top of Maslow’s Pyramid—whatever. There is this something extra that we all crave and that we can’t quite put our finger on, and we’re all stuck in medium, trying to find it.

I think we can agree that religion, a good chunk of philosophy, art, ideology and so forth is dedicated to exploring that void and/or finding ways to fill it. I think we can also agree that plenty of people find ways to fill that void that are destructive, for themselves and/or others—substance abuse, pride, money, power… As DFW put it, in the day-to-day trenches of life, there are no atheists. We all worship something, we all choose something to fill that void.

I would submit that if there were such a thing that could fill that void, and do it in a non-destructive way, it could only be the following: the infinite love of a human person.

Every word in that phrase matters. The infinite love of a human person.

Infinite. We humans crave infinity. The void in our souls is bottomless. We simply never have enough. Anyone who’s had a brush with addiction can tell you this: there isn’t enough booze, or pills, or poker tables, or whatever, in the entire world, to fill an addict’s craving. If money is what we worship, we will simply never have enough—that much is clear. Nor power, nor pride, nor beauty, nor intelligence, nor sex, nor anything else that we worship. If something can exist to fill that void, it needs to be infinite, because our craving is.

Love. I would argue that the only thing that can fill that void is love. It is, after all, the only thing we can worship that isn’t destructive.

To find the answer, a useful question to ask might be: what are people willing to die for? Quite a lot, actually: addiction; pride; money; country; passion (which I would posit is distinct from love); ideology (including some forms of religion)…and love. Which one of these is quite good? Only love. Of all the things that we can use to fill our void, love is the only one that doesn’t destroy us. This probably tells us something useful about us, about what’s good for us, what we crave and what can fill that void. A Catholic might even say that we seem to be “ordered towards” love.

The only thing that comes even close to love as a void-filler is what the Ancient Greeks called ataraxia: happiness as the lack of destructive passions. And if you can achieve ataraxia—good for you! But it seems to me that not everybody can achieve ataraxia. I might even be so bold as to suggest that no one can achieve ataraxia all the time, or perhaps even most of the time. The Stoics believed that ataraxia could be achieved through rigorous self-discipline, and if that works for you great, but it begs the question—what if you don’t have that rigorous self-discipline? What if you can’t have it? What if you’re weak, and alone, and scared? Ataraxia is less void-fulfillment than void-denial, and sometimes the void just cannot be ignored. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against ataraxia. But it doesn’t work for everyone, and it seems to me that if we want to reach ataraxia, the first thing to do would be to find a good void-filler first. 

The great thing is that love—real love—is unconditional. It doesn’t require you to be self-sufficient, and to jump through hoops. It loves your flaws, too. Oh, sure, love is demanding—and even a little scary, especially infinite love—but it’s always ready to forgive, otherwise it wouldn’t be love. And love can suffer with you for your flaws, rather than wait for you to control them all.

I would also argue that love is the only void-filler that works because it is the only one that, by its nature, cannot be self-centered. We can base our life on love, or we can base it on something else, but that something else is ultimately something that circles back to ourselves. Pride, money, vanity, lust, even ataraxia—all of these things are about finding ways to satisfy us or, at best, to better us. And it seems that it doesn’t really work. It’s ultimately lonely, and impossible. We can never have enough money to satisfy us, or enough self-discipline to completely deny our passions. Whereas love, by definition, is other-centered. If you base your life on love, you have to find your fulfillment through others. You have to step out of your comfort-zone, and you have to be radically other-centered, instead of radically self-centered, which is what everything else leads to. It seems void-fillers come in only two kinds: self-centered and other-centered. The self-centered ones destroy us, and the only other-centered one is love. Incidentally, it seems that humans are love-seeking animals, but also morality-seeking animals, and that it seems that those two are strangely connected.

Of a human person. Both words matter here. Person, first. Sure, we can love concepts, and ideas, and amorphous abstract things like “Nature” or “The Reich”, but it doesn’t seem particularly healthy to base a life on that, and it doesn’t serm particularly void-filling, either. Frankly, it just seems to me that we need to love people. That’s the healthiest, least destructive kind of love. But more importantly, the great thing about loving a person is that he or she can love you back. There can be one-sided love between a person and a thing, or a concept, or a collective, but for reciprocal love, for two people to love each other, you need, well, two people. Sorry, but the Universe can’t love you. Or rather if it does, I would suggest that it can only do so through, or by, a Person. We’re not Borg. We need a real person to latch on to.

And this person of infinite love, if she had to exist, if she could fill our void, would have to be, I believe, a human person. We can only fully love other people. For an infinite love to fill my void, it has not only to be reciprocal, that is to say, personal, it has to be human, because I’m human. The love I crave that can make me whole would have to be a love I can relate to, a love that understands me and who I am, a love that I can touch, a love that I can taste, a love that is like me, or even a love that is me. In short, it has to come from another human being.

Of course, if you’re still following me, you’ll see that we’ve reached a paradox. If this void-filling love we crave can only come from another human person, but must also be infinite, how can that be? Humans, after all, as we know all too well, are finite. For such a love to be possible, there would have to be a person who is both human and also—somehow, mysteriously—infinite. Or, dare I say it, divine. Both truly human so that his or her love can complete us and truly divine so that his or her love can fill us infinitely. Wouldn’t it be great if that person existed, and all he or she wanted was to love us infinitely. Wouldn’t it be something.

Now obviously you see where I’m going with this (I told you upfront!), but it really seems to me that it holds up. Looking at the void-fillers out there, looking at all the alternatives, meditating on human nature, what we are, what we crave, what fulfills us, taking a step back, it really seems to me that you reach this conclusion, if only by a process of elimination. Our void-filler has to be infinite; it has to be love; it has to be love from another human being. As you read this, you might disagree. You might find obvious flaws in my analysis, or simply highly questionable assumptions embedded in it. That’s fine. It’s my analysis. I simply humbly ask that you keep it in a corner of your mind and perhaps occasionally meditate it, because I really think it holds up.

And so we come to the closing of the pitch. If what we crave is the infinite love of a human person, the only thing out there—the only religion, the only philosophy, the only ideology, whatever—that offers that is Christianity. Only Christianity proposes—and is built on—the idea of the infinite love of a human person, unconditionally offered to any who accepts it. Christianity proclaims that this infinite love of a human person is available through Jesus Christ, who is both man and God, and the son of a God of Love. And it happens that know of the historical existence of Jesus Christ, and not only his love-centred teachings, but his Death and Glorious Resurrection establishing him as both man and God. And we can know these events not just through faith and unbroken millennial tradition but also through concordant eyewitness accounts, which is a way we constantly rely on for knowing facts.

If, by a process of elimination, one reaches the conclusion that the only thing (or perhaps just the best thing) that can truly serve human fulfillment is the infinite love of a human person, then one must also, by a process of elimination, reach the conclusion that Christianity must be the path towards this love. What’s more, if you reach the conclusion that the only thing that can truly serve human fulfillment is the infinite love of a human person, it’s easy to also reach the conclusion that if this is so, perhaps we were made this way, and that this would be solid evidence for the truth of whatever religion or system teaches that this is the Way (and the Truth. And the Life).

(I would further add that the Catholic Church is the Church that Jesus established on Earth to proclaim s love and his message, that it has done so in an unbroken fashion for nearly 2000 years, and that it not only proclaims the infinite love of the human person Jesus Christ, but also proclaims that He can be touched and felt and experienced through the concrete reality of his Real Presence in the Eucharist, and through His incarnation in His Church, which is an extension of Him. In other words, unlike most other Christian churches, the Catholic Church promises not just membership in the original Church that Christ built, but also to experience Christ’s love not just abstractly but tangibly, through the Eucharist, the Sacraments, and membership in a Church which is not only a group of people but one of the ways that Christ is present on Earth. And also some kickass music, painting and robes.)

I know, I know. It probably all seems crazy/silly/ridiculous. I ask that you just keep it in mind. Especially next time you find yourself really craving someone’s love. Think of the alternatives.

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Introducing the Conversion Therapy Debate

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A debate is currently ongoing in the UK about the Government’s commitment to ban conversion therapy. The debate is important because it’s ultimately about how best to protect people, and the stakes are high because it could place serious limitations on the ways that Christians (and others) are able to support LGBT people. Many Christians seem to be becoming aware of the debate but are not quite sure what’s going on or what to think about it. Here’s my attempt at an overview of how things stand at the moment.

What’s the background?

In 2018 the UK Government released its LGBT Action Plan. Within the plan, the Government said they would ‘bring forward proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK’. They specified that they would explore both legislative and non-legislative options and their intent would be to protect people from harm or violence. They also specified that this commitment did not mean they would be ‘trying to prevent LGBT people from seeking legitimate medical support or spiritual support from their faith leader in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity.’1

Since then, various groups and individuals have publicly called on the Government to follow through on this commitment. A petition in support of a legislative ban gained over 255,000 signatures and was debated in Parliament on 8th March this year. In response, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) reaffirmed its commitment to the pledges made in the 2018 LGBT Action Plan.2 Around the same time, Liz Truss, Equalities Minister, said that plans will be released ‘shortly’.3  Nothing has been released yet.

Where’s the controversy?

Many of us won’t see much of a problem in the Government’s commitments. Few people today support interventions designed to change someone’s sexual orientation and we can all recognise the importance of both medical and spiritual support being available to all people.

However, a couple of complex and controversial factors have given rise to considerable debate.

One is the issue of defining conversion therapy and specifying what should actually be banned. Historically, conversion therapy has referred to deliberate practices that are specifically aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation, sometimes against their will. Examples often cited are corrective rape, electroconvulsive therapy, and pseudoscientific psychological interventions. There is broad agreement that all coercive and abusive interventions aimed at changing sexual orientation should be banned.

However, many calling for the ban want a much broader definition which would include not only efforts to change, but also efforts to repress sexual orientation and, in some cases, efforts to change behaviour.4 Some of the proposed definitions state explicitly that even practices to which individuals consent should be included.5

The use of such a broad definition is much more controversial. Among other things, it would make it illegal to teach the historic Christian sexual ethic or to pray with a same-sex attracted Christian who requested prayer for strength to resist sexual temptation.

A second area of debate is the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the ban. While some are adamant that these must be included, others object to the parallel treatment of sexual orientation and gender identity noting that they are very different elements of human experience and may require different responses.

A ban including gender would impact the forms of treatment and support that could be offered to those who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who express discomfort with their gender or bodily sex. It could become illegal for medical professionals to help patients access forms of support that may help them to live more comfortably with their bodies rather than undergoing invasive medical interventions. It could also become illegal for parents to insist that their child wears the clothes of their biological sex or uses their given name.

How should we assess the debate?

How should Christians who want to be faithful to the Bible and want to love people assess the current debate?

First, we should be in full support of legislation that seeks to protect people from things that are coercive and abusive. It is sadly true that some LGBT people have been subjected to abusive practices which they were told would change their sexual orientation. Even more sadly, Christians have sometimes been guilty of conducting or encouraging people towards these practices. This is something that all Christians must own, repent of and grieve over. We must work to care for those who have been subjected to such treatment and work to ensure that it does not continue to occur. In reality, coercive and abusive practices should already be covered by existing legislation and we should support the full and thorough implementation of such legislation. But if there are any gaps in existing legislation, we should support a targeted ban on such conversion therapy practices.

However, we should oppose the sort of broad ban for which some are campaigning.

The key reason why we should do this is that we love and care about LGBT people. A ban using the very broad definitions some are proposing would introduce discrimination against and potential harm to LGBT people. LGBT Christians who hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic and who wish to receive support to live in light of their deeply held religious beliefs would be denied access to important spiritual support such as prayer, pastoral care, and biblical teaching. This is clear discrimination and would be harmful to people like me.5 And such a ban could possibly also lead to discrimination against any LGBT person who sought spiritual support. This is because the legislation would be likely to create a culture of fear in which many churches and people of other faiths would be too afraid to engage with LGBT people. The result would be easy access to spiritual support for straight people, but only limited access for LGBT people. This would be discriminatory and potentially harmful.

A broad ban that included gender identity and gender expression would risk bringing harm to those who are uncomfortable with or who are questioning their gender. A particular concern is that a ban in relation to gender identity could deny people access to support that might help them to feel more comfortable living with their bodies and in so doing avoid highly invasive medical interventions and their accompanying life-long impacts (such as infertility).6 There are also concerns that quick affirmation of gender identity among same-sex attracted teenagers may itself be acting as a form of sexual orientation conversion therapy. Transitioning becomes a way of converting from same-sex attracted to opposite-sex attracted. It therefore seems important that those supporting young people have the freedom to help them to properly explore what they are experiencing.7

Using a very broad definition of conversion therapy for the ban would also be likely to infringe on key human rights. In a formal legal opinion sent to government ministers, a leading QC has warned that such a ban would constitute ‘an unlawful interference’ with several of the rights outlined in the European Convention of Human Rights.8

How should we respond?

At the moment, we’re really in a period of waiting. Until the GEO releases some proposals there is nothing concrete to respond to, but there are still some things we can be doing.

Pray

There are several things we can be praying for:

  • Pray for legislation that protects people from coercive and abusive practices and that ensures LGBT people have free access to spiritual and other forms of support that they may wish to receive.
  • Pray for those who have been the victims of such practices, that they would find peace and healing from any negative impacts of what they have experienced.
  • Pray for those working on the proposals in the GEO and for those who are seeking to have a positive influence on the formation of the proposals.
  • Pray for those who are engaging publicly in the debate.

Learn

For church leaders, especially, it’s important that we are aware of what is going on, where the points of debate are, and how we should assess them. Hopefully this post is a helpful starting point; the recommended reading below may also be useful.

I also think this is a time when it is vitally important for all church leaders to make sure they are confident in the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality and how to communicate it in clear and winsome ways. The debate is likely to become more prominent as the proposals go through Parliament and this means that the people in our churches will be hearing significant criticism of the historic Christian sexual ethic.

Those of us who are seeking to disciple Christians to trust in and follow God’s good plan for sexuality already compete with a culture that is loudly and daily preaching a very different view. We may well soon find that we are also competing with voices online and in the media that are loudly declaring the teaching of the Bible to be not only untrue but also harmful and abusive. We must be ready to respond to this, honestly acknowledging the Church’s historic failings in this area but confidently presenting the goodness of God’s plan.

If you want help with this, you’ll find loads of useful resources at LivingOut.org and you can also take a look at this annotated list of recommended resources

Recommended reading

If you want to read more on the debate, here are some starting points.

What should Christians think about conversion therapy? Start with this article from Living Out: ‘Does Living Out Support “Gay Cure” or “Reparative Therapy”?

Christian voices raising concern with current proposals:

Ed Shaw, ‘What would a conversion therapy ban mean for gay Christians like me?’, The Spectator.

Anne Witton, ‘Freedom to be Me’, Living Out.

Andrew Bunt, ‘Ban Conversion Therapy, But Don’t Ban Support’, Living Out.

Ed Shaw, ‘My New Interest in Human Rights’, Living Out.

Andrew Bunt, ‘Protecting Gender Diverse People’, Living Out.

Ending Conversion therapy?’, Evangelical Alliance.

Secular voices raising concern with current proposals:

Conversion therapy briefing’, Transgender Trend.

#EndConversionTherapy’, LGB Alliance.

Douglas Murray, ‘We don’t need a new law against “conversion therapy”’, The Spectator.

Footnotes

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Top Tips for Curating Research to Support Your Cause

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When looking at research and statistics it’s always important to do a bit of digging (as I’ve pointed out before). This hit home for me again recently when I was working through some newly released research on the impact of gender identity conversion therapy (you can read my critique here). As I worked through the research report, I was struck that it could be used as a textbook example of how to create and report on a survey so that it supports your cause. (Obviously I can't know whether that was deliberate in this case!) So, inspired by that example, here are my top tips for curating research to serve your cause.

1. Use a voluntary, non-probability sample.

These first few tips are all about how you get your data.

The make-up of the group who answer your survey is important. To get the results that best support your cause you want to combine tips one and two.

A voluntary, non-probability sample means people volunteer to complete the survey in response to your invitation. It is non-probability because you don’t do anything to try and ensure there’s an equal chance of any person completing the survey. (In fact, as tip #2 will show, we want to do the opposite.) This means you won’t be able to know how representative of any larger group your sample is, but that’s not something to worry about. Most people won’t realise.

2. Find respondents from a group likely to share or at least be sympathetic to your views.

Here you want to think strategically about where you advertise your survey and how you invite people to respond to it. Perhaps there is a noticeboard or email mailing list that might reach people with the right sort of views. Or you may find the social media channels of a special interest group helpful.

3. Use retrospective, self-reporting.

We’re now thinking about the ways you’re actually gathering data from your sample of respondents.

Retrospective reporting asks people to look back and remember something from the past. It matches well with a carefully sourced voluntary sample because our more recent experiences and current beliefs are likely to shape our perceptions of the past. If you can find people with strong views now, there’s a good chance their retrospective report will be influenced by those strong views.

Self-reporting is when the response is based on the individual’s own perception (rather than, for example, a formal diagnosis or a widely recognised set of diagnostic criteria). It’s an approach that will often put more respondents in a certain group than approaches that use more rigorous diagnostic methods. It can be particularly useful if you’re looking for evidence of psychological harm since that’s a fairly subjective measure and people might well over-report.

4. Don’t ask questions that might give awkward answers.

Think carefully about what you actually ask. If challenged later down the line, it might be hard to hide unhelpful data, but if you don’t have the data because you never asked the question you’ll be in a much safer position.

What are the things that could undermine your position and throw serious doubt on your overall conclusions? Be careful not to ask questions on those unless you are confident that you won’t end up with unhelpful data.

5. Exclude unhelpful responses.

The next two tips are for the data processing stage.

If you find that you’ve received some unhelpful responses even after following the previous tips, you may be able to exclude some of these.

Is there any way in which you could cast doubt on the integrity of those answers? Anything that you could give as a defense for thinking the data is of poor quality or was given in bad faith? You may be surprised how many unhelpful responses you can exclude if you think about this carefully.

6. Involve an independent research monitor.

An independent research monitor is a person with some relevant qualifications who will keep an eye on your analysis of the data. When you release your results, being able to show that the analysis was independently monitored can give it an extra air of credibility.

Where possible, you want to try and find someone who is sympathetic to your perspective. But even if this isn’t fully possible, if you’ve followed the tips above, it shouldn’t really matter. If your data has been sourced carefully, you should still be able to get results conducive to your position even if it is analysed objectively.

7. Present the figures but don’t comment on those that are unhelpful.

These final tips are about how you report your results.

Your report will probably contain a mixture of tables, charts and comments. Think carefully about what you want to report. You may find there are some things it’s best to omit completely and hope no one notices.

You can also hide unhelpful results. People are less likely to notice such figures in charts and tables because they require a little more thinking. You’re probably safe to include some unhelpful results in these and then just make sure that your comments only draw on the helpful results. Your comments can provide a good distraction.

8. Be accurate but strategic in your comments.

Try and avoid stating things that are clearly not true from the data (although you might get away with a few such statements across a report), but obviously you want to highlight the things that are helpful to you. Remember to think about whether a fraction or a percentage will more effectively make your point. The same figure can feel quite different depending on how it’s communicated.

And always remember that correlation is your friend. If you can point out a clear correlation, people will assume causation even if your data could never prove it. Usually, you don’t even need to state anything that isn’t true; just present the correlation in a carefully worded statement and your readers will join the imaginary dots themselves.

Follow these simple steps and you too can curate research to support your cause. (Or you can use them to evaluate the research of others. May that’s the better use for them!)

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Keir’s Tears

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Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, has offered an ‘apology’ for visiting the Jesus House – one of London’s largest and most influential churches, and one especially committed to serving the wider community.

Why the need for the apology? Because Jesus House holds to a traditional sexual ethic.

One might imagine that a commitment to diversity and tolerance would include space for those who hold to an historical understanding of marriage, but no, that no longer appears to be the case. One might also have sympathy for Sir Keir – coming under the LGBT+ cosh is not pleasant – but his apology doesn’t look a great tactic for long term leadership success. Once you have so quickly given into a bully it is much harder not to hand over your dinner money the next time it is demanded.

The apology also puts Starmer in an awkward position for anyone who wants to be a national leader. By the logic of the apology he will now not be able to visit the thousands of churches in the UK which hold to a traditional sexual ethic, despite their food banks, working with the poor, serving the toughest communities, ministries to those with addictions, and so on. In addition, he will not be able to visit the Vatican, Orthodox synagogues, or almost any mosque. Is that really the best way to show leadership in a multicultural and multifaith society?

My Bible reading this morning was in Isaiah 59. Verses 14-15 were appropriate:

So justice is driven back,
  and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
  honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found,
  and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

At least in some churches truth is still to be found - no apology required.

 

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The Great Pastoral Challenge of 2021

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It is not only right-wing Brexiteers and Liberal Democrats (as Andrew, in his impish way, suggested yesterday) who have concerns about the erosion of basic freedoms over the past year.

I was talking with a church member the other day about her mother, who is 101 years old and in a local care home. She is permitted only one visitor for only thirty minutes just once a fortnight. That visitor has to have a test for covid before being admitted, has to wear full PPE, and has to be supervised by a member of staff throughout their visit – rather as if they were visiting a prison instead of a care home. Of course, all concerned have also been vaccinated. Supervision of the visit is required to ensure that facemasks remain in place and no hugs are exchanged.

This woman is 101 years old, she has been more than ready to go and be with the Lord for a number of years, and yet she is permitted only minimal contact with family and no physical affection, in order to ‘protect’ her. This seems the very definition of madness. What possible good does it achieve?

It is not only right-wing Brexiteers and Liberal Democrats who might see in this the fulfilment of a technocratic vision in which the masses are kept in submission through the provision of bread and circuses (aka the furlough scheme and Netflix) while ‘experts’ decide exactly what we can and cannot do with our lives. Pastors might see this as a direct challenge to the ministry of the word to which they have been called. They might see it as not only technocratic but demonic.

This Easter week we might reflect on all the ways in which Jesus refused to err on the side of caution. This involved submitting to a corrupt political and judicial process – which reminds his followers that submission to the State, even when the State is wrong, can be our best way of honouring God. That submission was actually God’s way of subverting and overcoming all the powers. At the cross the serpent was crushed.

We might also reflect on how Jesus engaged in activities that under current coronavirus legislation would be illegal, because of the degree of physical proximity they involved – which reminds his followers about the essentially embodied nature of our faith, which we must not deny.

Matthew 26:6 While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

Matthew 26:20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.

Matthew 26:26-27 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you.

John 20:21-22 Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’

Anointing, huddling together at dinner, sharing bread and wine, breathing on others – or embracing a 101 year old relative – all things we have been prevented from doing this past year. ‘The great Christian leadership challenge of 2021’ is to have the courage to begin doing these things again.

 

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The Great Leadership Challenge of 2021

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In a thought-provoking column for The Times last week, James Forsyth argued that the most lasting impact of Covid will be our diminished appetite for risk. He was talking about politicians in particular: "We’ve had a generation of politicians and officials who had grown used to the worst case scenario not happening, be it the millennium bug or bird flu ... Covid has changed all that, though. We now have a situation in which the ‘reasonable worst case scenario’, to use the government jargon, has happened. This will lead ministers and civil servants to err on the side of caution for the rest of their careers."

This is obviously not limited to the political class. This time last year, the government were astonished by how happy British people were to exchange freedom for safety. Polls continue to suggest they still are, and if the couple who glared at me in the woods the other day as I walked within ten feet of them are anything to go by, they’re right. Basic freedoms in a liberal democracy—the freedom to assemble, protest, worship, leave your home, hug your mother, meet someone for a coffee and a walk—have turned into privileges that the government may or may not continue to grant, depending on “the data” (which I put in scare quotes because its referent is continually morphing, from “preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed” to “protecting the vulnerable” to “reducing community transmission to near zero,” and on current trends may end up as “abolishing death”). The only people who seem to think any of this is a problem are a bunch of right-wing Brexiteers and (very, very belatedly) the Liberal Democrats.

In the end, it is not my job to convince people that they are wrong, that becoming a biosecurity state is a bad idea, or that liberty is almost always conceded to people who say that it is for our own good. I am a church pastor, not an activist or a policy wonk. But it certainly is my job—and that of many people reading this—to shepherd the people of God with courage, to guard against timidity, to stand firm in the perfect love that casts out fear, and to witness to a kingdom where people love not their lives even unto death. Which does not for a moment mean silliness, selfishness, disregarding the needs of vulnerable members, or encouraging the strong to flaunt their rights with no concern for their impact on the weak. (Our leadership team had an excellent conversation about exactly this just yesterday.) But it does mean being aware of the possibility that we, and our church members, risk being shaped by the last twelve months into “erring on the side of caution for the rest of our careers”—and doing what we can to stop that from happening.

That will take wisdom. It will need us to reflect on the nature of genuine Christian love (Romans 12), the relationship of the Church to the State (Romans 13), the obligations of the weak and the strong (Romans 14), and the dangers and sacrifices of Christian mission (Romans 15)—not to mention the familial affection that characterises the church (Romans 16). (I could give some discussion questions to get you started, but you already know what they are.) And it will also require courage, which comes from a spirit that is not fearful, but filled with power, love and self-control. That, I suspect, will be the great Christian leadership challenge of 2021.

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Better Times Twelve

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I have preached, researched and published on Hebrews, but somehow I have never noticed that twelve things are described as κρείττων or κρείσσων ("better" or "superior") in the letter. They are well worth meditating on:

1. “After making purification for sins, [the Son] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (1:3-4)

2. “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” (6:9)

3. “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the better [priest].” (7:7)

4. “A former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.” (7:18-19)

5. “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.” (7:22)

6. “As it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” (8:6)

7. “Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” (9:23)

8. “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (10:34)

9. “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (11:16)

10. “Others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection.” (11:35)

11. “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (11:39-40)

12. “You have come ... to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (12:24)

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The Right Hand

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Scripture often speaks of being seated at God's right hand, but what does it mean? Three things, explains Tom Schreiner in his new commentary on Hebrews:

1) Power

“Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,
your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.”
(Ex 15:6)

“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand;
the earth swallowed them.”
(Ex 15:11-12)

2) Protection

“I have set the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.”
(Ps 16:8)

“Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.”
(Ps 73:23)

“Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
(Isa 41:10)

3) Triumph

“Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
with the saving might of his right hand.”
(Ps 20:6)

“Your hand will find out all your enemies;
your right hand will find out those who hate you.”
(Ps 21:8)

“The Lord says to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
(Ps 110:1)

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Look Around, Look Around.

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What a year. On this day in 2020 Boris Johnson told the British public 'You must stay at home'. And the world stopped.

It's not often we know that we're living through history. I've tried to be alert to it (but mostly failed miserably). It has predominantly felt unreal, but also magical - in the sense that truly magical things inspire awe, wonder and fear in roughly equal measure.

The song in the musical Hamilton in which we meet the Schuyler sisters has been in my mind and on my lips for much of this time. Angelica leads her sisters through the revolution-torn streets of Manhattan, singing ‘Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!’. The youngest of the sisters, Peggy is less than convinced, while Eliza, in the middle, seems, well, in the middle:

Peggy: It’s bad enough Daddy wants to go to war
Eliza: People shouting in the square
Peggy: It’s bad enough there’ll be violence on our shore
Angelica: New ideas in the air!
    Look around, look around…

Who is right? They both are. Both perspectives are true and real and accurate. They are both valid ways of seeing and interpreting the world-changing events.

This pandemic has been devastating for many people. It has caused immense suffering and loss and will continue to do so for many years. The financial implications alone of pausing the economy and borrowing from our futures to pay so many, many wages for so many months will be enormous. Political unrest will continue. Unemployment will continue and poverty will grow. The mental and physical health toll on frontline workers will crash like a tsunami. And many thousands of people will be left with unresolved grief caused by losing loved ones from a distance.

It has been a truly awful year for many people.

But for many others it has been a year of opportunity, of possibility, of new beginnings. Entrepreneurial delivery services have opened up, online platforms have flourished. People have taken up new hobbies and learned new skills. The housebound have been able to participate in church, in theatre, in concerts all over the world and to have exactly the same experience as the able-bodied audience. Neighbours have met each other and talked, perhaps for the first time. Christians have had a reason to introduce themselves to their neighbours, offer help and build relationships. During the first lockdown there were stories of impromptu orchestras and choirs forming in the streets as people took their talents outside and joined in with their neighbours, distant but together.

And of course, most significantly, many people have been led to consider the bigger questions of life and faith, have joined Alpha or Christianity Explored courses, have joined churches and have even been baptised when that has been possible.

It has been a year of tragedies, of disasters, of intense struggles. But it has also been a year of joy and delight; a year of wonders; a year of miracles.

Today has been designated a National Day of Reflection. For most people that will mean a day of reflecting on the sorrows - looking around at the conflict, the sadness and the loss. For the Angelicas among us, perhaps it will mean looking around with excited anticipation at the opportunities we’ve been given, the chance to ‘build back better’, the phoenix that could arise from the flames.

Perhaps an Eliza approach might be better; an approach that sees the suffering, but also sees God’s sovereignty.

Isaiah 43 has kept coming back to me over the last few months:

But now, this is what the Lord says –
  he who created you, Jacob,
  he who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
  I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
  I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
  they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
  you will not be burned;
  the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
  the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;

...

I am making a way in the wilderness
  and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honour me,
  the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
  and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
  the people I formed for myself
  that they may proclaim my praise.

(Isaiah 43:1-3, 19-21. My emphasis)

The wilderness and the floods and the fire are real, but God’s promise isn’t just that ‘when it’s all over’ he will put everything right. He is with us right now, in the midst of it. He is the water of life in the wilderness, the stream of nourishment, blessing and abundant life flowing through the middle of the desert.

He is still God, he is in control, he is worthy of our praise.

Look around. Look around.

 

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Detrans Awareness Day

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Last Friday was Detrans Awareness Day, a day designed to raise awareness about detransition and to tackle the stigma that is often associated with it. As the day went on, the #DetransAwarenessDay feed on Twitter filled up with stories from detransitioners and words of support from others. It’s well worth looking through the tweets to get a sense of the experiences of and difficulties faced by detransitioners.

Detransitioners are people who have decided to stop or reverse a social or medical transition in which they were living out an internal sense of gender and have instead decided to acknowledge and accept the reality of their biological sex. The experience of detransitioners has gained greater public prominence in the past few years, especially through the story of Keria Bell, a detransitioned woman who was the lead claimant in a 2020 High Court case against the NHS Tavistock and Portman Trust who run the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS). I’ve written previously about how Christians should respond to the reality of detransition and the increasing prominence of detransitioners in the cultural conversation about transgender.

To coincide with Detrans Awareness Day, Post Trans, a project seeking to support female detransitioners, have released a booklet called Gender Detransition: A Path Towards Self-Acceptance. The short booklet is a great resource for those wanting to understand detransition and to support well people who are questioning their gender identity.

The booklet opens with the stories of three detransitioned women, and the authors then draw on the words of many detransitioners to tackle some common misunderstandings about detransitioners and to paint a picture of how a better future could be created for those who detransition. They also give a brief overview of some of the potential impacts of detransitioning medically, including an interview with Dr William J. Malone, director of the Society of Evidence-Based Gender Medicine (SEGM).

The booklet also talks about alternative ways to deal with gender dysphoria. One of the points the authors seek to make, and an important point to understand, is that detransition does not mean that the experience of gender dysphoria is not real or has ceased for those who choose to detransition. Rather, detransitioners recognise that transitioning has not been the best way for them to deal with their experience of dysphoria and that other ways of handling it should therefore be explored. Sadly, other ways of handling gender dysphoria have been little researched and are rarely offered by medical professions, but this booklet shares some of the alternative ways that detransitioners have been able to deal with their dysphoria.

Gender Detransition is a great way to understand more about detransition and is rare in its openness about the factors that sometimes lie behind transgender experience and alternative ways of responding to gender dysphoria. If we’re going to help and care for people well, we’re going to need more resources like this.

Youth leaders and parents, as well as those involved in pastoral care, will find the booklet particularly helpful.

Gender Detransition: A Path Towards Self-Acceptance is available to download for free on the Post Trans website.

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The Things of God

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My new book God of All Things comes out today! Here's the opening chapter, and if you like the sound of it, you can get it here.

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
—Psalm 104:24

God didn’t have to create a material world. He could have made an entirely spiritual universe, with no matter or physical laws. He could have made the angels and quit while he was ahead. He could have decided to make nothing at all and carry on rejoicing in the fellowship of the Trinity for all eternity.

But instead he made a universe filled with things. Objects. Stuff. Planets, weather, colors, animals, vegetables, minerals. People, complete with noses and kidneys and bodily fluids. It is curious: an immaterial and entirely spiritual God created a thoroughly material and physical world. Perhaps it should surprise us more than it does.

So why did God make things? Have you ever wondered that? You’re reading Scripture and enjoying its spirituality when suddenly there’s an extended section on hair or locusts or water. It jolts. You are struck by the strange physicality of the text. Somehow it feels as though material like this ought not to be in the Bible. So why is it?

We could answer that question a number of ways. One is to picture God like a fountain, bubbling up with so much joy that it overflows into the creation of the world.  God does not create because he has to or because he lacks anything. He creates because his delight in being God is so abundant and bountiful that it spills out into a universe of wonders.

Another is to see the physical world as a display case of God’s multicolored wisdom. This is the explanation in Psalm 104, one of Scripture’s most beautiful songs. God’s marvellous intelligence and creativity become visible to us in the things he has made. The psalmist, without access to encyclopedias or the internet, already had a whole bunch of examples in mind: valleys, lions, storks, wine, rock badgers, oil. The more of creation we discover—tropical fish, triceratops, Iguazu Falls, wallabies, coffee—the more our amazement as God’s wisdom increases. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps. 104:24).

Created things teach us practical wisdom as well. Ants show us the power of diligence, even if we feel small or insignificant: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Prov. 6:6). We can learn about sexual fidelity from hot coals, about making money from the flight of eagles, about handling anger from churning butter (Prov. 6:27–29; 23:4–5; 30:33). The growth of a tiny mustard seed into a huge bush is an illustration of the power of faith (Matt. 17:20). Jesus’ teaching is full of things—sheep, birds, flowers, coins, seeds, trees, fields, salt, light, feet, rain, the sunrise—which instruct us how to live, simply by being there. Watch and learn.

For Paul in Romans 1, creation reveals God’s invisible power and divine nature. Few of us can stand in front of the Grand Canyon or see a high-definition picture of the Horsehead Nebula without wanting to praise somebody or something for the majesty of what is before us. Some of us will suppress that urge. But those of us who don’t and allow the song of gratitude to swell within us like a storm will find ourselves concluding all sorts of things about our Maker. The God of the Sahara must be vast, boundless, and expansive. The God of quarks must have an unimaginable eye for detail. The God of wombats must have a sense of humour. Everything in creation has theological implications, and one of the joys of being human is figuring out what they are.

What all of these answers have in common is the fact that creation points beyond itself. Things exist not for their own sakes but to draw us back to God. In Augustine’s image, the gifts of God in creation are like a boat which takes us back to our homeland: a means of transport which we can (and should) celebrate but never mistake for the destination itself.  C. S. Lewis talks about following the sunbeams back to the sun so that we enjoy not just the object of goodness but the source of good.  Creation preaches to us. The things of God reveal the God of things.

Sometimes we look at things upside down on this point. Theologians point out (rightly) that the language used for God in Scripture is often anthropomorphic, and we should not take it literally. (God does not literally have a mighty arm, the nations are not literally under his feet, sacrifices do not literally reach his nostrils, and so on.) But this is only half the story, and in some ways the less important half.

It might be more helpful to say that the world is theomorphic: things take the form they do because they are created to reveal God. We describe God as “the Rock” not just because rocks exist and they provide a good picture of safety and stability. Rocks exist because God is the Rock: the Rock of our salvation, the Rock who provides water in the desert, the Rock whose work is perfect and all his ways are just. When we flip things around like this, we get a very different picture of the purpose of creation, of physical stuff, of things. Ever since the beginning, the surface of this planet has been covered with rocks, and every one of them has been preaching a message of the faithfulness, security, and steadfastness of God. “For their rock is not as our Rock; our enemies are by themselves” (Deut. 32:31).

This book is an attempt to listen to messages like that. Some chapters offer an exposition of creation, a meditation on who God is, as revealed through specific things. Others consider what a particular thing represents in Scripture and ask what we can learn from it. Others do a bit of both. As you read them, my hope is that you will get a deeper understanding not just of Scripture but of the world you live in, and ultimately of the God who made it all. (I love the idea that you might be walking down the street one day, see one of the things that we consider in this book, and get jolted out of your daydream into wonder and worship.) The book asks questions like, What does the existence of honey tell us about God or about what he has done in Jesus Christ? What are we supposed to learn from the fact that he created pigs, flowers, donkeys, fruit, and earthquakes? Might there even be significance in things that human beings have made: pots, trumpets, tools, cities? After all, “the earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1 NIV).

Come and see.

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The Apostolic Church Can Relax

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The apostolic church knows that it's sent to proclaim a gospel that will look after itself. The apostolic community knows that Jesus Christ is alive, unfettered and omnipotent, striding ahead of us into the world. It's not the church's task to do Jesus Christ's work for him; it's the church's task simply to let him do his work to us and among us and to be the means through which he many choose to do that work. The rest isn't our business. When we do make it our business - when instead of being ministers of the gospel we take it upon ourselves to look after the gospel - then we cease to be apostolic, and thereby we very quickly forfeit joy and peace and hope. Joy and peace and hope in the church are inseparable from believing, and believing - faith in Christ - means freedom. God is God; God will do God's work and will draw us into that work as he chooses. Therefore - relax.

- John Webster, Christ Our Salvation: Expositions and Proclamations

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The Privilege of an Evening Walk

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Late evening walks have become one of my favourite things in this lockdown. After a long day at my desk, often followed by an evening on Zoom, I enjoy getting out into the fresh air and the quietness of the evening. Those walks give me the chance to reflect on the day that’s passed or to think about the day that’s coming, or just to switch off. They are genuinely one of the highlights of my day.

Against this background, it’s been sobering to reflect that for my female friends, such a walk would probably be taken only out of necessity, not out of pleasure, and would be more likely to give rise to stress than enjoyment.

The disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard have brought to public consciousness the reality of violence against women in our nation. The news that a body, later identified as Sarah Everard, had been found came on the same day that MP Jess Philips read out the names of all the women killed in the UK over the previous 12 months where a man has been convicted or charged as the main perpetrator. The list contained 118 names. Reading it out took more than four minutes. The same week, the World Health Organisation reported that one in three women have been subject to physical or sexual violence. These national and global stories were accompanied by the testimony of countless women on social media.

It was the reaction on social media that I found most powerful. Seeing women I know and love, women whom I would think of as strong and confident, sharing that an evening walk would be a cause of stress for them was deeply moving. The walks I took in the days that followed suddenly felt like an incredible privilege.

One type of response among Christians particularly saddened me. Thankfully, I’m sure it is a minority opinion, but it saddened me nevertheless. Some Christians seemed to be taking the view that this is just an unfortunate consequence of living in a world contaminated by sin. In this age, violence against women will always be a reality, and so women will just have to find ways to protect themselves as they live in the reality of a sin-sick world.

Sadly, violence against women, like so many other things that are wrong in the world, will be ever-present in this age. It is yet another reason for us to pray ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Revelation 22:20). But that can’t mean we passively accept the reality around us. Jesus warned us that there would always be people in poverty (Mark 14:7), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be active in seeking to reduce poverty. The early Church clearly understood that (James 1:27).

When I see the sinfulness of the world exhibited in the murder of a woman taking an evening walk or the killing of 118 women in the UK over the past twelve months, and when I see the fear that my friends feel walking on their own after dark, I don’t just see something to lament, I see something that requires action. The problem is deeply rooted – in society and in the human heart. There aren’t easy solutions, and there won’t be any ultimate solution until Jesus returns, but I can’t help but believe there must be a role for the church to play.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure exactly what that role is. There are some obvious and important first steps: affirming that the reality currently evident is not ok; listening to and learning from the women around us; affirming the value, worth and dignity of every woman; calling out language and actions that exhibit the sort of attitudes that feed into violence against women; challenging the objectification of women that is sadly evident in our society. There must be more than this, and we must find out what that more is. But we must act because the inevitable brokenness of this age isn’t an excuse to be passive, it’s a call to be active.

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A Theology of Things

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My new book God of All Things comes out next week. My hope is that it will help people delight in God, and the way it aims to do that is by taking thirty "things" in creation - dust, pigs, honey, rain - and seeing what they reveal to us about their Creator.

Anyway: we just had a conversation about it on our Mere Fidelity podcast. The guys were very kind about it, but they also raised some really good questions (as you’d expect) about a theology of things. Have a listen.

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But he wanted to justify himself

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The parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is perhaps the best known of all the stories Jesus told. The moral lesson of the person who seemed least likely to show mercy being the one who actually did has deep resonance, for Christians and non-believers alike. It’s a great twist-in-the-tail tale and in the set-up to the parable we are given the clearest insight into human psychology: ‘But he wanted to justify himself.’

The desire to justify ourselves runs deep. A favourite trope of our cultural moment is that we should not judge, but the reality is that we do want to be judged: we want others to judge us to be in the right. The Bible gives a lot of attention to this subject, both warning us against self-justification (Mark 12:38-40) and showing us how we can be right in the way that really matters – in the judgment of God (Rom. 3:22-24).

There has been much comment this week about who we judge to be right following that interview. Among the British population the answer to that question seems to be largely influenced by age. Younger people are more likely to see the issues to be about race and side with the Sussex’s; older people that it is about duty and loyalty: the narrative of victimhood jars when expressed by someone wearing a $4,500 dress.

I feel sorry for all those involved. It is hard to see how there is any win in this – televising one’s grievances about family members can never the best method of building bridges and healing relationships. The desire to self-justify is understandable but is hardly a recipe for happy relationships. It’s not good news for the Royal Family or for Harry and Meghan.

That Oprah would never be interested in interviewing you or me is something for which we should feel profoundly grateful; but while we will never have to face that kind of exposure we can have just as strong a desire to justify ourselves. The good news of what Jesus taught us is that we don’t have to, and that is incredibly freeing. ‘Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered’ (Rom. 4:7). Yes, blessed indeed! Now, ‘Go and do likewise’.

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Copycat Culture Wars

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"If you think being stuck in a culture war is bad," wrote Helen Lewis in an excellent article for The Atlantic last October, "imagine being stuck in someone else's." America, she explained, has exported its culture wars: the tenor and temperature of its debates about gun control, race, politics, identity, cultural appropriation and so forth have gone forth and multiplied internationally, especially in English-speaking nations like hers and mine. This is mildly annoying for those nations, and skews important discussions in unexpected ways. But neither is it good for America, whose natural hegemonic tendency to frame everything around themselves is reinforced by the fact that everyone else does (hence the increasingly surreal and amusing New York Times descriptions of life in Britain). "America, our former colony, won the internet," she concludes, "and now makes us speak its language."

It is an article I have thought about numerous times since I read it. Part of living wisely, let alone pastoring and preaching to others, involves reflecting critically on important cultural dynamics, especially those which affect nearly everything - and Americanisation, it seems, is one of those dynamics. So it was fascinating to hear a more extended treatment of the subject in Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland’s The Rest is History podcast this week, entitled simply “Americanisation.” Remarkably, it was recorded before the Oprah interview, which serves as a pretty emphatic confirmation of much of what they were saying.

I was struck by this section in particular:

Holland: The culture wars are actually the way that America is being most influential on us ... So we were talking about Anglo-Saxons: the sense that that is somehow a “problematic” phrase, so you’re no longer supposed to use the word “Anglo-Saxon” to describe the period between the end of the Roman empire in Britain and the Norman conquest, because Anglo-Saxon is seen as being an inherently racist, white supremacist phrase. But that’s only the case in America. It’s infuriating. It’s the “English” Defence League, not the “Anglo-Saxon” Defence League. “Anglo-Saxon” doesn’t have that connotation here in Britain; it’s a purely American connotation. But because it’s American academics leading it, British academics (or some of them) just nod obediently and say, well of course we must abolish this phrase - and ignoring the fact that “Anglo-Saxon” has a quite different connotation for the French or the Germans. I think that’s an intriguing change, because now it’s the Left that has been Americanised.

Sandbrook: I remember 25 years ago teaching undergraduate courses about white supremacy in America, with white supremacy being a very specific thing to do with slavery, and the incomplete legacy of reconstruction at the end of the Civil War, and the creation of these white supremacist regimes in the American south. And it was a very distinct, specific, American thing. And now, of course, white supremacy is a concept that is bandied around in a very vague, undefined way, and people talk about white supremacy in Britain and European countries, and it’s not the same thing at all; what they’ve basically done is just taken an American term. And that’s true of almost all these culture war battles. A lot of the most notable examples of statue toppling are of Confederate statues in America, and people have been copying what they see in the States and translating it to the British cultural landscape ... A great example from the ‘60s was the British protests against the Vietnam War. I mean: we weren’t in the Vietnam War. But people had protests about it anyway. That really is just copycat: “we’ve seen it in America so let’s just do it in Grosvenor Square.”

Once you notice it, you see it everywhere: on banner adverts, in political interviews, on Twitter, in academic conferences, before football matches, and even in royal interviews. The question, of course, is: given all that, what do we do about it? And the answer, I suspect, is to be aware of it, to endeavour not to let conversations become unduly skewed by it (whether inside or outside the church), and to attempt some version of what Oliver O’Donovan said about politics: “there are times when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”

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Here’s To Ordinary Women

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We've just endured another International Women's Day. Or rather, International Powerful Women's Day.

It’s not that I mind having a day to celebrate women, exactly. I know that women have often felt overlooked and undervalued, and if seeing Facebook flooded with people saying how great women are once every 365 days helps combat that, fair enough. It is also often used as an opportunity to raise awareness of issues affecting women around the world, and what we can do to make a difference. And that is a very good thing.

We must be alert, though, to our tendency to praise the wrong things.

I finally snapped last night, after scrolling through tweet after tweet praising women’s strength, their might, their ability to succeed. Praising the pioneers, the power-houses, the champions.

These things are great. It’s good to celebrate people who have achieved incredible things, especially if they have overcome significant odds to do so.

But then on Facebook I saw a friend had written ‘Sometimes i sit and wonder why anyone has anything to do with me when i hate myself so much’.

Imagine her reading all those posts celebrating success, power, strength, achievement, beauty. Even in her womanhood, she would feel she had failed.

Women are great. They are amazing. They are fearfully and wonderfully made. And that is true from the moment each woman is conceived to the moment she dies. She doesn’t have to achieve anything. She doesn’t have to overcome the odds, or face adversity with courage, or be resilient, or go above and beyond day after day. She doesn’t have to be the world’s best mother, wife, sister or friend. She doesn’t have to be creative or generous or full of joy or capable of anything.

She is worthy of celebration simply because she is. God saw fit to bring her into existence, and that is enough to give her inherent, eternal, inestimable value. It is enough to make Jesus willing to suffer and die in order to bring her into his kingdom.

Yes, there are things we should be striving to grow in, but we must force ourselves to remember that the things God prizes are not the things the world prizes. Obedience, fruitfulness, worship, humility. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Godliness. Christlikeness.

Yes, Proverbs 31 has a long list of great accomplishments in praise of the kind of woman who is greatly admired and brings honour to her husband, but the culmination of the list says,

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
  but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

1 Corinthians tells us:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

It’s not that God graciously accepts the weak, the foolish, the despised, and somehow manages to use them anyway. He chooses them. He wants them. He loves them.

Paul, who was strong, powerful and hugely successful, identified that God had to give him a ‘thorn in the flesh’, a hindrance to force him to set aside his worldly strength and rest in Christ’s strength (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

It’s hard. It’s completely contrary to everything we see and hear and read around us. It’s contrary to our instincts. We want to succeed. We want to earn our place in this world. We want to shine, to stand out. I’m very conscious that I’m writing this post because it has been a while since I’ve blogged here, and I don’t want to be forgotten. I check the stats each month to see whether my post made it into the top 10…or at least the top 25. I check my follower count and my Facebook likes and Twitter retweets. I want to do well. I want to be praised. But I also know that that is a hollow, bottomless pit. I can be encouraged by the positives, but if I rest my value in them, I will be forever striving and never satisfied.

Because ultimately it is not about me. I am not the main character in my story. Jesus is. He is the one who should be praised and exalted and worshipped and celebrated. He must become greater; I must become less.

So here’s to ordinary women. To women who are weak and foolish and lowly and despised in the world’s eyes and their own, but who are loved by the God who made them and whose opinion matters more than that of all he has made.

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Making Abuse Impossible

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How is that abuse happens in the church?

Is it just a ‘lack of accountability’? Perhaps, but there are sadly plenty of examples which demonstrate accountability is necessary but not sufficient to avoid abuse. Drawing the line further back we can identify the sinfulness of men’s hearts and the extent to which the pressures and temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil can cause good people to stumble. But we need to draw the line back further still.

According to Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 4 through 6 abuse should be impossible – if we are living a Spirit-filled life.

The paragraph breaks and headings added to our English translations of the Bible can lead to unfortunate application of the text. This is certainly the case with Ephesians 5:22-6:9, where the instructions given tend either to be abstracted into ‘how-to’s’ for family life, or explained away as culturally limited. But read as a whole we can see how Paul is showing us what Spirit-filled living looks like: a pattern of living in which abusing others should be impossible.

Christians are awake (5:14) so are to live like it, watching their step (5:15). We are to be continually filled with the Spirit (5:18) and the result of that is that we will submit to one another – we will, as Paul instructs at the beginning of this section (4:1-2) be humble, gentle and patient. What that submission looks like in practice needs to be worked out in the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and slaves and masters: as it goes in the family so it goes in the church.

This means that, ‘in the same way’ (6:9), masters are to submit to their slaves. As Frank Thielman puts it,

Paul’s advice to believing slave masters subtly undermines the whole system of slaveholding. Slave-owning believers are, in a sense, to submit to their slaves (5:21), serving their slaves in the same way they desire their slaves to serve them. The threat of violence is impossible in such an arrangement, and without the threat of violence, the whole system will theoretically collapse.

It becomes impossible for a Spirit-filled master, who is watching their step, and submitting to their fellow believers, to be abusive towards their slave. To abuse their slave is to deny what they have become in Christ.

As well as explaining why abuse should be impossible in the church this explains why abuse in the church is so abhorrent: it is abhorrent precisely because it should be impossible! Any misuse of power whereby a husband abuses his wife or a father his children or a master his slave – or a ministry leader a member of the congregation – is a denial of what the gospel commands and creates. No matter how gifted the individual may be, the abuse reveals that they are themselves not submitted.

If you are awake, live like it. Watch your step. Be filled with the Spirit. Make abuse impossible.

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The Essence of the New Covenant

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"The doctrine of the Trinity," writes Herman Bavinck, "is the sum and substance of Christian faith, the root of all dogmas, the essence of the new covenant." Mull on that last phrase. The Trinity is "the essence of the new covenant." What does that mean? Bavinck's explanation is worth reflecting on a sentence at a time:

Religion cannot afford to be satisfied with anything less than God. In Christ God himself comes to us, and in the Holy Spirit he imparts himself to us. The work of redemption is thoroughly Trinitarian in character. Of God, and through God, and in God are all things.

It is one divine act from beginning to end. Nevertheless it reveals a threefold distinction: it is summarised in the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the communion of the Holy Spirit ...

The triune God is the source of every blessing we receive. He is the mainspring of our entire salvation. In his name we are baptised: that name is the summary of our confession; that name is the source of all blessings that descend upon us; that name is and remains eternally the object of our praise and adoration; in that name we find rest for our soul, and peace for our conscience. Above, before and within him, the Christian has a God.

- Bavinck, The Doctrine of God

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Learning from the Ravi Zacharias Scandal

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This is such a helpful discussion about the Ravi Zacharias scandal, from Glen Scrivener and Sam Allberry. Sam was part of RZIM when the most recent allegations were made; Glen does a great job of drawing out wider lessons for the church. It is a thoughtful and clarifying conversation, full of nuance and insight, and it is well worth reflecting on for those of us (probably a majority of readers) who are involved in governance and leadership in the church. It also includes some hugely thought-provoking comments, including Sam's reasons for throwing out Ravi's books, Glen's observation on cover-ups since Eden ("we're always trying to look good in the presence of judgment, rather than look bad in the presence of love"), and Sam's concerns about anyone in leadership who doesn't belong to a local church.

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Not A Trophy, A Gift

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After three chapters describing and extolling the personal and cosmic implications of the work of Christ, the first instruction given in the letter to the Ephesians is that we are to be humble, gentle, and patient (Eph. 4:2).

Humility, gentleness and patience are not characteristics in abundant supply in our society. Our cultural twist on ‘tolerance’ doesn’t really fit the same bill – one person’s tolerance is another’s prejudice. And of course, social media is more likely to train us in pride, irritability and impatience than the virtues espoused by Paul. It is only seventeen years since Facebook launched, fourteen since the first iPhone, and ten since Instagram made its debut. That is not long enough for us to have learned how to use this new technology in a way that does more good than harm.

One of the negatives of social media is the manner in which it has encouraged us to think of life as a performance: we are all stars in our own reality TV show now. The way in which many people ‘curate’ their timeline has been well documented and the negative consequences (a negative correlation between time spent on social medial and happiness, impacts on teenage mental health, etc.) much commented on. Social media thrives on vanity more than humility, and vanity eats its own children.

A manifestation of this is seen in our curious attitude towards actual children, part of which results in us making our kids co-stars in the movies we post to the world. Increasingly this begins even before the child is born – the phenomena of ‘reveal parties’ being the latest example of this. The headline that earlier this week father-to-be Christopher Pekny died as the result of an accident while preparing a reveal party is a bitter irony: rather than the excitement of revealing whether it is a boy or a girl, the child – regardless of its sex – is now going to be without a father.

Freak accidents aside, what reveal parties really reveal is our tendency to see children as trophies – trophies expected to fulfil a role in the narrative we curate for ourselves even before they can walk or talk. This should raise questions about what we are then training these children to be, and think of themselves. It also displays a lack of awareness towards the childless and infertile for whom the parading of children, and foetuses, can add an additional layer of pain in their inability to tell a similar story.

The practical instructions in the letter to the Ephesians culminate with how family life is to be conducted: children are to obey their parents, so that it may go well with them; parents are not to exasperate their children but to train them in the way of the Lord. Not much there about kids being accessories to the movies of our lives.

Training our children to be humble, gentle and patient begins with parents understanding that they are receiving a gift. Trophies are paraded – boasted about in order to make ourselves look better. Gifts are treasured – received with humility in response to God’s grace.

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1776: The Origin Story of the Post-Christian West

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Some of you will know that I just signed a contract with Crossway to write 1776: The Origin Story of the Post-Christian West. (The title may change, but it will give you an idea.) Since hearing about it, a number of people have asked for more on the idea: what the book is about, why I'm writing it, whether I know the first thing about America, and so on. Here's a short answer to those questions.

The big idea of the book is that 1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are. We cannot understand ourselves without it. The Western world today is the result of a fusion that took place in 1776: the coming together of seven distinct transformations in society—some would call them “revolutions”—which have permanently changed the way we think about God, ourselves, the world, and our place in it. These transformations explain all kinds of apparently unrelated features of our culture. They explain why we believe in human rights, free trade, liberal democracy and religious pluralism; they ground our preference for authenticity over authority, and self-expression over self-denial; and they account for all kinds of phenomena that our great-grandparents would have found inconceivable, from intersectionality to bitcoin. 1776, I suggest, provides us with an origin story for the post-Christian West.

That involves a combination of two claims. One relates to the world we live in today, and the other to the world of two and a half centuries ago.

The first claim is that the most helpful way of identifying what is distinctive about our society, relative to others past and present, is that it is WEIRDER: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic.  We may or may not embrace all of those labels as individuals. We may be African or Asian, get by on very moderate incomes, have no history of Christianity, or live without any romantic attachments. But the broader culture within which we live is characterised by all seven of them.

We freely refer to it as the “West.” Education for children is widespread, free and usually compulsory, with literacy at virtually 100%, and recognised qualifications carrying significant social and economic prestige. We are clearly industrialised, with only a tiny percentage of the population still working in agriculture, and unprecedentedly rich: the diet, amenities, healthcare and leisure options available to someone working on minimum wage today are in many ways better than those available to Mansa Musa or Louis XIV. We are democratic, not only in our system of government but in our assumptions about society. We are Ex-Christian, with formal adherence to the Christian faith diminishing both in public and in private, even as our civilisation remains saturated with Judeo-Christian assumptions that show no sign of fading; as such we are decidedly Ex-Christian, as opposed to Ex-Communist, Ex-Islamic or even pre-Christian. And we are Romantic, in the sense that our beliefs and practices have been indelibly marked by the Romantic movement, from our concept of selfhood and identity, to our expectations of art, music and literature, to our erotic and sexual habits. For better or worse, we live in a WEIRDER world. This will be the point of chapter two.

The second claim is that all seven of those things are true because of 1776. Telling that story occupies most of the book, but we can see it in outline by considering just ten prominent events from that year. In January, Thomas Paine released his pamphlet Common Sense in Philadelphia, arguing that the American colonies should pursue independence from British rule; it caused an immediate sensation, and became one of the fastest-selling and most influential books in American history. In February, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which set new standards in history-writing, while also challenging the established church and providing a sceptical narrative of early Christianity that endures to this day. James Watt’s steam engine, probably the single most important invention in industrial history, started running at the Bloomfield colliery in Staffordshire on 8th March. The very next day, Adam Smith released the foundational text of modern economics, An Inquiry into the Natures and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

The most famous transformation of the year took place in the American summer, with the establishing of a nation that would play an increasingly dominant role in the next two centuries: the signing of the Declaration of Independence (4th July), the ringing of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (8th July), the Battle of Long Island and the taking of Brooklyn by the British (27th August), and the formal adoption of the name United States (9th September). On the other side of the Atlantic, Captain James Cook was sailing southwards in the Resolution in the last of his three voyages to the South Seas, the impact of which can still be felt throughout the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia. Immanuel Kant was in Königsberg, writing the outline for his Critique of Pure Reason, which would bring about a so-called “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. In Edinburgh, David Hume finally completed his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, one of the greatest arguments against Christian theism ever written, before dying on 25th August. The Autumn saw Friedrich Klinger write his play Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”), which soon gave its name to the proto-Romantic movement in German music and literature. And in December, Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on a diplomatic mission to bring France into the war against Britain. It would eventually prove successful, and lead ultimately to the American victory at Yorktown (1781), and the collapse of the French ancien régime into bankruptcy and revolution (1789).

Those are just the most well-known examples; there are many others, even if we confine ourselves to the West. 1776 saw Laura Bassi, the first female to work as a professional scientist, appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at the Bologna Institute of Sciences. Mozart wrote his Concerto for three pianos in Salzburg. Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book, presented her poetry in person to George Washington. The Illuminati were founded in Bavaria, and Phi Beta Kappa started in Williamsburg, Virginia. Toussaint Louverture, the future leader of the first (and only) successful slave revolt in history, was released from slavery in what is now Haiti. And so on.

The final two chapters address the obvious question: so what?

My primary motive in writing this is to help the church thrive in a WEIRDER world. What challenges and opportunities emerge from Westernisation, or Romanticism, or industrialisation, and what should we do about them? How should Christians act in an Ex-Christian culture? What does faithful Christianity look like in the shadow of 1776? And here, I believe, we can draw a great deal of wisdom from an obvious source: faithful Christianity in 1776. How did believers in this turbulent and transformative era respond to what was happening around them? And what can we learn?

As it happens, several strands within the contemporary church look back to 1776 as an especially formative year. It was a crucial period in the development of early Methodism. American dissenters saw the crucial words “free exercise of religion” appear in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and subsequently in the first amendment of the US Constitution. Former slave-trader John Newton was working on the Olney Hymns, which would be published in 1779 and include his “Amazing Grace” and William Cowper’s “God Works in Mysterious Ways.” The fifteen year-old William Carey, who would grow up to become the father of modern missions and translate the Bible into six Indian languages, had the experience which led to his conversion. Calvinist vicar Augustus Toplady published his hymnal, which included “Rock of Ages.” Holy Trinity Church Clapham, later attended by members of the Clapham Sect including William Wilberforce and Hannah More, opened for worship.

Most of these people would be widely known within Christian circles today, and often outside them. Their institutions, hymns, missionary exploits and abolitionism are part of the mythology of evangelicalism, and in chapter ten we will consider what they can teach us about thriving in the post-Christian West. But we will conclude by reflecting on two individuals, Olaudah Equiano and Johann Georg Hamann, whose contributions are far less recognised. (I have frequently come across evangelical organisations and venues which are named after the people in the previous two paragraphs, but I have never come across an Equiano Academy or been ushered into a Hamann suite.) Equiano was born around 1745 in what is now Nigeria, and sailed into 1776 on a ship in the Caribbean; he became one of the most remarkable Christians of his or any generation, and was understating it somewhat when he called his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Hamann was a friend and critic of Immanuel Kant—hailed by Hegel as a genius, by Goethe as the brightest mind in his day, and by Kierkegaard as (alongside Socrates) one of the two most brilliant men of all time—as well as a Christian, and in some ways the first post-secular philosopher. Though miles apart in their experiences and writings, both Equiano and Hamann have a lot to teach us about living as Christians in a WEIRDER world. That is the focus of the final chapter.

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On the Misuse of “Grace and Truth”

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When I hear talk about the importance of Christians being "full of grace and truth," it seems to mean something like "full of kindness and affection in our demeanour and attitude, even as we speak directly and robustly about things people may not want to hear." Grace is soft; truth is hard; combine the two and you get what Goldilocks was looking for. Put differently, grace seems progressive, and truth seems conservative. If someone says they were treated "without grace," we assume they mean they were treated too harshly in a conservative environment. If a church is described as failing to stand for the truth, we assume they have gone squishy in a liberal direction. Grace leans left, and truth leans right, and only by holding both can we keep going in a straight line.

Bunk. Any bona fide squishy liberal would be profoundly offended by grace, biblically defined (and many have been): it is predicated on the claim that all human beings are hopelessly mired in sin and need rescuing, and that God is free to give gifts to whomever he wills regardless of merit, and that he does so by means of a crucified and resurrected Saviour. Self-improvement is antithetical to Christian grace, which abounds where sin increases. Laxity is antithetical to Christian grace, which teaches us to renounce worldly passions. It is hard to think of a concept that collides more directly with secular humanism than that. Grace does not meet sin with a shrug, but with a cross.

Nor is truth the exclusive preserve of conservative evangelicals. Obviously if you move in conservative evangelical church circles, you will see conservative emphases as true, and the refusal to accept them as false. Fair enough; so do I. But there are all sorts of truths that conservative evangelicals are less likely to notice, let alone celebrate, than those from other church traditions. Ask a few abuse survivors, or people of colour, and you may well find people who think the problem with conservative evangelicalism is not that we speak truth too much, but too little. (I remember being struck by this listening to Duke Kwon a few years ago. I was used to hearing conservative evangelicals being the ones who need to speak the truth, rather than the ones to whom truth needs to be spoken.)

Clearly it is a good thing to be nice and courageous, inclusive and incisive, compassionate and clear. But that does not necessarily map on to left/right, soft/hard, progressive/conservative, or whatever it may be. And it is not quite what it meant for Moses to hear that the LORD is abounding in steadfast love (= grace?) and faithfulness (= truth?), or what John meant when he said that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

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A New Challenge and a New Opportunity

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I recently read Will Young’s book To Be a Gay Man. The book tells his story of growing up and coming into the public spotlight as a gay man and his journey to deal with the gay shame that he experienced as a result of society’s portrayal of and treatment of gay people.

There are lots of things in the book that would be fruitful for further reflection, and I may come back to some of them in future posts. I also found that reading it was a helpful reminder of the benefit of reading things by those who might have a very different perspective or different life experience to us. I don’t do enough of that and found that a helpful reminder.

One thing really struck me in latter part of the book. As Will talks about his efforts to understand and address the gay shame he experienced and the negative ways that was affecting his life, he shares about a key moment that he describes as his rebirth. Meeting with someone in a garden shed in Oxford for some ‘breath work’ he had a dramatic experience:

What occurred there was that, through my breathing, I end up, to all intents and purposes, rebirthing myself. God knows what was going on, but when the session finished I felt drained and rather relaxed. (p.215)

He goes on to relate a key encounter with some homophobic young people on his way home that afternoon which marked a key step in working through his gay shame.

What really struck me reading this was how Will is happy to speak about his experiences in spiritual terms. In fact, shortly before recounting this event, he talks about a key realisation that he ‘harboured a deep, spiritual wound that needed fixing’ (p.214). This is against the background of some negative comments about Christianity earlier in the book (pp.4, 46-47).

This openness to spirituality but rejection of Christianity reminded me of how the world around us has changed in the last five to ten years. We have now moved beyond the time when being a Christian was laughable and debates about science and religion were the big stumbling blocks for people who aren’t Christians, to a time when being a Christian is offensive and the big stumbling blocks are the Bible’s teaching on ethical matters, especially sexuality.

There are various important implications of this reality for both mission and discipleship, but one I don’t think I had thought of before is the vital role that spiritual gifts­—perhaps especially miracles, healing and prophecy—can play in mission. Obviously, these spiritual gifts have always been important in mission, but perhaps a culture that is very open to broad spirituality and to the idea that there is more than just the physical world will be particularly open to offers of prayer for healing, to the reality of miracles, and to words of prophecy that couldn’t have been known through human means. Maybe there is an openness to the things that will demonstrate God’s goodness in action which may in turn create an openness to the God’s goodness demonstrated in other ways, including in his guidance to us for the use of our bodies and sexualities.

It may be becoming harder to say that we believe sex should be reserved to marriages of one man and one woman, but at the same time, it might be getting easier to offer to pray for people or to bring words of prophecy to them. There’s a new challenge here, but as so often with a new challenge, there may also be a new opportunity.

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The Book I’ve Waited Half A Decade For

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I first became properly aware of the reality of gender dysphoria and transgender about five years ago. I learnt about what gender dysphoria is and how painful and debilitating it can be. I gained some level of insight into the identity questions and desire for community that are often part of transgender experience, and I read about the unhelpful and unloving responses that Christians had often made. I was learning, but it also did something in my heart.

I remember being struck that the church experience of those who had gender dysphoria or who identified as transgender was somewhat parallel to my own experience as someone who is same-sex attracted: misunderstood, used as the butt of jokes, spoken of as if we only exist outside of the church, and often just not acknowledged at all. At that point, things were beginning to change a bit for same-sex attracted people, but it seemed the journey was only just starting for transgender people. From that point I started a journey of reading, talking, and wrestling with difficult questions which then flowed into opportunities to teach others and call them to a truly Christian response to transgender which holds fast both to God’s heart and God’s truth.

In those five years, a number of good Christian books on transgender have been published, and I’m grateful for them. But I’ve also felt each has its weaknesses, unsurprisingly when we’re talking about such a complex and controversial topic. There has still been a need for an accessible but comprehensive Christian discussion of transgender, which isn’t afraid to wrestle with the difficult questions and to hold unswervingly to God’s good word, but which also puts front and centre those for whom this is not just an abstract topic, it’s real life. Well, we now have that book.

The Most Helpful Christian Resource on Transgender

Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say by Preston Sprinkle is without question the most helpful Christian resource now available on transgender. As in his earlier book on same-sex attraction—People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue—Preston does not approach the topic as an abstract issue, but with full recognition that when we talk about transgender we are talking about people made and loved by God. I know no one else who so wonderfully follows Jesus’ example of holding together the radical truth of God with the radical love of God. And Preston writes not only from his extensive research (which really is extensive—there are 42 pages of endnotes!) but also from his own experience of friendship with those for whom this is real life.

The ground covered in Embodied is impressive. The transgender conversation is hugely complex with many different parts to it, but Preston manages to engage with all the most important topics, giving the reader a good orientation to a Christian perspective on the whole conversation, without it feeling overwhelming.

Broadly speaking the book falls into two parts. The first part tackles the most fundamental question in the conversation: ‘If someone experiences incongruence between their gender and their biological sex, which one determines who they are—and why?’ (p.24). Over several chapters, Preston helps us understand the diversity of experiences under the broad umbrella of transgender, looks at what it means to be created male and female in God’s image, and considers some of the various ways that Christians have sought to understand this experience of incongruence (including the Bible’s references to eunuchs, intersex conditions, brain sex theory and the possibility of an incongruence between the body and soul). This section also includes a hugely helpful chapter on gender stereotypes in which Preston presents an excellent challenge to Christians and the Church about our commitment to unbiblical stereotypes that can be hugely detrimental to many people.

The second half of the book turns to consider some of the most practical questions within the transgender conversation, including pronouns, single-sex spaces and the controversial phenomenon of rapid-onset gender dysphoria among children and teenagers. The standout chapter in this section is ‘Transitioning and Christian Discipleship’ in which Preston tackles the most difficult question of all: ‘Should a Christian ever transition?’ He navigates this complex matter with incredible humility, love, and faithfulness to God’s word. The book ends with a very helpful appendix on suicidality, offering some sensitive and level-headed reflections on what is an important but often badly handled area of the transgender conversation.

A Book for Everyone

Many people are intimidated by the complexity of the transgender conversation, but Preston writes in his usual relaxed, conversational tone and makes a complex topic much more manageable.

If you’re a church leader or a youth leader, you need to read this book. Don’t wait until to you feel you need to read it; read it now so you are ready to best love and serve those God brings to you.

If you’re a Christian, you should read this book. You should read it to learn how to respond in a Christian way to transgender people whom you may know or may come to meet, but also to see an example of how we can handle some of the most complex and controversial of cultural conversations in a way that embodies the example of Jesus.

If you’re trans, whether you’re a Christian or not, I’d encourage you to read this book. You will find a guy who has done his best to understand something of what life is like for you, while acknowledging that there are things he can never fully understand in the way you do, and who will make you feel seen and loved even as you read, and who, most importantly, will seek to introduce you to the one who knows you and loves you more than any person can.

I am so grateful for this book. My prayer is that God will use it to shape churches that can be family to those wrestling with their gender identity, to stir Christians who will give themselves to loving others as Jesus loves, and to reveal to those who experience gender dysphoria or who identify as transgender the depths of his love for them and his unfailing goodness.

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The Death of Judas: Absalom, Ahab, or Both?

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This is a terrific analysis of Judas's death, and the well known tensions between them, from James Bejon. It is also a wonderful illustration of the principle that biblical difficulties make you dig deeper and discover more gold:

As is well known, Matthew and Luke provide us with different accounts of Judas’s death. Matthew has Judas hang himself in a field purchased by the chief priests, while Luke has Judas’s body burst open in a field purchased by Judas himself (cp. Matt. 27.3–8, Acts 1.18–19). The discrepancies between the two accounts raise at least a couple of important questions.

First, if Matthew and Luke’s accounts are historically reliable, then why do they read so differently? And, second, if Matthew and Luke’s accounts can be reconciled, then why didn’t Matthew and Luke reconcile them (and spare their readers a great deal of confusion)? Why would each author choose to omit important details from his account of Judas’s death?

My answer to the first question—which is by no means novel—is as follows. Neither Matthew’s nor Luke’s account is ahistorical; each account simply describes a different aspect of Judas’s death. Matthew describes how Judas seeks/chooses to kill himself, while Luke describes the final state/position of Judas’s body, i.e., prostrate on the ground. (And, suffice to say, a body hung on a tree can end up on the ground in all manner of ways, especially in a land which doesn’t allow bodies to be hung on a tree overnight: cp. Deut. 21.13.) In historical terms, then, while it’s possible to read Matthew and Luke in a contradictory way, it’s by no means necessary. It actually seems more natural to read Matthew and Luke’s accounts in a complementary way, since each one ties up loose ends in the other.

Consider the text of Matthew 27 in isolation. If it wasn’t permissible for the chief priests to keep Judas’s blood money, then why was it permissible for them to own a field which had been bought with it? And, if Judas died a bloodless death (since he hung himself), then how come the field acquired the name ‘the Field of Blood’? Implicit in Luke’s account are answers to these questions. It wasn’t permissible for the priests to own a field bought with Judas’s money, which is why they bought the field in Judas’s name. And Judas didn’t die a bloodless death; rather, his body later ‘burst open’ (Acts 1).

Meanwhile, considered in isolation, Luke’s account contains loose ends of its own. How did Judas’s body end up burst open on the ground? (Plenty of people fall to the ground in life, but, unless they fall from a significant height, their bodies don’t normally ‘burst open’.) And why does Luke employ the verb ‘acquire/possess’ (κτάομαι) to describe Judas’s acquisition of a field? Why not the more common/natural verb ‘buy’ (ἀγοράζω) (if Judas bought it in the common way)? Implicit in Matthew’s account are answers to these questions. Judas’s body burst open because Judas hung himself and his body fell from a significant height, possibly in a bloated state. And Judas didn’t ‘buy’ a field in the common manner; rather, the chief priests bought it on his behalf (with his money); hence, in Matthew, the field is said to be ‘bought’ (ἀγοράζω) by the chief priests, while, in Acts, it’s said to be ‘acquired’ (κτάομαι) by Judas.

Matthew and Luke’s accounts thus neatly fit together, which wouldn’t be expected of independently-evolved traditions, but would be expected of reliable accounts of a common historical incident. And, curiously, each man’s account turns out to be consistent with his traditionally-assigned occupation: Matthew the tax collector is interested in the legal/financial details involved in Judas’s death—i.e., how the thirty pieces of silver were accounted for by the priests—while Luke the physician is more interested in (literally) the blood and guts of the matter.

Of course, none of these claims answer the question of how Judas’s body came to fall. (Did Judas, for instance, hang himself from a tree-branch which later snapped?) But my aim in the present note isn’t to work out exactly what happened to Judas’s body (which may not be possible); my aim is simply to set out a way in which Matthew and Luke can be reconciled (and hence be shown to be non-contradictory), and to suggest a reason why their accounts are so different from one another, all of which brings us on to our second question, i.e., the question of why Matthew and Luke describe different aspects of Judas’s death.

Matthew’s Purpose

Why does Matthew have Judas hang himself rather than burst open on the ground? My guess is as follows: because Matthew wants us to view Judas’s death in light of a particular incident in the OT, namely the death of Absalom.

Not too many people are hung in the OT. The most notable is probably Absalom. While out on his mule, Absalom’s head/hair gets stuck in the branches of an oak tree, which leaves his body inconveniently ‘suspended’/‘hung’ (תלוי) in midair. Absalom can thus be said to have died a Judas-esque death ... or, more accurately, Judas can be said to have died an Absalom-esque death.

And the parallels between Absalom and Judas extend further. Both men feign loyalty to their king, which they do by means of a kiss (2 Sam. 14.33). And, despite their participation in a conspiracy to remove him, both men are referred to as the king’s ‘friend’. These parallels are significant. For Matthew, Judas is an Absalomic traitor, undone by his selfish ambition. And his Absalomic tendencies serve to underscore Jesus’ status as the Davidic Messiah—a man specially anointed by God, yet betrayed by his closest friends.

With these considerations in mind, it’s not too hard to guess why Matthew rather than Luke has Judas die like Absalom. Of the Gospel writers, it’s Matthew who portrays Jesus most emphatically as ‘the son of David’ (cp. Matt. 1.1). It’s Matthew who most emphasises Judas’ ‘betrayal’ of his Lord. And it’s Matthew alone who has Jesus refer to Judas as his ‘friend’. Appropriately, then, it’s Matthew who chooses to emphasise the most Absalomic details of Judas’s death, which he does by the omission of other non-Absalomic details. Matthew doesn’t, therefore, fail to mention what Luke tells us about Judas’s death because he has a different source to Luke; rather, like any good author, Matthew simply restricts his account of Judas’s death to what’s relevant to his purposes.

Before we leave our consideration of Matthew, however, we should note a couple of other details of Absalom’s demise. First, a bystander’s refusal to do Absalom harm. Samuel’s account of Absalom’s death concludes with an unusual incident (2 Sam. 18). Joab offers a bystander ten pieces of silver to smite Absalom with his sword (while Absalom’s stuck in the branches of the tree), but the man declines. ‘Even for a thousand pieces of silver’, he says, ‘I wouldn’t lay a hand on the king’s son’ (which forces Joab to strike him down himself). In its original context, the incident outlined above emphasises the horror of Absalom’s sin. A mere bystander refuses to lay a hand on Absalom, yet Absalom himself, the king’s friend, is ready to have the king killed! And the same logic emphasises the horror of Judas’s sin. A mere bystander refuses to betray his king, David, for a thousand pieces of silver, yet Judas is ready to betray David’s greater Son for a mere thirty pieces of silver (another detail which is unique to Matthew).

The second detail we should note involves what happens to Absalom’s body. In the aftermath of Absalom’s death, his body is taken and thrown into a pit (2 Sam. 18.17), which resonates with—and establishes a precedent for—Luke’s account of Judas’s death, since Luke presupposes the occurrence of a similar posthumous event. It’s clearly not impossible for a body to be hung and later thrown to the ground.

Luke’s Purpose

As we’ve noted, Matthew and Luke describe different aspects of Judas’s death. Whereas Matthew’s field ends up in Judas’s possession due to a technicality in the law, Luke’s is associated with Judas’s love of money; more specifically, it’s referred to as ‘the wages of Judas’s unrighteousness’ (μισθός τῆς ἀδικίας)—a phrase found only here and in 2 Peter 2.15, where it refers to the wages earnt by Balaam. Luke thus draws attention to Judas’s motive. Like Balaam, Judas sells his soul for material gain. Meanwhile, whereas Matthew focuses on Judas’s death by asphyxiation, Luke focuses on the spillage of Judas’s blood. For Matthew, then, the Field of Blood gets its name from the innocent blood with which it’s bought (namely Jesus’), while, for Luke, the field gets its name from the unrighteous blood with which it’s stained (namely Judas’s).

But why would Luke want to focus his attention on such things—on greed rather than betrayal and on bloodshed rather than asphyxiation? My guess is as follows: because, like Matthew, Luke wants us to view Judas’s death in light of a particular Old Testament incident. Think back over the Biblical narrative. Does anyone come to mind when you think of an individual consumed by greed, who sacrifices a man’s life for the price of a plot of land, which ultimately ends up stained with his blood? They should, since Ahab is precisely such an individual: a man consumed by his lust for possessions, who sacrifices Naboth’s life in order to acquire his land, and whose blood is ultimately licked up by the dogs in Naboth’s hometown (1 Kgs. 21.19, 22.38).

And the parallels between Ahab and Judas extend further. Both men die ironic deaths, since in their desire to acquire possessions they sell their own souls (cp. the verb להתמכר in 1 Kgs. 21.20). And, as Luke points out in Acts 1, both men are cursed by God’s spokesman, at which point their line is destined for destruction (cp. Elijah’s pronouncement in 1 Kgs. 21.20–25 w. Peter’s in Acts 1).

Luke’s portrayal of Judas as Ahab also serves at least two further purposes.First, it serves a Christological purpose. Just as Matthew’s portrayal of Judas as Absalom casts Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, so Luke’s portrayal of Judas as Ahab casts Jesus as Naboth, the innocent yet oppressed vineyard-owner who remains faithful unto death. Indeed, of the Gospel writers, it’s Luke who most clearly portrays Jesus as an innocent victim. Luke alone has the criminal alongside Jesus attest to Jesus’ innocence (Luke 23.42). And, while Matthew and Mark’s centurion declare him to be ‘the Son of God’, Luke’s declares him to be righteous (δίκαιος) (23.47).

Second, it serves an anticipatory purpose. At the outset of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is heralded as one who has come to raise up the down-trodden and overthrow the mighty (cp. Luke 2.34 w. 1.51–52), which is precisely what he does (cp. 14.11, 18.4 w. 15.1ff.). Judas’s Ahab-like demise in Acts 1 is thus a foreshadow of what is to come, and, as the book unfolds, it is gradually ‘filled up’. Jerusalem’s authorities, Simon the Magician, Saul, Herod: as the Gospel goes forth, many among the mighty are brought low, while the humble await the day of the Resurrection, when justice will fully and finally be done (Acts 26.22–23).

Final Reflections

Matthew and Luke’s accounts are more naturally read as complementary than contradictory. Each describes a particular aspect of Judas’s death, which it does for its own particular purposes, and each ties up loose ends in the other, which wouldn’t be expected of independently-evolved traditions, but *would* be expected of reliable accounts of a common historical incident.

Despite what’s often claimed, then, Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Judas’s death don’t present the Biblical inerrantist with any insuperable issues.They do, however, present him/her with a challenge, namely not to be disturbed by the tension inherent in the Biblical narrative. Faced with different accounts of the same event, the inerrantist’s natural reaction is to harmonise at all costs. Yet if, as Biblical inerrantists, we’re too quick and/or keen to harmonise such accounts (for fear of what it might imply if we don’t), then we’ll overlook their points of difference, which are an important aspect of the Biblical text. Tension in the Biblical narrative doesn’t exist to be explained/reconciled away; it exists to make us think more carefully about the narrative’s detail and complexity.

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Ten Names, Twenty Attributes

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There are ten proper names for God in the Hebrew Bible, explains Herman Bavinck (following Jerome). And when we classify his attributes into incommunicable ones (which we do not share) and communicable ones (which we can, and should), there are twenty. Again, there is plenty here to help preachers and teachers:

Start with the Hebrew names:
- El: the simplest name, translated “God,” which occurs around two hundred times
- Eloha: the singular of Elohim, which is only very occasionally used in a poetic context (Ps 18:32; Job 3:4)
- Elohim: the much more common plural word for God (2500 times), which is usually used with a singular verb or adjective
- Sabaoth: the God of “hosts” or “armies”
- Elyon: usually translated the “Most High,” this is the name used by Melchizedek and Balaam (Gen 14:18; Num 24:16)
- Esher ehye: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”
- Adonai: translated “Lord” in lower case, and rendered as kurios in Greek: master, lord, king
- Yah: shortened form of Yahweh, particularly common in names (Elijah, Zechariah, etc)
- Yahweh: much the most common name (6800 times), expressed as “the LORD” in capitals in most English Bibles
- Shaddai: “all-powerful” or “Almighty,” and particularly common in the patriarchal stories in Genesis (Gen 17:1 etc)

Obviously these names are frequently combined with each other - Yahweh Sabaoth (the LORD of hosts), El-Shaddai (God Almighty), Yahweh Adonai (the Lord GOD), and so forth - as well as with other words as part of God’s “compound” names: Yahweh-Yireh (the LORD will provide), Yahweh-Rohi (the LORD my shepherd), and so on.

Then there are the attributes or perfections of God, which are divided into two categories, depending on whether or not they are properties we can share.

Incommunicable Attributes
1. Independence, self-sufficiency, aseity
2. Immutability, changelessness, impassibility
3. Eternity (infinity with respect to time)
4. Immensity, Omnipresence (infinity with respect to space)
5. Unity (oneness with respect to quantity)
6. Simplicity (oneness with respect to quality)

Communicable Attributes
7. Spirituality
8. Invisibility
9. Knowledge, omniscience
10. Wisdom (“knowledge from another point of view”)
11. Truthfulness, veracity
12. Goodness, love, compassion, grace
13. Righteousness, justice
14. Holiness, otherness
15. Will, sovereignty
16. Freedom
17. Power, omnipotence
18. Perfection
19. Blessedness, delight, self-sufficiency, happiness
20. Glory, greatness, majesty

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Spotting Our Cultural Bias

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The first five verses of Luke 13 provide one of those tiny insights into just how different 21st century Western culture is from that of Israel in the first century.

There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” - Luke 13:1‭-‬5 ESV

Today when there is a disaster - like a building collapsing and killing 18 people - or an atrocity - like the authorities bursting into a church and killing the worshippers - we think of those who died as innocent victims. The guilty parties are the authorities, or the builders, or the council who allowed the builders to cut corners, or the landlords for failing to fix the problems. It simply never occurs to us to assume that the dead are to blame, that their sinfulness might have brought the tragedy upon them. In fact, most of the time they are instantly sanctified - mourned for their beauty, kindness, innocence and potential.

Jesus’ followers, though, thought the victims must somehow be receiving divine retribution for their sins. They thought victims of a tragedy were more wicked than the rest of us, not more pure and innocent as we often seem to think.

Jesus says we’re both wrong. Falling victim to disaster neither condemns nor sanctifies you. Repentance is the only way to get right with God - and Christians are just as subject to disaster and atrocity as anyone else.

It’s good to be reminded once in a while, though, that the way we think - the basic, gut level assumptions we have about life and death - aren’t the only or the normal or necessarily the right way to think about them. People in different times and places have thought very differently - and assumed that their ways of thinking were the normal, natural, correct ways.

The photo at the top of this post is of the famous Tower of Pisa. You may not have recognised it, because the vantage point it was taken from makes it look more or less straight.

Move a little further round the cathedral, however, and the picture changes significantly:

Cathedral of Pisa with leaning tower

We always see things from the vantage point we’re standing at. It’s one of the normal limitations of being human. Yet when we recognise that fact, we can choose to look around, to see things through other people’s eyes, to listen to their perspectives, and to seek to discern the truth. Studying God’s word with humility and openness is the only way we can tap into the truth that is beyond time, place and cultural baggage, and begin to be shaped by it.

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Stepping Up in the Silent Pandemic

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The Covid pandemic is visible everywhere. Pretty much every area of daily life has been affected by it, and so it’s impossible to miss it or forget about it. But there is an increasing realisation that another pandemic is also surging through the population: a pandemic that is far less visible, but that will last far longer than the Covid and could be incredibly damaging. It’s a pandemic of mental health struggles, a silent pandemic within the pandemic.

When Covid first hit, many Christians began to think about how we might best respond. Looking back through Church history many of us were inspired by the examples of Christians in earlier pandemics who were at the forefront of caring for those who were unwell, even when it meant putting themselves in potential danger. However, while there is much good Christians have been able to do over this time, we have also found that our experience has been different: professional medical care and the government strategy to tackle the pandemic have closed off some of the ways Christians have cared in previous pandemics. But in this mental health pandemic, we will not face all of the same challenges. It could be our opportunity for the church to step up and to play our part at the heart of a pandemic.

I recently took the opportunity to talk to a friend of mine, Dr Anita Rose, a Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist, about this pandemic and how we as Christians and churches can step up and play our part.

AB: Could you tell us a little about the current situation of mental health in the UK?

AR: The situation of mental health in the UK since the Covid-19 pandemic is serious. It has been said we are facing the greatest threat to mental health since the Second World War. It is a silent pandemic within a pandemic.

Silent because the focus has been on the physical manifestations of Covid-19, keeping people safe, reducing risk, and keeping the NHS safe, but also silent because mental health, whilst on the healthcare agenda, still carries a stigma. Long after we have got Covid under control this silent pandemic will still remain.

Research has shown us that in the general population there has been an exponential increase in anxiety, depression, self-harm, addictions and suicidal patterns across all populations, all exacerbated by loneliness due to the repeated lockdowns.

Last summer a survey of UK frontline health and social care staff reported that 47% met the criteria for a diagnosis of anxiety, 47% for depression, and 22% for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A majority (58%) had at least one of these disorders. More recent research indicates these levels have increased, with an alarming 40% reporting symptoms of PTSD. 

It is reported that at this current time 10 million adults and 1.5 million children are needing new or additional mental health services. 

AB: What can we do to strengthen our own mental health at this time?

AR: Firstly, if you are struggling with mental health issues – speak up to get help. Speak to your GP, MIND, Samaritans or someone you trust. If you are a healthcare or social care worker there is the text service called Shout. You are not alone and there are people to help you.

There are also things you can do to help yourself:

  1. Restrict your time checking the news and tracking social media. Maybe only check the news once a day and take a break from social media platforms where every post seems to have something related to Covid. There is so much published on every platform and much of it is false information. The more you read bad news, the greater the anxiety and fear you will experience.
  2. Give yourself permission to relax – you are not being lazy when you take some time out. Relax in a nice bubble bath, or in a favourite spot in your house, go for a walk in nature, use mindfulness or relaxation apps.
  3. Stop putting yourself down – we are all our own worst critics but this impacts on our mental health. Next time you hear your inner voice putting you down, change it to something soothing and supportive.
  4. Lower your expectations – in other words, be kind to yourself. How often do you find yourself saying ‘I should’? We give ourselves a set of high expectations yet the gap between expectation and reality is often a factor in mental health issues such as depression as you can feel hopeless at achieving those expectations. This is particularly pertinent for all those parents trying to home-school.
  5. Express yourself - writing, drawing, acting, dancing, singing, painting. The act of expressing your experience releases the emotional burden you are carrying and leaves you feeling lighter and freer and builds emotional resilience.

AB: What can churches do to help those whose mental health has suffered as a result of the Covid pandemic?

AR: I think it is fair to say church leaders have provided pastoral support to their parishioners, but most are not trained to deal with mental health challenges. They will not have faced the extent of mental heath difficulties that many now will. I think to appropriately support, and to be able to understand the situation they are facing, will require churches building relationships with psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors. There are churches who have started such relationships with positive effect to both their members and the communities they serve.

Churches need to ensure that those who provide pastoral care also have training. With the severity of mental health we are now facing, if we face it without knowledge and training churches may find themselves struggling.

There are some more simple things as well such as using technology to provide online courses, mindfulness to help mental health (based on a self-management approach), looking at health in a holistic manner, including healthy eating. Technology can also help reach those in the community who are feeling isolated and alone. I think often within church we can think someone is ok because they are part of a group or a family, when the reality can be very different. We cannot have open door church buildings, but we can create open door opportunities where people pop in on a Zoom meeting for a chat and a coffee. Getting the congregation mobilised to drop a card into their neighbours, or baking cookies and dropping a packet to the houses in their street, creating a hug-in-a-mug pack, gathering hand creams and lip balms for care staff and targeting care homes and residential homes – they get forgotten because everyone takes things to the hospital. The list is endless. 

It is about expressing love, without agenda, and giving support with open hands.

AB: It’s expected that many people will emerge from the pandemic with some level of trauma. Are there particular ways churches can support people who have experienced trauma?

AR: My response is as above: we need to have trained support structures in place as well as pastoral carers having training. One of the issues with trauma is that without training you can increase the trauma experience and vicariously become traumatised yourself. It is about normalising mental health within the church. People who have mental health issues and trauma are having normal experiences but to vastly abnormal situations. It is normal to be experiencing trauma reactions when you have faced trauma. Churches also need to find a language that is accessible and reaches all areas of society.

Traumatic experiences will not only be seen in frontline staff. One significant area of trauma is around unresolved grief: families having to say goodbye over FaceTime, families on FaceTime with their loved ones and hearing others in the wards dying, not being able to have a funeral with all the friends and family, not being able to touch or hug those in grief. This is trauma, and at the point of typing this, over 100,000 people have died in the last year from Covid. That means hundreds of thousands of grieving people who have experienced the trauma of the death of a loved one and of not being able to be there as their loved one leaves them.

Our response as the Church should be as I have said above; it is about expressing love, without agenda, and giving support with open hands to those who have needs.

The Church has often been where people turn to in times of trouble. Let’s put the Church in the centre of our communities and then we can do the turning – to those who are experiencing trouble.

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Seven Reasons to Come to This Year’s THINK Conference

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If you're reading this, the odds are that a) you haven't yet booked into this year's THINK Conference, entitled "Theological History: 1&2 Kings and the Post-Christian West," but b) you are sufficiently interested in theology and culture to consider it. So here's my attempt to convince you to book in now. Seven reasons (the last one is the bombshell):

1. Your summer is freer than it usually is. Don’t let a crisis go to waste: use the time to make connections between theology, history and culture that will strengthen your ministry (whatever it is) and help you think.

2. Peter Leithart is one of the most interesting theologians alive today. The man is pathologically incapable of being boring. He has also written the best commentary on any biblical book I have read, and it happens to be on 1&2 Kings.

3. Tom Holland is coming. Not Spiderman, but the one who wrote Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, which was my book of the year for 2019, and is a masterclass in what I’m calling theological history.

4. 1&2 Kings is a book that most of us struggle to preach from, except the bits in the middle about Elijah and Elisha. If you’re a preacher, or plan to be, learning how to handle the whole text will be of great benefit to you.

5. By July you will really want to see people from around the country, talk about ideas without having to do it on Zoom, and have a curry and/or a meal out in Blackheath afterwards. You just know you will.

6. We usually have around a hundred people at THINK, and two thirds of those people have already booked in. You wouldn’t want to miss out, would you?

7. There will not be a THINK Conference in 2022, because I will be on sabbatical. So if you miss this one, it will have been four years between the last real, physical THINK (2019) and the next one (2023). Perish the thought.

You can book in here.

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Bitesize Bavinck

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It was one of those strange coincidences that I should post about Herman Bavinck last Friday and then Andrew did the same on Monday. This was entirely unplanned and I don’t think either of us have posted anything about Bavinck previously. Strange indeed.

Andrew has come to Bavinck via the urgings pf Derek Rishmawy; I thanks to Andrew Haslam sending me a copy of The Wonderful Works of God. It’s early days, but so far we are both grateful for the introduction – and Herman is proving eminently quotable.

Take this, from the chapter on general revelation, in The Wonderful Works of God:

Race instinct, sense of nationality, enmity, and hatred, these are the divisive forces between peoples. This is an astonishing punishment and a terrible judgment, and cannot be undone by any cosmopolitanism or leagues of peace, by any “universal” language, nor by any world-state or international culture.

If ever there is to be unity among mankind again, it will not be achieved by any external, mechanical rallying around some tower of Babel or other, but by a development from within, a gathering under one and the same Head (Eph. 1:10), by the peacemaking creation of all peoples into a new man (Eph. 2:15), by regeneration and renewal through the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:6), and by the walking of all people in one and the same light (Rev. 21:24).

Bavinck was writing in the early 20th century, before either of the World Wars, before the civil rights movement, during the age of empire, and yet this quote feels entirely contemporary.

The human race is always trying to rebuild Babel. We are now at the extraordinary point where manmade material outweighs biomass, but our towers never stand. The ‘divisive forces’ keep on breaking through. True unity – true peace – is in Christ’s domain. Bite down on that.

 

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Our Prophetic Paradigm

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We are living in a time that is defined by division, argument, and irreconcilable opinions. This is seen in our political debates (Trump, Brexit) and the extraordinary cultural shifts we are living through (BLM, transgenderism), and has only been heightened by the pandemic. The ugly spectacle of ‘vaccine nationalism’ is merely the latest demonstration of these tendencies.

In these febrile times we might well ask, ‘What place the Church?’ Often the Church appears as captured by cultural narratives as anyone else, but she is meant to operate in a different space, to have a different voice. We are called to a prophetic paradigm; by which I mean ‘Big-P Prophetic’: that is, calling all nations to the obedience of faith for the glory of God. This means we do have something to say about current events but need to do so from within our prophetic paradigm, and I would suggest that this paradigm needs to be framed by the reality of death and the promise of peace.

Over the past couple of weeks we have seen the daily death rate with covid in the UK equal what is the normal daily death rate in the UK. (Just think about that for a moment.) Last Tuesday, as we passed the symbolically powerful milestone of 100,000 covid related deaths, the Prime Minister said that it is, “hard to compute the sorrow contained in this grim statistic.” There is much we could say about this, but from within our prophetic paradigm the least we should say is (as Glen Scrivener has expressed it) that the pandemic is, God’s megaphone – waking people to the reality of death. In normal times death is not much spoken of. Now it is.

We need to be woken up – and this applies first to the Church (It is time for judgment to begin with the household of God - 1 Peter 4:17). Where we have compromised with the world, often becoming indistinguishable from it, we need to wake up. And it applies to the world, which so often carries on as if death is not real. The Church needs to proclaim that death, and judgment, are real – and serious.

But the Church is not just in the business of scaring people: there’s fear enough around as it is. Rather, we have the message of hope, and this is the other framing aspect of our prophetic paradigm: we know the One who is ‘himself our peace’ (Eph. 2:14).

We live in agitated times but in Christ we can know peace. We have a story to tell of the shalom for which we were created and in which we will dwell and of which we have a foretaste.

So this is our prophetic paradigm: to proclaim both that (yes) death is coming for you – there is judgment hanging over you; and that (yes!) in Christ we can be reconciled to God – peace is available.

In his inspirational book, Being Mortal, Atul Gawande writes,

Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.

As the working paradigm for an agnostic medical doctor this is an admirable goal, but in the Church our prophetic paradigm takes us further. We get to invite people into a story that refashions the whole world and the possibilities not only for how we end our lives but for all eternity. That is the message we must proclaim.

 

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Anthropomorphism Unlimited

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"Scripture does not merely contain anthropomorphisms," argues Herman Bavinck in his Doctrine of God; "on the contrary, all Scripture is anthropomorphic." It's a strong statement, and one with significant implications for theology (and not only the familiar debates about whether God changes his feelings, his knowledge or his mind). Then Bavinck provides his supporting evidence. There is enough here to keep songwriters and preachers going for a few months:

“All the terms expressive of bodily organs are applied to God:
- Face (Ex 33:20)
- Eyes (Heb 4:13)
- Eyelids (Ps 11:4)
- Apple of his eye (Dt 32:10)
- Ears (Ps 55:1)
- Nose (Dt 33:10)
- Mouth (Dt 8:3)
- Lips (Job 11:5)
- Tongue (Is 30:27)
- Neck (Jer 18:17)
- Arms (Ex 15:16)
- Hand (Num 11:23)
- Finger (Ex 8:19)
- Heart (Gen 6:6)
- Bowels (Is 63:15)
- Bosom (Ps 74:11)
- Foot (Is 66:1)

Further, every human emotion is also present in God:
- Joy (Is 62:5)
- Grief (Ps 78:40)
- Anger (Jer 7:18)
- Fear (Dt 32:27)
- Love, in all its variations (e.g. compassion, mercy, grace, longsuffering, etc)
- Zeal and jealousy (Dt 32:21)
- Grief (Gen 6:6)
- Hatred (Dt 16:22)
- Wrath (Ps 2:5)
- Vengeance (Dt 32:35)

Human actions are ascribed to God:
- Knowing (Gen 18:21)
- Trying (Ps 7:9)
- Thinking (Gen 50:20)
- Forgetting (1 Sam 1:11)
- Remembering (Gen 8:1)
- Speaking (Gen 2:16)
- Calling (Rom 4:17)
- Commanding (Is 5:6)
- Rebuking (Ps 18:15)
- Answering (Ps 3:4)
- Witnessing (Mal 2:14)
- Resting (Gen 2:2)
- Working (Jn 5:17)
- Seeing (Gen 1:10)
- Hearing (Ex 2:24)
- Smelling (Gen 8:21)
- Tasting (Ps 11:4)
- Sitting (Ps 9:7)
- Rising (Ps 68:1)
- Walking (Lev 26:12)
- Descending (Gen 11:5)
- Meeting (Ex 3:18)
- Visiting (Gen 21:1)
- Passing (Ex 12:13)
- Casting off (Jdg 6:13)
- Writing (Ex 34:1)
- Sealing (Jn 6:27)
- Engraving (Is 49:16)
- Smiting (Is 11:4)
- Chastening (Dt 8:5)
- Punishing (Job 5:17)
- Binding up wounds and healing (Ps 147:3)
- Killing and making alive (Dt 32:39)
- Wiping away tears (Is 25:8) ...

Furthermore, God is often called by names which indicate a certain office, profession or relation among men:
- Bridegroom (Is 61:10)
- Husband (Is 54:5)
- Father (Dt 32:6)
- Judge, king, lawgiver (Is 33:22)
- Man of war (Ex 15:3)
- Hero (Ps 78:65)
- Builder and maker (Heb 11:10)
- Vinedresser (Jn 15:1)
- Shepherd (Ps 23:1)
- Physician (Ex 15:26)
while in connection with these mention is made of his seat, throne, footstool, rod, scepter, weapons, bow, arrow, sword, shield, wagon, banner, book, seal, treasure, inheritance, etc.

In order to indicate what God is for his children, language derived from the organic and inorganic creation is even applied to God:
- Lion (Is 31:4)
- Eagle (Dt 32:11)
- Lamb (Is 53:7)
- Hen (Mt 23:37)
- Sun (Ps 84:11)
- Morning star (Rev 22:16)
- Light (Ps 27:1)
- Torch (Rev 21:23)
- Fire (Heb 12:29)
- Fountain (Ps 36:9)
- Food, bread, water, drink, ointment (Is 55:1; Jn 4:10; 6:35, 55)
- Rock (Dt 32:4)
- Hiding place (Ps 119:114)
- Tower (Prov 18:10)
- Refuge (Ps 9:9)
- Shadow (Ps 91:1)
- Shield (Ps 84:11)
- Temple (Rev 21:22)

Scripture calls upon the entire creation, upon nature in its several spheres, and especially upon man, to contribute to the description of the knowledge of God. Anthropomorphism seems to be unlimited.”

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Scripture, Science, and the Enigma of Man

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Here's a beautiful, pithy, summary of how Scripture explains anthropology in a way science cannot.

Science cannot explain this contradiction in man. It reckons only with his greatness and not with his misery, or only with his misery and not with his greatness. It exalts him too high, or it depresses him too far, for science does not know of his Divine origin, nor of his profound fall. But the Scriptures know of both, and they shed their light over man and mankind; and the contradictions are reconciled, the mists are cleared, and the hidden things are revealed. Man is an enigma whose solution can be found only in God.

    - Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God

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Thus Spake Pastor Lockdown

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Jonny ('Pastor Lockdown') Mellor’s post yesterday was terrific. It is always good to look for and celebrate the positive, and like him I have many encouraging stories to tell from the past year about how God has been at work in and through our church during the pandemic.

But, as something of a counterpoint*, I found this article by Ian Stackhouse equally helpful. Like myself and Jonny, Ian has a positive story to tell,

Like many other churches, we have seen an upsurge in interest in the gospel. People have joined us online, Alpha courses have flourished, and the general atmosphere seems, at least for the moment, conducive to faith. I have my own testimony of conversations with people which a year ago would have been inconceivable.

These opportunities and developments are certainly to be celebrated. Here at Gateway we have talked a lot about ‘the hidden work of God’ and pruning we are experiencing that might feel painful but will result in greater fruit. This is certainly a moment of opportunity for the church and her mission.

Despite all that is positive and encouraging Ian’s counterpoint is worth reflection (and worth reading in full).

1.  Why it is that some of those who relish these times of opportunity regard this as ‘mutually exclusive’ to the call to engage in public debate about covid. I simply don’t understand that. After all, our faith is not just about saving souls, or even feeding mouths (both of which are central to our vocation), nor simply about being church (which I do regard as our primary calling), but also about speaking truth to power.

2. Another area of concern for me is the ease with which some people are consigning corporate gatherings to those things that pertain to the old world. I don’t think it is always stated as explicitly as this, but it certainly can be inferred from what is said in certain quarters. Church as we have known it is passe, so the argument runs.

3. Finally, I should like to question the use of the word opportunity to describe the church’s response over this last year. Opportunity speaks of boldness, creativity, courage, and risk. And although many of these things have been evident, too much of our decision-making has been determined, in my opinion, by an overuse of the precautionary principle. In which case, maybe a better word than opportunity is contingency. And the reason I would like to propose contingency is not to downplay the newness of this time, but to be honest about our chariness, and reflective, therefore, about what might need to happen next.

Yes, let’s celebrate the positive, and seize the opportunities; but while we’re ‘picking the daisies’ let’s keep a scythe in hand to battle the thistles.

 

*The technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.

 

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A Very Curious Thing

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Reports of the impact of lockdown on the mental health of children and young people abound; but our societal attitudes towards children are strangely ambivalent with or without covid. We need to do better.

A child is at once, though for different people or at different times, the most wanted and the most dreaded of objects. For those taught to believe in the desperation of infertility, children are that without which life lacks meaning and purpose; and yet for the unwelcomely pregnant or for those pregnant with children who are not perfect, they are a most dire threat to their lives, meaning, and purpose, of which they are taught to rid themselves. The modern child is desired but also dreaded. And he or she is also innocent and yet (especially if a she) sexualized to a striking degree; is protected by ever more constraining forms of surveillance and yet abused and exploited not only by random individuals, but systematically and commercially by trades in child pornography and prostitution (and even, most shamefully, within the church); is cossetted and treated as a pet on one side of the globe, while on the other side child labour supplies the goods that sustain the luxury those privileged children enjoy (or from which they suffer); and removed from the world of work in the West, yet placed in a system of education that seems more and more designed to manufacture the highly skilled workers demanded by our economies. The modern child is a very curious thing indeed.

    – Michael Banner, The Ethics of Everyday Life, p80

 

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Your Sexuality is Purposeful

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‘If God doesn’t want people to be in gay relationships, why would he give people desires they can never act on?’ This was a question I was asked by a young guy at a church in the Midlands a little while ago. (Back in those long-gone days when we could visit different parts of the country and be in the same room as other people we don’t usually live with!) It’s a question I think lots of people can relate to. I certainly can.

Growing up in the church, pretty much all I heard about sex was that I should wait until I was married to a woman to have it and that I should try and suppress sexual desires until that point. On the surface, this may seem like fairly straightforward advice. But for a guy who was feeling pretty trapped in viewing pornography and who was acutely aware that his desires were for other guys rather than for girls, it didn’t offer a lot of help. Why did I have sexual desires if they were just going to cause me to do stuff that made me feel miserable and were never going to help me find someone to marry so I could express those desires rightly? I don’t think I would have articulated it in this way at the time, but ultimately, the question I was asking was, ‘What is my sexuality for?’

What I needed at that point, was Ed Shaw’s new little book Purposeful Sexuality: A short Christian introduction. As a same-sex attracted guy, with a similar background to mine, Ed recognises that the key question about sex that we need to ask and answer is not ‘What can we do, and when can we do it?’, but ‘What are our sexual desires actually for?’

Ed opens by addressing the reality that talking about sexuality is difficult. It’s difficult because we all have unique sexualities, those sexualities are all uniquely damaged, and they are also uniquely damaging to others. But though it’s difficult, there is hope. God, in his word and in the Word made flesh, has given us the help we need to talk about and to handle our sexualities well.

In chapter 2, Ed highlights the importance of this key question about the purpose of our sexualities and outlines the common Christian explanations: sex is for marriage, for procreation, and for pleasure. There’s truth in each of these, he notes, but they don’t offer much help to those who are not having sex.

We therefore need to consider the question again. Chapter 3 does just this, and Ed helps us to see, from the Bible, that our sexual desires are meant to help us to appreciate God—his passionate love for us and the depth of the offence of our sin against him. This means that for all of us, even those not having sex, our sexuality is purposeful. And our sexualities also provide a trail of heaven. Sex and marriage are a trailer for the great union to come, that of Christ and the Church. This means that for those of us who don’t have sex in this lifetime, it will be no great loss. We may miss out on the trailer, but who really cares about that when they get to see the actual film?

Chapters 4 and 5 help us to understand the implications of this for us. How does it help? Ed explains how these truths show that the biblical requirement for sexual difference in marriage is not arbitrary, or even cruel, but is purposeful. He includes fascinating insights from secular authors, including gay men and women, who have found in their own experience that the lack of sexual difference in gay sex seems to be to its detriment. He also helps us see how our appreciation of human beauty is meant to point us to the beauty of God, and how this perspective on our sexualities can help us to think rightly about sexual pleasure and about sexual temptation.

The final chapter acknowledges that sexual temptation and unfulfilled sexual desires can still cause us to question God’s plan. Ed poses a brave question, ‘What does God know about how hard it is to try and express sexual feelings rightly? … He hasn’t really got a clue about what he’s asking of me, or of you – has he?’ (p.44). But then, still firmly rooted in Scripture, Ed shows us that God does.

In the incarnation, Jesus took on humanity, including a sexuality. Unlike us this sexuality was untainted by sin and was always expressed perfectly, but this means Jesus can understand, from the inside, our experience. And the glorious good news of the gospel, is that even though every one of us is a sexual sinner, we, in Christ, receive Jesus’ perfect sexual history and his constant help through the work of the Spirit in us. God is wonderfully able to help us to live out our sexualities well.

This is a book that shows us how we should talk about sexuality so that everyone—married or single, gay or straight—can recognise and enjoy their own sexuality as a good gift of God to them. I’m not sure I know of many—if any—other books that do that.

Leaders (including youth leaders) should read Purposeful Sexuality and teach what it explains. All of us who are Christians (including teenagers) should read it, be blessed by it, and receive the good news: our sexuality is purposeful.

Purposeful Sexuality will be published by IVP this Thursday (21st January).

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Got Questions About Sexuality?

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We all have lots of questions about sexuality and identity. These are questions that face us because sexuality has become one of the key areas of disagreement between Christians and non-Christians. Many of us used to feel most nervous about being quizzed on issues of science and creation, but now we're probably most nervous of questions about sexuality. But these questions also face us because we know they are relevant to real people, people made and loved by God, and loved by us. We have questions because we care. Wouldn't it be great if there was a free, easily accessible library of resources to help us with these questions? Well, good news, now there is.

Today, Living Out have launched a new website that is full of just the kind of resources we all need to help us as we work through our many questions about faith, sexuality and identity.

Living Out was launched a number of years ago by three same-sex attracted pastors. Since then, they’ve been serving the church in the UK and beyond through their website and training events, and many have already been helped by their work, including many of us who are ourselves same-sex attracted.

At this point, in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am not unbiased in my praise of Living Out. Last year I joined the team as an associate and have been working alongside them to bring the new website into being. I can genuinely say that joining the Living Out team was one of the highlights—perhaps even the highlight—of 2020 for me. They are a great group of people who deeply love Jesus and deeply love people (and who know how to have a good laugh).

Head over to the new website for lots of articles, reviews, and animations. Keep an eye on the blog where we’ll regularly be posting our musings and engaging with things going on in the world around us. Take a look at the church leaders’ area for resources specifically designed for those in leadership, and subscribe to our podcast, the first series of which will be interviews with some of those who have written for us (and the first episode of which is actually an interview with me).

 

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Locked Down for 38 Years

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In the course of the past eleven months, we in the UK have experienced fifteen weeks of lockdown so far, in three different time periods. It has been tough: on the Church, on mental health, on families and schoolchildren, on single people, and on jobs and finances. But in a Zoom prayer meeting yesterday morning, I was reminded of the story of Marie Durand, whose eighteenth century “lockdown” puts our current struggles into context. It helped bring a sense of perspective to me, at least, and it may help you.

Marie Durand was from a well-known Huguenot (Calvinist) family, at a time in French history when it was illegal to be an evangelical. At the age of fifteen, because of her whole family’s Gospel activities, she was imprisoned for her faith in Jesus. She spent the next thirty-eight years in lockdown. The authorities were particularly cruel. The door of her prison cell was left open. At any time she was free to walk out of prison. All she had to do was renounce her faith. She chose to stay in lockdown.

She was eventually released from prison aged fifty-three, which by eighteenth century standards made her an old woman. When her prison cell was examined, they found scrawled on the stone walls the word Resistez! This was her default position during her imprisonment: I will not give in, compromise, or bail out. She was absolute in her commitment to Jesus, however challenging her circumstances. And they really were challenging. On one occasion, rats gnawed part of her foot off.

One of the things that sustained Marie during her imprisonment was a book of Psalms, which Calvinists used as their main tool for worship in this period. If you open her little book to Psalm 42, you can still see the tear stains on its pages. As I meditated on that Psalm this morning a sense of grief at the loss of our corporate worship overwhelmed me:

My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be:
I walked amongst the crowds of worshippers, leading a great procession to the house of God,
Singing for joy and giving thanks
Amid the sound of a great celebration. (Palm 42:4 NLT)

If anyone had told me last March that we would go a whole year without face to face singing and corporate worship, I would have laughed in their face. This has been a profound loss for all of us. But if my grief is palpable, then what must Marie’s have been, as decade after decade of her lockdown continued?

But the Psalm does not end there:

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise Him again – my Saviour and my God” (Psalm 42:11 NLT)

In all that we are living through right now, let’s keep a sense of perspective. And let’s keep our hearts and eyes focused on him.

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Don’t Jump Over the Problem

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The new year has not started as many of us would have hoped. Lockdown has returned, but this time combined with the potential disappointments of an unusual Christmas, the dark winter months, and the fatigue of what is nearing a year of huge disruption and, in many cases, huge losses. It's no surprise, then, that many of us are finding it tough.

For those of us in pastoral ministry, and just those of us who want to be good Christian friends, this raises questions like, how do we best help ourselves and others to navigate this time?

Many of us will rightly forefront the role of our relationship with God in helping us. Those of us who value a focus on the word and the Spirit will likely be encouraging ourselves and others towards both. It is through the word and the Spirit—and perhaps especially the Spirit working through the word—that we can experience comfort and encouragement. Whether as pastors or as friends, we can help each other through these times by pointing each other to God.

But I think it’s also important to help people realise that while these are helps, they are not the reason for the problem. What I mean is this: the fact that the presence of these things helps us, doesn’t mean that their absence is the original reason for our problem. This should shape how we encourage people towards them.

If we always jump straight to exhorting people to find comfort and encouragement by coming to God, we could imply that the reason someone is struggling is because they are failing to do this. For someone already struggling with their mental health, an exhortation just to focus on God’s word or to seek him through his Spirit could be heard as an accusation that their current plight is the result of their own spiritual laziness. It implies the problem stems from their choices or even from their sin, and so a good dose of guilt gets added to the struggles already present.

But often, our mental health struggles are not the result of our choices or our sin (though these, of course, can be a factor at play); often they are a result of our humanness.

The reason we’re finding these times so hard is not primarily because of our bad choices or our sin, it’s because they have taken away much of what we’re created to need (such as embodied relationships and gathering for corporate worship) and have increased our experience of the sorts of things that were never meant to be (such as death).

In the face of such difficulties, it is right that we exhort each other to look to God and to receive comfort and encouragement from him. But we should do so, recognising and openly acknowledging that our struggles are fitting and understandable; in a sense, they’re right. We should feel uncomfortable at the moment because much of the way God planned for us to live and to flourish has been disrupted.

When this is acknowledged, the feelings of guilt which can so often accompany and reinforce our mental health struggles are lifted and we are freed to draw near to God, to be honest with him, and, from that place, to seek his comfort and encouragement.

So, as tough times continue, let’s continue to exhort each other to look to God, to seek him in his word, and to be filled afresh with his Spirit. But let’s also remind each other that these times feel tough because they are, and that’s ok. It’s ok to feel that, it’s ok to admit that, and it’s even ok to take that to God. Let’s not jump over the problem in our desire to help and support.

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Why a Dove?

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Why did the Spirit descend upon Jesus as a dove? Richard Bauckham has a fascinating suggestion:

The Hebrew word for dove is yonah. The word is familiar to readers of the Bible in English in the form of the name Jonah, which means “dove.” It comprises four Hebrew letters (yod, waw, nun, he), like the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton (yod, he, waw, he). Three of its letters are the same as three of the letters of the Divine Name. It looks quite like the Divine Name. In the story of the burning bush, there is a play on words between the Hebrew word ‘ehyeh (meaning “I am” or “I will be”) and the Divine Name (YHWH). The word ‘ehyeh is a case of a four-letter word (aleph, he, yod, he) that has three of its letters in common with the Divine Name. So my suggestion is that, in a period when Jews no longer spoke the Divine Name but still wrote it, it would be easy to see an association between the Divine Name and the Hebrew word for “dove.” What better symbol for the Spirit of the LORD than a bird whose name resembles the name of the LORD?

- Bauckham, Who Is God?, 96

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Down the Bloody Alleyway By Himself

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There were different kinds of covenants in the ancient world ... Sometimes one of the signs of this covenant agreement and corresponding threat was to take animals, tear them apart, and put them side by side with a kind of bloody alleyway between the two parts, and then the two parties of the covenant would walk between the divided animals so as to signify "May this be done to me if I break this covenant. May I be torn apart. May I be cut in half."

So Abraham prepares the animals. Obviously, however, God is not a human being to walk beside Abraham between animals. Abraham falls into a deep sleep, and in his sleep he sees a firepot, something to represent the presence of God. What is so stunning is that instead of the firepot moving between the animals side by side with Abraham (so that the two of them are saying, in effect, “May it be done to us if either of us breaks the covenant”), God goes down this bloody alleyway all by himself. He takes the full responsibility for the fulfilment of the covenant all by himself. That is grace.

- D. A. Carson, The God Who is There, 51-52

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Pastoral Pressures

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Pastor, have you been planning your escape route?

Lockdown is a state of being that encourages fantasies: the daydreams we have of what we would really like to be doing. For pastors, the pressures of this time can easily lead to schemes for escape being formulated. I’ve got friends who have been feeling at their lowest ever ebb over the past few weeks; I’ve felt pretty low myself. Giving up and doing something else can look very attractive.

The latest lockdown puts more pressure on pastors who have to decide whether to maintain in-person gatherings. A commitment to the significance of the gathered body and the necessity of regular corporate worship means many of us want to plough on; but there are many factors that might be pushing us to pause. In previous lockdowns the issue we had to deal with was how to respond to what felt like State overreach in limiting freedom of worship. In this lockdown we are still permitted to meet and that puts the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. What is the right thing to do?

A statement sent out by the Baptist Union to its member churches this week illustrates the issues.

We recognise that Government guidelines allow churches to remain open during this period. However, given the significant increase in numbers of Covid-19 infections and pressure on the NHS, we advise churches to stand with the wider community in making every effort to limit the spread of the virus.

We would still support churches as they open their buildings to provide vital services to the local community, such as food banks, as has been the case throughout the pandemic.

The pressure to ‘stand with the wider community’ by ceasing worship services is considerable. But is curtailing the public worship of God really the best way we stand with our communities? Might it not rather be a dereliction of our mission and witness? Why is it that things such as food banks should be considered ‘vital services’ but the public ministry of the word and worship should not? Haven’t we been told somewhere that man does not live by bread alone?

In the case of my church, we did not gather last Sunday and will not again this week, primarily because of the complexity of having a team able to run a service. I have been self-isolating due to contact with someone who had the virus, and then a positive test myself. (As is the case with most people who catch covid, my symptoms have been no worse than mild flu.) Other members of the team are needing to shield. So finding enough team who are actually allowed out in public is a challenge.

But practical limitations aside, the pastoral pressure of leading through the divisiveness of all this is considerable. It is challenging to manage the emotions of those who feel we should not meet and those who think we should; to manage the inner-conflict between not wanting to do anything that might cause a further spread of the virus while not wanting to deny fundamental spiritual convictions; to honour the consciences of those unwilling to meet together while wanting to speak courage into people – especially those who are at minimal objective risk (i.e. anyone under 60 with no pre-existing health issues).

It is very easy to start planning the escape route.

Just before Christmas I preached from the story of Elijah at Horeb. He was a man looking for an escape route. I preached it for myself but it might help other pastors who are feeling the pressure.

Pastor, I don’t know what you should do in your context – I’m not even too sure about what to do in mine – but I do know Elijah was so depressed he wanted to die and God told him he wasn’t finished yet.

Keep going.

 

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A Year in Writing

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One silver lining in 2020, at least for me, was that I got to spend more time writing than I usually do. I was actually working on four different projects, two of which are due out in 2021 and two of which will (hopefully) come later.

I’m very excited about the release of God of All Things, which is out in March. I have always loved writing about God, and trying to explain who he is in short chapters which engage the mind and fire the heart. But unlike Incomparable, which was organised around abstract attributes of God (goodness, glory, etc), God of All Things starts with things in the real world: pigs, honey, mountains, fruit, salt, dust, bread, and so on. It then shows how Scripture uses that object to reveal something of God and his gospel. My hope is that it will fuel people’s joy in God, at a time when we could all do with rejoicing a bit more! You can pre-order it now.

In the Autumn, that will be followed by 1 Corinthians For You, which is a popular-level exposition of 1 Corinthians. Not only is this the letter I did my PhD research on; it’s also the first biblical text I preached through (and this book is definitely more like the latter than the former). I can’t think of another piece of Scripture that addresses so many pressing cultural issues in such a condensed fashion - division, leadership, sexuality, marriage, singleness, idolatry, spiritual gifts, communion, men and women - and all bookended by the cross and the resurrection. This is not a commentary for academics or pastors, but a guide for ordinary people (and/or people who preach to them!) You can read more here.

For most of the second half of the year, I have been working on a completely different sort of book, which is at the proposal stage at the moment (translation: we’re hawking it around publishers as we speak to see if anyone is interested). The working title is 1776: The Origin Story of the Post-Christian West. The big idea is that 1776 was the year that made us who we are, through a series of transformations (global, intellectual, industrial, economic, political, religious and Romantic) that are still reverberating today, and that if we want to understand the way the world is - and reach it more effectively - it will help us to know that story, why things turned out the way they did, and how the church can respond. If there is any interest in it, I’m sure I’ll be talking about it more in due course. In the meantime, if you’re wondering why I keep posting things about the eighteenth century - or running THINK conferences about theological history - this should explain it.

And finally, I wrote a short kids book called The Boy From the House of Bread. This, too, is at the proposal stage at the moment, but it’s basically the story of Jesus through the eyes of a child, based on all the things Jesus said and did regarding bread. Again, I’ll keep you posted.

Andi Bray and the team at St Andrew’s Bookshop have very kindly made me an author page on their website, for those who want to see my books that were, that are and that are yet to come. (I’m guessing they chose a photo with that shirt just to troll Jennie ...)

Happy New Year!

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Viral Vaccine Vacillation

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The approval and rollout of two Covid vaccines in the UK has been heralded by many as the answer we have been waiting for, and it has birthed hope that we may be able to return to some level of normality in 2021. However, not everyone is so pleased about the vaccines or so confident that they are such good news.

Some are raising understandable questions about the safety of the vaccines. It is wise to ask about the safety of any new medicine or vaccine, and the incredible speed with which these vaccines have been developed may make us even more inclined to do so in this case. We can benefit from looking into this and learning about the rigorous safeguards put in place for the testing and approval of new vaccines.

But these are not the only concerns being raised. A number of different ideas are circulating both online and offline. Some are convinced that the vaccines contain microchips which will be used to track and control those who receive them. Bill Gates is often believed to be one of the key masterminds behind this idea. There are also claims that the vaccines will alter DNA or that they contain fetal tissue. In Christian circles, some of these ideas are then being linked to concepts such as the mark of the beast in Revelation 13.

Many of us will dismiss these ideas as conspiracy theories and will assume that they will gain little traction among the people around us. I think that was probably my position initially, but over the past few weeks I have heard of people in UK churches who are considering or are even fully convinced of some of these ideas, and I have been approached by people in pastoral ministry unsure of what ideas are circulating and how to respond to them. For those of us in leadership, this is something we need to be informed about in order to be able to engage with people in helpful ways.

Since the internet has been part of the problem in the circulation of these ideas, it can be hard to know where is best to turn to find helpful engagement with them. Here are some resources I have found helpful.

Vaccine Misinformation

There are a number of useful fact-checking articles that look at some of the misinformation circulating about the virus.

This one from the BBC gives concise responses to four of the most common claims. And this article gives a little more detail on the impossibility of the vaccine containing a microchip.

John Wyatt also continues to serve us well with both a FAQs article on the vaccines, offering helpful responses to questions about safety and the various theories, and a podcast on coronavirus misinformation.

Revelation Misreading

Many of us will encounter these ideas about the vaccines because some Christians are linking them to certain passages in Revelation.

Last summer, Ian Paul posted a helpful article which talks more generally about the pandemic and the Book of Revelation and the ways in which it does and doesn’t speak to us about our day and age.

Over at the Logos Academic Blog, Tavis Bohlinger has a useful piece on ‘COVID-19 and the Mark of the Beast’, and Matthew L. Halsted directly addresses connections between the coronavirus vaccines the mark of the beast in ‘The Covid Vaccine has 666 Written All Over It…and Why that Doesn’t Matter According to Revelation’.

A Moment of Opportunity

Within the mess of this misinformation, there are also opportunities. There’s an opportunity to talk about truth, its importance and the fact that it needn’t be afraid of careful examination. We can talk about common grace and God’s kindness to us­ in the provision of scientists, scientific understanding, and medical technology. And we can talk about eschatology. In the context of fear about the mark of the beast, we can offer peace as we share the good news of the mark of the lamb (Revelation 7:3; 14:1).

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My Strength and My Song

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“Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the Lord God is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.”
- Isaiah 12:2

In October 2019 I was invited to write some Bible reading notes for Scripture Union’s Daily Bread, to appear at Christmas 2020.

At the time, we expected Brexit to (again) dominate the year, and many people were fearful, anxious and downright angry about all that it might entail. So as I wrote the notes, on the first few chapters of Isaiah, I was conscious that many readers might be in greater need of encouragement, and a greater need to be pointed to the eternal truths of our hope in Jesus.

These chapters lent themselves particularly well to this theme, and as I read them through again this autumn, with 2020 hindsight (yes, I said it), I was pleased to see that they had stood the test of time, and was hopeful that they might have provided some encouragement to readers at the end of a very difficult year.

Yesterday, New Year’s Eve, the passage assigned was Isaiah 12. Here it is in full. Is there any better way to step over the threshold of the year than proclaiming, ‘Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid’?

The Lord Is My Strength and My Song
12 You will say in that day:
“I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
  for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
  that you might comfort me.
2 “Behold, God is my salvation;
  I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the Lord God is my strength and my song,
  and he has become my salvation.”

3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the Lord,
  call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
  proclaim that his name is exalted.
5 “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
  let this be made known in all the earth.
6 Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
  for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

To read the rest of my reflection on the chapter, and the rest of the series, click here.

Happy New Year.

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Have Yourself an Augustinian Little Christmas

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This year, in addition to all the extraneous hoopla that always surrounds Christmas in the West - shopping, eating, drinking, decorating, gift-giving and so forth - many of us have been given something that we actually want: an opportunity to sit down and have a meal with people we love. I'm delighted. So is my wife, and so are my children.

But with that blessing comes a significant risk: that Christmas will become even less about Christ than it often can be. I don’t mean in the nation as a whole; I take that as read. I mean in my own heart, and yours. We may tumble into this season with so much relief that the rules are relaxed, and that we can do something that feels normal at the end of such an abnormal year, that we pin our hopes for joy on the celebration of this week, rather than the One we are celebrating. I am very aware of that danger in my own life. “All my streams are found in bubbles,” or words to that effect.

They aren’t. Nor are yours. I am not created to find joy and hope in my family or community, any more than I am created to find it in presents or shopping. I don’t want to jump out of the frying pan of materialism into the fire of mingling.

This week I need to find my joy in God, or I will flounder. I need to drink from the fountain, not the broken cistern of family (as much as I love them). Take the world, and give me Jesus. Augustine was right: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

So if you see me out and about on Eastbourne seafront in the next few days, there’s a fair chance I’ll be reading Richard Bauckham’s Who Is God?, or listening to Jules Burt’s All I Want (which, by the way, is a magnificent summary of the Confessions Book I):

Merry Christmas.

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Concluding Corona Comments

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Inevitably, a lot of posts on Think this year have been connected to Covid-19 and it seems certain that 2021, at least at first, will also be dominated by the coronavirus. So as we end one virus-shaped year and prepare for another here are three reflections on what we have learned.

1. The value of humility
A characteristic of our age is the expression of strong opinions in a manner that is not conducive to intelligent dialogue. Social media, followed increasingly by conventional media, encourages shouting rather than listening, polarisation rather than consensus and the positioning of those with whom we disagree as morally suspect enemies. These tendencies have not been helpful in working out the best response to the virus.

Way back in April, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Paul Collier observed,

In a world that has inevitably become too complex to be adequately captured in models, a world of both “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”, the most sensible response to the question “what should we do?” is “I don’t know”.

Of course, national leaders are not permitted to say, “I don’t know.” We expect them to know, or at least act as though they do. But as Collier explains,

At the onset of this crisis, we could not put probabilities on which forms of social distancing would best limit its spread because we’d never done it before. We didn’t know how people would alter their behaviour in response to the appeal to “save the NHS”. We didn’t even know whether reducing the spread was desirable: perhaps fewer deaths now would come at the cost of more next winter. And these were just the known unknowns. With a disruption as big as this, unknown unknowns are also lurking. We have no experience of the material and economic repercussions from shutdowns of this nature and their aftermath in a modern economy, and no meaningful way of assigning probabilities; nor of how people’s behaviour will evolve.

Eight months on and a lot of those unknowns remain unknown. Yes, we know more now about the virus than we did in April, but as the response to the latest increase in cases in the UK demonstrates, there is still a lot we do not know. One thing we do know is that in light of our lack of knowing it is wise to show some humility.


2. The dangers of idolatry
In his book Counterfeit Gods Tim Keller writes,

One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There is no hope!”

Keller is writing about politics but that paragraph could just as well be applied to how in the UK we regard the NHS. It can feel as if the NHS is the one national institution that is beyond criticism and for which all else must be sacrificed.

One of the problems with this devotion to the NHS is the impossible expectations it places upon those who work within it.

A hospital doctor told me,

Senior clinicians and nurses who have worked for decades say this is like nothing before experienced. There is such a lot of distress voiced - incredibly sick patients, unpredictable clinical trajectory (this disease continues to turn on a sixpence), huge sense of responsibility, playing the role of surrogate family members. A lot of tears and fear for January. These are highly committed, highly competent people.

A recent study suggested that 40% of ITU staff meet the criteria for PTSD. This is something like four times higher than amongst troops in the gulf war.

This toll on medical staff is shocking but is perhaps the inevitable consequence of the constant messaging we have received telling us that ‘our wonderful NHS’ will always save all our lives. No institution, far less any individual, can sustain that level of expectation. If the NHS becomes our functional saviour – our counterfeit god – we are setting ourselves up for a fall. Not only is it impossible for the NHS to guarantee all of us permanent good health and never-ending life but by placing that kind of burden on the institution we risk burning out the people responsible for keeping it operating. We need a more substantial God than that.


3. Changing attitudes to death
It is fascinating to ask those old enough to remember 1968 or 1957 how they handled the pandemics of those years and see the blank looks that question generates. Despite those pandemics claiming more lives than has Covid-19 so far no one seems to remember them because life continued as normal – no lockdowns, no facemasks, no social distancing, no panic. Our response has been very different this time around. Part of the reason for that must be the ‘unknowns’ of this virus – when it first struck we didn’t know if it might be the ‘big one’, a virus that might take huge numbers of lives. It now seems clearer that this is not the case but we remain very nervous about death and with a strangely distorted perception of its realities.

As has often been pointed out, the average age of death with Covid is almost the same, or even older, than average life expectancy (life expectancy in the UK, 2017-19, was for men 79.4 years, and for women 83.1 years. Average age of death with covid seems to be around 82-83 years.). So far 67,000 people have died in the UK within 28 days of a positive test for the virus. This is a large number but should be measured against the total number we would expect to die anyway: in 2019 530,841 people died in England & Wales. (By way of comparison, it is also worth bearing in mind that last year in England & Wales there were 207,384 abortions.)

All this is sociologically interesting but it clearly prompts theological considerations too. Positively, we might see evidence that we have become more caring. We are not so willing as perhaps we once were simply to allow those in their 80s & 90s to be carried off by disease. Less positively we might see this trend as a reflection of our increased sense that this life ‘is all there is’. Without confidence in God and the promise of life beyond the grave, those who have ‘eternity set in their hearts’ (Eccl. 3:11) will want to hold onto life for as long as possible.


These three observations provide opportunities and challenges for us in the months ahead. Christ’s church should herself display humility (‘Brothers, we are not epidemiologists’), yet needs also to speak with a prophetic voice that will at times provoke opposition. To call people from idolatry and fear and to put their trust in the living God is to invite scorn and anger – as well as a joyful response in some. But isn’t that the message of Christmas? As we end one year and prepare for another we do so proclaiming ‘the God of glory and Lord of love’. Virus or no virus, that doesn’t change.

 

Let There Be Light

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This is a wonderful short video that joins together Creation, Christmas, Exodus, the darkness of 2020, and the light of Christ. (The poem starts at 1.05.) Be encouraged.

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When You Get What You Wanted in a Way You Didn’t

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"Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life" (Gen 47:9). Jacob's sombre summary of his own life echoes with a kind of complex solemnity against all that we have seen him undergo. He has, after all, achieved everything he aspired to achieve: the birthright, the blessing, marriage with his beloved Rachel, progeny, and wealth. But one measure of the profound moral realism of the story is that although he gets everything he wanted, it is not in the way he would have wanted, and the consequence is far more pain than contentment. From his "clashing" (25:22) with his twin in the womb, everything has been a struggle. He displaces Esau, but only at the price of fear and lingering guilt and long exile. He gets Rachel, but only by having Leah imposed on him, with all the domestic strife that entails, and he loses Rachel early in childbirth. He is given a new name by his divine adversary, but comes away with a permanent wound. He gets the full solar-year number of twelve sons, but there is enmity among them (for which he bears some responsibility), and he spends twenty-two years grieving over his favourite son, who he believes is dead. This is, in sum, a story with a happy ending that withholds any simple feeling of happiness at the end.

- Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 273 (emphasis added)

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What is God Saying Through 2020?

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A crisis often serves as a Rorschach Test. Ask someone what they have learned from the events of 2020, and you are highly likely to hear a bunch of things that they already believed before it started—their political views, theological convictions and personal hobby horses—coloured by a Covid filter. We've learned that personal liberty / education / the NHS is not valued enough. We've learned that personal liberty / education / the NHS is valued too much. Western hegemony is over. We need to radically overhaul the way we do church from now on. The government is incompetent. Christians need to get our heads out of the technological sand. Cutting carbon emissions is possible. Online church is here to stay. Online church should never happen again once the pandemic is over. The state is too powerful. Churches should place a greater emphasis on liturgy / prophecy / prayer / preaching / singing / sacraments / receiving the Spirit / Sundays / groups / evangelism / social justice / all of the above.

These perspectives are not necessarily wrong. But the fact that I have encountered all of them in the last nine months, and that you have too—and that you were rarely surprised by which friend, acquaintance or public figure made which comment—gives me pause. It makes me suspicious that my own analysis of the situation is, likewise, skewed by my priors. It reminds me that the phrase “we have learned” can simply be a way of saying “I believe” that makes it harder to argue with. It makes me wonder whether similar things are true of answers to the question “What is God saying through 2020?”

Having said all that, I want to ask that question anyway. As regular readers will know, I am inclined towards jaundice when I read hot takes about new phenomena and how they will change everything forever; I have a strong preference for cold takes instead. (This is partly a function of personality: some people adopt new ideas quickly, whereas my working assumption when I hear about a New Thing is that either it won’t change the world or it shouldn’t, and if it happens to be a big deal, I can always adjust to it later.) But nine months have now passed. Things have cooled. And I believe in a God who is sovereign over all things, and who speaks today. So as we approach the end of this bummer of a year, it feels appropriate to ask: In the providence of God, what was all that about?

The Wisdom of James

In February I spent a week in India with my friend Jason Shields, visiting pastors from all over the country, worshipping in four or five languages, eating magnificent food, and teaching through the epistle of James. I had never gone through the letter in a systematic way before, and it did me a huge amount of good. But I had no idea how far the wisdom of James would be vindicated by, and needed for, the events of March onwards: Covid, lockdowns, George Floyd, Trump, vaccines, and so forth. Seriously: if you read the letter from beginning to end right now, I challenge you not to marvel at how much it reads like a theological and ethical commentary on 2020. Here are five examples that struck me, although there are no doubt many others:

1. “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness ... Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial, for when they have stood the test they will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (1:2-3, 12). This has been a year in which “trials of various kinds” have come upon all of us. For many of our global brothers and sisters, every year is like that. But for most people reading this, the average year is characterised by a handful of (often fairly predictable) trials, rather than a plethora of ones that could not possibly have been foreseen last January. Speaking personally, it has been very difficult to “count it all joy”: the loss of gathered church meetings, singing, and the Lord’s Supper for much of the year, to take just three examples, has meant that several of my main sources of joy fuel have all but disappeared. But James is right. It is precisely because we are facing trials that we need to count it all joy, because the testing of our faith—which we have all experienced this year—produces steadfastness. So yes, this year has been a bit rubbish all round. But James says that it is producing steadfastness in us which itself will bring us to the crown of life. That’s one thing God is saying through 2020.

2. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27). Churches are often complex organisations. We have multiple staff, run dozens of programmes and mobilise hundreds of volunteers to serve thousands of people. But when a pandemic strikes, much of that disappears overnight. Many of our activities cannot be sustained in a safe way. So crises force us to ask the question: what is essential around here? We can do all sorts of things, but what must we do? And the answer is twofold, based on the two things the church is irreducibly here to do: meeting together to worship God and declare the gospel, and serving the poor, or what James calls “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father.” Covid has winnowed our programmes. Even though we will quickly reinstate many of them (and I think the loss of some of them, like getting young people together, has been a real challenge for people), that process will have done us good.

3. “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory ... if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors ... faith apart from works is dead” (2:1, 9, 26). There are a great many biblical texts we could reflect on in light of the death of George Floyd, and the protests that ensued, but this is as good a starting point as any. Partiality is antithetical to the gospel. If the Lord of glory died for you, without regard to anything you have done, then you cannot treat some people preferentially relative to others on the basis of their wealth or social status (in James’s context), or race or mental health (in ours). The objection that Scripture does not identify the sin of racism specifically, because in its current form it did not exist yet, is true but irrelevant, for the simple reason that it speaks so emphatically about the sin of partiality, not least in this letter. And if those of us in the majority are tempted to move quickly into yeah-buttery at this point—yeah but I’m not racist myself, yeah but white people are killed by police too, yeah but some of the aims of #BLM are terrible, yeah but abortion, or whatever it is—we might be wise to consider James 1:19 first. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

4. “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (3:14-16). This is clearly not a comment about whether a person should vote for Donald Trump (although it will not surprise anyone to hear that I wouldn’t have). But we should note the sorts of consequences that flow from normalising, or even celebrating, Trump-like behaviour—and the uncomfortable ways in which the events of the last few weeks have demonstrated that.

5. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (4:13-15). This is the main lesson I have learned this year, and it is not one I find easy. Every cancelled meeting, lunch, trip, conference, flight or holiday has borne witness to a truth that the biblical writers saw very clearly, yet wealthy middle class Western people like me find very hard to grasp: I am not in control. I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, let alone next year. I am a mist. I am here for a little while, and then I vanish. I have no idea whether I, or someone I love, will catch Covid in the next week, nor how badly. My plans are subject to the will of God, and so is my life.

There are a great many other things we can learn from 2020. (Collin Hansen has a great list here, from a US perspective; I would add the repeated exposure of hypocrisy amongst our scientific, political and media influencers, and the loss to society as a whole when the church stops meeting, among others.) There are also a great many other things we can learn from James: the judgment upon the rich, the power of prayer, the need to control our speech, and so forth.

But in a letter known more for its ethical imperatives than its evangelical indicatives, we would do well to finish by reflecting on the grace that suffuses the text, even when it seems to be about something else. Every good and perfect gift comes from above (1:17). Our faith is brought forth by God’s will and God’s word (1:18). Wisdom comes from above (3:15). The purpose of the Lord is compassionate, and merciful (5:11), and he loves raising people up and forgiving them in answer to prayer (5:15). And in spite of everything—loneliness, confusion, lockdown, Zoom—if you draw near to God, he will draw near to you (4:8). In all the darkness and disappointment of this year, what God is saying to his church is the same as it has always been. “But he gives more grace” (4:6).

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This Side of History. Right.

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How is it that the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” has become coherent and meaningful? This is the question that opens and frames Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

It is a very important and relevant question – in many ways the key question of our ‘cultural moment’ as it contains so many other questions about the way in which contemporary western society thinks and operates.

What Trueman accomplishes superbly is to demonstrate for how long the cultural trends have been gestating that have made transgenderism the phenomenon it is today. Tracing the story through the influence of Rousseau, the Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud and the New Left he demonstrates that transgenderism hasn’t simply appeared from nowhere but is the logical consequence of trends stretching back two hundred years.

There’s a lot in Self that is, certainly from a conservative Christian perspective, profoundly depressing but Trueman is explicit in stating that his aim is neither polemic nor lament; rather it is a history explaining, albeit partially, how we got where we are. As such it is tremendously helpful.

However, a friend asked me another very good question: whether the book itself is digestible. It’s certainly demanding in places. If you’ve read Trueman’s blog posts you might, like me, struggle through parts of Self thinking, ‘I’m sure I’ve heard him say this in a pithier way someplace else.’ That’s the difference between a blog post and a book length treatment of a subject and it might make the book a little off putting to some. For those who don’t have much background in the history and personalities Self deals with I would recommend first reading Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought, which offers (from an author with no commitment to Christianity) a very lucid account of the philosophical currents that have shaped western society. Then I would recommend Michael Banner’s Christian Ethics, which covers much of the same ground as Self but is about a quarter of the length.

I know that many readers of Think are pastors and as pastors we want some practical answers. This is not the purpose of Self but in the final half dozen pages Trueman does make three suggestions about what the church might be doing given his rather bleak analysis. These are worth considering here (and worth reading the whole of the book to understand more fully).

Firstly, that we should not allow the aesthetic strategy of the wider culture to dictate our beliefs and practice. Contemporary beliefs (‘I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body’) are to a large extent based on emotional responses to personal stories – our cultural desire for the ‘authentic’ means that subjective personal narrative gains more legitimacy than objective fact. We must beware this being the paradigm by which we operate in the church.

In relation to LGBTQ+ issues Trueman states,

If sex-as-identity is itself a category mistake, then the narratives of suffering, exclusion, and refusals of recognition based on that category mistake are really of no significance in determining what the church’s position on homosexuality should be. That is not to say that pastoral strategies aimed at individuals should not be compassionate, but what is and is not compassionate must always rest on deeper, transcendent commitments. Christianity…is dogmatic, doctrinal, assertive.

That is a statement that would make many a culturally sensitive pastor splutter on their oat milk latte but it bears careful reflection. Those of us who come from the evangelical tradition, with our emphasis upon ‘giving testimony’, can very easily slide into a form of ministry which is more about the stories individuals tell than the claims the gospel makes. That leads to Christianity as therapy rather than truth claim.

Secondly, that the church must be a community. In an era when expressive individualism is king the church needs to push with more determination into genuine and meaningful community. Trueman notes that contemporary phrases such as ‘online community’ now, ‘make sense because we know how the very idea of community has been evacuated of the notion of bodily proximity and presence.’

At the end of a year in which bodily proximity and presence has been so restricted this feels even more challenging than it already did.

And thirdly, ‘Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body.’ When pastors are faced by questions around issues like transgenderism or surrogacy – which increasingly we are – they need to be able to provide a coherent biblical position. This is a challenge as many pastors are simply not equipped to give such answers. The issues are so complex and fast moving it can be very difficult for the ‘average’ pastor who has no end of other matters to attend to, to know how to respond.

To accomplish these three things feels overwhelmingly difficult in the face of the culture in which we minister. But there is hope. The internal inconsistencies of the current cultural narrative mean that the edifice will collapse at some point – maybe not in my lifetime but it will happen. In the meanwhile our churches can be refuges from the madness of the world where in genuine community and with shared doctrinal commitments we hold together in the teeth of the storm. Rather than seeking to be ‘on the right side of history’ by understanding our history we can build for a better future. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a very helpful tool in that project.

 

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Keeping Up with the Conversation

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The transgender conversation moves at an incredible pace. There is so much going on that it’s pretty much impossible to keep up. But it’s an important conversation. Important because it is about the difficult, real-life experiences of people made and loved by God, and also important because it is a prominent cultural conversation where a number of significant issues converge. My perception is that there have been some significant developments in the conversation over the last year, so here’s a quick summary of some of these and some reflections on how we should respond as Christians.

Self-ID Rejected

One of the big debates in terms of legislation has been what should be required for an individual to be able to change their legal gender and to gain an updated birth certificate. Under the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (for England and Wales), there are fairly strict criteria that must be met before someone can legally change their gender, including a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and at least two years living in the new gender.

In 2018 the government launched a consultation on the Gender Recognition Act with one of the potential changes being the introduction of a self-ID system in which individuals would be able to change their legal gender without a medical diagnosis. The consultation sparked quite a response as people expressed concerns about the impact on single-sex spaces and the safety of women.

Despite considerable support for self-ID in the consultation responses, the government has decided not to make changes to the Gender Recognition Act, arguing that the legislation as it stands strikes the right balance. They have, however, committed to making the process cheaper and to reducing waiting times for the NHS gender identity service.

Continued Debate Over Support for Transgender Teens

The question of how best to care for children and teenagers who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria is one of the most debated in the ongoing conversation, and the NHS Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) has been an area of controversy for a number of years.

Staff have raised concerns, and some have even resigned, unhappy about the treatment that is being offered, often expressing concerns that little attempt is made to offer a proper psychological evaluation to patients and that the service is being shaped by trans activists rather than by good medicine. Internal investigations confirmed these claims, but little has been done in response and the investigation findings were later rejected.

A lawsuit against the GIDS was started by a parent and nurse concerned about the misleading way puberty blockers are presented and the lack of thorough psychological assessment given before blockers are offered to patients. An ex-patient of the GIDS, Keira Bell, later joined as the lead claimant, and last week the court ruled that those under 16 are not old enough to give informed consent to what is effectively an experimental treatment that is likely to have life-long impacts. They also suggested that these factors mean a court should probably be involved in the decision to prescribe puberty blockers for 16- and 17-year olds.

This is a hugely significant ruling that will affect the international conversation on this topic and will cause a change to the shape of the treatment offered to young people with gender dysphoria. In turn, this will hopefully protect many young people from embarking on life-altering treatment that often doesn’t, in the long run, deliver the results it promises and will ensure better support for these young people, as factors which lie behind their distress will be further explored and addressed.

In September, the NHS announced that they were commissioning an independent review into the GIDS, and the recent legal case will no doubt feed into that review. This part of the conversation has seen some significant moments recently, but it is far from over.

Long Term Impact of an Affirming Approach

One of the most difficult questions in the transgender conversation has been about the long-term effectiveness of an affirming approach in which individuals are encouraged and helped to live in line with gender identity rather than biological sex. Is transitioning, often culminating in sex reassignment surgery (SRS), effective in improving the lives of those with gender dysphoria?

The reality is, despite the clear perspectives put forward on both sides, it is hard to say. While there have been a number of studies that found positive outcomes, these have tended to be based on fairly small sample sizes, without any form of control group, and covering only a short period of time. Reliable, long-term studies based on good methodology have been few and far between.

This year has seen a few significant publications in this area. Interestingly this has included a couple that openly challenge the conclusions of previous publications, a positive sign that true discussion and debate are being increasingly allowed.

The first was a correction to a paper published last year. The original paper claimed that SRS led to a decrease in transgender people seeking treatment for mental health problems such as depression, especially when the individuals were a number of years past surgery. This was widely reported in the media as proof of the effectiveness of SRS. However, after the paper was published, many academics challenged the conclusions of the study observing problems with its methodology. As a result, in August this year, a correction was published which acknowledged the weaknesses of the methodology used and the fact that these meant the conclusions drawn were ‘too strong’. It also acknowledged that further consideration of the data ‘demonstrated no advantage of surgery’ in relation to mental health.

The second significant publication was a letter challenging the claims of an earlier paper which had concluded that, when it comes to psychological support, anything other than an affirming approach is harmful to those with gender dysphoria. Again, this claim was widely reported in the media and was even referenced in a paper from the UN Human Rights Council. The letter published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour highlighted the methodological problems in the original study and noted that the same data could be explained in different ways. The authors acknowledge that there is as of yet little good research into the potential positive impact of psychological interventions, but note that this needs to be allowed so that the best ways of helping those with gender dysphoria can be found.

This year also saw the publication of a significant study that looked at rates of depression, anxiety, and adjustment and somatoform disorders in those who have undergone SRS and, importantly, compared this group with a parallel group of people who hadn’t had SRS. The study found considerably increased experiences of mental health problems among those who had undergone SRS, suggesting that the treatment may not be as effective in producing positive outcomes as has sometimes been claimed.

None of these letters or studies gives us a one-time, clear-cut answer to the question of whether an affirming approach is effective in improving the life experience of people with gender dysphoria, but they are significant contributions to the ongoing research, and they highlight the importance of good methodology in any studies we look to in seeking to answer this key question.

A Christian Response

How should we as Christians respond to these developments?

First, I think there are some things to give thanks for. One of the primary concerns for Christians should be to seek the safety and wellbeing of those who are vulnerable. We should therefore be particularly concerned about safeguarding children and young people. The scrutiny under which the GIDS is currently being placed is a positive thing if it ensures that vulnerable young people are being protected from potentially unhelpful treatments and ideology. We can also give thanks that there is an increasing willingness among academics to engage in a true debate about the effectiveness of an affirming approach as this could potentially also feed into protecting a vulnerable group – adults experiencing the pain of gender dysphoria.

There is, however, also still much to pray for. The recent court ruling on puberty blockers may protect young people from being fast-tracked to treatment that is experimental and possibly harmful, but we must remember that the young people seeking the support of the GIDS are still experiencing distress. We must pray for good, evidence-based care to be provided for these young people. Likewise, if evidence is growing that an affirming approach does not bring long-term peace to adults with gender dysphoria we must pray for better support to be offered to help them navigate life. Ultimately, we must pray because we know that this is a conversation about real people.

I think these developments also provide an encouragement for us to keep on holding fast to what the Bible teaches us about our identity as men and women. We are seeing the beginning of what may be a turning of the tide in cultural opinion on this topic. We are seeing evidence that the Bible’s call to us to live in line with our biological sex is actually the best thing for us, even if there are sometimes difficulties in this. We are seeing an increasing realisation that gender stereotypes are often not helpful, that our biological sex is unchanging and unchangeable, and that this gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are.

It does look like we could, in the long term, be heading towards a change in the dominant perspective on transgender in our culture, at very least in relation to children and teenagers. If when this change does come, we as Christians are those who throughout the cultural debate have put forward a perspective which is later proved to be the most loving and life-giving, it will be a glorious demonstration to those around us of God’s wisdom and compassion and of the goodness of God’s word. We need to hold fast to what God says, trusting and proclaiming that it is good news. And we do this both out of love for God and love for our neighbour. 

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Verifying You’re Not a Robot

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This has no theological significance whatsoever, but it is brilliant nonetheless:

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Books of the Year 2020

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What better way to celebrate the end of lockdown than with a list of the year's best books? After all, this has been a year defined by being locked down and then allowed out again, furloughed and then sent back to work, and reading has been one of the few activities possible in each situation. The result has been that I've read more books this year than I normally would, especially across the early summer. So I've allowed myself a top twenty-five, rather than the usual top twenty: ten old books, five new Christian books, five new novels, and five recent nonfiction titles. (Asterisks indicate a re-read.)

Christian Books

1. Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. My book of the year. For about a month in the summer, I took this book with me in the morning and read a chapter each day, as slowly and meditatively as I know how. It is a stunning book, packed with beautiful truths expressed poignantly and applied wisely, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

2. James K. A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. A wonderful fusion of Augustine’s life story, the parable of the prodigal son, a road trip, and Augustinian insights that put our restless desires into context. A delight to read.

3. Carl Trueman, The Rise And Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution. A genealogy of the modern self, from the Romantics to the present, with all kinds of fascinating historical narrative, and plenty of application to the major debates and kerfuffles of the century so far. Superbly written as well.

4. Hannah Anderson, Turning of Days: Lessons from Nature, Season and Spirit. Hannah’s book is not out yet (sorry about that), but it will be in February, and when it is, you should take a look. It’s a searching, reflective, devotionally rich book on the seasons, the natural order and Scripture, with an abundance of spiritual and theological connections made between them.

5. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus. Morales deserves credit for writing a book about Leviticus in the first place, let alone doing it in a way that brings the book to life, joins the dots between the major themes, fuels worship, and fosters a desire for the presence of God. Rich biblical theology.

Nonfiction Books

1. Peter Moore, Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World. My favourite nonfiction title of the year, this book focuses on the first ship in which Captain Cook sailed around the world. It began life as a Whitby collier, circumnavigated the globe, got stuck on the Great Barrier Reef, joined the war against America, and ended up (or did it?) on the moon. An astonishing story with one of the great final paragraphs of any book I have read.

2. Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future. Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Joseph Priestly, Josiah Wedgewood and a bunch of other luminaries (or lunaries) were all members of the Lunar Society in Birmingham in the late eighteenth century. This marvellous book tells the story of what they did, discovered and invented, and how it changed the modern world.

3. Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. You are WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic—and the reason for that is the Western Church, and specifically their prohibition on marrying your cousins. A surprising thesis, with more supporting arguments and charts than you can shake a stick at. (Here’s my review it for The Gospel Coalition.)

4. Tara Westover, Educated. I am a little late to the party on this one, but Tara Westover’s memoir, of being raised in a Mormon, survivalist junkyard and ending up in Cambridge and Harvard, is the sort of book you never forget reading, and in places is quite literally unbelievable.

5. Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. Religious scepticism has been around for much longer than you think. Ryrie’s argument stops where we might expect it to start (with the high Enlightenment), and starts with Pope Gregory IX in 1239. “The crucial juncture in the history of atheism,” he argues, “is the period before the philosophers made it intellectually respectable.” Again, here’s my TGC review.

Novels

1. Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. Oh, to be able to write like this. A magnificent ending to the trilogy.

2. Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. The tale of two girls trying to reach America was the most exciting story I read this year.

3. Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing. An evocative, rich, absorbing and charming novel, which I’m guessing book-lovers have already read.

4. Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. The shortest, paciest and most gripping of the three books in the Wolf Hall series.

5. Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles: A Family History, 2029-2047. I read this just as the Covid lockdown started, and the parallels freaked me out. Disorientingly plausible.

Top Ten Old Books

Irenaeus, A Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching
Augustine, Letter to Proba
Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule
Anselm, Proslogion
Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man
Leszek Kołakowski, Is God Happy? Selected Essays

The Rest

John Betz, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann
Walter Kaiser, Walking the Ancient Paths: A Commentary on Jeremiah
Philip Jenkins, Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions
Tim Keller, How to Reach the West Again: Six Essential Elements of a Missionary Encounter
Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead: Reading the Past in Search of a Tranquil Mind
Nijay Gupta, The New Testament Commentary Guide
David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans
Rudyard Kipling, The Gardener
Peter Leithart, The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes, Vol. II
Jen Wilkin, Ten Words To Live By
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Thomas Chatterton Williams, Unlearning Race: Self-Portrait in Black and White
Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the Modern World
Mike Betts, The Prayers of Many
Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
Isaac Adams, Training: How Do I Grow as a Christian?
Sharon Dickens, Character: How Do I Change?
Garrett Kell, Church: Do I Have to Go?
Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Roy Hattersley, John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning
Peter Mead, The Little Him Book
Jack Deere, Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit
Jeremy Bentham, Short Review of the Declaration
Justin Bass, The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Historical Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
Mark Greengrass, Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648
Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments
Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees
Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote
Mez McConnell, The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse
Jesse Norman, Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why it Matters
Rachel Jankovic, You Who: Why You Matter and How to Deal With It
*C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
Peter Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Practical Law of Liberty
Patrick Schreiner, The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine
James Chelsum, Remarks on the Two Last Chapters of Mr Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Richard Watson, An Apology for Christianity in a Series of Letters Addressed to Edward Gibbon Esq
Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, A Call to Act
A. J. Culp, Invited to Know God: The Book of Deuteronomy
The Declaration of Independence, With Short Biographers of its Signers
Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming: The War for America, 1775-1777
Jennie Pollock, If Only: Finding Joyful Contentment in the Face of Lack and Longing
John Lennox, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World?
Thomas Paine, American Crisis No 1
Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook
J. D. Greear, Searching for Christmas
Peter Ackroyd, Revolution: The History of England, Volume IV
John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ
Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
David McCullough, 1776: America and Britain at War
Robert Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life
PJ Smyth, Elders: Developing Potential Elders and Revitalising Existing Elders
*George Orwell, Animal Farm
Philipp Blom, Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendships in Pre-Revolutionary Paris
*Jeffrey Archer, A Matter of Honour
Roger Osborne, Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
F. Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary
Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way)
Bruno Maçães, History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America
Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics
*Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power
*C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
*D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers
Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success
Vic Gatrell, The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age
David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit
Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography
Roger Osborne, Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy
1776: A London Chronicle
*C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
*Peter Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns
Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Lucy Atkins, Magpie Lane
Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution
Gerald Bray, Preaching the Word with John Chrysostom
Peter Leithart, The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes, Vol. I
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair
Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy
Rico Tice, Faithful Leaders and the Things That Matter Most
Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
Carl Laferton and Catalina Echeverri, The God Contest
William Rowe, China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing
*Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
Margaret Jacob, The Secular Enlightenment
Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow
Gene Veith, Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture
*Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years
*John Houghton, Hagbane’s Doom
David Scott, Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power
C. S. Lewis, Spirits in Bondage
Jerry White, London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing
Ed Shaw, Purposeful Sexuality
Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God

A Parable image

A Parable

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Twenty years ago, on a trip to South Africa, I picked up a copy of Noel Mostert’s ‘Frontiers’. This tells the tragic story of the ‘kaffir wars’ in which first the Dutch settlers and then the British Empire subjugated the Xhosa people.

Central to the final decimation of the Xhosa was their own national suicide. As a pastoral people the Xhosa’s wealth and survival depended on their herds of cattle but in response to a prophecy they began to slaughter them. The prophecy proclaimed that doing this would lead to national resurrection and the invaders being hurled back into the sea. It was clearly a form of collective madness but was seized on with fervour and any who resisted the narrative – the Unbelievers – were compelled to comply.

Mostert writes,

It would be hard to convey the terrible emotional struggle that the killing imposed. There were sufficient doubts even among the most energetic killers of cattle to create great mental disturbance. There must have been intense regret as one looked at a favourite ox, the winner perhaps of many splendid races, at beloved milking cows, and painful alarm at the sight of the whole herd grazing about the kraal of a deceased chief – meant to die a natural death – all to be sacrificed in faith. It must have been particularly terrifying to contemplate at that marvellous hour, milking time, when the boys went out to their allotted cows, when the swift, purple dusk flickered with numerous fires and the singing that accompanied the hour grew steadily more harmonious and cheerful, anticipatory, as all awaited the evening meal, and then knowing that once carried through to the end there would be an evening when no cows came home, no one went to milk, the milk sacks were empty and all would be waiting, silent, hungry, songless. Not difficult therefore to understand the hesitations, the stopping and starting that marked the initial pace of the cattle killing. Nevertheless it continued and those who seriously believed and killed saw those who failed to do as enemies who compromised their own sacrifice and belief.

The result? Not resurrection, but starvation, death and the defeat of a nation.

Strange how these things can happen.

 

Sprained or Broken image

Sprained or Broken

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Out for a run in the woods the other day Grace tripped over a root hidden in leaves and fell.

Many is the time I’ve tripped over tree roots when running. Get up quickly, hope it hasn’t been witnessed – so embarrassing – smear blood off battered knees, stretch out, walk it off.

I ran home to get the car while Grace ‘walked it off’. I reckoned it was bruised ligaments. She reckoned it was like the pain of childbirth. Eventually I took her to hospital, and yes, broken not sprained. In a boot through to the new year.

Without proper analysis it can be hard to discern what is going on. Paul’s instruction to warn the idle, encourage the disheartened and help the weak (1 Thess. 5:14) is like this. Someone is displaying a lot of pain or weakness – what is the correct diagnosis? Are they weak (broken)? Are they discouraged (sprained)? Or lazy (and in need of being stretched)?

The thing is, the symptoms of these three conditions can look quite similar. People in any of the categories might look like they come under our contemporary catch-all of ‘depressed’,  but a wrong diagnosis can have very unhelpful results. The idle, disruptive person will become more lazy if we only speak comforting, encouraging, words to them. The disheartened person isn’t going to be helped if we simply tell them to pull themselves together. The weak person isn’t helped if we tell them they will be able to carry a load – to walk it off – if they just put their mind to it.

At the moment there are a lot of people who look depressed. Many of them actually are. We’ve seen the lockdown stats: the rise in loneliness, suicide, domestic violence and so on. But others have become discouraged by the stupor-inducing climate. Lethargy has taken over while action is possible. And there are others who have actively embraced the easily provided excuse of dialling out and not bothering because they are fundamentally lazy.

Paul makes it clear to the Thessalonians that we all have a responsibility to correctly diagnose and treat one another’s injuries. The instruction to ‘warn, encourage, help’ is to the congregation at large, not only the pastors. So do some diagnosis. Ask some questions. Get a second opinion. Take a spiritual x-ray. And then help – in a way that has the potential to heal and not make things worse.

Made for Friendship image

Made for Friendship

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I have an oddly vivid memory from my teenage years of learning that God wasn’t my friend. The revelation came when I heard that a church elder had declared the song ‘Draw Me Close to You’ to be ridiculous because of the line ‘I lay it all down again, to hear you say that I’m your friend.’  

As time when on I became more and more suspicious of this judgement—I found that James said Abraham was a friend of God (James 2:23), and actually, he wasn’t the first to say that (2 Chron. 20:7), indeed God himself had said it (Isa. 41:8). Now, I’m prepared to admit that I’m far from being Abraham, but it made me realise that perhaps the idea of being God’s friend isn’t so crazy after all. Then I discovered that Jesus calls his followers friends (John 15:15). Maybe God was my friend.

Over the same period of time, I was beginning to realise how important friendship is. I was facing the reality of being same-sex attracted and the likelihood that I would be single for the rest of my life. As I thought about what my life would be like and took my first steps into adulthood and independence, I came to experience how important friends would be. They wouldn’t be an optional extra or a luxury; they would be vital, a context in which I could experience and express love and family even while being single.

Both these things were happening over the same period of time, and yet I don’t think I ever saw the connection between the two. To be honest, even a few years later, I still don’t think those two realisations were much closer in my mind. That’s why I’m so grateful for Drew Hunter’s Made for Friendship: The Relationship That Halves Our Sorrows and Doubles Our Joys (Crossway, 2018). Drew helps us see that friendship is vital for human flourishing—whether we’re married or single—and that true human friendship flows from friendship with God.

‘The greatest power for becoming a better friend is being befriended by the best Friend’ (p.15).

Friendship with Each Other

Drew starts by helping us see why we need to think about friendship. True friendship is something we have largely forgotten about and the way we live modern life makes cultivating true friends very difficult. In this, we’re going against the grain of how past generations of Christians have viewed friendship and we’re ignoring clear evidence about the importance of friendship—we now know how dangerous loneliness is to human health. And the importance of friendship shouldn’t surprise us, because friendship is part of God’s plan for us in creation, in fact, it’s a part which is highlighted in Genesis 2. We’ve often treated friendship as an optional extra, but ‘what if friendship is more like oil to a car’s engine that leather on its seats?’ (p.39).

Drew goes on to outline the six great joys of true friendship and what the Bible says about true friendship. Many of us, as Drew confesses of himself, will find that this beautiful vision makes us acutely aware of how poor a friend we are and how few true friends we have. Thankfully, he also includes a chapter with practical wisdom on how we can cultivate friendships.

Friendship with God

If Made for Friendship stopped at this point, it would already be well worth reading. But Drew goes one step further. He shows us that to cultivate real friendships, we need to know the deepest meaning of friendship.

‘What if we found out that friendship is the meaning of the universe, and that God, as a great Friend, is restoring true friendship to the world? What if we could view all our feeble attempts at cultivating friendships as little echoes of a more glorious reality?’ (p.116).

Drew gives a concise, but stunning, biblical theology of friendship. Starting with Eden, God’s plan for our friendship with him and our rejection of that friendship, Drew traces God’s determined plan to befriend us again, starting with key friends in the Old Testament (Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses) and then climaxing in the one who gives his life as the ultimate act of friendship, so that we might be restored to friendship with God, might thereby enter into deep friendship with others, and ultimately might spend eternity with our friends and the everlasting Friend.

‘In short: God walked with us in friendship. We walked away. And now he’s befriending us again’ (p.122).

The final chapter opens up before us the true beauty of the great friend, the friend of sinners. Drew gives the best answer I’ve come across to the question of whether it’s even appropriate to speak of God as a friend, shows us some of the greatness of this great friend, and shares wisdom on how we can cultivate friendship with him.

The Beauty of Friendship

There’s something really quite beautiful about Made for Friendship. This is of course true of the content, but it’s also true of the way Drew has communicated that content. It is a model of how to call people to something by highlighting its beauty.

This could easily have been a book that went on about how badly we do friendship, citing the ways and reasons that so much of what we call friendship isn’t really friendship, throwing accusations at technology and social media for the harm they have done. But that’s not the main thrust of Made for Friendship. Instead, Drew focuses on what he’s for rather than what he’s against. He helps us to see the beauty of what we could have, rather than the mess of what many of us are currently choosing. He makes us want what he says to be true and want to experience it as true. Those of us who get to preach and write can learn from this.

Made for Friendship will probably make you realise your failings as a friend—it’s a challenging read. It will also help you see how you can do better—it’s an equipping read. And, most wonderfully, it will help you see that you have been made for friendship, not only with others, but with the great friend, the one who pursues you in friendship—it’s a heartwarmingly edifying read!

Beautiful Difference: The Complementarity of Male and Female image

Beautiful Difference: The Complementarity of Male and Female

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In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and empty (tohu wa’bohu), and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God separated the light from the darkness, the day from the night, the waters above from the waters beneath, the sea from the land. He distinguished between the sun and the moon, fish and birds, livestock and creeping things and wild animals. As he breathed his life into human beings who bear his image, he differentiated between male and female. He marked off the days of work from the day of rest, Cain from Abel, the holy from the common. God’s work of creation is, among other things, a series of distinctions that bring order to what is formless (tohu), and life to what is empty (bohu). The Jewish Havdalah prayer which ends the Sabbath puts it like this: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who distinguishes between sacred and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the other nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labour.”

Complementarity—“a relationship or situation in which two or more different things improve or emphasize each other’s qualities”—is written into creation. There is a fit, a mutual enhancement, a beautiful difference, at the heart of what God has made. The cosmos is made up of all kinds of complementary pairs, with male and female serving as a paradigmatic example: that is why cosmological complementarity is reflected in some human languages (der Tag / die Nacht, le ciel / la terre, el sol / la luna, and so on). The Jewish-Christian vision of sexual complementarity, as such, reflects our vision of cosmological complementarity—and ultimately, behind it, the beautiful difference of Creator and Creation, God and Israel, Christ and Church, Lamb and Bride.

Complementarity is thus markedly different from two other ways of thinking about the relations of created things. On the one hand, Jews and Christians do not believe that male and female are identical. We are not exactly the same, any more than are heaven and earth, or day and night. Genesis 1 is a story of order and life coming through separation, distinction, two-ism rather than one-ism. When the distinctions collapse, there is no life. Life comes through beautiful difference: when the heavens interact with the earth, in the form of sun and rain and soil, you get plants and animals, whereas identical pairs are as barren as a cave (earth above and earth beneath) or Jupiter (sky above and sky beneath). Given the connections between sexual and cosmological complementarity, it is not surprising that abolishing the distinction between heaven and earth is connected to abolishing the distinction between male and female.

A comic example is provided by the contrast between the Jewish Jesus, reflected in the four Gospels, and the Gnostic Jesus we find the Gospel of Thomas. The real Jesus is clear in his response to the Pharisees’ question on divorce: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Matt 19:4). The Gnostic Jesus sounds as flowery and incoherent in his blurring of distinctions as his modern counterparts do: “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside and the above like the below—that is, to make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female will not be female—and when you make eyes instead of an eye and a hand instead of a hand and a foot instead of a foot, an image instead of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom]” (Thom 22). Without distinctions, creation collapses into a squishy mess. Complementarity is not identity.

On the other hand, nor do Jews and Christians believe in the alterity of male and female, as if we are thoroughly different sorts of beings. We are not wholly same, but neither are we wholly other—and we must be careful that in our bid to ensure that sex distinctions are not erased, we do not cause them to be exaggerated. Men and women bear the image of God together, and our identity is far more fundamentally defined by our humanity than our sex. We are humans first, males or females second, and in Christ, the divisions that do exist within our shared humanity come crashing down: Jews are reconciled with Gentiles, masters serve their slaves, and male and female are united in Christ and made heirs together of the gift of life.

For a number of philosophers, both ancient and modern, the differences between male and female do not express complementarity and harmony, but otherness and conflict. Men and women are destined to strive with one another for mastery, not just at an individual level, but within civilisations as a whole: Western thought is male, linear, climactic and ordered, and involves imposing power over creation, while Eastern thought is female, curved, cyclical and chaotic, and involves surrendering to creation. This might sound familiar, even Christian, to some of us. But if we look closer we can see that it is not one of complementarity but of alterity: of absolute difference, or otherness. It is framed in terms of conflict, triumph, competition, opposition, rivalry, even violence. There is no peace between heaven and earth, or between male and female. There is no love.

In the pagan vision of identity, there is union without distinction; in the deist vision of alterity, there is distinction without union. But in the Christian vision of complementarity, there is union and distinction, same and other, many and one. In Christianity, male and female bear the image of God together, with neither male nor female able to fully express it without the other, and the clear distinctions that exist within creation are ultimately reconciled within the life of the Triune God (in whom we find identity and alterity, sameness and otherness, one and three) and in the incarnation (in which heaven meets earth and Word becomes flesh).

Before the world is created, we do not have primordial strife and violence, but perichoretic peace and joy within the Trinity. Our future hope is one in which heaven and earth come together, with the glory of the one transforming the other (which is why most of the pairs of Genesis 1 find themselves transcended in Revelation 21: there is no moon, no need for the sun, no sea, no darkness, no sexual intercourse, and heaven and earth are beautifully married.) The final destiny of the cosmos, and the marriage of Christ and the Church, reflect neither conflict nor collapse but complementarity, as the glory of the one permeates and suffuses the other. Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!

Complementarity and Creation

Given this theological framework, it should not be surprising that men and women are strikingly different in all sorts of ways that transcend cultural variations. Not only do these differences not disappear in purportedly sex-neutral societies; there is evidence to suggest that some of them actually increase, as people are freed to do what they actually want to do.  (To take one widely reported example, differences in mental rotation between men and women are higher in countries with greater sexual equality.)  The bell curves for men and women are centred in different places, and not just for obvious physical traits (height, strength, hair, and so on), but also for hormonal, psychological and interpersonal ones.

Men are typically more aggressive, competitive, fearless, likely to take risks, promiscuous and prone to violence than women, and testosterone is aligned with higher levels of confidence, sex drive and status assertion.  Women are, on average, more prone to neuroticism and agreeableness than men.  Consequently, men are generally clustered at the upper and lower extremes of society: men are not just more likely to be very rich or very powerful (which prompts all sorts of public debate), but also far more likely to be criminals, killers, homeless, excluded or imprisoned (which doesn’t).

Male groups are more characterised by sparring, fighting, power structures and banter, while female groups are typically smaller, more indirect in confrontation, egalitarian in structure, verbally dextrous, and oriented around people rather than things. Gendered trends can be noticed before children are particularly aware of which sex they are (to take a tragic example, 40 of 43 serious shootings by toddlers in 2015 were by boys), and even in our closest animal relatives (the male preference for trucks over dolls extends to rhesus and vervet monkeys).  Julia Turner, the editor of Slate, commented recently that the boyishness of her twin sons had provided a significant challenge to her commitment to gender as a social construct, offering the fascinating remark that despite her egalitarian bona fides, “There’s a there there.”  To which ethicist Christina Hoff Sommers mischievously responded in The Federalist: “Indeed there is. And it takes a liberal arts degree not to see it.”

I mention all this not to validate any or all of these differences as if science somehow renders them virtuous, let alone to excuse the male propensity to promiscuity and violence. I mention it for four reasons. One: complementarity appears to be hardwired into us as human beings, even from the perspective of mainstream secular scientific and sociological research. The vast majority of human societies have known this intuitively, but in a culture like ours, where most of us have never fought for our homeland, died in childbirth, gone down the mines or settled a frontier, it has become forgotten. Facts, however, are stubborn things. Two: there is an interesting correspondence between many of these traits and the sorts of things we would expect to find if Genesis 1-4 was true, and the man (adamah = “earth”) had been given the task of guarding the garden against attack, and the woman (havah = “life”) had been identified as the mother of all living. Three: at a pastoral level, it can be reassuring to hear that we are not imagining it when we observe, as we all do, that men and women are generally predisposed to different sorts of sins or weaknesses (#MeToo #ToxicMasculinity #HeForShe etc), and disciple people accordingly.

And four: it also sheds interesting light on the (very obvious) biological differences between men and women, and their significance. Imagine an alien visiting earth, and discovering that one sex was taller, stronger and hairier than the other, with sexual organs which were external and faced outwards, while the smaller partner’s sexual organs were internal, and served as the location of both sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Then imagine them discovering that, generally speaking, one was better at forming relationships, holding small groups together and working with people, while the other was more suited to external agency, risk-taking and working with things. Finally, imagine them being introduced to biblical categories for describing the sexes: towers and cities, warriors and gardens, priests and temples, the blood-spattered groom and the pure spotless bride. Which would our alien think was which?

Complementarity and Family

Christians are called to express the complementarity of male and female in this present age. This is not just a matter of obedience to specific biblical instructions—although that should be enough!—but as a way of putting beautiful difference on display for a world that needs to see it and rarely does. So when the world asks, “What do you mean when you say that God is neither distant from us (like Islam says) nor collapsible into us (like paganism says)?”, the relationship between men and women is our go-to illustration. And the primary context in which it is displayed is the family.

The most obvious form of this is marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32). In marriage, husbands and wives play the parts of Christ and the church, demonstrating what love, fidelity, difference, union, sacrificial leadership and mutual service look like in practice. The husband should love his wife as a head loves its body and Christ loves the church: by giving himself up for her, sanctifying her with the water of the word, and presenting her in splendour. (It is significant that Paul pictures the husband as engaged in traditionally feminine tasks like washing, cleaning and ironing here: Paul is knowingly and deliberately subverting the Greco-Roman picture of what male headship looks like.) The wife, correspondingly, should submit to and respect her husband as the church submits to Christ.

Is the submission one-way here, or are husbands and wives called to submit to one another? Paul has just described the Spirit-filled church as a place of “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21); he then unpacks that description for a standard ancient household, applying it to husbands and wives, fathers and children, and slaves and masters. Does the mutuality of submission (5:21) override any differences in the way that submission is expressed (5:22-6:9)? Or does Paul mean that only wives, children and slaves are to submit (to husbands, fathers and masters, respectively)?

The answer, in all probability, is neither of these: wives and husbands are called to submit to each other—as indeed are parents and children, masters and slaves—but not in identical ways. Christ and the church serve each other, but we do not do so in the same fashion: Christ serves us by dying and rising to rescue us, and we serve him by responding in faith to his leadership. (Both of us offer ourselves as a sacrifice for the other, of course, but in very different ways; if we were to conflate the two then the entire gospel would unravel.) Tom Wright puts it well: “Paul assumes, as do most cultures, that there are significant differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond mere biological and reproductive function. Their relations and roles must therefore be mutually complementary, rather than identical. Equality in voting rights, and in employment opportunities and remuneration (which is still not a reality in many places), should not be taken to imply such identity. And, within marriage, the guideline is clear. The husband is to take the lead—though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as ‘taking the lead’ becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.”

However, we would be mistaken to think that complementarity is limited to marriage. If it were, then anyone who is single, bereaved, divorced or abandoned would be unable to fully reflect what femaleness or maleness are. (The fact that a significant number of such people in our churches feel that way is an indication that we have some work to do here). In Scripture, however, male and female go all the way down: mothers are different from fathers, brothers are different from sisters, grandmothers are different from grandfathers, and so on. I have an obligation to protect my mother and my sisters in a way that does not extend to my father or my brother. Yet this does not imply that I am in authority over them, or that I make decisions for them, or that they cannot be in authority over me. (My little sister runs an Accident and Emergency department in a London hospital. If our children have an accident, I do every single thing she says, no questions asked.)

Paul’s instructions to Timothy, likewise, assume sexual differentiation in his interactions with people in the family of God: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:1-2). So with my relatives, in my church family, in the workplace, and even on social media, I am to interact with older women specifically as mothers, and with older men specifically as fathers, not as gender-neutral units or sexless atomised workers. (This principle will apply differently in different contexts, of course; in the West I would happily have my sister as a manager, authority figure or even Head of State, while in Yemen I might be cautious about eating in public with her.) Similarly, the way I interact with single men who live with our family is different in important ways from the way I interact with single women. And in case it needs saying, if we limit the scope of “treat younger women as sisters” to “just make sure you don’t have sex with them”, we miss Paul’s meaning here by a country mile.

Complementarity and the Church

When we turn to the church, it is remarkably easy to forget this wider canvas of theology and anthropology, and get lost in the exegetical weeds over the meaning of hupotassō or authenteō or whatever it is. All of us, in the end, have to come to conclusions about the meaning of specific texts, and the way in which we will apply them in the local church. But the case for male eldership does not start there. It starts from the twin observations a) that elders are fundamentally guardians of the church, and b) that in every phase of redemptive history—from the garden to the tabernacle, to the temple, to the ministry of Jesus, to the New Testament church, and on into the eschaton—the individual(s) charged with guarding the people of God and protecting her from harm have been men.

It is widely accepted that the New Testament terms elders, shepherds and overseers are largely interchangeable (Acts 20:17-38; Tit 1:5-9; 1 Pet 5:1-4), and each of those terms evokes the responsibility of serving the church by protecting and guarding her from harm. Elders, biblically speaking, are guardians. Take each of these biblical words in turn.

The primary reason a shepherd (or “pastor”) exists is to protect the sheep from harm. Yes, he leads them into new pastures, and prepares food and water for them, but the primary reason you employ a shepherd in the ancient world, rather than allowing the sheep to wander freely, is for protection: from injury, robbers, dispersal, wolves, and other wild animals. This comes through clearly in the key New Testament texts, in which shepherds lay down their lives for the sheep, and watch over the flock of God, whom he bought with his own blood; it also builds on the Old Testament imagery, in which shepherds, like David, are those who kill lions and bears in defence of their flocks, hold rods and staffs to guard them, and are called to protect their sheep rather than eat them. Shepherding spiritually, as physically, involves both protecting weak or injured sheep, and guarding the whole flock from enemies who would attack them.

The English word “overseer” is a very literal translation of episkopos, and is certainly preferable to “bishop” given the resonances that word has, but it still conjures up images of call centre supervisors, or at least a more managerial role. In Koine Greek, however, it had the sense of “guardian.”  It may have been heard more like Ezekiel’s skopos (= watchman), which is how Calvin read it: elders are the “faithful watchmen” who “watch and take care of the flock, while other men sleep.”  The language here is of being a lookout more than a line manager, a sentry more than a supervisor. The overseer’s role, of course, was the preservation of sound doctrine in the church, and this is what led to the distinction between bishops and elders in the late first century.

The same is true, perhaps surprisingly, of elders. Greg Beale makes the point that the purpose of elders in the New Testament is to preserve the church during the eschatological tribulation.  The period between Pentecost and parousia is marked by deception, false teaching, persecution and suffering, and the requirements for elders in the Pastorals should be seen against this backdrop: the guarding of the church so that she is not destroyed. To these references Beale adds not just Acts 20, as we have seen, but also Paul’s first apostolic journey, in which he and Barnabas teach the disciples that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (14:22), and then immediately appoint elders in every church (14:23), as if this (eldership) is the solution to the problem (tribulations). Throughout church history there have been persecutions in which bishops/presbyters/elders have died on behalf of the churches they serve. The same dynamic exists today—it is the elders who have been arrested in East Ukraine, for example—as hostile authorities target church leaders rather than congregations. (Gregory the Great put it beautifully in the sixth century, commenting on Paul’s statement that aspiring to oversight was a noble thing: “Nevertheless it is to be noted that this was said at a time when whoever was set over people was usually the first to be led to the torments of martyrdom.” ) To the three Ds that many of us have used to summarise the responsibilities of eldership—doctrine, discipline, direction—we should perhaps add a fourth: death.

Taking these three words together leads to a clear conclusion: elders are guardians. And no sooner have we noticed that, than we notice that in every period of biblical history, those charged with defending and protecting the people and/or the sanctuary of God are men rather than women, fathers rather than mothers.

Adam is put in the garden “to serve it and guard it” (Gen 2:15; the same pair of verbs is used of the Levites in Num 3:7-8; 18:7). Consequently, when the fall happens, it is his responsibility, and it is Adam rather than Eve in whom we all die. The patriarchs, obviously, are all men. The Levitical priests, charged with the protection of the sanctuary and by extension the entire nation of Israel, are all men, and men of violence at that—they spend their days killing animals, and are first ordained for priestly service because they had sufficient zeal for Yahweh to kill their fellow Israelites (Ex 32:25-29). This remains true through the period of the first temple, when there is a male priesthood operating alongside a male monarchy in Judah (Athaliah is never called a “queen” or given any legitimacy by the writer, and as such is the exception that proves the rule). It remains true through the second temple period, right up until the days of Zechariah and John the Baptist. Jesus calls twelve apostles who are all men, and gives them the responsibility of binding and loosing, teaching and governing the worldwide church. The qualifications for overseers in the New Testament church, the elder-shepherd-watchmen commissioned with protecting the church from wolves and false shepherds, are directed to men. And the Bible ends with a female city—which includes the entire people of God, whichever sex we are—being rescued by and finally married to a male Saviour, with the walls of the city and their foundations being named for male apostles and male patriarchs.

Because the eldership qualifications form part of this much larger biblical pattern, it is no surprise to find that overseers are assumed to be men, and in fact required to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2). This is hardly a sex-neutral requirement; the church is a family which has, and desperately needs, both fathers and mothers (e.g. 5:1-2), and this is a strong indication that Paul sees overseers as fathers. So is the requirement to lead his household well and keep his children submissive (3:4). So is the requirement to be able to teach (3:2), given that Paul has just restricted women from doing this (2:12; the fact that there is plentiful debate about what exactly he meant by this should not prevent us from seeing the obvious connection here). So is the fact that Paul, after giving the qualifications for overseers and deacons, gives qualifications for “women” (3:11); whether we see this as a reference to women who serve as deacons (as I do) or the wives of deacons (like some interpreters), it clearly distinguishes between “overseers,” “deacons” and “women/wives,” making it almost impossible for Paul to have considered the latter to be a subset of the former. As such, even egalitarian commentators often agree that these requirements “present the overseer as a husband and father” (Towner), and that “Paul refers to the bishop throughout as a man” (Wright). In this text, at least, eldership is not sex-neutral.

Occasionally the case is made that overseers/elders have to be men in this particular church, but not in others, because the heresy afflicting the church is coming through wealthy and influential women. Quite apart from the fact that the only named false teachers in Ephesus are men (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17), this argument ignores the fact that the same requirement is applied to elders in an island several hundred miles away: “if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Tit 1:6). Paul’s eldership qualifications are not limited to a specific situation in Ephesus; they are virtually identical in Crete, and presumably everywhere else. Elders—like Adam, the Levitical priests, Israel’s kings, the Twelve, and everyone charged with protecting the people of God from harm in Scripture—are men.

On the other hand, there is another way of telling the biblical story, which needs to be emphasised as well. Christ is identified as the seed of the woman, long before he is referred to as the seed of a man (Gen 3:15). Eve, far from being inferior to Adam (in Scripture the word ezer, or “helper”, is most commonly applied to God himself), is actually the one whose faith is associated with that promise coming to pass (Gen 4:1, 25).  Women in the patriarchal period hear from and talk to God, and frequently outmanoeuvre their foolish husbands, sons or both (Sarai, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel). A slave woman is the first and only person in Scripture to name God (Gen 16:13).

Numerous stories of redemption in the Bible begin with women—Eve, Hagar, Leah, Shiphrah and Puah, Miriam, Samson’s mother, Ruth, Hannah, Esther, Elizabeth, Mary—while Israel is being oppressed by foolish or evil men. Women judge Israel (Deborah) and win military victories (Jael). Women save their husbands (Abigail), their children (Jochebed), their city (the Tekoite woman) and their nation (Esther). Women prophesy (Huldah, Philip’s daughters), compose psalms and songs which appear in Scripture (Hannah, Mary), explain the word of God to men (Priscilla), host churches (Chloe), run businesses (Lydia), serve as deacons and patrons (Phoebe), co-labour with Paul in the gospel (Euodia, Syntyche), and are identified as apostles (Junia).  And if there is a greater responsibility in human history than carrying the Messiah in your womb, I would like to hear about it.

In each of these cases, the women in question serve God’s people specifically as women. Many are described as mothers, sisters, or daughters. There is no blurring of the sexes in these stories, as if men and women are interchangeable in the parts they play (“women can do anything men can do”). Sometimes Galatians 3:28 is given this sort of spin, as if it was essentially a good statement of second wave feminism avant la lettre. But Paul is not blurring the distinction between the sexes here, or even making a point about leadership offices in the church; he is insisting that all of us are equally children of God on the basis of faith, regardless of sex, ethnicity or social status. Interestingly, the very next chapter is among the most sexed passages in all of Paul (sons, father, Son, born of woman, Abba Father, in the anguish of childbirth, slave woman, free woman, the Jerusalem above is our mother, etc), revealing the extent to which biological sex still matters, even as it doesn’t in any way impinge on our status as justified, baptised, adopted children of God.

Rather, the power of these examples lies in the fact that women can do all sorts of things that men can’t or don’t do, and vice versa. As such, the women of Scripture debunk not just the identity of men and women (as if there are no sex distinctions at all), but also the alterity of men and women (as if men are doing all the important things and women are essentially passive observers). They present us with a vision of genuine complementarity in which men need women, and women need men, and the image of God is expressed as both serve together. Remove either, or diminish the value of either, and we are all impoverished. The church is a family, and we will only flourish to the extent that we value, honour and esteem both mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.

True complementarity, then, is actually the basis for equipping and releasing women into ministry, rather than (as it has often become) an obstacle to it. Romans 16 is a great provocation here: it is hard to imagine a young woman in the church in Rome lamenting the lack of female role models in Christian service. She could look at Phoebe, a deacon who is a patron of many; Prisca, who risked her neck for Paul’s life, and co-host of a house church; Mary, “who has worked hard for you”; Junia, a fellow prisoner of Paul’s and noteworthy among the apostles; Tryphaena and Tryphosa, workers in the Lord; Rufus’s mother, “who has been a mother to me as well”; and several others. Women comprise nearly half of the named individuals in this chapter. One of the downsides of championing eldership while (often) failing to appoint or recognise deacons—and there are several—is that of implying that serious Christian ministry, and the vast majority of our leadership development opportunities, formal ministry roles and salaries, are basically for men. If we do this while making all our major decisions in male only groups, and keeping gifted women at a distance out of concern for purity and/or collegiality in our teams, we can end up replacing the glorious complementarity of Romans 16 with a jobs-for-the-boys environment in which women can serve as kids workers or backing singers, but not much else. We need to do better.

Three contextual factors in particular have made this more difficult for us. One is the cultural milieu of North American evangelicalism, in which (for better or worse) most of our theological influencers are situated. Both the conservative idyll of the 1950s and the progressive idyll of the 1960s loom larger in the US than elsewhere, and the discussion about men and women in the church has become intertwined with all sorts of other conversations about tradition, social change, order, race relations, sexuality, guns, abortion, economics and politics. The last three decades have seen two multiauthor volumes on the subject from opposite sides, both deeply rooted in the American intramural debate; I doubt I am unique in finding myself disagreeing with much of the exegesis of one, and disagreeing with much of the application of the other. (Nor, I suspect, am I unique in finding it amusing that one was published in blue and the other in peach.) That cultural context, in which the question of who serves as an elder is connected to questions about who speaks publicly in a church meeting, who makes decisions, who administers the sacraments and even who drives the family car, simply does not translate well into other parts of the world. At times, it has made us so concerned to stand our ground against the cultural tide that we have overcorrected and found ourselves in extrabiblical (or even unbiblical) territory: reading post-war middle America into the New Testament, demeaning our sisters, dismissing those who disagree with us as liberals, and defending heterodox views of the Trinity.

Another complication, especially in the West, is the tendency to see and organise the church in increasingly corporate rather than familial terms. In a family, everyone knows that both mothers and fathers have vital roles to play in leading together, and at the same time that there are some things which Mum does and some things which Dad does. In many cultures it is common for a family to be headed by a husband/father who is ultimately responsible for the protection of the home, yet for the vast majority of decisions to be made by a wife/mother.  In a business or corporate environment, however, esteem and honour are not attributed that way: they come through position, line management, public profile, financial oversight, formal authority and salary. So if, despite our theology, the church actually functions more like a corporation than a family—and there are all sorts of reasons why that may creep in—it is easy to see how our practice of complementarity could be reduced to who is called what, sits where, speaks when, manages whom and is paid how much.

This is what makes it so crucial that we practise what we preach on the church as family. To deny that woman can be elders will sound like the equivalent of denying that women can be CEOs, but it is more like the equivalent of denying that women can be fathers, and that men can be mothers. But for that to be grounded in reality, it is vital that the church is not just said to be a family, but seen to be a family; that we recognise fathers and mothers and honour and revere them as such, rather than (as can easily happen) operating with a fundamentally corporate model in which women are simply excluded from all the key positions or discussions. Application on this point will obviously vary widely according to culture, context, church size, ways of expressing family, and so on—and it will require the wisdom of both men and women to establish best practice!—but my guess is that it is an area on which those of us in the West have much to learn from our Majority World brothers and sisters.

It may even be an opportunity for beautiful difference.