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Face to Face

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How much are we going to come to regret the phrase ‘social distancing’?

That, on my early morning dog walk, I pass other dog walkers at a safe distance is appropriate but it is getting weird how guilty and furtive many people look. One of the unwritten rules of British social etiquette is that dog walkers greet one another. Now they scurry by, faces to the floor, avoiding any kind of engagement: as if even looking at another human being might cause them to catch or spread the virus.

I worry that once things are ‘back to normal’ (and how hollow that phrase is beginning to sound) we will have developed habits of social distancing that are hard to break.

Isaiah says,

The ruined city lies desolate; the entrance to every house is barred. In the streets they cry out for wine; all joy turns to gloom, all joyful sounds are banished from the earth (Isaiah 24:10-11).

Other than being in the streets crying for wine – though I suspect that is happening inside many houses – Isaiah gives an accurate description of our current state. 

I keep having Zoom conversations with people in which we describe how exhausted we are feeling from too many Zoom conversations. Being online is tiring. I’m grateful for the technology, and already weary of it.

In our online service last Sunday I was speaking from 1 Peter 5. “Greet one another,” says Peter, “with a kiss of love.” That is a biblical command we cannot obey at present. I can’t kiss, hug, or handshake my friends and family via Zoom. Online we can have a simulacrum of reality but it is far from being the real thing.

This is why how we approach things like online services and online sacraments really does matter. I know some of my friends are taking communion online and it’s not an issue that I’m going to die for (though the fact that I have brothers and sisters who have died over the correct administration of the sacraments is enough to make me approach the matter with real seriousness and caution); but I want to develop good habits now, not embrace ones that train us to be socially distant.

Today is my twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. I’m glad I can see Grace face to face today. I’m glad we’re not reduced to Zoom. I want to experience social intimacy, not distance. I don’t want a simulacrum – I want the real thing.

So I’m calling my fellow dog walkers out! I’m not letting them scurry by but calling out ‘Hello’. I’m seizing opportunities to pause and share a few words. I’m trying to cultivate habits that will be healthy in the long run – for me, and my neighbourhood.

I’m committing to face to face.

 

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John Wesley and Online Church

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We are living through times that will go down in Church History as the revolutionary moment when church services all across the Western world went online. It is a revolution that was many years in the making (larger, tech-savvy churches have been running online services for the best part of a decade) but this feels like the 'Storming of the Bastille' moment, when online church is suddenly moving from the niche to the mainstream. As thoughtful Christians, therefore, how ought we to respond to what perhaps represents the biggest mass movement of Christians from one place to another since the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes catapulted the Huguenots out of France in 1685?

Cards on the table. I lead a church that has held online services for the past five years. During that time, there is barely a theological objection to online church that I have not had thrust in my face by its critics, so I have become rather used to ignoring them. However, there really

    are

some serious questions raised by online church which I believe we need to grapple with together in this coronavirus season. My friend Matt Hosier argues that “To claim that online church is really church is as silly as claiming that watching Bake Off is the same as making and eating a cake.” So do we believe that, or do we not? If we believe it, then we need to be very careful over what terminology we use during this strange season for fear of changing our theology of church on the fly. The triumph of pragmatism over inner doubt has rarely been good news throughout Church History, which is one of the reasons why the Apostle Paul warns us in Romans 14:23 that “The person who doubts is condemned by his actions, because … everything that does not come from faith is sin.” On the other hand, if we truly believe that online church can be genuine church, then we can see this as one of the most important lessons that God is wanting to teach us about the nature of church during this coronavirus crisis.

In the early days of leading online church services, I was like a travelling salesman for Online Church, quick to trumpet its advantages and slow to admit any of its flaws. But its flaws are real.

Flaw #1 is that we are embodied people. Genuine relationships require genuine physical interaction. That’s why we find ourselves missing our loved ones, even at the very moment that we are Skyping and FaceTiming with them! It doesn’t matter how much we remind ourselves that our technology is wonderful – we still know that a certain something is lacking in our interactions with one another!

Flaw #2 is that the Christian sacraments are physical. When the Reformers broke away from the mainstream Church during the Reformation, they agreed on a definition of what Church is, and what it isn’t. The seventh article of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 defined the true Church as any place where “the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.” But how can we baptise people online? How can we share bread and wine with one another online? These are the kinds of questions that church leaders need to ask urgently right now, because if we haven’t got an answer to those questions then we haven’t got church at all.

Flaw #3 is that Online Church can foster inauthenticity and a lack of accountability. Christian fellowship, by definition, requires transparency. We are told in 1 John 1:7 that it is all about walking in the light with one another. It’s far too easy to attend Online Church as a Christian Catfish, pretending that you are a follower of Jesus while keeping the reality of your lifestyle far from view. The past five years of Online Church have really brought home to me why the twenty-ninth article of the Belgic Confession of 1561 added an extra stipulation to the Augsburg Confession. “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instated by Christ; and if church discipline is exercised in the punishing of sin … then the true Church may certainly be recognised.”

If you are one of the many people who have challenged me over the years that Everyday Church Online isn’t really church, then it might come as a bit of a surprise to you that I’m admitting its three biggest flaws at the very moment when the worldwide Church is experiencing its online revolution. But let me continue, because I believe that Online Church really can be Church. I’m convinced that church leaders who think carefully can lead the kind of Online Church that truly pleases God.

1) Online Church can be real Church because we are spiritual people. Let me put it this way: If a person in your small group told you that they went online and engaged in a pagan worship service during which they bowed down to an idol, wouldn’t you want to challenge them in the strongest terms never to do so again? Of course you would. Then why should you doubt that worshipping God online is any less real? Idolatry online is as real as idolatry in person, flirting online is as real as flirting in person, and worshipping God online is as real as worshipping God in a church building. Jesus taught that true worship is much more about our spirits than about our geography: “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem … A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).

Ah, but some people respond, it’s all very well connecting up with God through an online worship service but what about connecting in with one another? How can we worship God together when we are merely meeting online? Well, let me ask you: what does Paul means when he tells the church at Colossae: “Though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit” (Colossians 2:5)? What does he mean when he assures the church at Corinth that “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit … when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3-5)? If Paul insists that his absence from a church building does not prevent him from participating in a worship service through the Holy Spirit – even without the aid of the internet! – then why should we? Besides, those who argue most strongly that Online Church lacks community seem to me to have a rose-tinted view of what happens each Sunday at our bricks-and-mortar venues. It is definitely possible to attend Online Church without embracing community, but so is it possible to attend a bricks-and-mortar building without embracing community by arriving late and scuttling off during the final song.

2) Online Church can be real Church because the sacraments can still be rightly administered. It may require a little bit of thinking to navigate this new world order, just as it did for the writers of the Augsburg and Belgic Confessions during the Reformation, but it’s not actually too hard to be creative. When a lady gave her life to Jesus through one of our services at Everyday Church Online, we flew her over to London from Germany so that we could baptise her in water and broadcast the event online. Last Sunday, I preached on the meaning of communion and invited people to eat bread and drink together at all of our online services. Communion can become routine and functional at our physical church services, so I found the online experience quite refreshing. I believe that the experience of Online Church is actually helping us to appreciate the physicality of communion in fresh ways.

We are discovering something that previous generations have known instinctively – that some people either cannot or simply will not step across the threshold of a church building. For centuries, church leaders have visited the infirm and the housebound to administer the bread and wine to them in their own homes. Online Church goes a step further. It reaches people who might not even receive a visit. When I think of the men from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia who have messaged the team at Everyday Church Online to tell us that they have given their lives to Jesus and to ask for advice on how to follow him, I am grateful for Online Church. When I think of all the Muslims and atheists and spiritual wanderers who have surfed their way into one of our services, I am grateful for Online Church – and I believe that Jesus is too. After all, he gets excited in Matthew 8:5-13 when he finds a Roman centurion who has faith that his prayers will heal a servant several miles away without his needing to travel there in person. I believe that Jesus is excited about this present revolutionary moment in Church History too!

3) Online Church is real Church because it can foster greater openness with one another. Although it is easy to pretend online, we all know how easy it is to pretend in our face-to-face interactions with one another on a Sunday. One of the great surprises of the internet era has been people’s willingness to start up conversations with strangers and to reveal their deepest thoughts to one another online. People who walk the other way when they see their neighbour in the supermarket feel no such social hangs-ups when they are online. People who refuse to engage with the prayer team at a bricks-and-mortar church service are willing to open up without inhibition to the prayer team at Online Church. If you don’t think the truth about people comes out on the internet, then you haven’t been reading enough blog comments. There is a reason why they were eventually switched off on Think Theology!

This is not the time for pragmatism, but nor is it the time to be purists, patting ourselves on the back for spotting the flaws of Online Church without spotting its amazing opportunity. I believe that this is one of the things that God wants to teach his Church throughout this strange and disorientating coronavirus crisis. I believe that we are living through a moment that is akin to one when George Whitefield and John Wesley discovered the enormous power of open-air preaching to take the Church into the streets and fields of eighteenth-century Britain. John Wesley confessed later that “I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church”, but he soon came to the same conclusion as George Whitefield: “Blessed be God! I have now broken the ice! I believe I was never more acceptable to my Master than when I was standing to teach those hearers in the open fields. Some may censure me, but if I thus pleased men I should not be the servant of Christ.”

Blessed be God. He has broken the ice for us too. I believe that we will look back on these weeks as the revolutionary moment in which the Western Church became Online Church. People who were used to gathering together freely in person were prevented from doing so, and in that moment they discovered a whole world outside their walls that was waiting for them to step outside.

I believe that the Saviour who told his followers to “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel” (Mark 16:15) is overjoyed with what is happening with his Church around the world today. Because the internet is no longer a den of robbers, a safe haven for gamblers and porn addicts and binge-watchers of boxsets. Instead, it has become a house of prayer for all nations.

Footnotes

    The John Wesley and George Whitefield quotes in this blog can be found in John Wesley’s Journal (31st March, 1739) and in George Whitefield’s Journal (17th February, 1739).

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Camera, Lights, Action

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Many of us are having to learn fast how to speak to camera. In this extremely helpful video Glen Scrivener offers some tips.

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Still Homo Sapiens

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As the current pandemic progresses, one of the things which is becoming more and more unavoidable is the reality of death. Each day the death toll rises, both in our own country and globally. While most of these deaths are hidden – sadly sometimes even to family unable visit those quarantined in hospital – the growing presence of temporary morgues (in ice rinks, aircraft hangars, and refrigerated vans) is making the reality more visible.

With each daily reminder, I’ve found myself thinking about what this reality can teach us about ourselves. In his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari puts forward the thesis that with the dawn of the twenty first century humanity is entering a new stage in its existence: having largely dealt with the three problems which have always preoccupied us – famine, plague, and war – we are now free to explore higher aims – the slowing or even eradication of aging and death, and the maximisation of pleasure and happiness. It is a journey, he suggests, from Homo sapiens (‘wise man’) to Homo deus (‘god man’).

The current pandemic probably doesn’t actually disprove Harari’s claim about plagues. Though the figures are high and rising, the global response made possible by our information and technology resources probably will ensure the overall outcome is less devastating than it could have been. Harari himself has offered some interesting reflections on coronavirus and how we might best tackle it as a globalised world.

Nevertheless, for most people, the current situation will be shaking our very modern confidence in humanity’s power to be in control and our belief that (at least until old age, cancer, or heart disease gets involved) we have the power over life and death. This will be unsettling for many, but perhaps it brings with it some opportunities.

Learning to Grieve Well

Many of us in the modern West don’t handle death well. In some ways this is understandable. Death is not something we are forced to confront very often. Many of us will be fortunate enough to live several decades of our lives before we experience the pain of someone close to us dying. Likewise, many will live many decades – perhaps even sometimes the entirety – of our lives without ever seeing a dead body. And with the ever-rising age of average life expectancy, our own death always feels far away. The result is that when death breaks into our world, we often don’t know how to handle it well – we don’t know how to grieve – and we don’t know how to face the reality of our own mortality.

Some of these factors will become increasingly less common as the weeks and months go on. The sad reality is that many of us may lose someone we love and a number of us will be forced to come face to face with the reality of our own mortality. But herein lies an opportunity, and an opportunity which, as followers of Jesus, we are uniquely placed to take up both for ourselves and for others.

We, of all people, should be able to grieve well and to help others to grieve well. In some ways, against the background of an atheistic worldview, grief doesn’t make a lot of sense. Death is the one thing we can all agree is utterly universal; it is the most expected of events. If human life is just the result of a long chain of random genetic mutations and natural selection, death is just the expected continuation of that process. If consciousness is simply a complex set of algorithms and the firing of neurons, not a lot is actually lost when someone dies.

And yet the reality is, we all know that grief is real and natural, involuntary even. The death of someone who was close to us can be one of the most painful experiences in life and is often accompanied by the sense that, ‘It shouldn’t be like this’.

And of course we know that that’s right. It shouldn’t be like this. There shouldn’t be pandemics, there shouldn’t be coronavirus, and there shouldn’t be death. But we know why some things are as they shouldn’t be, and we know that one day all things will again be as they should be, and we are invited to be a part of that. All of this means that we can grieve well and help others to do the same, knowing that the expression of the pain we feel is right and fitting, but also knowing where we can find hope to bring comfort and strength as we grieve.

Learning to Handle Mortality Well

This season will also give us an opportunity to learn to freshly recognise our own mortality and to handle it well. For some – those most vulnerable - this realisation will feel very acute. For others – those deemed less high-risk – it may be less acute, but the increasing prominence of death around us will still have the same effect.

Again though, we are uniquely positioned to handle this reality well and to help others to do so. This is an opportunity for us to think on death and the hope we have in the gospel. It’s an opportunity for us to examine our fears and to seek peace from them through the application of the word and through the work of the Spirit. And it’s an opportunity for us to hold out the truth that death is a disarmed and soon to be defeated enemy (1 Cor. 15:54-57; Rev.20:14; 21:4), that there is one who can deliver us from the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15), and that through him, it’s possible to die and yet live (John 11:25).

Learning That We Are Still Homo Sapiens

The prominence of death is also an opportunity to be reminded and to remind others that we are still Homo sapiens and not Homo deus. Though we have been endued with reason, intellect and even wisdom, wonderful gifts which help us to tackle something like coronavirus, we are not God. We are the creatures, not the creator. All our problems started with the desire to deny this truth (Gen. 3:5), and to this day it continues to be our core problem (Rom. 1:18-25). Here, then, is a lesson whose importance can hardly be overemphasised. And here we are with an opportunity to learn it and teach it again.

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Does Corona Mean Communion on Your Owna?

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What does the Coronavirus mean for Communion? It is relatively easy to see how churches can continue to have preaching, sung worship, prayer and even kids work online (even though the lack of physical presence means we are missing out on a vital component of church life, as we are all now discovering). But what about the Lord's Supper? Should churches celebrate it in this strange, virtual world we now live in? And if so, how?

Bobby Jamieson (who is one of the smartest guys I know) says a simple no.

That’s because the physical act of gathering is essential, not incidental, to the ordinance. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers five times to the fact that they celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they all come together as a church, as one assembly meeting in one place at one time (e.g., “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you,” 1 Cor. 11:18; cf. vv. 17, 20, 33, 34).

But is this just what they happened to do, or what we must do? Is the church’s physical presence with each other essential to the ordinance? Paul would say yes. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The Lord’s Supper enacts the church’s unity. It consummates the church’s oneness. It gathers up the many who partake of the same elements together, in the same place, and makes them one. (So if baptism binds the one to the many, the Lord’s Supper makes the many one.) So to make the Lord’s Supper into something other than a meal of the whole church, sitting down together in the same room, is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper.

So, it’s not the case that a virtually mediated, physically dispersed Lord’s Supper is less than optimal: it’s simply not the Lord’s Supper.

Physical presence is not an optional extra in the Eucharist. It’s not a “nice to have.” It is an integral part of what the Lord’s Supper is. I can remain married to my wife when I am abroad, and we can still do many of the things that marriage involves remotely, but there are some things we cannot do without being physically present, and they matter. The sacraments—visible signs and seals of the covenant—are like this, for the reasons Bobby has just given. (It seems to me that the recent CT article defending “online communion” does not address these arguments at all.)

In a more detailed article from an Anglican perspective, Ian Paul (also no fool) says similarly: “What does all this mean for ‘online church’? That the whole event of celebrating the Lord’s Supper is something that can only be done at the gathering of the whole people of God, since the reception by them of the elements is integral to the meaning of the whole event.” Again, I agree.

The question, then, is what we should do in the meantime. Bobby’s answer is simply to wait: “Let the absence of this meal make you hunger even more for that future meal.” Ian’s answer is that we may be able to share bread and wine as Christian households, while recognising that what we are doing “falls short of the full sharing of Communion together in a church building.” This latter idea raises all sorts of questions (what about people who live on their own? what about people whose families do not believe? should we include unbaptised children? etc), but it does have the advantage of being what the Jerusalem church did in “breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46, though admittedly in larger households).

Notice, though, that this is not an argument for taking the Eucharist while looking at a screen because physical presence doesn’t matter. It is the argument that physical presence is so important that the context of the Eucharist can change, from a whole congregation to a household, based on who else is in the room. This is where I differ from Bobby, I think; he maintains that the whole church must be gathered for it to be the Lord’s Supper at all, whereas I think (based on the Jerusalem church alone) that this is overstating it, and that smaller gatherings of believers can share Communion as long as they share a common loaf and drink a common cup, in faith, with thanksgiving. This is the main context in which house churches have shared the Lord’s Supper for decades.

Having said that, those smaller gatherings draw their meaning (as Ian points out) from their association with the gathered, church-wide sacramental meal, and should not become substitutes for it when we are once again able to gather. If that means that some of us cannot celebrate it for a few weeks or months, because we don’t live with any other believers, then we should look forward with eagerness to the day when we can—like a married couple separated by work, or war—and enjoy that experience all the more when the time comes. And while we’re at it, we should spare a thought for the old Scottish churches that only celebrate the Eucharist once a year. Literally: Crumbs.

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Wendell Was Right

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I wonder how the Amish are coping with the coronavirus?

Probably they have been far less affected than most of us. The Amish policy of self-sufficiency with large families farming their own land must give them unusual resilience. Most of us are urban, and even if we wanted to (and I really would quite like to!) adopt a more Amish way of life we lack the skills, opportunity and land to do so. But there are surely things we can learn from their model of household resilience.

For decades Wendell Berry, the American essayist, poet, farmer and campaigner, has been warning us of the dangers of selling ourselves to big farming, big business and big politics. In his essays and novels Berry paints a picture of what could be – self-sufficient households living simply, without debt, and in cooperation with their neighbours: communities where there is a real ‘membership’, with every citizen known and looked out for, and a mutual sense of shared responsibility for the health – political, economic and familial – of the whole community. He has also painted the flipside: land degraded by careless agriculture; relentless ‘growth’ fuelled by ever-expanding debt; the weakening of social cohesion; and an enslavement to the consumer society which masquerades as freedom.

As Andrew pointed out the other day, “households are becoming the basic social unit of the church. Social, and often legal, limitations on contact mean that we now think of ourselves fundamentally as members of a household rather than as individuals, for probably the first time in living memory.”

There are plenty of memes flying around about the pressures this is bringing. I especially enjoyed the one of a mother who had gaffer-taped her child to the floor as she tried to get on with some work. But these pressures (and jokes) aside, the recovery of the household presents a real opportunity for society as a whole and the church in particular. Resilience to plague and disaster is greatest in households who are best able to look after themselves, in cooperation with other such households.

I’m trying to work out what this might look like in the urban environments where we live: digging up our lawns and growing vegetables instead might be part of the answer but certainly isn’t sufficient for true resilience. Here are some ideas I’m mulling over.

We need local political resilience. For years, in the free West, we have asked the question, ‘What would it be like to live in a society where the authorities prevent believers from meeting together?’ Now we know. A few weeks back it would have been inconceivable that we would soon be living under martial law, but that is essentially what has happened. I believe the government is acting with the best intentions, with the best knowledge available to it, but the staggering power of the state is still alarming: that schools and businesses can be shut, church services closed, and movement outside the home curtailed is extraordinary. What if a government decided to take such steps for less benign reasons than the current ones? Having discovered its own power, can we really be confident that government might not want to flex the same muscles again?

The best way to protect against the tyranny of an over-powerful central state is by the existence of robust local politics. By ‘politics’ here I mean polities – not just local mayors or councils that have real clout, but communities who are able to organise and stand together. The irony of the Amish is that they stand outside mainstream politics, and yet their polity is strong. The church should not be political but she is a polity. We need to find ways in which churches exercise their political resilience – and that will need to be worked out by resilient households that compromise resilient local churches.

We need local economic resilience. In this time of crisis many of us have suddenly found ourselves dependent on small, local, businesses in a new way. The corner shop has assumed a new importance. The local butcher we haven’t used because he is more expensive than the supermarket has started to attract more custom. In the UK local highstreets have been dying – don’t we feel the need of them now? Perhaps coronavirus is a wakeup call to us that we need to develop resilient local economies rather than relying so heavily on the global one. What part might churches play in encouraging this?

We need technological resilience. Tech is our tool and a very useful one at this time. But as I posted on Monday, there is a real danger that our increasing dependence on tech at this time will lead to our greater enslavement by Big-Tech: something that will weaken rather than strengthen our resilience. Even as we are all using tech more we should be making plans to reduce our dependence upon it. Once this crisis is over what platforms, programs and practices will we ditch? To be truly resilient we might better use our time learning how to service a car ourselves, or keep chickens, or build a wall. Churches have a part to play in this as even while we move so much online we should be pastoring people in how to live without being permanently connected. This is essential for our own health and wellbeing, but it is also a good strategy for developing resilience – what if next time around it is not a virus that gets us but a global internet glitch?

I think Wendell has been right all along. Certainly not on everything, no, but on the big picture, yes. We’re not all going to replicate the Amish but we should all learn some resilience. That will need to begin in households. It should be demonstrated in local churches. It could be what keeps us alive.

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When Corona Makes Us More Like the New Testament

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In a number of curious ways, the Coronavirus outbreak is making us more like the New Testament church. There are all sorts of ways in which the opposite is true, of course—the lack of physical contact, the triumph of the private over the public, the retreat into tiny social units, the marginalisation or abolition of the sacraments, the inability to physically gather on Sunday, and so on—and we are all feeling the impact of them. But at the same time, it is worth noticing the ways in which we are becoming more biblical rather than less, and perhaps even giving thanks for them. Five in particular occur to me.

Households are becoming the basic social unit of the church. Social, and often legal, limitations on contact mean that we now think of ourselves fundamentally as members of a household rather than as individuals, for probably the first time in living memory. We take exercise as households. We identify as households for the purposes of meals, socialising, leaving the home (if applicable) and healthcare. We even (gasp) worship as households. No doubt they are almost always much smaller than their first century equivalents, but that’s an interesting development.

There is a renewed focus on caring for the poor and the elderly. In the New Testament, we continually run into churches and apostles obsessing about serving the poor and caring for widows. The plight of the most vulnerable is not just something people think about sometimes; it is uppermost in their thinking. And today, thanks to the grim disparity in survival rates between the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, we are facing a nationwide (even worldwide) return to that position. Ordinary people make daily life choices on the basis of what will help, or harm, the poorest and most vulnerable in society; churches circulate the practical needs and prayer requests of people who, in normal times, might not always receive such attention.

The role of the pastor is changing. In many churches, pastors spend a good deal of their time running things: Sunday services, rotas, programmes and initiatives, volunteer teams, and so forth. (I often think of Eugene Peterson when he first heard his pastor friend utter the phrase, “I run a church.” Peterson writes that although it was decades ago, “I can still distinctly remember the unpleasant impression it made.”) Now, however, after the initial flurry of confusion and activity—how exactly are we going to do Sundays when nobody can leave the house?—the role of the pastor has become much more traditional. Find out how people are doing. Care for them. Connect people together. Pray for them. Rinse, wash, repeat.

There is a renewed focus on prayer, for the simple reason that there really isn’t very much else we can do. When we feel invincible, we don’t pray so much. When we feel helpless—how else are we going to get out of this without masses of people dying?—we realise our intense need of God’s deliverance. When you couple that with the previous point, you get both the incentive and the opportunity to pray, as Phil wrote so beautifully last week based on the life of James Fraser.

We are experiencing the suspension of plenty. Perhaps the largest cause of social distance between the New Testament church and me is abundance. When I am hungry, I eat. When I am thirsty, I drink. For many (although not all) people in the West today, including most readers of this blog, there is a breezy assumption that we will always be able to access enough to eat; Tesco is our cornucopia. Yet in the last two weeks, thanks to panic buying and self-isolation, I have been praying the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer for myself, for real, for the first time in my life. Rachel and I have been looking in the fridge and the cupboards carefully, knowing that we won’t be able to restock them for five days, and rationing our staples accordingly. People are giving items that are hard to find, whether toilet roll or eggs or something else, to people whom they know will struggle to buy them. We are all thinking more carefully about how we use our money, our time and our space than we usually do. The temporary suspension of plenty is reminding us of the constraints that have applied to almost everyone in history. (It is also showing us how sinful and selfish we quickly become if we don’t think our family will have enough, and that might prompt us to be a bit less condescending towards our ancestors’ failings, but that is another story.)

Don’t let a good crisis go to waste, as they say. There are things to learn here, if we have eyes to see, and they can help us when (God willing) this crisis is over.

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Dark Clouds & Silver Linings

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One of the most precious moments I’ve experienced in the past few days was catching up with my eldership team online and talking about the areas where we are experiencing stress and anxiety and where we are feeling optimism and sensing opportunity. The storm clouds are very dark at the moment – but there are certainly some silver linings.

Here are six areas where I’m reading the weather.

The pros and cons of technology
That we can phone, message, email, Facebook, Tweet, Hangout, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and Insta each other is terrific. I’m incredibly grateful for the way technology is enabling us to fill some of the gaps, stay in contact, and stream church services. At the same time a cloud to this silver lining is that we become increasingly tech dependent. We’ve all been glued to our screens the past ten days and that isn’t healthy. When we are through this the big tech companies are still going to want to mine our data, track our movements, nudge our spending, commoditise us and sell to us. During a time of famine Joseph reduced the Egyptians to slavery (Genesis 47:21). We need to be careful that we are not made slaves of Big-Tech.

We also need to be alert to the reality that ‘online church’ is not church! I’m very thankful that we can put sermons, songs, and other resources online to help people at this time. I know there are real evangelistic opportunities on the internet. But true church is about the people of God physically gathering together, ‘greeting one another with a holy kiss’, taking the bread and wine, looking each other in the eye, and loving others despite their – and our – strange or irritating habits. We must beware falling into the trap of thinking that gathering together is one option among many for ‘doing church’ – that you can just as well do it sitting on your sofa with a phone in one hand and a coffee in the other. That approach will produce consumers, not disciples.

It is already becoming apparent that those who are doing ‘online church’ best are those who are most used to physically being together. Our student group had a successful virtual lunch on Sunday – but that was a fruit of them doing actual lunch together every Sunday. To claim that online church is really church is as silly as claiming that watching Bake Off is the same as making and eating a cake.

Another danger is that as we put things online we develop an unhealthy obsession with how many clicks and views we get. It would be wise to remember how in recent political campaigns those whose worldview was dominated by Twitter and Facebook have been mystified when come election night their side lost. It is not necessarily those with the loudest voice who make the biggest impact.

When this is over we are going to have to re-learn how to connect in more human ways. This, again, will be an opportunity for the church. We will have a responsibility and opportunity to show people that real community is bigger than a screen and more meaningful than an emoji.

A new neighbourliness
One of the most remarkable developments of the last few days has been community groups springing up in street after street. We now have nearly 40 of our neighbours in ours and there is a level of communication which would have been unimaginable two weeks ago. In many places Christians are taking the lead in this – as we should, because we understand community. This is a great opportunity for us! The challenge will be to maintain and build on what is now happening once the immediate crisis is past. We will need to move beyond the superficiality of a WhatsApp message and into the reality of people’s lives.

Resilient communities
As neighbourhood support groups are being formed we’re seeing ways in which local communities can support one another in the way more distant government cannot. One of my neighbours has organised a local fishmonger to deliver to our street. I’ve put in a bulk order for flour with a miller I know. Teachers in the group are giving help and advice to parents with kids at home. I heard of another group where chicken eggs were being bartered for loo roll. Even as the global economy takes a battering perhaps we will find ways to strengthen local neighbourhoods and economies.

Environmental reset
My brother-in-law in Buenos Aires told us that for the first time in a long time the skies above the city are blue as pollution levels have dropped. When the crisis is over are we really going to go back to how things were before or will we have learnt how to treat the planet more kindly? And might it be that the emergence of Covid-19 finally compels the Chinese authorities to close down the live animal markets that were the origin of the virus – as they were of SARS previously. As well as reducing the likelihood of future viral epidemics this could greatly reduce the global trade in endangered species. Ironically, a zoonotic disease could be great news for global ecology.

Family piety
When our kids were small we would read the Bible and pray together at breakfast. As they grew older and schedules more complex this pattern of family devotions began to slip until we weren’t doing it at all. Now we are back – praying and worshipping together daily in a way we never have before. If you’ve never had a pattern of family piety it might not be easy to start, but if you can’t start now, you never will. My hope is that in my church (and around the globe) there is a recovery and renewal of families coming together in the word and in prayer.

A purified church
One of the downsides of a time like this is that it brings out the charismatic crazies. There are some truly weird and wonderful things being promoted from certain corners of the church. Peter tells us that “it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). My prayer is that what we are going through will cause some of the dross in the church to be burned off. As the falsity of what some are preaching is exposed a refined and purified church can emerge that is ready to witness the truth of the gospel and welcome people into God’s house. Who knows? Perhaps God is using this time to prepare us for revival.

Keep reading the weather!

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Fear and the Power of Why

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We’re living in a time when fear is prominent and prevalent, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been reflecting on the reality of fear and how we should handle it. As I’ve done so I’ve been struck by the power of one simple question, ‘Why?’

Why Am I Afraid?

Fear is an emotion, and emotions should always lead us to ask questions.

It’s easy to dismiss our emotions. Many of us are trained to view them as annoying distractions, part of the reality of life post-Fall. Emotions suddenly appear out of nowhere, getting in the way and pulling us off course. With this view, our response will usually be to ignore or suppress them. In Christian circles, such a perspective can lead to statements like, ‘Don’t listen to your emotions. Just listen to God’s word.’ What such a statement overlooks is that our emotions are there to help us know how to best listen to God’s word.

The truth is, our emotions are signposts, signposts to our thinking and to our loves. Our emotional reactions flow from the things we believe deep down and the things we love deep down. They are not random, spontaneous occurrences that appear out of nowhere, they are a window into what’s really going on inside us. It’s for this reason that we should respond to our emotions with questions, and in particular the key question, ‘Why?’.

This is all true of fear. Asking the why question of our fear helps us to truly understand what’s going on, and then we can know how best to handle it.

In this way, fear is a gift to us. Sometimes asking questions of our fear will show that it is well placed and should motivate us to action. I’m crossing the road and I realise that a car has just turned onto the road and is hurtling towards me. I feel afraid. I’m afraid it will hit me. I’m afraid it will hurt. I’m afraid it might kill me. This is good fear, fear which will motivate me to action: I’m going to run across that road!

But sometimes fear isn’t good. Even this week I’ve been examining my own fear. I’m low risk for being seriously affected by coronavirus, and yet I realised I was feeling fearful about the idea of becoming seriously ill and even dying. I began to ask myself ‘Why?’. I know that death isn’t the end; I know that for the believer death is gain, so why? As I questioned myself I realised my fear was not of dying, my fear was of missing out on the coming years of my life. So again, I asked myself ‘Why?’. I was sobered by the answer: Doing the things I enjoy in this life for a few more decades seemed more appealing than being with Christ. Now, the things I enjoy doing are good things, but they’re not as good as being with Christ. I don’t want to desire my earthly activities more than Christ, so my fear highlighted to me an area of my heart I need to work on. My fear wasn’t good, but by examining it, I found an area for growth.

So, if you find yourself feeling fearful at this time or you’re interacting with someone who is, ask a gentle question: ‘Why?’ The feeling of fear is a gift which can help us.

Why Should I Not Be Afraid?

The why question is also helpful when we’re considering what the Bible says about fear. It’s true that time and time again, God says to his people ‘Don’t be afraid’. But when he says this, he’s not just saying, ‘Ignore that pesky, distracting emotion’. He’s saying, ‘You don’t need to fear, because the thinking or loving behind your fear is faulty’.

And we can know this by asking the question, ‘Why?’. Most of the time the command to not fear is accompanied by an explanation. This explanation isn’t designed to make the command even stronger (‘You should do this because of this!’); the explanation is designed to explain the power which allows the command to be fulfilled (‘You can do this because of this!’) The biblical commands about fear encourage us to apply truth to the realities that are underlying our fear. They are deeply pastoral gifts to help us. When we read them, we should always ask ‘Why?’ and look for the accompanying reason. In the reason, we find the power.

These two why questions actually work together: by asking why we’re fearful, we can find the root of our fear, and then by asking why God commands us not to be afraid, we can find the promise or reality which will help us to reshape our thinking or our loving which will, in turn, cut off our fear at the root.

So as we face the fear of the current crisis, one way we can equip ourselves is with a simple but powerful question: ‘Why?’

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Sabia-Tanis: Holy Creation, Wholly Creative - A Response

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To complete this series interacting with the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities, here I offer a response to the final chapter, 'Holy Creation, Wholly Creative: God's Intention for Gender Diversity' by Justin Sabia-Tanis.

Justin Sabia-Tanis makes a helpful contribution to this conversation by drawing from his own experience of living with gender dysphoria and undergoing gender transition. Particularly valuable is his attempt to help readers think their way into what it might be like to live with gender dysphoria through an imaginative exercise (pp.209-210).

I agree with his focus on working towards the wellbeing of transgender people and his call for Christians to recognise the need to respect the full personhood of transgender people as those created in God’s image (p.216). I also appreciate the way he highlights the disproportionately high rates of poverty among the transgender population and condemns Christian organisations who have refused help to transgender people who find themselves in difficult situations (pp.220-221).

While Sabia-Tanis expresses an admirable concern for the wellbeing of transgender people and rightly calls on Christians to treat trans people with compassion, I would question the form that Sabia-Tanis seems to believe this compassion should take. While it is generally true that ‘[c]ompassion argues that we allow people to receive medical treatments that will alleviate their suffering’ (p.217), we do first have to consider the morality of any such treatments. This is something Sabia-Tanis fails to do. In fact, he bemoans the shift from treating transgender as an issue for medical and pastoral care to an issue of morality but offers no argument as to why this shift is wrong. I would argue that all three perspectives are important.

In arguing for the acceptability of gender transition, Sabia-Tanis cites his own experience as evidence, both his sense of God’s calling ‘to set out on a journey between and among genders’ (p.204) and his experience of transitioning as ‘absolutely life-affirming and life-giving’ (p.205). Later, he notes that many who have transitioned ‘testify that we feel that God has affirmed our decisions’ (p.216). Nowhere, however, does the chapter engage with biblical texts (such a Deut. 22:5 and 1 Cor. 11:2-16) or theological perspectives that argue against the acceptability of transitioning. His perspective seems to be shaped only by a subjective experience with no evidence that this has been measured against Scripture.

Sabia-Tanis also argues in favour of gender transition by rejecting suggestions that there can be any positive aspects to suffering. This being the case, he suggests that any possible means of alleviating suffering should be allowed (pp.218-219). However, this is a distinctly unchristian position on suffering. Though we often don’t ultimately know why God allows suffering and might not be able to directly trace the good it does, the biblical witness consistently sees suffering as able to do good to us (e.g. Mark 8:34-36; Rom. 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7).

In challenging the idea that transitioning should be considered as a moral issue which could be sinful, Sabia-Tanis suggests that we should ‘reorient the question from one of sinfulness to a focus on a person’s relationship with God’ (p.208). However, this is a false dichotomy. It is precisely because of the desire to have a good relationship with God in which we are honouring him with our bodies that we should consider whether transitioning is moral. Having a good relationship with God, however that might be defined, cannot be used as a justification for any and every action we desire to take. Elsewhere, Sabia-Tanis talks of God accepting those who keep his word (p.204). What does it mean to keep God’s word in relation to our gendered identity? This question is never really explored.

The starting point for Sabia-Tanis’ chapter is his argument that gender falls on a continuum. He offers arguments from the natural world and from the Bible, but both sets of arguments face serious problems.

When considering the natural world, Sabia-Tanis notes that there are some plants and animals which are hermaphroditic and some which change sex. However, neither of these phenomena are comparable to gender dysphoria or gender transition. Hermaphroditic organisms could offer a parallel to some intersex conditions, but they cannot prove that hermaphroditic biology in humans reflects a good and deliberate diversity. It is noteworthy that Sabia-Tanis says there are some ‘species’ of plants and some ‘categories’ of fish of whom this is true (p.199). In these cases, hermaphroditism is not a rare occurrence as it is in humans but is a standard characteristic of the species. Organisms which change sex cannot be claimed as evidence that gender transition is part of creational intent since the form of change is very different: in plants and fish it is through natural means and for the sake of reproduction, in human gender transition it is through invasive medical intervention and, if anything, harms rather than assists reproduction.

The biblical arguments for gender as a continuum are also unconvincing. The argument that the binaries in Genesis 1 are not absolute (e.g. dusk occurs between day and night) cannot be successfully applied to humans for several reasons. Perhaps most important among these is Jesus’s affirmation that God created humans as male or female so that one-man, one-woman marriages might take place (Mark 10:6-7; Matt. 19:4-5). Thus biological sex is a binary structured around the procreative sexual union of a man and a woman. Looking to Genesis 2, Sabia-Tanis suggests that v.18 shows the creation of woman was to solve the problem of loneliness rather than to create separate genders. However, there must be more to the narrative than this or God could have created a human who was identically sexed to Adam. The fact that he doesn’t, thus facilitating the reunion of man and woman in the one-flesh union of marriage (Gen. 2:24), is significant in the Bible’s theology of sex. Finally, arguments from the positive acceptance of eunuchs in Isaiah 56, Matthew 19 and Acts 8 are not directly relevant to the question of transgender as eunuchs were considered to be biologically male, though unable to father children, and so are, if anything, a parallel to intersex conditions, not to the experience of gender dysphoria or gender transition.

Taking a step back, there seems to be something of a tension between the two main points of Sabia-Tanis’ chapter. He starts by making the case that God has created gender to be a continuum and thus gender variations are good and should be embraced. However, his second point - that transgender people should be allowed to transition as an expression of compassion and love for neighbour in the face of suffering – seems to undermine the idea that the continuum is good, both in its focus on suffering and on the affirmation of transition approaches which move one closer to a certain end of the continuum. It might fairly be asked, if gender is a God-given continuum, why do some seem to suffer because of their position on the continuum and why should there be a need to move oneself to somewhere else on the continuum?

Sabia-Tanis’ aim in this chapter is admirable: to wrestle with the reality of gender dysphoria and offer a truly compassionate Christian response. I fear he fails in this aim, however, because of an overreliance on subjective experience, some flawed logic in the arguments employed, and weak readings of the biblical text.

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To The Elders

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Many people read this blog, but this post is especially for those who are elders in their churches. If you are an elder, your calling will be brought into crystal clarity at this time. Below is a letter I have sent to the men in my eldership team. It might help to encourage and focus you too.

Brothers

I’ve just been praying with my flesh & blood family and feel prompted to write to you - my brothers in Christ. This is such an extraordinary time and I’m sure you are all feeling pressure and strain. I’m very conscious of the pressures on each of you and know we will all be feeling the demands of the day in different ways. Certainly, I have been feeling quite overwhelmed and all kinds of questions about how we are going to deal with the known and unknown consequences of this crisis are weighing heavily on me.

But, it is exactly at a time like this that we need to remember who we are: we need to remember our calling. We are the elders of Gateway Church. This is a huge privilege - and a real responsibility. We are on a war footing and we need to remember we are called to be men of war. The civilised veneer our society normally lives under means we can forget this in normal times, but we are called to a fight, and we must be fighters (Eph.6:10-12).

Here are three areas in which we must commit ourselves to the fight:

Prayer
We should always be prayerful and labour in prayer for the flock, but we don’t always feel the urgency of this. Now we must! We need to fight for our people - we need to fight for their spiritual as well as physical protection. We need to fight for their survival - when we come out of this we want there to still be a church to lead. (Phil Moore did a brilliant post on this.) We need to fight for them to remain faithful. We need to fight in prayer for them to not give into fear but to be good witnesses at this time. How and when we pray will vary according to our temperaments and timetable but we need to be seen to lead the church in the charge of prayer. How can we ask others to commit to prayer if it is not seen that we are so committed? Of anyone in the church we should be the last to say we were too busy to pray.

Pastoring
Sometimes we can forget that we are called to be pastors. In normal times we tend to spend a lot of time organising programs and events and can end up managing systems more than we care for people. Now is not that time! Let’s fight as pastors - working hard to engage with and encourage our people. Let’s care for the flock Jesus has entrusted to us.

Protection
This is a fight! Our prayers and our pastoring are to have a protective effect for the church. We are called to be a shield to others. We’re called to take the bullet for others. We need to fight for God’s protection to be over God’s people. People are anxious, confused, irritable - we must fight for their hearts and for them to live in God’s grace at this time. This is where it gets real: all the things we have taught, sung, prayed - now ‘the tested genuineness of your faith’ (1 Pet.1:7) needs to prove its mettle.

This quote from Mark Sayers should set the tone for us at this time: “An era is over. Of hot takes, and distractions, of self-focused leadership and endless naval gazing. War time leadership is here. Let’s step into the new phase with holy fire to lead like lions of the Lord. Revival comes wrapped in strange paper. Let’s not miss the gift. We will look back on these months to come as utterly defining of our lives, of our churches, of our nations.”

Yes! Let’s be lions of the Lord!

And we need to dwell on how Paul & Peter charge elders to fight for their churches:

1 Peter 5:1-4 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Acts 20:28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

Finally, practically, we need to find ways to stay connected together. Our phones have all been red-hot with messages the past few days - the last thing we need is more information overload. But we do need to stay connected, and to talk and pray together.

I’m grateful for you men. We have done well together in a time of peace. Now is a time of war. Let’s stand together, in Christ, and prove we are the men we would hope to be.

Much love

Matthew

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The Corona Virus Experiment

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Christian leaders all across the world are facing two unprecedented problems as I write this blog. But the great missionary James Fraser faced those exact two problems before us, and we can learn a lot from how he responded. Maybe we will even look back on these days and thank God for the Western Church's great Corona Virus Experiment.

As I write this blog, Christian leaders all around the world are facing up to two great challenges that are unprecedented within their lifetimes.

First, due to government restrictions aimed at slowing down the spread of COVID-19, most church leaders find themselves unable to gather those they lead into church services for the next few Sundays. Second, for the same reason, most church leaders are looking at diaries that are full of cancelled meetings. For decades - even for centuries - the predictable answer from any Christian leader to the question “How are you doing?” has always been “I’m busy.” Now, for the first time, Christian leaders actually have time on their hands. Stressed? Of course they are, for these are definitely troubling times. But busy? Not so much, to which I say wow - just wow! Take a moment to sit back and to savour this rarest of smells in Church History. A Church whose leaders have time on their hands. Enough time on their hands, in fact, for us to be able to run a little experiment together with the Lord.

The challenges that church leaders are facing for the next few weeks may be unprecedented for the Western Church, but it is not unprecedented in Church History. The great missionary James Fraser found himself in a very similar position when he began to preach the Gospel to the pagan Chinese villagers of Lisuland in the first half of the twentieth century. Lisuland lies several hundred miles west of Wuhan, in the foothills of the Himalayas, so James Fraser very often found himself unable to reach his converts in the most mountainous areas. Winter snowfalls made it too dangerous for him to gather them together in church services. At first he was frustrated and even angry with God, who could easily have held back the snowfall to enable his church services to go ahead. But as he prayed, James Fraser became convicted that God was in the problem - it was a challenge of the Lord’s own making. The Lord wanted him to conduct an experiment on behalf of the Body of Christ. I believe that God wants to turn us back to James Fraser’s experiment right now.

James Fraser worked out that it would take him three to five days to conduct church services in the highland villages of Lisuland - one or two days of travel up into the mountains, a day of gathering together, and then one or two days of travel back down again. He therefore decided to find out: What would happen if I decided to spend the time that I would have spent gathering with these Lisu people praying for them instead?

For James Fraser, this was more than just a throwaway tweet on social media. It wasn’t an oh-so-radical piece of church-leader virtue-signalling. Nobody knew, or much even cared, how a missionary chose to spend his time in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was between James Fraser and God alone, but he gave himself to his experiment completely. He prayed for three to five days for each of the highland villages instead of visiting them. Then, once the spring sun had melted the snow, he climbed the mountains to discover what had happened. No scientist can ever have been so eager to examine the petri dishes in his laboratory.

James Fraser discovered that his converts in the highland villages had prospered during the winter months in which he had found himself unable to gather them together. In fact, as he met with them to hear about their winter Bible reading and their isolated prayer times, he came to the remarkable conclusion that his converts in the highlands of Lisuland had grown far more during the winter than his converts in the lowlands - the converts that he had been busy visiting and gathering all winter long. He recorded his conclusion: “If two things stand out clearly in my mind, they are firstly how ‘foolish’ and ‘weak’ our new converts are, and secondly that God has really chosen them.” Thereafter, he was determined never to fret when he could not gather people, but always to seize it as a God-given invitation to pray for people instead. “If I were to think after the manner of men, I should be anxious about my Lisu converts - afraid for their falling back into demon worship. But God is enabling me to cast all my care upon Him. I am not anxious, not nervous. If I hugged my care to myself instead of casting it upon Him, I should never have persevered in the work so long - perhaps never even have started it. But if it has been begun in Him, it must be continued in Him.”

James Fraser never knew the full results of his prayer experiment. Many missiologists trace back the enormous revival that has swept through China in the past fifty years to the revival that began amongst the highlanders of Lisuland during the winters when he stayed at home and prayed.

As a Christian leader, I feel a little stressed right now that I am not going to be able to gather together in person with the people that I lead for the next few Sundays. I’m busy pastoring many of them via email and social media, and I’m busy preparing online services so that I can serve them well over the next few Sundays. But I’m challenged that I can do far more to serve them than to take my pastoral overbusyness online. God isn’t just encouraging me to transfer my face-to-face meetings into Skype and Zoom conference calls for a season instead. He is inviting Christian leaders all across the Western world right now to rethink the whole of their ministry and to trust him that their inability to gather people to them for a season is an opportunity for them to gather themselves to God on behalf of the people.

Charles Spurgeon preached that “Prayer is the slender nerve which moves the muscle of omnipotence.” By God’s grace, let’s therefore embrace the next few weeks as an opportunity to experiment together and discover how much this is true. Let’s not fritter away these precious days of pastoral isolation. Let’s use them in such a way that we can look back in days to come and recall the lessons of the Western Church’s great Corona Virus Experiment in Prayer.

Footnotes

    Quotes in this blog are taken from Eileen Crossman’s biography of James Fraser, which is entitled “Mountain Rain” (1982) - pages 133 and 198.

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Kissing the Wave

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This five minute testimony of Rachel’s was filmed before the Coronavirus outbreak hit the UK, and on the face of things has very little to do with it. But I think its message—of the goodness of God and the utter reliability of the Rock of Ages—is deeply relevant. See what you think.

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Living in an Uncertain World

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I normally disappear from this blog around this time of year, but these are extraordinary times. This last Sunday, like many churches, we took the opportunity to speak into the Coronavirus situation, and how we should live in uncertain times. I preached from Luke 21, where Jesus teaches his disciples how to respond to the crises leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, and I hope you might find it encouraging.

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Covid-19 and Being a Community Initiator

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While at the moment the threats, known and unknown, posed by coronavirus are fairly overwhelming, this is also a time of real opportunity.

Just how thin civilised life may be has been exposed by scenes of shoppers fighting over toilet rolls: that life can so quickly descend into chaos over something so insignificant is truly worrying. Yet alongside those signs of concern we are also seeing an upwelling of community kindness. Covid-19 is both driving people apart and causing them to come together.

We – the church – have an incredible opportunity to be community nurturers at this time. Part of the way we can ‘run towards the plague’ is by taking the initiative in our neighbourhoods to demonstrate care and kindness to others.

On Sunday afternoon Grace & I did what many others are doing and went round to our neighbours with a flyer suggesting we form a community support group. As with many British streets, most people in my road don’t have much interaction with the people they live close to and are unsure about how to form connections with neighbours. Our flyer simply said who we were and explained,

At this time of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus it would be good to keep an eye out for one another in our neighbourhood. If you would like to join a WhatsApp group for our street please message us. If you are having to self-isolate let us know. We can try to help with picking up shopping or if you just need a friendly phone call!

We delivered this flyer to about fifty addresses in our immediate neighbourhood and most people responded immediately and with considerable enthusiasm.

There is a real desire to help one another at this time. As well as helping us through the immediate crisis, my hope is that this will lead to a stronger neighbourhood and more opportunities for witness once the coronavirus threat has passed. At the least, having a WhatsApp group which includes most of our neighbours will make it so much more easy to organise drinks at Christmas or a summer barbeque.

These strange times are making it so easy for us to connect with people in new ways. Let’s make the most of that opportunity.

 

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Parables of Patronage

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Ever been troubled by Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1-8? Jayson Georges says it makes sense if we understand the patronage culture in which Jesus was speaking.

Keith led a Christian ministry in Asia. He employed Donghai, a national believer, to manage local projects for the ministry organisation. Keith began to hear rumours about Donghai misusing funds. So Keith summoned him, and asked, “What is this I hear about you? Tell me how you are spending the money, because you can no longer work here.”

Then Donghai said to himself, “What will I do, now that I am no longer employed by this international organization? I’ve worked there twenty-five years, so I have limited prospects for another job at my age. I am too ashamed to ask relatives for money, since I was always the person who helped them. I know what I will do, so that when I am dismissed in two weeks, people will welcome me into their homes!”

Donghai secretly took 3,000 dollars from the organization’s bank account and shared it with friends and family in the community. He told all of them that the money was from Keith to bless local families. Keith arrived at work the following day, completely unaware of what Donghai had done. Everyone gathered at his office to thank Keith with words of praise for his generosity.

When Keith realized what Donghai had done, he commended Donghai for acting so wisely and sensibly, “Usually unbelievers understand how to deal with these situations better than Christians. I tell you, it is good to build a relational network with unauthorized funds, so that you can depend on those relationships when the money runs out.”

- Jayson Georges, Ministering in Patronage Cultures, p53

 

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The Best Laid Plans

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As well as helpfully reminding us of the deadliness of death and our Christian mission to point people to life in Christ, CV19 is a wakeup call to the flimsiness of our plans.

In our technological age we have grown so used to simply assuming that what we plan will happen. Trains run – more or less – on time. Flick a switch and the lights always come on. Turn a tap and there is always water. Modern cars rarely breakdown. Schools stay open. Businesses can make long term plans expecting the general economic shape of our society to remain constant. We haven’t experienced war on the shores of the UK since the days of the Blitz.

Things work. Things are predictable. It has been easy (and reasonable) to say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money’ (James 4:13).

That has now all changed with chaos in the financial markets, the closure of public events, and the total impossibility of making any plans for travel. All we do know is that life is likely to be much more disrupted and restricted over the coming weeks. We can make plans for this (we’re war gaming various scenarios at my church, as I expect is also happening at your church) but we know any plans we make will be subject to rapid change.

James’ warning, ‘What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes’ (James 4:14), has often rung hollow in a world where we are able to plan with confidence. Now it rings clear. That is a good thing. If CV19 teaches us to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’ (James 4:15), we will actually be in a healthier place.

The world we have created tends to make us very arrogant. We feel we are in control because of the general predictability of our systems and services. But really we are not. CV19 is humbling us. It is teaching us not to ‘boast in your arrogant schemes’ (James 4:16). For that we should be thankful – and seize the opportunity it affords us to proclaim the good news of an unshakeable heavenly Father ‘who does not change like shifting shadows’ (James 1:17).

Like James, this is a time to proclaim: ‘Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded’ (James 4:8). Our plans are flimsy: His are immovable.

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DeFranza: Good News for Gender Minorities - A Response

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Next up in my series interacting with the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities is a response to Megan K. DeFranza's chapter, 'Good News for Gender Minorities'.

DeFranza exhibits a deep concern that we recognise transgender as a topic about real people. This is a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. I also agree that any feelings of disgust or fear towards transgender people are utterly misplaced.

However, I would challenge the unquestioned assumption that the only way to truly care for transgender people is to affirm them in an identification with their gender identity. This assumption goes hand in hand with another undefended perspective in the chapter: that someone’s gender identity is their ‘authentic self’ (p.176) and so to transition is to tell the real truth (p.150). This is a position that needs to be argued for not simply assumed, but DeFranza fails to do this. When there is a conflict, on what basis do we affirm gender identity as the true self rather than biological sex?

Much of DeFranza’s chapter draws on the reality of differences of sex development (DSDs) or intersex conditions and unhelpfully confuses them with transgender. Despite explicit acknowledgment that most intersex people don’t identify as transgender (p.150), she often collapses the two into one. This is seen in the logic of her response to the Nashville Statement. Putting forward evidence that sex differences are not a pure binary, she argues that the Nashville Statement should therefore view transgender in much the same way as it does intersex conditions: ‘As the Nashville Statement illustrates, it seems that if scientists could pinpoint physical causes for transgender identity, then transgender people would fall under the umbrella of those with “differences of sex development” and thus be included (at least by adherents of the statement) as those who “are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers”’ (p.156).

There are two issues with this perspective. One is that there is not yet firm evidence to support the idea that gender incongruence is always or even usually caused by a biological variation.1 Transgender and intersex are different phenomena.

Second, the claim that sex differences are not binary is not true. DeFranza states ‘Human sex is dimorphic, meaning there are two basic bodily patterns, but not strictly so; it also falls on a continuum’ (p.152). In scientific terms, sex difference is determined through reproductive roles. This is the only recognised and stable way of determining maleness or femaleness and it delineates a clear binary, not a continuum.2 It is true that in the case of DSDs there can be variations from what is usually expected in reproductive structures, but these differences are clearly variations from the expected structure, not alternatives on a continuum. This is why many intersex conditions will leave a person infertile rather than offering alternative functional reproductive structures.

In the case of the vast majority of transgender people, the reproductive structure fits what is expected for a male or a female. Even if secondary sex characteristics, brain structure, personality, or preferences can be plotted on a male-female continuum, these do not undermine the stable identification as male or female based on reproductive structures. DeFranza is therefore wrong to suggest that transgender should be thought of as akin to intersex. They are very different phenomena.

Two further points can be noted on the critique of article 6 of the Nashville Statement. The first is a point of agreement. It is sad if accidental, and wrong if deliberate, that while affirming those born with DSDs as being created in the image of God and having equal dignity and worth to other image-bearers, no such affirmation is made in the Nashville Statement about those who experience gender incongruence (or same-sex attraction). The statement speaks of those who are intersex with a level of care and respect lacking in its response to gender incongruence.

I feel DeFranza is unfair, however, in her accusation that the statement’s language of ‘adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception’ suggests people choose their sexual orientation or gender identity (p.154). Though the statement’s language is clunky, it is clearly trying to speak of the choice to conceive of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a core identity which must be expressed. Nothing is said of the general experience of gender incongruence or same-sex attraction. It is probably DeFranza’s assumption that gender identity is one’s true self which leads to this misunderstanding.

In the second half of her chapter, DeFranza offers her perspective on the biblical material. Here I will raise only the most serious problems I observed in her readings.

There are many problems with DeFranza’s treatment of Matthew 19:1-12. First, she claims that ‘Jesus names eunuchs as those who do not fit the pattern of male and female’ (p.160). However, the topic of debate in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees in Matthew 19 is marriage, not sex difference. Eunuchs are used as examples of those who might not marry and who couldn’t father children, activities which were pretty much expected for everyone in Jesus’ context. Like other biblical authors, Jesus most probably thought of eunuchs as males who are unable to procreate (as argued here).

DeFranza rejects the common reading that Jesus uses the eunuch as an example of celibate singleness suggesting that there is no explanation ‘why he would employ the enigmatic figure of the eunuch to make this point’ (p.160). However, there is are very good reasons why Jesus would do this. First, because eunuchs were unable to produce children. Marriage and childbearing were seen almost as religious duties in the time of Jesus. Eunuchs were unable to father children and were therefore the perfect illustration for Jesus to make the radical point that in his kingdom some people would voluntarily forego marriage and childbearing. Second, eunuchs often served as high-ranking officials in royal courts (as DeFranza states on p.162) and so Jesus could use them as a picture of the kind of service that celibate single people can render to God. It is these points about marriage and singleness which Jesus is seeking to make by employing the figure of the eunuch, not any point about biological sex.

To support her view, DeFranza claims that some in the early church interpreted Matthew 19:12 as a call to reject gender privileges, but these voices, she notes, were silenced when the views of Augustine and others on the importance of gender distinctions became the dominant view. The suggestion seems to be that Augustine was wrong – although this view isn’t defended – and that other early Christians understood Jesus correctly. This being so, she suggests that many early Christians wouldn’t have shared the outrage of some modern Christians about the voluntary surgical alteration of genitals among those who experience gender incongruence.

There are two problems here. One is that DeFranza offers no scriptural evaluation of the early church’s differing views. Augustine may have been right; we won’t know until we evaluate his view against Scripture. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Ephesians 5:22-33, and 1 Peter 3:1-7, which suggest a level of importance to gender distinctions in at least some settings, are not considered. The second problem is that the parallel between modern surgery for transgender people and voluntary castration in the early church is inexact. The view in the early church was that gender distinctions are unimportant and perhaps even unhelpful; therefore, some chose to castrate themselves to renounce gender. By contrast, the view behind supporting surgery for transgender people says that gender is so important it can justify surgery to give it bodily support. If anything, the early church’s alternative view argues against modern affirming perspectives on transgender.

Much of the rest of DeFranza’s treatment of Scripture suffers from the fact that she employs texts about eunuchs (e.g. Isaiah 56 and Acts 8) without sufficiently taking into consideration the difference between ancient eunuchs and transgender people. Her arguments are better applied to those with intersex conditions than to those identifying as transgender.

On Genesis 1, DeFranza suggests that the binaries in creation are not absolute. I have responded to this argument before when considering intersex. Going to the other end of the Bible story, she argues that the presence of great diversity in the multitude before the throne in Revelation 7, diversity which wasn’t present in the garden, shows that God’s intention is to welcome people ‘as they are, not after some kind of restoration to an Edenic pattern’ (p.174, emphasis original). However, the diversity in Revelation 7 is of people groups and languages, diversity which naturally results from human reproduction. Scripture never suggests that these forms of diversity are a distortion of God’s plan in creation or that they are in conflict with it.3 The same cannot be said of gender incongruence, given that Scripture consistently speaks only of males and females and expects individuals to live out the sexed identity given to them in their body. Revelation 7 therefore does not speak to whether there will be ‘restoration to an Edenic pattern’ at the end of the story.

DeFranza’s chapter is a strong attempt to present a thought-through and biblically reasoned affirming position in response to transgender, but ultimately I find that at many key points her arguments fail and so her case is unpersuasive. While I want to reflect DeFranza’s heart attitude of care and love towards transgender people, I believe that her perspective on how this love and care should be expressed is fundamentally flawed.

Footnotes

  • 1 See the critique of the claim that brain sex theory may provide such evidence in my response to Yarhouse and Sadusky.
  • 2 See Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (Encounter Books, 2018), pp.79-81.
  • 3 The story of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) doesn’t undermine this. Though the confusion of languages and dispersion are presented as an act of judgement, this is only because this dispersion was the very thing the people had been trying to avoid in building the city and tower (Gen. 11:4). The original mandate to humanity was to fill the earth (Gen. 1:28) and so the dispersion of humans across the earth and the emergence of different peoples and languages was part of God’s creational intent. The same cannot be said of gender: no diversity beyond the male and female binary is expected in the original creation (Gen. 1:27).

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Running Towards the Plague

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Death is killing us. It has a one hundred per cent mortality rate.

When preaching on Romans 5 last year I referenced the Spanish flu. In 1918 this virus infected 500 million people (at a time when the global population was below two billion) and killed between 50 and 100 million. Imagine, I said, a similar virus appearing somewhere in China today, and then spreading out and impacting the whole world.

Hello Covid-19.

The current global crisis caused by the coronavirus is a helpful illustration of what Paul is describing in Romans 5. We can read Paul’s description of sin entering the world through one man, and death through sin, bringing death to all, and wonder, ‘What’s Adam got to do with me? Why am I guilty too?’ As we see the spread of the virus and its impact on everyone we get an insight into what Paul means. You can have the virus without realising it. You can be free of the virus but still impacted by travel restrictions, or the economic impact, or a shortage of toilet paper. In that sense, everyone has the coronavirus – it has spread to us all, even if we always wash our hands, cough into our elbows and have never eaten a bat or a pangolin. It’s the same with sin.

The outbreak of Covid-19 might be helpful to us Christians in reminding us of the reality of death. It’s easy to live as if death is something imagined: something that doesn’t really happen, or only to other people. But death comes to us all, and our mandate is to call people into a relationship with Christ that saves them – our ‘duty of care’ is to see people saved from an eternal death by stepping into ‘eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom.5:21).

We should also recognise just how bad we are at accurately measuring risk. We tend to worry too much about things we shouldn’t and not enough about things we should. If we were truly rational we would pay close attention to aircraft safety briefings and carefully study the emergency information card in the seat pocket – but barely any of us do. When it comes to the coronavirus it is unlikely to be as deadly as some of the other things we are dying of. This year in the UK we can expect around 20,000 to die from mental and behavioural disorders; 25,000 from digestive diseases; 70,000 from respiratory diseases; 140,000 from cancer; and 160,000 from heart disease. Death really is very deadly.

Covid-19 is as yet a long way from being the killer that some of the other things that kill us are, but even if it became as serious as the influenza of 1918 Christians would be called to not give into fear but to be good witnesses to our faith in Jesus Christ.

I was helped in this by an article by Eric Metaxas:

Between 250 and 270 A.D. a terrible plague, believed to be measles or smallpox, devastated the Roman Empire. At the height of what came to be known as the Plague of Cyprian, after the bishop St. Cyprian who chronicled what was happening, 5,000 people died every day in Rome alone.

The plague coincided with the first empire-wide persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius. Not surprisingly, Decius and other enemies of the Church blamed Christians for the plague. That claim was, however, undermined by two inconvenient facts: Christians died from the plague like everybody else and, unlike everybody else, they cared for the victims of the plague, including their pagan neighbours.

This wasn’t new—Christians had done the same thing during the Antonine Plague a century earlier. As Rodney Stark wrote in “The Rise of Christianity,” Christians stayed in the afflicted cities when pagan leaders, including physicians, fled.

Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, notes that an “epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity.” By their actions in the face of possible death, Christians showed their neighbours that “Christianity is worth dying for.”

Rather than, on the one hand, panic buying loo rolls and pasta, or on the other, unconcerned indifference, we need to be people who ‘run towards the plague’. The present crisis will give us many opportunities to display ‘the abundant provision of grace’ that is ours in Christ. We have a solid hope and good news to tell. Death is deadly, but we are in the life-saving business.

 

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Missing the Heart of the Story

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There’s a new show on in London’s West End: The Prince of Egypt. Based on the 1998 DreamWorks animated film of the same title, the musical is a dramatic retelling of the story of Exodus from the birth and rescue of Moses to the crossing of the Red Sea.

After a few weeks of previews, the show officially opened with its press night on February 25th and received less than desirable reviews. I saw the show during previews. While there are some good moments, especially in the original songs, I would agree with much said in the reviews.

What struck me most though is something which – unsurprisingly - none of the reviews mention; it’s what the creators have done to the story. Now, it’s easy to watch adaptations of biblical stories and to complain about inaccuracies in their retelling. I’m not sure such complaints are always wholly justified. The nature of adaptations is that some level of artistic license is inevitable, and the brevity of biblical narrative means that expansion is usually necessary to meet modern expectations for films and shows.

But it wasn’t these changes that struck me. The changes I noticed are more fundamental. They’re about what’s at the very heart of the story, and they illustrate a somewhat skewed reading of the biblical text.  Three aspects struck me in particular. (I’ll avoid revealing any significant spoilers in what follows, but those who want to see the show with fresh eyes may not want to read on!)

The Prince of Egypt puts a strong focus on the internal struggles and journeys of the key characters. The first act highlights the relationships of the two brothers – Moses and Pharaoh (identified as Rameses in the show) – and their respective wives, as each pair meet and journey towards marriage. The internal dynamics are explored as Rameses wrestles with whether he wants to marry the woman picked for him by his parents and Moses struggles with his growing affection for a Midianite woman. Other highlighted internal struggles are Moses’ questioning of his identity when he finds out he is a Hebrew by birth, his feelings of guilt when the plagues hit Egypt, and the anguish of Rameses’ wife after the death of their firstborn.

There is also a subtle message about the human heart. The show ends with an ambiguous and surprising turn of events. (I’ll try not to give too much away.) The underlying idea seems to be that the human heart is inherently good, so even if there have been disagreements and conflict there is always hope for resolution and reconciliation.

The third thing I noticed was about what isn’t there, rather than what is. The show retains many mentions of the gods of the Egyptians, and so it is striking that Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, is rarely mentioned and his role is downplayed. For example, the burning bush incident is a very short scene near the end of the first act; Moses, if anyone, is presented as the force behind the plagues, and even in the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea, Yahweh isn’t given a prominent part.

These three emphases in the story of The Prince of Egypt strike me as a very modern take on the story which stands in tension with the biblical account. Biblical narrative usually has little interest in the internal life of the characters; rarely are we told what characters think or feel, and so, when we are, we can be sure that those details are significant. In Exodus, there is little about the internal life of Moses, apart from his repeated discomfort with Yahweh’s plan to use him as messenger and leader. The revelation of this discomfort should help us to recognise that it is important; it contributes to a key theme.

This key theme is that Yahweh is the sovereign God of all and he is therefore able to triumph over the so-called gods of the Egyptians, to rescue his people, and to keep his promises. The first part of Exodus is a showdown between Yahweh and the gods of the Egyptians, represented by Pharaoh. The partial erasure of Yahweh from The Prince of Egypt sidelines this element of the story, a fact which reveals a lack of understanding about Old Testament narrative: it’s almost always primarily about God! It is this theme in Exodus that explains Moses’ protests about his suitability for the task. It is exactly his weaknesses which make him the perfect candidate for Yahweh to use because they will allow Yahweh to show that he and he alone is responsible for the victory.

The idea that the human heart is inherently good is also in conflict with the biblical account. The recurring motif of Pharaoh’s hard heart – and the complex interplay between God and Pharaoh in terms of the cause of this hardness – is meant to speak of the fact that the human heart is not inherently good. The account of Exodus beyond the crossing of the Red Sea will show that the problem of hard hearts was just as prominent among the Israelites, and so as the biblical narrative continues through the rest of the Pentateuch and beyond it is looking for the answer to this problem. The answer will be briefly mentioned later in the Pentateuch (Deut. 30:6), promised in the prophets (e.g. Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; Jer. 31:33), and then, ultimately, enacted by the Messiah (e.g. Rom. 2:29; Heb. 8:10).

Does all this mean that The Prince of Egypt is a bad show? Not necessarily. In terms of these elements, perhaps only if it’s claiming to be a faithful retelling of the biblical account. Should we go to see it? Sure, but don’t go seeking to learn how to read the Old Testament! In Scripture, God has spoken to us in words, and each of these words and the nuance and emphases they communicate are important. We need to read them well. Would I go again? I still can’t decide!

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Yarhouse & Sadusky: The Complexities of Gender Identity - A Response

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Continuing my series engaging with Understanding Transgender Identities, in this post I respond to Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky’s chapter, ‘The Complexities of Gender Identity: Toward a More Nuanced Response to the Transgender Experience’.

When talking about a personal and emotive subject like transgender, tone and posture are important. Yarhouse and Sadusky’s chapter provides a good example of the tone and posture that I believe we should seek to adopt when engaging in this conversation. They write with a deep understanding of the reality of gender incongruence and the distress which it can cause, expressing compassion and concern for those experiencing this distress.  In addition, they exhibit a desire to submit to the Bible’s teaching even when it might not fit with our natural instincts in a situation; they offer a balanced evaluation of scientific research into the effectiveness of medical transitioning and put a strong focus on thinking through how Christians can best support those experiencing gender dysphoria. All of these are strengths in this chapter.

The three interpretive lenses offered in the chapter, and previously explained in Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria, provide a useful way of understanding different perspectives on gender identity. (So much so that other contributors make use of them in their responses elsewhere in the book, see DeFranza’s response to Sabia-Tanis.) I particularly value the way that Yarhouse and Sadusky highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each lens and seek to bring each under the authority of the Bible as they attempt to integrate them together. The imaginative exercise of applying each lens to the pastoral response of a local church in the last section is particularly helpful (pp.125-128).

Yarhouse and Sadusky do well in acknowledging the diversity of experiences and expressions of gender which now fall under the terminology of transgender. This is important to note as it is a complicating factor in the conversation which is not always acknowledged. Their discussion of emerging gender identities is helpful (pp.108-111). They explain how the early 20th century saw the separation of observable biological traits, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and how this has made the way for the multiplication of different gender identities.

In their application of the interpretive lenses to the possibility of gender transition, Yarhouse and Sadusky give a useful discussion of the nature of healing in this life (pp.113-115). I agree with their observation that, while able, God often does not act to remove sources of suffering from our life in this age and that a ‘robust theodicy’ (p.114) is therefore necessary. This is akin to my suggestion that we should respond to gender dysphoria as an experience of suffering rather than identity. I agree with Yarhouse and Sadusky that gender dysphoria can be an opportunity to glorify God in suffering while eagerly awaiting the redemption to be experienced in the resurrection.

While I find many areas of agreement with Yarhouse and Sadusky’s chapter, I believe there are also several weaknesses in their contribution to this conversation. One which struck me most was their suggestion that gender dysphoria may be caused by an intersex brain, that is, that a biological male might have a female brain or vice versa. Citing a review of studies into the brain structures of transgender people, they conclude that in light of recent research ‘the intersex [brain] hypothesis seems more plausible’ (p.107). This conclusion is slightly surprising coming immediately after an acknowledgment of the limitations in the methodologies applied in these studies. It is also a misleading way of talking about brain differences.

Brains are not distinctly male or female in the same way chromosomes, gonads and genitals are in non-intersex people. There are parts of the brain which differ between males and females, but they differ on a continuum and so the identification of a brain structure as male or female is based on what is commonly found for males and females, not on what is always found. In this way, the sexed differences in the brain are fundamentally different from the sexed differences elsewhere in the body which are used to determine biological sex. In non-intersex people (i.e. the vast majority of people), there are two distinct forms that chromosomes, gonads, and genitals can take. There are not two comparable distinct forms of brain. Thus, while some males may have brains which in some ways more closely reflect what is more commonly found in a female brain, and these differences could potentially be the cause of gender incongruence, this is not comparable to an intersex condition where there is a clear variation upon the two standard patterns. The brain, therefore, cannot be a clear indication of sexed identity. In light of this, it is surprising that Yarhouse and Sadusky use the language of an ‘intersex brain’ approvingly and even suggest that if further evidence supports the idea, Christians may need to consider whether gender identity could in some cases be indicative of creational intent (p.112). Brain differences are not sufficiently dimorphic to carry this weight.1

Another weakness of the chapter is the paucity of references to Scripture. Yarhouse and Sadusky mention Genesis 1-2 in relation to the integrity lens and Genesis 3 when explaining the disability lens but otherwise make little use of Scripture. In part, this may be because they write more as psychologists than theologians, and indeed it is this specialism which makes their contribution to the Christian conversation, including outside of this book, particularly useful. However, I’m not sure their perspective fully wrestles with Scripture as much as is necessary. This most concerns me where they seem to take the position that transitioning is not God’s intention for us but may sometimes be permissible in exceptional cases. This is a view for which they do not give a biblical defense and is one, I think, for which they would struggle to do so.

The complex topic of the morality of gender incongruence comes to the fore in discussions of the disability lens. These discussions suffer from the same sort of lack of nuance I have identified in Strachan’s chapter, although with rather different conclusions. Yarhouse and Sadusky note that the disability lens sees gender incongruence as an involuntary result of the Fall and therefore a non-moral issue comparable to other conditions such as depression or anxiety (pp.104, 126). This is probably a fair presentation of the perspective of many who would view transgender through the disability lens, but it suffers from a lack of nuance in distinguishing between the involuntary experience of incongruence and the desires and actions which can flow from that experience. To take up the comparison made in the chapter in relation to depression, the experience of depression is a non-moral issue, but how that depression is then handled is a moral issue. For any of us who experience or have experienced depression, there are choices to be made about what we do – and what we desire to do – in response. Some of these desires and actions could be holy and wise, others sinful and unwise. So while it is true that the involuntary experience is non-moral, the voluntary response in cherished desire and in action is moral. This nuance would, I feel, give the disability lens a more thoroughly biblical perspective.  

I found Yarhouse and Sadusky’s chapter a particularly helpful contribution to this discussion. While there are some areas I feel could be improved, in general, their approach to transgender and their analysis of Christian responses to the topic is one which I think can help Christians to think and act carefully, compassionately, and wisely towards those for whom transgender is a real-life experience.

Footnotes

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Why Read the Old Testament?

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I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here; you all know how wonderful exciting and necessary the Old Testament is. But I know many people struggle with it, so at our women's day last weekend I did a very brief talk on why we should read and get to know the OT. In case it's any use, I share it here.

I LOVE the Old Testament – but you probably want a better reason than that to read it, so here are five:

1) The New Testament tells us to.

In 2 Timothy 3, Paul tells Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

At the time he wrote that, ‘all scripture’ was only the OT. Paul didn’t yet know that his letter would be seen as scripture. He didn’t have the Gospels. He and his friends were still writing scripture with their lives.

We should read the OT because it is the word of God to us and for us.

2) It tells us about Jesus.

I think we often lean towards the NT because it is the bit about Jesus, and we like him. But the whole Bible points to him.

After Jesus’ death, two of his disciples, not knowing he had already risen, were walking to Emmaus, feeling sad and bewildered. Jesus appeared beside them and said, effectively, ‘didn’t you see this coming?’

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
(When it says ‘Moses’, it doesn’t mean the burning bush, or even the baby in the bulrushes, but ‘the books of Moses’ which is another name for the first five books of the Bible – so starting with all creation he interpreted the things about himself. It’s all about Jesus.)

3) The New Testament quotes it all the time.

Jesus and his disciples, and the early church, thought the OT was still relevant. So many times when apostles were brought before the courts and asked to defend themselves and the Christian faith, they did so by telling the story of the Old Testament. Jesus said he had come not to abolish it, but to fulfil it. If they thought it was important, we should too.

4) Plus, it really is SOOO GOOD!

I’ve always loved it – there are so many great stories – adventures, battles, highs and lows, disasters and rescues.

Yes, there’s lots that is hard to understand, but the more you dig in, the more beautiful and rich and powerful it is.

And as I come to understand it more, I am more and more amazed at the elegant craftsmanship of it. It is really increasing my confidence in the fact that the Bible isn’t just a collection of random texts written on the whims of different men over hundreds of years, but that there was an absolute master craftsman guiding every hand, and indeed, guiding the events they wrote about.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

A couple of weeks ago, Matt Smethurst tweeted (with an HT to Andrew Wilson):

“In Genesis 40, Joseph has criminals on both sides. He promises death to one and life to another. Then he’s lifted up and given all authority.”

Then Andrew Wilson replied,

“My favourite thing about this is that Joseph is in the pit between a baker (= bread) and a cupbearer (= wine).
A cup becomes the means of reconciliation with his brothers. Bread becomes the gift of life with which he feeds the nations.”

(There was an ‘ooh’ of recognition as I read that tweet out the other weekend, proving the point - this stuff is exciting!)

Those servants could easily have been Pharaoh’s chariot-driver and chamber-pot-emptier, but God orchestrated them to be the symbols that represented Christ’s body and blood, through which we are reconciled to him, and are given life. (Interestingly, the bread in the dream was eaten by birds, which often represent the nations, biblically.)

If you’re feeling very brave or geeky, look up @JamesBejon and @DrPJWilliams on twitter. They write extremely long, detailed, technical, geeky threads about themes in the Bible, which are absolutely fascinating. James turns some of his into papers. This, on Ruth and Boaz, is a particularly wonderful example.

5) And finally, we should read the OT because you can’t fully understand the NT – or the gospel, or the Christian life – without it.

I’m currently studying for a Diploma in Bioethics and Medical Law. I’m on the Medical Law module at the moment, and one thing I’ve learned already is that judges always lean on the laws, and interpretations of those laws, that have gone before. They never assess a case simply on its merits, but look at how other judges have handled similar cases, how Human Rights law has been interpreted in similar situations, what explanatory comments other judges have made when making or interpreting rulings.

Nothing sits on its own; everything rests on what has gone before. And that is the same with our faith – that’s why the NT writers spent so much time quoting the OT – they were showing how what had gone before formed and informed what God was doing now.

It’s how we make sense of difficult teachings of Paul – we go back and look at creation, at the Law given to Moses, at the different commands God gave his people, at who he chose for different tasks, at how he taught people to treat one another, and we interpret the new teachings in light of the old.

Jesus said he had not come to abolish the Law – by which he meant all the teachings of the OT – but to fulfil it (Matt 5:17). He showed what it really meant, and how we should live it.

Or if you’re more artistically minded, think of the OT as the underpainting.

When an artist is starting a painting, he or she begins by doing an underpainting. In this example, the artist is trying to create realistic skin tones. He can’t just mix paint to the right shade of pinky-peach, or the picture will look like a Barbie doll. First he blocks in a darker colour and some rough shadows.

Picture of underpainting and photo of model

The painting now is like the OT – you can sort of see what it’s going to be, but it’s very rough, and the colours are all wrong.
Then the artist adds the next layers, and the picture comes to life.
Underpainting and finished portrait

Without the NT, the picture is very vague and unclear. Without the OT, the NT picture is fine, it kind of works, it’s much clearer what it is supposed to be, but somehow it is a bit lacking in depth.

Underpainting and Barbie doll

With both together, you get a much more accurate picture.

FInished portrait and photo of model

It’s still not perfect – it’s still just a picture, not the real thing – we’ll only truly see that when we get to heaven, but it’s a much closer, richer, more satisfying picture.


So, read your Bible, all of it. It is a precious gift, given to help us grow into the people God created us to be.

——-
Painting images source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7xbMGqLS30
Barbie image source: https://morguefile.com/p/66818

 

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Communion and Corona

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The Lord’s Supper, that great symbol of Christian unity, has long caused contention. We may not be fighting tooth and nail over transubstantiation, consubstantiation or concomitance – but whether the wine should be wine, or juice, the bread should be bread, or gluten free, the cup one, or many, can cause real friction in congregations. Throw in concerns about hygiene, highlighted at the moment by the corona virus, and we can find ourselves in eucharistic chaos.

My experience of celebrating the Lord’s Supper has changed significantly over the years. Like many from a low, free church background, my experience of the Lord’s Supper was of a monthly-observed, painfully introspective, somewhat off-putting communion service. Then into a more charismatic and ‘grace-filled’ expression of church, communion became less regularly celebrated and when it was often painfully informal. Over the past ten years a recovery of a more Calvinistic emphasis on the real, spiritual, presence of Jesus in the supper has led to communion being celebrated more regularly, and more meaningfully.

In the church where I pastor our normal practice is to celebrate the supper every Sunday. There is theological conviction about this, as the instructions of the New Testament seem to necessitate regular participation in the supper. There is ecclesiological conviction as we recognise the manner in which our partaking in the bread and wine speak of our ‘one bodied-ness’ with the church universal. And there is hermeneutical conviction as communion brings into physical, visual, focus what has been expressed in words during singing, praying and preaching.

Yet the concerns of (and for) those with allergies and intolerances (did such things exist in the first century?!) mean that at times we have ended up with three different types of ‘bread’ available; so we have now taken the line of least resistance and use only gluten free bread – though at least one person has claimed to be allergic to this and others protest its consistency and texture. Concerns of (and for) those with alcohol problems mean that we were offering both real wine and grape juice but have now adopted alcohol free wine – though it tastes nothing like wine. At least now we do not cycle through a menu (literally) of options for those participating in the supper, though bread without any wheat in it and wine without any alcohol in it don’t feel quite in line with the habits of the first church.

We dislike using those little ‘shot’ glasses for communion; or pre-chopping the bread into tiny squares. Both these practices seem to undermine the very physicality that the supper represents, and certainly the oneness of the loaf and of the cup. But when swine flu came through a few years back people started getting very nervous about hygiene, so we adopted the practice of intinction (dipping the bread into the wine). This is a help to those who feel squeamish about drinking from the same cup as their neighbour – though if that neighbour has dirty fingers that get dipped in the cup the comfort is scant. (This risk is exacerbated by the use of gluten free bread that has a tendency to fall into crumbs rather than hold together.)

And then someone new to our church told me she could not participate in the supper with us because intinction is unbiblical, and that got me thinking again. (The most helpful analysis I have found of the validity or otherwise of intinction is here.)

So I’m feeling increasingly uneasy about intinction, but last Sunday was at a church where we shared cups, and that felt quite odd from a hygiene perspective (I was conscious of the fact that I had been unwell and was possibly passing something nasty on) and the week before that I was at another church where we used plastic shot glasses, and that felt too antiseptic. (And what about the turtles if we’re using more plastic?!) While the real risk from COVID-19 seems minimal there is no doubt lots of people are feeling very fearful about it and are likely to be fearful about communion hygiene – even if you are more likely to contract a virus by talking with someone over coffee after the service than during communion, no matter how it is administered.

I want us to go on celebrating the supper regularly – I’m theologically, ecclesiologically and hermeneutically committed to that. I’d much rather use real wine and real bread, but don’t want to exclude those for whom this is difficult. I don’t want a range of ‘offers’ in the elements as that is so damaging to the enacted sermon of partaking in one loaf, and one cup. I don’t want to be hygiene obsessed, but recognise the cultural significance of hygiene in our context. My natural tendency would be to tell people to stop missing the wood for the trees, take the supper in faith, and not worry about allergies or viruses - but pastorally I probably need to be more flexible than that.

It’s a communion conundrum!

We’re currently having an eldership discussion to work our way through this conundrum but it seems something will have to be sacrificed in order to achieve an acceptable compromise. I don’t want our experience of the supper to be compromised - but perhaps sacrificing something isn’t such a bad principle when it comes to how we approach communion.

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Strachan: Transition or Transformation? - A Response

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In this series I'm offering my own responses to each of the chapters in the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities. In this post, I respond to Owen Strachan's chapter, 'Transition or Transformation? A Moral-Theological Exploration of Christianity and Gender Dysphoria'.

Strachan starts where I think any Christian response to transgender should start: by reminding us of the full humanity and the consequent right to dignity and respect of every person who experiences gender dysphoria. It is sad that this is where Christian teaching must begin, but it is necessary. I am glad this foundation is the first laid in Strachan’s chapter.

I am also grateful for Strachan’s commitment to biblical authority. In some ways, I agree with his statement that the conversation contained in the book is ultimately about the Bible (p.58), although where Strachan sees it as a debate about biblical authority, in reality, I think it’s a debate about how best to understand and apply the Bible. All four authors claim to be committed to the authority of the Bible and all four make use of scriptural arguments. The disagreements are on what the Bible means and how that should be lived out. This is where the conversation needs to be had. Strachan seems to see his reading of Scripture as the only possible reading and therefore concludes that anyone who does not share his perspective is not accepting biblical authority. In so doing, he sidesteps the real reasons for disagreement which in turn hinders the potential for constructive dialogue among Christians.   

I fully agree with Strachan that the matter of anthropology – and specifically identity – is vital in this conversation and that at the core of different views on transgender are different understandings of what it means to be human and how we find or make our identity. This, I think, is one of the most fruitful places to explore as I have sought to do in my own engagement with the topic.

While I find these several points of agreement, there are many places where I found myself disagreeing with Strachan or at least wishing things were said more carefully. While I am grateful for his affirmation of the humanity and worth of every person who experiences gender dysphoria, I felt there was a lack of compassion and feeling in his writing. There is no evidence of a real appreciation of the intense, sometimes even debilitating, pain that gender dysphoria can cause. It is striking to me that in his opening section affirming the humanity and dignity of those with gender dysphoria there is no mention of love or compassion. There is something quite clinical and abstract about the way Strachan handles an incredibly personal and emotive topic. I’m not sure this suits an attempt to put forward the perspective of a God who feels deeply and who, far from approaching human experience in the abstract, stepped into it and experienced it from within.

I find some of Strachan’s analysis of the biblical text helpful, especially as he makes the case that the Bible conceives of humans as existing in a binary of male or female. However, I feel his outline of manhood and womanhood goes beyond what can actually be affirmed from the biblical text. He also fails to make clear whether the male and female roles determined from texts about married couples, such as Adam and Eve, apply only within marriage relationships or to all men and women.

Strachan rightly affirms the reality of intersex and the involuntary nature of these conditions. (Interestingly this is the one place where a sense of compassion appears in Strachan’s writing. Presumably gender dysphoria is not similarly seen as involuntary.) However, his suggestions for a pastoral response to intersex are disappointing. His affirmation that the presence of a Y chromosome means an individual should be treated as a man shows a failure to appreciate the complexity of intersex conditions and roots biological sex in chromosomes rather than hormones, gonads, or genitalia. On what authority is the decision made that chromosomes should be the defining feature when there is genuine ambiguity across the various sexed elements of the body? I fear this view is rooted in a desire for ease rather than any clear authority. The same lack of understanding is shown in the explanation of intersex as the possession of ‘genitalia of both sexes’. Very rarely is such mixed genitalia the form intersex conditions take; the term can cover a huge range of conditions where the body exhibits some level of variation from what is usually expected for a male or a female.

Another point where I have concerns is in the way Strachan talks about the sinfulness of desire in relation to gender identity. As with the parallel discussion about whether same-sex attraction is sinful, this is a complicated topic which has to be handled with great nuance. It is this nuance which I think is lacking in Strachan’s discussion.

Strachan refers to ‘the sinfulness of gender bending and cross-dressing, whether at the impulse level – the level of desire – or at the level of physical practices’ (p.75). When read and understood carefully, I think this is largely correct. To have and foster a desire to cross-dress for the sake of taking on an identity other than one’s biological sex is, I think, sinful as it is a desire to go against creational intent.

However, this is not what is usually meant by gender incongruence or gender dysphoria. The ICD-11 defines gender incongruence as ‘a marked and persistent incongruence between an individual’s experienced gender and the assigned sex’, and the APA explain that gender dysphoria ‘involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify’. The APA’s use of ‘identify’ here is unhelpful (couldn’t someone experience this conflict without embracing their internal sense of gender as their identity?), but both definitions focus on an internal experience of tension and discomfort not a desire for cross-dressing or a change of gender. No doubt the former often leads to the latter, but the internal experience could be present without the accompanying desire. The desire is sinful as it is a desire to go against creational intent, but the internal experience which precedes it is not sinful, it is simply the acknowledgment of an involuntary feeling. This is why I think someone can experience deep discomfort with their biological sex without that being a sin for which repentance must take place. Strachan’s failure to observe this distinction leads to a perspective and response which is both unfair towards and impractical for those experiencing gender incongruence.1

My final concern with Strachan’s chapter is that he doesn’t offer practical alternative approaches for the management of gender dysphoria and the pain and distress it causes. This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of Strachan’s perspective that the discussion is just about sinful desire. This perspective means all he offers is quite generic guidance on repentance and sanctification, and he fails to engage sufficiently with the complex questions about how Christians with gender dysphoria should navigate the pain and distress of this experience.

Overall, I fear that Strachan’s chapter suffers from a failure to fully appreciate what the experience of gender dysphoria is like and a belief that the discussion is purely about a desire to identify with a gender different to one’s biological sex.

Footnotes

  • 1 Strachan’s position is parallel to the position of Denny Burk on same-sex attraction (as noted in n.45 p.75) where a similar lack of nuance is present. The most helpful brief critique of Burk, which has influenced my critique here, is in Preston Sprinkle, People to be Loved, pp.144-149.

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Fund Managers and Fancy Pants

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Luke 16 contains two of the most extraordinary stories Jesus ever told, and they’re both about money. One is about a crooked fund manager, and the other is about a man so wealthy that he is literally wearing fancy pants, but both of them have enormously important things to teach us about handling money wisely. Partly because they are such challenging stories, and partly because I’m going to be off here for a few weeks, I wanted to post my message on them from this last Sunday. I’ll see you again after Easter.

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Two Sets of Search Criteria

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Here are two descriptions of the ideal candidate for the office of Pastor. The first is taken from a large and well-known church in the West; the second is taken from Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule. I’ve broken them down into twelve chunks, for the sake of comparison.

Here’s the Western one. “The Senior Pastor will:

1) Be able to wear the dual hats of pastor (able to discern God’s direction for the congregation) ...
2) ... as well as CEO (with organizational leadership skills to lead a complex organization with more than 350 employees).
3) This leader will bring the right balance of preserving what is ...
4) ... but also will fan the flames of the church’s DNA of boldness, innovation, and creativity.
5) The Senior Pastor will lead and serve the Church at all its locations to become a thriving, healthy family of local churches.
6) This man or woman will provide overall leadership and vision for the entire network of regional campuses.
7) They will ensure the Church’s vision and strategy is clear and understood across all locations, that the right leaders are leading and serving the campuses, and that the Church is positioned for strength well into the future.
8) The Senior Pastor will have the ability to dream and cast vision for the next season of congregational life and community impact.
9) The ideal candidate will demonstrate spiritual leadership ...
10) ... an authentic walk with Jesus ...
11) ... and a proven commitment to balancing the rhythms of work and life.
12) He or she will be a proven “leader of leaders” who can motivate and inspire high-capacity men and women to use their gifts to further the vision.”

And here’s Gregory the Great (540-604). “That man, therefore, ought by all means to be drawn with cords to be an example of good living who:

1) already lives spiritually, dying to all passions of the flesh;
2) who disregards worldly prosperity;
3) who is afraid of no adversity;
4) who desires only inward wealth;
5) whose intention the body, in good accord with it, thwarts not at all by its frailness, nor the spirit greatly by its disdain:
6) one who is not led to covet the things of others, but gives freely of his own;
7) who through the bowels of compassion is quickly moved to pardon, yet is never bent down from the fortress of rectitude by pardoning more than is meet;
8) who perpetrates no unlawful deeds, yet deplores those perpetrated by others as though they were his own;
9) who out of affection of heart sympathizes with another’s infirmity, and so rejoices in the good of his neighbour as though it were his own advantage;
10) who so insinuates himself as an example to others in all he does that among them he has nothing, at any rate of his own past deeds, to blush for;
11) who studies so to live that he may be able to water even dry hearts with the streams of doctrine;
12) who has already learned by the use and trial of prayer that he can obtain what he has requested from the Lord, having had already said to him, as it were, through the voice of experience, “While you are yet speaking, I will say, Here am I” (Isaiah 58:9).”

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Understanding Transgender Identities

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Understanding Transgender Identities is a significant new release in the field of Christian discussions on transgender. It is a multi-view book in which four contributors share their reflections on transgender and each is invited to respond to the others’ chapters. The book is an incredibly helpful resource for anyone wanting to think deeply about the topic and to wrestle with different points of view.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be engaging with Understanding Transgender Identities. In this post, I’ll offer a brief summary of each of the contributors’ perspectives, and in subsequent posts I’ll offer my own responses to each of the chapters. Hopefully the series will give a bit of a flavour of the book and encourage some to get hold of it themselves.

The book opens with a substantial introduction outlining some of the relevant history, the current points of debate and controversy, and the Christian conversation so far. The introduction is full of useful information but is much more technical than the rest of the book. If you decide to give Understanding Transgender Identities a go and you struggle with the intro, don’t let it put you off!

Owen Strachan: ‘Transition or Transformation? A Moral-Theological Exploration of Christianity and Gender Dysphoria’

Strachan believes that a right understanding of conversion is the most important starting point for engaging the topic of transgender. After an opening call to affirm the full humanity of those who experience gender dysphoria and to recognise that they are worthy of respect and dignity, his first section gives biblical arguments for binary sex and for the importance of different roles for men and women (looking primarily at Gen. 2, Deut. 22:5, Judg. 4, Matt. 19:1-12, 1 Cor. 11, and Eph. 5:22-33). His view on transitioning is captured in this early statement: ‘[M]en and women who experience gender dysphoria should not undergo bodily changes but instead, with vivified awareness of the witness of Scripture and a moral imagination ignited for God, should pursue something greater and more effectual than any transition: transformation’ (pp.57-58).

In his second main section, ‘Engaging Social Science from a Christian Worldview’, Strachan argues for the importance of calling those with gender dysphoria to continue to live in line with their bodily identity, partly by citing evidence that transitioning does not prove helpful. He also makes explicit his understanding of the ‘sinfulness of gender bending and cross-dressing, whether at the impulse level – the level of desire – or at the level of physical practices’ (p.75). He calls pastors to lead those with gender dysphoria to live in line with their bodily identity through repentance and sanctification (acknowledging that this is a long process) and says that the church should speak out against ‘the mainstreaming of LGBT identity’ (p.78), while also acknowledging that supporting individuals requires a different approach to challenging the cultural narrative. 

Mark A. Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky: ‘The Complexities of Gender Identity: Toward a More Nuanced Response to the Transgender Experience’

Yarhouse and Sadusky’s chapter falls into three main sections. Their first section explores whether gender is a binary or a continuum. Here they outline three interpretive lenses - integrity, disability, and diversity - which can be used to understand differing perspectives on gender identity. These will be familiar to some from Yarhouse’s earlier work. They then look at biological and physiological perspectives, placing some weight on the idea that gender incongruence could be caused by an intersex brain. This opening section ends with a discussion of emerging gender identities in which dysphoria is not always present and also offers a potential explanation for why these alternative identities are becoming more common.

The second section explores gender transitioning, first explaining how each interpretive lens might evaluate the possibility of transitioning and then looking at medical approaches to transitioning. They offer a helpful and balanced assessment of scientific research on the effectiveness of transitioning.

The final section turns to the question of how Christians should respond to the transgender community, opening with the helpful reminder that we must avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Yarhouse and Sadusky explore what ministry to transgender people might look like through each lens, and the chapter closes with a call to continue working towards an integrated lens combining the strength of all three.

Broadly speaking, Yarhouse and Sadusky see gender as a binary, though they recognise the reality of gender incongruence and the impact it has on people. Theologically, they seem to understand this incongruence as a result of the Fall. They are very cautious about transitioning but suggest it may occasionally be acceptable in ‘cases of life-threatening gender dysphoria’ (p.113). Rather than expecting to see healing from gender dysphoria in this life, they treat it as a form of suffering to be navigated alongside a relationship with Jesus.

Megan K. DeFranza: ‘Good News for Gender Minorities’

DeFranza opens by noting how her views on transgender have changed over time. These changes have come about through meeting transgender people and through learning about ‘the complexity of human biology’ (p.150), which, she believes, reveals that ‘sex difference falls on a continuum’ (p.152).

DeFranza’s chapter critiques article 6 of the Nashville Statement. She first challenges the idea that gender identity is chosen, arguing that this view is disproven by the evidence for biological influences, the possibility of brain sex differences, and the complexities introduced by intersex. This being so, she argues that the Nashville Statement should not treat transgender as so sharply distinct from intersex. She accuses the sort of teaching found in the Nashville Statement of causing harm and trauma for transgender people.

The second half of DrFranza’s chapter explores biblical teaching, mostly looking at references to eunuchs. She makes much of Matthew 19:12 noting that Jesus acknowledges that eunuchs don’t fit within the male-female binary and uses them as a picture for radical discipleship. She draws on research into understandings of Matthew 19:12 in early Christianity to argue that some Christians (rightly) concluded that ‘giving up gender privileges inaugurated the freedom of the future kingdom of God’ (p.163). DeFranza also looks at eunuchs in the Torah, Isaiah 56, and Acts 8, arguing that there is a trajectory towards welcoming those who were previously excluded. It is also argued that Genesis 1 leaves room for continuums between its binary categories and that the vision of the redeemed in Revelation 7 shows the acceptance of diversity that wasn’t present in Eden.

In closing her chapter, DeFranza makes the case that identity in Christ is more important than gender identity and that this greater identity can successfully challenge cultural ideas about gender.

Justin Sabia-Tanis: ‘Holy Creation, Wholly Creative: God’s Intention for Gender Diversity’

Sabia-Tanis believes that ‘gender falls on a continuum of identities, reflecting a range of healthy human possibilities’ and that ‘these differences are naturally occurring and thus can be seen theologically as part of God’s plan for a diverse and wondrous creation’ (p.195). He notes the reality of liminal spaces between the binaries presented in Genesis 1, suggesting the same is true for humans, and gives examples of the gender continuum found among plants and animals including hermaphroditic organisms and those that change sex during their lifespan. Humans, he notes, can also exhibit such natural variations (intersex conditions) and evidence is growing for a biological basis to gender dysphoria. Turning to the Bible, he considers the positive approval of eunuchs in Isaiah 56, Matthew 19 and Acts 8 to be evidence of ‘God’s recognition and acceptance of an array of genders’ (p.203).

Speaking from his own experience as a trans man, Sabia-Tanis affirms the acceptability of gender transition for those who could be helped by it. He argues both from the sense of personal calling he and others have felt and from the right of transgender people to receive whatever treatment is best for their well-being, stressing that gender dysphoria should be viewed through the lenses of medicine and pastoral care and not as a sin issue. The application of counselling as a treatment for gender dysphoria is rejected on the basis that it is ineffective, and arguments are given for the safety and effectiveness of gender transition.

In his final section, ‘Considerations for Christians’, Sabia-Tanis calls for the application of a ‘uniquely Christian lens’ (p.214) to the topic. This lens should be shaped by key values of respect (for the body and self, for differing views, and for the complexity of the topic), compassion (which rejects any goodness in suffering and seeks to alleviate it), and justice (in view of discrimination and high levels of need among transgender people).

In subsequent posts in this series, I will offer my own response to each of the four chapters.

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A Chromatogram, Not A Ladder

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We all know (don't we?) that the leaders in a church are not 'better' than anyone else. They might be held to a higher standard, and have certain criteria they have to meet - at least to be elders or deacons - but they're not the ones who have 'made it', who God loves more than the rest of us, who are more worthy of...well, anything.

This is a hard saying. It’s just so completely foreign to the way we view the world that it is almost impossible to get our heads around (let alone to live like it is true). And for younger Christians, or those who particularly struggle with people-pleasing or performance-related issues, it can be one of the chinks in the armour through which the enemy wheedles his sharpest spears.

I’ve been speaking to several people at my church recently who are deeply discouraged because they don’t feel like they’re ‘making it’. Their friends are being invited to step up into leadership positions - of ministry teams, or Bible study groups or whatever - and they are being overlooked. It hurts. And it can be confusing. They might try to tell themselves it’s not a scale; it’s not about promotion, but when everything else in life is measured by achievement, it’s incredibly hard to imagine how it could be otherwise.

As I spoke with one person this week, I had a sudden revelation of how she could replace the ladder image with a more helpful picture. A chromatogram.

Chromatography is something you probably did in science at school. You put a dot of ink or food colouring near one end of a strip of paper, dip the end of the paper in water, and watch the component colours of the ink travel up the paper and separate from one another. The image above shows where some guy on the internet tried this with various different inks.

Look at the red one, 6th from the left.

The orange colour in that is no ‘better’ than the pinks beneath it. Nor is the Oxblood ink beside it better because it shot further up the paper, or has all its colours gathered at the top. The dark blue at the end isn’t a failure for having only spread a short way up the paper.

Each dye has a different chemical make up, a different density and a different manifestation. They respond differently to a stimulus, and are visible at different points along the paper, but neither is better or worse than the other. Neither has achieved more, or is more worthy of glory and praise.

In fact, every single one of those chemical compounds was necessary to make up the one colour of ink that the writer wanted. Many of them are unexpected - why would you need yellow to make up that Oxblood?

But let not the yellow say ‘because I am not a pink, you have no need of me’. And let not the orange say ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a magenta like that colour down there’. For we are all one body with many parts. Each is essential, and those parts which are often dishonoured are to receive greater honour.

Yes, we are to grow in maturity and faithfulness. Yes, we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness. But it is for the purpose of glorifying God, not receiving praise and honour from man.

It’s a chromatogram, not a ladder.

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Mouthfuls of Death

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If we didn’t want to be lied to, we wouldn’t be out in the market of lies looking for good deals. If we didn’t want to be lied to, we wouldn’t be buying false teaching from “Christian” authors who teach us un-Christian things. On some level we have wanted to be deceived. We have wanted to have things to believe that were not from or in the Word of God. We do not conform our thoughts to the Word, but instead we wait for teaching that does not address our sin honestly. This can feel like a good idea to a spiritual coward. I hate to say the obvious, but we should not want to be spiritual cowards, growing in our ability to dodge conviction bullets. Girl, you need to do a lot more than wash your face. This mess is bigger than you can handle, and it’s not even cute.

I’ll say it again. The fact that false ideas have found places in our lives is not because they were so good and irresistible that we just didn’t see they weren’t accurate. Sartre did not deceive so many people because he was an attractive wall-eyed, five-foot-tall pervert who thought he was being chased by crabs. He deceived people who already wanted to be deceived. When we want to be spoon-fed lies, we are asking to be a child of the devil, nurtured at his knee. Give me more mouthfuls of death, tenderly delivered.

—Rachel Jankovic, You Who: Why You Matter and How to Deal With It

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Seen to be Unseen

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What to do with Christ’s apparently contradictory instructions: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt.5:16) and, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” (Matt.6:1)?

Gregory answers,

What, then, does it mean that we are to do our good works so that they are not seen and, at the same time, do them so that they might be seen if not that we should hide the things that we do so that we will not be praised for them, but we should show the things that we do so that we may increase the praise of our Father in heaven? For when the Lord prohibited us from “doing our just works before men,” the same added: “so that you will not be seen by them.” And again, when he ordered that we should allow the good works that we do to be seen by men, he added: “that they may glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Therefore, the extent to which they are to be seen and not seen he demonstrated at the conclusion of each statement, saying, in effect, that the mind of the one doing the good should not seek to be seen himself, but, at the same time, he should not conceal the glory of the Father who is in heaven. Thus, it often happens, that a good work can be done secretly even though it is performed publicly, and again, it can be done publicly even it is secretive. For when someone who performs his good work in public but seeks not his own glory, but only that of the Father, such a one hides what he does, since he only had him as a witness and cared only about pleasing him. And the one who performed his good work in private but lusted for praise has, in effect, done his work before everyone, since he has made many people the witness of his efforts because he craved in his heart the praise of men.

- The Book of Pastoral Rule, Trans. George E. Demacopoulos, p.201

 

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Becoming Racist

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For those who are not on Twitter, this is a superb thread from Bradly Mason (@AlsoACarpenter), entitled “How I Became a Racist.” There is a lot to think about and learn from here:

Though, I believe, well intentioned, I was taught that,

a. racism is evil.
b. God made all humanity of one blood and nature, so differences are only skin deep.
c. racism was primarily a blight of the past with only a handful of racists here and there.
d. Christians and the civil rights movement fixed the problem and now America is fair for everyone, we live in a true meritocracy, no existing laws or customs favor one race over another, and discrimination is illegal.
e. anyone who goes to school, lives a moral life, and works hard can become Bill Gates in America.
f. the best way to end racism is to ignore race.
g. seeing race or allowing it to figure into social, church, economic, or political calculations is itself racist.

This was all well and good as a child, especially attending an all White church, going to an all White school, and living in an all White community. But as I grew, observed the world, and learned more, it was clear that the predominantly minority city next to ours was much poorer with much more crime. I learned that inner city, predominantly Black and Latinx schools performed much worse than did mine. I learned that Black Americans were disproportionately represented in the prison population. I learned that the unemployment rate was much higher among Black Americans, that wealth was wildly disproportionate, etc. I saw Reagan’s depictions of “welfare queens,” then Clinton’s “super predators,” and that Black Americans were always shown in the media as hard, unmarried, philandering, dangerous “gang-bangers.”

Having believed in items (a) through (g) above, what was I to do with this information (much of which was actually false)? How is possible that, by and large, one or two people-groups just couldn’t figure out how to be successful and get along, despite living in a nation and culture greater, more equal, and more free than anywhere in the world (I’d supposed)? It couldn’t be because of biology, given my Christian commitment, and as per (b) above.

Conservatives offered another answer: culture. I rolled with that idea for a while; “What’s wrong with Black people is not that they’re Black, it’s their culture.”  But it became increasingly clear that this was no less racist than the biology claim. It was, in many ways, literally identical! (Especially once one learns what “race” and “culture” actually mean.) That is, I loved all races and wished no ill will on anyone AND was at precisely the same time also a stone-cold racist!  (But if you’d told me that, I’d probably have said that YOU were the real racist, hahaha.)

Finally, through the course of many events, including the writing at RAAN and some fantastic brothers and sisters here on the internets, I was called out and shown that my fabricated view of the world was not as accurate as I thought it was, especially my historical ineptitude. I began to truly listen, step down off my intellectual throne, and submit to those who suffered under everything I had earlier claimed was their own fault. I began to study, with new eyes, the history of America and beyond. The more I learned and the more I conversed, I realized how lied to I had been for so much of my life and how deeply complicit and active I was in perpetuating these lies.

In short, I was forced by overwhelming evidence, by a true understanding of Jesus and His gospel, and by the love I ought to have always had for His people and creation, to jettison and condemn as an absolute lie teachings (d) through (g) above. These ideas, of my own well-meaning parents and culture, were a fruit of the World, not of God; a fruit of an extra-Biblical social theory that was born in social history, not inscribed in nature, written in the hearts of men, or exegeted from the Scripture. And to be 100 % clear, the root of these ideas, particularly (d) – (g), was and is as sinister as those which justified slavery, Jim Crow, and the racial exploitation that has existed ever since “race” itself was invented for those very purposes.

Anyhow, I could’ve probably stated this all better, and I apologize it’s rough & anemic. I just really hope & pray that my own experience might help others, anyone would be great, to see how supposedly well meaning ideas can lead right down the well-trodden path to racism.

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Victims of the Narrative

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Last Friday, popular TV presenter Phillip Schofield came out as gay. Schofield released a statement on social media and was then interviewed by his This Morning co-host and friend, Holly Willoughby. In response, many celebrities posted their support for Schofield on social media.

The journey to this point has clearly been a difficult one for Schofield. He shared about some of the difficulties he has experienced personally and the hurt that it has caused to his wife and daughters. At the close of his statement, he asked people to be kind, especially to his family.

It is right that we respond with compassion towards Schofield and his family because of the pain they have experienced. There is also likely much we don’t know about Schofield’s story. Some people enter into opposite-sex marriages in the hope they will experience a change in their attractions and then struggle when this doesn’t happen. Others hold out great hope for their marriages but find that their attraction to those of the same sex proves more problematic to the relationship than expected. We don’t know if these or other experiences are true of Schofield, but they are reasons to be cautious in what we say and compassionate in our response.

But I think there’s also another reason to be compassionate: both Schofield and his family seem to be victims of the cultural narrative of internal identity applied to sexuality. Many people look at the secular approach to sexuality and think there are only winners and no victims. Schofield’s experience shows a different story.

Coming Out and Internal Identity

The narrative of internal identity is one of the most prominent cultural narratives shaping secular views of sexuality in our day. The narrative says that our internal desires – including our romantic and sexual attractions – are our identity, and therefore we must embrace, express, and act upon these desires to experience fullness of life.

In Schofield’s story, this narrative is most clearly visible in Willoughby’s words in the interview. In response to Schofield’s feelings of guilt about the hurt he is causing his family, Willoughby reassures him, ‘You can’t change who you are though.’ For Willoughby, this is an identity issue – ‘who you are’. The same narrative can be seen in many of the online responses. Like Willoughby, David Walliams used the language of identity: ‘Let’s hope we are moving towards a world where no-one has to come out anymore, they can just be who they are and celebrate that’, and Ian H Watkins referred to coming out as ‘being your authentic self’.

It’s worth noting here that coming out doesn’t have to involve accepting this narrative. The assumption that it does is often why people feel nervous about Christians coming out as gay. Coming out can mean simply being open about the reality of experiencing romantic and sexual desires for those of the same sex. But often in coming out stories, you can hear this narrative at work.

For Schofield, coming out seems to be not just openness about part of his life experience, but an embracing of this part of his experience as identity with the assumption that it needs to be embraced and expressed in order to find fullness of life. This point seems to be confirmed at the end of the interview with Willoughby. Although Schofield’s intentions in terms of his marriage and potential future relationships haven’t been explicitly stated, when the final question of the interview implied he could now be free to pursue relationships with men, Schofield made no objection to the implication. For Schofield, ‘I’m gay’ seems to be a statement about identity which would naturally flow into action.

Victims of the Narrative

While Schofield’s coming out and the popular response could be seen as a triumph for the internal identity narrative, a closer look reveals some of the ways it can cause pain and do damage.

First, it can do damage to the individual themselves. Building identity on the internal puts pressure on people to embrace and express their desires whatever the cost, and it causes people to believe that they can never truly be satisfied until they do so. This is part of the reason why so many single people feel unsatisfied – since most of us experience romantic and sexual attractions, if we believe this narrative we can’t also believe that we can experience fullness of life if we don’t get an opportunity to express these desires.

It looks like this negative impact is at work in Schofield’s story. He talks about experiencing pain and confusion because of the hurt he is causing his family, and yet there seems to be more going on. The fact that he has felt the need to embrace his internal desires as an identity that needs to be acted upon, despite the hurt it will cause to others, suggests that the lack of freedom to do this was also part of his inner turmoil. It seems that for many years, the narrative of internal identity has not been freeing for Schofield, it’s been suffocating.

The cultural narrative of internal identity also does damage to those around the individual who embraces it. If our identity, and so the route to fulfillment, is built on our internal desires, then our desires are given permission to trump anything else that gets in their way, including existing relationship commitments. One person’s step into freedom can become another person’s doorway to pain.

In Schofield’s story, the person who suffers most is his wife. An identity based on internal desires is being allowed to trump the covenant commitment of marriage. To Schofield’s credit, he has exhibited an acute awareness of the hurt his wife and daughters are experiencing and expresses feelings of pain and guilt about this. And yet immediately after mentioning this guilt, he also acknowledges the pride he feels in himself for taking this step. He sees the pain being caused, but the internal identity narrative trumps even that.

When we think about sexuality, it’s easy to think that the secular approach doesn’t have any victims. The portrayal we often see in the media is that throwing off the shackles of the historic Christian sexual ethic is universally life-giving, and yet, when we look closer, we find the damage it is leaving in its wake. The Christian vision of identity received from God, desires submitted to Christ, fullness of life flowing from relationship with our creator, and celibate singleness or a covenant commitment to self-sacrificial love in opposite-sex marriage is far more life-giving. Culture thinks it has a good narrative, but we have the best narrative.

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Philosophers and Fashion Designers

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Worldly philosophers and thinkers have always been something like the high-fashion designers who live in a sort of alternative reality. They make unbelievably stupid outfits for unbelievably tall and harsh looking people with show-poodle hair, wearing cinder-block shoes and pants made out of an inner tube. They do all this while praising each other as stunning and innovative and talented and surprising, taking pictures of everything and putting enormous price tags on it all. Meanwhile, most of the normal world would laugh at what they are doing. But what they are doing, however foolish it may be, is actually driving what we will all be doing next year. What looks will be in? What is every purveyor of clothes trying to channel from that groundbreaking show? That’s what we all end up buying. If not this year, in a few more (once it is all on sale and we have gotten used to seeing it around). It is just the way the fashion industry works.

In the same way, regular honest people buy unbelievably foolish philosophy, but they buy it toned down and in the clearance bins. That is why we don’t recognize it right away for the monstrosity it is. We buy into it through movies and shows and emotional stories about people who want to die now rather than struggle with a long illness. Isn’t it the compassionate thing to support their suicide? Shouldn’t we want a family to be able to put someone out of their misery? Isn’t it really hateful to disagree with someone, to suggest that they are on the wrong path? We are told over and over that we should simply follow our own hearts and let others do the same. We keep bringing these things home with us and letting them grow on us. We see other professing Christians wearing them and assume that makes it okay. But if these beliefs are founded on the assumption that there is no God, what business should we have with them?

—Rachel Jankovic, You Who? Why You Matter and How to Deal With It

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Crouching Demon, Hidden Lamb

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‘If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ Genesis 4:7 raises a lot of questions. What does it mean for Cain to do well? Who or what is the ḥattāt (usually translated ‘sin’) crouching at the door? And where is this door? The grammar also raises some questions. Since ḥattāt is feminine, why is the participle ‘crouching’ masculine? And why are the pronouns in the final sentence masculine (lit. ‘his desire’ and ‘over him’) if they are referring to the feminine ḥattāt?

I’ve read various answers to these questions, but recently I stumbled across an approach I hadn’t seen before. In a 2012 article titled ‘Crouching Demon, Hidden Lamb: Resurrecting An Exegetical Fossil in Genesis 4.7’, L. Michael Morales argues in favour of an alternative translation which had some proponents in the 17th-19th centuries.

Noting the now widely accepted cultic elements of the early chapters of Genesis and especially the parallels between the garden in Eden and the tabernacle/temple, Morales proposes that ḥattāt should be translated as ‘sin offering’, a common meaning for the word, rather than ‘sin’. The door (petaḥ) would then be the most recently mentioned entranceway in Genesis, the now guarded entrance to the garden (Gen. 3:23-24). This, he suggests, seems plausible in light of later legislation which commands that the people of Israel bring their offerings to the door (petaḥ) of the tabernacle (Lev. 1:3, 3:2, 4:4). On this reading, the use of the masculine participle (‘crouching’) with the feminine noun (‘sin offering’) could potentially be justified if the sin offering was a male animal (Exodus 29:14 may offer a parallel). The idea, then, is that there is an animal crouching at the entrance to the garden ready to be sacrificed. The first half of the verse could therefore be rendered: ‘If you do not do well, at the door a sin offering is lying down’ (p.188).

The alternative reading of the second half of the verse is, I think, less convincing.  (Morales does almost admit this: ‘[T]his translation is not entirely free from difficulty’, p.188.) Retaining the masculine gender of the pronouns, Morales proposes ‘and to you will be his desire, but you must rule over him’. This is a pretty literal rendering of the Hebrew but leaves the identity of the ‘his’ and ‘him’ unspecified. Morales argues that the constant contrast between Cain and Abel throughout the narrative and the fact that no other character has been introduced implies that God is talking about Abel and that this is part of the frequent Genesis theme of competition for the rights of the firstborn. Abel will desire the rights, but Cain is to retain them and exert them over Abel. The parallel phrase in Genesis 3:16 is seen to support this reading as both are understood to be talking about the impact that a sinful act has on a human relationship.

Putting the pieces together, Morales proposes the understanding: ‘If you do well will not [your countenance] be lifted? If you do not do well, at the door a sin offering is lying down. Now to you will be his desire, but you must rule over him’ (p.186).

It’s an interesting reading and a good way of solving some of the difficulties produced by the grammar and the traditional translation, but I think there are some problems. Perhaps the biggest problem is that God’s words to Cain become not a warning to take control over the sinful desire facing him, but a reassurance that if he can’t overcome this temptation he can subsequently gain forgiveness. While it’s certainly true that God is gracious and merciful, and that this can be seen in Genesis, this portrays God as having a rather low view of the severity of sin. ‘Try not to do it, but there’s always the opportunity for forgiveness if you do.’ This doesn’t sit easily with the perspective of God on sin elsewhere in the book (Gen. 2:17; 4:10-12; 6:5-7 et al).

It is also hard to understand why, if God had given a clear offer of forgiveness, Cain doesn’t take him up on this offer and make this sacrifice after killing Abel. The absence of such a sacrifice is particularly striking in light of the fact that Cain doesn’t ignore God after his offence against Abel. When challenged by God, Cain first tries to cover up what he has done (4:9) but then appeals to God’s gracious nature by claiming his punishment is more than he can bear (4:13). If God had told him there would be the opportunity to make a sin offering if he did the wrong thing, why did he not do that?

Morales’ reading does a good job of dealing with the grammatical difficulties in Genesis 4:7 and answers some of the questions raised by the more common rendering, but ultimately it fails to make sense in the broader context of the narrative. The complexity of the crouching demon remains.

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Who’s Afear’d

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Were I ever to get a tattoo (which is unlikely) I would probably choose the coat of arms of Dorset: it’s pretty cool, with its lions and dragons. I like it.

The motto – ‘Who’s afear’d’ – seems a strange one. It could easily be read as an expression of anxiety: Are you feeling as nervous as I am? Clearly, its intended meaning is the opposite of that: Who’s afraid? Not us! Bring it on!

We live (as in the title of Matt Haig’s insightful book) on a nervous planet. Climate change, the coronavirus, Brexit, Trump, terrorism…there are a lot of things that are making lots of people very worried. A few weeks back my local university went into lockdown when reports came in that someone wearing a suicide vest was on campus. In the end it turned out to be just a runner with an exercise vest. This caused general hilarity – at least at my gym, where we have a row of such vests hanging up. But a friend of mine who works at the university described how for a few minutes he really thought people were about to die. Fear spreads fast and rumours quickly multiply, especially in our social media age.

One of my colleagues described how watching the news last night made it easy to believe everything is a conspiracy – China covering up the true scale of a pandemic; big business covering up the true impact of their pollution; politicians covering up the truth of their corruption. He then turned to Isaiah 8:12-15:

‘Do not call conspiracy
  everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
  and do not dread it.
The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
  he is the one you are to fear,
  he is the one you are to dread.
He will be a holy place;
  for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
  and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
  a trap and a snare.
Many of them will stumble;
  they will fall and be broken,
  they will be snared and captured.’

This is a challenge: the people of God are not to see conspiracy where everyone else sees conspiracy nor to fear the same things everyone else fears. Yet we are to fear – we are to fear the Lord. The prophet says that those who don’t get this right end up stumbled and broken. It’s a real ‘who’s afear’d’ passage: don’t fear what you shouldn’t fear, even if it appears frightening – but make sure you fear the one who is to be feared.

The apostle Peter applies this prophecy in his instructions to the scattered churches in what we today think of as Turkey. First Peter is a remarkable letter that teaches ‘the chosen exiles’ how not to give in to fear even as they face hostility from many quarters. Key to this not fearing is a right fearing of God. Commenting on this in his brilliant book, Evangelism as Exiles, Elliot Clark writes,

But here’s where we encounter some of the strangeness of Peter’s first epistle. Because as he wrote to exiled Christians encompassed by fears small and great, Peter repeatedly encouraged them to fear. Such an approach, at least to our…mindset, seems counter-intuitive if not counter-productive. If we writing a letter to instill hope in struggling Christians, we wouldn’t think to encourage them to fear.

We need to redirect our fears. Rather than fearing the conspiracies of this world (real or imagined) fear of the Lord can bring us into freedom. The Lord is either a holy place, our refuge, or the rock on which we stumble.

‘Who’s afear’d’ – too many people are, but those whose lives are founded on the rock can say, Who’s afraid? Not us! Bring it on!

 

 

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Why Do We Read Scripture?

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Sometimes I use this blog as a place to jot down preaching and teaching ideas that occur to me, so I can find them later. (Come to think of it, that's pretty much all I use this blog for, it's just that some jotting takes more time than others.) The question I was thinking about recently was this: Why do we read Scripture? What is it that we are trying to achieve as we do? What are the marks of reading it successfully (a horrible word in the context, but you know what I mean)? Here is one wrong answer, and five right ones.

We do not read it to earn. It is so easy to be tricked into thinking like this, but the purpose of reading the Bible is never to present God with a good work that entitles you to a reward. You are no more justified after reading a Bible for an hour than you are after playing Playstation or having breakfast or going for a walk.

Instead, we read it to learn: about God, about his world, about ourselves, and about how they fit together in his purposes. Despite the popularity of phrases like “we need transformation, not information,” careful reading is always going to involve learning things we didn’t know, so that we might be changed by them: “give me understanding to learn your commands!” (Psalm 119:73). A disciple is a learner. Reading Scripture is more than learning, but it is not less.

We read it to discern. “Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14). Maturity is not just knowing what to think, but how to think; it is not just knowledge, but wisdom. And regular Bible reading (“constant use”) shapes the way we think about everything, whether the subject is directly addressed in its pages or not. Diligence produces discernment.

We read it to turn: to turn from our sin, and to turn to Christ. Reading Scripture shapes our thinking, but it also shapes our behaviour: “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). It aims at repentance. And this happens not just negatively (turning away from sin) but positively (turning towards Jesus and following him once more). For all the emphasis we place on the first time that happens, it is actually a daily habit, as Martin Luther famously pointed out at the start of the 95 theses: “the entire Christian life is one of repentance.”

We read it to burn. When I open Scripture in the morning, I am looking for fire. I want passion to rise within me, for God and his kingdom. I want heat as well as light. I want joy fuel. I want to experience the God about whom I am reading, as if Jesus was personally explaining it to me in the room. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

We read it to yearn. Reading the Bible stirs our hearts with desire for another world. As we read, the seed of the kingdom is awakened in us. We long for the realities of heaven to become the realities of earth. We long for more of God’s presence. We pine for the day when our faith will be sight, and justice will roll down like rivers, and “holy to the LORD” will be inscribed on the bells and the cooking pots (Zechariah 14:20), and death will be swallowed up in victory. Out of that longing comes hope, and out of that hope comes prayer.

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Responding to Detransitioners

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The words ‘detransition’ and ‘detransitioner’ are not yet in the OED, but I predict they soon will be. Detransitioners are individuals who have at an earlier time transitioned to live in the gender the felt themselves to be but have since returned to live in their original gender. The existence of those who chose to reverse gender transition is not new, but the number of people currently going public with their own stories is.

The past year in particular has seen a steady increase in the number of people going public with their stories of detransitioning, and the subject has gained increasing prominence in the media (such as here and here), though not without controversy (such as here). In the UK, last year saw the launch of the Detransition Advocacy Network, a group that aims to offer support to detransitioners, and last week the story of Keira Bell came to public attention as she became a witness in the High Court case against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.

With the increasing prominence of detransitioners and the growing concerns about the treatment of children in relation to gender identity, it feels like we may be entering a new chapter in the story of transgender in the modern West. For Christians this new chapter raises a number of new questions. Key among these is, ‘How should we respond to the increasing number of detransitioners?’ Here are some initial reflections.

Remember the Humanity of each Person

Christians must resist the urge to utilise the stories of detransitioners to win arguments.

For some, the temptation may be to point to these stories and say - even if not in such stark terms - ‘told you so!’ This is an inappropriate response to these stories. It’s inappropriate because the existence of detransitioners, even if increasing in number, is not conclusive proof that transitioning is always unwise. The evidence can and should lead to the conclusion that transitioning should be approached with great caution, but it cannot, on its own, provide a logical argument that transitioning is always wrong. What if the problem was actually that some who have transitioned were never good candidates for the process? Isn’t it plausible that there could be others for whom it is helpful? I am not saying that this is my view – I think there are other logical and ethical objections to be raised against transitioning – but my point is that the stories of detransitioners alone cannot prove that transitioning is always unwise. If we use the stories to make that point, our argument will easily be shot down.

More importantly, however, we mustn’t use the stories of detransitioners to win arguments because they are stories of real people who have been through and often are still going through intense suffering. We should not see detransitioners primarily as a weapon in our arsenal for cultural debates, but as those deserving of our compassion and care.

Offer Care and Support

One of the important issues which is being raised as more detransitioners go public is the lack of support offered to help people navigate the difficult journey of returning to live in line with their biological sex. Many have reported that while it was comparatively easy to get the support of medical professionals for their original transition, it has been very hard to gain support for some of the medical complications that can arise from detransitioning. Campaigns for this area of support to be improved are something which Christians should champion as an expression of love and compassion.

Our church families too should be places where detransitioners can feel welcomed, loved, and cared for. Of all people, Christians should be those who are able to accept others regardless of their background and what choices, good and bad, they have made, because that is how God has accepted us. As communities of people called to love each other and to live as family for each other, we are uniquely positioned to care for those who are feeling bruised and broken by things they have been through. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it became known that the best place for detransitioners to go for love, acceptance, and support was a local church? (Just as it would be wonderful if the same were true for those who are experiencing the pain of gender dysphoria whether they have transitioned or not.)

Avoid the Urge to Generalise

Many who detransition do so not simply because transitioning failed to bring the peace they desired but because they came to recognise the original root of their gender dysphoria and the initial desire to transition. Detransitioning is often made possible because this root cause can be better addressed in other ways. This is a useful observation, but there is always the risk that the experience of one person is generalised and assumed to apply to everyone with gender dysphoria when this is in fact not the case.

In reality there seem to be many different root causes of gender dysphoria, including trauma, internalised homophobia, gender-atypical preferences and personality, and autogynephilia. In some cases, there is no obvious cause. This diversity of experiences should caution us against assuming that every case of gender dysphoria is the same and that therefore the same helps can always be applied.

The stories of detransitioners can be helpful in alerting us to the various factors that can be at play in an experience of gender dysphoria, but we mustn’t think they give us the answer for everyone.

Encourage Caution When Transitioning Is Considered

With all the important caveats given above in mind, the increasing number of stories emerging from detransitioners should be received as a caution against quick transitioning. Many people have been told that their internal feelings are a good and safe guide to their true identity, and that going through a long, complex and often invasive process to live in line with this sense of self will relieve their distress, only to find that transitioning doesn’t help them and that the narrative they were told actually masked a deeper problem which needed to be addressed.

Many of the detransition stories are also raising questions about the role of medical and psychiatric professionals in the support offered to those experiencing gender dysphoria. A common theme in the stories is that there was little serious assessment before a medical transition was approved and that the full effects of the various treatments offered were not openly explained. This theme is particularly prominent in the stories of those who began their transition during their teenage years and is the reason why there is growing pressure for a more thorough assessment of treatment options and processes being offered to children and teenagers. The current High Court case against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust is part of this movement. Used carefully and sensitively, the experiences of detransitioners are an important element in this ongoing conversation. We should pray that the courage of those currently sharing their stories means that in the future others will be spared the suffering they have experienced.

I believe there is a place for the stories of detransitioners in the cultural conversation about trans. Used carefully and sensitively, there may even be a place for them in the pastoring of people who are seriously considering transitioning. But we have a responsibility to handle these stories well and to use them fairly, motivated by a love for others and aimed at helping every person to find and experience the fullness of life offered to us by our creator.

Image credit: ‘The Detrans Flag

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Bart Ehrman Has a Change of Heart

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Exactly nine years ago to the day, in the very first week of this blog, I referred to Bart Ehrman as the New Testament scholar most likely to be cited by atheists. Much of his reputation has been built on critiques of Christian (and particularly evangelical) beliefs. Within the last few days, however, he has posted something which—while not arguing for the existence of a personal God, let alone the Christian God—suggests a significant change of perspective. The argument he makes won’t sound controversial to most of us, and indeed would probably seem very obvious. But it is well stated, and coming from Ehrman, it is an interesting development:

So here is my “duh” moment. A rock has no way of recognizing that an animate object such as a dandelion exists. A dandelion has no way of recognizing that a panther exists. Now it gets a bit tricky. A panther has no way of recognizing that a superior intelligence exists. Yes, a panther does recognize in some instinctual sense that there are things out there to look out for. But it has no way of realizing that there are people who can engineer sky scrapers, or split atoms, or reconstruct the history of Rome. It simply is not in its purview ...

The PROBLEM is that we humans always imagine we are the pinnacle of existence. We’ve always thought that. That’s why we have no trouble killing other things to satisfy our needs. I’m not opposed to that in every instance: every time I eat a meal or scratch my arm (killing who knows how many microbes) I do that. But it has always led to some rather enormous problems, from massive destruction of others in war to, now, our rather determined efforts to destroy our planet ...

This idea that we ourselves are all-important has ironically crept out of our religion into our secular epistemology. If we are the top of all existence, then there must be nothing above us. And so we can use our brains to figure out everything else that exists. In principle, our brains can figure out *everything*.

My revelatory moment showed me with graphic clarity that that just isn’t true, on epistemological grounds. Who says we’re the pinnacle? If quartz stone and maple trees and slugs could think, they would think *they* were the pinnacle – they wouldn’t have the capacity to imagine a Stephen Hawking or a Steve Jobs or a Frank Lloyd Wright. But they can’t imagine something higher than them. So what make us think we would have the capacity to imagine whatever it is that is above *us* in the pecking order? Frankly, it’s just human arrogance. Pure hubris. And I must say, looking at the world today, I’m not a huge fan of human arrogance and hubris. It’s not doing too well for us ...

I’m not at all advocating we return to the religious constructions of previous centuries and millennia. I’m just saying that the possibility that there really *might* be orders of existence higher than I can imagine strikes me just now as completely plausible. Why not? Who says *I* can figure it all out. If superior forms of intelligence and will do exist, I would literally have no way of knowing. And how many different forms/levels could there be? God knows. So to speak.

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Responding to Trans Questions

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What’s your response when someone tells you their daughter is now a boy?

At a pastors’ breakfast this morning the hot topic issue of transgender came up in conversation. This wasn’t a subject that would have been raised a few years ago but is now something we are all having to think about and deal with. Trans is a difficult subject: it is such a complicated mix of biology, psychology, culture and politics. There are so many potential landmines to stand on – who wants to be subject to a social media firestorm for stepping on the wrong side of the politically correct line? Or to say something to a trans person that might cause hurt? Or to face penalties in the workplace (or courts) for using the ‘wrong’ pronouns?

Yet at the same time it is essential that those who have questions about the current narrative (and I think most people have questions) don’t just clam up and refuse to engage for fear of what that might mean. Thankfully there is an ever growing number of helpful resources and information on trans which can help us raise the right questions and engage in a positive way.

Here’s a quick summary:

From a clinical perspective
The Pediatric and Adolescent Gender Dysphoria Working Group is ‘an international group of psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, researchers, and psychoanalysts that have a special interest in the treatment of GD in children, adolescents, and young people.’ Their website carries in-depth, evidence based, articles on current trends and research. It is well worth looking at.

On the issue of whether sex is binary and essential or fluid and assigned there is very a helpful overview available from Psychology Today. And this post from NHS psychiatrist Dave Curtis is authoritative. Curtis says this,

For all useful intents and purposes sex can be regarded as binary. Scientists understand that the term “spectrum” refers to something which changes quantitatively and smoothly in one dimension so that any value on the range is equally possible. With sex, there are only two categories, male and female, and even if we want to take account of disorders of sexual development we cannot say that this produces anything like a spectrum. It would be a bit like saying that because some people can have nine fingers and others eleven, the number of fingers is a spectrum. Except that at least with number of fingers we are talking about a quantitative measure whereas with sex we are talking about two different categories.


From a child welfare perspective
The incredible increase in the numbers of young people being referred for treatment at the Gender Identity Development Services (GIDS) at the Tavistock Clinic is raising many concerns. Susan Evans, who previously worked at the Tavistock, has been pursuing a legal case ‘to protect children from experimental medical treatment.’ Details of this can be found here. Evans’ concern is that children are being given treatments that will have lifechanging impact at an age when they are incapable of understanding the implications and consequences. As reported in the media this week, Evans’ place in this case has now been taken by Keira Bell. Bell transitioned as a teenager but now regrets this, saying,

‘I do not believe that children and young people can consent to the use of powerful and experimental hormone drugs like I did.’ Labelling the current system ‘inadequate’, she continued: ‘Hormone-changing drugs and surgery does not work for everyone and it certainly should not be offered to someone under 18 when they are emotionally and mentally vulnerable. The treatment urgently needs to change so that it does not put young people, like me, on a torturous and unnecessary path that is permanent and life-changing.’

A very practical issue that many parents will be dealing with is the trend for schools to remove single-sex toilets, replacing them with ‘gender neutral’ ones. This can have a distressing impact on pupils, especially girls. Transgender Trend (‘an organisation of parents, professionals and academics based in the UK who are concerned about the current trend to diagnose children as transgender’) have put together a fascinating survey of newspaper reports from the past six years ‘to see how this change has gone down with pupils and parents in schools where it has been implemented across the country.’ Their conclusion is clear: ‘gender neutral toilets aren’t working in schools.’


From a political perspective
The Scottish government recently announced plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act. The proposed changes would codify self-declaration of ‘gender identity’ as the legal basis for a person’s sex. Transgender Trend comments on this,

Codifying this ideological belief into law would undermine freedom of thought and speech for all people who do not believe that being a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, is defined by subjective inner feelings and not the objective reality of biological sex. This is already happening. A UK employment tribunal judge this week ruled that the belief that biological sex is immutable is “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”… Essentially the law would validate the ‘affirmation’ approach towards children and young people: a teenager would be able to gain legal affirmation as the opposite sex. The law would consolidate an adolescent’s belief that their gender identity is their true sex, an idea which teenagers are learning online and through teaching materials in the classroom produced or promoted by transgender lobby groups.

If this change goes ahead in Scotland it becomes more likely the rest of the UK will follow suit, so it is an important issue to engage MPs on.

This moving and informative response to the Scottish Government proposal by a Scottish detransitioner presents a strong case as to why the proposals are ill-founded and need to be reconsidered.


It is worth pointing out that I am not aware of any of the individuals referenced above having Christian faith, and the groups quoted are clearly non-religious. There are very significant theological questions surrounding trans – questions with which we need to wrestle – but you don’t have to have Christian faith to question the trajectory we are currently on. Concerned parents, teachers and clinicians are all rightly questioning what is happening. Those questions need to be aired more and more loudly.

 

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The Chariturgical Guide to Loitering

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It is with very real, though truly humble, excitement that I can announce my forthcoming book (the latest of dozens), The Chariturgical Guide to Loitering.

As my many faithful readers will know, I have in recent years been urging the more shallow waters of the church towards a deeper experience of spirituality: this is the liturgical aspect of my labours. At the same time I have been encouraging my more sluggish brethren towards a more free-flowing, charismatic, expression of worship: my bestselling book, The Chari-Current, explored this magnificently.

Now, with my latest publication, I am bringing these streams together with a fresh exploration of the spiritual discipline of chariturgical loitering. To whet (and wet) your appetite, here are examples of some of the chapters (or eddies) contained therein.

Hanging about for the blessing. This chapter gives practical and failsafe tips on how the busy pastor can ensure he never leaves a pastoral appointment without receiving that extra slice of cake.

Lurking for love. Especially with single members of the congregation in mind, this chapter offers top tips on how pastors can act as heavenly match-makers; bringing lonely hearts together in a slow blossoming of romance.

Vagrant in vain. In this crucial chapter I describe (with painful personal testimony) the pitfalls of pursuing loitering a step too far: “In all things moderation.”

Idling for inspiration. Many of my finest sermons – and best books – have been produced essentially with no work at all. This, brief, chapter describes how I do it.

Ladies of leisure. In this chapter I focus on the important role of the pastor’s wife.


As I’m sure you can see, this is going to be essential reading for all busy pastors. It could literally change your life: get chariturgical, move less, loiter more.

Available in all good bookshops soon.

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The Ministry of Loitering

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We had the privilege of having David Devenish with us recently on Catalyst Leadership Training. He was talking about the difficult but vital balance we have to strike, in church leadership, between learning from worldly corporate principles (on governance, procedures, child protection, financial probity, staffing, and so on), and yet at the same time avoiding a worldly corporate culture in the church (distant and over-elevated leadership, grandiose titles and salaries to match, hire-and-fire staffing, hierarchical pyramids, drivenness, and the like).

I asked him how we do that in practice. He immediately started talking about the importance of personal accessibility among pastors: the importance of even the most senior leaders in the church being directly involved in people’s lives, helping and serving and praying for people, rather than delegating all of that to junior minions while they focus exclusively on purportedly high-level stuff. In very large churches, or environments where pastors have very little available time (because they are working three jobs, for instance), it can be difficult.

For some of us, a key part of it is simply the ministry of loitering. We turn up before the Sunday meeting, or the prayer meeting, or whatever, and we hang around. We don’t hide; we are present, visible, available. We hover. We chat to whomever happens to be there (in my experience this often involves older and quieter people, who are the very people I might not otherwise talk to). We stick around after the meeting, wherever possible, to be available to pray. It may not take a huge amount of time - it could involve a mere fifteen minutes before and afterwards - and sometimes there won’t even be anyone there. But it can make a huge difference to your accessibility: the perception you (and the church) have of how easy it is to get hold of you, talk to you, and build relationship with you.

Loitering can help. There won’t be any books coming out on it this year, but in a number of contexts it’s a powerful practice.

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The Warning-Assurance Tension in 1 Corinthians Reviewed in RBL

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It is a great privilege to have your academic work reviewed in the Review of Biblical Literature, and by Victor Paul Furnish at that. He has read my book carefully, summarised it clearly and critiqued it fairly, which is exactly what I would have hoped for after spending six years writing it! Because you have to be an SBL member to download it, I've copied it here (thanks to the estimable David Shaw from Perth Bible College for forwarding it to me!)

The aim of this study, which originated as Wilson’s doctoral thesis at King’s College, London, is to determine whether Paul’s assurances of ultimate salvation stand in tension with his warnings to persevere in faith lest that salvation be forfeited. Because Wilson ends up affirming that such a tension does exist, he also briefly addresses the question whether it makes any kind of sense. Attention is focused on 1 Corinthians because in this letter assurances and warnings are especially frequent and their relationship is often complicated. Accordingly, the approach is “almost entirely exegetical” (14). Two introductory chapters are followed by seven chapters devoted to exegetical studies of specific passages, and two closing chapters present, respectively, the author’s conclusions and his thoughts about implications and further research.

In chapter 1, “The Scholarly Context of this Study,” Wilson identifies four different and, in his judgment, unsatisfactory attempts to explain how Paul could have issued both assurances and warnings about ultimate (eschatological) salvation: (1) the “Wesleyan” view that the assurances are in fact conditional upon obedience, perseverance, or repentance; (2) the conclusion of B. J. Oropeza (with whose work Wilson is frequently in dialogue) that the assurances are rhetorical and not to be taken literally; (3) the argument of Judith Gundry Volf (whose work is also frequently engaged) that the warnings are directed not to believers but only to those who appear to be; and (4) a proposal by Craig Blomberg that the warnings are about the possibility of punishments or loss of rewards during one’s present life, not about the possible forfeiture of ultimate salvation.

In chapter 2, “Selected Introductory Issues in 1 Corinthians,” Wilson indicates why he accepts the literary integrity of the letter, argues that the problems in the Corinthian congregation stemmed not from an “over-realized eschatology” but from values and conduct carried over from the converts’ past lives as unbelievers, and identifies the issues that influenced the structure of the letter: divisions within the congregation, immorality, idolatry, and the resurrection.

The first two exegetical studies (in chs. 3 and 4) are of 1 Cor 1:1–9 and 3:5–17. These passages offer examples, respectively, of Paul’s assurances and warnings, and taken together they exhibit the tension that is the object of this study. With most interpreters, Wilson views the assurances in the thanksgiving paragraph as reflecting confidence that God’s faithfulness (1:9) will overcome human faithlessness and enable one to stand blameless “on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8). On his reading, because these assurances are neither “entirely conditional” nor “entirely rhetorical” (39), they do in fact stand in tension with the warning in 3:16–17, that “if anyone … destroys God’s church, they will forfeit final salvation” (56).

In a brief chapter on Paul’s directive that the Corinthians expel a certain immoral man from their assemblies (ch. 5: “1 Corinthians 5:1–13”), Wilson offers two reasons why he considers this passage of little importance for his topic. First, Paul’s directive is issued primarily to save the congregation from moral indifference and arrogance, not to warn the offender that he may be excluded from salvation. Second, in rare agreement with Gundry Volf, Wilson holds that “Paul almost certainly does not regard the man as a genuine believer” (62) but as one of the so-called brothers and sisters (v. 11) whom believers should avoid (63–64). Subsequently, however (ch. 6: “1 Corinthians 6:1–20”), Wilson effectively challenges Gundry Volf’s conclusion that the warnings conveyed in 6:9–10 are also addressed only to so-called believers. He concludes that here, as at other points in the letter, Paul is warning actual believers that engaging in (or reverting to) certain types of conduct could jeopardize their final salvation.

The apostle’s response to the controversy in Corinth about eating food that has been sacrificed to idols is particularly important for Wilson’s topic and is examined in considerable detail (ch. 7: “1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1”). He deals, in turn, with 8:1–13, agreeing with most interpreters that Paul is concerned that the “weak” who follow those with so-called knowledge in partaking of idol food may risk “eternal destruction” (89); 9:1–27, arguing that Paul’s image of believers as athletes who must train for a race in order to win the prize “suggests that he did not view eschatological salvation as such an automatic result of being in Christ that it required no response of human effort” (96); 10:1–13, which he finds to be a “deliberate paradox”—believers must heed Israel’s experience, “avoiding idolatry and being careful lest they fall…, while God, ultimately, will assure that the trials they face are never too great for them to endure” (117); and 10:14–11:1, in which, because the admonitions are clearly addressed to actual believers, he sees confirmation of his conclusion that believers were also the subjects of the warning in 10:1–13.

Following comments about Paul’s warning that one must not partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (ch. 8: “1 Corinthians 11:17–34”), Wilson closely examines the apostle’s more complex and, for this study, substantially more consequential assurances in 1 Cor 15 about resurrection (ch. 9). He concludes that these are “categorical” assurances, neither conditional nor merely rhetorical. Further, “as paradoxical as it may seem to us, they aim to secure the very conviction that Paul warns the Corinthians about losing,” which is “belief in [their] future resurrection” (158). Additionally, in an important excursus on “The Question of Universalism in 15:20–28” embedded within this chapter (143–50), Wilson maintains that for Paul only those who actually believe in Christ “can be certain of their eschatological resurrection” (i.e., final salvation).

The result to which these exegetical studies have been leading is stated plainly in the title of chapter 10, “Conclusion—The Warnings and Assurances Stand in Tension.” Following a brief summary of this conclusion, Wilson reinforces it with comments on passages in Romans, Philippians, and Galatians where he discerns a similar tension between assurances and warnings. Most of this chapter, however, deals with the question, “Is the Tension Incoherent?” (167–84). He believes that the key to answering this is “how Paul conceived of divine and human agency working together, both in his own life and in the lives of his converts” (167). For Paul’s sense of this dialectic operating in his own life, Wilson points especially to 1 Cor 15:10, where the apostle views his human efforts as “the means by which [God’s] grace took effect” (169); for Paul’s belief that the same dialectic operates in the lives of his converts, Wilson points especially to 1 Cor 10:12–13, where the apostle “stresses divine activity as the means of empowering the human response” (175; cf. 114–17). For

Wilson, therefore, the tension between Paul’s assurances and warnings “is not in fact incoherent,” because the apostle “sees his warnings as the divinely appointed means by which God, who is at work in the Corinthians by his Spirit, will ensure that they continue in faith and holiness” (184). Wilson makes a strong case for his conclusion that, at least in 1 Corinthians, assurances of final salvation do not just appear to be but actually are in tension with warnings that salvation can be forfeited. Although this conclusion may seem unremarkable and the supporting exegetical studies therefore unneeded, his study effectively challenges those who have concluded otherwise (especially Gundry Volf and Oropeza). Wilson’s own exegetical judgments are informed by critical use of a broad range of previous scholarship, especially commentaries, and are in general carefully reasoned and framed. This is true even when his conclusions about specific issues are less than fully convincing (e.g., for me, those concerning 1 Cor 5 and, more consequentially, 1 Cor 15). The decision to confine the exegetical studies to the assurances and warnings in 1 Corinthians is reasonable, in that it allows one, theoretically, to take account of how they function within the overall argument of a particular letter. There are, however, important questions that Wilson leaves unexplored, including: Are the assurances and warnings about salvation equally important within the argument of 1 Corinthians? Are some more than others expressions of what is definitive of the apostle’s own thinking? Should some be accorded less weight because they reflect his indebtedness to one or another kind of tradition?

Finally, it is disappointing that Wilson has dealt so briefly with the arguably more consequential and demonstrably more difficult issue of why the “genuine tension” he finds between the assurances and warnings is nevertheless “coherent.” Quite plausibly, he bases his argument for coherence on passages where Paul’s comments reflect belief in a close and significant relationship between divine and human agency. But, to offer just one example, the conception of God’s grace that underlies these passages (e.g., 1 Cor 15:10) deserves more attention than it receives, not least because of the bearing it has on the apostle’s view of both the nature and the scope of the “salvation” that he proclaims.

—Victor Paul Furnish, Southern Methodist University

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Praying the Cursing Psalms

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We had a wonderful discussion with Trevor Laurence recently on the Mere Fidelity podcast, on the subject of the cursing (or "imprecatory") psalms. Of all the episodes we've recorded, this is one of my very favourites (up there with Karen Swallow Prior, Preston Sprinkle and Carl Trueman), and if you've ever wondered how to pray these difficult psalms for yourself, this will be a huge help.

In summary, Trevor highlights five contexts in which you need to read the cursing psalms:

1) Social-historical, whereby the ancient world is less governed by individualism and freedom, and more governed by communitarian justice, than our culture.

2) Biblical-theological, framed by the narrative of crushing the snake and protecting God’s people (and space) from pollution and destruction.

3) Christological, in which Jesus is by turns the psalmist who is praying, the judge to whom the prayer is addressed, and the “enemy” who is judged, all in different ways.

4) Eschatological, such that the world is ultimately cleansed from evil altogether, and every prayer for the kingdom to come is a cry for that day to be brought about.

5) Hamartiological, whereby we ask the question of where evil is truly to be found—not just “out there” but “in here”—and are led to confession and repentance.

Check it out.

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Seeing Both Sides

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‘How can we best love and support gay/same-sex attracted Christians?’ I love being asked this question. There’s so much that can be said in response, but there’s one particular area I’ve been reflecting on recently.

One of the things I find most difficult about being a celibate gay/same-sex attracted Christian is when I feel a strong attraction to a specific guy. (I’d probably describe these attractions as a crush if the word didn’t make it sound like we’re back in the school playground!) I don’t find that this happens all that often for me, but it does happen, and I don’t think that should be a surprise.

When it does happen, I have close friends whom I will tell. I do this because I know openness and authenticity are important for my own well-being. I need the support of other people to help me keep faithfully following Jesus, and sharing what I’m feeling can lessen the sense of aloneness that can come from the experience. Over the years, I’ve observed that people tend to respond in one of two ways.

Some people immediately think it’s an issue of temptation, which it is. There may be the temptation to pursue something with the person if they are single and also gay/same-sex attracted, and whoever they are there may be the temptation to engage in sinful thoughts and fantasies about them. Some friends therefore jump in with reminders to take every thought captive and to put on the armour of God; some offer practical pointers to avoid giving in to temptation. This is all good. When I share with a friend that I’m feeling attracted to a guy, I’m asking them to help me stay faithful to Christ, to help me in the temptation which that attraction will bring.

Other people immediately think it’s an issue of suffering, which it is. For a celibate gay/same-sex attracted Christian, becoming attracted to someone can be one of the strongest and starkest reminders that we experience unchosen desires which will never be met in the way that they seem to long to be met. Put simply, the longing for a relationship with a specific guy becomes a reminder that I won’t ever have that sort of relationship with any guy. There is a pain that comes from this experience, a pain which is perhaps largely unique to the experience of gay/same-sex attracted Christians, and which I think always remains to some extent, regardless of the health of someone’s relationship with God and with friends. When I share with a friend that I’m feeling attracted to a guy, I’m asking them to acknowledge the pain I’m feeling and to love and comfort me as I walk through that pain.

Both temptation and suffering are present, and help is needed for both. Focussing on only one can be unhelpful. A response that focusses only on temptation can aggravate the pain already being experienced. A response that focusses only on suffering can leave the way clear for temptation. It’s true that one or the other will often be more prominent in the experience of the individual at any one time, and so a good response and offer of support might likewise be weighted in one direction, but both will always be present.

If we want to love and support gay/same-sex attracted Christians well, we need to think about the complexities of their (our) life experience. The best way to understand these complexities is to listen. In some ways the answer to the question of how we best love and support will always start with listening. If a gay/same-sex attracted Christian friend shares with you about attractions they’re experiencing, slow down, ask some gentle questions, listen well, and then you’ll be well equipped to respond.

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Eucharismatic Signs

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There are seven signs in the Gospel of John, and they follow a 1-2-1-2-1 pattern. (I'm excluding miracles which John does not identify as signs, such as the walking on water and the miraculous catch of fish.)

1. The wedding at Cana (2:1-12)
  2. The healing of the centurion’s son (4:43-54)
  3. The healing of the paralysed man (5:1-15)
4. The feeding of the five thousand (6:1-15)
  5. The healing of the man born blind (9:1-41)
  6. The raising of Lazarus (11:1-44)
7. The resurrection (20:1-31)

Four of the signs are healings of increasing magnitude (from ill, to paralysed for thirty-eight years, to blind since birth, to dead), narrated with increasing depth and complexity (the first story takes eleven verses, the fourth forty-four). They come in two pairs (2 and 3, 5 and 6).

The seventh is the last, climactic sign which makes rest possible for all of us. It comes after eight chapters in which there are no healings mentioned at all, even where we know from the other Gospels that a healing did actually occur (e.g. John 18:10-11). It is as if John has been preparing us for the grandeur of the final sign.

So what does Jesus do in the other two signs (1, 4)? He makes an excessive abundance of wine, and an excessive abundance of bread.

The resurrection, four miraculous healings, and two sacramental miracles. Eucharismatics will doubt that is a coincidence.

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Sex and the Sacred

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What’s the connection between sex and the sacred? They are two elements of life that many people think are far apart, or even in tension, but perhaps the reality is somewhat different.

Sex Replacing the Sacred

In his fascinating analysis of the sexual behaviour of Americans, Cheap Sex, sociologist Mark Regnerus observes that among women there is a clear correlation between being politically liberal and having a greater desire for sex, even when other factors (such as age and recent sexual activity) are taken into consideration.1 From this observation, Regnerus proposes a hypothesis:

More liberal women … desire more frequent sex because they feel poignantly the lack of sufficient transcendence in life. If sex is one of the few pathways to it, then it is sensible for them to desire more of it. (p.79)

In simple terms, Regnerus’ suggestion is that for these women, sex is a replacement for God.

To test this idea, Regnerus went back to his data set, the Relationships in America survey, to see whether the results would be different if they took involvement in religion (e.g. attendance at religious services, reported importance of religion etc.) into consideration. In doing so, he found that involvement in the religious has a far more significant influence on the desire for sex. Those who are more religious report less of a desire for more sex even if they are politically liberal.2 The evidence supports Regnerus’ suggestion: sex is often pursued as a replacement for the sacred. ‘In a world increasingly bereft of transcendence, sexual expression is emerging as an intrinsic value. Sex is the new opium of the masses’ (p.79).

It’s not hard to hear Augustinian overtones in Regnerus’ finding, and so I wasn’t overly surprised to find a similar idea when reading the chapter on sex in James K.A. Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine.

Reflecting on Augustine’s time at university in Carthage (about which Augustine himself observed ‘I was in love with love’) Smith writes: ‘Retroactively, he recognizes a hunger behind this, a hunger that stemmed from a certain kind of starvation. The soul’s built-in hunger for the transcendent, the resplendent, the mysterious was deflected to the sensual, the bodily, the reverberating shudders of climax. The inherent desire to give himself away settled for giving up his body. Ignoring infinite Beauty, he pursued finite beauties all the more. He traded the cosmic for the orgasmic’ (p.96).

Augustine reflects on his own desire for more sex and sees in it evidence of a greater desire, a desire for the divine.

Sex, Mission, and Discipleship

Sex and the sacred go together, and it strikes me that there are both missional and discipleship lessons to be drawn from this observation.

When it comes to mission, it’s easy for us to see the stark clash between the secular sexual ethic and the biblical sexual ethic as a barrier. Many of us, if we’re honest, feel ashamed of what the Bible says about sex and almost wish it said something different. We think that the Bible’s view of sex is something which makes the gospel sound unappealing to those who aren’t following Jesus.

But ultimately, the secular sexual ethic can never deliver on what it promises. In Walking with Saint Augustine, Smith quotes Russel Brand as an evidence of this fact. Reflecting on his experience of promiscuity, Brand acknowledged the experience of ‘this kind of ongoing seam of loneliness’ (p.97). What this candid admission reveals is that many people feel the fact that sex can never deliver what culture tells them it will; they experience this truth, and yet many don’t understand what they are feeling. Interestingly, Brand notes that it was his experience of addictions which helped him to spot the futility of looking to sex as a source of fulfilment.

In mission, we can help people understand why the things in which they are looking to find fullness of life don’t deliver, and we can point them to the only relationship which really can satisfy. As the god of sex fails to deliver what it promises, we can point to the God who created sex, the one who always delivers what he promises.

This link between sex and the sacred is also helpful when thinking about discipleship. The battle with sexual sin and sexual temptation doesn’t, for most of us at least, end when we respond to the gospel. As Christians, we are often slow to admit this and to talk about it, and when we do our focus tends to fall primarily on surface level behaviour management strategies (such as (guilt trip) accountability and digital restrictions and filters), rather than the roots of misdirected desire for the divine. For many of us, until we realise that sexual desire is something more than just the physical we will never learn to handle it well. If sex is often sought as a replacement for the divine, then deepening our connection with the divine will help us to manage our sexual desires.

So, sex and the sacred go together. Rather than replacing the sacred with sex, sex is designed to draw us to the sacred. Sex is about the sacred. Desire is about the divine.

Footnotes

  • 1. The same correlation between political persuasion and desire for more sex is not seen among men, probably because, generally speaking, men have a greater desire for sex anyway. Regnerus notes that while some claim women’s sex drives are as strong as men’s, no population-based data has yet been produced which supports this idea (p.77).
  • 2. Regnerus doesn’t state whether his data was restricted to women at this point. Given the observation that politics doesn’t have the same impact on men’s desire for sex as it does for women, it would be interesting to know how involvement in religion affects men’s desire for sex.

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Don’t Skip the Genealogies

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If you were compiling the New Testament and had been told by God that yes, he really did want all four of the Gospels in there, which one would you have chosen to put first?

If it were left to me, I think I’d be torn between Luke and John. John’s wonderful echoes of Genesis 1 would be fantastic stylistically. But then Luke’s picking up on the prophecies at the end of the OT and showing their fulfillment in John and Jesus would make a clearer continuation of the story. Mark wouldn’t make my (very) shortlist – sorry, Mark – just leaping into the narrative like that. And to be honest, I’m not sure I’d have chosen Matthew. Yes, the birth narrative is there, but you have to wade through that long genealogy to get to it. Not the most thrilling start.

God, apparently, disagrees.

A few people – including my pastor – seem to be reflecting on Matthew’s genealogy this Christmas, so here’s my two-penn’orth.

Why on earth would God want to start the New Testament, the story of the new covenant, the bit that most people nowadays are likely to start with, if they’re going to read a Bible at all, with a genealogy? Who wants to read a long stream of unpronounceable names of total strangers before the story starts? Is it like the title cards at the beginning of old movies? Important information to those concerned, but just an opportunity to make yourself comfortable and arrange your snacks for the rest of us?

I’m guessing not. God usually has a plan, even if it’s not immediately obvious to the casual viewer. So what could it have been?

David Suchet was once asked how he had overcome the challenge of all the genealogies, censuses and lists when he was recording the NIV audio Bible. He said the breakthrough came when he realised that each name wasn’t just a tricky pronunciation exercise, but represented a real person, with a personality, a history and a family. When those scriptures were read out, for hundreds of years, the descendants of those individuals would have been listening eagerly for their family names, feeling an intimate connection to the story.

So that’s what the genealogy in Matthew would have done for the early Jewish converts – it would have helped them to place Jesus as really one of them, connected to their family and their history. (As well, of course, as establishing his royal pedigree and showing how he was the promised messiah.)

Could it be that it is supposed to do the same for us? God started the NT not with declarations of his glory and majesty, not with indications of his power, but with humans. Very fallen, very broken humans – some considerably worse than others. It includes heroes and villains, winners and losers, perpetrators and victims. It includes five women, which was unheard of at the time. It includes “the outcast, the scandalous, and the foreigner”, as Sam Allberry put it in a recent tweet. It includes the world-famous and the otherwise-unknown. It sets Jesus right in the middle of the story of us.

Some friends were talking the other day about a trip they had taken to the village their family had come from generations back. Seeing their family names on the gravestones and war memorials had given them a buzz of connection, a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves, a rootedness to times and places in history.

I wonder if that’s at least part of what we 21st century Western Gentile individualists are meant to take away from both the fact of the genealogy’s existence and its position right at the beginning of the part of the story where we begin to find ourselves. Our faith is not just about our ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, but it is much bigger than that – it’s about being part of a huge, interconnected, multi-generational family. And not even just our immediate church family (though I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about that at the moment), but a family dating right back to Abraham (Gal 3:29). Once we are in Christ, we are rooted not only in his heavenly family, but also in his earthly one. We’re related to Elihuz and Zerubbabel, Jotham and Jehoram, Amminadab and Abijah. We’re related to David and Bathsheba, to Ruth and Boaz, and to Judah and Tamar. We’re related to Hezekiah. When I visited Jerusalem a few years back, the thing that excited me most was walking through Hezekiah’s tunnel (2 Kings 20:20) – I wish I’d grasped at the time that he was one of my ancestors.

For Christians then, the New Testament starts not with echoes of Genesis, not with the breaking of a 400 year silence, not with the fulfillment of prophecies, but with us. It sets us right in the narrative, reminding us of who we are and where we fit, rooting us in the story, and the story in us.

So when you’re thinking about what the New Testament teaches us, whether at Christmas or beyond, don’t skip the genealogies!

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The Relevance of Romans 7

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I think we really need Romans 7, but perhaps not in the way we tend to think we do.

Romans 7 is famous for its egō. Who is the egō (the ‘I’) who speaks in verses 7-24? Is it Paul or someone else or just a rhetorical device? Is the one who died with the arrival of the law Paul or Adam or Israel? Is it a regenerate or unregenerate person who speaks from the depths of despair about their inability to do what they know to be good?

These are the questions we often ask when we come to Romans 7. And they’re good questions. Important questions, I think. Our answers to them will have a significant impact on our expectations for the Christian life. Getting them right is important.

But this isn’t the only way that Romans 7 is relevant to us. It isn’t hard to see that Paul’s primary focus in verses 7-24 isn’t actually on the figure who speaks but on two key questions: Is the law sin? (Rom. 7:7) And did the good law bring death? (Rom. 7:13)

We can easily overlook these questions thinking they’re not as relevant to a primarily non-Jewish audience. We aren’t as scandalised by Paul’s declaration that death with Christ includes death to the law (7:1-6), and so we don’t need the clarifications which follow.

But perhaps we do. Perhaps we’re not scandalised by the possible implications of what Paul says because we already have a negative view of the law. We give thanks that we no longer have to bring countless sacrifices in order to draw near to God. We’re grateful that our Sunday gatherings are somewhat less messy, less smelly, and more veggie-friendly than things would have been in the tabernacle and the temple. Our prayers, at least, can reveal that we see the law as a burden from which we’re glad to have been released. Perhaps we do believe the law is a bad thing.

But that’s exactly the kind of view that Paul is trying to protect against in Romans 7:7-24. The law wasn’t the problem. The law is holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7:12). In keeping with the Old Testament perspective, Paul sees the law as a gracious gift to Israel, a guide on how to experience fullness of life by following the creator’s design, and the gracious provision of ways to make up for the times when they failed to follow this design. The sacrificial system was not a burden, it was an incredible blessing. The problem was not the law God had given. The problem was the sin that dwelt within us.

I fear that when we give thanks that we are no longer under the burden of the law – with the effort and the mess required to follow it – we are not recognising the true nature of the freedom we’ve been given; we’re recognising our own laziness and our desire to be comfortable.

Freedom from the law is a wonderful thing. But it’s not wonderful because it makes life easier. And it’s not wonderful because it makes our gatherings cleaner and less smelly. It’s wonderful because sin dwelling in us misused the law and the law was powerless to deal with this problem, powerless to set us free from sin, and powerless to help us live God’s way. But when we recognise the true goodness of being freed from the law, we can join with Paul in his exclamation, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Rom. 7:25).

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The Lodestar of Western Morality

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The absolute standard of Western morality used to be Jesus, and now it is Hitler. That is the remarkable conclusion of Alec Ryrie's remarkable book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, which I have just reviewed for The Gospel Coalition. It may just be me, but I think the following 275 words explain so much:

Cultural conservatives sometimes worry that modern Western societies lack shared sacred narratives, but this is not exactly true. In the same way that Victorian publishers endlessly retold the life of Jesus, post-war films, novels and other media endlessly retold and retell the Second World War. It is the story to which we endlessly return. Its history retains an unparalleled grip on our imagination because it is our Paradise Lost: our age’s defining battle with evil.

Once the most potent moral figure in Western culture was Jesus Christ. Believer or unbeliever, you took your ethical bearings from him, or professed to. To question his morals was to expose yourself as a monster.

Now, the most potent moral figure in Western culture is Adolf Hitler. It is as monstrous to praise him as it would once have been to disparage Jesus. He has become the fixed reference point by which we define evil ...

In the seventeenth century, arguments tended to end with someone calling someone else ‘atheist’, marking the point at which the discussion hit a brick wall. In our own times, as Godwin’s Law notes, the final, absolute and conversation-ending insult is to call someone a Nazi. This is neither an accident nor a marker of mental laziness. It reflects that fact that Nazism, almost alone in our relativistic culture, is an absolute standard: a point where argument ends, because whether it is good or evil is not up for debate. Or again, while Christian imagery, crosses and crucifixes have lost much of their potency in our culture, there is no visual image which now packs as visceral an emotional punch as a swastika.

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The Mythology of the Populist Left (and Perhaps Also the Church)

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A social researcher and former Labour employee has recently described the three myths of the populist Left. Chris Clarke’s Warring Fictions: Left Populism and its Defining Myths is summarised by David Aaronovitch in today’s Times, and it makes for fascinating reading—not just because it explains the recent landslide, but because the three myths are prevalent in other contexts as well, including the church.

The three myths are called the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Age. (Having good, pithy names helps.) Here is Aaronovitch’s summary of each (emphasis added):

The Dark Knight is the underlying belief that the struggle for the future is between light and dark, that all virtue is on one side and all vice on another. So those who oppose you are not wrong, they are immoral. The day after the election, on camera, a young woman Labour supporter wished the prime minister “a horrible death” before disconcertingly revealing that she planned to work in the NHS. As to those ordinary working-class people who had voted for the Tories, what they had done was “disgusting”. The problem here, suggests Clarke, is that if this is what you believe, then a dialogue with others is next to impossible.

This is often claimed to be a bigger problem on the left than the right (hence the cliche that the left thinks the right is evil, while the right thinks the left is mistaken). In our generation it probably is, for the reasons highlighted by Haidt and Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind, although I wonder if it is as much to do with age than with political alignment. But a moment’s thought reveals that it is a tempting consolation for any group that finds itself embattled in a hostile culture, including the church. “It’s dark out there, but light in here” may be reassuring and comforting, but it doesn’t help win people over, whether they are people who don’t go to church, or working class people in Bishop Auckland.

The second myth is the Puppet Master. If what you want to do is noble and in the People’s Interest, how can you explain why the People may fail to support you? The answer is that powerful forces are “rigging” the game against you. The Puppet Masters may be the “MSM” (the mainstream media, including, according to the shadow transport minister, Andy McDonald, the BBC), may be Zionists “weaponising” antisemitism against Corbyn, or may just be infernally clever advisers who, in the words of The Guardian’s George Monbiot “instinctively or explicitly understand the irrational ways in which we react to threat, and know that, to win, they must stop us from thinking.”

Again, though I am sure this is an issue on the left, it is equally an issue in the church. Often the same actors are invoked: the mainstream media, the Biased Broadcasting Corporation, the Jews (our history of antisemitism is far worse than the Labour Party’s). It should give us pause, or in the political vernacular, prompt “a period of reflection.” I often think of Kevin DeYoung’s wise counsel here: “It is probably true that every group needs a devil. In which case, ours might as well be the Devil.”

The third myth is the Golden Age. This is the belief that there was once a better place from which we have been expelled. The Corbynite Left believes the current lapsarian disaster to have been the fault of “neoliberalism”, an ideology binding Margaret Thatcher with Tony Blair and which is leading to people on trolleys in A&E and wars in the Middle East.

The analogy draws itself. Our Golden Age will depend on our church tradition—ancient Constantinople, medieval Rome, Calvinist Geneva, Puritan New England, the Welsh revival, Azusa Street, the early days of the Charismatic Movement, or whatever—but most of us will have one. False nostalgia for a bygone age is a powerful force in politics, as Yuval Levin showed beautifully in The Fractured Republic, as well as in church history. It also, like most errors, contains a fair bit of truth; some periods in history have indeed been more conducive to people who believe X than others. But we should not forget that the story of God’s people points forward rather than backward. Our Golden Age is in the future, not the past, and we look for a city that is to come.

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Review of the Year 2019

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Here's a bunch of things (mostly online) which I enjoyed this year. If you're on Twitter, get in touch and let me know what I missed!

Post of the year: Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine on America’s New Religions. “Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning ... The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults. These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They haven’t been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.”

Hashtag of the year: #WagathaChristie. If you were online when Coleen Rooney posted “It’s ……… Rebekah Vardy’s account,” you won’t need any more explanation than that.

Podcast of the year: This Cultural Moment. Some of you were onto this well before me, and in my view some episodes are a lot better than others, but the ones where Mark Sayers explains how and why the secular West really works are fantastic.

Tweet of the year (from Dayne McAlpine): “a girl in the coffee shop i’m working from has just said to her friend ‘imagine a hot veg smoothie’ and i’m wondering how to break it to her that soup exists.” I’m still laughing months later.

Clip of the year: the whole thing only takes twelve seconds, but Adam Boulton’s punchline here is exquisite.

Sporting moment of the year: arise, Sir Ben Stokes.

New song of the year: either King of Kings, which is theologically rich and melodically powerful, or Goodness of God, a simple and beautiful affirmation of a simple and beautiful truth (and the only country-ish worship song I’ve ever heard that works).

TV series of the year: Chernobyl. Not a barrel of laughs, but what an extraordinarily gripping, well-written, satisfying and beautifully acted drama.

Book review of the year: Katelyn Beaty on Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Stop Apologizing. This also has the best title of any book review I read this year: “Girl, Get Some Footnotes.”

Cartoon of the year:

Matt Cartoon

Debate of the year: Justin Brierley hosts A. C. Grayling and Tom Holland on his Unbelievable show:

Documentary of the year: Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (caveat spectator). A remarkable and in places near-unbelievable cautionary tale of what happens when you get all style and no substance.

Sermon of the year: I may not be the best person to judge this, because I spend a lot of Sundays preaching myself rather than listening to other people. But since I’ve done it before, and because I found it so helpful at the time (and such a good example of public communication), here’s Matt Chandler at Convergence in Oklahoma City.

Personal highlight of the year: watching my son as the mascot for Brighton and Hove Albion against Everton (they won 3-2 with a last minute own goal).

Have a very happy Christmas, and I’ll see you in 2020!

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The Courage To Say “Help”

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“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy.
“Help,” said the horse.

These simple, profound words, and the pen-and-ink drawing that accompanies them, have turned artist Charlie Mackesy into the author of Waterstones’ book of the year. The book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, follows these four unlikely friends on a journey through snow and storm, across fields and rivers, and listens in on their wisdom along the way.

I haven’t read it yet (feel free to buy me it for Christmas), but one of my highlights of 2019 was visiting an exhibition of Charlie’s work, which featured many of the drawings. They are beautiful in their simplicity and depth, and carry some very valuable lessons about life, love, hope, and sometimes cake.

But this is the one that has stuck with me. It breaks my heart that it is true, especially among Christians, but I know that it is.

It is hard to ask for help. Hard to admit our brokenness. Hard to accept, in our individualistic society, that we can’t manage alone. Hard to open ourselves up to potential rejection or ridicule. And hard to accept the help even when it is gladly, openly, freely given.

It is humbling. Our pride is dented. The façade we have so carefully constructed is cracked, and sometimes even shattered irreparably. And yet it is a beautiful thing. It is what we are designed for. I firmly believe that part of growing in maturity as a human being and as a believer is being willing to say, “Help”. Because it is part of being in a flourishing community.

People – in general – love to help. We love to feel useful, to be able to contribute. I’ve had real breakthroughs in a couple of friendships when one or other of us has debased ourself sufficiently to ask for help. All of a sudden an invisible barrier of ‘coping’ has been stripped away and the real person has been revealed. Think about someone you know who is better than you at just about everything – doesn’t it feel great when you can provide a skill or resource that they simply didn’t have? Why are we denying one another the chance to feel so useful, so worthwhile?

Of course, this can be abused, and the helper can feel taken advantage of, but usually the problem there is that the helper doesn’t have the humility to say, “I can’t, sorry”. That, too, takes courage, especially when the person seeking help is fragile and needy, but as long as we do it kindly, and offer to help find a solution if we can, it is actually helpful in itself. It’s helpful for our – the helper’s – physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. But it is also helpful for the body of Christ as a whole: it offers others who may not be feeling very useful the opportunity to get involved; and it also means that those seeking help don’t need to worry that they’re being a burden, or that the helpers are secretly sick of it. If they trust you to be honest and say no when you’re not available, don’t have the right skills, or simply need a break that day, they don’t need to anxiously second-guess whether it’s safe to ask you or not.

As Christians we are supposed to be family – a good, loving, functional family. The sort of family that assumes they’re going to help paint your new flat, move in for a while after your hip replacement, or look after the kids while you go to your grandfather’s funeral. When we don’t ask for help, we’re denying one another the opportunity to be the family God has commanded us to be. We’re actually causing one another to miss out on the richness of what he designed for us.

Jump leads

This post has been boiling around in me for a few weeks now. It all started at a conference I attended at City Church, Cambridge. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know it is situated opposite a large supermarket with corresponding car park. During our lunch break, a message went out that a “distressed member of the public” couldn’t start his car, and had come in to see if anyone had any jump leads (and a working engine) he could use. Someone did, and before long his engine was once again turning over and he was able to get on his way.

I was struck by the mental image I had of this man, standing in a car park surrounded by power and unable to access any of it until, of course, he plucked up his courage, humbled himself, and came into a church building to ask a bunch of strangers for help. Can you imagine how helpless he felt, standing alone in that crowded car park? And how embarrassing it was to have to admit to his failure to be able to start his car. He must have felt so small, so ashamed, and yet in his act of courage he showed great strength.

If you’re struggling at the moment, either physically, emotionally or spiritually, the power you need is close at hand, if you can find the courage to ask for it.


One final thought – to ask for help is to be Christlike.

At this time of year in particular, we remember our Lord’s ultimate act of humility – entering into the womb of one he had created, dependent on her for his very life. Being born helpless and incontinent, reliant on a whole community of others for food, warmth, cleanliness, and protection. Growing into manhood and choosing, once again, to make himself reliant on our help to spread his word throughout the world. He knew we would mess it up, many, many times, in disastrous and devastating ways and yet he, the creator of the universe had the courage to ask for help.

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Manhood and Womanhood: What’s the Problem?

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Several cracking articles have appeared in the last week or so on the subject of men and women: at TGC, Jesus Creed, 9Marks, and other places. I want to highlight two in particular.

The first is from Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks, and is an attempt to tease out the different pastoral intuitions we feel when we approach the subject of men and women. Our instincts, he argues, derive from what we think the biggest problem is in the church and/or the culture, which in turn derive from our experiences.

Ask two complementarians, “What’s the biggest problem facing the church’s understanding of manhood and womanhood today?”

One answers by pointing to Western culture’s fifty-year assault on what the Bible teaches about men and women. He talks about things like second-wave feminism, the LGBT movement, and how more and more churches treat men and women as interchangeable. He’s concerned, in other words, with Satan’s challenges to difference and authority.

The other answers by pointing to the threat that abusive male authority has long posed to women and families. She talks about how evangelicals have given a pass to Donald Trump’s sexist language, how pastors have encouraged women to remain in abusive homes, or how church leaders have refused to believe women who report sexual assault. She’s concerned, in other words, with Satan’s challenges to equality.

Hopefully all evangelical readers can agree that Scripture addresses both his and her burdens. Yet once again, different experiences and intuitions will lead these two complementarians to emphasize different pastoral burdens. If she has spent years counseling abused women and avoiding leering “Christian” men, she will more likely put challenges to equality on the front burner. If he has spent years counseling marriages that grow distant and dissolve because the husbands were quick to say, “She sinned, too,” and refused to recognize their greater responsibilities of leadership, of course he will put challenges to difference and authority on the front burner.

In short, I don’t think it’s overly simplistic to say that narrow complementarians generally feel burdened pastorally by challenges to equality, while broad complementarians generally feel burdened by challenges to authority and difference.

There’s a lot of wisdom there, I think, and it helps a great deal when it comes to living peaceably with one another on this subject. In this cultural moment there is fierce pressure in both directions simultaneously, so it is important for all of us to see the whole board as best we can, even if our experience and context lead us to believe that one danger is more pressing than another.

The second is from Alastair Roberts, who is answering a much more specific question: “How would you summarise the argument against the ordination of women?” As you’ll know if you’ve read Alastair before, or attended THINK, there is a big picture way of answering this question which, while not ignoring the exegesis of particular passages in Paul and Peter, generally focuses elsewhere. Here’s how he answers (unbelievably, at least to me, this is a transcript of a verbal answer he previously gave on video, pretty much off the top of his head):

First of all, we have the very basic biblical commands and restrictions within the New Testament, in places like 1 Timothy 2 and elsewhere, where there are limitations placed upon women’s teaching, exercising authority, and speech within the context of the church. And these teachings themselves provide an initial basis for the restriction.

Then we have the circumstantial evidence—the fact that Jesus chooses twelve apostles who are all men; he surrounds himself with men; he establishes the leadership of the early church with men. And throughout, we have this pattern of male leadership within the church. And so that’s a significant thing to notice too.

In the Old Testament we also see an all-male priesthood. We see the kings are all male, with the exception of one who is the usurper, Athaliah. And so apart from that, there are entirely male monarchs, entirely male priests, and there are also male apostles. Now people will talk about the character of Junia—much more could be said about her; that can be in another video if someone wants me to answer that. But looking at these cases there seems to be clear evidence that men and women are not regarded as interchangeable when it comes to positions of leadership within these positions, whether it be priest or king.

Another thing to notice is that throughout Scripture there is a lot of emphasis given to the symbolic importance of male and female: that male and female—no matter what the skills or gifts and abilities of a particular man or woman—are not interchangeable, because fundamentally they are either a man or a woman with all the symbolic significance that comes with that. So for instance, when you look at the sacrificial system in Leviticus you see a distinction made between sacrifices. Now why would it be necessary to sacrifice a male goat for the leader of the people or a bull for the priest? These are questions that we should be asking.

There is a symbolism and a symbolic weight given to gender and to sex that we find very hard to understand in our society because our society is built around detached organisations with people who are fairly interchangeable. We see people as functions rather than as representing a deeper symbolic order. And yet this symbolic order is prominent throughout the whole of Scripture; we see the whole of Scripture teaching concerning men and women and the symbolic weight that they both have.

And so men have a symbolic importance that we see coming to the foreground in figures like Adam or in the figure of Christ as well. That Christ is incarnated as a man—that’s significant. Christ also takes a bride, the Church. Likewise, the creation of Eve—Eve is distinct from Adam. Adam is created with a particular orientation in the world and Eve is created with a particular orientation in the world. Eve is created from the side of Adam to bring unity and communion through joining with Adam; and Adam is created from the earth primarily in order to form and till and guard and establish God’s order within the world and upon the earth. We see that within the curses as well.

When we look more deeply, we see deeper connections between men and women and larger symbolic realities. So, for instance, the man is associated more closely with heaven; the woman is associated with the earth. If we look, for instance, in the curse, the woman is associated with the earth; she brings forth fruit from her body, just as the earth brings forth fruit from its body. The earth is the adamah and the man is the adam: the woman is the one from whom all future men come; men come from the womb of the woman. And the womb of the woman is associated with the earth: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there,” “Knit together in the lowest parts of the earth.” Such images are very significant for understanding the symbolic world of Scripture.

And so when God talks about himself as Father, this is significant. The earth is our mother; God is our Father. And as Father, God is in a different relationship to us: we do not arise from God’s womb; rather God creates us through his word, and he is bound to us by his word and his commitment and love for us. But there is a gap, a distance, a break, a fundamental distinction between creature and Creator which is conceptually maintained in part by calling God ‘Father’.

Now what is the office of the pastor to do? The office of the pastor in large part is designed to represent the fatherly and husbandly form of authority in relationship to the Church. And so it is proper that it is performed exclusively by men. That’s one of the reasons why we have exclusively male priesthood within the Old Testament. God is not a mother, God is a Father; and so God’s transcendence is symbolically masculine.

And we see all these symbolic connections within Scripture that are quite alien to us within our society. Because we tend to think about the pastor as just performing certain functions—certain therapeutic functions, certain teaching functions—they need to know their theology, they need to know how to work with people, and they need to know how to speak publicly and these sorts of things. That, we suppose, is what a pastor is. But yet within Scripture a pastor stands for something as well: the pastor represents and symbolises God’s authority within the congregation. And we respond to motherly and fatherly authority differently—not primarily because of distinct behaviours, but because of where that behaviour comes from. The behaviour coming from a mother has a different salience and a different resonance than the behaviour coming from a father. And even if they did exactly the same thing it would be very different, because one would be a father’s action and the other would be a mother’s action. And this is one of the reasons why priests and pastors are to be exclusively male: because it is a fatherly form of authority that is being represented …

And it is one of the things that we see throughout Scripture: that forces that want to control a society do it generally by breaking down the power of their men by killing the baby boys or doing something along those lines that hits the men that give strength and particular backbone to the society—in its maintaining of its borders and establishing of its foundations. Now, the filling and the glorifying and the heart of the society, the life—the inner reality—of the society is primarily ordered around women. Women are the ones who establish that—who give men something to fight for, something that is a meaning for them to lay down their lives for. I might get into some of the problems that arise when we mix up these things later. And so the significance of these traits—the traits of male strength being used in service and protection of the larger community—those are things that are required in the leadership of the people of God.

If you’re wanting a distraction from the UK election today, the full versions of both these articles are well worth your time.

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The Heart of the Jungle

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Last night saw the final of this year’s I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! I have to confess that I’m a fan. I like people watching; I like the contestants’ amusing reactions to the trials (not that I’m claiming I would do any better!), and I even like some of Ant and Dec’s terrible jokes. But I also find it a fascinating opportunity to gain an insight into how people think. Since the celebrities have little to do other than sit, contemplate, and converse, many find themselves doing some deep soul-searching over their time in the jungle, and as viewers, we get to overhear some of these thoughts.

One contestant from this series who went on a significant journey of self-discovery during his time in camp was Ian Wright, retired footballer and current TV presenter. Wright exhibited a tendency towards strong emotional reactions and outbursts of anger and frustration at several points in the series, sometimes in the trials, sometimes in camp as the celebrities interacted. His anger and extreme reactions became something of a talking point among the other contestants and the show’s presenters.

Reflecting on this part of his experience when interviewed just after leaving the camp, Wright revealed a tension that stands at the heart of secular thought. On the one hand, Wright spoke about the way his time in the jungle had caused him to think soberly about himself: ‘The mental side of me, I’ve got a lot of work to do on it’, he said. ‘I’ve got to be a little bit calmer … I lose it too quickly.’ And yet Wright also qualified this observation by stating that friends and family had encouraged him to be himself in the jungle, which, he said, he obviously had to do. So while he was prepared to acknowledge his flaws, he was also eager to stress that being himself and not holding anything back was still of the utmost importance. ‘I’m not going to try and hide and suppress those feelings.’ ‘Of course, you’ve got to be yourself’.

Here, embodied in one person, is a tension that can be observed in the culture around us. On the one hand, there is a core value of modern society: authenticity to oneself. We must embrace who we are (as defined by our emotions and desires) and be true to ourselves, regardless of what other people think about us. This is why challenging someone about part of who they believe themselves to be (as based on their emotions and desires) is deemed utterly unacceptable. But at the same time there is a recognition that many of us have emotions and desires that are at best unhealthy and at worst just outright wrong and harmful both to ourselves and to others. The Me Too movement and recognition of a growing problem with racism in the UK are just two examples which show that ‘just being ourselves’ often proves not to be a good thing.

If we’re honest, we all know that left to our own devices, there are parts of ourselves that are not good and that we wouldn’t want to embrace as who we really are. And yet being true to ourselves has become such a core value of our society that we can’t really admit the problem. We know that the human heart is a problem, and yet it’s also where we look to find ourselves and build our identity.

Wright expressed an admirable humility about his flaws. He noted that this was not the first time that he has become aware of them and shared that he has been proactive in the past about seeking to change in those areas through the support of a counsellor and through taking up golf as an outlet for his emotions. He sounds like a man who genuinely wants to change, and I have huge respect for that.

But on its own counselling can’t change a human heart, and golf can’t change a human heart. Only God can. The wonderful promise of the gospel is that our hearts of stone can be turned into hearts of flesh (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26) and hearts opposed to God’s law can have God’s law inscribed upon then (Jer. 31:33). Only then can we really have the freedom to be true to ourselves, to embrace and enjoy our true identity. And this identity comes, not by embracing our emotions and desires as the real us, but by embracing a God-given identity as a child of God.

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Where is Your Affection?

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OK, you’ve had a couple of days to recover from Andrew’s Books of the Year list and the annual sense of shock, disbelief, or inadequacy that overcame you at his prodigious reading. Really, you shouldn't have been surprised: he posts this kind of thing every year – you knew it was coming! Anyway, here’s a recommendation for another book you might want to add to your Christmas list, A Change of Affection, by Becket Cook.

As the sexual revolution continues to gather pace there is a corresponding increase in books written by those who have left a gay lifestyle behind following an encounter with Jesus. Cook’s book is one such and interesting simply for that. But it is made more interesting by his backstory: a gay man living in West Hollywood, working in the fashion industry, and present at all the coolest parties with some of the biggest names. An extraordinary encounter with Jesus one Sunday through an unexpected encounter with a Christian in a coffee shop caused Cook to totally reorient his life, join a church, attend a seminary, and pursue a ministry of teaching the gospel. His affections were utterly changed.

This story is compellingly told – it feels like a 2010s version of the 1960s classic The Cross and the Switchblade. Different issues, but equally gripping and surprising.

That’s just the first half of the book though; the second explores the kinds of questions people ask of someone like Cook and gives some practical suggestions about how pastors and parents can interact with gay parishioners or children who come out as gay. The tone is full of grace, but Cook doesn’t pull any punches:

Being true to yourself is nothing short of idolatry. Oh, and isn’t a child molester just being true to himself? A rapist? A thief? A greedy person? And on it goes. So no thank you. I don’t want to be true to myself. I want to be true to God and his Word…I would never call myself a gay Christian, because the label “gay” is part of my old self, which the apostle Paul told us to get rid of.

I’d recommend this book to a gay friend struggling with the claims and demands of Christianity. I’d recommend it if you are beginning to go a bit ‘wobbly’ on the church’s historically held, biblically faithful, understanding of sexuality. I’d recommend it if simply you are trying to work out how to think and respond to the current sexual tides. It’s a really helpful book. I expect it will be on Andrew’s 2020 list – he’s just been a bit slow in 2019!

 

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Books of the Year 2019

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I had a number of reading surprises this year. Several books which I expected to be great turned out to be only OK; some books I expected to be OK turned out to be great. (The life of Olaudah Equiano is a good example of the latter: an extraordinary autobiography, travelogue, critique of slavery and history of the late eighteenth century all in one.) Then there were the ones which I had been told would be great, and did not disappoint. Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier is profound. Anna Karenina is astonishing. Eleanor Oliphant was just as delightful, The Road to Somewhere just as insightful and The Spy and the Traitor just as gripping as I had been led to believe. Bruner's commentary on Matthew had been recommended to me by several people, and I spent the best part of six months in it, falling in love with Matthew, and more importantly Jesus, all over again.

But for all that competition, calling the book of the year was actually quite easy. People will be reading, rereading, quoting and arguing about Tom Holland's Dominion for years to come.

Top Ten Recent Books

David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics. If you read this remarkable analysis of the political landscape in Britain today, you’ll be seeing Somewheres and Anywheres everywhere.

Amanda Ripley, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why. What makes some people cope so much better in disasters than others? A fascinating survey of the various explanations.

Ben Macintyre, The Spy and the Traitor. This Cold War (true) spy story is the most gripping thriller I have read in years. Unputdownable.

Sam Allberry, Seven Myths About Singleness. A wonderfully pastoral, theological, wise and winsome discussion of singleness, and what all single (and especially married!) people should know about it.

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew (two volumes). I spent six months in my devotional times in Bruner’s marvellous theological commentary, and on finishing it immediately bought his commentary on John. Fantastic.

Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. The pitch here is simple: it’s the best new apologetics book since The Reason for God.

John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise & Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000. I read several great books of global history this year (honourable mention to Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power), but this was the best. A brightly written and sweeping survey.

Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. Book of the year. If you won’t take it from me, or from Joel’s excellent review, take it from the Sunday Times.

Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I’m a couple of years late to the party on this, but this is a wonderful novel: quirky, moving, funny and charming.

William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. A remarkable story, remarkably well told by a remarkable historian.

Top Ten Old Books

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Euripides, Medea
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
G. K. Chesterton, The Thing

The Rest

John Frame, Nature’s Case for God: A Brief Biblical Argument
Daniel Darling, The Dignity Revolution
Flannery O’Connor, Parker’s Back
Aeschylus, Agamemnon
Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers
Aeschylus, The Eumenides
Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ
*Peter Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1&2 Samuel
Robert Alter, The David Story
David Cannadine, Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906
James Jordan, Judges: A Theological and Practical Commentary
Hesiod, Works and Days
*C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
James Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World
Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation
Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination
*C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement
Glenn Packiam, Blessed, Broken, Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus
*C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
Matt Smethurst, Before You Open Your Bible: Nine Heart Postures for Approaching God’s Word
Peter Thiel, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875-1914
Kathryn Tanner, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less
Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul
Umberto Eco, Chronicles of a Liquid Society
*C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy
Anthony Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America
Camille Paglia, Provocations
Jackie Hill Perry, Gay Girl Good God: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been
*Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr Fox
Richard Evans, The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914
Christian Smith, Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver
Wendell Berry, Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life
Matt Chandler and friends, Joy in the Sorrow: How a Thriving Church (and its Pastor) Learned to Suffer Well
Glen Scrivener, The Gift: What If Christmas Gave You What You’ve Always Wanted?
George Orwell, Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings
George Guthrie, 2 Corinthians
Stephen Nichols and Ned Bustard, Bible History ABCs: God’s Story from A to Z
R. O. Kwon, The Incendiaries
*C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
Daniel Strange, Plugged In: Connecting Your Faith With What You Watch, Read and Play
David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
William Venderbloemen and Warren Bird, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works
Tertullian, On the Shows
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect In Back Row America
Kevin Vanhoozer, Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine
David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History
Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order
Euripides, Hecuba
Michelle Obama, Becoming
C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
George Yancey, One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches
Joshua Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior, Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues
Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Christian Seedbed of Western Christianity
Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life
Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism
Mark Sayers, Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence and Creating in a Cultural Storm
John Starke, The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World
Graham Greene, Stamboul Train
Wendy Alsup, Companions in Suffering
Katia Adams, Equal: What the Bible Says About Women, Men, and Authority
Jen Pollock Michel, Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World
Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, The Serial Killer
John Frame, We Are All Philosophers: A Christian Introduction to Seven Fundamental Questions
Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Living in a Fractured World
Sam Allberry, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?
John Parker and Richard Rathbone, African History: A Very Short Introduction
Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father
*C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Jonathan Gibson, The Moon is Always Round
Adam Sisman, The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking
Gavin Ortlund, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future
Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity
Peter Leithart, 1&2 Chronicles
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

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Evangelism as Exiles

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Andrew’s much anticipated annual review of books is just a post or two around the corner. If I were to compose a similar list, Elliot Clark’s Evangelism as Exiles would be right at the top of the pile. This is a book all too rare in Christian publishing: deeply biblical, profoundly personal, and exceptionally well-written.

In January we’re planning on teaching through 1 Peter at my church and I picked this book up because it is an exploration of that epistle. I was planning on some background reading to help my sermon preparation – I didn’t expect to be as stirred and challenged as was the case.

Clark explores 1 Peter through the lens of his own experience working in Muslim majority nations and because of that brings a sharpness and clarity to his interpretation and application of 1 Peter. Clark knows what it is like to feel an exile, both through living as a foreigner in another nation and from being a follower of Christ in contexts where very few people are. This experience allows him to read himself deeply into the kind of situation the apostle Peter was addressing when he wrote to the elect exiles in Asia Minor. But this is far from being a book solely for those interested in mission to Muslims – it is brilliantly applied to a western audience (the examples given are American but are equally valid for a British reader). Throughout the book Clark also helpfully weaves in examples from the experience of African-American slaves; how in the midst of their exile a deep and effective spirituality was formed, and what we might learn from that.

If you read through a collection of Negro spirituals, you’ll observe that those beleaguered slaves sang about judgment and damnation in ways that would cause most of us to blush. Their ability to harness the passions of the imprecatory psalms and simultaneously drive them toward an evangelistic appeal is astonishing, if not jarring. In one line they can revel in God’s retribution; in the next they can summon sinners to repent.

Living in exile is hugely challenging. Clark doesn’t shy away from the reality of what that can mean in terms of the hostility and suffering exiles can endure. Neither does he skip over the costly ‘turn the other cheek’ calling of our pilgrimage:

You’re called to show honor to every single person. Not just the people who deserve it. Not just those who earn our respect. Not just the ones who treat us agreeably. Not just the politicians we vote for or the immigrants who are legal. Not just the customers who pay their bills or the employees who do their work. Not just the neighborly neighbors. Not just kind pagans or honest Muslims. Not just the helpful wife or the good father…

…The time is coming, and is here now, when the world won’t listen to our gospel simply because they respect us.

However, they might listen if we respect them.

Ouch.

Actually, there are any number of ‘ouch’ moments in this book. I felt convicted about my lack of courage in evangelism, my ‘over-politeness’ about speaking of Jesus to those who don’t know him, my tendency to complacency and fondness for comfort. This isn’t a book to read if you are not prepared to be challenged – but it really is a book you should read!

Just before reading Evangelism as Exiles I had led a conference titled Living in Exile. I wish I’d read the book before leading the conference. The reality is we are called as exiles. Elliot Clark has written a book that is a terrific guide to that demanding and rewarding path.

 

 

 

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Praying for the Election

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It is a truism that the healthier and more pain-free a society is the more fear and anxiety there seems to be in that society about health and pain.

This is true in Christian apologetics, where one of the biggest western ‘defeater beliefs’ is the problem of suffering – a problem that doesn’t seem to be nearly such an obstacle to faith in societies with a greater lived experience of suffering. It is also true in politics, with those societies that enjoy the greatest degree of personal liberty and economic prosperity being the most consumed with an existential sense of victimhood and hardship.

With a general election two weeks away these societal trends are not insignificant in how we pray. That we should pray for and into the election is clear. Not only 1 Timothy 2:1-4 but the scriptural story as a whole teaches us to pray for those in authority and to act as good citizens. But how do we pray? Soon we will be in the year 2020 and as this election approaches we need some 2020 vision because so often our prayers are myopic. So here are some suggestions for praying with clarity.

Be Thankful for Our Material Blessings
Inevitably elections are framed by appeals to dissatisfaction. Like advertisers, politicians succeed by making us aware of our lacks. The more dissatisfied they can make us the more they can sell themselves as the solution to our woes. The problem with this approach is it feeds an irrational dissatisfaction – just as it is irrational to feel dissatisfied if your phone is a couple of models out of date.

The reality is that from the standpoint of human security, liberty and comfort there has never been a better time to be alive than the western world in our era. All the statistics demonstrate this.

Yes, we have many social problems in the UK. Those who do the job I do live with the daily reality of brokenness in people’s lives: in physical health, mental health, relational health and spiritual health. But the degree of social care available to us is extraordinary by any historic measure. Whichever Party ends up in power after December 12 the resources being put into healthcare and education will be huge. (At present social protection, health and education are the three largest areas of government expenditure, consuming 63% of government spend.)

We should be thankful for this – as we can be thankful for the fact that the top 1% of earners in the UK contribute nearly 30% of income tax paid and thereby support the rest of us, and that we are not at war, that we do not experience famine, that women only very rarely die in labour, for central heating and anaesthetics and global supply chains, and on and on. So let’s spend at least as much time expressing gratitude for the blessings we enjoy as lamenting the wrongs we endure.


Be Broad in Lament
When it comes to lament we all tend to have our own personal areas of concern. Progressives fixate on climate change and social inequality; traditionalists about divorce rates. As Christians we should be able to see a broad range of issues and lament all that do not accord with the kingdom of God. This means we should be able to lament both antisemitism and the sexual brokenness of our society (that the leaders of both main parties are serial adulterers is merely a symptom of the latter); it means we should be concerned about economic justice and that 200,000 babies are aborted each year in the UK.

This breadth of concerns may well mean that there is no one Party which we feel entirely comfortable offering our vote to – but what else would we expect when we are called to live as exiles in the earth (1 Peter 1:1)?


Be Generous to Politicians
The depth of cynicism and opprobrium heaped on politicians is not a positive characteristic of our age. Yes, politicians can be venal, selfish and sinful – as is the case with all human beings. But it does not commend us when we join in the cultural norm of calling down a curse on all their houses. As forgiven-sinners who have experienced the generosity of God we should at least begin with the assumption that those who commit themselves to political life have some good and positive motivation for doing so. It is much easier to pray for people to whom we extend generosity than for those we despise. And if that seems an impossible thing to ask we should remember the instructions of Jesus to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).


Remember Who We Are
Christians sit in the remarkable space of having both a God-given concern for the world and a God-promised hope of a kingdom that will not be shaken. This means we can plunge headlong into political issues and rise above mere politics. What happens on December 12 is really important – but it is not ultimate. We can vote, and we can pray. Let’s do both.

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Why, why, why, Delilah?

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The story of Samson is both comic (killing a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone) and brutal (killing a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone). It is also a story rich in applications for us.

In his encounter with Delilah (told in Judges 16), Samson provides us with a picture and metaphor of the dangers of entanglement with the world. This is a strangely abusive and controlling relationship in which Samson declares his love for Delilah while she declares her determination to torment him. As is so often the way with abusive relationships Samson seems incapable of seeing what is really going on and escaping it. The irony in this case is that it is not the woman who is being controlled and abused but the strongest man in the world.

Samson submits himself to Delilah in a sequence of steps that inevitably lead to his downfall. At first she ties him with bowstrings. Then she ties him with ropes. Then she ties him into the fabric on a loom. Finally she shaves his head and – in what is perhaps the saddest verse in all scripture – “he did not know that the Lord had left him.”

As I’ve reflected on this sorry tale each of these stages has become axiomatic. ‘Bowstrings’ are things that are not good or helpful but easily snapped – a flex of the chest and they are broken off. This means ‘bowstrings’ can feel insignificant and that no harm is done by getting tied by them. But being tied by bowstrings leads to being tied by ropes which leads to being tied into the loom which leads to being shorn of power.

It is a metaphor for what has happened to the church in the West: a gradual surrender to the flow of culture until power is shorn, the buildings are emptied, and all is death. It’s also a metaphor for what can so easily happen to us individually: I let myself get tied in a few bowstrings – no problem – but then I get increasingly tangled until the Lord has left me and I don’t even realise it. If, by the grace of God, this isn’t your story, you’ve seen it in others. Tragic.

Samson, the mightiest man of them all, ends up grinding corn in a dungeon, his eyes gouged out and his dignity gone. That sounds a lot like so much of the church in the West today. If we are to see a reversal of this tragedy we need – personally and corporately – not only ‘the hair on our head to begin to grow again’ but to not get tied in bowstrings in the first place. Make that an axiom, and live by it.

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The Poverty of Prosperity

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While in the States recently many of my friends had their heads in their hands over Paula White, President Trump’s ‘spiritual adviser’.

For those in the UK who may not be so familiar with White there is a helpful briefing available from The Gospel Coalition – but the main reasons for those bowed and shaking heads are White’s health ‘n wealth teaching, and that she is twice divorced and thrice married; plus the dispiritingly long line of evangelical figureheads eager to endorse her.

I once heard a preacher (an American) lamenting how unfair it was that he had kept his hand out of the till and his zipper up yet his church was not nearly so large as others down the road with pastors less squeaky clean. In the UK we are less blighted by celebrity ministries yet the ‘success’ of theologically wobbly church leaders can still jar. And I look across the Atlantic and wonder why godly and biblically faithful pastors seem to struggle while less admirable figures appear to thrive.

Firstly – and I hope obviously – this shouldn’t lead to a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mentality. Just because others are prospering despite (or even because of) their personal and theological failings we shouldn’t abandon personal holiness and biblical faithfulness. It is easy to look at Paula White gifting T.D. Jakes a Bentley for his birthday and wonder, ‘Where did I go wrong?’ but we have got to have confidence our reward is in Christ rather than the trinkets of this age.

We also need to have confidence that in the end the Lord will set all things to rights. I’m planning on preaching from the Magnificat this Sunday. We should be strengthened by Mary’s song that, ‘He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.’ It is easy to pounce on the obvious personal and theological issues of the likes of Paula White but the Lord alone is the one able to truly read the inmost thoughts and he will do what is right. I don’t know why those preaching a false gospel so often seem to get so far but I do know that God’s kingdom will break out over all the earth.

We should also be provoked to sorrow, repentance, and action. Sorrow, that the public image of evangelicalism is too often a compromised one, offering a false gospel. Repentance, for our own compromises with the cultural waters in which we swim. Action, because the world needs to hear the true gospel of Christ proclaimed and see it lived out in local churches which resist the spirit of the age and function as colonies of heaven.

There have always been many who peddle the word of God for profit (2 Cor. 2:17) but that doesn’t render the gospel untrue or untrustworthy. Rather, it calls us to truth and trust.

Preach it!

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An Outstanding Day’s Training for £15

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Imagine this. You take the most pastorally difficult and culturally challenging subject there is today (sexuality). You get the best people in the country--some would say the world--to come and deliver a day's training on it (Ed Shaw, Andy Robinson, Sam Allberry). You host the day in two places, one north and one south, to make it as easy as possible for people to come (Sheffield, London). You run it at a convenient time for pastors and pastoral teams (26th and 27th February). And you charge £15 for it.

Ridiculous, I hear you say. And I reply: this is how we roll.

The first day is on 26 February at City Church Sheffield, and the second is on 27 February at King’s Church London. For a fuller description of the day, practical information and registration details, you can go here for Sheffield and here for London. I hope to see you there!

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Alleged Spots on the Sun

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The world really pays the supreme compliment to the Catholic Church in being intolerant of her tolerating even the appearance of the evils which it tolerates in everything else. A fierce light does indeed beat upon that throne and blacken every blot; but the interest here is in the fact that even those who profess to be setting up new thrones or throwing new light are perpetually looking backwards at the original blaze if only to discover the blots. They have not really succeeded in getting out of the orbit of the system which they criticize. They have not really found new stars; they are still pointing at alleged spots on the sun, and thereby admitting that it is their native daylight and the centre of their solar system.

—Chesterton, The Thing

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Seeing The Accuracy of the Bible

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Do our English Bibles accurately reflect the writing of the original authors? It’s an important question. Some would argue (or more often assume) that they don't. The view that that the text of the Bible has been corrupted and changed over the centuries is commonplace even among those who have never read the Bible.

Textual criticism is the discipline that seeks to make sure that the text behind our English (and other) translations is as close to the original as possible. Textual critics look at the variations between extant texts and work through which is most likely to be the original based on a variety of criteria.

Today, the vast majority of the New Testament translations are based on an eclectic text created by textual critics. This means that the Greek text used by translators would not be found in any one Greek manuscript, but is a bringing together of what textual critics have concluded are the best readings from the available manuscripts.

This fact can sometimes worry people. Learning that there are so many variants in the existing New Testament manuscripts (around 500,000 in fact) can cause people to worry that we can never really know what the original authors wrote. Critics of the Bible, such as Bart Ehrman, make exactly this case. But it’s very easy to be misled by the 500,000 figure. Yes, there are thousands and thousands of variants, but very few of them are of any great significance.

For those who can’t read Greek, it has thus far been necessary to trust Greek-readers who say this as there hasn’t been an easy way to look at the evidence in English. However, a website launched earlier this year changes that. KJV Parallel Bible allows English readers an insight into these variants by presenting in parallel English translations of the two most influential versions of the Greek text. One is the Textus Receptus. This was the first Greek text of the New Testament to be produced after the invention of the printing press and is the text which underlies most Reformation period translations, including the KJV. The other is the Nestle-Aland 28 (NA28), the latest version of the eclectic text used today by scholars and which underlies the vast majority of modern English translations. What is clever about the KJV Parallel Bible, is that the compilers have translated the NA28 in the style of the KJV so that only textual, and not translational, differences are visible.

The site is thus a great tool to visually see the extent of difference between two different textual bases to the New Testament, one of which is the product of a millennium and a half of scribal transmission, the other of which is the conclusion of modern textual critics.1

What is most striking as you look through the New Testament on the site is how few of the differences are of any great significance for the meaning of the text or for key theological beliefs. It provides a way that English readers can see for themselves the amazing extent to which the text of the New Testament has been preserved through the centuries of transmission and the confidence we can have in it, despite the thousands of variations in extant manuscripts.

So why not take a look through some chapters of the KJV Parallel Bible to have your faith in the accuracy of the Bible strengthened?

 You can find out more about the project in an article written by the site’s creator, Mark Ward, over at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.

Footnotes

  • 1 Technically speaking, the Textus Receptus is a sort of eclectic text in that it made use of a small handful of manuscripts because manuscripts covering the entirety of the New Testament were not available. Alternative readings found in the Latin Vulgate were also sometimes allowed to influence the text. In general, the Textus Receptus is based on what modern textual critics deem the least accurate family of Greek witnesses to the New Testament (the Byzantine text) which makes it a particularly fruitful version for comparisons seeking to show to what extent the variations are significant.

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One of the Best Illustrations I’ve Heard in Years

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Is the second person of the Trinity omnipresent and incarnate at the same time? Is the Son of God both asleep in a manger, or a boat, or even dead, while he is also filling all things and sustaining the universe? The so-called extra Calvinisticum gives a confident yes—and the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper depends on it, among other things—but it feels counterintuitive and obscure to us nevertheless. So here’s a wonderfully helpful illustration from Gavin Ortlund’s excellent new book, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals. It’s one of the best illustrations I’ve heard in years, and it pretty much sums up what theological teaching ought to be.

Suppose, just as Christ comes into his own creation at the incarnation, Tolkien had written himself into Middle-earth as a character of the story alongside Frodo and Merry and Pippin and the rest. Had Tolkien done so, he would not for that reason cease to exist in Oxford (in fact, his whole existence in Middle-earth depends on his continued writing). Nor has the unity of Tolkien’s person been impaired, for one person can simultaneously be in Middle-earth and Oxford, because they are not two different “places” within one realm but two different realms altogether. In other words, it is one thing to be in Oxford and Cambridge at the same time, but another thing to be in the Shire and Oxford at the same time; and the relation of “heaven” and “earth,” and with it the relation of Christ’s divine and human natures, is more like the relationship between the Shire and Oxford. This is the value of the metaphor of story—the distinction between “author” and “story” is robust enough to retain two natures while fluid enough to retain one person. Middle-earth and Oxford may be two while Tolkien remains one ...

It is not merely that Tolkien is not confined to the body of his incarnate character in Middle-earth; that is true, but that is just about the least significant thing one can say about him. Supposing the incarnated Tolkien is sitting in Frodo’s home in the Shire for a meal; this does not in the least hinder the Tolkien in Oxford from going to sleep, or traveling to India, or putting the book down for twenty years. His incarnate existence in Middle-earth does not diminish him in the least or even distract him. He is not merely extra but completely and fully extra. In other words, it is not that he reduces himself to an incarnate life but leaves a tiny bit left over that is not exhausted by his incarnation; rather, that which is extra continues on without the slightest downgrade or even interruption during the incarnation.

This is what theological teaching should be. It is creative faithfulness: finding new ways to say old things. It is beautiful orthodoxy. If you’re wired this way, the whole book is worth reading.

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When Yeezus turned to Jesus: Why Jesus is King is not a blueprint for Christian art

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For many Christians, Kanye West’s new album Jesus is King is the perfect example of a piece of Christian art. It is wholesome, uplifting and features the highest quality of craftsmanship, but most importantly it is not just made by a Christian, but it’s content is unapologetically, relentlessly and worshipfully Christian.

Therefore, I was not surprised to stumble across some responses to Jesus is King putting it forward as evidence that Christian artists should be much more confident in proclaiming Christ through their art and not shying away from filling their work with explicitly Christian content. It seems like an open and shut case. Kanye West can top the charts with an album of simple gospel proclamation, so why are other Christian artists so reluctant to do so? I mean, what else could you want to make art about?

I may sound a bit contrarian, but I’m not so sure. While I appreciate the need to proclaim Christ, I think that pressuring artists to do so in their work shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what art is and also a confusion over why Jesus is King is shifting so many units among people who are not Christians.

Art as a vehicle for our message?

A very common Christian view of the arts is that they are primarily valuable as a vehicle for our message. Art, in whatever from it might take, has a powerful communicative power, and we have a message that we are very keen to communicate, so, this view goes, if only we could use this aspect of human culture more proficiently, it would maximise our evangelistic effectiveness.

This seems well intentioned but also somewhat naïve. I would, of course, agree that art has a powerful communicative power. I recently heard art described as a Trojan horse. Its ‘emotional charge’ (as philosopher RG Collingwood put it) opens the doors of your attention and possibly affection, and before you know it, you are considering and probably warming to beliefs, opinions and maybe even entire worldviews that you wouldn’t have given the time of day to otherwise.

However, while all of this is true about how art affects people, it is probably an unhelpful way to view art generally. If you set about making art with this in mind, you will probably end up producing propaganda. One of the problems with this is that in a world saturated with marketing and advertising, people are getting more and more suspicious of such techniques. This means that art produced in this way can actually have the opposite effect, and if people feel their emotions being pulled in a certain direction by a piece of art, they instinctively bolt the gates not just to that piece of work but to the group it speaks for.

In any discipline, art made with an obvious agenda is usually well received by those who are already on board with that agenda, but it is resisted and even resented by those who are not.

Engaging in a conversation through the arts

Art, I think, should be viewed more as a way of entering into a conversation. It involves speaking one’s mind, but it also involves listening. In a conversation, subtleties of body language and tone of voice are key so also, in art, nuance, empathy and vulnerability are necessary. Importantly, as well, powerful art works are rarely viewed in isolation, but are part of a process, involving an artist’s whole body of work and even his or her life as a whole.

The typical Christian approach to evangelistic art is to treat it as a megaphone to raise the volume of our message in individual outbursts. We interrupt what everyone else is talking about, shout something about Jesus, then run off. This is not a very winsome way to approach the art of conversation and it is an equally poor way of approaching art as conversation.

Now, let’s consider Jesus is King in this context. Musically, it is very polished, and in places I think inspired. Lyrically, it is very simple and blunt. Some think of this as a strength, others as a weakness, but the fact that people are thinking about it at all shows that people have willingly entered into the conversation with Kanye. The reason for this is quite simple, he has put time into participating in this particular conversation and, for all his antics, has proved himself a highly engaging conversationalist.

Since his earliest releases, he has exhibited a fan boy enthusiasm for hip hop culture and a love for the art form. This has earnt him a listening from those within his specific discipline. On top of this, although he is infamous for saying and doing things that are, let’s say, a little bit off the wall, his tendency to fill his music with exactly what he is thinking at any particular moment has meant that people feel like they have some sort of connection with him and most importantly that they relate to him.

This means that Jesus is King, in the context of the conversation, is not the simple (even possibly simplistic) work that it appears to be taken purely on its own merit. It is an unexpected (although not entirely out of character) left turn on a journey that many people are already heavily invested in.

If Jesus is King was Kanye’s first album, it would not be trending worldwide, just as if Stormzy had released Blinded by Your Grace as his first single, he would not have been invited to play at Glastonbury. They didn’t enter the conversation there, and they probably couldn’t have done.

Expressing yourself honestly through the arts

Interestingly, Kanye’s approach to art making has remained fairly consistent throughout his winding career. He has always justified his media outbursts and the more unsavoury elements of his art, by arguing that it is his job, as an artist, to express himself; to refuse to pretend and instead to faithfully represent in his work what is going on in his head.

In the past this has led him to shoot from the hip on political and social issues and also to unburden the salacious contents of his id on to his listenership. Now, he has decided to follow Jesus and with the fresh faced enthusiasm of a new convert, he is continuing in the same vein – he is being himself. He may well have mixed motives in the whole affair (don’t we all?) but the interpretation of Jesus is King that I find least likely is that it is the product of a calculating mind, trying to tap a certain market. Kanye has spent years killing his editor, often at great expense to his personal credibility, so I don’t see why he’d change that particular habit now.

He seems to be making music about Jesus, because, at this particular moment in time, he loves Jesus. Long may that love continue and grow!

What can we learn from Kanye?

When I reflect on Jesus is King then, I don’t see compelling evidence that Christians should make art that focuses exclusively on Christian content. It is also not a clarion call to use the arts to proclaim the gospel. It is instead an encouragement to Christian artists to join the conversation. To step out of the safety of the Christian subculture, and become a faithful presence in their artistic cultures. This will probably only be possible if they are somewhat more diverse in their content than Kanye is on Jesus is King.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that Christian artists should cunningly hide their allegiance to Christ and pretend to be interested in other things, until people take the bait and they can reel them in!

Underpinning my understanding of how a Christian should engage in the arts is the belief that living for Jesus doesn’t mean that we are only interested in things that are obviously of a Christian nature. By his light, all things become brighter, and so Christians should be people who are interested in, and excited about all sorts of elements of life as things that have been given to us as gifts from God.

Art is a tool by which we can explore the depths of what it means to be a human being, and, as Christians, we should be able to do that in the most profound way; in a way that finds many universal points of reference, but that also authentically and beautifully leads people to the one who is the true human, the perfect image of God.

By God’s grace (let’s hope) Kanye West has gained a platform for the gospel by appealing to the more transgressive tastes of the masses. That’s how he got into the conversation. If you’re a Christian artist, you can’t do it like that, but in a funny way, Kanye’s model of honesty and openness is very much something that we should emulate. We should love God and make art about whatever we will, as Augustine would have said if he’d decided to contribute to this particular discussion!

If you are a church leader, then, please do not use ‘Jesus is King’ as the blueprint of how the Christian artists in your church can now reach the world with the gospel. Instead train artists up in godliness and give them space to make authentic, weird, mind boggling, silly, earnest, abstract work that may seem like a total waste of time to you, but is their way of processing what is going on in their heads. By doing this, they are likely to get into conversations with people that you never will.

And for all of us, let’s celebrate what seems to be going on in Kanye West’s life and also celebrate the existence of an album that is going to direct millions of people’s attention towards Jesus, when, without it, they wouldn’t be thinking about him at all.

And, I know I may not take you all with me on this one, but I’m praying that this is his last gospel album. It would be a travesty for a Jesus following Kanye West to be relegated to just being a successful CCM artist!


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The featured image is by Benjamin Harris - instagram.com/ben.jahh.min

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Away With Your Priestly Apparatus of Stethoscopes

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Chesterton on mischievous form:

All I ask is Health; what could be simpler than the beautiful gift of Health? Why not be content to enjoy for ever the glow of youth and the fresh enjoyment of being fit?

Why study dry and dismal sciences of anatomy and physiology; why enquire about the whereabouts of obscure organs of the human body? Why pedantically distinguish between what is labelled a poison and what is labelled an antidote, when it is so simple to enjoy Health? Why worry with a minute exactitude about the number of drops of laudanum or the strength of a dose of chloral, when it is so nice to be healthy?

Away with your priestly apparatus of stethoscopes and clinical thermometers; with your ritualistic mummery of feeling pulses, putting out tongues, examining teeth, and the rest! The god Esculapius came on earth solely to inform us that Life is on the whole preferable to Death; and this thought will console many dying persons unattended by doctors.

There may be, and there has been, pedantry in the medical profession. There may be, and there has been, theology that was thin or dry or without consolation for men. But to talk as if it were possible for any science to attack any problem, without developing a technical language, and a method always methodical and often minute, merely means that you are a fool and have never really attacked a problem at all.

—Chesterton, The Thing

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Finding The Common Ground

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I had a realisation recently: There may often be more common ground between opposing viewpoints on ethical issues than we tend to assume, and that recognition could prove hugely useful in discussions and debates on these issues.

This common ground is found in underlying goals. Behind every ethical viewpoint will be a number of goals and motivations. Some of these will always differ between those coming from a Christian perspective and those not, but often our motivation in relation to the people directly affected will be exactly the same. In many cases our judgements on ethical issues are an attempt to provide the best solution to a problem which brings (potential) pain, suffering or loss to individuals and communities. Our answers on how best to solve the problem may differ, but the underlying desire to solve the problem in a way which helps those affected is the same.

Highlighting this common ground is a way of diffusing the idea that a Christian perspective is unloving or uncaring. Rather, we can show that in reality the Christian perspective, like others, is seeking to love and care by providing a solution to the underlying problem. The disagreement is simply over which solution is best.

So, when we’re engaging with a different viewpoint on an ethical issue, there are some key questions to ask: Is there a shared motivation behind the different viewpoints? What problem or perceived problem is each seeking to solve? If a common motivation is found, then the next questions should be: What problems might there be with the alternative solution? In what ways is the Christian solution better and more life-giving? This is why it is so important for us to know not just what the Bible says, but why it says it.

This approach can be fruitfully applied to many of the big ethical debates of our day:

Euthanasia

The most common argument employed in support of euthanasia is the argument from autonomy, the idea that it is not fair to force someone to endure the loss of their dignity when they reach the point of being unable to care for themselves. The motivation is thus to protect the dignity of those who are unable to be autonomous.

A Christian viewpoint which opposes the acceptance of euthanasia has the same motivation of protecting the dignity of those unable to be autonomous. However, rather than allowing life to be ended when or before this point is reached, the Christian approach solves the problem by affirming that our dignity is based on God’s creation of us in his own image, not on our ability to be autonomous. The question thus becomes: which solution is best?

The secular approach affirms that dignity is lost when autonomy is lost. It thus removes dignity from anyone who is unable to look after themselves, regardless of whether they are content to live in that state. By affirming that the life of one individual who has lost their autonomy is not worthy of protection it is unavoidably affirmed that the life of anyone else unable to look after themselves is also not worthy of protection. (It is not true that the difference is the individual’s consent to ending their life; our cultural belief that suicide should be prevented disproves the idea that consent makes the ending of life acceptable.) Thus, in seeking to maintain the dignity of one group of people, support for euthanasia removes dignity from another group. Surely a solution which maintains dignity for all people, regardless of the loss of autonomy is better. The differing perspectives are aiming to solve the same problem, but the Christian view is arguably far better.

Transgender

An affirming approach to transgender is a proposed solution to a problem. The problem is the pain of gender dysphoria and the solution is transitioning. A biblical approach which concludes that transitioning is not morally acceptable should also be concerned to look for a solution to the pain of gender dysphoria. There are various elements to this response including the biblical resources for living with suffering in a post-Fall world and the hope of resolution to the dysphoria by seeking the alignment of the mind with the body through prayer and the help of clinicians.

The question is again: which solution is best? Major problems can be observed in the philosophical assumptions behind the affirming approach (i.e. in the concept of internal identity), increasing numbers of people (sometimes referred to as ‘detransitioners’) are reporting that transitioning did not bring them the desired relief, and the process of medically transitioning brings with it additional physical pain and potential negative health impacts.

In contrast, the Christian perspective is stronger philosophically, avoids unnecessary additional physical pain and negative health impacts, and acknowledges the reality that the experience of pain is an unavoidable reality for every person in this life, while offering genuine hope both for the present and the future. I believe a much stronger case can be made in support of the Christian solution than the solution offered by a secular, affirming approach. (That’s a case I’ve made for a teenage audience here).

Same-Sex Relationships

The problems perceived to be solved by the approval of same-sex relationships are the problems associated with celibate singleness: loneliness, lack of opportunity to experience love and family, and lack of sex.

A full Christian perspective on sexuality and relationships addresses each of these perceived problems in more life-giving ways. The problems of loneliness and lack of love and family are solved through the reality of genuine, expressed love in friendship and the experience of family in the context of church (which is a family and so should live as family). This is a better solution to these problems than restricting their resolution to exclusive, romantic relationships which will always exclude some in society (such as those unable to find a willing partner).

The problem of the lack of sex is resolved in a full Christian perspective on sexuality by observing that sex is not a genuine need; it is not needed for health or to attain the status of ‘a true adult’, despite the unproven assumptions of our society. The genuine need for human love can be met in friendship and church family which shows that the perceived need for sex to experience love is false. Again, this is a better solution as it doesn’t restrict the fulfilment of core human needs only to those who are able to find a sexual partner. The alternative leaves some unavoidably unable to have their supposed needs met (e.g. those who fail to find someone who will consent to having sex with them) and could be wrongly used to justify the dispensing of consent as necessary for sexual activity. (The logic being: ‘I have a genuine human need for sex, no one consented to having sex with me, therefore I had to forcefully take what I rightfully need’.) Again the Christian approach is a better and more life-giving answer to the underlying problem.

I think this kind of approach could be incredibly helpful as we seek to engage with different viewpoints on ethical issues. Showing our shared motivations challenges wrong assumptions about Christian perspectives, and about the very heart of God, and allows us to show the world that what God says is not only true but good. Jesus really does offer us fullness of life.

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When Yeezus turned to Jesus: What’s going on with Kanye West?

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On Friday 25 October, hip hop superstar Kanye West released his 9th solo album. At the time of writing, it is number 2 in the UK album charts and expected to top the Billboard charts in the US. My guess would be that the Think Theology readership would not have contributed greatly to the 21 million albums that Kanye has sold up to this point, however, that may be about to change, because, in case you haven’t heard, this latest album is reasonably unusual. It is a full throttle, unapologetic gospel album, focused entirely on Kanye West’s newfound Christian faith. Its title sets the tone: ‘Jesus is King’.

Albums made by Christians about Christian stuff do often sell a lot of units in the US. However, in most cases, the huge majority of the people buying them are themselves Christians (for example, Chris Tomlin’s Burning Lights topped the Billboard 200 chart in 2013). Other Christian artists have topped the American charts and become very popular outside of the Christian sub culture (for example, Amy Grant or POD), but usually, these artists’ crossover albums have been somewhat restrained in their Christian content. ‘Jesus is King’ is an anomaly in this regard. It is an album of relentless praise and petition directly offered to Jesus and it is pretty fair to assume, given Kanye’s reputation and fanbase, that a fair whack of the 250,000 or so sales in the first week since its release have been to people who do not themselves follow Jesus.

This is all quite a turnaround for Kanye West. Christianity has often been in the background of his music (most notably in the 2004 single Jesus Walks), but he’d be the first to admit that now things are very different. Kanye has recently compared himself to King Nebuchadnezzar, and it seems like a good reference point. Since releasing his debut album in 2004, his music has been wilfully transgressive and probably open to the charge of being downright blasphemous. As a case in point, in 2013 he released a song entitled ‘I am a God’ on his album ‘Yeezus’ (a combination of Kanye’s nickname ‘Ye’ and, well, I think you get it!) But, according to Kanye, he has been well and truly humbled, particularly referencing a psychotic episode and hospitalization in 2016 as a key turning point. Now, he is singing a very different tune. The only topic he is interested in talking (or making music) about at the moment is the gospel.

In a recent interview with TV presenter Zane Lowe, Kanye summed up his present mindset:

‘Now that I’m in service to Christ, my job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me. I’ve spread a lot of things… but now I’m letting you know what Jesus has done for me and in that I’m no longer a slave, I’m a son of God now.’

As you might imagine, this has not gone unnoticed. Already, in the week following the album release, the internet has been ablaze with Christians sharing their opinions on this change of direction. Opinions seem to range from ‘it’s a publicity stunt’ to ‘let’s wait and see’ to heralding Kanye as the new CS Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and William Wilberforce rolled into one.

It’s natural that questions would be asked, especially in light of Kanye’s pretty erratic behaviour over the last decade. However, even if you’re sceptical about his conversion, surely Philippians 1:18 would still mean that a modicum of rejoicing is appropriate.

Within the rejoicing, all of this should require some broader reflection as well. While I think that we should pray for Kanye, and that the album itself is bound to have a positive impact for the church (with some kickback too), it also throws up some questions that would be worth pondering. I’m particularly interested in two: how does this fit into the bigger picture in popular culture at the moment? And what does this teach us about how we as Christians should engage with the arts? Let’s deal with the first today, and there’ll be another post soon about the second.

Jesus is King is an example of a growing trend in hip hop music

Hip hop has always had a religious backbone. Like most musical genres to emerge in the mid- to late-20th century, it is not difficult to trace the roots of hip hop back to black majority church culture. However, quite quickly, hip hop reacted against this heritage and leant more towards Islam. Martin Luther King was universally respected, but Malcolm X was the role model. Pop rappers would include a token gospel track to diversify their appeal, but the serious hip hop artists were often either embracing mainstream Islam (like Q-Tip or Mos Def) or, more likely, namechecking fringe Muslim sects like the Nation of Islam (Public Enemy, Ice Cube).

There were many rappers who would claim a nominal Christianity when it suited them, and some who were more sincere, but the picture remained pretty consistent in the 90s and early 2000s. In a musical culture that was built around the urban black experience, Christianity was generally presented as either a religion that was too weak willed and soft to deal with the persisting problems of institutional racism or as an actual facilitator of the oppression of black people in the western world.

And that’s how it seems to have continued until very recently, when a shift seems to have taken place. Two of the key characters who’ve been at the heart of this shift have been Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.

While Kendrick’s music would be, let’s say, somewhat challenging to many Christians, Christianity underpins everything he does, from the sinner’s prayer that opens his 2012 album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D city’ to his 2017 album ‘Damn’ which is a sort of concept album based around Deuteronomy 28! Many hip hop fans would regard Kendrick as the greatest rapper alive, if not the G.O.A.T (greatest of all time).

A year before Kendrick released ‘Damn’, Chance the Rapper had released ‘Coloring Book’. Chance was already very well regarded as a rising star, but his subject matter had been largely standard rap fare. His previous mix tape had been mainly about taking hallucinogenic drugs. ‘Coloring Book’ though was a gospel album, and he stunned the audience at the 2017 Grammys, with one of the songs, a cover of Chris Tomlin’s ‘How Great is Our God’.

I posted briefly about Kendrick and Chance on this blog last year, but the story has moved on since then, especially for Chance.

In late 2018, Chance announced that he was taking a sabbatical, on which he wanted to achieve two things: giving up smoking and reading the Bible.

I’m going away to learn the Word of God which I am admittedly very unfamiliar with. I’ve been brought up by my family to know Christ but I haven’t taken it upon myself to really just take a couple days and read my Bible…

On 12th December, he posted Galatians 1:6-7 to his 9.2 million Instagram followers, and asked: “Anybody wanna read thru Galatians with me? It’s really short.”

That evening, this is exactly what he did, reading the whole book of Galatians live on Instagram!

His followers responded en masse. Featured amongst the thousands of comments on the post were The NLT Bible app thanking him for the support, famous rappers Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifah encouraging him to smoke weed instead of cigarettes, quite a few Christians who took an aversion to him reading from the NLT, and some fans who vowed to stop listening to his music from now on (@Kralcrolyat  ‘Damn, for someone who did a whole album on acid you think you’d be a little more open minded’). On the other hand, there were a whole load of very heartfelt and encouraging responses. @Mylawnuhh’s is my favourite:

I need to start reading the Bible. I really need to be connected with the Lord before I go any further in my life; I just turned 15 and I want God to be an important part of my future. Especially if I ever have kids.

Earlier this year, Chance released ‘The Big Day’ on which he opens up a bit more about his decision to become a Christian. Yes, there is quite a lot of swearing. And yes, some of his friends who guest on the album over share about their sexual exploits, but on the whole it’s an album about being happily married, by a reasonably new convert, who continues to publicly thank Jesus for turning his life around and seems to be showing considerable fruit of repentance.

But of course, this would only happen in America, wouldn’t it? For us poor Brits, in our cynical secular country, our rappers are cut from a different cloth. Hmm… Stormzy at Glastonbury, anyone?

 

What does it all mean?

It’s important to underline here that these are not some fringe happenings within a niche cultural fad. I know that the evangelical church in the UK still seems to think that anthemic soft rock ballads are the height of relevance and cultural engagement, but musical analysts would now rate hip hop as the most listened to musical genre in the world (and apparently it has been for the last 5 years).

Now, I know that all the examples I’ve used in this post raise further questions. These artists are complex and at times quite conflicted in their expressions of faith. Kanye West is perhaps the best example of this, and I know many friends, Christian and non-Christian, who had switched off to Kanye well before his confession of faith in Jesus.

However, I’d want to urge generosity of spirit to those involved in this Christian resurgence in rap music and at the very least that we’d pray for them heartily. Living in a world that seems to be doing its utmost to stamp out Christianity, or at least silence Christians, this rebellion from within the very heart of the culture itself fuels my hope that God is not quite done with the Western world just yet.


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The featured image is by Benjamin Harris - instagram.com/ben.jahh.min

 

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Dominion in Miniature

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For those who don’t have the time, money or patience to read Tom Holland’s Dominion, which Joel reviewed recently, here’s a paragraph from Chesterton that pretty much sums it up:

The fact is this: that the modern world, with its modern movements, is living on its Catholic capital. It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendom; including, of course, many truths known to pagan antiquity but crystallized in Christendom. But it is not really starting new enthusiasms of its own. The novelty is a matter of names and labels, like modern advertisement; in almost every other way the novelty is merely negative. It is not starting fresh things that it can really carry on far into the future. On the contrary, it is picking up old things that it cannot carry on at all. For these are the two marks of modern moral ideals. First, that they were borrowed or snatched out of ancient or mediaeval hands. Second, that they wither very quickly in modern hands.

—G. K. Chesterton, “Is Humanism a Religion?”

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Pastors and Song Lists

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If our doctrine is shaped more by what we sing than what we hear—“show me your song list, and I’ll show you your theology”—then song selection is an important pastoral task. That doesn’t necessarily mean that pastors need to meddle in the specific choices that are made each week, whether in the form of the hymns on the board or a set list (although sometimes, what looks like meddling is actually shepherding). But it does mean that they—we—should be attentive to the list of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that are sung by the congregation. In some cases this will mean choosing a particular hymn book. In others it will involve shaping the “song pool”: the shortlist of songs that are most commonly used in the church. It will rarely involve ignoring it altogether.

One of the things that makes this difficult, however, is the number of ways in which our song lists need to be balanced. There are several axes, if you will, rotating at the same time. Balance on one axis does not necessarily mean balance on the others. For instance:

Celebration vs Lament. The Psalms are remarkably wide-ranging. There are songs for all seasons: tragedy and triumph, mourning and dancing, cries of “hallelujah!” and “help!” If, out of a desire for our people to be incessantly happy, we offer a liturgical diet of non-stop celebration, we unintentionally do two things. We fail to give voice to the sizeable number in our congregation who are suffering, grieving and facing injustice. And we eviscerate the Psalter.

This is not a matter of form, but of content. Plenty of songs are in the minor key; far fewer express the emotional range of the songbook that Jesus grew up on and the apostles urged us to use in church (and don’t get me started on the imprecatory psalms). We mustn’t overcorrect here and turn every song into a dirge, but from where I am standing, that is hardly the danger we face. For an extended rant on this subject, see chapter three of Spirit and Sacrament.

Old vs New. Nobody after drinking old wine desires new, for they say, “the old is better.” In songwriting terms, they often are. Old hymns and spirituals have been threshed by history, blowing away the fluff and keeping only the decent ones. They enable us to sing alongside the church triumphant, as well as the church militant. Melodically, they are usually easier to learn: there is a repeated tune for every verse, rather than an intro, a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus, a bridge and an outro, all of which are musically different.

Yet despite these benefits, and the inverted chronological snobbery that accompanies them in some circles, there are also great advantages to singing new songs as well. One is that we are told to, both in the Psalms (“sing a new song to the Lord!”) and the letters (“psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”). Another is that, free from the constraints of metre, rhyme and antique prose (and occasionally grammar), they can express truths in simple, pithy and memorable forms that connect with ordinary people, especially those who don’t normally go to church. They encourage creativity in worship. They prevent the church from being needlessly mired in the eighteenth century. They get into commuters’ cars and onto teenagers’ playlists. Therefore every worship leader who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Reflective vs Emotive. This is a harder point to make, but bear with me: there are songs whose musical shape seems designed to prompt reflection and consideration, and songs whose musical shape seems designed to elicit an emotional response. The classic hymn form, in which the melody repeats every verse, is very well suited for reflection; by teaching you the melody in verse one, and repeating it in verse two, it ensures you don’t have to think about it by verses three and four, and can focus all your attention on the words. This doesn’t exclude emotion, by any means (When I Survey, anyone?), and by articulating rich truths it often makes people feel things more deeply rather than less. But songs of this form—and not just hymns, but more reflectively structured songs in general—aim at revelation rather than response, to use Matt Redman’s helpful distinction.

At the same time, music is incredibly powerful, and it is entirely appropriate for songwriters to use melodies, rhythms, dynamics and instruments to assist in emotional responses. This is not exactly a new development, as anyone who has experienced Bach’s St Matthew Passion or Mozart’s Requiem will testify. Why else would the Psalms call for people to rejoice with loud cymbals, horns, pipes, harps and lyres? Why all the musical directions, from liturgical breaks (selah) to the choice of melody (“to Jeduthun”)? Admittedly, the contemporary pendulum has swung towards the musically epic in the last few years—the acoustic first verse, the second verse with the rhythm section added, the big chorus, the drop, the huge chorus with the octave jump, the dramatic middle eight which puts Fix You in the shade, the fade into applause—and there is a risk of overdoing it. But God has given us music to stir our emotions, and it is right that we do—provided, as Jonathan Edwards put it in a slightly different context, that the emotions are proportional to the truth being sung about.

Musical Style. This isn’t exactly my area, so I won’t say much about it. But it seems to me that the musical style of corporate worship should at least attempt to reflect the diversity of the congregation. This is needed generationally (older folk will often feel just as alienated if the entire song list has been written since 2010 as young people will if it’s non-stop hymns, even if they are more accepting about it), but it is also needed culturally (despite my personal preferences, an endless diet of white boy rock can be pretty exhausting for many people in my city). And please don’t think this is only possible with a huge array of session standard musicians. Many of the most powerful spirituals, choruses, hymns and gospel songs can be sung with no instruments at all.

Theological Balance. I’ve saved the most important for last. Songs teach us doctrine. Music makes truth memorable. So there are numerous teaching psalms, and apparent fragments of early Christian hymns in the epistles (Phil 2:6-11; 1 Tim 3:14-16; etc), and plenty of doctrinally rich songs in Revelation—and Paul urges us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). Our songs do not just express our theology; they shape it. Which means that we should be aware not just of whether our songs are true—hopefully they are, although not always!—but also of whether they reflect an appropriate theological balance.

Let’s say your last meeting included five songs. Based on those five, would a new person be able to tell that you believed in the Trinity? In the cross? In the resurrection? In the return of Christ? (Note that these questions become much more pressing in churches where there is no other formal liturgy, because there are no Creeds, set prayers or confessional statements to help carry this kind of catechetical weight.*) I have been in churches that seem never to sing about the cross; I was once in a church that (literally) never sang about anything else. The problem in each case was not the songs that were sung, but the ones that weren’t: the lack of balance made the worship feel anaemic, or gloomy, or excessively sugary, and simply failed to instruct people on foundational Christian teachings. This is not the only purpose of corporate worship, but it is a vital one nonetheless—and if we think our deficiency here will be compensated for by our preaching, we are probably overvaluing our gift, overestimating the impact of listening, and underestimating the power of singing.

Balancing those five axes is difficult. It takes time, gifting, experience and wisdom. Worship leaders will always benefit from our encouragement and our prayers. But when it comes to choosing song lists, they may also benefit from our help.

*Is there any more satisfying word to say out loud than “catechetical”?

Handling Halloween image

Handling Halloween

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I am a pro-American Brit – I love the country, like the people, and could happily live there. I’m not so keen on all American imports though. I don't drink Coke and I am not that keen on the idea of 'proms'. The school disco of my youth was bad enough, why ramp up the pressure with a prom? (Though I have to admit my daughters have all looked good in their prom dresses!)

And then there is Halloween.

Before ET hit our screens in 1982, hardly anyone in Britain bothered with Halloween, but somehow the cinematic representation of a bug-eyed, reptilian alien, going trick or treating, birthed a new social phenomenon. Fast-forward 37 years and Halloween is massive, economically and socially. What should Christian parents do in response? Do we batten down the hatches, lock our front doors, cut ourselves off from society, put our fingers in our ears, sing la-la-la and pretend nothing is happening? Do we just go with the flow, and let our kids dress as ghosts and witches, without any kind of spiritual reflection? Do we hold alternative light parties and attempt the kind of takeover that an earlier generation managed when pagan Saturnalia morphed into Christian Christmas? Or, is there a better approach?

When my children were very young I tended towards the ‘ignore and deny’ approach, not opening the door to trick or treaters and certainly not allowing my kids onto the street. I resented this American import on cultural and spiritual grounds, and didn’t want my children to have any part in deeds of darkness. Over time, however, my attitude softened.

Partly this was for theological reasons. With an increasing appreciation of the Lordship of Christ over all things I realised that I do not need to be nervous that my children might somehow be spiritually infected through Halloween. “Greater is he that is in us than he who is in the world.” The greatest con-trick the devil can pull against Christian parents is to make them more afraid of his power than they are of the all-conquering power of Christ.

I also become more relaxed for cultural reasons. I might object to what Steven Spielberg unleashed in 1982, but for my kids that is such ancient history it is irrelevant. The world they and their friends have grown up in is one in which Halloween has always played a prominent part, and this means that if we are to engage with their culture we can’t just pretend Halloween doesn’t happen.

My third softening was the result of more missional thinking. We have worked hard at cultivating friendships with our neighbours and a lot of that good will could be lost if we shut our door to their children on 31 October. The reality is when they take their kids out trick or treating they are not deliberately entering into pagan worship – they are merely out for some fun. For us to shun them for this would look as weird as it would be to ban Guy Fawkes night.

How we have worked this out practically has shifted with the age of our kids. They never went out trick or treating, because fundamentally we don’t much like it, and part of our Christian freedom is the ability to not enter into everything our culture promotes. But we have tried to join in in a way that is helpful. For a while we practised “treat no trick” – our daughters would bake cakes and take them round to the neighbours, which was a nice inversion of the normal process. Now the kids are older this phase has passed but we carve a pumpkin to put outside the house and have a stash of sweets ready – to which we attach a slip of paper saying “God loves you!” and with an invite to our church.

Halloween is just one more opportunity to build friendship with our neighbours, and we’re not going to close the door on that. Given the opportunity, we speak to our friends about spiritual realities and why we haven’t encouraged our kids to make a big deal of Halloween. But we don’t get spooky about it, because we are confident in the power of Christ that is at work in us. As a Christian parent my job has not been to scare my kids with how big the devil is but to disciple them in how great Jesus is. With clarity about they have been able to navigate the choppy waters of Halloween well enough; just as they have to navigate many other social and ethical challenges in their culture.

Lots of people enjoy a coke, and proms are here to stay. These things might not be to my taste but I’m not going to stop other people from enjoying them or be judgmental about their enjoyment of them. I do think there is a better way to live though, with healthier outcomes, and hope that I can be a witness to that in some way. Halloween feels pretty much the same to me.

(A version of this post previously appeared on the website of the Evangelical Alliance.)

The Image, Gender & Personhood image

The Image, Gender & Personhood

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In earlier posts, I have argued against the common idea that the image of God was lost or damaged by sin, noting that it is hard to find a scriptural warrant for this view, and have proposed an understanding of the image as denoting a general family resemblance between God and humans and a protective mark placed over humans which designates every human life as being worthy of protection and preservation. In this post, I want to show why I think this is really important, especially in discussions on gender and personhood.

The Image and Gender

In Genesis 1:27, the creation of humans in the image of God is placed in parallel with our creation as male and female. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that our creation as male and female is part of what it means to be in the image of God, it does suggest that there is a parallel between the way in which we are in the image of God and the way in which we are male or female.

If we go with the common view (which I have argued against) that the image of God is damaged or destroyed by sin, then the implication is that the image of God is a standard to which we have to live up, thus the extent to which we are in the image of God is dependent on how we live. Given that theologians who take this view tend to argue from New Testament passages about the image being renewed or about being conformed to the image, presumably the idea is that part of salvation is the freedom and power to return to living in line with God’s creational intent which makes us more like him. Thus the image is something we have to create through our performance.

If this is correct, then the parallel structure in Genesis 1:27 would suggest that the same is true of our identity as male or female. On this reading, male and female would be standards to live up to and identities which we create through our performance. Such an understanding of sex/gender puts pressure on us to fit into a certain mould to be a real man or real woman and, one could argue, even opens up the possibility of someone changing their gender by changing the way they live it out.

However, as I have argued before, this is not how the Bible talks about the image or our gendered identities. Instead, we find that both the image of God and our identities as male or female are static statuses given to us by God which cannot be changed. We live from a position of being in the image of God and being male or female, rather than living in a certain way to attain either status. If we get the image wrong, we get sex/gender wrong.

The Image and Personhood

The primary importance of the image in Scripture is the way it is evoked as the reason why human life should be protected and preserved (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). In this way, it acts like the modern concept of personhood. Personhood is a quality ascribed to living beings which is different from just being alive or being a human and which is deemed to require the protection and preservation of life. In modern secular thinking, it is personhood which underlies the right to life.

Debates over abortion and euthanasia are thus now about personhood: if personhood is not there then the life can be ended. The key question of course becomes, ‘What are the grounds of personhood?’ As Nancy Pearcey has shown any acceptance of abortion or euthanasia is an implicit affirmation of an answer to that question. It is often claimed that agreeing to one individual’s wish to die because of their inability to care for themselves says nothing of the value of the lives of others in the same situation, but that cannot be maintained as true. If we agree that the individual can end their life, we are agreeing that their life is no longer worthy of protection and preservation, thus we are agreeing that their situation means they no longer have personhood. It follows that anyone else in the same situation also does not qualify for personhood. This is why any acceptance of voluntary euthanasia is dangerous, as it always makes a statement about personhood and that makes the step to involuntary euthanasia much easier.

If we subscribe to the view that the image is damaged or lost because of sin, we have a tricky situation. Given that the image is the biblical grounds for the protection and preservation of human life, how much of the image has to remain to make a life worth protecting? If the image is about how we act, what does someone have to do to lose the right to life? In the Bible, the image of God acts exactly as personhood acts in secular ethics. Because someone in created in the image of God they have the right to life, just as someone who has personhood is believed to have the right to life. If the image can be lost or damaged, then so can the right to life.

It is good news, then, that the image of God is actually a static status, given to us by God and unaffected by sin. Even after the Fall, and despite our rebellion against him, God declares that our lives are worthy of protection and preservation because we are made in his image. The image is a stamp of protection and, in this way, an example of common grace.

Conclusion

Getting the image of God right is really important. Holding to the view that the image is lost or damaged because of sin is not only unbiblical, but also dangerous. We should be those who boldly declare that every human who is every conceived is equally made in the image of God and continues to carry this status throughout their life. This will help people to enjoy the freedom of their God given gendered identity as they live from the status of being created male or female and will offer protection to all human lives and especially to the most vulnerable in our societies.

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The God Who Heals: All Convergence Sessions Now Available image

The God Who Heals: All Convergence Sessions Now Available

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The messages from September's Convergence Conference are all available now, and free to view, thanks to the good folk at Bridgeway Church. You can see from the titles what each one is about, but if you only have time to watch one, I recommend Matt Chandler's Friday evening session. (Christine Caine's sessions are not embedded because they are coming offline in a few weeks - if you want to catch them, you need to do so before 13 November.) Of course the highlights of a conference on healing are the actual healings, words of knowledge and so on - of which there were plenty - but if you want to get a flavour of the content that was taught, have a look:

Sam Storms: Jesus the Healer

Christine Caine: Shame Off You

Christine Caine: Do You Want To Be Healed?

Michael Brown: Israel’s Divine Healer

 

Andrew Wilson: Healing in James 5

 

Andrew Wilson: The Healing of the Nations

 

Michael Brown: Demons and Disease

 

Sam Storms: Why Wouldn’t, Couldn’t, Doesn’t God Always Heal?

 

Matt Chandler: Is It Important That We Learn To Suffer Well?

 

Jack Deere: Healing and the Word of Knowledge

 

Jack Deere: Is Faith Necessary for Healing?

 

Trans Children and Responsible Adults image

Trans Children and Responsible Adults

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The surge in numbers of those identifying as transgender is one of the strangest and most confusing trends of our cultural moment. Especially striking is the number of teenagers identifying as trans: one stark statistic is that the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) has seen referrals rise from 72 in 2009-10 to 2,590 in 2018-19. What is going on?

An equally perplexing corollary to the rise in those identifying as trans is the widespread reluctance to express concern about this trend. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case - I’ll suggest three:

Fear. Transgenderism is a logical conclusion to the sexual revolution: the denial of any essential differences between men and women and the ‘liberation’ of sex as simply a physical act to be enjoyed as the individual chooses means everything is up for grabs. According to the rules of this revolution, sexual desire and identity are privileged above all other moral issues so as to be unquestionable. This means that to question transgenderism would be to risk the whole construct.

Fear. Even when people have concerns about the numbers of children identifying as trans and how they are then treated there is genuine fear about the consequences of voicing these concerns. To be labelled a transphobe is to risk social shaming and maybe real penalties in the workplace. It is much easier to bear the appearance of ‘rightness’ and support (or at least remain silent about) the trans agenda.

Fear. Adults in general seem to be nervous of their children and anxious to defer to them when it comes to making moral decisions. This fear is multifaceted: that telling children ‘No’ will somehow psychologically damage them (so instead, we psychologically damage them by bewildering them with choice and the failure to set boundaries); that adults are discredited from making moral decisions because we have made so many bad ones; that in a world full of complex problems it is much better to abdicate our responsibilities to those who see things in the black and white certainty of youth.

Whatever the reasons for our silence, the rise in teens identifying as trans should concern us, as should the way such children are then treated. Someone who is daring to put her head above the parapet is Susan Evans, a psychiatric nurse who worked at the Tavistock. Evans is currently raising funds to pursue a case to protect children from harmful experimental medical treatment. This is how she expresses her concerns about what is happening at the Tavistock:

While working there I quickly became concerned about the treatment approach. When I joined the team I had expected that the young people would be assessed in depth and given support and psychological treatment over several years. The alarm bells began ringing for me when a colleague at the weekly team clinical meeting said that they had seen a young person 4 times and they were now recommending them for a referral to the endocrinology department to commence hormone therapy.

It became apparent that there was tremendous pressure on the GIDS staff coming from several directions - the distressed patients, sometimes the families, but most worryingly from the ‘support’ groups and charities, who seemed to be having undue influence on the treatment approach within the GIDS. Senior staff from GIDS have also been on the ‘teams’ at certain charities such as Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence.

More details about Evans’ concerns, what the test case is hoping to achieve, and how you can financially contribute, can be found here. Let’s not stand by and see a generation of young people made the victims of ideologically driven medical experiments. We should be adult about this.


*UPDATED* 18th October. For more on just how pernicious is the medical experimentation being carried out on trans children see this report on transgendertrend.com

 

How Christianity Made the Western Mind: Joel Virgo Reviews Tom Holland image

How Christianity Made the Western Mind: Joel Virgo Reviews Tom Holland

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The title “popular historian” might commonly bring to mind the equivalent of a tabloid hack, who won’t let facts spoil the yarn he’s spinning. If we imagine an author with no patience for scholarly rigour, it seems the wrong category for Tom Holland. His books do read like novels—good novels—but he’s not skipped the research. His latest book, Dominion, perhaps his magnum opus, could be mistaken for a standard history of the western church, but in fact it’s simultaneously less ambitious and more. Holland presents the modern west as largely bequeathed to us by the transforming interruption of Christianity. Our cultural norms, morals, sentiments, processes of scientific investigation, value judgements—even the ones on which we presume when we reject and abuse Christianity—are fruit from the tree of Christianity. It is the water in which we swim, consciously or not, willingly or not.

Holland presents a series of key developmental stages in the relationship between the western church and western culture. His exceptional gift for compelling narrative, often built-up from obscure anecdotes to sweeping epochal shifts, makes the landscape of the book frequently fascinating. But to this he adds superbly crafted passages of insight and observation, each supporting his overarching themes and argument. It’s one of the most stimulating books of history you’re likely to come across.

Holland does not claim to be a believer (though he has come close in some recent interviews), which perhaps makes some of his perspectives more remarkable. I am not very used to reading popular histories that give attention to Augustine’s insistence on the city of God as a pilgrim community distinct from the secular realm, or on John Calvin’s passion for social equity, or on Oliver Cromwell’s pioneering insistence on religious toleration, or on the biblical roots of the civil rights movement, or on the deeply theological (again, Calvinistic) basis for apartheid’s refutation as heresy. This list could go on and on. Holland does the work of many evangelical apologists, by sweeping away myths (e.g. Galileo as heroic martyr for ‘science’, oppressed by wicked Christianity; the Nazis as vaguely quasi-Protestant). To say that this makes the book refreshing is an understatement. At times it is almost breathtaking. Watching him debunk so many entrenched notions can be like watching a gang of seemingly invincible school bullies KO’d in succession—but strangely by the nerd who gets straight A’s for every history paper.

But it’s not just the much needed record-straightening that makes Dominion especially insightful. It’s also Holland’s uncommon grasp of some essential qualities at Christianity’s very heart. He is looking for what made Christianity’s stamp on the world so particular, so he goes to the centre. What is the nature of this pebble, whose ripples still lap the shores of the lake, two millennia on? He seems to have answered that question pretty accurately: the potency is in the centrality and the uniqueness of the cross. For Holland, the cross of Jesus is what made Christianity unthinkable, shameful and disgusting, but, by the same ticket, successfully revolutionary.

There are passages that read rather like some of history’s great expositions of 1 Corinthians 1 & 2. Holland sees that in the cross we have God presented as the oppressed one, the suffering one, the underprivileged one. So we have the ultimate basis for inclusion, concern for the weak and for the outsider, and for the ultimate cancellation of our false measures of greatness. Into a world where oppression was legitimised by superiority of strength and honour, a world in which it was self evidently true that all men were not equal, came the crucified God, and, within time, the world’s ‘strongest’ nation-state was built on the ‘self evident’ truth that ‘all men are created equal’. Holland plainly shows the relationship between these disparate events, demonstrating that even the church’s notorious human rights abuses can only be understood as such in a culture coloured (Nietzsche might have said ‘tarnished’) by the message of the cross. Dominion provides a view of the jagged hole that the cross of Jesus ripped through history.

As a historian, Holland doesn’t go into the philosophical implications of his insight, but he leads us near to questions (assiduously ignored by many atheists and sceptics) about the ontology of ethics. The moral grid assumed by post-enlightenment crusaders for liberty, equality and fraternity simply cannot be untethered from human history, and specifically our Christian heritage (although as he shows, contemporary institutions such as the UN, in efforts to globalise and formalise these values, will certainly keep all evidence of Christian influence away from their branding). In a brilliant moment, Holland presents liberalism’s myth of ‘enlightenment values’ as an alternative virgin birth narrative. In tracing the historical roots of modern western moral sensibilities he echoes Larry Siedentop and Michael Burleigh but, in showing the weak position of moralistic opponents of Christianity, he seems almost to channel Chesterton, Lewis, Francis Schaeffer or Tim Keller.

Holland has made the west his focus in Dominion. It’s only one book. It might be fascinating for someone to expand his project by unfolding the long term Christian influence in the non-western contexts of the Orthodox churches (routinely overlooked by western chroniclers). The differences and similarities would be instructive. However, I’d not expect many to do this with the insight of Tom Holland.

Although I’m praising Holland here for his understanding of Christian DNA, a few observations grew on me as I read. In some places, Holland sees such a broad range of cultural elements as legitimately Christian that he begins to ‘baptise’ features of western culture which actually contradict one another. The idea of cultural evolution plays a big part in his thinking (this becomes reminiscent of ‘trajectory hermeneutics’). He is alert to tensions here (e.g. Merkel’s radically inclusive policy in the refugee crisis and Victor Orban’s cautious and protective response are both shown as Christian heritage being expressed). The role of the state, and especially state violence are also problematic in telling the story of western Christianity. But that was bound be a bit perplexing.

What’s more troubling is Holland’s willingness to see modern progressivism (‘wokeness’) as more or less an evolution of Christian ethics. It’s here that the elasticity stretches to breaking point. If a line of evolution can be shown between a Judeo-Christian worldview and contemporary progressivism (think identity politics and critical theory), it has involved some pretty monstrous mutations. When, on the basis of this woke ideology, a doctor is sacked by an employment tribunal which rules that belief in Genesis 1.27 is ‘incompatible with human dignity’, we are no longer seeing a practice of Christian altruism that likes to stay covert in the secular space. We are beginning to see something else slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Like Tertullian asking what Athens has to do with Jerusalem, we must often ask (and sometimes it is enough just to ask): what has this ideology to do with the gospel?

And gospel (good news) is perhaps the key word. Tom Holland is remarkably insightful to see the cross as so central to the Christian idea of God, of history and meaning; but grace and forgiveness for the individual penitent (what makes the cross good news and not just good example) plays a smaller part in his account of the faith. I may have missed this in my reading but, as yet, I wonder if it is a blind spot in his otherwise broad vision. The liberal progressive project is intent on reducing human relationships to power dynamics. It might be argued that to identify and champion the most oppressed is always to bring the equity of Eden, the anger of the minor-prophets and the glorious redistribution of the Magnificat into the 21st century. But if this is understood only in a context of power in horizontal relationships, if it is not preceded by the more urgent matter of each individual’s desperate need for a merciful and forgiving God, we are headed for an increasingly shrill and pharisaic culture, in which the cross has been hollowed of its sweetest meaning and virtue is merely for signalling. This would be no Christian culture at all.

According to Paul it is of first importance that Christ died and rose for our sins (1 Corinthians 15.3-4). If atoning sacrifice and physical resurrection are eroded from Christianity, we don’t have a developed Christianity, we have Christianity gone bad. And the influence of that “Christianity” on the west, or wherever, will be poisonous.

This is a guest post by Joel Virgo, Senior Pastor at Emmanuel Church, Brighton. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoelVirgo.

Why Christendom Is Still Christian image

Why Christendom Is Still Christian

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Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind is certainly one of the books of the year, and one of those rare contemporary volumes that I would recommend all pastors read. I am thrilled that Joel Virgo has written us a proper review for this coming Wednesday, but in advance of that, here’s the conclusion of Holland’s argument. (I’ve highlighted a few key sentences for the incorrigibly lazy.)

Today, as the flood-tide of Western power and influence ebbs, the illusions of European and American liberals risk being left stranded. Much that they have sought to cast as universal stands exposed as never having been anything of the kind. Agnosticism—as Huxley, the main who coined the word, readily acknowledged—ranks as “that conviction of the supremacy of private judgment (indeed, of the possibility of escaping it) which is the foundation of the Protestant Reformation.” Secularism owes its existence to the medieval papacy. Humanism derives ultimately from claims made in the Bible: that humans are made in God’s image; that his Son died equally for everyone; that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Repeatedly, like a great earthquake, Christianity has sent reverberations around the world. First there was the primal revolution: the revolution preached by St Paul. Then there came the aftershocks: the revolution in the eleventh century that set Latin Christendom upon its momentous course; the revolution commemorated as the Reformation; the revolution that killed God. All bore an identical stamp: the aspiration to enfold within their embrace every other possible way of seeing the world; the claim to a universalism that was culturally highly specific. That human beings have rights; that they are born equal; that they are owed sustenance, and shelter, and refuge from persecution: these were never self-evident truths ...

To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it—the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe—that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North American in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten hearts, the image of of a god dead on a cross ...

Many [Christians], over the course of this time, have themselves become agents of terror. They have put the weak in their shadow; they have brought suffering, and persecution, and slavery in their wake. Yet the standards by which they stand condemned for this are themselves Christian; nor, even if churches across the West continue to empty, does it seem likely that these standards will quickly change. “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” This is the myth that we in the West still persist in clinging to. Christendom, in that sense, remains Christendom still.

Identifying the Image: Can Cain Help? image

Identifying the Image: Can Cain Help?

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In my last post, I argued against the common view that the image of God is lost or damaged through human sin. Despite its popularity, there is no Scriptural warrant for the view and there is biblical support for the idea that every human is created and remains in the image of God, just as Adam and Eve were. But what does this mean? What does it mean to be created in the image of God? In this post, I’ll outline my musings on this question and explain how I think Cain may be able to help us answer it.

Understanding the Understandings of the Image of God

Generally speaking, understandings of the image of God can be broken down into three broad types:1

  1. Substantive – The image is identified as one or more specific elements of a human person, e.g. rationality (early Church Fathers) or original righteousness (Luther).
  2. Relational – The image is about interpersonal relationships, e.g. in our being male or female (Barth).
  3. Functional – The image is rooted in a function that humans perform, e.g. filling, subduing and having dominion over the earth.

The second and third understandings receive some support from the text of Genesis 1 (from verses 27 and 28 respectively). But it is not made explicit that these are elements of the image of God rather than just elements of being a human. Later uses of the concept in Scripture don’t seem to draw out these motifs.

Details for the first type of understanding are often extrapolated by outlining ways that humans are different from non-humans or ways in which humans are like God. However, no substantive elements of the image are explicitly stated in Scripture.2

The Scriptural Perspective

What does Scripture actually state about the image? Not a lot. That’s the problem. But I think there are two important points we can make.

Any account must consider Genesis 5:1-3. (These verses are probably the most problematic for my perspective.) Here, not only are humans said to be created in the likeness of God, but Seth is described as being in the likeness and image of Adam. It is hard to deny that the close proximity of these two uses of image language suggest they should somehow illuminate each other. I think this rules out the idea that the image is primary relational (it certainly can’t be about humanity as male and female) or functional (unless we argue that Seth becomes Adam’s representative, but I’m not sure there is justification for doing so). The best sense seems to be that there is a general family resemblance between Seth and Adam, just as we might recognise in any biological father-son pair. This would seem to suggest that our creation in the image of God speaks of general family resemblance between us and God. Importantly, the nature of this resemblance is not specified, and we don’t have any way of ascertaining any more detail on this.

The other key texts for understanding the image are its application to ethical situations in Genesis 9 and James 3.

In Genesis 9:6, as God reaffirms the Genesis 1 mandate for humanity following the flood, the image of God is employed to explain why capital punishment would be implemented in cases of murder.

‘Whoever sheds the blood of man,

By man shall his blood be shed,

For God made man in his own image.’

The implication is clearly that human life shouldn’t be taken because every human is made in God’s image. The seriousness of the crime, indicated by the severity of the punishment, is explained by reference to the image.

In this way we can understand the image as a status given to each human by God, somewhat like a stamp of value placed over us, designed to offer protection to human life. Because we are created in God’s image, every human’s life is worthy of protection and preservation.

The same concept can be discerned in James 3. James is discussing the importance and difficulty of taming the tongue, and in this context notes that with the tongue ‘we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God’, a fact, he goes on to say, which ‘ought not to be so’ (James 3:9-10). The implication is clearly that we shouldn’t speak curses over people because they are made in the likeness of God. Again the image stands as a God-given stamp of value which is designed to offer protection.

So the evidence would seem to suggest that being created in the image of God speaks of a general, 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.

The Image and the Mark of Cain

If this understanding is anywhere near being right, then it might find an interesting parallel in the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15). Commentators have long debated the identity of the mark given by God to Cain in order to protect him from those who would seek to attack him. In popular consciousness, the most common understanding is probably some sort of mark on his forehead.

However, Old Testament scholar Walter Moberly, has argued that the mark is actually the saying given by God in Genesis 4:15: ‘If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’3 He makes a compelling case based on details of the Hebrew (e.g. the fact that the mark is given ‘for’ or ‘to’ (ל) Cain, rather than ‘upon’ (על) him) and the context (e.g. the idea of a reputation of extreme vengeance from Cain and his descendants fits the character of a man who murdered his brother out of anger). God speaks over Cain a statement that will provide protection to him.

Though there aren’t clear linguistic parallels between Genesis 4 and Genesis 9, and therefore I probably wouldn’t claim that there is a deliberate connection, if Moberly’s reading is accepted, there is a conceptual parallel between the image of God and the mark of Cain. Both the image and the mark are pronouncements from God designed to offer protection. Interestingly, both occur in contexts where murder is being discussed, the difference, however, is that in Genesis 4 it is the murderer who is being protected, while in Genesis 9 it is the potential victim. Still, the point remains that the saying of Genesis 9:6 could function very much like the saying of Genesis 4:15.

Conclusion

From what I can see, then, the evidence of Scripture suggests that the little we can know about the meaning of the image of God is that it denotes humans as those who have some level of resemblance to God and that it is a statement of value spoken over us and designed to offer protection. This second element can be helpfully illustrated through a conceptual parallel with a potential understanding of the mark of Cain in Genesis 4:15.

It still remains, however, to show why this all actually matters. In the next post, I will outline why getting our understanding of the image of God right is vitally important, especially for current cultural conversations about gender and about personhood.

Footnotes

  • 1. This classification is taken from Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, and is summarised in Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.443, n.8.
  • 2. I find it striking that Grudem lists 16 elements of what it means for humans to be created in God’s image and yet for only three does he offer any biblical reference.
  • 3. R.W.L. Moberly, ‘The Mark of Cain – Revealed At Last?’, Harvard Theological Review, 100.1 11-28.

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Losing the Image? image

Losing the Image?

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Was the image of God in humanity lost or damaged when Adam and Eve rebelled against God? It seems that many people think it was. Berkhof states, ‘it is unwarranted to say that man has completely lost the image of God’, but also says that ‘the image of God has indeed been vitiated [i.e. spoiled] by sin’.1 Grudem similarly says, ‘After the fall, then, we are still in God’s image … but the image of God in us is distorted; we are less fully like God than we were before the entrance of sin.’2 And it’s not only systematic theologians who take this view; it is also found in popular-level Christian literature.

Despite it’s popularity, I’ve never quite seen how this view can be defended biblically, and I actually think that upholding it is potentially very dangerous. Being a good protestant, I cry ad fontes! What does the Bible actually say? In this post, I’ll give a brief summary of my view on this question,3 and in subsequent posts I’ll outline my understanding of the image and why I think this all matters so much.

The Image in Scripture

Humanity is clearly created in the image of God pre-Fall (Genesis 1:26-27),4 and while humans are certainly affected by our rebellion against God in Genesis 3, there is no indication that the divine image is affected. Likewise, when Genesis 5:1 mentions that humanity was created in God’s image, there is no suggestion that this has been damaged by the Fall.

The few subsequent explicit references to the image in Scripture also give no indication that it has been damaged or lost. Genesis 9:6 clearly implies that the image still applies to all humans as it is given as the reason why human life should not be taken and why capital punishment will be implemented in cases where a human has taken the life of another. Similarly, in James 3:9, being made in the likeness of God is given as the reason why the tongue should not be used to curse people. Again the image is seen to remain, and the function of the image is somewhat parallel to that in Genesis 9:6. The final explicit reference to the image in Scripture, 1 Corinthians 11:7, also implies that the image is still present with no hint that it has been damaged or lost.

The Restoration of the Image?

When attempts are made to root in Scripture the claim that the image has been lost or damaged, these are usually made from passages which are understood to suggest that salvation in Christ includes a restoration to God’s image. Even though the supposed problem is never stated in Scripture, it is reasoned from the solution. Solution follows plight. (A concept which will be familiar to those who know something of 20th century interpretation of Paul!) But a closer look at these texts suggests that such readings are mistaken.

The three texts most often read this way all come from Paul. In Romans 8:29, Paul speaks of our being predestined ‘to be conformed to the image of his [i.e. God’s] Son’. In context, the emphasis is on the son aspect. Romans 8:18-30 are an explanation of how the children of God, who will inevitably suffer (8:17), can be confident of God’s love for them even in the face of suffering. It is a passage about sonship. This explains why the purpose of the conforming is stated to be that Christ would have many brothers (8:29). Also, while Romans is big on humanity’s problem, Paul never identifies that problem as a loss of the image.

In 2 Corinthians 3:18 those beholding the Lord’s glory ‘are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’. What is this image? Well just a few verses later Christ is identified as ‘the image of God’, the focus being on his identity as the divine son of God, rather than the perfect human. In this context, therefore, transformation into the image is about becoming more like Christ in how we live rather than a restoration to the image of God given in the creation of humanity.

A similar thing is happening in Colossians 3:10. The new self is ‘being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator’, but Christ has already been identified as ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15), clearly with reference to his divine status rather than his humanity and in a context where he is linked with creative activity (Col. 1:16). Again it seems this changing in line with the image is about becoming more like Christ, not a restoration of the Genesis 1 image.

In exploring these passages, Kilner introduces a useful distinction between status and standard.5 The image of God in Genesis 1 is about the status of humanity. It is an unchangeable status given by God in creation. The image of Christ to which believers are conformed is the standard for humanity, the measuring line for how we should live. Because of our status, we should look to be restored to the standard, but the status itself has not been damaged. He gives the illustration of a Stradivarius violin which becomes damaged. Its status as a Stradivarius isn’t affected by the damage, but because of its status it is right that it is restored to its intended standard.

Conclusion

I find it hard to see any scriptural justification for the view that the image has been lost or damaged by sin, despite the popularity of this view. The ideas of loss or damage are never stated in Scripture, they are not implied by the language of being conformed to the image of Christ, and are undermined by the explicit affirmation of the image continuing after the Fall.

How then should we understand the image of God? And does this bit of detail actually really matter? I think there is a better way of understanding the image. And I think this detail really does matter. I’ll explain why in my next few posts.

Footnotes

  • 1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (The Banner of Truth, 1958), p.204
  • 2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994), p.444
  • 3. My position on this question has been confirmed and further developed by two articles in particular: Gerald Bray, ‘The Significance of God’s Image in Man’, Tyndale Bulletin 42.2 (Nov. 1991), 195-225. John F. Kilner, ‘Humanity in God’s Image: Is the Image Really Damaged?’, JETS 53/3 (Sept. 2010), 601-17.
  • 4. Obviously, Genesis 1:26-27 actually talk about both the image and likeness, but I don’t think any distinction between the two is implied as they seem to be used interchangeably elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Gen. 5:1, 3; James 3:9), so I will just use ‘image’ to stand for both terms.
  • 5.John F. Kilner, ‘Humanity in God’s Image: Is the Image Really Damaged?’, JETS 53/3 (Sept. 2010), 601-17 (p.615)

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Anatomy of a Fiasco image

Anatomy of a Fiasco

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The UK’s membership of Europe has been controversial ever since it was first suggested and certainly since Charles de Gaulle said “Non” to our joining the EEC in 1967. As Brussels today considers the latest Brexit proposal from the British government it is worth considering how constitutional changes tend to follow the law of unintended consequences, and have helped create the mess we are now in.

The current malaise can be most directly traced back to John Major’s handling of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Arguably, if there were to be a referendum about our membership of Europe it should have been at this point. The treaty marked the moment Europe morphed from the European Economic Community into the European Union and was a move of profound constitutional significance. Was it an overextension of his legitimate authority for Major to proceed as he did? Certainly, it is ironic that he has been so vocal in opposing the tactics of Boris Johnson when he himself acted in similar manner in finally forcing through the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. It was because of divisions within the Tory party caused by this that party rules were subsequently changed so MPs could be deselected – the power designed to curb the Euro-rebels is what has now been used to deselect Tory MPs who have opposed Johnson’s commitment to leaving the EU deal or no deal.

The next significant constitutional changes were those implemented by the government of Tony Blair. First of these was devolution of power from Westminster. The 1997 Scottish referendum saw 74 per cent of voters supporting devolution. However, this was on a turnout of only 60 per cent so just 44 per cent of the electorate actively voted in favour of devolution. (This compares with the 37 per cent of the electorate who actively voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.) Whatever the pros and cons of devolution it has clearly not fulfilled the hopes of those unionists who thought the creation of a Scottish parliament with significant powers would quell calls for total independence. (With hindsight this hope was always as futile as a parent imagining letting their teenager use the car one night a week would stop them asking for it every other night.) The way in which the debates about Brexit and Scottish independence have become interwoven has been plain.

The Blair government then made the significant constitutional move of the creation of the UK Supreme Court. By taking the highest court of the land out of Parliament (where the Law Lords had previously been the highest court of appeal) it was almost inevitable that the new court would eventually become more political. As we have seen in the recent ruling on the legality of prorogation, the Supreme Court has now assumed authority over the affairs of Parliament. Increasingly the decisions of Parliament are subject to judicial review and the judges of the Supreme Court become – like their American equivalent – effectively the ultimate authority.

The government of David Cameron further extended these constitutional changes by the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This was done as an expediency to secure the support of the Liberal Democrats in coalition government but has had the unintended consequence of holding future governments hostage in the way we now see is the case – the bizarre state of affairs where a Prime Minister wants to call an election but is prevented from doing so even though a majority in the House of Commons do not want him as Prime Minister.

Each of these constitutional steps may have had merit – depending on your political perspective – but clearly each had unintended consequences. If the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had not been introduced there would have been a general election next week. If the Supreme Court had not been introduced the prorogation of Parliament would not have been deemed unlawful. If Scottish devolution had not been granted we might not be so close to Scottish independence as it seems we are. If there had been a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty we might (a big ‘might’!) have settled the ‘European issue’ in the early 90s rather than wrestling with it now.

In the Bible we see clear examples of how the Lord responds to those who overstep the boundaries of authority they have been given. Whether it is Nadab and Abihu offering ‘strange fire’ before the Lord (Leviticus 10), king Uzziah playing the part of priest (2 Chronicles 26), or Ahab appropriating Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21), no one – prophet, priest or king – can act as solitary sovereign.

The UK is a very long way from being biblical Israel but lessons from the Old Testament about the separation and limits of power are salutary. In recent weeks there has been a great deal of argument about which branch of power has overstepped its constitutional limits but the bigger lesson seems to be that whenever the constitution is ‘adjusted’ there will be unintended consequences. Of course, there is nothing sacrosanct about the British constitution. It is within the gift of government to change it. But – caveat emptor – there are always those pesky unintended consequences. No Prime Minister has the power to foresee or change those.

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On (Mis-) Defining Work

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One of the ways our economy impoverishes us spiritually is by teaching us that the only sort of work that is really work is work that a member of the capitalist class will pay us to do in the form of a wage of some sort.

But there is plenty of good work to be done in our neighbourhoods and cities that the market does not recognise. Indeed as the American home is further eroded, there is plenty of work that desperately needs to be done but will not be recompensed by a member of the capitalist class.

Who will create places of warmth and safety for children to come home to? Who will provide help with childcare during the day so a young parent can run a few errands? Who will visit the elderly shut-in whose family lives several hours away? Who will spend an hour reading with a child so they can grow up knowing the delight of stories and books?

—Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good

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“I Don’t Know What Came Over Me”

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This is such a searching comment from Sam Allberry’s (excellent) forthcoming book, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?:

It’s common these days when someone’s wrong is exposed for them to say, “I don’t know what came over me; this isn’t who I am”. David says the opposite: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).

Scholars debate whether David was using poetic exaggeration (hyperbole) here or whether he really believed he had a sinful nature even from the moment he was conceived. But David’s basic point is clear: what he did was an outworking of what is deep within him. He committed adultery because he is, in his heart, an adulterer. He lied because he is, in his heart, a liar. He murdered because he is, in his heart, a murderer. David understands that this is a heart issue, not some one-off behavioural aberration. He did what he did because his heart is as it is.

This is a deeply uncomfortable realisation to come to terms with, but it is what we see throughout the teaching of Jesus. We instinctively want to make the issue our behaviour (which we trust can be improved); Jesus constantly challenges us to see that the issue is our heart ...

It’s not enough to say to God, “I wish I hadn’t done that”. What we really need to say is, “I wish I wasn’t the kind of person who does that.”

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Missing Millennials

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The UK church is ageing. Many of us might suspect this from our own contexts, and the relevant research confirms that this is a widespread reality. Millennials (those born between the early 80s and mid-90s) are one of the groups currently underrepresented in the UK church. As a millennial myself, I find this situation concerning, as I’ve shared before.

A recent episode of Talking Theology, the podcast of Cranmer Hall, Durham, explored this situation, asking the question, ‘What does millennial faith look like?’ The episode featured Ruth Perrin, a research fellow at Cranmer, whose work focusses around the faith of millennials.

In the episode, Ruth focusses on insights from her study into a group of millennials who exhibited a strong Christian faith and church involvement in their early 20s but have since gone down different paths. Some have continued to retain their faith and church involvement, others say they still have a Christian faith but are no longer involved in a church, while another group have rejected both Christianity and the church. The episode is well worth listening to in order to better understand the characteristics of millennials and how we can better reach and disciple them by applying the findings of this research .

Why Do Millennials Lose Their Faith?

What were the patterns that could be observed among the millennials who now identify as having no Christian faith and no church involvement?

Most had experienced what Ruth refers to as an existential crisis in which the gospel stopped making sense to them. Often this came when the individual met non-Christians and encountered alternative viewpoints. Most had not really wrestled with big questions before this and so were ill-equipped to do so and had a faith which was not resilient to such an encounter.

Personal crises were also a common theme. Examples included situations linked to mental health, others to marriage breakdown. Individuals had faced these very difficult situations and had not found that their faith or church had been able to help them.

No doubt linked to the above two factors, each story also exhibited a distancing from the church. Importantly, Ruth notes that for those in this group, the journey was slow and gradual, occurring over months and years, not in a single moment.

How Can the Church Help Millennials?

How then can the church best help millennials to maintain and deepen their faith? Here Ruth shares some incredibly helpful insights.

Top of the list is the importance of relationships and, in particular, cross-generational relationships. Millennials who have continued in their faith and church commitment often speak of the importance that older Christians have played in their life. Often to the surprise of older generations, millennials really want the friendship, advice and practical support of those who have been around longer than them.

Also key is authenticity. This is a really key value for the millennial generation and its absence is quickly noted. Millennials want to see people being real and honest about life and the struggles it can bring, including struggles in the journey of following Jesus.

The final key lesson is the importance of allowing and helping people to acknowledge and deal with doubts and questions. Millennials (and arguably any age group) need the permission to acknowledge doubts and questions and then the support to really wrestle with them. Given that we can’t give easy, water-tight answers to every question, we also need to reclaim the reality and goodness of living with mystery.

A Millennial’s Reflections

As I reflected on these observations, I was first struck at what useful insights they are for those of us who want to reach millennials with the gospel and to disciple them well. I only later realised how strongly they chime with my own experience.

I have had to acknowledge and wrestle with some big questions: discovering in my teen years that I’m same-sex attracted and then studying theology at secular UK universities made that pretty unavoidable. I do greatly value authenticity. I find it odd when people are so surprised about how openly and publicly I’m prepared to speak about struggles in my life. I stand there thinking, ‘Well, why wouldn’t I share about this?’. And I have benefited greatly from cross-generational friendships. Some of my closest friends are more than twice my age, and as I look back over the past decade or so, their friendship, wisdom and support is one of the key things that God has used to keep me on the path of following him.

As I look back over my teenage years and early adulthood, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I’ve been blessed to have the space and strength to wrestle with big questions, I’ve been allowed to be open and honest about my life while still being fully loved and accepted, and I’ve had older friends who have walked alongside me as I’ve done so. Many others haven’t been so lucky. There are millennials missing from our churches because we’ve overlooked these things. Ruth’s research probably makes all of us conscious of mistakes we’ve made in the past, but it should also help us to see opportunities for the future.

You can find more of Ruth’s research into discipling students and young adults on her website Discipleship Research.

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Left and Right: A Way Foreword

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I don't always read forewords. Sometimes I skip them; sometimes I skim them. Usually, their function is to communicate to me that the writer of the foreword thinks the book is worth reading, and has put their money where their mouth is by spending some serious time writing about it. But when I opened Jake Meador's In Search of the Common Good recently, and saw that Tim Keller had written the foreword, I thought I'd give it a read. It was only three pages long.

I’m so glad I did. Here’s an excerpt:

In this new situation, many of the older Christian models of “cultural engagement” or “political theology” seem obsolete. One was pietism, the view that believers should be about winning souls and building up the church, and not about trying to be Christians in “politics.” But that approach assumes a well-functioning society that doesn’t need Christians to support the common good. If society is breaking down, how can you love your neighbour without getting politically involved? And what if your culture comes to define your soul-winning as a politically illegitimate act? How do you avoid politics then? ...

Other approaches, however, run the risk of getting caught up in the broader political polarisation and becoming mere tools of it, just one part of a left or right political coalition. For example, we may see the development of both “blue evangelicalism” and “red evangelicalism” online. The former talks about racial and economic justice, but is quiet about the biblical teaching on subjects such as abortion, sexuality and gender. The latter condemns sexual immorality and secularism in the strongest terms but grows silent when its political allies fan the flames of racial resentment towards immigrants. When the church, in the name of political power, allies and aligns too much with the current secular left or right, it is sapped of both spiritual power and credibility with nonbelievers. Theologically, both political poles are suspect, because one makes an idol out of individual freedom, and the other makes an idol out of race and nation, blood and soil. In both something created and earthly is deified. Extreme progressivism detaches individuals from community and history and any concept of virtue, but the nationalism and racism that might replace it are no answer to it.

If you are looking for a way forward, I can think of no better starting point than this book.

And with that, I’m going to start reading it. You may want to as well.

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A Protective Hedge Around the Scriptures

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Tyndale House is an amazing place. A research institute for biblical studies with a library containing one of the world’s most extensive collections relevant to the study of the Bible. The team there are committed to engaging in the highest level of academic research into the Bible and yet they also want Christians who have no academic background to be able to engage with and benefit from their work.

As part of this desire to serve the wider church, last year Tyndale House began producing a magazine called Tyndale House ink or THink (a popular name clearly!). The magazine contains accessible articles about the Bible, it’s language, history and cultural context. It can be accessed online and UK residents can even subscribe to receive a copy through the post for free. It’s a no brainer really.

The latest issue includes a fascinating article on the Masora. The Masora are the marginal notes found in the Hebrew Bible manuscripts produced by the Masoretes, the earliest complete Hebrew manuscripts we have and the basis for most of the English Old Testament translations available today. These notes are a mystery even to most those who get the privilege of studying Hebrew. (I studied Hebrew for a total of four years at two British universities and was never taught anything about the Masora, in fact, I sometimes questioned whether even my professors knew much about them.)

In the article, ‘Learn the secrets of the Leningrad Codex’, Kim Philips, explains how the Masora include a sophisticated system of counting and cross-referencing designed to ensure that errors did not enter the text through the production of new copies by scribes. In this way, they are actually one of the many reasons to trust that the text of the Hebrew Bible we have today is reliable.

‘The Leningrad Codex contains no fewer than 60,000 Masoretic notes, all serving as a protective hedge around the text of the Scriptures. This vast expenditure of labour and toil was driven by a passionate commitment to the biblical text as the very word of God. If he has spoken, then every jot and tittle is precious; even the smallest detail serves as a receptacle for something of God’s communication and communion with his people, and with humankind.’

If you want to be encouraged about the reliability of the Old Testament text, the whole article is worth a read. You can access it here.

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The Meaning of Auschwitz

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Yoram Hazony's new book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is fascinating in all kinds of ways. His argument is that nationalism is virtuous rather than vicious, broad and inclusive rather than narrow and tribalist, and that the alternatives—anarchy on the one hand, or imperialism on the other—are far worse. His portrayal of today's bien pensant as fundamentally imperial in nature, with a universalist vision and the desire to impose a specific set of values on the rest of the world (whether through international bodies like the UN, IMF, WTO and EU, or through wars, nation building and "interventions" abroad), will obviously go down like a lead balloon in many quarters. His biblical argument for nation states, based on the unification of families into clans into tribes and then into nations, is also intriguing. But perhaps his most provocative point comes when he considers the meaning of Auschwitz.

For most Jews, Hazony argues, “the meaning of Auschwitz is that the Jews failed in their efforts to find a way to defend their children … Today, most Jews continue to believe that the only thing that has really changed since those millions of our people perished—the only thing that stands as a bulwark against the repetition of this chapter in the world’s history—is Israel.” Auschwitz, for Jewish people, is an argument for the nation state. Without an independent and secure nation, Jews were vulnerable to being massacred. With one, they are far safer.

For most European liberals, however, the meaning of Auschwitz is the exact opposite. The Holocaust is one of the strongest arguments against the nation state, for they see it “as the ultimate expression of that barbarism, that brutal debasement of humanity, which is national particularism.” National self-determination is how you get National Socialism. “From this point of view, the death camps provide the ultimate proof of the evil of permitting nations to decide for themselves how to dispose of the military power in their possession.” (Hazony is not overstating this; this critique of nationalism in Commonweal two days ago, for all that it makes a number of incontestable and important points, took just two paragraphs to mention Germany in the 1930s.)

The comparison is even more on the nose when it comes to the nation state of Israel today:

Paradigm A: Israel represents Jewish women and men standing rifle in hand, watching over their own children and all other Jewish children and protecting them. Israel is the opposite of Auschwitz.

Paradigm B: Israel represents the unspeakable horror of Jewish soldiers using force against others, backed by nothing but their own government’s views as to their national rights and interests. Israel is Auschwitz.

Hazony is not, of course, arguing that objecting to nationalism is antisemitic. He is arguing that if we believe that national self-determination is a return to barbarism, and that taking up arms to defend one’s nation is illegitimate, then the (tragically common) comparison made between the nation state of Israel and the Nazis is no coincidence.

There are plenty of things in The Virtue of Nationalism to disagree with, have questions about, or shake your head at. But Hazony’s case for nationalism, elucidation of the alternatives, analysis of some of the implications of either championing it or pillorying it, and sheer clarity of argument, make the book well worth reading nonetheless.

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Transgender, Polyamory, and Busyness

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One of the things I love about Newday is that the event doesn’t shy away from the big topics of our day. One of the priorities of the Newday team is to tackle the questions which young people are asking and to equip young people and their youth leaders to think and live biblically in relation to these topics as we find them in our society and our own lives.

This year I had the real privilege of tackling a few of these big topics. Here are some quick summaries and the recordings.

Tough Questions: Transgender

The Tough Questions seminar stream seeks to give a Christian response to some of the most common objections to Christianity and to some of the controversial issues of our time, while also recognising that these are topics which affect many of us in our own lives too.

Here I sought to give a Christian response to the topic of transgender (as much as is possible in 45mins!), outlining different elements of this response: heart, head, and hope.

Youth Culture: Transgender

The Youth Culture stream was for over-18s: youth leaders, church leaders and servers. For the session on transgender, building on the Christian response to transgender given in the Tough Question seminar, I sought to share some wisdom on how we can best disciple and pastor young people in light of cultural views on transgender, looking at understanding transgender, preparing young people to navigate secular perspectives, and walking with those who identify as trans.

Polyamory and Busyness

In a venue new to Newday this year, The Common Room, Jez Field and I led a session exploring how to learn to think christianly about contemporary topics, using polyamory and busyness as two quite different examples.

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Cranmer’s Five Reasons for Divorce and Remarriage

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Domestic violence has long been recognised as a problem in the church. It did not emerge as a pastoral concern a few years or decades ago; it has been identified and responded to in a variety of ways for as long as there has been a church (and even before that, if you consider Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Nevertheless, in responding to it, it is easy to think that we are the first generation to address questions of spousal abuse, legal involvement, divorce, remarriage, and so forth, and thereby to cut ourselves off from the extensive wisdom of those who have gone before us (many of whom lived in societies where, tragically, it was more accepted than it is now).

Thomas Cranmer, for example, was no stranger to the problem. Most of us would not accuse Cranmer of being soft on the seriousness and irrevocability of marriage; his wedding liturgy revolves around phrases like “seriously, reverently, and in the sight of Almighty God,” and “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer,” and is still used around the world five centuries after he wrote it. Anyway: in a fascinating section of his Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (1553), he identifies five possible reasons for a legitimate divorce followed by remarriage, and two of them were about domestic abuse.

Thanks to Henry VIII, divorce and remarriage was a massive issue in the English Reformation. (It basically caused the English Reformation.) So Cranmer addresses the issue in some detail, clarifying what does and does not count as a legitimate divorce and a legitimate remarriage, and lists the following five:

1. Adultery.
2. Desertion with malice.
3. Prolonged absence without news.
4. Deadly hostility.
5. Ill-treatment.

If we were getting alliterative, we might summarise this using three As—adultery (1), abandonment (2, 3) and abuse (4, 5)—with a distinction made between two types of abandonment (the latter of which, presumably, was a much larger issue in the sixteenth century than it is now), and two types of abuse. The last two sections in particular provide a fascinating insight into the way the problem was addressed in early Protestantism:

10. Deadly hostility is a ground for divorce.

If deadly hostility should arise between husband and wife, and become so inflamed that one attacks the other, either by treacherous means or by poison, and wants to take the other’s life in some way, either by open violence or by hidden malice, it is our will that as soon as so horrible a crime is proved in court, such persons shall be separated by divorce. For a person who attacks health and life does greater injury to his marriage partner than one who separates himself from the other’s company, or commits adultery with someone else. For there cannot be any sort of fellowship between those who have begun to plot or to fear mortal harm. Therefore, since they cannot live together, it is right for [the marriage] to be dissolved, according to the teaching of Paul.

11. The crim of ill-treatment is also a ground for divorce.

If a man is cruel to his wife and displays excessive harshness of word and deed towards her, as long as there is any hope of improvement, the ecclesiastical judge is to reason with him, rebuking his excessive violence, and if he cannot prevail by admonitions and exhortations, he is to compel him not to inflict any violent injury on his wife, and to treat her as the intimate union of marriage requires, by making him pledge bail, or by taking guarantees.

But if the husband cannot be coerced either by bail or by guarantees, and if he refuses to abandon his cruelty by these means, then he must be considered his wife’s mortal enemy and a threat to her life. Therefore, in her peril recourse must be had to the remedy of divorce, no less than if her life had been openly attacked ... Both in this and in the above-mentioned offences, it is our will that parties set free in this way may contract a new marriage (if they wish), while those convicted of the said crimes shall be punished either by perpetual exile or by imprisonment for life.

It is also interesting that Cranmer immediately adds a clarification, lest anyone should turn his words into a rationale for divorce and remarriage over any marital conflict whatsoever: “If minor disagreements or grounds for offence creep into a marriage, the words of Paul should act as a check upon them, namely, that either the wife should be reconciled to her husband, a result which ought to be sought after by all ordinary and extraordinary methods of penalties and exhortations, or she is to remain single, a penalty which we decree shall be equally binding on the man.”

Of course, the difference between “excessive harshness” and “minor disagreements or grounds for offence” can be contested, and varies a good deal from culture to culture. But there is wisdom here, and it may be an encouragement to pastors that we are not the first generation to ask these questions, or seek to apply biblical wisdom to complicated realities.

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Emotions and Self-Control

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The Bible, psychology, and neuroscience are three of my favourite things to learn about. (Although admittedly my understanding of two out of the three is very much at a layman’s level!) I therefore really enjoyed two books I read recently which combine insights from all three to help give a Christian understanding of emotions and of self-control.

Untangling Emotions by J. Alasdair Groves & Winston T. Smith

I sometimes worry that as Christians we tend not to be very good at understanding and learning from emotions and I’ve become increasingly convinced that doing so is vital to growing in maturity with Christ. In my own life, a season of seeing a Christian counsellor hugely helped me to experience the positive impact of learning to understand and respond well to my emotions. That meant I was really excited to see that this book, co-authored by the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counselling and a church pastor, was being published.

Groves and Smith structure their book in three parts. They first talk about understanding emotions, explaining what they are, why we experience them, and what they are designed to do. Groves and Smith present emotions as outworkings of our loves which I find a really helpful concept.

The second part of the book looks at how to engage emotions, what to do and what not to do. But it was the third and final section which I found most helpful. Here the authors draw together all that they have said to talk about how to engage some of the hardest emotions (fear, anger, grief, guilt, and shame). This section is so helpful not only for what it says about these specific emotions but for the way it provides worked examples of the process of understanding and engaging emotions which the first two sections described.

Untangling Emotions is a book which will help anyone with emotions (so, anyone) and is particularly valuable to pastors and those who find themselves helping others to navigate their emotions.

Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science by Drew Dyck

Observant readers will have noticed that I’ve actually already mentioned this book twice on Think. That fact testifies to how good I think it is.

The title and subtitle are a pretty good insight into the content of the book. I love the way that Dyck hasn’t ignored the findings of neuroscience and just shared what the Bible says, and he hasn’t just shared the findings of neuroscience and ignored what the Bible says, rather he helpfully combines the two in a way which shows how they can illuminate each other and work together. Another real strength of the book is Dyck’s conversational tone and his authenticity as he shares about his own attempts to apply some of what he was learning.

The chapters cover key points like the purpose of self-control, the enemies of self-control, marshalling willpower, and the importance of habits. There is also an excellent chapter about the difficulty of developing self-control in the digital era and a brilliant, and brilliantly titled, chapter ‘Grace Means I Don’t Need Self-Control … And Other Dumb Things Christians Think’.

This is a book which will help anyone who could do with developing their self-control (so, pretty much anyone). Pastors and those who disciple others will also find the insights shared to be a really useful tool.

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Surprised by Paradox

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It may just be me, but of all the new books I have come across or read this year, there don't seem to be many whose purpose is to inspire worship. There are lots (as there always are) on living the Christian life well, or understanding Scripture better, or handling contemporary issues, but few that I would describe as doxological or devotional, or (in language I always like using) as "joy fuel." That may be one reason why I was so blessed and encouraged by Jen Pollock Michel's Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World. This is a book which provokes worship in every chapter, as well as a good deal of thought, practical application and biblical reflection. I highly recommend it.

What I expected, on picking up the book, was a series of meditations on how paradoxes are essential to our understanding of God. I thought most of the book would be about things like the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, sovereignty and responsibility, now and not yet, or the sorts of apologetic dilemmas addressed in Krish Kandiah’s Paradoxology. But much of the book was much more immediate, tangible and earthy than that, and as a result (at least for me), more fresh. Jen takes one important insight—that mystery and paradox have always been at the heart of Christian faith and life, a point that she contrasts beautifully with the perspective of a Jehovah’s Witness she knows—and applies it to areas that I have never really thought about before. Here are five.

Marriage

“It isn’t the absence of conflict that makes for a happy, stable marriage. Our wedding vows don’t simply bind us to the politeness of yes; they also bind us to the courage of and, which is to say the bravery of moving toward places of paradox. In Christian marriage, we choose to love, serve, and submit to one another, even on the days that wring us out bone-tired. But Christian marriage isn’t built on mute self-sacrifice alone. We must also learn to practise rigorous, risky honesty. We name our desires (however fearfully) and admit our disappointments (however angrily). Yes is the daily work of marital faithfulness; and is our practised resistance to apathy.” (27-28)

Humility

“Christian humility is great pride as well as great prostration. On the one hand, we must recognise that we are the ‘chief of creatures,’ crowned with glory and honour, to quote the words of the psalmist. Unlike anything else in all of creation, we alone bear the image of God. In the beginning, ‘Man was a statue of God walking about in the garden.’ And on the other hand, we must acknowledge that we are the ‘chief of sinners’ … Union with Christ requires I and he.”

Money

“It’s the stories of Tozer and Bonhoeffer, John the Baptist and Jesus, that keep me wondering: what is the shape of a kingdom life? Just how worldly—or how ascetic—is it? Paradoxically, I seem to be offered examples of both kinds of lives, which leaves me with more wondering. Am I meant to be Tozer, wearing out the knees of my [trousers] and refusing proceeds from the sale of my books? Or am I meant to be Bonhoeffer, seeing no inherent crisis in privilege and obedience?  … In the kingdom of God, I am paradoxically called to give and to enjoy.”

Effort

“There is a fruitful tension between grace and law, law and grace, and paying attention to that tension helps us avoid the either of legalism (which separates God’s law from grace) and the or of antinomianism (which separates God’s grace from obedience). It is a paradox that God’s gratuitous grace should rain on the righteous and the unrighteous—and that obedience should be demanded for no other apparent reason than “it is his word ... We are not saved by effort, but neither are we saved from it.”

Lament

“For all its seemingly impolitic, impious qualities, lament is a confession of faith. Maybe mustard seed faith, maybe angry faith, but faith nonetheless. It is not an abandonment or denial of God, but an affirmation of his reality, even his goodness and power. It might shock us to learn that in the book that is purportedly a collection of praises, there are more psalms of lament than psalms of thanksgiving and praise. In other words, most psalms are not tame and tepid; instead, they read like nasty letters to the editor … That is complaint, to be sure—but it is also the persistence of faith that hounds God until he answers.”

As you can see, Jen can write. Her book is real, thoughtful, clear, and peppered with helpful insights from paradoxmongers like Chesterton, Dallas Willard, various missionaries and of course Scripture itself. It’s well worth a look.

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Multiplanting – A Review

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Further to Matt's post last week about multiplying churches, here's a book giving one model of how that can be achieved. If you're convinced by the 'why' and thinking about the 'how', Multiplanting, by Colin Baron, which was released this week, will provide some helpful pointers that you can apply or adapt to your context.

Multiplanting is Colin’s name for the style of multisite church planting that he has developed over the past decade or so in Manchester. Like most other concepts of multisite church, Christ Church Manchester (CCM) is “one church with a central strategy, culture and approach” (p36), with Sunday gatherings in different places – sites – across the city. Where it differs, though, is that instead of having one teaching plan, with the preachers haring back and forth across town (or being beamed electronically into the different sites), “each site determines and delivers teaching and music locally”. The sites are also “genuinely empowered to find effective ways of reaching their own local community”, meaning that everything from the type of venue, and the kind of snacks served before each service to the whole feel of the service will feel very different at one site than it does at another.

Although I didn’t agree with everything in this book, there was lots that I loved. Having been part of churches of many different sizes over the years, I have found that congregations of between about 60 and 120 seem to be about the right size to have (just) enough volunteers without losing the sense of being a family where everyone can be known (to the extent they want to) and everyone is needed. The multiplanting model allows for this, and enables a church to be in and for many different areas of the city, while retaining the support, resources and efficiencies of scale that go along with a larger leadership team. (Without the drain on the leaders involved in preaching at several sites each week etc.)

As a non-church planter, while I found the structural/management stuff interesting, the section on church culture that Colin describes in the seven chapters of Part Two was more personally relevant and interesting. He paints a picture of a church that is joyful and welcoming, with strong cultural values such as ‘A Second Chance Culture’, ‘A Generous Culture’, ‘A Good Food Culture’ and more. The impression is of a church where everyone is encouraged and empowered to ‘have a go’ (indeed, that is one of the chapter headings) at whatever they think God is calling them to, and picked up, encouraged, and helped to try again if things go wrong. I liked the sense that the church is one in which newcomers’ gifts can quickly be identified, encouraged and developed. Even better – putting my Jubilee+ Church for the Poor hat on for a moment – I got the impression that it is agile and entrepreneurial enough to give those whose gifts don’t necessarily show themselves in the traditional white-middle-class ways a chance to also participate and excel. The church leaders seem to be actively on the look out for gifting in the congregation and calling it out and raising it up. I love that.

That said, it may just be my natural caution or aversion to change, but it did feel, reading the book, as though the drive to pioneer and start new things might perhaps come at the cost of depth of relationship and discipleship. It’s a tough balance, because it is good to be intentionally identifying, investing in and developing new leaders, and you want to give people opportunities to grow and flourish, it just all felt as though it happened very quickly at CCM.

I was also left wondering at what point, if at all, a site would become its own church and separate from the central leadership team. Colin talks a lot about his vision to plant 20 churches, but is currently counting his sites in that number. There must surely come a point when this centralised leadership team - including an elder from every site - becomes too unwieldy to function, and a point when the sites become mature enough that they both could and should be released to stand on their own two feet, but unless I missed it, that isn’t discussed in the book.

Another hesitation in my wholehearted endorsement of the book would be around who gets to preach on a Sunday. I’ve been involved in various discussions on twitter and in real life about this in recent weeks, and they have served to consolidate my position that the Sunday sermon ought – in the vast majority of cases – to be delivered by an elder or someone who is clearly on the road of exploring eldership. (The exceptional cases might include, for example, other elders from within our network or denomination, or perhaps missionaries home on furlough sharing updates and testimonies about their work.) And as a good complementarian, of course, I would also include the qualification that someone teaching the Word must be male. In Colin’s ‘Have a Go Culture’ (and in his theology), none of those are requirements. This of course gives opportunities to many more people, and eases the burden on the elders, but is a different philosophy of what Sundays are about and what preaching is for than I believe to be consistent with Scripture.

With those caveats in place, though, there is a lot I would commend in this book. Whether you’re a church planter or simply someone who has a measure of influence over the culture of a church (which, one way or another, for good or ill, is most of us), I think you’ll find it an easy but interesting read with lots of food for thought.

Available now from Hive and all good booksellers!

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Was Jesus Tempted To Commit Murder?

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Jesus was "tempted in every way, just as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). What an amazing truth. But what does it mean? Does it mean that he was tempted to do everything that any human has ever been tempted to do: murder, child abuse, genocide, and the rest? Most of us probably assume not. But why? And (more pressingly in our current context): how do we differentiate between the ways in which he was tempted, and the ways in which he wasn't? If it says he was tempted "in every respect", but there are a bunch of ways in which he wasn't tempted, does that end up undermining his humanity, his priestly mediation for us, the clarity or authority of Scripture, and more besides?

We should start with an exegetical point, which is that there is another occasion in Hebrews in which the phrase “in every way” is used, and it can help us make sense of this one. Jesus was tempted kata panta (4:15); he was made like his brothers kata panta (2:17). The point the writer is making is that Jesus is fully able to understand our predicament, and therefore fully able to represent us as a priest and mediator; he is not saying that Jesus is identical with us (height, weight, appearance, ethnicity, parentage, sinfulness), or that he has experienced identical temptations to every one of us. If we were to press the language in chapter 4 to mean that his temptations were identical to ours, we would by the same token have to press the language in chapter 2 to mean that his resemblance was identical to ours. Since we don’t (rightly), we are already admitting that there is some difference here.

But what is the nature of that difference? At least three possible explanations exist, and it is worth thinking about which one is (or which ones are) correct.

Intuitively, many of us default to thinking that Jesus is tempted in the exact ways we are, but not in the ways that other, more obviously depraved, people are. Jesus was tempted to pride, lust, anger, envy and greed, because we are; he was not tempted towards child abuse, murder, rape, incest and genocide, because we are not. I imagine that few of us would try and defend this logically, for the obvious reason that it takes our personal experience (which is not shared by all Christians by any stretch of the imagination) as the basis for our Christology. But I also imagine that many of us operate with something rather like it when we reflect on this particular text. If we wrestle with X, we are inclined to think that Jesus did too. If we don’t, we assume that he didn’t. This, I suggest, cannot be the distinction that Hebrews had in mind, or the one that we should use in understanding him.

A different way of thinking about it is to distinguish between temptations which arise from within the person, and temptations which arise from without. Temptations which arise from within are a result of original sin, and this cannot be said of Jesus, since he was tempted “yet without sin.” However, temptations which arise from without, from external causes or agents (most obviously the devil in Matthew 4), clearly were experienced—and successfully resisted!—by Jesus in his humanity. This is the distinction proposed by John Owen, to take one example: “Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin.” Herman Bavinck puts it more pithily: “Real temptation could not come to Jesus from within, but only from without.”

A third way, which overlaps with the second but is framed differently, focuses on the distinction between creational appetites and fallen appetites. Jesus’s temptation to turn stones into bread, for example, is based on a creational appetite, and a desire which is fundamentally good for human beings, namely the desire for food. So is the desire for dominion in the third temptation (see Gen 1:27), and (more controversially) the sexual desire to be fruitful and multiply. But many temptations are not based on human goods at all. They do not result from creation, but from the fall. So a fallen appetite, we could say, is the desire for something which nobody would ever have wanted before sin entered the world: the desire to kill another person, molest a child, or whatever. These sorts of temptations, we may say with confidence, were not experienced by Jesus.

I am deliberately avoiding the specific controversy that sparked these thoughts, because I think there has been misunderstanding on all sides, and because the debate quickly becomes about something else. (If you know, you know.) But as I see it, we can be helped by both the second and third ways of differentiating between the temptations Jesus experienced and the temptations he didn’t—and we should be careful to avoid the first way. May we continue to be strengthened in the fight against sin by our fully human and fully divine, tempted-as-we-are yet utterly sinless, Saviour Jesus Christ. (For more on the pastoral implications here, this brief Q&A with John Piper is excellent.)

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Changes for CHANGED

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Controversy and confusion have been swirling around certain circles online over the last few weeks with the launch of a new initiative from Bethel called Changed. On its website, the movement introduces itself as ‘a community of friends who once identified as LGBTQ+. Today, we celebrate the love of Jesus and His freedom in our lives.’

The controversy over Changed has emerged because of its apparent alliance with ex-gay theology, the idea that those who are gay/experience same-sex attraction should expect and seek a change in their desires as they strive to faithfully follow Christ. This is a perspective which, while still present in the church, has become increasingly less popular in recent years, especially after the self-confessed failure and consequent closure of Exodus International, the most famous network for ex-gay ministries.

The confusion has emerged because of the peculiar way in which the leaders of Changed are expressing their position and the way that the stories they are sharing are told. It is certainly the case that some of the stories boldly declare a complete end of the experience of same-sex attraction and some of the language used (e.g. ‘Changed is possible’, ‘#oncegay’) makes it hard to believe that this isn’t ex-gay theology. But it is not clear whether the organisation believes that a change in orientation is necessary to faithfully follow Jesus or that such change should be actively expected for every same-sex attracted person who comes to faith in Jesus.

As I’ve followed the launch of Changed, read through many of their stories, and watched some of the fallout online, I have had many different thoughts and there is lots that could be said. For now, I want to share a few observations of things I think could helpfully be changed to make Changed a better resource for the church and the world. I think these principles are also useful for any of us who engage with this topic to bear in mind.

First, however, I want to say upfront that I have no doubt that the leaders of Changed and those who have contributed their stories love Jesus and want to love other people. Even if their approach can be seen as problematic and even if some of us would disagree with their position, I do think their heart is in the right place. My hope and prayer is that they will listen to and reflect upon the responses they are receiving and use them to better formulate what they are seeking to do.

The Need for Clarity

As I have mentioned, the position of Changed is very ambiguous. They talk about being those who once identified as LGBTQ+ and speak of leaving behind LGBTQ+ but nowhere make it clear exactly what this means. Do they mean that they have all experienced a change in their pattern of attractions or have some simply changed how they chose to live in light of their attractions? If they have experienced a change, has this been complete or partial?

I also can’t find anywhere which clearly states their position on what faithfulness to Jesus as someone who experiences same-sex attraction requires. Is a change in attractions necessary for a same-sex attracted follower of Jesus? While they are trying to help those who identify as LGBTQ+ this ambiguity is actually incredibly unhelpful as it leaves us unclear on what they think we should do to faithfully follow Jesus. In some of their writings, and even in a video they have produced in response to social media reactions, it feels like the ambiguity is a deliberate strategy to not push people away, but it actually renders their message useless if it can’t be properly understood. If there is a clear stance, it should be made clear.

The Need for Scripture

I don’t think I’ve yet heard or read anything from Changed which refers directly to specific scriptures. This may be a deliberate choice in a desire not to alienate their intended audience, but it adds to the problem of ambiguity. If there is a clear stance, it should be made clear, and it should make it clear where in Scripture it is rooted. If we are to bring the challenge of God’s truth on this, or any other, matter, we must do so clearly from Scripture. We want people to see that it is God who says this and therefore we uphold it; it is not based on our idea or our authority. Looking through the materials from Changed you get the impression that their perspective comes from their experiences rather than from Scripture.

The Need for Careful Distinctions

There is an unhelpful lack of distinction on Changed between experiences of gender dysphoria and same-sex attraction. While their more detailed descriptions do mention gender, they often only mention homosexuality. This is true despite the fact that many of the stories are from those who not only experienc(ed) same-sex attraction but also found themselves uncomfortable with their biological sex and wanting to identify with the opposite sex. Same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria are two different phenomena and while they can overlap this is far from always being the case. The lack of distinction is unhelpful to getting a clear understanding of their message and will also seem ignorant to non-Christian readers, further hampering chances of Changed getting a hearing among those they want to reach.

The Need for A Diversity of Stories

Linked to the above point, it is striking that many of the stories featured include discomfort with biological sex as well as same-sex attraction, and yet this would not be true in general of people who are same-sex attracted. It is also striking that a vast majority of the stories speak of abuse in early life or early exposure to pornography, often directly linking this to the later experience of same-sex attraction. Again, however, this is not true in general of those who are same-sex attracted (even though it is undeniably true of some). The experiences are therefore very much of a type and don’t represent the experience of many of us who are same-sex attracted. Most of the stories are actually about freedom from the ongoing impact of abuse, addiction, depression, loneliness, a feeling of being unloved and other difficulties more than they are about sexuality or gender identity. It is dangerous, therefore, to draw such broad conclusions about sexuality from these stories.

I think Changed is well motivated. I think that some of the stories are wonderful testimonies of God’s compassion and his power to bring healing to the impact of abuse, addiction and other painful experiences. But I think to really fulfill their aim of being a safe space for LGBTQ+ people, Changed will need to change.

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Broken for Blessing: a Book for Ordinary People in Ordinary Churches

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My friend Alan Frow has written a book that anyone with some kind of leadership position in any church of 200+ people should read. First, a paragraph I wrote about it, and then an explanation from Alan himself about what Broken for Blessing is about.

This is not an out-of-reach account of a mega ministry by a mega pastor, but an inspiring story of what a faithful congregation can accomplish. Alan does not sugar coat the costs for a medium-sized church in multiplying but does provide a roadmap from his experience with Southlands Church. Southlands might not be a church that makes headlines in the ‘most influential’ lists but she has had a remarkable journey of planting and multiplication. Broken for Blessing tells this story and is for all who desire to be part of a multiplying church.

Any teacher worth their salt has heard that dubious student excuse for turning in work late. “I’m sorry, but the dog ate my homework!” Well, that really did happen to me this past week when I came home to find that Milo, our nine month-old puppy, had found a box of my newly released Broken for Blessing books and chewed at least five of them.

I was surprised how many of my friends actually wanted to purchase the puppy-chewed editions! That may just be their love of dogs, but I suspect it’s a deeper phenomenon. I suspect people want their spirituality to be rooted in the ordinary. A book on church multiplication with the cover ripped off by a puppy seems more true-to life than the glossy stories we hear at many church-planting conferences, detached from the dog-eared reality of mere mortals like you and me. 

When I wrote a book on the underrated potential of the medium-sized multiplying church, my hope was to tell exactly that; a dog-eared story that would encourage ordinary people in ordinary churches.

God can do extraordinary things with ordinary people in ordinary churches

Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay Research, estimates that only five percent of multiplying churches in the West are under 1,000 people in size. ( I realize that large in many countries in the West may be closer to 800 people) Be that as it may, the vision to be a multiplying church is generally a large church phenomenon because it’s such a resource-rich vision. I’m so thankful for large churches that multiply.

However, our fixation with large means that churches in the 200-700 people range generally have a vision for addition rather than multiplication, because if we’re honest, multiplication feels too much like subtraction. It’s easy for small or medium-sized churches to think, “Maybe one day when I grow up and have lots of resources I’ll think of multiplying, but for now, I must grow by addition.” That’s why churches in the 5th percentile that have a multiplying vision are uncommon, like unicorns. But I don’t think they should be. In fact, despite the resource challenges, I believe medium-sized churches are better suited to multiplying than large or small churches.

Why?

Firstly, because they are more in touch with the ordinary realities of small churches than large churches are. They haven’t forgotten the all-hands-on-deck dustiness that planting requires. They don’t expect everything to be laid out for them. Secondly, they have slightly bigger resource margins than small churches and are less likely to die through multiplying. When medium-sized churches multiply, the whole church feels the pain of sending, but not in a way that kills it. That is healthy.

Essentially, this book is calling for these unicorns to become more common. I am hoping this book catalyzes a movement of medium-sized multiplying churches, even as it encourages small and large churches in their own multiplication efforts. Don’t wait until you’re large before you start multiplying. Think of it this way: Families don’t have to be large before they multiply, they just need to be healthy. So, get healthy and get going by God’s grace. It’s how Jesus designed His Church to grow and it’s how He intended His Great Commission to be fulfilled.

Southlands’ dream to be a multiplying church has meant dying to a megachurch dream, which looks like eating a slice of humble pie with a side of obscurity! But that dream has meant that by God’s grace we have multiplied 16 times in the last 21 years, mostly as a medium-sized church. My hope is that Southlands’ story can be catalytic because it is so believably ordinary.

There really is no ordinary church in Jesus’ eyes. He wants to do extraordinary things with ordinary people in ordinary churches as they place what He has given them back in His hands to be broken and multiplied for His glory.

The book is available world-wide on Amazon in paperback and kindle format.

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Porn, Curiosity, Killing and Cat Videos

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There is a common thread that unites pornography, murder, Netflix, skim-reading, Facebook and cat videos, argues Matt Anderson in a superb piece at TGC. The link is curiositas: "a restlessness of the spirit and mind, an unsettled anxiety that pursues new spectacles to consume. Such pleasurable novelties provide cheap mental stimulation with little to no work ... Curiosity fixes our attention on the 'things below,' the things that are seen, the things that we can dispense with the moment we are done. But because such visions lack depth they will never satisfy. And because they are ubiquitous they must become more outlandish."

If a society is drowning in curiositas, three things will happen.

First, it will attempt to peel back the curtain and lay bare sordid and dirty secrets. Curiosity aims to expose what ought not be known. Our society’s rampant fascination with the inner workings of the lives of celebrities—lives we will never have—may seem benign. But the voyeurism that moves someone to gaze lustfully through a window operates according to the same logic, only in a sexual key. We will have our spectacles wherever we can find them—and the more secret, the better.

Second, curiosity undercuts our stomach for more serious ventures. “Cat videos don’t really matter,” we say—and that is why our interest in them is damning. Curiosity is attentive only to the surface. It cannot abide the matter, the substance, or the depths before us. Curiosity is content with the image; but loving attention needs bodies ...

It is easy to see the spirit of curiositas at work in pornography. Porn offers the most alluring sort of spectacle. Depictions of individuals engaged in secret acts of grave importance can be viewed, enjoyed, and discarded with no investment or pain on the viewer’s part ... the body in its sexual presentation is now merely one more trivial amusement meant for the satisfaction of momentary and passing interests, leaving no permanent mark on the soul or the society. Sex no longer matters—which is why it will no longer be fun. For the comedy, the ordinariness, and the mundane weirdness of sex draw energy and life from the enchanted awe that tempts us to kneel in chaste humility before the glory of another human being. No longer sacred, sex has become nothing at all.

And third, people like me will condense two thousand words of careful argument into a few sentences. Which is why you should head over to TGC and read the whole thing.

 

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He Came Walking

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Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Bible may be old, but boy is it rich! Look at this part that I stumbled upon the other day, on Genesis 3:8:

Fear seized [Adam and Eve] immediately upon their eating the forbidden fruit, Gen. 3:8.

Observe here, What was the cause and occasion of their fear: They heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. It was the approach of the Judge that put them into a fright; and yet he came in such a manner as made it formidable only to guilty consciences.

It is supposed that he came in a human shape, and that he who judged the world now was the same that shall judge the world at the last day, even that man whom God has ordained. He appeared to them now (it should seem) in no other similitude than that in which they had seen him when he put them into paradise; for he came to convince and humble them, not to amaze and terrify them.

He came into the garden, not descending immediately from heaven in their view, as afterwards on mount Sinai (making either thick darkness his pavilion or the flaming fire his chariot), but he came into the garden, as one that was still willing to be familiar with them.

He came walking, not running, not riding upon the wings of the wind, but walking deliberately, as one slow to anger, teaching us, when we are ever so much provoked, not to be hot nor hasty, but to speak and act considerately and not rashly.

He came in the cool of the day, not in the night, when all fears are doubly fearful, nor in the heat of day, for he came not in the heat of his anger. Fury is not in him, Isa. 27:4. Nor did he come suddenly upon them; but they heard his voice at some distance, giving them notice of his coming, and probably it was a still small voice, like that in which he came to enquire after Elijah. Some think they heard him discoursing with himself concerning the sin of Adam, and the judgment now to be passed upon him, perhaps as he did concerning Israel, Hos. 11:8, 9. How shall I give thee up?

His heart broken, creation’s perfection shattered, his image-bearers marred and subject to death, he came walking. Gently, softly, lovingly, kindly the King of the universe came walking.

How beautiful.

And when he came to make atonement for that sin, Jesus too came walking.

He too came in such a manner as made it formidable only to those who recognised who he was and saw the depth of their guilt.

He came as a man, as one who was willing to be familiar with us.

We heard a voice, calling in the wilderness, giving us notice of his coming. And, knowing the heartbreak that awaited him, knowing he was to take on the brokenness of all creation and be scarred by those his hands had made, knowing he was to become death for us, he came, walking.

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Gospel Coaching

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I wonder how you feel about accountability. What ideas and emotions does the concept evoke in you? My associations with accountability are largely negative. Feelings of guilt about things I should have done but haven’t and feelings of shame about things I shouldn’t have done but have. This was my experience of accountability as a teenager but now I’m beginning to view it differently.

As a teenager in church youth groups, I experienced accountability as a deterrent; the shame of confessing sins of omission and commission was meant to be a motivation to do the right thing. In my experience, however, it wasn’t all that effective. Accountability actually soon seemed to add to my list of wrongdoings as I began to lie about how I was actually doing because the shame felt too great. I may be alone in this experience - the misunderstanding may all have been mine - but I have a feeling I’m probably not.

As I progressed through and beyond my teenage years and grew in my understanding of the gospel, I became increasingly confused that this sort of accountability was presented as a great tool for Christian growth. Partly, this was because I hadn’t found it very effective, but it also didn’t really seem to fit with the gospel. A major guilt trip didn’t seem to be how the Bible encourages us to progress in sanctification and to help each other in that journey.

These musings were crystallised when I heard a Christian counsellor use the helpful language of accountability as coaching. Accountability shouldn’t be a giant guilt trip – that’s not the gospel – it should be coaching in the gospel, having someone alongside you to help you keep applying the gospel to your journey in sanctification. So an accountability relationship shouldn’t be the place we feel deep shame for what we have done; it should be the place we most experience the gospel’s unique power to free us from shame. It shouldn’t be the place where try to change to please or impress someone else; it should be the place where we are spurred on to express in our thoughts and actions our love for the one who is already pleased with us and invites us to the freedom of holy living. Christian accountability should be gospel coaching because it’s only the application of the gospel in our lives that can truly help us to change.

I’ve recently been reminded of this distinction as I’ve been reading Drew Dyck’s brilliant Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science. Unsurprisingly, it seems that psychological research confirms the wisdom of the gospel’s strategies for change.

Apparently psychologists have observed the ‘fresh start effect’. This is the fact that if we feel like we’ve been given a fresh start and a clean slate we are more likely to make progress in changing our behaviour. This is why we are more likely to make progress with goals started at the beginning of a new year or the start of a new week; we feel a sense of break from what’s gone before and that helps us to look forward. The gospel gives us the ultimate fresh start and clean plate. Accountability should help us to take hold of that. Quick confession and application of the gospel is a powerful tool for seeking to change behaviour. (I’m sure Andrew would point out that this is a good reason to make confession and the assurance of forgiveness a regular part of our weekly gatherings. Every week we’d get the benefit of the fresh start effect!)

Another phenomenon that psychologists have observed is the ‘What-The-Hell-Effect’. This is when one misstep quickly leads to a repetition of that misstep. The effect isn’t actually solely rooted in an ‘I’m already in trouble so I might as well do it again’ sort of thought process, despite what the name suggests. It’s actually a cycle we can get caught in. The guilt and shame of doing something wrong makes us look for comfort, and often the way we’ll seek comfort is in the very thing we’re feeling bad about. The wrong form of accountability could aggravate this. Not only do you feel guilty about what you’ve done but you feel the shame of having to tell someone, so you’re even more desperate for comfort. Once again, we see the power of quick confession which breaks us out of that cycle and gets us back to the fresh start effect. Accountability should be gospel coaching which helps us to put this into practice.

I’m probably overly harsh on my teenage experience of accountability. There no doubt is some deterring power in the knowledge that someone will be asking how you’ve been doing with a particular issue, but I doubt it has the power for substantial and long-term change. I have no doubt, however, that the gospel has that power, and sometimes when we’re struggling to preach the gospel to ourselves, we need someone else to preach it to us. Accountability should be gospel coaching.

What If The Lost Sheep Isn’t An Unbeliever (And The Shepherd Isn’t Jesus)? image

What If The Lost Sheep Isn’t An Unbeliever (And The Shepherd Isn’t Jesus)?

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We all know the parable of the Lost Sheep. The shepherd is Jesus, the ninety-nine sheep are Christians, the lost sheep is “one sinner who repents,” and the result is rejoicing in heaven. It’s clear as day in Luke 15, and it’s clear as day in our Kids' Bibles. Right?

Right. Except: what if Matthew’s version of the story (Matt 18:10-14) is doing something quite different? What if the cast of characters is different, the punchline is different, and there is a challenge to Christians (and pastors in particular) that we haven’t noticed, because we’ve assumed both versions of the story mean the same thing? Matthew and Luke, after all, tell several stories that sound very similar, but have quite different endings (the parables of the wedding banquet in Matt 22:1-14 and Luke 14:12-24 are the best examples). What if the same is happening here, and we’ve missed it?

Here’s Matthew’s version in full:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (18:10-14)

The context is quite different from that in Luke. In Luke, the lost sheep serves to explain why Jesus is spending time with “sinners.” In Matthew, the lost sheep is a challenge not to look down on the “little ones”—whether children, or Christians at risk of being led into sin, or probably both (18:1-6)—because God is committed to them. And it is immediately followed by a discussion of how to handle unrepentant brothers and sisters, in probably the most significant text in the New Testament on church discipline. Both of these indicate that the sheep in Matthew’s version are believers, not unbelievers.

The language is different too. Luke speaks of the sheep as “lost”, a word which unites the sheep with the coin and the son(s) later in the chapter. But Matthew uses the verb “go astray,” or “wander off” (the Greek word is planaō, from which we get our word “planet”), which in the context of temptation to sin clearly refers to those who are weak or vulnerable in faith and tempted to abandon it. The shepherd in the story, in this reading, is not Jesus but Christians in general, and pastors in particular.

Those two observations nudge us in the direction of some crucial Old Testament background. Ezekiel rails against Israel’s leaders for failing to search for, and bring back, the lost sheep: “the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought ... So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (Ezek 34:4-6). As countless biblical passages remind us, the answer to Cain’s rhetorical question, “am I my brother’s keeper?”, is an emphatic yes. It is not surprising, then, that Jesus does not only picture himself as one who brings back the wanderer (Luke 15), but desires a community in which everyone (and leaders in particular) lives the same way (Matt 18).

This means that the application of the parable is different in the two versions. Whereas Luke’s version is intended to explain Jesus’s ministry to undesirable outcasts, Matthew’s version is designed to challenge the church—a much bigger theme in Matthew than in Luke, and especially in this chapter of the Gospel—to make every effort to restore wandering believers, rather than dismissing them. It is a summons to “an active visitation programme” (Bruner), a command to “care for our mean brothers and sisters” (Chrysostom). The point of the story, in Matthew Henry’s beautiful phrase, is: “Let not earth despise those whom heaven respects.”

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Wilson and the Heidelberg Cat-astrophe!

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Not content with preaching, blogging, completing a PhD, and writing countless popular level books, our very own Andrew J. Wilson has continued his programme of world domination by branching out into the realm of children’s books, with his latest offering, Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat.

Whilst I applaud Andrew for his adaptability and the breadth of his creative endeavours (presumably we can soon expect an album of folk songs, a clothing range, a fragrance, and an adult colouring book?) I must confess to being a little irked by this particular project, for two reasons.

Firstly, a story about a theologically astute furred creature. Wherever do you think he got the inspiration for that? And yet, did I receive any credit, or thanks? Was the book dedicated to me? The answer, dear reader, is no.

But secondly, and most egregiously, I can’t help but feel that this book has been directly plagiarised. Only a few years ago, I pitched an idea to a publisher to create a series of children’s books in which cute, illustrated animals discuss important theological themes. I never heard back from them, despite regular letters, emails, calls, texts, tweets, Facebook posts, WhatsApps, faxes, pages, myspace messages, carrier pigeons and suchlike. I assumed they were disinterested, but now it has become clear to me that they were dodging my various methods of communication, since they intended to pass on my ideas to a rival author.

I understand that Dr. Wilson is a far more marketable writer than I. He has more connections in the human world than I do. When was the last time you saw an otter grace the stage at a national conference, or write a piece for The Gospel Coalition? But still, I consider this to be unacceptable.

Since 1 Corinthians 6 forbids me to take out a lawsuit against my blogger-in-Christ, I shall be forced to be the bigger mammal, and turn the otter cheek. But rest assured, I have not given up on my dreams, and if anything this has made me more determined to publish my books than ever before.

So I am proud to announce that I will soon begin taking pre-orders for the first three instalments in my new children’s series:

Confessions of Augustine the Hippo – The tale of a thick-skinned beast, who experienced a radical conversion and renounced his life of wallowing in the mud-pools of sin.

Karl Bark’s Dog-Matics – A multi-volume work, in which Professor Bark explains the essentials of Christian faith to a selection of his canine chums.

Five Hoofs for God’s Existence by Thomas Equine-as – A theologically-savvy horse, with a colt following, shows the foal-ishness of atheism, and how Jesus is the answer for a stable life.

These books will all be beautifully illustrated by the paws of yours truly. Suitable for children aged 4-8 years (so long as they have at least a basic grasp of Greek and Hebrew). And readers of Think Theology will receive a 25% discount by entering the code: WILSONCATASTROPHE

With love,
+S.S.S.+

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King of the Wind, Sea, Earth and Fire

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Some of you know that I preached four messages at Newday this year on the fear of God, looking at Jesus as King of the Wind, Sea, Earth and Fire. (Jennie wrote a good piece on the first theme yesterday, as it happens; she has also been an enthusiastic Twitter advocate for the Gruffalo impersonation in the fourth one.) Well: here they all are.

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Life Lessons from Habbakuk

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I love the Minor Prophets. I think they are the hidden gems of the Old Testament. I recently preached on Habakkuk as part of a series on the Minor Prophets in which we're seeking to draw out what we can learn from these books about God and the gospel. But as I read and digested Habakkuk, I was struck afresh by what a useful resource it is for those facing suffering. Here's a post I originally wrote for our church to accompany the preach.

The Bible gives us lots of complementary perspectives on suffering and how to handle it, and wisdom is knowing which strand of biblical teaching to apply in a specific situation. Habakkuk is one of the places from which we can glean that teaching. Here are a few useful life lessons from Habakkuk.

The Questions

First, the direction of Habakkuk’s question is really interesting. When we think about suffering, we often ask the question, ‘Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?’ We tend to see it as an issue of love. If God is all loving, why does he not intervene to end suffering? But Habakkuk turns that question on its head. His question, especially in his second complaint (1:13), is ‘Why does God allow good things to happen to bad people?’. He sees it as an issue of justice. If God is just, why does he not intervene to end injustice?

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t wrestle with the first question – I think we should, and I think there are various answers which can help us – but it’s a good challenge to consider why we are less likely to ask the second question. Is it because the suffering of injustice often affects others more than it affects us and so we’re less bothered by it? Is it because we have understood that God is love, but we haven’t also understood that he is just? It’s challenging!

The Conversation

The very fact of what Habakkuk does in his conversation with God is instructive. When he is feeling confused, hurt, perhaps even angry about what is happening around or to him, he doesn’t let those feelings just fester. He doesn’t, to our knowledge, complain to other people or try and win the pity of others. He takes his confusion and hurt and anger to God. He’s not afraid to be painfully honest with God. And this is something you often see when the Bible talks about suffering. We can be honest with God about what we’re thinking and feeling, and actually, it’s the healthiest way to handle those thoughts and feelings. As I once heard someone say, ‘God already knows you’re thinking it, so why not just talk to him about it.’ Honesty with God about where we’re at can deepen our relationship with him and can be a vital first step to being able to stand firm in the face of confusion or suffering.

The Waiting

God’s response to Habakkuk is basically to call him to wait (Hab. 2:3). God will enact perfect justice, and so Habakkuk’s complaint will be dealt with, he may just have to wait a while for that time to come. But the wait isn’t because God’s at the mercy of some other factor. He’s not having to wait for a green light from someone else. He has a plan, the perfect plan, and at the right time, the perfect time, he will enact that plan. Even if it seems like there’s a delay, there’s actually not (Hab. 2:3). The same response is found in the New Testament. The ultimate answer to suffering is the certain promise of the end of suffering when the new creation comes in full (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17). Our role now is to look ahead and to wait.

The call to wait is probably an answer to the problem of suffering which we don’t much like. We feel like it’s not enough and question whether it can really sustain, but the New Testament authors clearly think it can, and so again we are challenged to consider why we might not feel that way. Is it because our instant gratification, consumer culture means we’ve become so used to having what we want when we want it? Have we lost the ability to wait patiently with eager anticipation? And have we really understood how good the new creation will be when it comes?

The Conclusion

Habakkuk’s conclusion also has an important message for us. Having been on this journey, wrestling with his pains and questions in dialogue with God, Habakkuk reaches the conclusion that the only thing he really needs in order to keep going, even if the injustice doesn’t stop, even if he loses everything, is God himself (Hab. 3:17-19). He recognises that the true source of life and joy is not a comfortable life without injustice and suffering, it’s not fruitful crops or plentiful herds, it’s God himself. It’s in God that he will rejoice, and in God that he will take joy.

The same is true for us. And for those ‘in Christ’ it is something that can never be taken away. I think Paul is thinking of the same point as Habakkuk when he ends his long reflection on the suffering which is an inevitable part of being a child of God (Rom. 8:17-39) with the guarantee that nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. No matter what might happen, we can know that we are loved by God. It’s that relationship which, even in the worst of circumstances, can bring us true life, true peace, and even, true joy.

Habakkuk is one of the Bible’s greatest resources for those enduring suffering. Yet more proof that the Minor Prophets are the hidden gems of the Old Testament!

This post originally appeared on the website of King’s Church Hastings & Bexhill.