On Periods And Placentas And Other Theological Themes
Why did God create menstrual periods?
It’s a question many women have asked in eye-rolling exasperation down the centuries. The average woman spends about 500 weeks of her life dealing with the discomfort, inconvenience and general grossness of expelling the lining of her womb, just so it can start to build up again ready for the next month’s ovulation. What was God thinking?
No seriously, what was God thinking? I hadn’t considered it until I received an email inviting me to endorse a book called A Brief Theology of Periods (Yes, Really) by Rachel Jones.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the theology of the body, what it means that we are embodied beings, what the relationship is between the soul and the body etc. You’d think it would have occurred to me to wonder at least once why women’s bodies bleed once a month for a significant chunk of their lives. And if all our bodily parts and functions were designed intentionally and deliberately by a creator who could have done anything he liked with them, why did he choose to design them like this? If everything in creation points to and speaks of God, what is our menstrual cycle meant to tell us about him?
To be honest, I’m still not quite sure. The book is very thought-provoking, and offers a lot of wisdom and wise counsel for women struggling with this aspect of their embodiedness. Pastorally, it is very helpful. But in terms of understanding how my monthly cycle is meant to point me to God, it has left me wanting more.
Jones talks about the biblical symbolism of the shedding of blood for cleansing of sins - does this link in some way with the rather cryptic verse about women being saved through childbearing? As Jen Wilkin put it in this video that Andrew shared at the Think conference a couple of years back, “Women’s bodies, every 28 days, tell them a parable about the shedding of blood for the renewing of life.” Except that if you’re trying to conceive, the shedding of blood tells you - devastatingly - that once again there has been no renewing of life. And of course, Leviticus 15 tells us that a woman is ceremonially unclean for the duration of her period - the blood isn’t cleansing her then - quite the opposite.
It can’t be to do with expelling that which is not needed for life, as both men’s and women’s bodies already have a parable about that, multiple times a day.
On a practical level, an issue of blood is a marker of your years and seasons of (if all is well) fertility, but did God have to choose such a gross, uncomfortable, embarrassing marker? Perhaps they are a result of the fall, since most other mammals aren’t subject to them (they reabsorb the endometrium back into the body). Jones ponders this too, though inconclusively, as we have no way of knowing (my hunch is no, unless the other menstruating mammals - bats, elephant shrews and spiny mice - also sinned in some way). Though since there will be no marriage, and presumably no physical reproduction in the new creation, we will presumably be period-free then. Hallelujah!
And yet… It is part of God’s design. his plan. All his ways are perfect, so his perfect nature must be, in some way, revealed through our periods. I shouldn’t just wish them away, or try to ignore them. As Jones says, “We can’t leave our soul outside the toilet-cubicle door.”
God can reveal himself through the strangest of things. Fans of Call the Midwife this week witnessed our beloved Sister Monica Joan find her way back out of her dark night of the soul through contemplation of, of all things, a woman’s placenta.
“I have examined placenta in all kinds of lights,” she explained. “I never cease to marvel at its beauty when exposed. This, the least visible of all the body’s organs, laid before us for our scrutiny. ... It grows with us, it fires us. It sustains the very beating of our blood. When I see this, with all its lines and traceries I see the miracle of God himself. I see his handiwork. And I see his love. I see where I began, what fed me, and what feeds me now. It is complete, and so - within his love - am I.”
If a placenta can point a TV audience to transcendence, to beauty and to God’s sustaining love, surely periods can do the same for those who have eyes to see. At the very least, Rachel Jones’ book has made me stop and think. It has pointed me to the intricate miracle of my interior cycle - all the hormones and processes working away like a silent clockwork month after month. The stimulation, release, preparation and expulsion. The anticipation. The possibility. The cleansing. And the starting again.
I don’t know why God made us bleed, but I’m grateful for this prompt to ponder his purposes in periods and placentas, and hope you are, too. (And if you have any further insights, let’s chat on Twitter.)
The way the ‘discussion’ about conversion therapy has proceeded, and the seriousness with which the government is taking it, might suggest that this is an urgent issue, with thousands of LGBT+ people being coerced into therapies they are resistant to and will be harmed by. Reality would indicate something different.
The often helpful Transgender Trend have conducted a thorough review of the evidence for conversion therapy and conclude that,
Our analysis shows that any anecdotal evidence of gender identity conversion therapy is likely to be historical and dependent on the definition of ‘conversion therapy.’ In answer to the question we posed at the start of this post: we have found no evidence that gender identity conversion therapy exists today in the UK, or has ever existed in healthcare settings. Our conclusion? Any draft legislation must exclude healthcare and allow for open, neutral therapeutic exploration of gender identity, in line with normal professional practice and duty of care.
Legislation already exists that protects people against abusive therapies and as the Transgender Trend post makes clear there is “no evidence that gender identity conversion therapy exists today in the UK” – so why the push to legislate?
We need to understand that the demand for legislation in this area is much less to do with actual practices and much more to do with symbolism. The LGBT+ movement has been highly effective in manipulating and capturing important symbols – this is what is going on with the ubiquity of the Pride colours, and the opprobrium that accompanies any reluctance to display them. It is also what was going on with legalisation of same-sex ‘marriage’. This was much more to do with symbolism than substance as civil partnerships already conferred all the legal benefits and rights of marriage; and it is not as if most gay people have rushed to get married since the law was changed. It was more about what was represented than the substance of the thing itself.
So with the proposed conversion therapy ban: something that doesn’t happen, and for which existing legislation could be employed if it did, is going to be banned in order to further underscore the claim of the immutability of gender and sexual orientation. It’s about the symbolism.
What’s the problem with this? Well, apart from clogging up the statute books with further unnecessary legislation there are any number of potential hostages to fortune. As the Transgender Trend post identifies in its conclusion, the proposed legislation could have the pernicious effect of making it criminal for healthcare professionals to act in the best interests of their patients if they are effectively prevented from exploring questions of gender identity. Thankfully the briefing paper released alongside the Queen’s Speech suggests the government is aware of this problem:
People should be free to be themselves in the UK. The ban will eliminate coercive practices which cause mental and physical harm to individuals. We will ensure the action we take to stop this practice is proportionate and effective, and does not have unintended consequences. We will ensure medical professionals, religious leaders, teachers and parents can continue to be able to have open and honest conversations with people.
These caveats are important and we should engage with MPs and policy makers to ensure they are carried forward. The government has said that it will undertake a public consultation before bringing forward legislation and it would be good for those with concerns about the proposed Bill to engage with this process.
A considerable irony in all this is that those groups, like Stonewall, who most support the proposed ban also support gender reassignment surgery – or what we might call gender ‘conversion’ surgery. It certainly doesn’t make any logical sense that it would be considered appropriate to carry out surgery on someone in order to change their objective sexual reality, while making it illegal to talk with someone about their subjective gender identity. But then this isn’t about logic: it’s about the symbols.
Unplanned: Lessons We Can Learn
Abby Johnson was a clinic director and Employee of the Year at the US’s biggest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood. But, after seeing with her own eyes the reality of what happens in an abortion procedure, she turned her back on her job and her pro-choice position. She is now an active pro-life campaigner and founder of a charity that helps other people leave the abortion industry.
Abby’s story is told in a book and a film both called Unplanned. (I’m not actually the first Think contributor to write about Abby’s story. Jennie posted a summary and some helpful reflections a number of years ago.) Her unusual story and personal experience, both as someone who has been a vocal supporter on each side of the debate and as a woman who has herself had two abortions, make her well placed to share important wisdom on the topic of abortion, and that’s exactly what she does.
There are many things that can be learnt from Abby’s story, but here are a few that have most helped and challenged me.
Mixed motivations in the pro-choice movement
Motivations are funny things. We can be very quick to ascribe them to other people, even though we all know that it can sometimes be hard to discern our own. When it comes to the topic of abortion, you’ll find people from both sides of the debate ascribing motivations to those who have a different perspective. Inevitably, those motivations are sometimes employed to try and undermine the opposing perspective.
One of the helpful things in Abby’s account is the way she acknowledges the variety of motivations among pro-choice people she has known and worked with. Some, it seems, were motivated by the potential for financial benefit. For Planned Parenthood, abortions are the money-makers and some within the organisation therefore take a very business-like approach to abortion. But there are others, as exemplified by Abby’s own journey, who are involved in the abortion industry because they genuinely believe they are helping women.
This is such an important insight. Just because two people disagree on a certain ethical and practical point, doesn’t necessarily mean they disagree on their underlying motivation. And, in fact, recognising shared motivations can be a good starting point for constructive dialogue.
When it comes to the topic of abortion, many people start from the same motivation: care for women in crisis pregnancy situations. The question becomes, how do we best care for these women? Sadly, views on the topic are often so polarised and research into the options so contested that it is hard to have this discussion, but it’s the discussion that needs to be had, and one we should seek to be equipped for, preparing both our heads and our hearts.
A powerful pro-life strategy
At the centre of Abby’s story is the fence that surrounded her Planned Parenthood clinic. That fence separated the clinic staff and patients from a group of pro-life campaigners who stationed themselves on the other side.
Abby talks about how the approach of these pro-life campaigners changed over time. When she first started volunteering at the clinic, there were some campaigners present who would shout abuse at women who came to the clinic. They included one person who dressed as the Grim Reaper and paced up and down the fence. But there were also people who stood there quietly, prayed, and tried to help the clinic’s patients to see that there were options other than abortion open to them and that there were people ready to help them with these options if that was what they wanted. These people also sought to befriend the clinic workers. Greeting them, engaging them in conversation, and praying for them. It was this more gentle approach that became dominant on the pro-life side of the fence. It was also this approach that bore fruit, both in Abby’s life and in the lives of others.
Abby’s account bears witness to the incredible power of a gentle, Christ-like presence that seeks to be present and to love even in the face of sharp disagreement. It would have been easy to look on at the quiet stance of the pro-lifers coming regularly to the fence and to assume it would have no power. The reality, however, was quite different.
The power of prayer
Although perhaps if all they were doing was coming and being a quiet presence, their presence wouldn’t have had much power. But they weren’t only quietly present. They were also praying.
At the heart of Abby’s story is prayer, both the prayer of the pro-lifers who stood outside her clinic day and night and Abby’s own journey of learning to recognise and trust in the importance of prayer and in God’s faithfulness in answering prayer.
When we look at the heart-breaking reality of abortion in our nation it can be hard to have faith that anything can change. It can feel like we are destined to forever be a nation where hundreds of thousands of babies are killed in the womb every year and an equal number of women, men and families are impacted by the effects of abortion.
But maybe that’s not the only option. Maybe we have some power we have not yet unleashed. Maybe we have a part to play. The 40 Days for Life campaign, an international prayer movement that started outside Abby Johnson’s Planned Parenthood clinic, reports having seen over 100 abortion centres close, more than 200 abortion workers leave their jobs, and over 17,000 lives saved through the prayer campaigns they organise. Employees who have left abortion clinics report that on days when there was someone praying outside a clinic, no-show rates for abortions could go as high as 75%. There’s power in prayer.
It’s easy to feel defeated by the reality of abortion, but we have access to true power. What would happen if Christians and churches in the UK cried out to God for the protection of babies in the womb and of women and men impacted by crisis pregnancy situations? What would happen if we decided we aren’t happy to be the generation of Christians who just allowed this to happen because we felt we had no power? What would happen if we prayed? We might find that there is power, and we might find that in the midst of so many experiences that have been unplanned, there is someone who has a better plan.
Why We Drive
Over the past decade Matthew Crawford has produced a powerful trilogy of books exploring embodied cognition. Shop Class as Soul Craft (The Case for Working With Your Hands in the UK edition) argued for a reappraisal of skilled manual labour, showing why such work is both more satisfying and more intellectually demanding than many white-collar occupations. The World Beyond Your Head examined how we can recover genuine individuality in a world where we are increasingly commoditised. And in Why We Drive Crawford uses our interaction with motor vehicles (as well as being an academic philosopher he runs a motorcycle repair shop) as a framework for exploring questions of personal responsibility and freedom.
Why We Drive was published last year, so must have been written just before the coronavirus pandemic broke, but its relevance to the cultural impact of covid (as in the quote at the top of this post) is obvious. The pandemic – or, more precisely, the response to the pandemic in the form of lockdowns and all the other NPI’s we have endured – have accelerated and empowered the technocratic vision for how our societies should be governed. The world is facing Big Problems but the technocratic answers, even when presented by people as apparently genial as the likes of Bill Gates and Tony Blair, seem to have more than a whiff of Big Brother about them.
The appeal to safety is an especially important plank in the technocratic takeover. This has been very clear in the way that anyone questioning lockdowns, facemasks, and all the rest (even though the effectiveness of such measures is certainly debatable), have been shouted down as covidiots and conspiracy theorists – even when they are distinguished academics at Stanford or Oxford.
With infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths as low as they now are in the UK it is not reasonable for us to have to wait until June 21st – and possibly beyond that – before we are no longer breaking the law if we dispense with the masks and hug our friends, but it is this very unreasonableness that creates the space in which the technocracy can consolidate its power. As Crawford puts it, “A proliferation of rules provides a sheen of rationality, but it is in the gap between the rules and reasonableness that officialdom feeds.”
Why We Drive raises arguments that are relevant and important in relation to covid but the framing narrative of the book is around driving and the issues raised by the rush to build driverless cars. That we should move to a world in which cars drive themselves is sold on the grounds – again – of safety: that human beings are inherently a danger to themselves and with computers in control commuters will be in safer hands. Crawford shows why this is a very questionable assumption. A second reason given for why we should relinquish the wheel is that this will be more convenient for us – no longer will we have to undergo the wearisome task of driving but be chauffeured wherever it is we need to go. Apart from the fact that many people actually enjoy driving, Crawford asks some bigger questions: why, for example, is Google – which is essentially an advertising business – investing so much in developing driverless cars?
Crawford paints an alarming though all too plausible picture of a near-future in which our autonomous car won’t set off until we have swiped through a certain number of adverts, in which the route it chooses for us is determined by how many purchasing options can be presented to us on the way, and in which rather than ‘winning back the time’ of our commutes we are distracted by whatever it is that big-tech wants us distracted by.
An autonomous car may hold some genuine utility for you, but their purpose is not to make the car better for you, and ask for money in return. Autonomous cars may increase the efficiency of traffic and its safety. But their development is not driven by such public-spirited concerns.
The freedom to move through physical space, to travel, is an essential definition of freedom itself. This is not only some romantic dream of the open road (a dream that is rarely realised in the congested UK) but about the ability to make our own decisions and go where we want to go: to wander. I think this is one of the reasons for the growing popularity of cycling – especially among middle-aged men. There is an appealing immediacy to the technology involved: direct contact with the ground with no insulating safety features or electronics. The bike also provides an opportunity for no one else to know where you are. Being out on my bike without my phone and with cash in my pocket rather than a debit card makes me untrackable. It’s only a small taste of freedom but it feels almost subversive in our surveillance economy. It is independent rather than constrained, adult rather than infantilised: which is why dictatorships have always sought to control travel.
The alternative is the technocratic vision. This might look safer and more efficient, but will it bring us more freedom?
We may accept technocratic competence as a legitimate claim to rule, even if it is inscrutable. But then we are in a position of trust. This would be to move away from the originating insight of liberalism: power corrupts.
That power corrupts is not only an insight of liberalism but a spiritual principle. There are ‘authorities and powers’ who always want to seize and manipulate earthly authorities and powers. No matter how benign or well-intentioned the motives of the founders of the likes of Google and Facebook, power always attracts corruption.
Crawford says of the technocratic vision,
Those who aspire to direct human affairs invariably believe themselves to have solved the Universal Calculation, and seek to make it effective in the world by morally disqualifying the various perspectives and projects of individuals that may be rival to the Impartial Point of View. Today, we are to understand that getting human beings to stop driving their own cars is not the project of those particular people who stand to make a lot of money from such a transformation, it is a project demanded by Morality itself.
So the technocracy works through safetyism and moralism masquerading as the route to human freedom and happiness while actually constraining and demeaning us.
What of the theological angle in all this?
Well, the insights of embodied cognition should reinforce for us the essential physicality of our faith. Human beings are not spiritual software temporarily inhabiting an inadequate hardware platform. We are embodied souls, created in the image of God, who need to express our spirituality through our bodies: gathering together, singing, sharing the bread and wine, laying on hands and praying. We are Christians, not Gnostics.
We should also be alert to the dangers of allowing the technocratic vision of safetyism to define how we minister. This is very current. While I have every sympathy with churches that have to rent premises there are still too many churches with their own buildings – some with very large buildings – that are not yet having in-person gatherings. It is hard to see how such timorousness will allow the pastors of those churches to ever again call their congregations to any kind of gospel courage. It is as though they have chosen a spiritual equivalent of the driverless car. They are being driven somewhere, by something, and are no longer at the wheel.
True Christianity is earthy, physical, and requires courage. There are a lot of aromatic hydrocarbons in Why We Drive and no indication that Crawford is a believer, but some of us could do with revving up the engine and inhaling the fumes.
A Cold Take on Deconversion (from Josh Harris’s Brother)
Sarah Zylstra: When someone deconstructs, it can make everybody else rethink too like, “Oh, so you’re changing your mind on that. Should I change my mind on that?” And I’m wondering if that was stronger for you because he was your brother and you looked up to him and you were walking along behind him all the time. Did it make your faith wobble?
Alex Harris: It did. I think, inevitably, when someone you’re so close to question things, or walks away from who they are [inaudible], it raises questions in your own mind. And I say wobble not to suggest some profound crisis of faith, but just to acknowledge that, yes, any person is going to have some of those emotions and some of those questions and doubts when something like this happens. And I’m no exception to that. I think perhaps less for me than for outsiders who had no context and maybe hadn’t walked with Josh through the very difficult years leading up to this time maybe there was more surprise, maybe it was more of a shock. And so it was not as much of a complete shock or surprise for me. And there was, also, in the process of getting to listen and getting to ask and try to understand, I think a recognition that oftentimes these decisions are not attributable to one specific thing or to some intellectual question or doubt that just could not be satisfactorily explained or resolved.
We are whole persons, mind, emotions, physical bodies. It all rolls together when it comes to even these big seemingly life altering decisions and the moments that lead up to them. And so, in some ways, I felt a real sense of comfort in having conversations with Josh and understanding some of the factors that played into it, recognizing God’s kindness to me in that I very easily could have followed down the same path. Not that it would have necessarily led to the same place, but God in his kindness took me off the fast track as a minor evangelical celebrity and allowed me to do some real important personal work and growth and maturing and learning. And so there was a lot of comfort in seeing God’s faithfulness in that, but that doesn’t obviously negate the discomfort and the questions that come when someone you trust and love and look up to has those doubts. And I think it’s hopefully, like we talked about, okay to express that and to share that and to find support within the church when we have those questions and doubts.
He is incredibly loved by many, including his family. And he still has a pastor’s heart. Much of what he has reacted to are criticisms of, at times, a legalistic or fear-based religion that brings on various cultural baggage to the Gospel of Christ that is not really a clear command of scripture. And that critique from someone who actually still has a heart for the evangelical church that he has left is hopefully a message that those of us still in the fold can really listen to. But that doesn’t change the fact that it hurts or that it’s embarrassing and there’s a time to grieve over it. And then all of those are our emotions that I personally experienced as his brother, as someone who loves him and looks up to him. But I think the important thing for us as a family was just to say, first, there’s a knee jerk reaction maybe born out of pain for many Christians to say, “He was a wolf amongst sheep. He went out from us because he was never of us.” And the story’s not over. We don’t know that at this time. And so to avoid throwing Josh into a particular theological bucket, that was one important thing for me.
And the second was just to communicate my continued love for him and to listen and to try to understand, and that’s an ongoing process and I have a lot to learn from listening and seeking to understand. And so that’s a very healthy process I think for both of us. And I think more generally, as a church, you’re right, this is a trend. It’s not the first, it won’t be the last, and part of what makes it so difficult and painful is, one, that so many people have haven’t influenced or looked up to or had their own spiritual journey marked by Josh’s teaching. And that’s true for me, so I fall into both personal, family and the broader Christian community that’s been influenced by his teaching, to process that as it’s really difficult. And I think some of that’s just inevitable, but some of it is a symptom of a celebrity culture within evangelicalism and in the church more broadly where we do lift up skilled teachers and we do treat them like celebrities.
I’ve to a smaller degree experienced that myself. I thankfully found that off-ramp and got to just be another student at a small school and be a student and not the teacher for a while. But Josh never had that. He went straight from writing this best-selling book at 21 to becoming the heir apparent of a mega church outside of D.C. to becoming the senior pastor at the age of 30 before he’d gone to college or gone to seminary. And then he was the pastor of this large influential church that headed up this much larger network of churches that was very influential within evangelical Christianity. He was the figurehead, and when you’re the figurehead, it’s not just that you feel like there’s all this pressure, and I’m sure there’s so much pressure on him, it’s so hard to have genuine community where you can be honest about questions or doubts or struggles.
Because to even admit it is almost like a scandal within so many churches. And that’s a sign of an unhealthy dynamic within our churches that the people who are in leadership, everyone who’s close to them is close to them because of their celebrity, as opposed to out of genuine relationship and there’s a lack of ability to be honest, a lack of ability to question or to doubt. I just can’t imagine that, that helped Josh when it comes to where he is today. And that’s only one part of the story. I don’t mean to suggest that’s the whole explanation. There’s a lot more that went into it and I’m sure a lot that I don’t even know. But just a reminder that our pastors, our leaders, our teachers, our authors, they’re all just broken sinful people just like us and they need to be treated that way, both in not being elevated to a position where their failures devastate us, but also not elevated in that way so that they are isolated and unsupported and feel alone in that.
That’s something that I think, as a church, we need to really think about and seek to cultivate a different culture.
(You can listen to or read the whole thing here.)
The Nation State is Back
The nation state is back. As they have struggled with the pandemic, governments have amassed extraordinary powers. They can close your business, stop you travelling and forbid you to see your family. They can prevent you from holding the hand of a dying relative. They can bar you from returning to your home country.
These are not the decisions of local authorities or international bodies, but almost invariably of national governments. It is they who can close borders, halt exports, impose laws and print money on any scale. Anyone who thought that globalisation meant the withering of nation state power has had a terrible shock.
Even now, that power is underestimated. The promoters of the ill-fated European Super League had not realised that governments would do whatever it took to stop what they saw solely as a business decision. Banks based in Hong Kong did not expect to be pulled in opposite directions by nation state rivalry. And more is still to come: in a new race to lead innovation and promote greater self-sufficiency, nations will intervene in more industries, control supplies of minerals, unleash colossal spending and raise taxes. Even the mighty tech companies will face a day of reckoning with the power of the nation state.
It is a paradox of our times that this revival of nation coincides, in much of the western world, with a growing crisis of national identity. There are many explanations for that: the clustering of wealth around global cities, historic discrimination against minorities that has given rise to identity politics based on issues of race or gender, the vicious reinforcement by social media of assertion and suspicion rather than reason. More and more we are living only alongside people like ourselves — in Britain the productivity gap between regions is wider than at any time for a century, meaning that where you are born largely determines your future health, wealth and life expectancy.
While governments build the skyscraper of the modern state, the bedrock on which it rests is crumbling. In America, the great majority of Democrats support the statement that “The mixing of cultures and values from around the world is important to the identity of the US as a nation” but only a small minority of Republicans agree. If the Statue of Liberty were built today, it would be impossible to agree on the inscription.
Hague doesn’t have a particularly good solution to this problem, but it’s well worth thinking about nonetheless. You can read the whole piece here.
A Few of My Favourite Things
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry has just run away from his awful aunt and uncle’s house when he sees an ominous black dog. He’s rescued by the Knight Bus, which picks up stranded magical folk. But throughout the book, this dog keeps cropping up. Harry sees it in the tea leaves in Professor Trelawney’s divination class. He sees it in the grounds of Hogwarts School. He even sees it in the bleachers of the Quidditch field. He’s not sure if he’s going mad, imagining this creature everywhere. But then one night it grabs his best friend Ron by the leg and drags him down a tunnel. Harry dashes after, terrified. At the end of the tunnel, he finds Ron in a haunted house. But the dog has gone. It’s turned into the evil murderer Sirius Black, who betrayed Harry’s parents to their deaths. Now he’s going to murder Harry too.
Or so Harry thinks.
If you’ve read the Harry Potter books, you’ll know that that’s not right at all. Rather than trying to murder Harry, Sirius wants to protect him. Rather than betraying Harry’s parents, Sirius was himself betrayed. Rather than being Harry’s enemy, Sirius turns out to be his faithful friend. In fact, he’s the closest thing to family Harry’s got. When Harry first saw Sirius, all the evidence was against him. But when he found out the truth of who Sirius was, Harry’s mind was changed. So was his heart.
When people look at Christianity, they sometimes make the same mistake that Harry made with Sirius. Many of my friends think Christianity is against the things they care about the most. My friends care about racial justice. They see the ways in which Christians have engaged in slavery and racism and they assume that Christianity is against racial justice. My friends hear Christians saying that Jesus is the only way to God, and they think this is arrogant and offensive to those who were raised with other religious beliefs. My friends think people should be able to date and marry whomever they want, but Christianity says that it’s not okay to marry someone of the same sex. My friends are excited by the discoveries of science, and they think that believing in a Creator God is the opposite of believing in science. My friends believe that women are equal to men, and they think Christianity puts women down. My friends see all the pain and suffering in the world, and they think there couldn’t possibly be a loving God in charge. But just as Harry’s view of Sirius totally changed when he discovered more, when we look more closely at each of these concerns, our view of Christianity might just change as well.
A Pitch for the Christian Faith
So here’s my pitch for Christian faith, in the most succinct and accessible form I can think of. It’s a pitch. It argues some things, and postulates others, and you may not agree with all, or any, of these postulates. But it tries to be clear about what it postulates, and what it postulates, I think, makes sense, both rationally and intuitively.
So here goes. Let’s start here: the greatest thinkers and artists of history have recognized, and we ourselves know deep in our hearts, that human beings are incomplete; that there’s something within us that craves for something bigger. Call it meaning, call it happiness, call it self-actualization, call it the top of Maslow’s Pyramid—whatever. There is this something extra that we all crave and that we can’t quite put our finger on, and we’re all stuck in medium, trying to find it.
I think we can agree that religion, a good chunk of philosophy, art, ideology and so forth is dedicated to exploring that void and/or finding ways to fill it. I think we can also agree that plenty of people find ways to fill that void that are destructive, for themselves and/or others—substance abuse, pride, money, power… As DFW put it, in the day-to-day trenches of life, there are no atheists. We all worship something, we all choose something to fill that void.
I would submit that if there were such a thing that could fill that void, and do it in a non-destructive way, it could only be the following: the infinite love of a human person.
Every word in that phrase matters. The infinite love of a human person.
Infinite. We humans crave infinity. The void in our souls is bottomless. We simply never have enough. Anyone who’s had a brush with addiction can tell you this: there isn’t enough booze, or pills, or poker tables, or whatever, in the entire world, to fill an addict’s craving. If money is what we worship, we will simply never have enough—that much is clear. Nor power, nor pride, nor beauty, nor intelligence, nor sex, nor anything else that we worship. If something can exist to fill that void, it needs to be infinite, because our craving is.
Love. I would argue that the only thing that can fill that void is love. It is, after all, the only thing we can worship that isn’t destructive.
To find the answer, a useful question to ask might be: what are people willing to die for? Quite a lot, actually: addiction; pride; money; country; passion (which I would posit is distinct from love); ideology (including some forms of religion)…and love. Which one of these is quite good? Only love. Of all the things that we can use to fill our void, love is the only one that doesn’t destroy us. This probably tells us something useful about us, about what’s good for us, what we crave and what can fill that void. A Catholic might even say that we seem to be “ordered towards” love.
The only thing that comes even close to love as a void-filler is what the Ancient Greeks called ataraxia: happiness as the lack of destructive passions. And if you can achieve ataraxia—good for you! But it seems to me that not everybody can achieve ataraxia. I might even be so bold as to suggest that no one can achieve ataraxia all the time, or perhaps even most of the time. The Stoics believed that ataraxia could be achieved through rigorous self-discipline, and if that works for you great, but it begs the question—what if you don’t have that rigorous self-discipline? What if you can’t have it? What if you’re weak, and alone, and scared? Ataraxia is less void-fulfillment than void-denial, and sometimes the void just cannot be ignored. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against ataraxia. But it doesn’t work for everyone, and it seems to me that if we want to reach ataraxia, the first thing to do would be to find a good void-filler first.
The great thing is that love—real love—is unconditional. It doesn’t require you to be self-sufficient, and to jump through hoops. It loves your flaws, too. Oh, sure, love is demanding—and even a little scary, especially infinite love—but it’s always ready to forgive, otherwise it wouldn’t be love. And love can suffer with you for your flaws, rather than wait for you to control them all.
I would also argue that love is the only void-filler that works because it is the only one that, by its nature, cannot be self-centered. We can base our life on love, or we can base it on something else, but that something else is ultimately something that circles back to ourselves. Pride, money, vanity, lust, even ataraxia—all of these things are about finding ways to satisfy us or, at best, to better us. And it seems that it doesn’t really work. It’s ultimately lonely, and impossible. We can never have enough money to satisfy us, or enough self-discipline to completely deny our passions. Whereas love, by definition, is other-centered. If you base your life on love, you have to find your fulfillment through others. You have to step out of your comfort-zone, and you have to be radically other-centered, instead of radically self-centered, which is what everything else leads to. It seems void-fillers come in only two kinds: self-centered and other-centered. The self-centered ones destroy us, and the only other-centered one is love. Incidentally, it seems that humans are love-seeking animals, but also morality-seeking animals, and that it seems that those two are strangely connected.
Of a human person. Both words matter here. Person, first. Sure, we can love concepts, and ideas, and amorphous abstract things like “Nature” or “The Reich”, but it doesn’t seem particularly healthy to base a life on that, and it doesn’t serm particularly void-filling, either. Frankly, it just seems to me that we need to love people. That’s the healthiest, least destructive kind of love. But more importantly, the great thing about loving a person is that he or she can love you back. There can be one-sided love between a person and a thing, or a concept, or a collective, but for reciprocal love, for two people to love each other, you need, well, two people. Sorry, but the Universe can’t love you. Or rather if it does, I would suggest that it can only do so through, or by, a Person. We’re not Borg. We need a real person to latch on to.
And this person of infinite love, if she had to exist, if she could fill our void, would have to be, I believe, a human person. We can only fully love other people. For an infinite love to fill my void, it has not only to be reciprocal, that is to say, personal, it has to be human, because I’m human. The love I crave that can make me whole would have to be a love I can relate to, a love that understands me and who I am, a love that I can touch, a love that I can taste, a love that is like me, or even a love that is me. In short, it has to come from another human being.
Of course, if you’re still following me, you’ll see that we’ve reached a paradox. If this void-filling love we crave can only come from another human person, but must also be infinite, how can that be? Humans, after all, as we know all too well, are finite. For such a love to be possible, there would have to be a person who is both human and also—somehow, mysteriously—infinite. Or, dare I say it, divine. Both truly human so that his or her love can complete us and truly divine so that his or her love can fill us infinitely. Wouldn’t it be great if that person existed, and all he or she wanted was to love us infinitely. Wouldn’t it be something.
Now obviously you see where I’m going with this (I told you upfront!), but it really seems to me that it holds up. Looking at the void-fillers out there, looking at all the alternatives, meditating on human nature, what we are, what we crave, what fulfills us, taking a step back, it really seems to me that you reach this conclusion, if only by a process of elimination. Our void-filler has to be infinite; it has to be love; it has to be love from another human being. As you read this, you might disagree. You might find obvious flaws in my analysis, or simply highly questionable assumptions embedded in it. That’s fine. It’s my analysis. I simply humbly ask that you keep it in a corner of your mind and perhaps occasionally meditate it, because I really think it holds up.
And so we come to the closing of the pitch. If what we crave is the infinite love of a human person, the only thing out there—the only religion, the only philosophy, the only ideology, whatever—that offers that is Christianity. Only Christianity proposes—and is built on—the idea of the infinite love of a human person, unconditionally offered to any who accepts it. Christianity proclaims that this infinite love of a human person is available through Jesus Christ, who is both man and God, and the son of a God of Love. And it happens that know of the historical existence of Jesus Christ, and not only his love-centred teachings, but his Death and Glorious Resurrection establishing him as both man and God. And we can know these events not just through faith and unbroken millennial tradition but also through concordant eyewitness accounts, which is a way we constantly rely on for knowing facts.
If, by a process of elimination, one reaches the conclusion that the only thing (or perhaps just the best thing) that can truly serve human fulfillment is the infinite love of a human person, then one must also, by a process of elimination, reach the conclusion that Christianity must be the path towards this love. What’s more, if you reach the conclusion that the only thing that can truly serve human fulfillment is the infinite love of a human person, it’s easy to also reach the conclusion that if this is so, perhaps we were made this way, and that this would be solid evidence for the truth of whatever religion or system teaches that this is the Way (and the Truth. And the Life).
(I would further add that the Catholic Church is the Church that Jesus established on Earth to proclaim s love and his message, that it has done so in an unbroken fashion for nearly 2000 years, and that it not only proclaims the infinite love of the human person Jesus Christ, but also proclaims that He can be touched and felt and experienced through the concrete reality of his Real Presence in the Eucharist, and through His incarnation in His Church, which is an extension of Him. In other words, unlike most other Christian churches, the Catholic Church promises not just membership in the original Church that Christ built, but also to experience Christ’s love not just abstractly but tangibly, through the Eucharist, the Sacraments, and membership in a Church which is not only a group of people but one of the ways that Christ is present on Earth. And also some kickass music, painting and robes.)
I know, I know. It probably all seems crazy/silly/ridiculous. I ask that you just keep it in mind. Especially next time you find yourself really craving someone’s love. Think of the alternatives.
Introducing the Conversion Therapy Debate
A debate is currently ongoing in the UK about the Government’s commitment to ban conversion therapy. The debate is important because it’s ultimately about how best to protect people, and the stakes are high because it could place serious limitations on the ways that Christians (and others) are able to support LGBT people. Many Christians seem to be becoming aware of the debate but are not quite sure what’s going on or what to think about it. Here’s my attempt at an overview of how things stand at the moment.
What’s the background?
In 2018 the UK Government released its LGBT Action Plan. Within the plan, the Government said they would ‘bring forward proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK’. They specified that they would explore both legislative and non-legislative options and their intent would be to protect people from harm or violence. They also specified that this commitment did not mean they would be ‘trying to prevent LGBT people from seeking legitimate medical support or spiritual support from their faith leader in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity.’1
Since then, various groups and individuals have publicly called on the Government to follow through on this commitment. A petition in support of a legislative ban gained over 255,000 signatures and was debated in Parliament on 8th March this year. In response, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) reaffirmed its commitment to the pledges made in the 2018 LGBT Action Plan.2 Around the same time, Liz Truss, Equalities Minister, said that plans will be released ‘shortly’.3 Nothing has been released yet.
Where’s the controversy?
Many of us won’t see much of a problem in the Government’s commitments. Few people today support interventions designed to change someone’s sexual orientation and we can all recognise the importance of both medical and spiritual support being available to all people.
However, a couple of complex and controversial factors have given rise to considerable debate.
One is the issue of defining conversion therapy and specifying what should actually be banned. Historically, conversion therapy has referred to deliberate practices that are specifically aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation, sometimes against their will. Examples often cited are corrective rape, electroconvulsive therapy, and pseudoscientific psychological interventions. There is broad agreement that all coercive and abusive interventions aimed at changing sexual orientation should be banned.
However, many calling for the ban want a much broader definition which would include not only efforts to change, but also efforts to repress sexual orientation and, in some cases, efforts to change behaviour.4 Some of the proposed definitions state explicitly that even practices to which individuals consent should be included.5
The use of such a broad definition is much more controversial. Among other things, it would make it illegal to teach the historic Christian sexual ethic or to pray with a same-sex attracted Christian who requested prayer for strength to resist sexual temptation.
A second area of debate is the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the ban. While some are adamant that these must be included, others object to the parallel treatment of sexual orientation and gender identity noting that they are very different elements of human experience and may require different responses.
A ban including gender would impact the forms of treatment and support that could be offered to those who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who express discomfort with their gender or bodily sex. It could become illegal for medical professionals to help patients access forms of support that may help them to live more comfortably with their bodies rather than undergoing invasive medical interventions. It could also become illegal for parents to insist that their child wears the clothes of their biological sex or uses their given name.
How should we assess the debate?
How should Christians who want to be faithful to the Bible and want to love people assess the current debate?
First, we should be in full support of legislation that seeks to protect people from things that are coercive and abusive. It is sadly true that some LGBT people have been subjected to abusive practices which they were told would change their sexual orientation. Even more sadly, Christians have sometimes been guilty of conducting or encouraging people towards these practices. This is something that all Christians must own, repent of and grieve over. We must work to care for those who have been subjected to such treatment and work to ensure that it does not continue to occur. In reality, coercive and abusive practices should already be covered by existing legislation and we should support the full and thorough implementation of such legislation. But if there are any gaps in existing legislation, we should support a targeted ban on such conversion therapy practices.
However, we should oppose the sort of broad ban for which some are campaigning.
The key reason why we should do this is that we love and care about LGBT people. A ban using the very broad definitions some are proposing would introduce discrimination against and potential harm to LGBT people. LGBT Christians who hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic and who wish to receive support to live in light of their deeply held religious beliefs would be denied access to important spiritual support such as prayer, pastoral care, and biblical teaching. This is clear discrimination and would be harmful to people like me.5 And such a ban could possibly also lead to discrimination against any LGBT person who sought spiritual support. This is because the legislation would be likely to create a culture of fear in which many churches and people of other faiths would be too afraid to engage with LGBT people. The result would be easy access to spiritual support for straight people, but only limited access for LGBT people. This would be discriminatory and potentially harmful.
A broad ban that included gender identity and gender expression would risk bringing harm to those who are uncomfortable with or who are questioning their gender. A particular concern is that a ban in relation to gender identity could deny people access to support that might help them to feel more comfortable living with their bodies and in so doing avoid highly invasive medical interventions and their accompanying life-long impacts (such as infertility).6 There are also concerns that quick affirmation of gender identity among same-sex attracted teenagers may itself be acting as a form of sexual orientation conversion therapy. Transitioning becomes a way of converting from same-sex attracted to opposite-sex attracted. It therefore seems important that those supporting young people have the freedom to help them to properly explore what they are experiencing.7
Using a very broad definition of conversion therapy for the ban would also be likely to infringe on key human rights. In a formal legal opinion sent to government ministers, a leading QC has warned that such a ban would constitute ‘an unlawful interference’ with several of the rights outlined in the European Convention of Human Rights.8
How should we respond?
At the moment, we’re really in a period of waiting. Until the GEO releases some proposals there is nothing concrete to respond to, but there are still some things we can be doing.
There are several things we can be praying for:
- Pray for legislation that protects people from coercive and abusive practices and that ensures LGBT people have free access to spiritual and other forms of support that they may wish to receive.
- Pray for those who have been the victims of such practices, that they would find peace and healing from any negative impacts of what they have experienced.
- Pray for those working on the proposals in the GEO and for those who are seeking to have a positive influence on the formation of the proposals.
- Pray for those who are engaging publicly in the debate.
For church leaders, especially, it’s important that we are aware of what is going on, where the points of debate are, and how we should assess them. Hopefully this post is a helpful starting point; the recommended reading below may also be useful.
I also think this is a time when it is vitally important for all church leaders to make sure they are confident in the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality and how to communicate it in clear and winsome ways. The debate is likely to become more prominent as the proposals go through Parliament and this means that the people in our churches will be hearing significant criticism of the historic Christian sexual ethic.
Those of us who are seeking to disciple Christians to trust in and follow God’s good plan for sexuality already compete with a culture that is loudly and daily preaching a very different view. We may well soon find that we are also competing with voices online and in the media that are loudly declaring the teaching of the Bible to be not only untrue but also harmful and abusive. We must be ready to respond to this, honestly acknowledging the Church’s historic failings in this area but confidently presenting the goodness of God’s plan.
If you want to read more on the debate, here are some starting points.
What should Christians think about conversion therapy? Start with this article from Living Out: ‘Does Living Out Support “Gay Cure” or “Reparative Therapy”?’
Christian voices raising concern with current proposals:
Ed Shaw, ‘What would a conversion therapy ban mean for gay Christians like me?’, The Spectator.
Anne Witton, ‘Freedom to be Me’, Living Out.
Andrew Bunt, ‘Ban Conversion Therapy, But Don’t Ban Support’, Living Out.
Ed Shaw, ‘My New Interest in Human Rights’, Living Out.
Andrew Bunt, ‘Protecting Gender Diverse People’, Living Out.
‘Ending Conversion therapy?’, Evangelical Alliance.
Secular voices raising concern with current proposals:
‘Conversion therapy briefing’, Transgender Trend.
‘#EndConversionTherapy’, LGB Alliance.
Douglas Murray, ‘We don’t need a new law against “conversion therapy”’, The Spectator.
- 1 ‘LGBT Action Plan’, Government Equalities Office, 2018, p.15
- 2 ‘Make LGBT conversion therapy illegal in the UK’, UK Government and Parliament Petitions.
- 3 ‘Liz Truss promises ban on gay conversion therapy’, BBC News, 12 March 2021.
- 4 Two examples:
- 5 For example, Ban Conversion Therapy call for a full legislative ban ‘protecting children and adults, and those who have been coerced as well as consented’.
- 6 I’ve reflected on how such a ban would affect me, and, in particular, how it would have harmed me in my teenage years in ‘Ban Conversion Therapy, But Don’t Ban Support’, Living Out.
- 7 Transgender Trend, a secular organisation, have raised this concern well: ‘Conversion therapy briefing’, Transgender Trend.
- 8 LGB Alliance, another secular group, make this point well: ‘#End Conversion Therapy’, LGB Alliance.
- 9 Tim Wyatt, ‘Conversion therapy ban “would criminalise Christian parents stopping children seeking transgender treatment”’, The Telegraph.
‘[A]ny intervention intended to change, suppress, convert or cancel sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression, whether in public and private spheres, healthcare, religious and cultural/traditional interventions settings.’ (from the Ban Conversion Therapy group).
‘Medical, therapeutic, holistic or psychotherapy treatments or interventions to change, repress or eliminate a person’s sexual orientation or manifestation of that sexual orientation or desired gender identity and expression.’ (From Alicia Kearns MP.)
Top Tips for Curating Research to Support Your Cause
When looking at research and statistics it’s always important to do a bit of digging (as I’ve pointed out before). This hit home for me again recently when I was working through some newly released research on the impact of gender identity conversion therapy (you can read my critique here). As I worked through the research report, I was struck that it could be used as a textbook example of how to create and report on a survey so that it supports your cause. (Obviously I can't know whether that was deliberate in this case!) So, inspired by that example, here are my top tips for curating research to serve your cause.
1. Use a voluntary, non-probability sample.
These first few tips are all about how you get your data.
The make-up of the group who answer your survey is important. To get the results that best support your cause you want to combine tips one and two.
A voluntary, non-probability sample means people volunteer to complete the survey in response to your invitation. It is non-probability because you don’t do anything to try and ensure there’s an equal chance of any person completing the survey. (In fact, as tip #2 will show, we want to do the opposite.) This means you won’t be able to know how representative of any larger group your sample is, but that’s not something to worry about. Most people won’t realise.
2. Find respondents from a group likely to share or at least be sympathetic to your views.
Here you want to think strategically about where you advertise your survey and how you invite people to respond to it. Perhaps there is a noticeboard or email mailing list that might reach people with the right sort of views. Or you may find the social media channels of a special interest group helpful.
3. Use retrospective, self-reporting.
We’re now thinking about the ways you’re actually gathering data from your sample of respondents.
Retrospective reporting asks people to look back and remember something from the past. It matches well with a carefully sourced voluntary sample because our more recent experiences and current beliefs are likely to shape our perceptions of the past. If you can find people with strong views now, there’s a good chance their retrospective report will be influenced by those strong views.
Self-reporting is when the response is based on the individual’s own perception (rather than, for example, a formal diagnosis or a widely recognised set of diagnostic criteria). It’s an approach that will often put more respondents in a certain group than approaches that use more rigorous diagnostic methods. It can be particularly useful if you’re looking for evidence of psychological harm since that’s a fairly subjective measure and people might well over-report.
4. Don’t ask questions that might give awkward answers.
Think carefully about what you actually ask. If challenged later down the line, it might be hard to hide unhelpful data, but if you don’t have the data because you never asked the question you’ll be in a much safer position.
What are the things that could undermine your position and throw serious doubt on your overall conclusions? Be careful not to ask questions on those unless you are confident that you won’t end up with unhelpful data.
5. Exclude unhelpful responses.
The next two tips are for the data processing stage.
If you find that you’ve received some unhelpful responses even after following the previous tips, you may be able to exclude some of these.
Is there any way in which you could cast doubt on the integrity of those answers? Anything that you could give as a defense for thinking the data is of poor quality or was given in bad faith? You may be surprised how many unhelpful responses you can exclude if you think about this carefully.
6. Involve an independent research monitor.
An independent research monitor is a person with some relevant qualifications who will keep an eye on your analysis of the data. When you release your results, being able to show that the analysis was independently monitored can give it an extra air of credibility.
Where possible, you want to try and find someone who is sympathetic to your perspective. But even if this isn’t fully possible, if you’ve followed the tips above, it shouldn’t really matter. If your data has been sourced carefully, you should still be able to get results conducive to your position even if it is analysed objectively.
7. Present the figures but don’t comment on those that are unhelpful.
These final tips are about how you report your results.
Your report will probably contain a mixture of tables, charts and comments. Think carefully about what you want to report. You may find there are some things it’s best to omit completely and hope no one notices.
You can also hide unhelpful results. People are less likely to notice such figures in charts and tables because they require a little more thinking. You’re probably safe to include some unhelpful results in these and then just make sure that your comments only draw on the helpful results. Your comments can provide a good distraction.
8. Be accurate but strategic in your comments.
Try and avoid stating things that are clearly not true from the data (although you might get away with a few such statements across a report), but obviously you want to highlight the things that are helpful to you. Remember to think about whether a fraction or a percentage will more effectively make your point. The same figure can feel quite different depending on how it’s communicated.
And always remember that correlation is your friend. If you can point out a clear correlation, people will assume causation even if your data could never prove it. Usually, you don’t even need to state anything that isn’t true; just present the correlation in a carefully worded statement and your readers will join the imaginary dots themselves.
Follow these simple steps and you too can curate research to support your cause. (Or you can use them to evaluate the research of others. May that’s the better use for them!)
Why the need for the apology? Because Jesus House holds to a traditional sexual ethic.
One might imagine that a commitment to diversity and tolerance would include space for those who hold to an historical understanding of marriage, but no, that no longer appears to be the case. One might also have sympathy for Sir Keir – coming under the LGBT+ cosh is not pleasant – but his apology doesn’t look a great tactic for long term leadership success. Once you have so quickly given into a bully it is much harder not to hand over your dinner money the next time it is demanded.
The apology also puts Starmer in an awkward position for anyone who wants to be a national leader. By the logic of the apology he will now not be able to visit the thousands of churches in the UK which hold to a traditional sexual ethic, despite their food banks, working with the poor, serving the toughest communities, ministries to those with addictions, and so on. In addition, he will not be able to visit the Vatican, Orthodox synagogues, or almost any mosque. Is that really the best way to show leadership in a multicultural and multifaith society?
My Bible reading this morning was in Isaiah 59. Verses 14-15 were appropriate:
So justice is driven back,
and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found,
and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.
At least in some churches truth is still to be found - no apology required.
The Great Pastoral Challenge of 2021
I was talking with a church member the other day about her mother, who is 101 years old and in a local care home. She is permitted only one visitor for only thirty minutes just once a fortnight. That visitor has to have a test for covid before being admitted, has to wear full PPE, and has to be supervised by a member of staff throughout their visit – rather as if they were visiting a prison instead of a care home. Of course, all concerned have also been vaccinated. Supervision of the visit is required to ensure that facemasks remain in place and no hugs are exchanged.
This woman is 101 years old, she has been more than ready to go and be with the Lord for a number of years, and yet she is permitted only minimal contact with family and no physical affection, in order to ‘protect’ her. This seems the very definition of madness. What possible good does it achieve?
It is not only right-wing Brexiteers and Liberal Democrats who might see in this the fulfilment of a technocratic vision in which the masses are kept in submission through the provision of bread and circuses (aka the furlough scheme and Netflix) while ‘experts’ decide exactly what we can and cannot do with our lives. Pastors might see this as a direct challenge to the ministry of the word to which they have been called. They might see it as not only technocratic but demonic.
This Easter week we might reflect on all the ways in which Jesus refused to err on the side of caution. This involved submitting to a corrupt political and judicial process – which reminds his followers that submission to the State, even when the State is wrong, can be our best way of honouring God. That submission was actually God’s way of subverting and overcoming all the powers. At the cross the serpent was crushed.
We might also reflect on how Jesus engaged in activities that under current coronavirus legislation would be illegal, because of the degree of physical proximity they involved – which reminds his followers about the essentially embodied nature of our faith, which we must not deny.
Matthew 26:6 While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
Matthew 26:20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.
Matthew 26:26-27 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you.
John 20:21-22 Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
Anointing, huddling together at dinner, sharing bread and wine, breathing on others – or embracing a 101 year old relative – all things we have been prevented from doing this past year. ‘The great Christian leadership challenge of 2021’ is to have the courage to begin doing these things again.
The Great Leadership Challenge of 2021
This is obviously not limited to the political class. This time last year, the government were astonished by how happy British people were to exchange freedom for safety. Polls continue to suggest they still are, and if the couple who glared at me in the woods the other day as I walked within ten feet of them are anything to go by, they’re right. Basic freedoms in a liberal democracy—the freedom to assemble, protest, worship, leave your home, hug your mother, meet someone for a coffee and a walk—have turned into privileges that the government may or may not continue to grant, depending on “the data” (which I put in scare quotes because its referent is continually morphing, from “preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed” to “protecting the vulnerable” to “reducing community transmission to near zero,” and on current trends may end up as “abolishing death”). The only people who seem to think any of this is a problem are a bunch of right-wing Brexiteers and (very, very belatedly) the Liberal Democrats.
In the end, it is not my job to convince people that they are wrong, that becoming a biosecurity state is a bad idea, or that liberty is almost always conceded to people who say that it is for our own good. I am a church pastor, not an activist or a policy wonk. But it certainly is my job—and that of many people reading this—to shepherd the people of God with courage, to guard against timidity, to stand firm in the perfect love that casts out fear, and to witness to a kingdom where people love not their lives even unto death. Which does not for a moment mean silliness, selfishness, disregarding the needs of vulnerable members, or encouraging the strong to flaunt their rights with no concern for their impact on the weak. (Our leadership team had an excellent conversation about exactly this just yesterday.) But it does mean being aware of the possibility that we, and our church members, risk being shaped by the last twelve months into “erring on the side of caution for the rest of our careers”—and doing what we can to stop that from happening.
That will take wisdom. It will need us to reflect on the nature of genuine Christian love (Romans 12), the relationship of the Church to the State (Romans 13), the obligations of the weak and the strong (Romans 14), and the dangers and sacrifices of Christian mission (Romans 15)—not to mention the familial affection that characterises the church (Romans 16). (I could give some discussion questions to get you started, but you already know what they are.) And it will also require courage, which comes from a spirit that is not fearful, but filled with power, love and self-control. That, I suspect, will be the great Christian leadership challenge of 2021.
Better Times Twelve
1. “After making purification for sins, [the Son] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (1:3-4)
2. “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” (6:9)
3. “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the better [priest].” (7:7)
4. “A former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.” (7:18-19)
5. “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.” (7:22)
6. “As it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” (8:6)
7. “Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” (9:23)
8. “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (10:34)
9. “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (11:16)
10. “Others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection.” (11:35)
11. “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (11:39-40)
12. “You have come ... to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (12:24)
The Right Hand
“Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,
your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.”
“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand;
the earth swallowed them.”
“I have set the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.”
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.”
“Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
“Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
with the saving might of his right hand.”
“Your hand will find out all your enemies;
your right hand will find out those who hate you.”
“The Lord says to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
Look Around, Look Around.
It's not often we know that we're living through history. I've tried to be alert to it (but mostly failed miserably). It has predominantly felt unreal, but also magical - in the sense that truly magical things inspire awe, wonder and fear in roughly equal measure.
The song in the musical Hamilton in which we meet the Schuyler sisters has been in my mind and on my lips for much of this time. Angelica leads her sisters through the revolution-torn streets of Manhattan, singing ‘Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!’. The youngest of the sisters, Peggy is less than convinced, while Eliza, in the middle, seems, well, in the middle:
Peggy: It’s bad enough Daddy wants to go to war
Eliza: People shouting in the square
Peggy: It’s bad enough there’ll be violence on our shore
Angelica: New ideas in the air!
Look around, look around…
Who is right? They both are. Both perspectives are true and real and accurate. They are both valid ways of seeing and interpreting the world-changing events.
This pandemic has been devastating for many people. It has caused immense suffering and loss and will continue to do so for many years. The financial implications alone of pausing the economy and borrowing from our futures to pay so many, many wages for so many months will be enormous. Political unrest will continue. Unemployment will continue and poverty will grow. The mental and physical health toll on frontline workers will crash like a tsunami. And many thousands of people will be left with unresolved grief caused by losing loved ones from a distance.
It has been a truly awful year for many people.
But for many others it has been a year of opportunity, of possibility, of new beginnings. Entrepreneurial delivery services have opened up, online platforms have flourished. People have taken up new hobbies and learned new skills. The housebound have been able to participate in church, in theatre, in concerts all over the world and to have exactly the same experience as the able-bodied audience. Neighbours have met each other and talked, perhaps for the first time. Christians have had a reason to introduce themselves to their neighbours, offer help and build relationships. During the first lockdown there were stories of impromptu orchestras and choirs forming in the streets as people took their talents outside and joined in with their neighbours, distant but together.
And of course, most significantly, many people have been led to consider the bigger questions of life and faith, have joined Alpha or Christianity Explored courses, have joined churches and have even been baptised when that has been possible.
It has been a year of tragedies, of disasters, of intense struggles. But it has also been a year of joy and delight; a year of wonders; a year of miracles.
Today has been designated a National Day of Reflection. For most people that will mean a day of reflecting on the sorrows - looking around at the conflict, the sadness and the loss. For the Angelicas among us, perhaps it will mean looking around with excited anticipation at the opportunities we’ve been given, the chance to ‘build back better’, the phoenix that could arise from the flames.
Perhaps an Eliza approach might be better; an approach that sees the suffering, but also sees God’s sovereignty.
Isaiah 43 has kept coming back to me over the last few months:
But now, this is what the Lord says –
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honour me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
(Isaiah 43:1-3, 19-21. My emphasis)
The wilderness and the floods and the fire are real, but God’s promise isn’t just that ‘when it’s all over’ he will put everything right. He is with us right now, in the midst of it. He is the water of life in the wilderness, the stream of nourishment, blessing and abundant life flowing through the middle of the desert.
He is still God, he is in control, he is worthy of our praise.
Look around. Look around.
Detrans Awareness Day
Last Friday was Detrans Awareness Day, a day designed to raise awareness about detransition and to tackle the stigma that is often associated with it. As the day went on, the #DetransAwarenessDay feed on Twitter filled up with stories from detransitioners and words of support from others. It’s well worth looking through the tweets to get a sense of the experiences of and difficulties faced by detransitioners.
Detransitioners are people who have decided to stop or reverse a social or medical transition in which they were living out an internal sense of gender and have instead decided to acknowledge and accept the reality of their biological sex. The experience of detransitioners has gained greater public prominence in the past few years, especially through the story of Keria Bell, a detransitioned woman who was the lead claimant in a 2020 High Court case against the NHS Tavistock and Portman Trust who run the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS). I’ve written previously about how Christians should respond to the reality of detransition and the increasing prominence of detransitioners in the cultural conversation about transgender.
To coincide with Detrans Awareness Day, Post Trans, a project seeking to support female detransitioners, have released a booklet called Gender Detransition: A Path Towards Self-Acceptance. The short booklet is a great resource for those wanting to understand detransition and to support well people who are questioning their gender identity.
The booklet opens with the stories of three detransitioned women, and the authors then draw on the words of many detransitioners to tackle some common misunderstandings about detransitioners and to paint a picture of how a better future could be created for those who detransition. They also give a brief overview of some of the potential impacts of detransitioning medically, including an interview with Dr William J. Malone, director of the Society of Evidence-Based Gender Medicine (SEGM).
The booklet also talks about alternative ways to deal with gender dysphoria. One of the points the authors seek to make, and an important point to understand, is that detransition does not mean that the experience of gender dysphoria is not real or has ceased for those who choose to detransition. Rather, detransitioners recognise that transitioning has not been the best way for them to deal with their experience of dysphoria and that other ways of handling it should therefore be explored. Sadly, other ways of handling gender dysphoria have been little researched and are rarely offered by medical professions, but this booklet shares some of the alternative ways that detransitioners have been able to deal with their dysphoria.
Gender Detransition is a great way to understand more about detransition and is rare in its openness about the factors that sometimes lie behind transgender experience and alternative ways of responding to gender dysphoria. If we’re going to help and care for people well, we’re going to need more resources like this.
Youth leaders and parents, as well as those involved in pastoral care, will find the booklet particularly helpful.
Gender Detransition: A Path Towards Self-Acceptance is available to download for free on the Post Trans website.
The Things of God
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
God didn’t have to create a material world. He could have made an entirely spiritual universe, with no matter or physical laws. He could have made the angels and quit while he was ahead. He could have decided to make nothing at all and carry on rejoicing in the fellowship of the Trinity for all eternity.
But instead he made a universe filled with things. Objects. Stuff. Planets, weather, colors, animals, vegetables, minerals. People, complete with noses and kidneys and bodily fluids. It is curious: an immaterial and entirely spiritual God created a thoroughly material and physical world. Perhaps it should surprise us more than it does.
So why did God make things? Have you ever wondered that? You’re reading Scripture and enjoying its spirituality when suddenly there’s an extended section on hair or locusts or water. It jolts. You are struck by the strange physicality of the text. Somehow it feels as though material like this ought not to be in the Bible. So why is it?
We could answer that question a number of ways. One is to picture God like a fountain, bubbling up with so much joy that it overflows into the creation of the world. God does not create because he has to or because he lacks anything. He creates because his delight in being God is so abundant and bountiful that it spills out into a universe of wonders.
Another is to see the physical world as a display case of God’s multicolored wisdom. This is the explanation in Psalm 104, one of Scripture’s most beautiful songs. God’s marvellous intelligence and creativity become visible to us in the things he has made. The psalmist, without access to encyclopedias or the internet, already had a whole bunch of examples in mind: valleys, lions, storks, wine, rock badgers, oil. The more of creation we discover—tropical fish, triceratops, Iguazu Falls, wallabies, coffee—the more our amazement as God’s wisdom increases. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps. 104:24).
Created things teach us practical wisdom as well. Ants show us the power of diligence, even if we feel small or insignificant: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Prov. 6:6). We can learn about sexual fidelity from hot coals, about making money from the flight of eagles, about handling anger from churning butter (Prov. 6:27–29; 23:4–5; 30:33). The growth of a tiny mustard seed into a huge bush is an illustration of the power of faith (Matt. 17:20). Jesus’ teaching is full of things—sheep, birds, flowers, coins, seeds, trees, fields, salt, light, feet, rain, the sunrise—which instruct us how to live, simply by being there. Watch and learn.
For Paul in Romans 1, creation reveals God’s invisible power and divine nature. Few of us can stand in front of the Grand Canyon or see a high-definition picture of the Horsehead Nebula without wanting to praise somebody or something for the majesty of what is before us. Some of us will suppress that urge. But those of us who don’t and allow the song of gratitude to swell within us like a storm will find ourselves concluding all sorts of things about our Maker. The God of the Sahara must be vast, boundless, and expansive. The God of quarks must have an unimaginable eye for detail. The God of wombats must have a sense of humour. Everything in creation has theological implications, and one of the joys of being human is figuring out what they are.
What all of these answers have in common is the fact that creation points beyond itself. Things exist not for their own sakes but to draw us back to God. In Augustine’s image, the gifts of God in creation are like a boat which takes us back to our homeland: a means of transport which we can (and should) celebrate but never mistake for the destination itself. C. S. Lewis talks about following the sunbeams back to the sun so that we enjoy not just the object of goodness but the source of good. Creation preaches to us. The things of God reveal the God of things.
Sometimes we look at things upside down on this point. Theologians point out (rightly) that the language used for God in Scripture is often anthropomorphic, and we should not take it literally. (God does not literally have a mighty arm, the nations are not literally under his feet, sacrifices do not literally reach his nostrils, and so on.) But this is only half the story, and in some ways the less important half.
It might be more helpful to say that the world is theomorphic: things take the form they do because they are created to reveal God. We describe God as “the Rock” not just because rocks exist and they provide a good picture of safety and stability. Rocks exist because God is the Rock: the Rock of our salvation, the Rock who provides water in the desert, the Rock whose work is perfect and all his ways are just. When we flip things around like this, we get a very different picture of the purpose of creation, of physical stuff, of things. Ever since the beginning, the surface of this planet has been covered with rocks, and every one of them has been preaching a message of the faithfulness, security, and steadfastness of God. “For their rock is not as our Rock; our enemies are by themselves” (Deut. 32:31).
This book is an attempt to listen to messages like that. Some chapters offer an exposition of creation, a meditation on who God is, as revealed through specific things. Others consider what a particular thing represents in Scripture and ask what we can learn from it. Others do a bit of both. As you read them, my hope is that you will get a deeper understanding not just of Scripture but of the world you live in, and ultimately of the God who made it all. (I love the idea that you might be walking down the street one day, see one of the things that we consider in this book, and get jolted out of your daydream into wonder and worship.) The book asks questions like, What does the existence of honey tell us about God or about what he has done in Jesus Christ? What are we supposed to learn from the fact that he created pigs, flowers, donkeys, fruit, and earthquakes? Might there even be significance in things that human beings have made: pots, trumpets, tools, cities? After all, “the earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1 NIV).
Come and see.
The Apostolic Church Can Relax
- John Webster, Christ Our Salvation: Expositions and Proclamations
The Privilege of an Evening Walk
Late evening walks have become one of my favourite things in this lockdown. After a long day at my desk, often followed by an evening on Zoom, I enjoy getting out into the fresh air and the quietness of the evening. Those walks give me the chance to reflect on the day that’s passed or to think about the day that’s coming, or just to switch off. They are genuinely one of the highlights of my day.
Against this background, it’s been sobering to reflect that for my female friends, such a walk would probably be taken only out of necessity, not out of pleasure, and would be more likely to give rise to stress than enjoyment.
The disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard have brought to public consciousness the reality of violence against women in our nation. The news that a body, later identified as Sarah Everard, had been found came on the same day that MP Jess Philips read out the names of all the women killed in the UK over the previous 12 months where a man has been convicted or charged as the main perpetrator. The list contained 118 names. Reading it out took more than four minutes. The same week, the World Health Organisation reported that one in three women have been subject to physical or sexual violence. These national and global stories were accompanied by the testimony of countless women on social media.
It was the reaction on social media that I found most powerful. Seeing women I know and love, women whom I would think of as strong and confident, sharing that an evening walk would be a cause of stress for them was deeply moving. The walks I took in the days that followed suddenly felt like an incredible privilege.
One type of response among Christians particularly saddened me. Thankfully, I’m sure it is a minority opinion, but it saddened me nevertheless. Some Christians seemed to be taking the view that this is just an unfortunate consequence of living in a world contaminated by sin. In this age, violence against women will always be a reality, and so women will just have to find ways to protect themselves as they live in the reality of a sin-sick world.
Sadly, violence against women, like so many other things that are wrong in the world, will be ever-present in this age. It is yet another reason for us to pray ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Revelation 22:20). But that can’t mean we passively accept the reality around us. Jesus warned us that there would always be people in poverty (Mark 14:7), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be active in seeking to reduce poverty. The early Church clearly understood that (James 1:27).
When I see the sinfulness of the world exhibited in the murder of a woman taking an evening walk or the killing of 118 women in the UK over the past twelve months, and when I see the fear that my friends feel walking on their own after dark, I don’t just see something to lament, I see something that requires action. The problem is deeply rooted – in society and in the human heart. There aren’t easy solutions, and there won’t be any ultimate solution until Jesus returns, but I can’t help but believe there must be a role for the church to play.
If I’m honest, I’m not sure exactly what that role is. There are some obvious and important first steps: affirming that the reality currently evident is not ok; listening to and learning from the women around us; affirming the value, worth and dignity of every woman; calling out language and actions that exhibit the sort of attitudes that feed into violence against women; challenging the objectification of women that is sadly evident in our society. There must be more than this, and we must find out what that more is. But we must act because the inevitable brokenness of this age isn’t an excuse to be passive, it’s a call to be active.
A Theology of Things
Anyway: we just had a conversation about it on our Mere Fidelity podcast. The guys were very kind about it, but they also raised some really good questions (as you’d expect) about a theology of things. Have a listen.
But he wanted to justify himself
The desire to justify ourselves runs deep. A favourite trope of our cultural moment is that we should not judge, but the reality is that we do want to be judged: we want others to judge us to be in the right. The Bible gives a lot of attention to this subject, both warning us against self-justification (Mark 12:38-40) and showing us how we can be right in the way that really matters – in the judgment of God (Rom. 3:22-24).
There has been much comment this week about who we judge to be right following that interview. Among the British population the answer to that question seems to be largely influenced by age. Younger people are more likely to see the issues to be about race and side with the Sussex’s; older people that it is about duty and loyalty: the narrative of victimhood jars when expressed by someone wearing a $4,500 dress.
I feel sorry for all those involved. It is hard to see how there is any win in this – televising one’s grievances about family members can never the best method of building bridges and healing relationships. The desire to self-justify is understandable but is hardly a recipe for happy relationships. It’s not good news for the Royal Family or for Harry and Meghan.
That Oprah would never be interested in interviewing you or me is something for which we should feel profoundly grateful; but while we will never have to face that kind of exposure we can have just as strong a desire to justify ourselves. The good news of what Jesus taught us is that we don’t have to, and that is incredibly freeing. ‘Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered’ (Rom. 4:7). Yes, blessed indeed! Now, ‘Go and do likewise’.
Copycat Culture Wars
It is an article I have thought about numerous times since I read it. Part of living wisely, let alone pastoring and preaching to others, involves reflecting critically on important cultural dynamics, especially those which affect nearly everything - and Americanisation, it seems, is one of those dynamics. So it was fascinating to hear a more extended treatment of the subject in Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland’s The Rest is History podcast this week, entitled simply “Americanisation.” Remarkably, it was recorded before the Oprah interview, which serves as a pretty emphatic confirmation of much of what they were saying.
I was struck by this section in particular:
Holland: The culture wars are actually the way that America is being most influential on us ... So we were talking about Anglo-Saxons: the sense that that is somehow a “problematic” phrase, so you’re no longer supposed to use the word “Anglo-Saxon” to describe the period between the end of the Roman empire in Britain and the Norman conquest, because Anglo-Saxon is seen as being an inherently racist, white supremacist phrase. But that’s only the case in America. It’s infuriating. It’s the “English” Defence League, not the “Anglo-Saxon” Defence League. “Anglo-Saxon” doesn’t have that connotation here in Britain; it’s a purely American connotation. But because it’s American academics leading it, British academics (or some of them) just nod obediently and say, well of course we must abolish this phrase - and ignoring the fact that “Anglo-Saxon” has a quite different connotation for the French or the Germans. I think that’s an intriguing change, because now it’s the Left that has been Americanised.
Sandbrook: I remember 25 years ago teaching undergraduate courses about white supremacy in America, with white supremacy being a very specific thing to do with slavery, and the incomplete legacy of reconstruction at the end of the Civil War, and the creation of these white supremacist regimes in the American south. And it was a very distinct, specific, American thing. And now, of course, white supremacy is a concept that is bandied around in a very vague, undefined way, and people talk about white supremacy in Britain and European countries, and it’s not the same thing at all; what they’ve basically done is just taken an American term. And that’s true of almost all these culture war battles. A lot of the most notable examples of statue toppling are of Confederate statues in America, and people have been copying what they see in the States and translating it to the British cultural landscape ... A great example from the ‘60s was the British protests against the Vietnam War. I mean: we weren’t in the Vietnam War. But people had protests about it anyway. That really is just copycat: “we’ve seen it in America so let’s just do it in Grosvenor Square.”
Once you notice it, you see it everywhere: on banner adverts, in political interviews, on Twitter, in academic conferences, before football matches, and even in royal interviews. The question, of course, is: given all that, what do we do about it? And the answer, I suspect, is to be aware of it, to endeavour not to let conversations become unduly skewed by it (whether inside or outside the church), and to attempt some version of what Oliver O’Donovan said about politics: “there are times when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”
Here’s To Ordinary Women
It’s not that I mind having a day to celebrate women, exactly. I know that women have often felt overlooked and undervalued, and if seeing Facebook flooded with people saying how great women are once every 365 days helps combat that, fair enough. It is also often used as an opportunity to raise awareness of issues affecting women around the world, and what we can do to make a difference. And that is a very good thing.
We must be alert, though, to our tendency to praise the wrong things.
I finally snapped last night, after scrolling through tweet after tweet praising women’s strength, their might, their ability to succeed. Praising the pioneers, the power-houses, the champions.
These things are great. It’s good to celebrate people who have achieved incredible things, especially if they have overcome significant odds to do so.
But then on Facebook I saw a friend had written ‘Sometimes i sit and wonder why anyone has anything to do with me when i hate myself so much’.
Imagine her reading all those posts celebrating success, power, strength, achievement, beauty. Even in her womanhood, she would feel she had failed.
Women are great. They are amazing. They are fearfully and wonderfully made. And that is true from the moment each woman is conceived to the moment she dies. She doesn’t have to achieve anything. She doesn’t have to overcome the odds, or face adversity with courage, or be resilient, or go above and beyond day after day. She doesn’t have to be the world’s best mother, wife, sister or friend. She doesn’t have to be creative or generous or full of joy or capable of anything.
She is worthy of celebration simply because she is. God saw fit to bring her into existence, and that is enough to give her inherent, eternal, inestimable value. It is enough to make Jesus willing to suffer and die in order to bring her into his kingdom.
Yes, there are things we should be striving to grow in, but we must force ourselves to remember that the things God prizes are not the things the world prizes. Obedience, fruitfulness, worship, humility. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Godliness. Christlikeness.
Yes, Proverbs 31 has a long list of great accomplishments in praise of the kind of woman who is greatly admired and brings honour to her husband, but the culmination of the list says,
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
1 Corinthians tells us:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
It’s not that God graciously accepts the weak, the foolish, the despised, and somehow manages to use them anyway. He chooses them. He wants them. He loves them.
Paul, who was strong, powerful and hugely successful, identified that God had to give him a ‘thorn in the flesh’, a hindrance to force him to set aside his worldly strength and rest in Christ’s strength (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
It’s hard. It’s completely contrary to everything we see and hear and read around us. It’s contrary to our instincts. We want to succeed. We want to earn our place in this world. We want to shine, to stand out. I’m very conscious that I’m writing this post because it has been a while since I’ve blogged here, and I don’t want to be forgotten. I check the stats each month to see whether my post made it into the top 10…or at least the top 25. I check my follower count and my Facebook likes and Twitter retweets. I want to do well. I want to be praised. But I also know that that is a hollow, bottomless pit. I can be encouraged by the positives, but if I rest my value in them, I will be forever striving and never satisfied.
Because ultimately it is not about me. I am not the main character in my story. Jesus is. He is the one who should be praised and exalted and worshipped and celebrated. He must become greater; I must become less.
So here’s to ordinary women. To women who are weak and foolish and lowly and despised in the world’s eyes and their own, but who are loved by the God who made them and whose opinion matters more than that of all he has made.
Making Abuse Impossible
Is it just a ‘lack of accountability’? Perhaps, but there are sadly plenty of examples which demonstrate accountability is necessary but not sufficient to avoid abuse. Drawing the line further back we can identify the sinfulness of men’s hearts and the extent to which the pressures and temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil can cause good people to stumble. But we need to draw the line back further still.
According to Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 4 through 6 abuse should be impossible – if we are living a Spirit-filled life.
The paragraph breaks and headings added to our English translations of the Bible can lead to unfortunate application of the text. This is certainly the case with Ephesians 5:22-6:9, where the instructions given tend either to be abstracted into ‘how-to’s’ for family life, or explained away as culturally limited. But read as a whole we can see how Paul is showing us what Spirit-filled living looks like: a pattern of living in which abusing others should be impossible.
Christians are awake (5:14) so are to live like it, watching their step (5:15). We are to be continually filled with the Spirit (5:18) and the result of that is that we will submit to one another – we will, as Paul instructs at the beginning of this section (4:1-2) be humble, gentle and patient. What that submission looks like in practice needs to be worked out in the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and slaves and masters: as it goes in the family so it goes in the church.
This means that, ‘in the same way’ (6:9), masters are to submit to their slaves. As Frank Thielman puts it,
Paul’s advice to believing slave masters subtly undermines the whole system of slaveholding. Slave-owning believers are, in a sense, to submit to their slaves (5:21), serving their slaves in the same way they desire their slaves to serve them. The threat of violence is impossible in such an arrangement, and without the threat of violence, the whole system will theoretically collapse.
It becomes impossible for a Spirit-filled master, who is watching their step, and submitting to their fellow believers, to be abusive towards their slave. To abuse their slave is to deny what they have become in Christ.
As well as explaining why abuse should be impossible in the church this explains why abuse in the church is so abhorrent: it is abhorrent precisely because it should be impossible! Any misuse of power whereby a husband abuses his wife or a father his children or a master his slave – or a ministry leader a member of the congregation – is a denial of what the gospel commands and creates. No matter how gifted the individual may be, the abuse reveals that they are themselves not submitted.
If you are awake, live like it. Watch your step. Be filled with the Spirit. Make abuse impossible.
The Essence of the New Covenant
Religion cannot afford to be satisfied with anything less than God. In Christ God himself comes to us, and in the Holy Spirit he imparts himself to us. The work of redemption is thoroughly Trinitarian in character. Of God, and through God, and in God are all things.
It is one divine act from beginning to end. Nevertheless it reveals a threefold distinction: it is summarised in the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the communion of the Holy Spirit ...
The triune God is the source of every blessing we receive. He is the mainspring of our entire salvation. In his name we are baptised: that name is the summary of our confession; that name is the source of all blessings that descend upon us; that name is and remains eternally the object of our praise and adoration; in that name we find rest for our soul, and peace for our conscience. Above, before and within him, the Christian has a God.
- Bavinck, The Doctrine of God
Learning from the Ravi Zacharias Scandal
Not A Trophy, A Gift
Humility, gentleness and patience are not characteristics in abundant supply in our society. Our cultural twist on ‘tolerance’ doesn’t really fit the same bill – one person’s tolerance is another’s prejudice. And of course, social media is more likely to train us in pride, irritability and impatience than the virtues espoused by Paul. It is only seventeen years since Facebook launched, fourteen since the first iPhone, and ten since Instagram made its debut. That is not long enough for us to have learned how to use this new technology in a way that does more good than harm.
One of the negatives of social media is the manner in which it has encouraged us to think of life as a performance: we are all stars in our own reality TV show now. The way in which many people ‘curate’ their timeline has been well documented and the negative consequences (a negative correlation between time spent on social medial and happiness, impacts on teenage mental health, etc.) much commented on. Social media thrives on vanity more than humility, and vanity eats its own children.
A manifestation of this is seen in our curious attitude towards actual children, part of which results in us making our kids co-stars in the movies we post to the world. Increasingly this begins even before the child is born – the phenomena of ‘reveal parties’ being the latest example of this. The headline that earlier this week father-to-be Christopher Pekny died as the result of an accident while preparing a reveal party is a bitter irony: rather than the excitement of revealing whether it is a boy or a girl, the child – regardless of its sex – is now going to be without a father.
Freak accidents aside, what reveal parties really reveal is our tendency to see children as trophies – trophies expected to fulfil a role in the narrative we curate for ourselves even before they can walk or talk. This should raise questions about what we are then training these children to be, and think of themselves. It also displays a lack of awareness towards the childless and infertile for whom the parading of children, and foetuses, can add an additional layer of pain in their inability to tell a similar story.
The practical instructions in the letter to the Ephesians culminate with how family life is to be conducted: children are to obey their parents, so that it may go well with them; parents are not to exasperate their children but to train them in the way of the Lord. Not much there about kids being accessories to the movies of our lives.
Training our children to be humble, gentle and patient begins with parents understanding that they are receiving a gift. Trophies are paraded – boasted about in order to make ourselves look better. Gifts are treasured – received with humility in response to God’s grace.
1776: The Origin Story of the Post-Christian West
The big idea of the book is that 1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are. We cannot understand ourselves without it. The Western world today is the result of a fusion that took place in 1776: the coming together of seven distinct transformations in society—some would call them “revolutions”—which have permanently changed the way we think about God, ourselves, the world, and our place in it. These transformations explain all kinds of apparently unrelated features of our culture. They explain why we believe in human rights, free trade, liberal democracy and religious pluralism; they ground our preference for authenticity over authority, and self-expression over self-denial; and they account for all kinds of phenomena that our great-grandparents would have found inconceivable, from intersectionality to bitcoin. 1776, I suggest, provides us with an origin story for the post-Christian West.
That involves a combination of two claims. One relates to the world we live in today, and the other to the world of two and a half centuries ago.
The first claim is that the most helpful way of identifying what is distinctive about our society, relative to others past and present, is that it is WEIRDER: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. We may or may not embrace all of those labels as individuals. We may be African or Asian, get by on very moderate incomes, have no history of Christianity, or live without any romantic attachments. But the broader culture within which we live is characterised by all seven of them.
We freely refer to it as the “West.” Education for children is widespread, free and usually compulsory, with literacy at virtually 100%, and recognised qualifications carrying significant social and economic prestige. We are clearly industrialised, with only a tiny percentage of the population still working in agriculture, and unprecedentedly rich: the diet, amenities, healthcare and leisure options available to someone working on minimum wage today are in many ways better than those available to Mansa Musa or Louis XIV. We are democratic, not only in our system of government but in our assumptions about society. We are Ex-Christian, with formal adherence to the Christian faith diminishing both in public and in private, even as our civilisation remains saturated with Judeo-Christian assumptions that show no sign of fading; as such we are decidedly Ex-Christian, as opposed to Ex-Communist, Ex-Islamic or even pre-Christian. And we are Romantic, in the sense that our beliefs and practices have been indelibly marked by the Romantic movement, from our concept of selfhood and identity, to our expectations of art, music and literature, to our erotic and sexual habits. For better or worse, we live in a WEIRDER world. This will be the point of chapter two.
The second claim is that all seven of those things are true because of 1776. Telling that story occupies most of the book, but we can see it in outline by considering just ten prominent events from that year. In January, Thomas Paine released his pamphlet Common Sense in Philadelphia, arguing that the American colonies should pursue independence from British rule; it caused an immediate sensation, and became one of the fastest-selling and most influential books in American history. In February, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which set new standards in history-writing, while also challenging the established church and providing a sceptical narrative of early Christianity that endures to this day. James Watt’s steam engine, probably the single most important invention in industrial history, started running at the Bloomfield colliery in Staffordshire on 8th March. The very next day, Adam Smith released the foundational text of modern economics, An Inquiry into the Natures and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
The most famous transformation of the year took place in the American summer, with the establishing of a nation that would play an increasingly dominant role in the next two centuries: the signing of the Declaration of Independence (4th July), the ringing of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (8th July), the Battle of Long Island and the taking of Brooklyn by the British (27th August), and the formal adoption of the name United States (9th September). On the other side of the Atlantic, Captain James Cook was sailing southwards in the Resolution in the last of his three voyages to the South Seas, the impact of which can still be felt throughout the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia. Immanuel Kant was in Königsberg, writing the outline for his Critique of Pure Reason, which would bring about a so-called “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. In Edinburgh, David Hume finally completed his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, one of the greatest arguments against Christian theism ever written, before dying on 25th August. The Autumn saw Friedrich Klinger write his play Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”), which soon gave its name to the proto-Romantic movement in German music and literature. And in December, Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on a diplomatic mission to bring France into the war against Britain. It would eventually prove successful, and lead ultimately to the American victory at Yorktown (1781), and the collapse of the French ancien régime into bankruptcy and revolution (1789).
Those are just the most well-known examples; there are many others, even if we confine ourselves to the West. 1776 saw Laura Bassi, the first female to work as a professional scientist, appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at the Bologna Institute of Sciences. Mozart wrote his Concerto for three pianos in Salzburg. Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book, presented her poetry in person to George Washington. The Illuminati were founded in Bavaria, and Phi Beta Kappa started in Williamsburg, Virginia. Toussaint Louverture, the future leader of the first (and only) successful slave revolt in history, was released from slavery in what is now Haiti. And so on.
The final two chapters address the obvious question: so what?
My primary motive in writing this is to help the church thrive in a WEIRDER world. What challenges and opportunities emerge from Westernisation, or Romanticism, or industrialisation, and what should we do about them? How should Christians act in an Ex-Christian culture? What does faithful Christianity look like in the shadow of 1776? And here, I believe, we can draw a great deal of wisdom from an obvious source: faithful Christianity in 1776. How did believers in this turbulent and transformative era respond to what was happening around them? And what can we learn?
As it happens, several strands within the contemporary church look back to 1776 as an especially formative year. It was a crucial period in the development of early Methodism. American dissenters saw the crucial words “free exercise of religion” appear in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and subsequently in the first amendment of the US Constitution. Former slave-trader John Newton was working on the Olney Hymns, which would be published in 1779 and include his “Amazing Grace” and William Cowper’s “God Works in Mysterious Ways.” The fifteen year-old William Carey, who would grow up to become the father of modern missions and translate the Bible into six Indian languages, had the experience which led to his conversion. Calvinist vicar Augustus Toplady published his hymnal, which included “Rock of Ages.” Holy Trinity Church Clapham, later attended by members of the Clapham Sect including William Wilberforce and Hannah More, opened for worship.
Most of these people would be widely known within Christian circles today, and often outside them. Their institutions, hymns, missionary exploits and abolitionism are part of the mythology of evangelicalism, and in chapter ten we will consider what they can teach us about thriving in the post-Christian West. But we will conclude by reflecting on two individuals, Olaudah Equiano and Johann Georg Hamann, whose contributions are far less recognised. (I have frequently come across evangelical organisations and venues which are named after the people in the previous two paragraphs, but I have never come across an Equiano Academy or been ushered into a Hamann suite.) Equiano was born around 1745 in what is now Nigeria, and sailed into 1776 on a ship in the Caribbean; he became one of the most remarkable Christians of his or any generation, and was understating it somewhat when he called his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Hamann was a friend and critic of Immanuel Kant—hailed by Hegel as a genius, by Goethe as the brightest mind in his day, and by Kierkegaard as (alongside Socrates) one of the two most brilliant men of all time—as well as a Christian, and in some ways the first post-secular philosopher. Though miles apart in their experiences and writings, both Equiano and Hamann have a lot to teach us about living as Christians in a WEIRDER world. That is the focus of the final chapter.
On the Misuse of “Grace and Truth”
Bunk. Any bona fide squishy liberal would be profoundly offended by grace, biblically defined (and many have been): it is predicated on the claim that all human beings are hopelessly mired in sin and need rescuing, and that God is free to give gifts to whomever he wills regardless of merit, and that he does so by means of a crucified and resurrected Saviour. Self-improvement is antithetical to Christian grace, which abounds where sin increases. Laxity is antithetical to Christian grace, which teaches us to renounce worldly passions. It is hard to think of a concept that collides more directly with secular humanism than that. Grace does not meet sin with a shrug, but with a cross.
Nor is truth the exclusive preserve of conservative evangelicals. Obviously if you move in conservative evangelical church circles, you will see conservative emphases as true, and the refusal to accept them as false. Fair enough; so do I. But there are all sorts of truths that conservative evangelicals are less likely to notice, let alone celebrate, than those from other church traditions. Ask a few abuse survivors, or people of colour, and you may well find people who think the problem with conservative evangelicalism is not that we speak truth too much, but too little. (I remember being struck by this listening to Duke Kwon a few years ago. I was used to hearing conservative evangelicals being the ones who need to speak the truth, rather than the ones to whom truth needs to be spoken.)
Clearly it is a good thing to be nice and courageous, inclusive and incisive, compassionate and clear. But that does not necessarily map on to left/right, soft/hard, progressive/conservative, or whatever it may be. And it is not quite what it meant for Moses to hear that the LORD is abounding in steadfast love (= grace?) and faithfulness (= truth?), or what John meant when he said that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
A New Challenge and a New Opportunity
I recently read Will Young’s book To Be a Gay Man. The book tells his story of growing up and coming into the public spotlight as a gay man and his journey to deal with the gay shame that he experienced as a result of society’s portrayal of and treatment of gay people.
There are lots of things in the book that would be fruitful for further reflection, and I may come back to some of them in future posts. I also found that reading it was a helpful reminder of the benefit of reading things by those who might have a very different perspective or different life experience to us. I don’t do enough of that and found that a helpful reminder.
One thing really struck me in latter part of the book. As Will talks about his efforts to understand and address the gay shame he experienced and the negative ways that was affecting his life, he shares about a key moment that he describes as his rebirth. Meeting with someone in a garden shed in Oxford for some ‘breath work’ he had a dramatic experience:
What occurred there was that, through my breathing, I end up, to all intents and purposes, rebirthing myself. God knows what was going on, but when the session finished I felt drained and rather relaxed. (p.215)
He goes on to relate a key encounter with some homophobic young people on his way home that afternoon which marked a key step in working through his gay shame.
What really struck me reading this was how Will is happy to speak about his experiences in spiritual terms. In fact, shortly before recounting this event, he talks about a key realisation that he ‘harboured a deep, spiritual wound that needed fixing’ (p.214). This is against the background of some negative comments about Christianity earlier in the book (pp.4, 46-47).
This openness to spirituality but rejection of Christianity reminded me of how the world around us has changed in the last five to ten years. We have now moved beyond the time when being a Christian was laughable and debates about science and religion were the big stumbling blocks for people who aren’t Christians, to a time when being a Christian is offensive and the big stumbling blocks are the Bible’s teaching on ethical matters, especially sexuality.
There are various important implications of this reality for both mission and discipleship, but one I don’t think I had thought of before is the vital role that spiritual gifts—perhaps especially miracles, healing and prophecy—can play in mission. Obviously, these spiritual gifts have always been important in mission, but perhaps a culture that is very open to broad spirituality and to the idea that there is more than just the physical world will be particularly open to offers of prayer for healing, to the reality of miracles, and to words of prophecy that couldn’t have been known through human means. Maybe there is an openness to the things that will demonstrate God’s goodness in action which may in turn create an openness to the God’s goodness demonstrated in other ways, including in his guidance to us for the use of our bodies and sexualities.
It may be becoming harder to say that we believe sex should be reserved to marriages of one man and one woman, but at the same time, it might be getting easier to offer to pray for people or to bring words of prophecy to them. There’s a new challenge here, but as so often with a new challenge, there may also be a new opportunity.
The Book I’ve Waited Half A Decade For
I first became properly aware of the reality of gender dysphoria and transgender about five years ago. I learnt about what gender dysphoria is and how painful and debilitating it can be. I gained some level of insight into the identity questions and desire for community that are often part of transgender experience, and I read about the unhelpful and unloving responses that Christians had often made. I was learning, but it also did something in my heart.
I remember being struck that the church experience of those who had gender dysphoria or who identified as transgender was somewhat parallel to my own experience as someone who is same-sex attracted: misunderstood, used as the butt of jokes, spoken of as if we only exist outside of the church, and often just not acknowledged at all. At that point, things were beginning to change a bit for same-sex attracted people, but it seemed the journey was only just starting for transgender people. From that point I started a journey of reading, talking, and wrestling with difficult questions which then flowed into opportunities to teach others and call them to a truly Christian response to transgender which holds fast both to God’s heart and God’s truth.
In those five years, a number of good Christian books on transgender have been published, and I’m grateful for them. But I’ve also felt each has its weaknesses, unsurprisingly when we’re talking about such a complex and controversial topic. There has still been a need for an accessible but comprehensive Christian discussion of transgender, which isn’t afraid to wrestle with the difficult questions and to hold unswervingly to God’s good word, but which also puts front and centre those for whom this is not just an abstract topic, it’s real life. Well, we now have that book.
The Most Helpful Christian Resource on Transgender
Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say by Preston Sprinkle is without question the most helpful Christian resource now available on transgender. As in his earlier book on same-sex attraction—People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue—Preston does not approach the topic as an abstract issue, but with full recognition that when we talk about transgender we are talking about people made and loved by God. I know no one else who so wonderfully follows Jesus’ example of holding together the radical truth of God with the radical love of God. And Preston writes not only from his extensive research (which really is extensive—there are 42 pages of endnotes!) but also from his own experience of friendship with those for whom this is real life.
The ground covered in Embodied is impressive. The transgender conversation is hugely complex with many different parts to it, but Preston manages to engage with all the most important topics, giving the reader a good orientation to a Christian perspective on the whole conversation, without it feeling overwhelming.
Broadly speaking the book falls into two parts. The first part tackles the most fundamental question in the conversation: ‘If someone experiences incongruence between their gender and their biological sex, which one determines who they are—and why?’ (p.24). Over several chapters, Preston helps us understand the diversity of experiences under the broad umbrella of transgender, looks at what it means to be created male and female in God’s image, and considers some of the various ways that Christians have sought to understand this experience of incongruence (including the Bible’s references to eunuchs, intersex conditions, brain sex theory and the possibility of an incongruence between the body and soul). This section also includes a hugely helpful chapter on gender stereotypes in which Preston presents an excellent challenge to Christians and the Church about our commitment to unbiblical stereotypes that can be hugely detrimental to many people.
The second half of the book turns to consider some of the most practical questions within the transgender conversation, including pronouns, single-sex spaces and the controversial phenomenon of rapid-onset gender dysphoria among children and teenagers. The standout chapter in this section is ‘Transitioning and Christian Discipleship’ in which Preston tackles the most difficult question of all: ‘Should a Christian ever transition?’ He navigates this complex matter with incredible humility, love, and faithfulness to God’s word. The book ends with a very helpful appendix on suicidality, offering some sensitive and level-headed reflections on what is an important but often badly handled area of the transgender conversation.
A Book for Everyone
Many people are intimidated by the complexity of the transgender conversation, but Preston writes in his usual relaxed, conversational tone and makes a complex topic much more manageable.
If you’re a church leader or a youth leader, you need to read this book. Don’t wait until to you feel you need to read it; read it now so you are ready to best love and serve those God brings to you.
If you’re a Christian, you should read this book. You should read it to learn how to respond in a Christian way to transgender people whom you may know or may come to meet, but also to see an example of how we can handle some of the most complex and controversial of cultural conversations in a way that embodies the example of Jesus.
If you’re trans, whether you’re a Christian or not, I’d encourage you to read this book. You will find a guy who has done his best to understand something of what life is like for you, while acknowledging that there are things he can never fully understand in the way you do, and who will make you feel seen and loved even as you read, and who, most importantly, will seek to introduce you to the one who knows you and loves you more than any person can.
I am so grateful for this book. My prayer is that God will use it to shape churches that can be family to those wrestling with their gender identity, to stir Christians who will give themselves to loving others as Jesus loves, and to reveal to those who experience gender dysphoria or who identify as transgender the depths of his love for them and his unfailing goodness.
The Death of Judas: Absalom, Ahab, or Both?
As is well known, Matthew and Luke provide us with different accounts of Judas’s death. Matthew has Judas hang himself in a field purchased by the chief priests, while Luke has Judas’s body burst open in a field purchased by Judas himself (cp. Matt. 27.3–8, Acts 1.18–19). The discrepancies between the two accounts raise at least a couple of important questions.
First, if Matthew and Luke’s accounts are historically reliable, then why do they read so differently? And, second, if Matthew and Luke’s accounts can be reconciled, then why didn’t Matthew and Luke reconcile them (and spare their readers a great deal of confusion)? Why would each author choose to omit important details from his account of Judas’s death?
My answer to the first question—which is by no means novel—is as follows. Neither Matthew’s nor Luke’s account is ahistorical; each account simply describes a different aspect of Judas’s death. Matthew describes how Judas seeks/chooses to kill himself, while Luke describes the final state/position of Judas’s body, i.e., prostrate on the ground. (And, suffice to say, a body hung on a tree can end up on the ground in all manner of ways, especially in a land which doesn’t allow bodies to be hung on a tree overnight: cp. Deut. 21.13.) In historical terms, then, while it’s possible to read Matthew and Luke in a contradictory way, it’s by no means necessary. It actually seems more natural to read Matthew and Luke’s accounts in a complementary way, since each one ties up loose ends in the other.
Consider the text of Matthew 27 in isolation. If it wasn’t permissible for the chief priests to keep Judas’s blood money, then why was it permissible for them to own a field which had been bought with it? And, if Judas died a bloodless death (since he hung himself), then how come the field acquired the name ‘the Field of Blood’? Implicit in Luke’s account are answers to these questions. It wasn’t permissible for the priests to own a field bought with Judas’s money, which is why they bought the field in Judas’s name. And Judas didn’t die a bloodless death; rather, his body later ‘burst open’ (Acts 1).
Meanwhile, considered in isolation, Luke’s account contains loose ends of its own. How did Judas’s body end up burst open on the ground? (Plenty of people fall to the ground in life, but, unless they fall from a significant height, their bodies don’t normally ‘burst open’.) And why does Luke employ the verb ‘acquire/possess’ (κτάομαι) to describe Judas’s acquisition of a field? Why not the more common/natural verb ‘buy’ (ἀγοράζω) (if Judas bought it in the common way)? Implicit in Matthew’s account are answers to these questions. Judas’s body burst open because Judas hung himself and his body fell from a significant height, possibly in a bloated state. And Judas didn’t ‘buy’ a field in the common manner; rather, the chief priests bought it on his behalf (with his money); hence, in Matthew, the field is said to be ‘bought’ (ἀγοράζω) by the chief priests, while, in Acts, it’s said to be ‘acquired’ (κτάομαι) by Judas.
Matthew and Luke’s accounts thus neatly fit together, which wouldn’t be expected of independently-evolved traditions, but would be expected of reliable accounts of a common historical incident. And, curiously, each man’s account turns out to be consistent with his traditionally-assigned occupation: Matthew the tax collector is interested in the legal/financial details involved in Judas’s death—i.e., how the thirty pieces of silver were accounted for by the priests—while Luke the physician is more interested in (literally) the blood and guts of the matter.
Of course, none of these claims answer the question of how Judas’s body came to fall. (Did Judas, for instance, hang himself from a tree-branch which later snapped?) But my aim in the present note isn’t to work out exactly what happened to Judas’s body (which may not be possible); my aim is simply to set out a way in which Matthew and Luke can be reconciled (and hence be shown to be non-contradictory), and to suggest a reason why their accounts are so different from one another, all of which brings us on to our second question, i.e., the question of why Matthew and Luke describe different aspects of Judas’s death.
Why does Matthew have Judas hang himself rather than burst open on the ground? My guess is as follows: because Matthew wants us to view Judas’s death in light of a particular incident in the OT, namely the death of Absalom.
Not too many people are hung in the OT. The most notable is probably Absalom. While out on his mule, Absalom’s head/hair gets stuck in the branches of an oak tree, which leaves his body inconveniently ‘suspended’/‘hung’ (תלוי) in midair. Absalom can thus be said to have died a Judas-esque death ... or, more accurately, Judas can be said to have died an Absalom-esque death.
And the parallels between Absalom and Judas extend further. Both men feign loyalty to their king, which they do by means of a kiss (2 Sam. 14.33). And, despite their participation in a conspiracy to remove him, both men are referred to as the king’s ‘friend’. These parallels are significant. For Matthew, Judas is an Absalomic traitor, undone by his selfish ambition. And his Absalomic tendencies serve to underscore Jesus’ status as the Davidic Messiah—a man specially anointed by God, yet betrayed by his closest friends.
With these considerations in mind, it’s not too hard to guess why Matthew rather than Luke has Judas die like Absalom. Of the Gospel writers, it’s Matthew who portrays Jesus most emphatically as ‘the son of David’ (cp. Matt. 1.1). It’s Matthew who most emphasises Judas’ ‘betrayal’ of his Lord. And it’s Matthew alone who has Jesus refer to Judas as his ‘friend’. Appropriately, then, it’s Matthew who chooses to emphasise the most Absalomic details of Judas’s death, which he does by the omission of other non-Absalomic details. Matthew doesn’t, therefore, fail to mention what Luke tells us about Judas’s death because he has a different source to Luke; rather, like any good author, Matthew simply restricts his account of Judas’s death to what’s relevant to his purposes.
Before we leave our consideration of Matthew, however, we should note a couple of other details of Absalom’s demise. First, a bystander’s refusal to do Absalom harm. Samuel’s account of Absalom’s death concludes with an unusual incident (2 Sam. 18). Joab offers a bystander ten pieces of silver to smite Absalom with his sword (while Absalom’s stuck in the branches of the tree), but the man declines. ‘Even for a thousand pieces of silver’, he says, ‘I wouldn’t lay a hand on the king’s son’ (which forces Joab to strike him down himself). In its original context, the incident outlined above emphasises the horror of Absalom’s sin. A mere bystander refuses to lay a hand on Absalom, yet Absalom himself, the king’s friend, is ready to have the king killed! And the same logic emphasises the horror of Judas’s sin. A mere bystander refuses to betray his king, David, for a thousand pieces of silver, yet Judas is ready to betray David’s greater Son for a mere thirty pieces of silver (another detail which is unique to Matthew).
The second detail we should note involves what happens to Absalom’s body. In the aftermath of Absalom’s death, his body is taken and thrown into a pit (2 Sam. 18.17), which resonates with—and establishes a precedent for—Luke’s account of Judas’s death, since Luke presupposes the occurrence of a similar posthumous event. It’s clearly not impossible for a body to be hung and later thrown to the ground.
As we’ve noted, Matthew and Luke describe different aspects of Judas’s death. Whereas Matthew’s field ends up in Judas’s possession due to a technicality in the law, Luke’s is associated with Judas’s love of money; more specifically, it’s referred to as ‘the wages of Judas’s unrighteousness’ (μισθός τῆς ἀδικίας)—a phrase found only here and in 2 Peter 2.15, where it refers to the wages earnt by Balaam. Luke thus draws attention to Judas’s motive. Like Balaam, Judas sells his soul for material gain. Meanwhile, whereas Matthew focuses on Judas’s death by asphyxiation, Luke focuses on the spillage of Judas’s blood. For Matthew, then, the Field of Blood gets its name from the innocent blood with which it’s bought (namely Jesus’), while, for Luke, the field gets its name from the unrighteous blood with which it’s stained (namely Judas’s).
But why would Luke want to focus his attention on such things—on greed rather than betrayal and on bloodshed rather than asphyxiation? My guess is as follows: because, like Matthew, Luke wants us to view Judas’s death in light of a particular Old Testament incident. Think back over the Biblical narrative. Does anyone come to mind when you think of an individual consumed by greed, who sacrifices a man’s life for the price of a plot of land, which ultimately ends up stained with his blood? They should, since Ahab is precisely such an individual: a man consumed by his lust for possessions, who sacrifices Naboth’s life in order to acquire his land, and whose blood is ultimately licked up by the dogs in Naboth’s hometown (1 Kgs. 21.19, 22.38).
And the parallels between Ahab and Judas extend further. Both men die ironic deaths, since in their desire to acquire possessions they sell their own souls (cp. the verb להתמכר in 1 Kgs. 21.20). And, as Luke points out in Acts 1, both men are cursed by God’s spokesman, at which point their line is destined for destruction (cp. Elijah’s pronouncement in 1 Kgs. 21.20–25 w. Peter’s in Acts 1).
Luke’s portrayal of Judas as Ahab also serves at least two further purposes.First, it serves a Christological purpose. Just as Matthew’s portrayal of Judas as Absalom casts Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, so Luke’s portrayal of Judas as Ahab casts Jesus as Naboth, the innocent yet oppressed vineyard-owner who remains faithful unto death. Indeed, of the Gospel writers, it’s Luke who most clearly portrays Jesus as an innocent victim. Luke alone has the criminal alongside Jesus attest to Jesus’ innocence (Luke 23.42). And, while Matthew and Mark’s centurion declare him to be ‘the Son of God’, Luke’s declares him to be righteous (δίκαιος) (23.47).
Second, it serves an anticipatory purpose. At the outset of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is heralded as one who has come to raise up the down-trodden and overthrow the mighty (cp. Luke 2.34 w. 1.51–52), which is precisely what he does (cp. 14.11, 18.4 w. 15.1ff.). Judas’s Ahab-like demise in Acts 1 is thus a foreshadow of what is to come, and, as the book unfolds, it is gradually ‘filled up’. Jerusalem’s authorities, Simon the Magician, Saul, Herod: as the Gospel goes forth, many among the mighty are brought low, while the humble await the day of the Resurrection, when justice will fully and finally be done (Acts 26.22–23).
Matthew and Luke’s accounts are more naturally read as complementary than contradictory. Each describes a particular aspect of Judas’s death, which it does for its own particular purposes, and each ties up loose ends in the other, which wouldn’t be expected of independently-evolved traditions, but *would* be expected of reliable accounts of a common historical incident.
Despite what’s often claimed, then, Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Judas’s death don’t present the Biblical inerrantist with any insuperable issues.They do, however, present him/her with a challenge, namely not to be disturbed by the tension inherent in the Biblical narrative. Faced with different accounts of the same event, the inerrantist’s natural reaction is to harmonise at all costs. Yet if, as Biblical inerrantists, we’re too quick and/or keen to harmonise such accounts (for fear of what it might imply if we don’t), then we’ll overlook their points of difference, which are an important aspect of the Biblical text. Tension in the Biblical narrative doesn’t exist to be explained/reconciled away; it exists to make us think more carefully about the narrative’s detail and complexity.
Ten Names, Twenty Attributes
Start with the Hebrew names:
- El: the simplest name, translated “God,” which occurs around two hundred times
- Eloha: the singular of Elohim, which is only very occasionally used in a poetic context (Ps 18:32; Job 3:4)
- Elohim: the much more common plural word for God (2500 times), which is usually used with a singular verb or adjective
- Sabaoth: the God of “hosts” or “armies”
- Elyon: usually translated the “Most High,” this is the name used by Melchizedek and Balaam (Gen 14:18; Num 24:16)
- Esher ehye: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”
- Adonai: translated “Lord” in lower case, and rendered as kurios in Greek: master, lord, king
- Yah: shortened form of Yahweh, particularly common in names (Elijah, Zechariah, etc)
- Yahweh: much the most common name (6800 times), expressed as “the LORD” in capitals in most English Bibles
- Shaddai: “all-powerful” or “Almighty,” and particularly common in the patriarchal stories in Genesis (Gen 17:1 etc)
Obviously these names are frequently combined with each other - Yahweh Sabaoth (the LORD of hosts), El-Shaddai (God Almighty), Yahweh Adonai (the Lord GOD), and so forth - as well as with other words as part of God’s “compound” names: Yahweh-Yireh (the LORD will provide), Yahweh-Rohi (the LORD my shepherd), and so on.
Then there are the attributes or perfections of God, which are divided into two categories, depending on whether or not they are properties we can share.
1. Independence, self-sufficiency, aseity
2. Immutability, changelessness, impassibility
3. Eternity (infinity with respect to time)
4. Immensity, Omnipresence (infinity with respect to space)
5. Unity (oneness with respect to quantity)
6. Simplicity (oneness with respect to quality)
9. Knowledge, omniscience
10. Wisdom (“knowledge from another point of view”)
11. Truthfulness, veracity
12. Goodness, love, compassion, grace
13. Righteousness, justice
14. Holiness, otherness
15. Will, sovereignty
17. Power, omnipotence
19. Blessedness, delight, self-sufficiency, happiness
20. Glory, greatness, majesty
Spotting Our Cultural Bias
There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” - Luke 13:1-5 ESV
Today when there is a disaster - like a building collapsing and killing 18 people - or an atrocity - like the authorities bursting into a church and killing the worshippers - we think of those who died as innocent victims. The guilty parties are the authorities, or the builders, or the council who allowed the builders to cut corners, or the landlords for failing to fix the problems. It simply never occurs to us to assume that the dead are to blame, that their sinfulness might have brought the tragedy upon them. In fact, most of the time they are instantly sanctified - mourned for their beauty, kindness, innocence and potential.
Jesus’ followers, though, thought the victims must somehow be receiving divine retribution for their sins. They thought victims of a tragedy were more wicked than the rest of us, not more pure and innocent as we often seem to think.
Jesus says we’re both wrong. Falling victim to disaster neither condemns nor sanctifies you. Repentance is the only way to get right with God - and Christians are just as subject to disaster and atrocity as anyone else.
It’s good to be reminded once in a while, though, that the way we think - the basic, gut level assumptions we have about life and death - aren’t the only or the normal or necessarily the right way to think about them. People in different times and places have thought very differently - and assumed that their ways of thinking were the normal, natural, correct ways.
The photo at the top of this post is of the famous Tower of Pisa. You may not have recognised it, because the vantage point it was taken from makes it look more or less straight.
Move a little further round the cathedral, however, and the picture changes significantly:
We always see things from the vantage point we’re standing at. It’s one of the normal limitations of being human. Yet when we recognise that fact, we can choose to look around, to see things through other people’s eyes, to listen to their perspectives, and to seek to discern the truth. Studying God’s word with humility and openness is the only way we can tap into the truth that is beyond time, place and cultural baggage, and begin to be shaped by it.
Stepping Up in the Silent Pandemic
The Covid pandemic is visible everywhere. Pretty much every area of daily life has been affected by it, and so it’s impossible to miss it or forget about it. But there is an increasing realisation that another pandemic is also surging through the population: a pandemic that is far less visible, but that will last far longer than the Covid and could be incredibly damaging. It’s a pandemic of mental health struggles, a silent pandemic within the pandemic.
When Covid first hit, many Christians began to think about how we might best respond. Looking back through Church history many of us were inspired by the examples of Christians in earlier pandemics who were at the forefront of caring for those who were unwell, even when it meant putting themselves in potential danger. However, while there is much good Christians have been able to do over this time, we have also found that our experience has been different: professional medical care and the government strategy to tackle the pandemic have closed off some of the ways Christians have cared in previous pandemics. But in this mental health pandemic, we will not face all of the same challenges. It could be our opportunity for the church to step up and to play our part at the heart of a pandemic.
I recently took the opportunity to talk to a friend of mine, Dr Anita Rose, a Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist, about this pandemic and how we as Christians and churches can step up and play our part.
AB: Could you tell us a little about the current situation of mental health in the UK?
AR: The situation of mental health in the UK since the Covid-19 pandemic is serious. It has been said we are facing the greatest threat to mental health since the Second World War. It is a silent pandemic within a pandemic.
Silent because the focus has been on the physical manifestations of Covid-19, keeping people safe, reducing risk, and keeping the NHS safe, but also silent because mental health, whilst on the healthcare agenda, still carries a stigma. Long after we have got Covid under control this silent pandemic will still remain.
Research has shown us that in the general population there has been an exponential increase in anxiety, depression, self-harm, addictions and suicidal patterns across all populations, all exacerbated by loneliness due to the repeated lockdowns.
Last summer a survey of UK frontline health and social care staff reported that 47% met the criteria for a diagnosis of anxiety, 47% for depression, and 22% for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A majority (58%) had at least one of these disorders. More recent research indicates these levels have increased, with an alarming 40% reporting symptoms of PTSD.
It is reported that at this current time 10 million adults and 1.5 million children are needing new or additional mental health services.
AB: What can we do to strengthen our own mental health at this time?
AR: Firstly, if you are struggling with mental health issues – speak up to get help. Speak to your GP, MIND, Samaritans or someone you trust. If you are a healthcare or social care worker there is the text service called Shout. You are not alone and there are people to help you.
There are also things you can do to help yourself:
- Restrict your time checking the news and tracking social media. Maybe only check the news once a day and take a break from social media platforms where every post seems to have something related to Covid. There is so much published on every platform and much of it is false information. The more you read bad news, the greater the anxiety and fear you will experience.
- Give yourself permission to relax – you are not being lazy when you take some time out. Relax in a nice bubble bath, or in a favourite spot in your house, go for a walk in nature, use mindfulness or relaxation apps.
- Stop putting yourself down – we are all our own worst critics but this impacts on our mental health. Next time you hear your inner voice putting you down, change it to something soothing and supportive.
- Lower your expectations – in other words, be kind to yourself. How often do you find yourself saying ‘I should’? We give ourselves a set of high expectations yet the gap between expectation and reality is often a factor in mental health issues such as depression as you can feel hopeless at achieving those expectations. This is particularly pertinent for all those parents trying to home-school.
- Express yourself - writing, drawing, acting, dancing, singing, painting. The act of expressing your experience releases the emotional burden you are carrying and leaves you feeling lighter and freer and builds emotional resilience.
AB: What can churches do to help those whose mental health has suffered as a result of the Covid pandemic?
AR: I think it is fair to say church leaders have provided pastoral support to their parishioners, but most are not trained to deal with mental health challenges. They will not have faced the extent of mental heath difficulties that many now will. I think to appropriately support, and to be able to understand the situation they are facing, will require churches building relationships with psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors. There are churches who have started such relationships with positive effect to both their members and the communities they serve.
Churches need to ensure that those who provide pastoral care also have training. With the severity of mental health we are now facing, if we face it without knowledge and training churches may find themselves struggling.
There are some more simple things as well such as using technology to provide online courses, mindfulness to help mental health (based on a self-management approach), looking at health in a holistic manner, including healthy eating. Technology can also help reach those in the community who are feeling isolated and alone. I think often within church we can think someone is ok because they are part of a group or a family, when the reality can be very different. We cannot have open door church buildings, but we can create open door opportunities where people pop in on a Zoom meeting for a chat and a coffee. Getting the congregation mobilised to drop a card into their neighbours, or baking cookies and dropping a packet to the houses in their street, creating a hug-in-a-mug pack, gathering hand creams and lip balms for care staff and targeting care homes and residential homes – they get forgotten because everyone takes things to the hospital. The list is endless.
It is about expressing love, without agenda, and giving support with open hands.
AB: It’s expected that many people will emerge from the pandemic with some level of trauma. Are there particular ways churches can support people who have experienced trauma?
AR: My response is as above: we need to have trained support structures in place as well as pastoral carers having training. One of the issues with trauma is that without training you can increase the trauma experience and vicariously become traumatised yourself. It is about normalising mental health within the church. People who have mental health issues and trauma are having normal experiences but to vastly abnormal situations. It is normal to be experiencing trauma reactions when you have faced trauma. Churches also need to find a language that is accessible and reaches all areas of society.
Traumatic experiences will not only be seen in frontline staff. One significant area of trauma is around unresolved grief: families having to say goodbye over FaceTime, families on FaceTime with their loved ones and hearing others in the wards dying, not being able to have a funeral with all the friends and family, not being able to touch or hug those in grief. This is trauma, and at the point of typing this, over 100,000 people have died in the last year from Covid. That means hundreds of thousands of grieving people who have experienced the trauma of the death of a loved one and of not being able to be there as their loved one leaves them.
Our response as the Church should be as I have said above; it is about expressing love, without agenda, and giving support with open hands to those who have needs.
The Church has often been where people turn to in times of trouble. Let’s put the Church in the centre of our communities and then we can do the turning – to those who are experiencing trouble.
Seven Reasons to Come to This Year’s THINK Conference
1. Your summer is freer than it usually is. Don’t let a crisis go to waste: use the time to make connections between theology, history and culture that will strengthen your ministry (whatever it is) and help you think.
2. Peter Leithart is one of the most interesting theologians alive today. The man is pathologically incapable of being boring. He has also written the best commentary on any biblical book I have read, and it happens to be on 1&2 Kings.
3. Tom Holland is coming. Not Spiderman, but the one who wrote Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, which was my book of the year for 2019, and is a masterclass in what I’m calling theological history.
4. 1&2 Kings is a book that most of us struggle to preach from, except the bits in the middle about Elijah and Elisha. If you’re a preacher, or plan to be, learning how to handle the whole text will be of great benefit to you.
5. By July you will really want to see people from around the country, talk about ideas without having to do it on Zoom, and have a curry and/or a meal out in Blackheath afterwards. You just know you will.
6. We usually have around a hundred people at THINK, and two thirds of those people have already booked in. You wouldn’t want to miss out, would you?
7. There will not be a THINK Conference in 2022, because I will be on sabbatical. So if you miss this one, it will have been four years between the last real, physical THINK (2019) and the next one (2023). Perish the thought.
You can book in here.
Andrew has come to Bavinck via the urgings pf Derek Rishmawy; I thanks to Andrew Haslam sending me a copy of The Wonderful Works of God. It’s early days, but so far we are both grateful for the introduction – and Herman is proving eminently quotable.
Take this, from the chapter on general revelation, in The Wonderful Works of God:
Race instinct, sense of nationality, enmity, and hatred, these are the divisive forces between peoples. This is an astonishing punishment and a terrible judgment, and cannot be undone by any cosmopolitanism or leagues of peace, by any “universal” language, nor by any world-state or international culture.
If ever there is to be unity among mankind again, it will not be achieved by any external, mechanical rallying around some tower of Babel or other, but by a development from within, a gathering under one and the same Head (Eph. 1:10), by the peacemaking creation of all peoples into a new man (Eph. 2:15), by regeneration and renewal through the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:6), and by the walking of all people in one and the same light (Rev. 21:24).
Bavinck was writing in the early 20th century, before either of the World Wars, before the civil rights movement, during the age of empire, and yet this quote feels entirely contemporary.
The human race is always trying to rebuild Babel. We are now at the extraordinary point where manmade material outweighs biomass, but our towers never stand. The ‘divisive forces’ keep on breaking through. True unity – true peace – is in Christ’s domain. Bite down on that.
Our Prophetic Paradigm
In these febrile times we might well ask, ‘What place the Church?’ Often the Church appears as captured by cultural narratives as anyone else, but she is meant to operate in a different space, to have a different voice. We are called to a prophetic paradigm; by which I mean ‘Big-P Prophetic’: that is, calling all nations to the obedience of faith for the glory of God. This means we do have something to say about current events but need to do so from within our prophetic paradigm, and I would suggest that this paradigm needs to be framed by the reality of death and the promise of peace.
Over the past couple of weeks we have seen the daily death rate with covid in the UK equal what is the normal daily death rate in the UK. (Just think about that for a moment.) Last Tuesday, as we passed the symbolically powerful milestone of 100,000 covid related deaths, the Prime Minister said that it is, “hard to compute the sorrow contained in this grim statistic.” There is much we could say about this, but from within our prophetic paradigm the least we should say is (as Glen Scrivener has expressed it) that the pandemic is, God’s megaphone – waking people to the reality of death. In normal times death is not much spoken of. Now it is.
We need to be woken up – and this applies first to the Church (It is time for judgment to begin with the household of God - 1 Peter 4:17). Where we have compromised with the world, often becoming indistinguishable from it, we need to wake up. And it applies to the world, which so often carries on as if death is not real. The Church needs to proclaim that death, and judgment, are real – and serious.
But the Church is not just in the business of scaring people: there’s fear enough around as it is. Rather, we have the message of hope, and this is the other framing aspect of our prophetic paradigm: we know the One who is ‘himself our peace’ (Eph. 2:14).
We live in agitated times but in Christ we can know peace. We have a story to tell of the shalom for which we were created and in which we will dwell and of which we have a foretaste.
So this is our prophetic paradigm: to proclaim both that (yes) death is coming for you – there is judgment hanging over you; and that (yes!) in Christ we can be reconciled to God – peace is available.
In his inspirational book, Being Mortal, Atul Gawande writes,
Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.
As the working paradigm for an agnostic medical doctor this is an admirable goal, but in the Church our prophetic paradigm takes us further. We get to invite people into a story that refashions the whole world and the possibilities not only for how we end our lives but for all eternity. That is the message we must proclaim.
“All the terms expressive of bodily organs are applied to God:
- Face (Ex 33:20)
- Eyes (Heb 4:13)
- Eyelids (Ps 11:4)
- Apple of his eye (Dt 32:10)
- Ears (Ps 55:1)
- Nose (Dt 33:10)
- Mouth (Dt 8:3)
- Lips (Job 11:5)
- Tongue (Is 30:27)
- Neck (Jer 18:17)
- Arms (Ex 15:16)
- Hand (Num 11:23)
- Finger (Ex 8:19)
- Heart (Gen 6:6)
- Bowels (Is 63:15)
- Bosom (Ps 74:11)
- Foot (Is 66:1)
Further, every human emotion is also present in God:
- Joy (Is 62:5)
- Grief (Ps 78:40)
- Anger (Jer 7:18)
- Fear (Dt 32:27)
- Love, in all its variations (e.g. compassion, mercy, grace, longsuffering, etc)
- Zeal and jealousy (Dt 32:21)
- Grief (Gen 6:6)
- Hatred (Dt 16:22)
- Wrath (Ps 2:5)
- Vengeance (Dt 32:35)
Human actions are ascribed to God:
- Knowing (Gen 18:21)
- Trying (Ps 7:9)
- Thinking (Gen 50:20)
- Forgetting (1 Sam 1:11)
- Remembering (Gen 8:1)
- Speaking (Gen 2:16)
- Calling (Rom 4:17)
- Commanding (Is 5:6)
- Rebuking (Ps 18:15)
- Answering (Ps 3:4)
- Witnessing (Mal 2:14)
- Resting (Gen 2:2)
- Working (Jn 5:17)
- Seeing (Gen 1:10)
- Hearing (Ex 2:24)
- Smelling (Gen 8:21)
- Tasting (Ps 11:4)
- Sitting (Ps 9:7)
- Rising (Ps 68:1)
- Walking (Lev 26:12)
- Descending (Gen 11:5)
- Meeting (Ex 3:18)
- Visiting (Gen 21:1)
- Passing (Ex 12:13)
- Casting off (Jdg 6:13)
- Writing (Ex 34:1)
- Sealing (Jn 6:27)
- Engraving (Is 49:16)
- Smiting (Is 11:4)
- Chastening (Dt 8:5)
- Punishing (Job 5:17)
- Binding up wounds and healing (Ps 147:3)
- Killing and making alive (Dt 32:39)
- Wiping away tears (Is 25:8) ...
Furthermore, God is often called by names which indicate a certain office, profession or relation among men:
- Bridegroom (Is 61:10)
- Husband (Is 54:5)
- Father (Dt 32:6)
- Judge, king, lawgiver (Is 33:22)
- Man of war (Ex 15:3)
- Hero (Ps 78:65)
- Builder and maker (Heb 11:10)
- Vinedresser (Jn 15:1)
- Shepherd (Ps 23:1)
- Physician (Ex 15:26)
while in connection with these mention is made of his seat, throne, footstool, rod, scepter, weapons, bow, arrow, sword, shield, wagon, banner, book, seal, treasure, inheritance, etc.
In order to indicate what God is for his children, language derived from the organic and inorganic creation is even applied to God:
- Lion (Is 31:4)
- Eagle (Dt 32:11)
- Lamb (Is 53:7)
- Hen (Mt 23:37)
- Sun (Ps 84:11)
- Morning star (Rev 22:16)
- Light (Ps 27:1)
- Torch (Rev 21:23)
- Fire (Heb 12:29)
- Fountain (Ps 36:9)
- Food, bread, water, drink, ointment (Is 55:1; Jn 4:10; 6:35, 55)
- Rock (Dt 32:4)
- Hiding place (Ps 119:114)
- Tower (Prov 18:10)
- Refuge (Ps 9:9)
- Shadow (Ps 91:1)
- Shield (Ps 84:11)
- Temple (Rev 21:22)
Scripture calls upon the entire creation, upon nature in its several spheres, and especially upon man, to contribute to the description of the knowledge of God. Anthropomorphism seems to be unlimited.”
Scripture, Science, and the Enigma of Man
Science cannot explain this contradiction in man. It reckons only with his greatness and not with his misery, or only with his misery and not with his greatness. It exalts him too high, or it depresses him too far, for science does not know of his Divine origin, nor of his profound fall. But the Scriptures know of both, and they shed their light over man and mankind; and the contradictions are reconciled, the mists are cleared, and the hidden things are revealed. Man is an enigma whose solution can be found only in God.
- Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God
Thus Spake Pastor Lockdown
But, as something of a counterpoint*, I found this article by Ian Stackhouse equally helpful. Like myself and Jonny, Ian has a positive story to tell,
Like many other churches, we have seen an upsurge in interest in the gospel. People have joined us online, Alpha courses have flourished, and the general atmosphere seems, at least for the moment, conducive to faith. I have my own testimony of conversations with people which a year ago would have been inconceivable.
These opportunities and developments are certainly to be celebrated. Here at Gateway we have talked a lot about ‘the hidden work of God’ and pruning we are experiencing that might feel painful but will result in greater fruit. This is certainly a moment of opportunity for the church and her mission.
Despite all that is positive and encouraging Ian’s counterpoint is worth reflection (and worth reading in full).
1. Why it is that some of those who relish these times of opportunity regard this as ‘mutually exclusive’ to the call to engage in public debate about covid. I simply don’t understand that. After all, our faith is not just about saving souls, or even feeding mouths (both of which are central to our vocation), nor simply about being church (which I do regard as our primary calling), but also about speaking truth to power.
2. Another area of concern for me is the ease with which some people are consigning corporate gatherings to those things that pertain to the old world. I don’t think it is always stated as explicitly as this, but it certainly can be inferred from what is said in certain quarters. Church as we have known it is passe, so the argument runs.
3. Finally, I should like to question the use of the word opportunity to describe the church’s response over this last year. Opportunity speaks of boldness, creativity, courage, and risk. And although many of these things have been evident, too much of our decision-making has been determined, in my opinion, by an overuse of the precautionary principle. In which case, maybe a better word than opportunity is contingency. And the reason I would like to propose contingency is not to downplay the newness of this time, but to be honest about our chariness, and reflective, therefore, about what might need to happen next.
Yes, let’s celebrate the positive, and seize the opportunities; but while we’re ‘picking the daisies’ let’s keep a scythe in hand to battle the thistles.
*The technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.
Pastor Lockdown Speaks
Pastor Lockdown, on the other hand, understood PS’s concerns but opted for a middle ground. He wanted to be a father and a shepherd. He wanted unity and peace. He was unsure of the right course of action and thought we should ride it out. He probably wanted to lead his church to pick daisies in a meadow (or preferably their own gardens) and hum ‘Let it Be’ behind their surgical-grade masks.
The two characters weren’t real, of course, and I have caricatured them further. However, as an avid reader (and sometime contributor) of this blog, I felt that the tone of most of TT’s output in 2020 had been from the Pastor Sceptic camp.
I, on the other hand, side more with his cautious and patient imaginary companion and I feel that the time has come for me to leave my meadow (it has been getting quite chilly of late, after all) and put some flesh on the bones of Pastor Lockdown’s position.
The churches that I am involved with have chosen not to resume meeting in person yet, even though it is now permitted. What follows is not intended to be either a defence or a criticism of the Government’s handling of this crisis. Rather, my point is that God may well be trying to teach us something important through these restrictions and, if we invest too much energy railing against them, we may miss what He’s saying to us.
The potential blessings of lockdown
A portion of my ambivalence towards the government restrictions on us as churches is admittedly down to the fact that my pre-lockdown assessment of the state of the church in the UK was not particularly positive. I mean, what could the government do to us? Stop us from earnestly seeking God? Stop people becoming Christians? Prevent our congregants from digging deep into God’s word? To me, it appeared that sadly those wheels were already fully in motion.
With that perspective, I was probably going to be favourable to any change that came our way. However, as an elder of a church, and in my role helping to oversee a small number of churches in Birmingham, I’ve seen real and tangible growth in our congregations since March 2020.
Again, it may be a reflection of what we were doing wrong beforehand, but COVID, and the government restrictions that have accompanied it, have forced us to go back to basics and, on the whole, we’ve benefitted substantially from that. In the past 10 months I’ve met every weekday morning to read the Bible with a group of friends from our churches. Never done that before. Our church prayer meeting has gone from 10-15 every other week to 20-30 every week, without even bothering to break for school hols. Community groups used to gather 5-10 each week and half the church opted out entirely. Now, we have close to 100% church engagement and have maintained this throughout. Again, this was a pipe dream 12 months ago.
Yes, this has involved us sacrificing physical meetings for Zoom, and I do recognise the cost of this and I miss all the sideways hugging, laying on hands, back patting, etc, etc. But if the pace of 21st century life made the aforementioned engagement impossible when we were relying only on physical presence, then maybe we should stop complaining about Zoom fatigue and going on about how we’re missing everyone all the time. I love the fact that my church is praying more! I love the fact that many of us have been forced to be proactive in more intentionally ordering our homes towards the goal of discipleship! No ifs or buts. I LOVE IT!
Like other writers on this blog, we have lost people in this season. Some good friends have left our churches and every one has been hard. However, rather than wallowing for too long in the sorrow of that, I’d prefer to train my attention on those who are opting into our community at this time, and that number is increasing. Here are some interesting pandemic stats at Churchcentral South, the church that I am based in. A handful of people saved and added in Alphas we ran in the Spring and Summer. Thirty guests joining in with our community groups last term through a course we ran in these groups. About half of these guests coming back for more in the New Year. Six people who are asking to be baptised (and we haven’t even trawled the youth group yet). A new site, proposed at the beginning of 2020, now almost ready to launch.
This kind of stuff may be normal for you but, I’ll be honest, that’s probably the best New Year review I’ve ever experienced as a leader in our church.
I don’t think we’ve done anything particularly special. I’m certainly not intending to boast. However, if you’re finding it hard to see God at work in your situation at the moment, I hope it’s an encouragement. We’re seeing clear signs that God can bring good from this pandemic, and I know that we’re not the only ones. And all of this despite not being able to meet together on a Sunday morning.
Actually, that last sentence may not be correct. It seems like God has not been working despite us not being able to meet, but because of it!
Were our meetings doing more harm than good?
This blog flows out of a church tradition that puts huge value on the church’s gathered times of worship (and I place myself within that tradition). Therefore, it has been no surprise to see that the loss of those times has been felt acutely by the Thinktheology contributors and that there has been a strong push to get the show back on the road. I definitely don’t think that post-COVID, we should ditch gathered worship for online church, but, at the same time, I don’t think this is a time to hanker for what Sunday gatherings have become in recent times either.
Even before the pandemic, I was finding the culture that surrounded our Sunday meetings increasingly bizarre. We’ve all had a giggle at hipster worship leaders and rolled our eyes at ‘worship’ songs that barely mention God. We’ve mused at our people faithfully bringing their reusable coffee cups to church each week but no longer bothering with their Bibles.
But now, with a bit of distance, I’m wondering whether those Babylon Bee articles weren’t just reinforcing prejudices on our social media feeds after all. Perhaps they were pointing out some serious problems.
I’m increasingly beginning to wonder whether, for many of our people, our meetings have been less an aid to discipleship and more an excuse for them to avoid discipleship altogether.
People don’t need to develop their own devotional life; the church will do it for them in that 30 minute slot just before the sermon. People don’t need to drink daily from the depths of God’s word, they can simply get their fix once a week. People certainly don’t need to disciple their children, the Sunday morning kids’ work will do that. Failing that, there’s always Newday!
As a good friend recently said to me, we can’t batch process discipleship. But perhaps we’ve been trying.
Obviously, Hebrews 10:25 has been frequently trotted out in opposition to government restrictions on church worship over lockdown. Meeting together is not something we should neglect. It’s there in black and white. However, the context is worth spelling out:
‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…’
The reference to meeting together seems certainly to be a reference to the gathered meeting of the church community to worship, that’s for sure. But the context gives some explanation as to the services to believers that such meeting together should provide. As William Lane points out in his commentary:
The reason the meetings of the assembly are not to be neglected is that they provide a communal setting where mutual encouragement and admonition may occur… The entire community must assume responsibility to watch that no one grows weary or becomes apostate. This is possible only when Christians continue to exercise care for one another personally.
Before we quote this verse as a basis for criticism of government policy, then, it’s important that we ask – did our Sunday worship gatherings do these things? Or did they just give us a bit of a warm buzz (which at times may have coincided with the work of the Holy Spirit) while providing an accessible and inoffensive shop window into the church for noobs? These kinds of meetings may have value, but they are almost certainly not the kind of meeting together that the author to the Hebrews had in mind!
As a church, we’re finding that our church has been encouraged and stirred up in love and good works while not meeting together physically. In fact, in many ways, puzzlingly, it has been easier in this season. When we do meet altogether in the flesh again, I’d love to imagine that we will thank God for lockdown, which has given us a helpful and necessary realignment towards structuring our gatherings to do these things even more.
So, to paraphrase Matt’s Pastor Lockdown, I guess what I’m trying to say is that: I’m not sure you’ve convinced me that I’m wrong, but I’m grateful for the dialogue. May God give us all much grace and wisdom at this time. We need it.
A Very Curious Thing
A child is at once, though for different people or at different times, the most wanted and the most dreaded of objects. For those taught to believe in the desperation of infertility, children are that without which life lacks meaning and purpose; and yet for the unwelcomely pregnant or for those pregnant with children who are not perfect, they are a most dire threat to their lives, meaning, and purpose, of which they are taught to rid themselves. The modern child is desired but also dreaded. And he or she is also innocent and yet (especially if a she) sexualized to a striking degree; is protected by ever more constraining forms of surveillance and yet abused and exploited not only by random individuals, but systematically and commercially by trades in child pornography and prostitution (and even, most shamefully, within the church); is cossetted and treated as a pet on one side of the globe, while on the other side child labour supplies the goods that sustain the luxury those privileged children enjoy (or from which they suffer); and removed from the world of work in the West, yet placed in a system of education that seems more and more designed to manufacture the highly skilled workers demanded by our economies. The modern child is a very curious thing indeed.
– Michael Banner, The Ethics of Everyday Life, p80
Your Sexuality is Purposeful
‘If God doesn’t want people to be in gay relationships, why would he give people desires they can never act on?’ This was a question I was asked by a young guy at a church in the Midlands a little while ago. (Back in those long-gone days when we could visit different parts of the country and be in the same room as other people we don’t usually live with!) It’s a question I think lots of people can relate to. I certainly can.
Growing up in the church, pretty much all I heard about sex was that I should wait until I was married to a woman to have it and that I should try and suppress sexual desires until that point. On the surface, this may seem like fairly straightforward advice. But for a guy who was feeling pretty trapped in viewing pornography and who was acutely aware that his desires were for other guys rather than for girls, it didn’t offer a lot of help. Why did I have sexual desires if they were just going to cause me to do stuff that made me feel miserable and were never going to help me find someone to marry so I could express those desires rightly? I don’t think I would have articulated it in this way at the time, but ultimately, the question I was asking was, ‘What is my sexuality for?’
What I needed at that point, was Ed Shaw’s new little book Purposeful Sexuality: A short Christian introduction. As a same-sex attracted guy, with a similar background to mine, Ed recognises that the key question about sex that we need to ask and answer is not ‘What can we do, and when can we do it?’, but ‘What are our sexual desires actually for?’
Ed opens by addressing the reality that talking about sexuality is difficult. It’s difficult because we all have unique sexualities, those sexualities are all uniquely damaged, and they are also uniquely damaging to others. But though it’s difficult, there is hope. God, in his word and in the Word made flesh, has given us the help we need to talk about and to handle our sexualities well.
In chapter 2, Ed highlights the importance of this key question about the purpose of our sexualities and outlines the common Christian explanations: sex is for marriage, for procreation, and for pleasure. There’s truth in each of these, he notes, but they don’t offer much help to those who are not having sex.
We therefore need to consider the question again. Chapter 3 does just this, and Ed helps us to see, from the Bible, that our sexual desires are meant to help us to appreciate God—his passionate love for us and the depth of the offence of our sin against him. This means that for all of us, even those not having sex, our sexuality is purposeful. And our sexualities also provide a trail of heaven. Sex and marriage are a trailer for the great union to come, that of Christ and the Church. This means that for those of us who don’t have sex in this lifetime, it will be no great loss. We may miss out on the trailer, but who really cares about that when they get to see the actual film?
Chapters 4 and 5 help us to understand the implications of this for us. How does it help? Ed explains how these truths show that the biblical requirement for sexual difference in marriage is not arbitrary, or even cruel, but is purposeful. He includes fascinating insights from secular authors, including gay men and women, who have found in their own experience that the lack of sexual difference in gay sex seems to be to its detriment. He also helps us see how our appreciation of human beauty is meant to point us to the beauty of God, and how this perspective on our sexualities can help us to think rightly about sexual pleasure and about sexual temptation.
The final chapter acknowledges that sexual temptation and unfulfilled sexual desires can still cause us to question God’s plan. Ed poses a brave question, ‘What does God know about how hard it is to try and express sexual feelings rightly? … He hasn’t really got a clue about what he’s asking of me, or of you – has he?’ (p.44). But then, still firmly rooted in Scripture, Ed shows us that God does.
In the incarnation, Jesus took on humanity, including a sexuality. Unlike us this sexuality was untainted by sin and was always expressed perfectly, but this means Jesus can understand, from the inside, our experience. And the glorious good news of the gospel, is that even though every one of us is a sexual sinner, we, in Christ, receive Jesus’ perfect sexual history and his constant help through the work of the Spirit in us. God is wonderfully able to help us to live out our sexualities well.
This is a book that shows us how we should talk about sexuality so that everyone—married or single, gay or straight—can recognise and enjoy their own sexuality as a good gift of God to them. I’m not sure I know of many—if any—other books that do that.
Leaders (including youth leaders) should read Purposeful Sexuality and teach what it explains. All of us who are Christians (including teenagers) should read it, be blessed by it, and receive the good news: our sexuality is purposeful.
Purposeful Sexuality will be published by IVP this Thursday (21st January).
Got Questions About Sexuality?
We all have lots of questions about sexuality and identity. These are questions that face us because sexuality has become one of the key areas of disagreement between Christians and non-Christians. Many of us used to feel most nervous about being quizzed on issues of science and creation, but now we're probably most nervous of questions about sexuality. But these questions also face us because we know they are relevant to real people, people made and loved by God, and loved by us. We have questions because we care. Wouldn't it be great if there was a free, easily accessible library of resources to help us with these questions? Well, good news, now there is.
Today, Living Out have launched a new website that is full of just the kind of resources we all need to help us as we work through our many questions about faith, sexuality and identity.
Living Out was launched a number of years ago by three same-sex attracted pastors. Since then, they’ve been serving the church in the UK and beyond through their website and training events, and many have already been helped by their work, including many of us who are ourselves same-sex attracted.
At this point, in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am not unbiased in my praise of Living Out. Last year I joined the team as an associate and have been working alongside them to bring the new website into being. I can genuinely say that joining the Living Out team was one of the highlights—perhaps even the highlight—of 2020 for me. They are a great group of people who deeply love Jesus and deeply love people (and who know how to have a good laugh).
Head over to the new website for lots of articles, reviews, and animations. Keep an eye on the blog where we’ll regularly be posting our musings and engaging with things going on in the world around us. Take a look at the church leaders’ area for resources specifically designed for those in leadership, and subscribe to our podcast, the first series of which will be interviews with some of those who have written for us (and the first episode of which is actually an interview with me).
Locked Down for 38 Years
Marie Durand was from a well-known Huguenot (Calvinist) family, at a time in French history when it was illegal to be an evangelical. At the age of fifteen, because of her whole family’s Gospel activities, she was imprisoned for her faith in Jesus. She spent the next thirty-eight years in lockdown. The authorities were particularly cruel. The door of her prison cell was left open. At any time she was free to walk out of prison. All she had to do was renounce her faith. She chose to stay in lockdown.
She was eventually released from prison aged fifty-three, which by eighteenth century standards made her an old woman. When her prison cell was examined, they found scrawled on the stone walls the word Resistez! This was her default position during her imprisonment: I will not give in, compromise, or bail out. She was absolute in her commitment to Jesus, however challenging her circumstances. And they really were challenging. On one occasion, rats gnawed part of her foot off.
One of the things that sustained Marie during her imprisonment was a book of Psalms, which Calvinists used as their main tool for worship in this period. If you open her little book to Psalm 42, you can still see the tear stains on its pages. As I meditated on that Psalm this morning a sense of grief at the loss of our corporate worship overwhelmed me:
My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be:
I walked amongst the crowds of worshippers, leading a great procession to the house of God,
Singing for joy and giving thanks
Amid the sound of a great celebration. (Palm 42:4 NLT)
If anyone had told me last March that we would go a whole year without face to face singing and corporate worship, I would have laughed in their face. This has been a profound loss for all of us. But if my grief is palpable, then what must Marie’s have been, as decade after decade of her lockdown continued?
But the Psalm does not end there:
Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise Him again – my Saviour and my God” (Psalm 42:11 NLT)
In all that we are living through right now, let’s keep a sense of perspective. And let’s keep our hearts and eyes focused on him.
Don’t Jump Over the Problem
The new year has not started as many of us would have hoped. Lockdown has returned, but this time combined with the potential disappointments of an unusual Christmas, the dark winter months, and the fatigue of what is nearing a year of huge disruption and, in many cases, huge losses. It's no surprise, then, that many of us are finding it tough.
For those of us in pastoral ministry, and just those of us who want to be good Christian friends, this raises questions like, how do we best help ourselves and others to navigate this time?
Many of us will rightly forefront the role of our relationship with God in helping us. Those of us who value a focus on the word and the Spirit will likely be encouraging ourselves and others towards both. It is through the word and the Spirit—and perhaps especially the Spirit working through the word—that we can experience comfort and encouragement. Whether as pastors or as friends, we can help each other through these times by pointing each other to God.
But I think it’s also important to help people realise that while these are helps, they are not the reason for the problem. What I mean is this: the fact that the presence of these things helps us, doesn’t mean that their absence is the original reason for our problem. This should shape how we encourage people towards them.
If we always jump straight to exhorting people to find comfort and encouragement by coming to God, we could imply that the reason someone is struggling is because they are failing to do this. For someone already struggling with their mental health, an exhortation just to focus on God’s word or to seek him through his Spirit could be heard as an accusation that their current plight is the result of their own spiritual laziness. It implies the problem stems from their choices or even from their sin, and so a good dose of guilt gets added to the struggles already present.
But often, our mental health struggles are not the result of our choices or our sin (though these, of course, can be a factor at play); often they are a result of our humanness.
The reason we’re finding these times so hard is not primarily because of our bad choices or our sin, it’s because they have taken away much of what we’re created to need (such as embodied relationships and gathering for corporate worship) and have increased our experience of the sorts of things that were never meant to be (such as death).
In the face of such difficulties, it is right that we exhort each other to look to God and to receive comfort and encouragement from him. But we should do so, recognising and openly acknowledging that our struggles are fitting and understandable; in a sense, they’re right. We should feel uncomfortable at the moment because much of the way God planned for us to live and to flourish has been disrupted.
When this is acknowledged, the feelings of guilt which can so often accompany and reinforce our mental health struggles are lifted and we are freed to draw near to God, to be honest with him, and, from that place, to seek his comfort and encouragement.
So, as tough times continue, let’s continue to exhort each other to look to God, to seek him in his word, and to be filled afresh with his Spirit. But let’s also remind each other that these times feel tough because they are, and that’s ok. It’s ok to feel that, it’s ok to admit that, and it’s even ok to take that to God. Let’s not jump over the problem in our desire to help and support.
Why a Dove?
The Hebrew word for dove is yonah. The word is familiar to readers of the Bible in English in the form of the name Jonah, which means “dove.” It comprises four Hebrew letters (yod, waw, nun, he), like the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton (yod, he, waw, he). Three of its letters are the same as three of the letters of the Divine Name. It looks quite like the Divine Name. In the story of the burning bush, there is a play on words between the Hebrew word ‘ehyeh (meaning “I am” or “I will be”) and the Divine Name (YHWH). The word ‘ehyeh is a case of a four-letter word (aleph, he, yod, he) that has three of its letters in common with the Divine Name. So my suggestion is that, in a period when Jews no longer spoke the Divine Name but still wrote it, it would be easy to see an association between the Divine Name and the Hebrew word for “dove.” What better symbol for the Spirit of the LORD than a bird whose name resembles the name of the LORD?
- Bauckham, Who Is God?, 96
Down the Bloody Alleyway By Himself
So Abraham prepares the animals. Obviously, however, God is not a human being to walk beside Abraham between animals. Abraham falls into a deep sleep, and in his sleep he sees a firepot, something to represent the presence of God. What is so stunning is that instead of the firepot moving between the animals side by side with Abraham (so that the two of them are saying, in effect, “May it be done to us if either of us breaks the covenant”), God goes down this bloody alleyway all by himself. He takes the full responsibility for the fulfilment of the covenant all by himself. That is grace.
- D. A. Carson, The God Who is There, 51-52
Lockdown is a state of being that encourages fantasies: the daydreams we have of what we would really like to be doing. For pastors, the pressures of this time can easily lead to schemes for escape being formulated. I’ve got friends who have been feeling at their lowest ever ebb over the past few weeks; I’ve felt pretty low myself. Giving up and doing something else can look very attractive.
The latest lockdown puts more pressure on pastors who have to decide whether to maintain in-person gatherings. A commitment to the significance of the gathered body and the necessity of regular corporate worship means many of us want to plough on; but there are many factors that might be pushing us to pause. In previous lockdowns the issue we had to deal with was how to respond to what felt like State overreach in limiting freedom of worship. In this lockdown we are still permitted to meet and that puts the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. What is the right thing to do?
A statement sent out by the Baptist Union to its member churches this week illustrates the issues.
We recognise that Government guidelines allow churches to remain open during this period. However, given the significant increase in numbers of Covid-19 infections and pressure on the NHS, we advise churches to stand with the wider community in making every effort to limit the spread of the virus.
We would still support churches as they open their buildings to provide vital services to the local community, such as food banks, as has been the case throughout the pandemic.
The pressure to ‘stand with the wider community’ by ceasing worship services is considerable. But is curtailing the public worship of God really the best way we stand with our communities? Might it not rather be a dereliction of our mission and witness? Why is it that things such as food banks should be considered ‘vital services’ but the public ministry of the word and worship should not? Haven’t we been told somewhere that man does not live by bread alone?
In the case of my church, we did not gather last Sunday and will not again this week, primarily because of the complexity of having a team able to run a service. I have been self-isolating due to contact with someone who had the virus, and then a positive test myself. (As is the case with most people who catch covid, my symptoms have been no worse than mild flu.) Other members of the team are needing to shield. So finding enough team who are actually allowed out in public is a challenge.
But practical limitations aside, the pastoral pressure of leading through the divisiveness of all this is considerable. It is challenging to manage the emotions of those who feel we should not meet and those who think we should; to manage the inner-conflict between not wanting to do anything that might cause a further spread of the virus while not wanting to deny fundamental spiritual convictions; to honour the consciences of those unwilling to meet together while wanting to speak courage into people – especially those who are at minimal objective risk (i.e. anyone under 60 with no pre-existing health issues).
It is very easy to start planning the escape route.
Just before Christmas I preached from the story of Elijah at Horeb. He was a man looking for an escape route. I preached it for myself but it might help other pastors who are feeling the pressure.
Pastor, I don’t know what you should do in your context – I’m not even too sure about what to do in mine – but I do know Elijah was so depressed he wanted to die and God told him he wasn’t finished yet.
A Year in Writing
I’m very excited about the release of God of All Things, which is out in March. I have always loved writing about God, and trying to explain who he is in short chapters which engage the mind and fire the heart. But unlike Incomparable, which was organised around abstract attributes of God (goodness, glory, etc), God of All Things starts with things in the real world: pigs, honey, mountains, fruit, salt, dust, bread, and so on. It then shows how Scripture uses that object to reveal something of God and his gospel. My hope is that it will fuel people’s joy in God, at a time when we could all do with rejoicing a bit more! You can pre-order it now.
In the Autumn, that will be followed by 1 Corinthians For You, which is a popular-level exposition of 1 Corinthians. Not only is this the letter I did my PhD research on; it’s also the first biblical text I preached through (and this book is definitely more like the latter than the former). I can’t think of another piece of Scripture that addresses so many pressing cultural issues in such a condensed fashion - division, leadership, sexuality, marriage, singleness, idolatry, spiritual gifts, communion, men and women - and all bookended by the cross and the resurrection. This is not a commentary for academics or pastors, but a guide for ordinary people (and/or people who preach to them!) You can read more here.
For most of the second half of the year, I have been working on a completely different sort of book, which is at the proposal stage at the moment (translation: we’re hawking it around publishers as we speak to see if anyone is interested). The working title is 1776: The Origin Story of the Post-Christian West. The big idea is that 1776 was the year that made us who we are, through a series of transformations (global, intellectual, industrial, economic, political, religious and Romantic) that are still reverberating today, and that if we want to understand the way the world is - and reach it more effectively - it will help us to know that story, why things turned out the way they did, and how the church can respond. If there is any interest in it, I’m sure I’ll be talking about it more in due course. In the meantime, if you’re wondering why I keep posting things about the eighteenth century - or running THINK conferences about theological history - this should explain it.
And finally, I wrote a short kids book called The Boy From the House of Bread. This, too, is at the proposal stage at the moment, but it’s basically the story of Jesus through the eyes of a child, based on all the things Jesus said and did regarding bread. Again, I’ll keep you posted.
Andi Bray and the team at St Andrew’s Bookshop have very kindly made me an author page on their website, for those who want to see my books that were, that are and that are yet to come. (I’m guessing they chose a photo with that shirt just to troll Jennie ...)
Happy New Year!
Viral Vaccine Vacillation
The approval and rollout of two Covid vaccines in the UK has been heralded by many as the answer we have been waiting for, and it has birthed hope that we may be able to return to some level of normality in 2021. However, not everyone is so pleased about the vaccines or so confident that they are such good news.
Some are raising understandable questions about the safety of the vaccines. It is wise to ask about the safety of any new medicine or vaccine, and the incredible speed with which these vaccines have been developed may make us even more inclined to do so in this case. We can benefit from looking into this and learning about the rigorous safeguards put in place for the testing and approval of new vaccines.
But these are not the only concerns being raised. A number of different ideas are circulating both online and offline. Some are convinced that the vaccines contain microchips which will be used to track and control those who receive them. Bill Gates is often believed to be one of the key masterminds behind this idea. There are also claims that the vaccines will alter DNA or that they contain fetal tissue. In Christian circles, some of these ideas are then being linked to concepts such as the mark of the beast in Revelation 13.
Many of us will dismiss these ideas as conspiracy theories and will assume that they will gain little traction among the people around us. I think that was probably my position initially, but over the past few weeks I have heard of people in UK churches who are considering or are even fully convinced of some of these ideas, and I have been approached by people in pastoral ministry unsure of what ideas are circulating and how to respond to them. For those of us in leadership, this is something we need to be informed about in order to be able to engage with people in helpful ways.
Since the internet has been part of the problem in the circulation of these ideas, it can be hard to know where is best to turn to find helpful engagement with them. Here are some resources I have found helpful.
There are a number of useful fact-checking articles that look at some of the misinformation circulating about the virus.
John Wyatt also continues to serve us well with both a FAQs article on the vaccines, offering helpful responses to questions about safety and the various theories, and a podcast on coronavirus misinformation.
Many of us will encounter these ideas about the vaccines because some Christians are linking them to certain passages in Revelation.
Last summer, Ian Paul posted a helpful article which talks more generally about the pandemic and the Book of Revelation and the ways in which it does and doesn’t speak to us about our day and age.
Over at the Logos Academic Blog, Tavis Bohlinger has a useful piece on ‘COVID-19 and the Mark of the Beast’, and Matthew L. Halsted directly addresses connections between the coronavirus vaccines the mark of the beast in ‘The Covid Vaccine has 666 Written All Over It…and Why that Doesn’t Matter According to Revelation’.
A Moment of Opportunity
Within the mess of this misinformation, there are also opportunities. There’s an opportunity to talk about truth, its importance and the fact that it needn’t be afraid of careful examination. We can talk about common grace and God’s kindness to us in the provision of scientists, scientific understanding, and medical technology. And we can talk about eschatology. In the context of fear about the mark of the beast, we can offer peace as we share the good news of the mark of the lamb (Revelation 7:3; 14:1).
My Strength and My Song
“Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the Lord God is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.”
- Isaiah 12:2
In October 2019 I was invited to write some Bible reading notes for Scripture Union’s Daily Bread, to appear at Christmas 2020.
At the time, we expected Brexit to (again) dominate the year, and many people were fearful, anxious and downright angry about all that it might entail. So as I wrote the notes, on the first few chapters of Isaiah, I was conscious that many readers might be in greater need of encouragement, and a greater need to be pointed to the eternal truths of our hope in Jesus.
These chapters lent themselves particularly well to this theme, and as I read them through again this autumn, with 2020 hindsight (yes, I said it), I was pleased to see that they had stood the test of time, and was hopeful that they might have provided some encouragement to readers at the end of a very difficult year.
Yesterday, New Year’s Eve, the passage assigned was Isaiah 12. Here it is in full. Is there any better way to step over the threshold of the year than proclaiming, ‘Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid’?
The Lord Is My Strength and My Song
12 You will say in that day:
“I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
that you might comfort me.
2 “Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the Lord God is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.”
3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day:
“Give thanks to the Lord,
call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted.
5 “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be made known in all the earth.
6 Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
To read the rest of my reflection on the chapter, and the rest of the series, click here.
Happy New Year.
An End of Year Message
While my fellow Think ‘writers’ have veered between covid-fence-sitting (how’s that bottom feeling?) and covid-scepticism, I took the altogether wiser course of complete covid-compliance. Frankly, it was simply not worth the potential loss to my parishioners and many other fans to risk myself to the slightest chance of infection, and the almost inevitable fatal consequences that would have followed. (To my mind Neil Fergusson’s models were way too conservative – and didn’t even give due consideration to mustelids: think of the mink Neil, think of the mink.) Hence, I decided to cut myself off from the world.
Unfortunately this self-imposed exile has included a great reluctance even to touch my computer. Despite constructing a series of airlocks in the family holt, with plastic sheeting dividing communal spaces into individual cells and a strict 48 hour quarantine period between different members of the family using shared facilities (yes, this has caused some distress when it has come to toilet needs, but – I’m sure you’ll agree – one can’t be too careful; plus developing such comprehensive bladder control will surely serve a multitude of good uses in the future) it has not been unknown for Mrs S to sneak onto my laptop when my back has been turned – and at times this even without the comprehensive PPE such a manoeuvre clearly required. She claims this has been necessary in order to order online groceries. But surely starvation would have been preferable to the risk of contaminating her husband? Some people are just so selfish. Hence, I have chosen to keep away from the keyboard, only making an exception for this end of year message after suitably vigorous application of sanitizer and wipes. Even so it feels like a risk – but I am, when all is said and done, an otter of faith.
So it has been a quiet year: one of solitary meditation. I feel confident that this reset will enable me to build back better in 2021 though. I’m sure the members of Ring of Bright Water have been just fine without me and will come flocking back once we do finally start meeting again – maybe October is a not unrealistic date to aim for. In the meanwhile I will be working on an updated edition of my bestselling Puffed Up: A Theology of Arrogance, with a new chapter about the vital and ongoing value of facemasks. I have a number of other exciting ideas in the pipeline, and am negotiating with various prestigious publishing houses. Working titles so far include, Brexit: Why they should have asked me; USA2020: A socio-theological exploration of a turbulent year; and NHS Crisis: What Crisis? I have the answer!
Happy New Year everyone!
Have Yourself an Augustinian Little Christmas
But with that blessing comes a significant risk: that Christmas will become even less about Christ than it often can be. I don’t mean in the nation as a whole; I take that as read. I mean in my own heart, and yours. We may tumble into this season with so much relief that the rules are relaxed, and that we can do something that feels normal at the end of such an abnormal year, that we pin our hopes for joy on the celebration of this week, rather than the One we are celebrating. I am very aware of that danger in my own life. “All my streams are found in bubbles,” or words to that effect.
They aren’t. Nor are yours. I am not created to find joy and hope in my family or community, any more than I am created to find it in presents or shopping. I don’t want to jump out of the frying pan of materialism into the fire of mingling.
This week I need to find my joy in God, or I will flounder. I need to drink from the fountain, not the broken cistern of family (as much as I love them). Take the world, and give me Jesus. Augustine was right: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
So if you see me out and about on Eastbourne seafront in the next few days, there’s a fair chance I’ll be reading Richard Bauckham’s Who Is God?, or listening to Jules Burt’s All I Want (which, by the way, is a magnificent summary of the Confessions Book I):
Concluding Corona Comments
1. The value of humility
A characteristic of our age is the expression of strong opinions in a manner that is not conducive to intelligent dialogue. Social media, followed increasingly by conventional media, encourages shouting rather than listening, polarisation rather than consensus and the positioning of those with whom we disagree as morally suspect enemies. These tendencies have not been helpful in working out the best response to the virus.
Way back in April, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Paul Collier observed,
In a world that has inevitably become too complex to be adequately captured in models, a world of both “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”, the most sensible response to the question “what should we do?” is “I don’t know”.
Of course, national leaders are not permitted to say, “I don’t know.” We expect them to know, or at least act as though they do. But as Collier explains,
At the onset of this crisis, we could not put probabilities on which forms of social distancing would best limit its spread because we’d never done it before. We didn’t know how people would alter their behaviour in response to the appeal to “save the NHS”. We didn’t even know whether reducing the spread was desirable: perhaps fewer deaths now would come at the cost of more next winter. And these were just the known unknowns. With a disruption as big as this, unknown unknowns are also lurking. We have no experience of the material and economic repercussions from shutdowns of this nature and their aftermath in a modern economy, and no meaningful way of assigning probabilities; nor of how people’s behaviour will evolve.
Eight months on and a lot of those unknowns remain unknown. Yes, we know more now about the virus than we did in April, but as the response to the latest increase in cases in the UK demonstrates, there is still a lot we do not know. One thing we do know is that in light of our lack of knowing it is wise to show some humility.
2. The dangers of idolatry
In his book Counterfeit Gods Tim Keller writes,
One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There is no hope!”
Keller is writing about politics but that paragraph could just as well be applied to how in the UK we regard the NHS. It can feel as if the NHS is the one national institution that is beyond criticism and for which all else must be sacrificed.
One of the problems with this devotion to the NHS is the impossible expectations it places upon those who work within it.
A hospital doctor told me,
Senior clinicians and nurses who have worked for decades say this is like nothing before experienced. There is such a lot of distress voiced - incredibly sick patients, unpredictable clinical trajectory (this disease continues to turn on a sixpence), huge sense of responsibility, playing the role of surrogate family members. A lot of tears and fear for January. These are highly committed, highly competent people.
A recent study suggested that 40% of ITU staff meet the criteria for PTSD. This is something like four times higher than amongst troops in the gulf war.
This toll on medical staff is shocking but is perhaps the inevitable consequence of the constant messaging we have received telling us that ‘our wonderful NHS’ will always save all our lives. No institution, far less any individual, can sustain that level of expectation. If the NHS becomes our functional saviour – our counterfeit god – we are setting ourselves up for a fall. Not only is it impossible for the NHS to guarantee all of us permanent good health and never-ending life but by placing that kind of burden on the institution we risk burning out the people responsible for keeping it operating. We need a more substantial God than that.
3. Changing attitudes to death
It is fascinating to ask those old enough to remember 1968 or 1957 how they handled the pandemics of those years and see the blank looks that question generates. Despite those pandemics claiming more lives than has Covid-19 so far no one seems to remember them because life continued as normal – no lockdowns, no facemasks, no social distancing, no panic. Our response has been very different this time around. Part of the reason for that must be the ‘unknowns’ of this virus – when it first struck we didn’t know if it might be the ‘big one’, a virus that might take huge numbers of lives. It now seems clearer that this is not the case but we remain very nervous about death and with a strangely distorted perception of its realities.
As has often been pointed out, the average age of death with Covid is almost the same, or even older, than average life expectancy (life expectancy in the UK, 2017-19, was for men 79.4 years, and for women 83.1 years. Average age of death with covid seems to be around 82-83 years.). So far 67,000 people have died in the UK within 28 days of a positive test for the virus. This is a large number but should be measured against the total number we would expect to die anyway: in 2019 530,841 people died in England & Wales. (By way of comparison, it is also worth bearing in mind that last year in England & Wales there were 207,384 abortions.)
All this is sociologically interesting but it clearly prompts theological considerations too. Positively, we might see evidence that we have become more caring. We are not so willing as perhaps we once were simply to allow those in their 80s & 90s to be carried off by disease. Less positively we might see this trend as a reflection of our increased sense that this life ‘is all there is’. Without confidence in God and the promise of life beyond the grave, those who have ‘eternity set in their hearts’ (Eccl. 3:11) will want to hold onto life for as long as possible.
These three observations provide opportunities and challenges for us in the months ahead. Christ’s church should herself display humility (‘Brothers, we are not epidemiologists’), yet needs also to speak with a prophetic voice that will at times provoke opposition. To call people from idolatry and fear and to put their trust in the living God is to invite scorn and anger – as well as a joyful response in some. But isn’t that the message of Christmas? As we end one year and prepare for another we do so proclaiming ‘the God of glory and Lord of love’. Virus or no virus, that doesn’t change.
Let There Be Light
When You Get What You Wanted in a Way You Didn’t
- Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 273 (emphasis added)
What is God Saying Through 2020?
These perspectives are not necessarily wrong. But the fact that I have encountered all of them in the last nine months, and that you have too—and that you were rarely surprised by which friend, acquaintance or public figure made which comment—gives me pause. It makes me suspicious that my own analysis of the situation is, likewise, skewed by my priors. It reminds me that the phrase “we have learned” can simply be a way of saying “I believe” that makes it harder to argue with. It makes me wonder whether similar things are true of answers to the question “What is God saying through 2020?”
Having said all that, I want to ask that question anyway. As regular readers will know, I am inclined towards jaundice when I read hot takes about new phenomena and how they will change everything forever; I have a strong preference for cold takes instead. (This is partly a function of personality: some people adopt new ideas quickly, whereas my working assumption when I hear about a New Thing is that either it won’t change the world or it shouldn’t, and if it happens to be a big deal, I can always adjust to it later.) But nine months have now passed. Things have cooled. And I believe in a God who is sovereign over all things, and who speaks today. So as we approach the end of this bummer of a year, it feels appropriate to ask: In the providence of God, what was all that about?
The Wisdom of James
In February I spent a week in India with my friend Jason Shields, visiting pastors from all over the country, worshipping in four or five languages, eating magnificent food, and teaching through the epistle of James. I had never gone through the letter in a systematic way before, and it did me a huge amount of good. But I had no idea how far the wisdom of James would be vindicated by, and needed for, the events of March onwards: Covid, lockdowns, George Floyd, Trump, vaccines, and so forth. Seriously: if you read the letter from beginning to end right now, I challenge you not to marvel at how much it reads like a theological and ethical commentary on 2020. Here are five examples that struck me, although there are no doubt many others:
1. “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness ... Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial, for when they have stood the test they will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (1:2-3, 12). This has been a year in which “trials of various kinds” have come upon all of us. For many of our global brothers and sisters, every year is like that. But for most people reading this, the average year is characterised by a handful of (often fairly predictable) trials, rather than a plethora of ones that could not possibly have been foreseen last January. Speaking personally, it has been very difficult to “count it all joy”: the loss of gathered church meetings, singing, and the Lord’s Supper for much of the year, to take just three examples, has meant that several of my main sources of joy fuel have all but disappeared. But James is right. It is precisely because we are facing trials that we need to count it all joy, because the testing of our faith—which we have all experienced this year—produces steadfastness. So yes, this year has been a bit rubbish all round. But James says that it is producing steadfastness in us which itself will bring us to the crown of life. That’s one thing God is saying through 2020.
2. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27). Churches are often complex organisations. We have multiple staff, run dozens of programmes and mobilise hundreds of volunteers to serve thousands of people. But when a pandemic strikes, much of that disappears overnight. Many of our activities cannot be sustained in a safe way. So crises force us to ask the question: what is essential around here? We can do all sorts of things, but what must we do? And the answer is twofold, based on the two things the church is irreducibly here to do: meeting together to worship God and declare the gospel, and serving the poor, or what James calls “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father.” Covid has winnowed our programmes. Even though we will quickly reinstate many of them (and I think the loss of some of them, like getting young people together, has been a real challenge for people), that process will have done us good.
3. “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory ... if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors ... faith apart from works is dead” (2:1, 9, 26). There are a great many biblical texts we could reflect on in light of the death of George Floyd, and the protests that ensued, but this is as good a starting point as any. Partiality is antithetical to the gospel. If the Lord of glory died for you, without regard to anything you have done, then you cannot treat some people preferentially relative to others on the basis of their wealth or social status (in James’s context), or race or mental health (in ours). The objection that Scripture does not identify the sin of racism specifically, because in its current form it did not exist yet, is true but irrelevant, for the simple reason that it speaks so emphatically about the sin of partiality, not least in this letter. And if those of us in the majority are tempted to move quickly into yeah-buttery at this point—yeah but I’m not racist myself, yeah but white people are killed by police too, yeah but some of the aims of #BLM are terrible, yeah but abortion, or whatever it is—we might be wise to consider James 1:19 first. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
4. “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (3:14-16). This is clearly not a comment about whether a person should vote for Donald Trump (although it will not surprise anyone to hear that I wouldn’t have). But we should note the sorts of consequences that flow from normalising, or even celebrating, Trump-like behaviour—and the uncomfortable ways in which the events of the last few weeks have demonstrated that.
5. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (4:13-15). This is the main lesson I have learned this year, and it is not one I find easy. Every cancelled meeting, lunch, trip, conference, flight or holiday has borne witness to a truth that the biblical writers saw very clearly, yet wealthy middle class Western people like me find very hard to grasp: I am not in control. I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, let alone next year. I am a mist. I am here for a little while, and then I vanish. I have no idea whether I, or someone I love, will catch Covid in the next week, nor how badly. My plans are subject to the will of God, and so is my life.
There are a great many other things we can learn from 2020. (Collin Hansen has a great list here, from a US perspective; I would add the repeated exposure of hypocrisy amongst our scientific, political and media influencers, and the loss to society as a whole when the church stops meeting, among others.) There are also a great many other things we can learn from James: the judgment upon the rich, the power of prayer, the need to control our speech, and so forth.
But in a letter known more for its ethical imperatives than its evangelical indicatives, we would do well to finish by reflecting on the grace that suffuses the text, even when it seems to be about something else. Every good and perfect gift comes from above (1:17). Our faith is brought forth by God’s will and God’s word (1:18). Wisdom comes from above (3:15). The purpose of the Lord is compassionate, and merciful (5:11), and he loves raising people up and forgiving them in answer to prayer (5:15). And in spite of everything—loneliness, confusion, lockdown, Zoom—if you draw near to God, he will draw near to you (4:8). In all the darkness and disappointment of this year, what God is saying to his church is the same as it has always been. “But he gives more grace” (4:6).
This Side of History. Right.
It is a very important and relevant question – in many ways the key question of our ‘cultural moment’ as it contains so many other questions about the way in which contemporary western society thinks and operates.
What Trueman accomplishes superbly is to demonstrate for how long the cultural trends have been gestating that have made transgenderism the phenomenon it is today. Tracing the story through the influence of Rousseau, the Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud and the New Left he demonstrates that transgenderism hasn’t simply appeared from nowhere but is the logical consequence of trends stretching back two hundred years.
There’s a lot in Self that is, certainly from a conservative Christian perspective, profoundly depressing but Trueman is explicit in stating that his aim is neither polemic nor lament; rather it is a history explaining, albeit partially, how we got where we are. As such it is tremendously helpful.
However, a friend asked me another very good question: whether the book itself is digestible. It’s certainly demanding in places. If you’ve read Trueman’s blog posts you might, like me, struggle through parts of Self thinking, ‘I’m sure I’ve heard him say this in a pithier way someplace else.’ That’s the difference between a blog post and a book length treatment of a subject and it might make the book a little off putting to some. For those who don’t have much background in the history and personalities Self deals with I would recommend first reading Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought, which offers (from an author with no commitment to Christianity) a very lucid account of the philosophical currents that have shaped western society. Then I would recommend Michael Banner’s Christian Ethics, which covers much of the same ground as Self but is about a quarter of the length.
I know that many readers of Think are pastors and as pastors we want some practical answers. This is not the purpose of Self but in the final half dozen pages Trueman does make three suggestions about what the church might be doing given his rather bleak analysis. These are worth considering here (and worth reading the whole of the book to understand more fully).
Firstly, that we should not allow the aesthetic strategy of the wider culture to dictate our beliefs and practice. Contemporary beliefs (‘I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body’) are to a large extent based on emotional responses to personal stories – our cultural desire for the ‘authentic’ means that subjective personal narrative gains more legitimacy than objective fact. We must beware this being the paradigm by which we operate in the church.
In relation to LGBTQ+ issues Trueman states,
If sex-as-identity is itself a category mistake, then the narratives of suffering, exclusion, and refusals of recognition based on that category mistake are really of no significance in determining what the church’s position on homosexuality should be. That is not to say that pastoral strategies aimed at individuals should not be compassionate, but what is and is not compassionate must always rest on deeper, transcendent commitments. Christianity…is dogmatic, doctrinal, assertive.
That is a statement that would make many a culturally sensitive pastor splutter on their oat milk latte but it bears careful reflection. Those of us who come from the evangelical tradition, with our emphasis upon ‘giving testimony’, can very easily slide into a form of ministry which is more about the stories individuals tell than the claims the gospel makes. That leads to Christianity as therapy rather than truth claim.
Secondly, that the church must be a community. In an era when expressive individualism is king the church needs to push with more determination into genuine and meaningful community. Trueman notes that contemporary phrases such as ‘online community’ now, ‘make sense because we know how the very idea of community has been evacuated of the notion of bodily proximity and presence.’
At the end of a year in which bodily proximity and presence has been so restricted this feels even more challenging than it already did.
And thirdly, ‘Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body.’ When pastors are faced by questions around issues like transgenderism or surrogacy – which increasingly we are – they need to be able to provide a coherent biblical position. This is a challenge as many pastors are simply not equipped to give such answers. The issues are so complex and fast moving it can be very difficult for the ‘average’ pastor who has no end of other matters to attend to, to know how to respond.
To accomplish these three things feels overwhelmingly difficult in the face of the culture in which we minister. But there is hope. The internal inconsistencies of the current cultural narrative mean that the edifice will collapse at some point – maybe not in my lifetime but it will happen. In the meanwhile our churches can be refuges from the madness of the world where in genuine community and with shared doctrinal commitments we hold together in the teeth of the storm. Rather than seeking to be ‘on the right side of history’ by understanding our history we can build for a better future. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a very helpful tool in that project.
Keeping Up with the Conversation
The transgender conversation moves at an incredible pace. There is so much going on that it’s pretty much impossible to keep up. But it’s an important conversation. Important because it is about the difficult, real-life experiences of people made and loved by God, and also important because it is a prominent cultural conversation where a number of significant issues converge. My perception is that there have been some significant developments in the conversation over the last year, so here’s a quick summary of some of these and some reflections on how we should respond as Christians.
One of the big debates in terms of legislation has been what should be required for an individual to be able to change their legal gender and to gain an updated birth certificate. Under the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (for England and Wales), there are fairly strict criteria that must be met before someone can legally change their gender, including a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and at least two years living in the new gender.
In 2018 the government launched a consultation on the Gender Recognition Act with one of the potential changes being the introduction of a self-ID system in which individuals would be able to change their legal gender without a medical diagnosis. The consultation sparked quite a response as people expressed concerns about the impact on single-sex spaces and the safety of women.
Despite considerable support for self-ID in the consultation responses, the government has decided not to make changes to the Gender Recognition Act, arguing that the legislation as it stands strikes the right balance. They have, however, committed to making the process cheaper and to reducing waiting times for the NHS gender identity service.
Continued Debate Over Support for Transgender Teens
The question of how best to care for children and teenagers who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria is one of the most debated in the ongoing conversation, and the NHS Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) has been an area of controversy for a number of years.
Staff have raised concerns, and some have even resigned, unhappy about the treatment that is being offered, often expressing concerns that little attempt is made to offer a proper psychological evaluation to patients and that the service is being shaped by trans activists rather than by good medicine. Internal investigations confirmed these claims, but little has been done in response and the investigation findings were later rejected.
A lawsuit against the GIDS was started by a parent and nurse concerned about the misleading way puberty blockers are presented and the lack of thorough psychological assessment given before blockers are offered to patients. An ex-patient of the GIDS, Keira Bell, later joined as the lead claimant, and last week the court ruled that those under 16 are not old enough to give informed consent to what is effectively an experimental treatment that is likely to have life-long impacts. They also suggested that these factors mean a court should probably be involved in the decision to prescribe puberty blockers for 16- and 17-year olds.
This is a hugely significant ruling that will affect the international conversation on this topic and will cause a change to the shape of the treatment offered to young people with gender dysphoria. In turn, this will hopefully protect many young people from embarking on life-altering treatment that often doesn’t, in the long run, deliver the results it promises and will ensure better support for these young people, as factors which lie behind their distress will be further explored and addressed.
In September, the NHS announced that they were commissioning an independent review into the GIDS, and the recent legal case will no doubt feed into that review. This part of the conversation has seen some significant moments recently, but it is far from over.
Long Term Impact of an Affirming Approach
One of the most difficult questions in the transgender conversation has been about the long-term effectiveness of an affirming approach in which individuals are encouraged and helped to live in line with gender identity rather than biological sex. Is transitioning, often culminating in sex reassignment surgery (SRS), effective in improving the lives of those with gender dysphoria?
The reality is, despite the clear perspectives put forward on both sides, it is hard to say. While there have been a number of studies that found positive outcomes, these have tended to be based on fairly small sample sizes, without any form of control group, and covering only a short period of time. Reliable, long-term studies based on good methodology have been few and far between.
This year has seen a few significant publications in this area. Interestingly this has included a couple that openly challenge the conclusions of previous publications, a positive sign that true discussion and debate are being increasingly allowed.
The first was a correction to a paper published last year. The original paper claimed that SRS led to a decrease in transgender people seeking treatment for mental health problems such as depression, especially when the individuals were a number of years past surgery. This was widely reported in the media as proof of the effectiveness of SRS. However, after the paper was published, many academics challenged the conclusions of the study observing problems with its methodology. As a result, in August this year, a correction was published which acknowledged the weaknesses of the methodology used and the fact that these meant the conclusions drawn were ‘too strong’. It also acknowledged that further consideration of the data ‘demonstrated no advantage of surgery’ in relation to mental health.
The second significant publication was a letter challenging the claims of an earlier paper which had concluded that, when it comes to psychological support, anything other than an affirming approach is harmful to those with gender dysphoria. Again, this claim was widely reported in the media and was even referenced in a paper from the UN Human Rights Council. The letter published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour highlighted the methodological problems in the original study and noted that the same data could be explained in different ways. The authors acknowledge that there is as of yet little good research into the potential positive impact of psychological interventions, but note that this needs to be allowed so that the best ways of helping those with gender dysphoria can be found.
This year also saw the publication of a significant study that looked at rates of depression, anxiety, and adjustment and somatoform disorders in those who have undergone SRS and, importantly, compared this group with a parallel group of people who hadn’t had SRS. The study found considerably increased experiences of mental health problems among those who had undergone SRS, suggesting that the treatment may not be as effective in producing positive outcomes as has sometimes been claimed.
None of these letters or studies gives us a one-time, clear-cut answer to the question of whether an affirming approach is effective in improving the life experience of people with gender dysphoria, but they are significant contributions to the ongoing research, and they highlight the importance of good methodology in any studies we look to in seeking to answer this key question.
A Christian Response
How should we as Christians respond to these developments?
First, I think there are some things to give thanks for. One of the primary concerns for Christians should be to seek the safety and wellbeing of those who are vulnerable. We should therefore be particularly concerned about safeguarding children and young people. The scrutiny under which the GIDS is currently being placed is a positive thing if it ensures that vulnerable young people are being protected from potentially unhelpful treatments and ideology. We can also give thanks that there is an increasing willingness among academics to engage in a true debate about the effectiveness of an affirming approach as this could potentially also feed into protecting a vulnerable group – adults experiencing the pain of gender dysphoria.
There is, however, also still much to pray for. The recent court ruling on puberty blockers may protect young people from being fast-tracked to treatment that is experimental and possibly harmful, but we must remember that the young people seeking the support of the GIDS are still experiencing distress. We must pray for good, evidence-based care to be provided for these young people. Likewise, if evidence is growing that an affirming approach does not bring long-term peace to adults with gender dysphoria we must pray for better support to be offered to help them navigate life. Ultimately, we must pray because we know that this is a conversation about real people.
I think these developments also provide an encouragement for us to keep on holding fast to what the Bible teaches us about our identity as men and women. We are seeing the beginning of what may be a turning of the tide in cultural opinion on this topic. We are seeing evidence that the Bible’s call to us to live in line with our biological sex is actually the best thing for us, even if there are sometimes difficulties in this. We are seeing an increasing realisation that gender stereotypes are often not helpful, that our biological sex is unchanging and unchangeable, and that this gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are.
It does look like we could, in the long term, be heading towards a change in the dominant perspective on transgender in our culture, at very least in relation to children and teenagers. If when this change does come, we as Christians are those who throughout the cultural debate have put forward a perspective which is later proved to be the most loving and life-giving, it will be a glorious demonstration to those around us of God’s wisdom and compassion and of the goodness of God’s word. We need to hold fast to what God says, trusting and proclaiming that it is good news. And we do this both out of love for God and love for our neighbour.
Verifying You’re Not a Robot
Books of the Year 2020
1. Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. My book of the year. For about a month in the summer, I took this book with me in the morning and read a chapter each day, as slowly and meditatively as I know how. It is a stunning book, packed with beautiful truths expressed poignantly and applied wisely, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
2. James K. A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. A wonderful fusion of Augustine’s life story, the parable of the prodigal son, a road trip, and Augustinian insights that put our restless desires into context. A delight to read.
3. Carl Trueman, The Rise And Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution. A genealogy of the modern self, from the Romantics to the present, with all kinds of fascinating historical narrative, and plenty of application to the major debates and kerfuffles of the century so far. Superbly written as well.
4. Hannah Anderson, Turning of Days: Lessons from Nature, Season and Spirit. Hannah’s book is not out yet (sorry about that), but it will be in February, and when it is, you should take a look. It’s a searching, reflective, devotionally rich book on the seasons, the natural order and Scripture, with an abundance of spiritual and theological connections made between them.
5. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus. Morales deserves credit for writing a book about Leviticus in the first place, let alone doing it in a way that brings the book to life, joins the dots between the major themes, fuels worship, and fosters a desire for the presence of God. Rich biblical theology.
1. Peter Moore, Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World. My favourite nonfiction title of the year, this book focuses on the first ship in which Captain Cook sailed around the world. It began life as a Whitby collier, circumnavigated the globe, got stuck on the Great Barrier Reef, joined the war against America, and ended up (or did it?) on the moon. An astonishing story with one of the great final paragraphs of any book I have read.
2. Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future. Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Joseph Priestly, Josiah Wedgewood and a bunch of other luminaries (or lunaries) were all members of the Lunar Society in Birmingham in the late eighteenth century. This marvellous book tells the story of what they did, discovered and invented, and how it changed the modern world.
3. Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. You are WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic—and the reason for that is the Western Church, and specifically their prohibition on marrying your cousins. A surprising thesis, with more supporting arguments and charts than you can shake a stick at. (Here’s my review it for The Gospel Coalition.)
4. Tara Westover, Educated. I am a little late to the party on this one, but Tara Westover’s memoir, of being raised in a Mormon, survivalist junkyard and ending up in Cambridge and Harvard, is the sort of book you never forget reading, and in places is quite literally unbelievable.
5. Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. Religious scepticism has been around for much longer than you think. Ryrie’s argument stops where we might expect it to start (with the high Enlightenment), and starts with Pope Gregory IX in 1239. “The crucial juncture in the history of atheism,” he argues, “is the period before the philosophers made it intellectually respectable.” Again, here’s my TGC review.
1. Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. Oh, to be able to write like this. A magnificent ending to the trilogy.
2. Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. The tale of two girls trying to reach America was the most exciting story I read this year.
3. Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing. An evocative, rich, absorbing and charming novel, which I’m guessing book-lovers have already read.
4. Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. The shortest, paciest and most gripping of the three books in the Wolf Hall series.
5. Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles: A Family History, 2029-2047. I read this just as the Covid lockdown started, and the parallels freaked me out. Disorientingly plausible.
Top Ten Old Books
Irenaeus, A Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching
Augustine, Letter to Proba
Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule
Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man
Leszek Kołakowski, Is God Happy? Selected Essays
John Betz, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann
Walter Kaiser, Walking the Ancient Paths: A Commentary on Jeremiah
Philip Jenkins, Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions
Tim Keller, How to Reach the West Again: Six Essential Elements of a Missionary Encounter
Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead: Reading the Past in Search of a Tranquil Mind
Nijay Gupta, The New Testament Commentary Guide
David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans
Rudyard Kipling, The Gardener
Peter Leithart, The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes, Vol. II
Jen Wilkin, Ten Words To Live By
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Thomas Chatterton Williams, Unlearning Race: Self-Portrait in Black and White
Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the Modern World
Mike Betts, The Prayers of Many
Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
Isaac Adams, Training: How Do I Grow as a Christian?
Sharon Dickens, Character: How Do I Change?
Garrett Kell, Church: Do I Have to Go?
Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Roy Hattersley, John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning
Peter Mead, The Little Him Book
Jack Deere, Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit
Jeremy Bentham, Short Review of the Declaration
Justin Bass, The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Historical Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
Mark Greengrass, Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648
Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments
Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees
Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote
Mez McConnell, The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse
Jesse Norman, Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why it Matters
Rachel Jankovic, You Who: Why You Matter and How to Deal With It
*C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
Peter Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Practical Law of Liberty
Patrick Schreiner, The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine
James Chelsum, Remarks on the Two Last Chapters of Mr Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Richard Watson, An Apology for Christianity in a Series of Letters Addressed to Edward Gibbon Esq
Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, A Call to Act
A. J. Culp, Invited to Know God: The Book of Deuteronomy
The Declaration of Independence, With Short Biographers of its Signers
Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming: The War for America, 1775-1777
Jennie Pollock, If Only: Finding Joyful Contentment in the Face of Lack and Longing
John Lennox, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World?
Thomas Paine, American Crisis No 1
Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook
J. D. Greear, Searching for Christmas
Peter Ackroyd, Revolution: The History of England, Volume IV
John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ
Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
David McCullough, 1776: America and Britain at War
Robert Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life
PJ Smyth, Elders: Developing Potential Elders and Revitalising Existing Elders
*George Orwell, Animal Farm
Philipp Blom, Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendships in Pre-Revolutionary Paris
*Jeffrey Archer, A Matter of Honour
Roger Osborne, Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
F. Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary
Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way)
Bruno Maçães, History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America
Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics
*Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power
*C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
*D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers
Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success
Vic Gatrell, The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age
David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit
Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography
Roger Osborne, Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy
1776: A London Chronicle
*C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
*Peter Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns
Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Lucy Atkins, Magpie Lane
Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution
Gerald Bray, Preaching the Word with John Chrysostom
Peter Leithart, The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes, Vol. I
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair
Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy
Rico Tice, Faithful Leaders and the Things That Matter Most
Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
Carl Laferton and Catalina Echeverri, The God Contest
William Rowe, China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing
*Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
Margaret Jacob, The Secular Enlightenment
Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow
Gene Veith, Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture
*Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years
*John Houghton, Hagbane’s Doom
David Scott, Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power
C. S. Lewis, Spirits in Bondage
Jerry White, London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing
Ed Shaw, Purposeful Sexuality
Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God
Central to the final decimation of the Xhosa was their own national suicide. As a pastoral people the Xhosa’s wealth and survival depended on their herds of cattle but in response to a prophecy they began to slaughter them. The prophecy proclaimed that doing this would lead to national resurrection and the invaders being hurled back into the sea. It was clearly a form of collective madness but was seized on with fervour and any who resisted the narrative – the Unbelievers – were compelled to comply.
It would be hard to convey the terrible emotional struggle that the killing imposed. There were sufficient doubts even among the most energetic killers of cattle to create great mental disturbance. There must have been intense regret as one looked at a favourite ox, the winner perhaps of many splendid races, at beloved milking cows, and painful alarm at the sight of the whole herd grazing about the kraal of a deceased chief – meant to die a natural death – all to be sacrificed in faith. It must have been particularly terrifying to contemplate at that marvellous hour, milking time, when the boys went out to their allotted cows, when the swift, purple dusk flickered with numerous fires and the singing that accompanied the hour grew steadily more harmonious and cheerful, anticipatory, as all awaited the evening meal, and then knowing that once carried through to the end there would be an evening when no cows came home, no one went to milk, the milk sacks were empty and all would be waiting, silent, hungry, songless. Not difficult therefore to understand the hesitations, the stopping and starting that marked the initial pace of the cattle killing. Nevertheless it continued and those who seriously believed and killed saw those who failed to do as enemies who compromised their own sacrifice and belief.
The result? Not resurrection, but starvation, death and the defeat of a nation.
Strange how these things can happen.
Sprained or Broken
Many is the time I’ve tripped over tree roots when running. Get up quickly, hope it hasn’t been witnessed – so embarrassing – smear blood off battered knees, stretch out, walk it off.
I ran home to get the car while Grace ‘walked it off’. I reckoned it was bruised ligaments. She reckoned it was like the pain of childbirth. Eventually I took her to hospital, and yes, broken not sprained. In a boot through to the new year.
Without proper analysis it can be hard to discern what is going on. Paul’s instruction to warn the idle, encourage the disheartened and help the weak (1 Thess. 5:14) is like this. Someone is displaying a lot of pain or weakness – what is the correct diagnosis? Are they weak (broken)? Are they discouraged (sprained)? Or lazy (and in need of being stretched)?
The thing is, the symptoms of these three conditions can look quite similar. People in any of the categories might look like they come under our contemporary catch-all of ‘depressed’, but a wrong diagnosis can have very unhelpful results. The idle, disruptive person will become more lazy if we only speak comforting, encouraging, words to them. The disheartened person isn’t going to be helped if we simply tell them to pull themselves together. The weak person isn’t helped if we tell them they will be able to carry a load – to walk it off – if they just put their mind to it.
At the moment there are a lot of people who look depressed. Many of them actually are. We’ve seen the lockdown stats: the rise in loneliness, suicide, domestic violence and so on. But others have become discouraged by the stupor-inducing climate. Lethargy has taken over while action is possible. And there are others who have actively embraced the easily provided excuse of dialling out and not bothering because they are fundamentally lazy.
Paul makes it clear to the Thessalonians that we all have a responsibility to correctly diagnose and treat one another’s injuries. The instruction to ‘warn, encourage, help’ is to the congregation at large, not only the pastors. So do some diagnosis. Ask some questions. Get a second opinion. Take a spiritual x-ray. And then help – in a way that has the potential to heal and not make things worse.
Made for Friendship
I have an oddly vivid memory from my teenage years of learning that God wasn’t my friend. The revelation came when I heard that a church elder had declared the song ‘Draw Me Close to You’ to be ridiculous because of the line ‘I lay it all down again, to hear you say that I’m your friend.’
As time when on I became more and more suspicious of this judgement—I found that James said Abraham was a friend of God (James 2:23), and actually, he wasn’t the first to say that (2 Chron. 20:7), indeed God himself had said it (Isa. 41:8). Now, I’m prepared to admit that I’m far from being Abraham, but it made me realise that perhaps the idea of being God’s friend isn’t so crazy after all. Then I discovered that Jesus calls his followers friends (John 15:15). Maybe God was my friend.
Over the same period of time, I was beginning to realise how important friendship is. I was facing the reality of being same-sex attracted and the likelihood that I would be single for the rest of my life. As I thought about what my life would be like and took my first steps into adulthood and independence, I came to experience how important friends would be. They wouldn’t be an optional extra or a luxury; they would be vital, a context in which I could experience and express love and family even while being single.
Both these things were happening over the same period of time, and yet I don’t think I ever saw the connection between the two. To be honest, even a few years later, I still don’t think those two realisations were much closer in my mind. That’s why I’m so grateful for Drew Hunter’s Made for Friendship: The Relationship That Halves Our Sorrows and Doubles Our Joys (Crossway, 2018). Drew helps us see that friendship is vital for human flourishing—whether we’re married or single—and that true human friendship flows from friendship with God.
‘The greatest power for becoming a better friend is being befriended by the best Friend’ (p.15).
Friendship with Each Other
Drew starts by helping us see why we need to think about friendship. True friendship is something we have largely forgotten about and the way we live modern life makes cultivating true friends very difficult. In this, we’re going against the grain of how past generations of Christians have viewed friendship and we’re ignoring clear evidence about the importance of friendship—we now know how dangerous loneliness is to human health. And the importance of friendship shouldn’t surprise us, because friendship is part of God’s plan for us in creation, in fact, it’s a part which is highlighted in Genesis 2. We’ve often treated friendship as an optional extra, but ‘what if friendship is more like oil to a car’s engine that leather on its seats?’ (p.39).
Drew goes on to outline the six great joys of true friendship and what the Bible says about true friendship. Many of us, as Drew confesses of himself, will find that this beautiful vision makes us acutely aware of how poor a friend we are and how few true friends we have. Thankfully, he also includes a chapter with practical wisdom on how we can cultivate friendships.
Friendship with God
If Made for Friendship stopped at this point, it would already be well worth reading. But Drew goes one step further. He shows us that to cultivate real friendships, we need to know the deepest meaning of friendship.
‘What if we found out that friendship is the meaning of the universe, and that God, as a great Friend, is restoring true friendship to the world? What if we could view all our feeble attempts at cultivating friendships as little echoes of a more glorious reality?’ (p.116).
Drew gives a concise, but stunning, biblical theology of friendship. Starting with Eden, God’s plan for our friendship with him and our rejection of that friendship, Drew traces God’s determined plan to befriend us again, starting with key friends in the Old Testament (Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses) and then climaxing in the one who gives his life as the ultimate act of friendship, so that we might be restored to friendship with God, might thereby enter into deep friendship with others, and ultimately might spend eternity with our friends and the everlasting Friend.
‘In short: God walked with us in friendship. We walked away. And now he’s befriending us again’ (p.122).
The final chapter opens up before us the true beauty of the great friend, the friend of sinners. Drew gives the best answer I’ve come across to the question of whether it’s even appropriate to speak of God as a friend, shows us some of the greatness of this great friend, and shares wisdom on how we can cultivate friendship with him.
The Beauty of Friendship
There’s something really quite beautiful about Made for Friendship. This is of course true of the content, but it’s also true of the way Drew has communicated that content. It is a model of how to call people to something by highlighting its beauty.
This could easily have been a book that went on about how badly we do friendship, citing the ways and reasons that so much of what we call friendship isn’t really friendship, throwing accusations at technology and social media for the harm they have done. But that’s not the main thrust of Made for Friendship. Instead, Drew focuses on what he’s for rather than what he’s against. He helps us to see the beauty of what we could have, rather than the mess of what many of us are currently choosing. He makes us want what he says to be true and want to experience it as true. Those of us who get to preach and write can learn from this.
Made for Friendship will probably make you realise your failings as a friend—it’s a challenging read. It will also help you see how you can do better—it’s an equipping read. And, most wonderfully, it will help you see that you have been made for friendship, not only with others, but with the great friend, the one who pursues you in friendship—it’s a heartwarmingly edifying read!
Beautiful Difference: The Complementarity of Male and Female
Complementarity—“a relationship or situation in which two or more different things improve or emphasize each other’s qualities”—is written into creation. There is a fit, a mutual enhancement, a beautiful difference, at the heart of what God has made. The cosmos is made up of all kinds of complementary pairs, with male and female serving as a paradigmatic example: that is why cosmological complementarity is reflected in some human languages (der Tag / die Nacht, le ciel / la terre, el sol / la luna, and so on). The Jewish-Christian vision of sexual complementarity, as such, reflects our vision of cosmological complementarity—and ultimately, behind it, the beautiful difference of Creator and Creation, God and Israel, Christ and Church, Lamb and Bride.
Complementarity is thus markedly different from two other ways of thinking about the relations of created things. On the one hand, Jews and Christians do not believe that male and female are identical. We are not exactly the same, any more than are heaven and earth, or day and night. Genesis 1 is a story of order and life coming through separation, distinction, two-ism rather than one-ism. When the distinctions collapse, there is no life. Life comes through beautiful difference: when the heavens interact with the earth, in the form of sun and rain and soil, you get plants and animals, whereas identical pairs are as barren as a cave (earth above and earth beneath) or Jupiter (sky above and sky beneath). Given the connections between sexual and cosmological complementarity, it is not surprising that abolishing the distinction between heaven and earth is connected to abolishing the distinction between male and female.
A comic example is provided by the contrast between the Jewish Jesus, reflected in the four Gospels, and the Gnostic Jesus we find the Gospel of Thomas. The real Jesus is clear in his response to the Pharisees’ question on divorce: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Matt 19:4). The Gnostic Jesus sounds as flowery and incoherent in his blurring of distinctions as his modern counterparts do: “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside and the above like the below—that is, to make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female will not be female—and when you make eyes instead of an eye and a hand instead of a hand and a foot instead of a foot, an image instead of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom]” (Thom 22). Without distinctions, creation collapses into a squishy mess. Complementarity is not identity.
On the other hand, nor do Jews and Christians believe in the alterity of male and female, as if we are thoroughly different sorts of beings. We are not wholly same, but neither are we wholly other—and we must be careful that in our bid to ensure that sex distinctions are not erased, we do not cause them to be exaggerated. Men and women bear the image of God together, and our identity is far more fundamentally defined by our humanity than our sex. We are humans first, males or females second, and in Christ, the divisions that do exist within our shared humanity come crashing down: Jews are reconciled with Gentiles, masters serve their slaves, and male and female are united in Christ and made heirs together of the gift of life.
For a number of philosophers, both ancient and modern, the differences between male and female do not express complementarity and harmony, but otherness and conflict. Men and women are destined to strive with one another for mastery, not just at an individual level, but within civilisations as a whole: Western thought is male, linear, climactic and ordered, and involves imposing power over creation, while Eastern thought is female, curved, cyclical and chaotic, and involves surrendering to creation. This might sound familiar, even Christian, to some of us. But if we look closer we can see that it is not one of complementarity but of alterity: of absolute difference, or otherness. It is framed in terms of conflict, triumph, competition, opposition, rivalry, even violence. There is no peace between heaven and earth, or between male and female. There is no love.
In the pagan vision of identity, there is union without distinction; in the deist vision of alterity, there is distinction without union. But in the Christian vision of complementarity, there is union and distinction, same and other, many and one. In Christianity, male and female bear the image of God together, with neither male nor female able to fully express it without the other, and the clear distinctions that exist within creation are ultimately reconciled within the life of the Triune God (in whom we find identity and alterity, sameness and otherness, one and three) and in the incarnation (in which heaven meets earth and Word becomes flesh).
Before the world is created, we do not have primordial strife and violence, but perichoretic peace and joy within the Trinity. Our future hope is one in which heaven and earth come together, with the glory of the one transforming the other (which is why most of the pairs of Genesis 1 find themselves transcended in Revelation 21: there is no moon, no need for the sun, no sea, no darkness, no sexual intercourse, and heaven and earth are beautifully married.) The final destiny of the cosmos, and the marriage of Christ and the Church, reflect neither conflict nor collapse but complementarity, as the glory of the one permeates and suffuses the other. Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!
Complementarity and Creation
Given this theological framework, it should not be surprising that men and women are strikingly different in all sorts of ways that transcend cultural variations. Not only do these differences not disappear in purportedly sex-neutral societies; there is evidence to suggest that some of them actually increase, as people are freed to do what they actually want to do. (To take one widely reported example, differences in mental rotation between men and women are higher in countries with greater sexual equality.) The bell curves for men and women are centred in different places, and not just for obvious physical traits (height, strength, hair, and so on), but also for hormonal, psychological and interpersonal ones.
Men are typically more aggressive, competitive, fearless, likely to take risks, promiscuous and prone to violence than women, and testosterone is aligned with higher levels of confidence, sex drive and status assertion. Women are, on average, more prone to neuroticism and agreeableness than men. Consequently, men are generally clustered at the upper and lower extremes of society: men are not just more likely to be very rich or very powerful (which prompts all sorts of public debate), but also far more likely to be criminals, killers, homeless, excluded or imprisoned (which doesn’t).
Male groups are more characterised by sparring, fighting, power structures and banter, while female groups are typically smaller, more indirect in confrontation, egalitarian in structure, verbally dextrous, and oriented around people rather than things. Gendered trends can be noticed before children are particularly aware of which sex they are (to take a tragic example, 40 of 43 serious shootings by toddlers in 2015 were by boys), and even in our closest animal relatives (the male preference for trucks over dolls extends to rhesus and vervet monkeys). Julia Turner, the editor of Slate, commented recently that the boyishness of her twin sons had provided a significant challenge to her commitment to gender as a social construct, offering the fascinating remark that despite her egalitarian bona fides, “There’s a there there.” To which ethicist Christina Hoff Sommers mischievously responded in The Federalist: “Indeed there is. And it takes a liberal arts degree not to see it.”
I mention all this not to validate any or all of these differences as if science somehow renders them virtuous, let alone to excuse the male propensity to promiscuity and violence. I mention it for four reasons. One: complementarity appears to be hardwired into us as human beings, even from the perspective of mainstream secular scientific and sociological research. The vast majority of human societies have known this intuitively, but in a culture like ours, where most of us have never fought for our homeland, died in childbirth, gone down the mines or settled a frontier, it has become forgotten. Facts, however, are stubborn things. Two: there is an interesting correspondence between many of these traits and the sorts of things we would expect to find if Genesis 1-4 was true, and the man (adamah = “earth”) had been given the task of guarding the garden against attack, and the woman (havah = “life”) had been identified as the mother of all living. Three: at a pastoral level, it can be reassuring to hear that we are not imagining it when we observe, as we all do, that men and women are generally predisposed to different sorts of sins or weaknesses (#MeToo #ToxicMasculinity #HeForShe etc), and disciple people accordingly.
And four: it also sheds interesting light on the (very obvious) biological differences between men and women, and their significance. Imagine an alien visiting earth, and discovering that one sex was taller, stronger and hairier than the other, with sexual organs which were external and faced outwards, while the smaller partner’s sexual organs were internal, and served as the location of both sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Then imagine them discovering that, generally speaking, one was better at forming relationships, holding small groups together and working with people, while the other was more suited to external agency, risk-taking and working with things. Finally, imagine them being introduced to biblical categories for describing the sexes: towers and cities, warriors and gardens, priests and temples, the blood-spattered groom and the pure spotless bride. Which would our alien think was which?
Complementarity and Family
Christians are called to express the complementarity of male and female in this present age. This is not just a matter of obedience to specific biblical instructions—although that should be enough!—but as a way of putting beautiful difference on display for a world that needs to see it and rarely does. So when the world asks, “What do you mean when you say that God is neither distant from us (like Islam says) nor collapsible into us (like paganism says)?”, the relationship between men and women is our go-to illustration. And the primary context in which it is displayed is the family.
The most obvious form of this is marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32). In marriage, husbands and wives play the parts of Christ and the church, demonstrating what love, fidelity, difference, union, sacrificial leadership and mutual service look like in practice. The husband should love his wife as a head loves its body and Christ loves the church: by giving himself up for her, sanctifying her with the water of the word, and presenting her in splendour. (It is significant that Paul pictures the husband as engaged in traditionally feminine tasks like washing, cleaning and ironing here: Paul is knowingly and deliberately subverting the Greco-Roman picture of what male headship looks like.) The wife, correspondingly, should submit to and respect her husband as the church submits to Christ.
Is the submission one-way here, or are husbands and wives called to submit to one another? Paul has just described the Spirit-filled church as a place of “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21); he then unpacks that description for a standard ancient household, applying it to husbands and wives, fathers and children, and slaves and masters. Does the mutuality of submission (5:21) override any differences in the way that submission is expressed (5:22-6:9)? Or does Paul mean that only wives, children and slaves are to submit (to husbands, fathers and masters, respectively)?
The answer, in all probability, is neither of these: wives and husbands are called to submit to each other—as indeed are parents and children, masters and slaves—but not in identical ways. Christ and the church serve each other, but we do not do so in the same fashion: Christ serves us by dying and rising to rescue us, and we serve him by responding in faith to his leadership. (Both of us offer ourselves as a sacrifice for the other, of course, but in very different ways; if we were to conflate the two then the entire gospel would unravel.) Tom Wright puts it well: “Paul assumes, as do most cultures, that there are significant differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond mere biological and reproductive function. Their relations and roles must therefore be mutually complementary, rather than identical. Equality in voting rights, and in employment opportunities and remuneration (which is still not a reality in many places), should not be taken to imply such identity. And, within marriage, the guideline is clear. The husband is to take the lead—though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as ‘taking the lead’ becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.”
However, we would be mistaken to think that complementarity is limited to marriage. If it were, then anyone who is single, bereaved, divorced or abandoned would be unable to fully reflect what femaleness or maleness are. (The fact that a significant number of such people in our churches feel that way is an indication that we have some work to do here). In Scripture, however, male and female go all the way down: mothers are different from fathers, brothers are different from sisters, grandmothers are different from grandfathers, and so on. I have an obligation to protect my mother and my sisters in a way that does not extend to my father or my brother. Yet this does not imply that I am in authority over them, or that I make decisions for them, or that they cannot be in authority over me. (My little sister runs an Accident and Emergency department in a London hospital. If our children have an accident, I do every single thing she says, no questions asked.)
Paul’s instructions to Timothy, likewise, assume sexual differentiation in his interactions with people in the family of God: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:1-2). So with my relatives, in my church family, in the workplace, and even on social media, I am to interact with older women specifically as mothers, and with older men specifically as fathers, not as gender-neutral units or sexless atomised workers. (This principle will apply differently in different contexts, of course; in the West I would happily have my sister as a manager, authority figure or even Head of State, while in Yemen I might be cautious about eating in public with her.) Similarly, the way I interact with single men who live with our family is different in important ways from the way I interact with single women. And in case it needs saying, if we limit the scope of “treat younger women as sisters” to “just make sure you don’t have sex with them”, we miss Paul’s meaning here by a country mile.
Complementarity and the Church
When we turn to the church, it is remarkably easy to forget this wider canvas of theology and anthropology, and get lost in the exegetical weeds over the meaning of hupotassō or authenteō or whatever it is. All of us, in the end, have to come to conclusions about the meaning of specific texts, and the way in which we will apply them in the local church. But the case for male eldership does not start there. It starts from the twin observations a) that elders are fundamentally guardians of the church, and b) that in every phase of redemptive history—from the garden to the tabernacle, to the temple, to the ministry of Jesus, to the New Testament church, and on into the eschaton—the individual(s) charged with guarding the people of God and protecting her from harm have been men.
It is widely accepted that the New Testament terms elders, shepherds and overseers are largely interchangeable (Acts 20:17-38; Tit 1:5-9; 1 Pet 5:1-4), and each of those terms evokes the responsibility of serving the church by protecting and guarding her from harm. Elders, biblically speaking, are guardians. Take each of these biblical words in turn.
The primary reason a shepherd (or “pastor”) exists is to protect the sheep from harm. Yes, he leads them into new pastures, and prepares food and water for them, but the primary reason you employ a shepherd in the ancient world, rather than allowing the sheep to wander freely, is for protection: from injury, robbers, dispersal, wolves, and other wild animals. This comes through clearly in the key New Testament texts, in which shepherds lay down their lives for the sheep, and watch over the flock of God, whom he bought with his own blood; it also builds on the Old Testament imagery, in which shepherds, like David, are those who kill lions and bears in defence of their flocks, hold rods and staffs to guard them, and are called to protect their sheep rather than eat them. Shepherding spiritually, as physically, involves both protecting weak or injured sheep, and guarding the whole flock from enemies who would attack them.
The English word “overseer” is a very literal translation of episkopos, and is certainly preferable to “bishop” given the resonances that word has, but it still conjures up images of call centre supervisors, or at least a more managerial role. In Koine Greek, however, it had the sense of “guardian.” It may have been heard more like Ezekiel’s skopos (= watchman), which is how Calvin read it: elders are the “faithful watchmen” who “watch and take care of the flock, while other men sleep.” The language here is of being a lookout more than a line manager, a sentry more than a supervisor. The overseer’s role, of course, was the preservation of sound doctrine in the church, and this is what led to the distinction between bishops and elders in the late first century.
The same is true, perhaps surprisingly, of elders. Greg Beale makes the point that the purpose of elders in the New Testament is to preserve the church during the eschatological tribulation. The period between Pentecost and parousia is marked by deception, false teaching, persecution and suffering, and the requirements for elders in the Pastorals should be seen against this backdrop: the guarding of the church so that she is not destroyed. To these references Beale adds not just Acts 20, as we have seen, but also Paul’s first apostolic journey, in which he and Barnabas teach the disciples that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (14:22), and then immediately appoint elders in every church (14:23), as if this (eldership) is the solution to the problem (tribulations). Throughout church history there have been persecutions in which bishops/presbyters/elders have died on behalf of the churches they serve. The same dynamic exists today—it is the elders who have been arrested in East Ukraine, for example—as hostile authorities target church leaders rather than congregations. (Gregory the Great put it beautifully in the sixth century, commenting on Paul’s statement that aspiring to oversight was a noble thing: “Nevertheless it is to be noted that this was said at a time when whoever was set over people was usually the first to be led to the torments of martyrdom.” ) To the three Ds that many of us have used to summarise the responsibilities of eldership—doctrine, discipline, direction—we should perhaps add a fourth: death.
Taking these three words together leads to a clear conclusion: elders are guardians. And no sooner have we noticed that, than we notice that in every period of biblical history, those charged with defending and protecting the people and/or the sanctuary of God are men rather than women, fathers rather than mothers.
Adam is put in the garden “to serve it and guard it” (Gen 2:15; the same pair of verbs is used of the Levites in Num 3:7-8; 18:7). Consequently, when the fall happens, it is his responsibility, and it is Adam rather than Eve in whom we all die. The patriarchs, obviously, are all men. The Levitical priests, charged with the protection of the sanctuary and by extension the entire nation of Israel, are all men, and men of violence at that—they spend their days killing animals, and are first ordained for priestly service because they had sufficient zeal for Yahweh to kill their fellow Israelites (Ex 32:25-29). This remains true through the period of the first temple, when there is a male priesthood operating alongside a male monarchy in Judah (Athaliah is never called a “queen” or given any legitimacy by the writer, and as such is the exception that proves the rule). It remains true through the second temple period, right up until the days of Zechariah and John the Baptist. Jesus calls twelve apostles who are all men, and gives them the responsibility of binding and loosing, teaching and governing the worldwide church. The qualifications for overseers in the New Testament church, the elder-shepherd-watchmen commissioned with protecting the church from wolves and false shepherds, are directed to men. And the Bible ends with a female city—which includes the entire people of God, whichever sex we are—being rescued by and finally married to a male Saviour, with the walls of the city and their foundations being named for male apostles and male patriarchs.
Because the eldership qualifications form part of this much larger biblical pattern, it is no surprise to find that overseers are assumed to be men, and in fact required to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2). This is hardly a sex-neutral requirement; the church is a family which has, and desperately needs, both fathers and mothers (e.g. 5:1-2), and this is a strong indication that Paul sees overseers as fathers. So is the requirement to lead his household well and keep his children submissive (3:4). So is the requirement to be able to teach (3:2), given that Paul has just restricted women from doing this (2:12; the fact that there is plentiful debate about what exactly he meant by this should not prevent us from seeing the obvious connection here). So is the fact that Paul, after giving the qualifications for overseers and deacons, gives qualifications for “women” (3:11); whether we see this as a reference to women who serve as deacons (as I do) or the wives of deacons (like some interpreters), it clearly distinguishes between “overseers,” “deacons” and “women/wives,” making it almost impossible for Paul to have considered the latter to be a subset of the former. As such, even egalitarian commentators often agree that these requirements “present the overseer as a husband and father” (Towner), and that “Paul refers to the bishop throughout as a man” (Wright). In this text, at least, eldership is not sex-neutral.
Occasionally the case is made that overseers/elders have to be men in this particular church, but not in others, because the heresy afflicting the church is coming through wealthy and influential women. Quite apart from the fact that the only named false teachers in Ephesus are men (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17), this argument ignores the fact that the same requirement is applied to elders in an island several hundred miles away: “if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Tit 1:6). Paul’s eldership qualifications are not limited to a specific situation in Ephesus; they are virtually identical in Crete, and presumably everywhere else. Elders—like Adam, the Levitical priests, Israel’s kings, the Twelve, and everyone charged with protecting the people of God from harm in Scripture—are men.
On the other hand, there is another way of telling the biblical story, which needs to be emphasised as well. Christ is identified as the seed of the woman, long before he is referred to as the seed of a man (Gen 3:15). Eve, far from being inferior to Adam (in Scripture the word ezer, or “helper”, is most commonly applied to God himself), is actually the one whose faith is associated with that promise coming to pass (Gen 4:1, 25). Women in the patriarchal period hear from and talk to God, and frequently outmanoeuvre their foolish husbands, sons or both (Sarai, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel). A slave woman is the first and only person in Scripture to name God (Gen 16:13).
Numerous stories of redemption in the Bible begin with women—Eve, Hagar, Leah, Shiphrah and Puah, Miriam, Samson’s mother, Ruth, Hannah, Esther, Elizabeth, Mary—while Israel is being oppressed by foolish or evil men. Women judge Israel (Deborah) and win military victories (Jael). Women save their husbands (Abigail), their children (Jochebed), their city (the Tekoite woman) and their nation (Esther). Women prophesy (Huldah, Philip’s daughters), compose psalms and songs which appear in Scripture (Hannah, Mary), explain the word of God to men (Priscilla), host churches (Chloe), run businesses (Lydia), serve as deacons and patrons (Phoebe), co-labour with Paul in the gospel (Euodia, Syntyche), and are identified as apostles (Junia). And if there is a greater responsibility in human history than carrying the Messiah in your womb, I would like to hear about it.
In each of these cases, the women in question serve God’s people specifically as women. Many are described as mothers, sisters, or daughters. There is no blurring of the sexes in these stories, as if men and women are interchangeable in the parts they play (“women can do anything men can do”). Sometimes Galatians 3:28 is given this sort of spin, as if it was essentially a good statement of second wave feminism avant la lettre. But Paul is not blurring the distinction between the sexes here, or even making a point about leadership offices in the church; he is insisting that all of us are equally children of God on the basis of faith, regardless of sex, ethnicity or social status. Interestingly, the very next chapter is among the most sexed passages in all of Paul (sons, father, Son, born of woman, Abba Father, in the anguish of childbirth, slave woman, free woman, the Jerusalem above is our mother, etc), revealing the extent to which biological sex still matters, even as it doesn’t in any way impinge on our status as justified, baptised, adopted children of God.
Rather, the power of these examples lies in the fact that women can do all sorts of things that men can’t or don’t do, and vice versa. As such, the women of Scripture debunk not just the identity of men and women (as if there are no sex distinctions at all), but also the alterity of men and women (as if men are doing all the important things and women are essentially passive observers). They present us with a vision of genuine complementarity in which men need women, and women need men, and the image of God is expressed as both serve together. Remove either, or diminish the value of either, and we are all impoverished. The church is a family, and we will only flourish to the extent that we value, honour and esteem both mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.
True complementarity, then, is actually the basis for equipping and releasing women into ministry, rather than (as it has often become) an obstacle to it. Romans 16 is a great provocation here: it is hard to imagine a young woman in the church in Rome lamenting the lack of female role models in Christian service. She could look at Phoebe, a deacon who is a patron of many; Prisca, who risked her neck for Paul’s life, and co-host of a house church; Mary, “who has worked hard for you”; Junia, a fellow prisoner of Paul’s and noteworthy among the apostles; Tryphaena and Tryphosa, workers in the Lord; Rufus’s mother, “who has been a mother to me as well”; and several others. Women comprise nearly half of the named individuals in this chapter. One of the downsides of championing eldership while (often) failing to appoint or recognise deacons—and there are several—is that of implying that serious Christian ministry, and the vast majority of our leadership development opportunities, formal ministry roles and salaries, are basically for men. If we do this while making all our major decisions in male only groups, and keeping gifted women at a distance out of concern for purity and/or collegiality in our teams, we can end up replacing the glorious complementarity of Romans 16 with a jobs-for-the-boys environment in which women can serve as kids workers or backing singers, but not much else. We need to do better.
Three contextual factors in particular have made this more difficult for us. One is the cultural milieu of North American evangelicalism, in which (for better or worse) most of our theological influencers are situated. Both the conservative idyll of the 1950s and the progressive idyll of the 1960s loom larger in the US than elsewhere, and the discussion about men and women in the church has become intertwined with all sorts of other conversations about tradition, social change, order, race relations, sexuality, guns, abortion, economics and politics. The last three decades have seen two multiauthor volumes on the subject from opposite sides, both deeply rooted in the American intramural debate; I doubt I am unique in finding myself disagreeing with much of the exegesis of one, and disagreeing with much of the application of the other. (Nor, I suspect, am I unique in finding it amusing that one was published in blue and the other in peach.) That cultural context, in which the question of who serves as an elder is connected to questions about who speaks publicly in a church meeting, who makes decisions, who administers the sacraments and even who drives the family car, simply does not translate well into other parts of the world. At times, it has made us so concerned to stand our ground against the cultural tide that we have overcorrected and found ourselves in extrabiblical (or even unbiblical) territory: reading post-war middle America into the New Testament, demeaning our sisters, dismissing those who disagree with us as liberals, and defending heterodox views of the Trinity.
Another complication, especially in the West, is the tendency to see and organise the church in increasingly corporate rather than familial terms. In a family, everyone knows that both mothers and fathers have vital roles to play in leading together, and at the same time that there are some things which Mum does and some things which Dad does. In many cultures it is common for a family to be headed by a husband/father who is ultimately responsible for the protection of the home, yet for the vast majority of decisions to be made by a wife/mother. In a business or corporate environment, however, esteem and honour are not attributed that way: they come through position, line management, public profile, financial oversight, formal authority and salary. So if, despite our theology, the church actually functions more like a corporation than a family—and there are all sorts of reasons why that may creep in—it is easy to see how our practice of complementarity could be reduced to who is called what, sits where, speaks when, manages whom and is paid how much.
This is what makes it so crucial that we practise what we preach on the church as family. To deny that woman can be elders will sound like the equivalent of denying that women can be CEOs, but it is more like the equivalent of denying that women can be fathers, and that men can be mothers. But for that to be grounded in reality, it is vital that the church is not just said to be a family, but seen to be a family; that we recognise fathers and mothers and honour and revere them as such, rather than (as can easily happen) operating with a fundamentally corporate model in which women are simply excluded from all the key positions or discussions. Application on this point will obviously vary widely according to culture, context, church size, ways of expressing family, and so on—and it will require the wisdom of both men and women to establish best practice!—but my guess is that it is an area on which those of us in the West have much to learn from our Majority World brothers and sisters.
It may even be an opportunity for beautiful difference.
Longing for the Day
Let’s be honest, 2020 has been—and continues to be—hard. So many areas of life are not as they should be. We can debate whether this is necessary, but we can’t deny it’s currently the reality. Many of the things we are used to, things we enjoy, some of them even things that are central to human flourishing, are either not currently possible or have been radically changed. As time goes on I, like many of us, I’m sure, find myself longing more and more for the things that are not as they should be to be put to rights.
I long for the day that we can hug again. I long for the day that I can once again embark on a long-distance train journey to see friends who live around the country. I long for the day I can be back in a theatre watching a performance and for the day I can go shopping without the barrier of glasses steaming up and paranoia about whether my shopping or my hands might be carrying a dangerous pathogen. And I long for the day when I can gather again with my brothers and sisters, God’s people together, standing side-by-side, worshipping with loud singing and sharing the bread and the cup. I long for the day that the things that are not as they should are put to rights, and as the days and weeks and months go by, I find that longing is only growing.
What makes this season even harder is that so many of these losses and limitations are things we just can’t do anything about, and even if we believe they are contributing to a greater good, they can still leave us feeling frustrated and weary.
I find often I need to keep reminding myself that there is a day coming—however far off it may feel—when these things will be put to rights. And I remind myself that however painful, however frustrating, however wearisome this current experience might be, I just need to keep taking one day at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, and that day will come. Looking ahead to the hope of the restoration of ‘normality’, of life post-pandemic, is helping me to keep going now.
And it strikes me that in this small experience, there is a picture of a much bigger reality. Our current experience of life not being as it should be and the growing longing for the day when things are put to rights is a microcosm of what it’s like to live as a Christian in this age.
We live in a time when we know there are many things that are not as they should be. Some of those are things out in the world—injustice, war, natural disasters. Some of them are things that might occur in us—disease, injury, and sin. These things that are not as they should be can cause us to feel frustrated and weary. But we also live with the certain knowledge that there is a day when all of those things will come to an end. When everything wrong will be put right. And for the time being, however painful, however frustrating, however wearisome life in this age may feel, we can take one day at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, and that day will come. And as we look ahead to that day, to the hope of the restoration of all things, it can help us to keep going now.
I’m looking forward to life beyond the pandemic, and that’s helping me to keep going, day-by-day. But it’s also helping me to lift my gaze to something even better; it’s increasing my longing for my eternal destiny, and that, even more so, is helping me to keep going, day-by-day.
The African Origins of Ephraim and Manasseh
The importance of Africans in fulfilling the Abrahamic promises can be seen in the much-neglected story of Jacob, Ephraim and Manasseh. Black Christians will be familiar with the story of Joseph, who was enslaved and sold by his brothers to Egypt. Eventually Joseph rose to power, ending up second only to Pharaoh (Gen 41:40). Pharaoh also gave Joseph an Egyptian wife, Asenath, by whom he had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.
After the dramatic reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, the family is reunited and takes up residence in Egypt. Toward the end of Jacob’s life, Joseph brings his two boys to be blessed by his father. Meeting these two half-Egyptian, half-Jewish boys causes Jacob to recall the promise that God made him many years prior:
And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and he blessed me, and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers; I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your offspring after you for a perpetual holding.’ Therefore your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are now mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are.
Jacob sees the Brown flesh and African origin of these boys as the beginning of God’s fulfilment of his promise to make Jacob a community of different nations and ethnicities, and for that reason he claims these two boys as his own. These two boys become two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Egypt and Africa are not outside of God’s people; African blood flows into Isarel from the beginning as a fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Over My Dead Body
Who owns your body when you die? If you’ve never considered this question it might surprise you to learn that,
It is an historic principle of English common law that there is no property in a dead body. No one owns the body of a person who has just died: “the only lawful possessor of a corpse is the earth.”
In practice we have grown accustomed to professionals in death taking possession of the body – medics to ease it on its way, undertakers to deal with its disposal. But the body as such does not ‘belong’ to anyone.
The subtle but significant change introduced in England on May 20 this year is that organ donation has changed to an ‘opt out system’. This means, unless you go onto the organ donation register and declare that you do not want your organs harvested following your death, the presumption is that they can be.
This means that the State has assumed a power over our bodies it has not previously held. Not content with controlling who we can have in our homes, banning physical contact, and criminalising acts of worship, the UK government has this year made a landgrab for our very anatomy.
Of course, the reasons for this change are meant to be benign: “On 20 May 2020, the law around organ donation in England was changed to help save and improve more lives.” And as is typical in our sentimental age, this change was fluffyfied by naming it ‘Max and Keira’s Law’. How could anyone be so heartless (sic) as to object to it? Who doesn’t want to save lives?
In reality, it’s not quite that straightforward. The way in which the balance between State power and personal autonomy is tilted by this change to the law is profound. It certainly tips us further along a slippery slope upon which it is not hard to imagine the State declaring its right to make other interventions in our bodies – for the collective good, of course.
Apart from the issues of whether the State has exceeded its rightful authority, organ donation is an issue Christians should think about. I’m sure there will be readers of Think who have themselves had life transformed as the result of organ donation, or have friends and family whose lives have been so transformed. I wouldn’t want to underplay the value of that gift. But, rather like whether we should use vaccines developed thanks to the use of tissues from aborted foetuses, or whether we should bury people rather than burn them, the fact that the questions raised are uncomfortable is not good reason for us to fail to ask them.
The reasons Christian’s might have doubts around organ donation are helpfully described in Gilbert Meilaender’s Bioethics. The body is not insignificant in Christian thought. Yes, our bodies are a ‘tent’ (2 Cor. 5:4) and so not ultimate. But they are also a ‘seed’ (1 Cor. 15:35-38) that will somehow spring to glorious new life in the resurrection. We do not look for the liberation of the soul from the body, but for resurrection life in which we shall enjoy ‘spiritual bodies’.
If we learn to regard our bodies simply as collections of organs potentially useful to others (and available whenever our true inner self chooses to give them), we are in danger of losing any close connection between the person and the body.
The assumption that our organs should be harvestable is rooted in an industrialised, mechanical, view of the body rather than a Christian one. Meilaender describes how this is made evident in the way we define death. Previously the ceasing of ‘vital activity’ (the action of heart and lungs) was seen as determinative of death but since the late 60s we have moved to the definition of ‘brain death’. We have become so used to this definition we probably never think to question it, but it is problematic. The problem is that while brain function may have ceased the body itself can be kept alive until organs are harvested. As Meilaender observes, “We would be reluctant to bury a corpse until its heart had ceased to beat. We seem willing, therefore, to remove organs for transplant from a corpse before we would be willing to bury it.”
Meilaender goes on, “It has become clear that the thirst for transplantable organs is so strong that we are, in fact, tempted to redefine death in order to secure the ‘needed’ organs.” That is a dangerous place to find ourselves, with all kinds of potential implications further down the slippery slope. Is it unrealistic to imagine unscrupulous – even if well intentioned – medics ‘encouraging’ euthanasia in order to increase the supply of harvestable organs? Is it unimaginable that we will move towards organs being harvested before brain death, in order to ensure the freshest supply?
Before we get to that dystopic possibility we already have the reality that death is becoming increasingly high-tech rather than humane. The image of a dying patient being prepared on a surgical table for the moment their organs can be removed is an unsettling one. It is one that will become far more routine thanks to the legal change made on May 20th.
Only by supporting organ transplantation in ways that do not lose the meaning of the body as the place of our personal presence, in ways that preserve the possibility of a humane death, and in ways that do not imply that staying alive as long as possible always has moral trump, can we become people who give thanks for medical progress without worshipping it or placing their trust in it. In becoming such people, we may bear a different kind of life-giving witness to our world.
It is for these kinds of reasons that I have chosen to ‘opt out’ of the organ donation register. I appreciate the corollary to that is that if it should ever be ‘needed’, I should refuse the possibility of receiving a donated organ. Others may feel differently, but I don’t like the assertion of State power over my dead body and my conscience is not entirely easy about the whole process of organ donation. It feels to me that there are too many questions around the subject for which I cannot find satisfying answers. When the day comes, bury me whole, and entire, without government interference.
In recent years there has been something of a revival of ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking. The idea is simple. It begins with the observation that we have become accustomed to eating only those carefully prepared and packaged parts of the pig, cow or lamb that you can find on supermarket shelves. Smoked bacon. Ribeye steak. Lamb chops.
(Of course, we do already eat the off-cuts, but only in the more acceptable form of sausages, burgers, and meatballs. But this does not count as nose-to-tail cooking, since you literally have no idea what you’re eating, as proved by the great horse scandal of 2013.)
Clearly, in the age before supermarkets and the sanitised privileges of a consumeristic age, no part of the animal was wasted. This is quite obvious if you have ever experienced a food market outside the Western world where baskets of goats heads peer at you, alongside buckets of pigs trotters. Just about every part of the animal can be eaten, if prepared in the right way. Nothing is wasted and everything is useful.
This rediscovery of the potential in bone marrow and cow tongue has led to a revival of cooking every part of the animal – nose-to-tail – that has begun to affect how we think about our relationship with the dead creatures we eat. (Ironically, this movement has not sprung from economic need, but rather from the privileged and newly gentrified haunts of the East London food scene.)
I find this a compelling analogy for the state of preaching today. The growth of consumeristic culture in the West, along with pastoral ambition to appear successful, has applied market pressures to create churches perfectly designed to cater to an audience. Just as the gore of the slaughterhouse has been replaced by the polish of the plastic-wrapped packages on supermarket shelves, with neatly and finely sliced portions of tender cuts to feed the masses, so we have seen this reflected in churches, particularly in preaching. This takes the form of the short preaching series, exclusively focussed on ‘how to’ questions – easily purchased and digested by the hungry consumers. There is nothing there to really challenge the worshiper; no bones or tough cuts that need more mastication. Instead, spiritual food is doled out with step-by-step instructions, and crucially, without blood.
One of the reasons I am a strong advocate for careful expository preaching is that it forces you as a preacher to offer people a nose-to-tail diet. This is very challenging for you and for the congregation. You take a book of the Bible and then you get to work like a skilful butcher. But if you are really an expositor, then you are not permitted to extract only those portions that are most easily prepared, chewed and digested; rather, in true expository preaching you aim to miss nothing of what God decided to include in his most Holy and Infallible Word.
So, one week you encounter an ear or a tail or a digestive tract. And at that point you have to think very carefully about how you will prepare this portion for consumption. You have to resist the temptation to simply discard the meat (by ignoring the passage), or to grind it up into sausages (by dealing with it very superficially, or mixing in an excessive ratio of herbs and bread in the shape of stories and practical points, so that the passage is basically unrecognisable). Now, it is true that any good chef must find a way to make an ear or entrails more appetising, and any good preacher must find a way to make a text ready for consumption. But still, there’s a sense in which the people need to encounter these awkward and offensive parts of the Bible, or else they remain juvenile, only ever capable of eating breaded meat with lots of ketchup.
Why is this so crucial? I believe that consumeristic Christianity has managed to survive because the conditions have been favourable. Broadly speaking, it has been possible to offer people a stripped back and simplified spirituality that has sat comfortably with people going about their normal lives. Drive-thru church gives a boost each week and helps people to stay positive and feel spiritual.
But times are a-changing. The view of what is morally normal and acceptable has so shifted in recent years that it is no longer possible for consumeristic churches to produce Christians that can survive in this modern world. A normal Christian (by New Testament standards) is basically a fanatic and a bigot in today’s world. And so, we are increasingly identifying with the experience of being ‘sojourners and exiles’, as Peter described in his first letter.
In this age, some well-meaning pastors will continue to serve up easily digestible ‘content’ (a word that perfectly captures the spirit of the age) in the naive assumption that the Holy Spirit will make up for what’s lacking, and mature disciples will emerge without the need for discomfort on a Sunday. But sadly, all this will create is Christians with no moral fortitude or conviction who will be crushed by the onslaught of lies that our culture is offering up.
More sobering still, we see that other pastors will continue to deliberately create a highly processed and refined product to pitch to their spiritually obese audiences – churches that want to be known for what they are for, rather than what they are against (as though these two things do not go together). But, by slicing away and discarding even more aspects of the truth that are considered offensive, reducing the diet down to the spiritual equivalent of chicken nuggets, the sad result is that underneath the polished appearance of the slick establishment, these churches will be rat and cockroach-infested havens for sin.
The only alternative is Spirit-empowered and bold nose-to-tail preaching of God’s word. Now, more than ever, we need to recover a conviction that all of God’s word is useful ‘for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’. I believe this is the only way to form disciples capable of weathering the storm that is coming and even now is upon us.
First appeared here.
Should We Call Him Jesus?
It is common in Christian settings to speak of the Son of God by only his given name, Jesus:
“We’re all gathered here today to worship Jesus.”
“Jesus is all I need.”
“Jesus changed my heart.”
But interestingly, this pattern of speech is absent from the New Testament. The New Testament authors use “Jesus” to speak of the historical person, particularly when addressing unbelievers. In Acts, the speeches of Stephen, Paul, and Peter are examples of this. The Gospel writers use the name Jesus by itself to tell the history of the incarnation. But those who interact with him in the Gospel narratives always refer to him as “teacher” or “Lord.” Only once in the Gospels does someone address him simply as “Jesus of Nazareth”—a group of demons, who in the same breath acknowledge his deity (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34).
In all twenty-one of the Epistles, he is referred to only twenty-eight times simply as “Jesus,” but 484 times by the title “Lord” or “Christ.” A staggering 95 percent of the times he is mentioned, he is referred to by a title of respect. But we tend to just call him Jesus. Does our frequent use of his given name indicate a lack of respect? It’s certainly worth asking ourselves.
Don’t miss this: a “formal” title of address is such because it is, in some sense, formative. By addressing others with a formal title, our conception of who they are is being formed a certain way. We think differently about someone we call “Mr. President” than we do about someone we simply call “Andy.” A second-grade teacher who tells her students to “just call me Susan” may find that a desire to be familiar instead of formal results in a lack of respect for her authority. Employing the formal title reinforces awareness of the respect due to its owner.
The New Testament writers take care to grant our Lord and Savior the reverence he is due. We should pay attention to this for the health of our souls. We enjoy friendship and intimacy with Christ, but we do not share equality with him. He is not our peer. Recognizing that he sits even now at the right hand of God the Father means speaking of him and to him with respect, after the pattern of the Scriptures.
A Word of Encouragement for Pastors
I want to offer a word of encouragement for pastors. This season has led to much discouragement. The breakdown in the rhythms of church community has led to real strain and a fraying at the edges of church life, and this takes a huge toll on you. In addition, you have faced unexpected challenges – some emerging from without (especially politics) and some from within. You have been personally attacked and criticised, and it has been very difficult to mend damaged relationships. People are leaving your church, and some of them because they are disgruntled.
You feel a loss of purpose. God has given you a field to work – the church you lead – and it feels like you’re working with your hands tied and the field on fire. That makes it hard to stay upbeat and full of faith, because all you see are the problems. So, it’s harder to get up in the morning, and harder to pray, and harder to smile to the impassible shark eye of the camera.
If ever a minister knew discouragement, it was surely Jeremiah. This is how God encourages him:
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.
– Jeremiah 17.7–8
We are in a year of drought. There are natural and unnatural forces at work beyond our control, affecting our work, our field, our fruitfulness.
Are you trusting in your sovereign Father? Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD. When you’re discouraged and feeling a temptation towards self-pity, you must ask yourself: Do I believe God is sovereignly in control of these circumstances? And do I trust him to work all things together for good? Your emotional state is a gauge of your trust, and so be honest with yourself; are you anxious or are you trusting?
In an echo of the first Psalm, the promise God speaks to Jeremiah is for fruitfulness. While the world is burning, your trust is like a set of well-developed roots that find the underground streams and keep you nourished when everything else is charred, brittle, dry, and barren. Knowing you have access to the Father in prayer and in his promises and that he means to do you good has a sure and certain consequence: you will be fruitful.
Jesus does not will for you to be anxious. Yes, he’s allowed you to face a season you were not necessarily prepared for. You have felt the slow and chronic wearying through months of misery. You’ve also felt the blows, buffeting and battering of the emails and the gossip. But Jesus does not will for you to be anxious. He instead would want you to trust.
It is in trust that you will not fear when heat comes, you will remain green, you will not be anxious in this year of drought, and you will not cease to bear fruit.
As those of us in England head into our second national lockdown, many are naturally wondering when this pandemic and the huge impact it is having on our lives will end. A vaccine seems to be favoured as the best—or perhaps the only—resolution to the situation, but vaccines are not straightforward: not only is the development, production, and distribution of a vaccine difficult, but each stage also raises ethical questions.
John tackles some key questions, some of which we may have thought of, while others may not be as obvious:
- Is the use of live human cells in the production of a vaccine ethical? What if these cells have come from an aborted fetus?
- What level of risk should we allow people to take in the testing of a vaccine?
- It is ever ethical to deliberately expose someone to the virus in order to test a vaccine?
- Once a vaccine has been approved as safe and effective, how do we decide which countries should get it first? Is it those who have invested the most in its production, those who can pay the most, or those who have a greater number of people likely to die if they catch the virus?
- When a country receives its allocation of the vaccine, who should be vaccinated first?
A vaccine may be our best way out of this pandemic, but that may not be as straightforward as it sounds!
A Pastor’s Lockdown Dilemma
Let’s imagine a dialogue between two pastors: one more sceptical of lockdown, the other more positive. Let’s call them Pastor Sceptic and Pastor Lockdown. They are friends but are thinking quite differently about things. Their conversation might help our own.
Pastor Sceptic: As you know, I have been sceptical about the government’s response to the virus all along. I have tried to keep this scepticism reined in, considering it unhelpful to express a strong personal view with the potential for division within the church this could cause. However, I am finding this ‘neutrality’ increasingly difficult to maintain. How long can we go on like this? How long can I go on like this?!
I have never denied that covid is real, or that those who are vulnerable to it should ignore it. I know it kills people. But I think SAGE have got it wrong and lockdown is a mistake. This isn’t an eccentric or conspiracy-based position but one endorsed by many senior scientists, best represented by the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration. I don’t know how much longer I can stay ‘neutral’ when I don’t in anyway feel neutral about the scientific evidence of where we are at.
Pastor Lockdown: I agree with much of what you say. The government’s handling of this situation hasn’t been impressive. I agree that disease modelling is, at best, educated guesswork and that the worst-case modelling we’re being presented is problematic. This coronavirus season isn’t a short-term one, and we have many tough months ahead because a solution isn’t presenting itself – vaccines are a long way off, if at all. I’m sure we’re creating serious problems of mental, emotional and spiritual health. We are in an unprecedented situation with the state effectively controlling the role of the church in the community, dictating when we can meet and how we administer the sacraments.
But there is a second side to the coin.
I also believe these decisions have been made with a heavy heart, with people at the centre, and based on science, and not to harm any particular group. I know doctors who are being eaten up with worry about a health service that is becoming overwhelmed.
That the scientists can’t agree is hugely problematic. This means that following the science isn’t simple and with experts on all sides, how do we as pastors distinguish the ones we trust from the ones we don’t? To adapt a phrase from John Piper, ‘Brothers, we are not epidemiologists’. We don’t have the answer as to which side is right, or most accurate, and the honest answer is that it is likely somewhere in the middle. For a pastor to stake a position in this would be running into all kinds of trouble.
You’re right about the arguments about the science. But even if I’m reading that wrong and the virus kills more people than I think it will, my real problem is with all the negative impacts of lockdown. As you say, we’re creating all kinds of problems – problems which I think outweigh the threat posed by the virus. This is why I support the Recovery campaign – and would like to urge the members of my church to do so too. I’d like to stop being so ‘centred’ and stake a position! Actually, I think your strategy of not choosing a side is to choose a side – in reality you are collaborating with the lockdown and all the negative impacts of that. It is worth saying repeatedly: all the evidence suggests most people are not at serious risk from covid, but they are at risk from lockdown. I think it’s time to state that from the pulpit.
True, covid might not affect the majority of people, but it does affect some and even some who you would not expect it to. That’s why the doctors in my congregation are so concerned. They are warning about the dangers of what they are seeing, not imagining. Surely, if we’re going to err it should be on the side of caution – the risks of not doing so are just too great.
OK, look at it this way: if this were simply an argument about which group of scientists are correct it would be a bit like the Brexit debate – something that is really important, but not an issue that should shape our ministry approach. But of course this is different from Brexit in the impact the response to the virus has upon us. I really do think there are some fundamental issues at stake in terms of our witness.
The story of Joseph is normally told as one of redemption, which of course it is. But there is more to the story than that, because it is also a story of Joseph subjugating the Egyptians. We’re told in Genesis 47:20-21 that,
Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other.
It feels to me that we are in a similar position to those Egyptians. The State has in effect performed a huge landgrab in terms of what it now permits us to do and it has made all of us increasingly dependent upon it for our survival. We are being reduced to servitude.
I agree that the rules the State has imposed on us are a problem, but don’t believe they are doing it to stifle faith itself. This is an important distinction for me. If the State’s control of our actions in this season was based on stifling our spiritual freedoms or controlling our expression of faith, I would be as ready to stand as you are. But this decision has not been made with the church in mind, any more than they are thinking about hairdressers or publicans. I do not believe these restrictions to be an affront to our faith, or our expression of it. We can still preach the gospel, spur people on in their faith, read the bible and pray, albeit in a different way than we are used to.
These are temporary measures – for our good. We should abide by them. Afterall, this lockdown is for just four Sundays.
I can’t see this as being about just four Sundays. We have already had seven months in which the government has dictated who we may or may not see, how we interact with one another, has limited or banned corporate worship, has made weddings illegal, restricted where we can travel to, and on and on. There is no guarantee that this lockdown will be the end of it. And even if lockdown does help reduce the spread of the virus this will only – as Professor Carl Heneghan has put it – kick the can further down the road. We’d normally expect respiratory infections to be worse after Christmas than before it, so what then – another lockdown in January?
We know that institutions generally, and governments in particular, are always very reluctant to surrender powers once they have obtained them. When this begins to ratchet out of control the result is the beast of Revelation 13 – the State developing a ravening appetite for evermore power, and this always results in persecution against the people of God. I have little confidence that our government will hand back all the authority it has seized during this crisis. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise that.
You talk about this being a moment of survival and servitude – I see it more as a moment where God has tested us, and where God has blessed us. Our role as pastors is to bring unity, to be a light in the community, rather than a disruption, to put the fire of God in our people by showing them that God is alive, that nothing can stop the Lord Almighty, and that the church will prevail, as it has done for centuries. Our message should be a positive one of a church in action, a church which works for the good of the community, for the good of its members, and the good of the gospel. We should assume the good intentions of the government, which has been given its authority ultimately by God. It may be flawed in how it goes about this, but that doesn’t mean we should be sceptical about it.
I don’t think you’re seeing things clearly. A mechanism by which the State accrues disproportionate power is through the exercise of fear. This can be direct (‘Disobey and we’ll fine you £10,000), or indirect (‘If you don’t do what we say the consequences will be disastrous – your granny will die and it will be your fault.’). This government is dealing in fear on an epic scale! But the gospel tells us that,
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
That is, the gospel directly challenges the narrative of fear the government is propagating around covid. Fear is slavery, and we are called to be free! Applying this would surely be challenging if we were facing the Spanish Flu or living in North Korea, but it would still be true. In our context, I’m not sure how to preach this gospel without telling people they don’t need to fear – especially (I’ll say it again!) as the reality is that for the majority covid poses no serious threat at all. It is easy for us to sing ‘no fear in death’ but that doesn’t mean much if we succumb to the fear narrative that surrounds covid.
Yes, the fear and anxiety generated by the response to the virus might be worse than the virus itself. Yes, we need to preach against that fear. Yes, we need to sing ‘no fear in death’ and mean it. Ultimately, though, I believe the church in this season is more effective in preaching that message from inside the tent, rather than outside.
The government preaches fear, let’s respond with faith; the government speaks about death, let’s preach life. Are they right? Are they wrong? That isn’t central to our ministry! We need to leave our personal perspective on how the government is handling things, what the accuracy of the science is, to one side, and keep the main thing the main thing.
In our shepherding of the people under our care, I believe this to be the way in which we can build them up and care for them best. That means, in spite of our own personal convictions, it is right at the moment to ‘sit at the centre’. My role is to give faith to, sit with, and protect the scared and vulnerable and help people constructively voice their concerns too. You and I are called as shepherds of the people God has entrusted to us. Our first responsibility is to the flock. This isn’t the time to speak truth to power, but to speak faith to the downhearted.
But how do we do that if we don’t actually believe the narrative? When I only comfort someone who is fearful it feels as if I am lying – that I have become a collaborator too. These are such difficult issues but I think you know I’ve always tried to lead with a strong sense of conscience. I don’t want to be numbered among the cowardly who find themselves outside the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:8). I’m wondering if it is time to act – whether it is time for civil disobedience, or at least passive resistance. I’m not advocating doing anything crazy but I do think we should ask ourselves, ‘if this isn’t the line at which we refuse to budge, what would be?’ And, ‘if we give way at this line, how do we know we wouldn’t at a later one?’ Surely, at the least, we should be more vocal about all this?
I don’t, as you say, want to be numbered among the cowardly; I want to stand for Jesus the way He did for us. I admire that resolve in you, but in writing this, and in taking this position, I don’t see myself as a coward, but a father. Civil disobedience is a huge step. Continuing to meet, or being publicly against current restrictions, could bring with it negative media coverage, possible police action and significant fines. I appreciate you might think this underlines your argument about the State overstepping its rightful authority, but I also believe it won’t be conducive to our role in the community, or our ability to preach the gospel in this season either.
There is also the very risk of causing pain and division among the people we are leading – not just in that we may ask them to stand with us against their own conscience, but in so doing we would be asking more than their mere attendance. This could mean putting jobs, wages, finance and friendship on the line.
I don’t much like the lockdown either, but don’t believe our response should be civil disobedience. Ultimately, I do not believe this is a ‘line in the sand’ moment where the State takes power that it will not give back. We will face many battles ahead when it comes to faith in what is undoubtedly a secularised society that thinks we’ve got it all wrong – a time will come where we will need to put lines in the sand – but this isn’t our moment to fight. This is not a moment of attack on the church. Our line in the sand moment comes when targeted infringements are put on us that restrict our freedom to worship, to practice what we believe, in a way that is disproportionate to the rest of society, and that is not what we’re seeing here.
You’re right, the measures aren’t directed specifically at churches, but I think all sectors of society should be resisting! If we could organise a day on which the churches opened, along with the pubs and hairdressers, in defiance of the lockdown, I would be all for it. At root this is a justice issue for me, because I think the costs of the lockdown are too high, and penalise the poor most of all. The people making the decisions – and working in the hospitals – have guaranteed job security. The poor single mum working a couple of jobs to make ends meet has very little, if any, security.
Also, crucially, the church is not in the same category as pubs or hairdressers. What we do is more important than what the NHS or schools do. We have a direct command from God to gather in worship. The existence of worshipping congregations is essential to the wellbeing of society. We mustn’t lose sight of the unique calling and responsibility of the church!
I agree about the unique status of the church, but ultimately our role should be one of unity, not disobedience, but not subservience either. I’m with you – I don’t want to blindly dance to the tune of a State that might not have our best in mind, and I don’t want to sleepwalk past a point of no return when it comes to our spiritual freedoms. The day might come when we have to fight for that – I just don’t think that time is now.
I think you might be too optimistic! Governments do not hand back powers they have assumed. (Remember, income tax was only ever meant to be a temporary innovation!) It is not difficult to imagine a government in the not too distant future saying something like, ‘You don’t believe someone born male can become female? We need to close you down for health reasons!’ The more ground we concede now, the less we will have to stand on in the future.
I’m going to take some time to reflect on what you’ve said and I’m not rushing into action. But I’m not sure you have convinced me I am wrong! I still think that by not putting up some resistance we are in effect supporting what is a disastrous policy. The church has made that kind of mistake too often in the past. It never ends well.
I’m not sure you’ve convinced me that I’m wrong either! But I’m grateful for the dialogue. May God give us both much grace and wisdom at this time. We need it.
The Inhumanity of Lockdown
I am well aware of the deep feeling that separates us on this matter of lockdown, and I do not expect everyone to agree with me in opposing this policy. But I think that, as Christians, we do need to think about this theologically and not merely imbibe the prevailing assumptions we receive via the media.
Lockdown is the expression of a philosophy of life. It is the practical outworking of a worldview. And since we, as Christians, have a radically different perspective on what the purpose of life is, and what it means to be human, then it should not be surprising that we might arrive at a different view on how to live and act at a time like this.
I say this because I believe that lockdown is inhumane, or anti-human. The Bible teaches us what it means to be human and shows us that our humanity cannot be lived out in its fullest sense apart from obedience to God’s commands. The two greatest commands, the ones that summarise the law of God and therefore teach us what it means to be human, are these: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Lockdown resists and opposes obedience to both of these commands and is therefore inhumane.
Consider, first, how lockdown opposes the command to love your neighbour. What is love of neighbour if it excludes community, conversation, contact, laughter, hospitality, and the myriad other ways that we are called to be affectionate and tender towards one another?
Some will say that limiting human interaction is the way we love others at a time like this by saving lives. If staying away from one another means more people survive, then surely lockdowns are loving? There are two big problems with this reasoning. The first problem is that we do not know that lockdowns work, and the picture internationally is not clear. It’s just as plausible, for example, that the slow-down over the summer can be explained not by the first lockdown but by the fact that coronaviruses are seasonal and respiratory illnesses always bounce back in the cold months. We simply do not know that the first lockdown achieved very much, besides a possible temporary delay in the spread of this invisible enemy. So, we are putting our faith in an experimental and speculative policy.
The second problem is that we do know the harm lockdowns cause, even if this is not as immediate or as in-your-face. These effects have to be weighed in the balance. Consider: (i) Lockdown will have a devastating effect on the global poor, as economies are being vandalised by this policy. That will, in time, lead to a massive increase in child poverty, sickness, and death, though these effects will be far removed from us who can collectively afford to take time off work by borrowing billions of pounds. This is a tragedy in the making. (ii) Lockdown will lead to a long-term economic slump that will affect the health of our nation. Consider the amount of money that has been spent on lockdown – the many hundreds of billions of pounds – and then consider how the loss of this money will affect our ability, long-term, to maintain a healthy nation. Social services, hospitals, welfare and many other public services will suffer for years, if not for decades. The effect is indirect and will be difficult to measure, but I have no doubt that future historians will get to work on demonstrating how lockdown ultimately led to shortened lifespans across the population for years to come. (iii) Lockdown is causing suffering and sickness right now. There has been a massive rise in deaths at home, undiagnosed cancers, untreated heart conditions, depression, and a lot more. Again, these effects will be delayed and indirect, but do not doubt that lockdown will cause all kinds of suffering for years to come. (iv) Lockdown stops us from loving one another in the ways that we need to be loved, which ultimately harms us all and tears apart the fabric of society.
These points are not speculation; they are rational and logical and factual. Considering the fact that there are alternate strategies on the table – such as that put forward in the Great Barrington Declaration – can we really justify the immense cost and long-term fallout of lockdown on a gamble that it might save lives? And all the while we are prevented from expressing our humanity in community, and so we are becoming less human.
Second, I believe that lockdown opposes the command to love God. Mankind was created to love and worship God, and we cannot be fully human without giving expression to our worship. When God made Adam and Eve, he tasked them to work and worship. Herman Bavinck expresses this dual calling in this way:
Work and rest, rule and service, earthly and heavenly vocation, civilisation and religion, culture and cultus, these pairs go together from the very beginning… Religion must be the principle which animates the whole of life and which sanctifies it into a service of God.
We should not be surprised when a secularised state imposes a law that prevents people from worshipping together in order to ‘save lives’. The operating philosophy of our age is built upon survival, the progress of humanity, and living life to the full in the here and now. There is no weight or consideration given to the eternal purposes of mankind; only the temporal. And so, it makes sense that we would panic and scrabble to preserve and prolong life, as though survival is our greatest need.
But a Christian whose mind is shaped and formed by the word of God will know that survival is not our greatest need; our greatest need is salvation. And to be prevented from gathering as God’s people before him in a humble expression of worship and adoration and prayer is to be prevented from expressing our humanity as God intended and seeking him as he desires.
Moreover, if you re-read the prophets you will discover that when disaster strikes a nation under the sovereign hand of God, his intention and purpose is to drive us to repentance. The salvation we need is in seeking him, and yet we are being prevented from gathering in his name.
Many will object and protest that we can worship at home or online. This is only partly true, since in Scripture there is no true devotion from God’s people without a gathered, embodied, corporate devotion. Yes, God sees and hears me in my room on my knees, but he also commands me to sing with his people for his glory and my good. The gathering of the saints is not an optional addition to the spiritual life; it is the beating heart of the life of worship.
I am not sure how much longer we, as Christians, can tolerate this policy that is built on a secular worldview and inhibits us from obeying God while stripping us of our humanity. We need to see that this policy is the natural outworking of a godless worldview, and an expression of corporate anxiety without eternal hope.
Eschatology and Lockdown
The reason is eschatological. The optimists are pushing for lockdown because they believe that, sooner or later, the cavalry will come and rescue us: a vaccine, or mass testing the like of which begins trials in Liverpool this week, or something else. The pessimists are objecting to lockdown because they think the vaccine may be a mirage, mass testing has been overpromised and underdelivered several times already, and we cannot place our hope in a Micawberish belief that something will turn up.
That dynamic is as old as the hills. Fears about the future make us want to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Hope for the future makes us more prepared to endure hardship in the present, for “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
Fit for Purpose
I could never see anything in church, at the theatre or at events; I always had to stand in the front row of every photo—feeling exposed, ridiculous and ashamed. Then one weekend our youth group went to a Christian festival somewhere. As ever, I was stuck behind the tallest people in the arena, trying to sing praises to God but unable to see the words on the giant screens a few rows in front, and I was fed up.
Suddenly, I began to picture God, seated on his throne, with Jesus standing by his side. They were inviting me in, and Jesus moved towards me to invite me to come closer—and he was exactly my height. He looked me straight in the eyes, without having to bend or crouch, without me having to tip my head back and peer up against the light.
He didn’t say anything, and the picture soon faded. I became aware of the venue again, my brother beside me giving me an odd look, and tears streaming down my face. In that moment I knew I was known, seen, accepted, loved. I was short compared to my friends, but I was the exact height God intended, and he was exactly the God I needed for my life.
I still have to manage my day-to-day life—bathroom mirrors are usually too high, I need a step-ladder to reach the higher shelves in my kitchen, and I still have to stand in the front row of every group photo. But the pain has gone out of it. I have never once since that day felt discontented, cheated or distressed by my height, or lack thereof. As he did with Job, God showed me who he was, and that was enough.
It doesn’t always happen that way. Learning contentment with my singleness was much more a case of what Eugene Peterson has called “a long obedience in the same direction”—a daily choice to trust God whatever my circumstances. We choose, day after day, year after year, to fix our eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter” or “author and finisher” (KJV) of our faith (Hebrews 12 v 2). We remind ourselves of who he is, and we choose to believe that he is good, and that therefore, no matter how bad our circumstances feel to us, his ways must also be good.
The above is an extract from my new book, If Only, released yesterday by The Good Book Company (thank you, Matt and Andrew for your earlier plugs for it - much appreciated). Due to the ongoing restrictions on travel and group events in the UK, I was forced to hold the launch event online, but it was actually really fun, and meant my friends and family from Europe and the US were able to join in, which they never would have been able to normally.
The launch included a reading from the book, and I chose the above, because a few early readers have already told me how much it has impacted them. That incident has been deeply significant in shaping my sense of security in who I am - it reminds me that God made me exactly the way he intended; I don’t need to measure up to society’s standards of success, beauty or anything else. I need to deal with the sin in my life, and to grow in godliness, but God made me in a certain way for a certain purpose, and wanting to be someone different is both pointless and unnecessary.
I hope and pray that many people will find the freedom of that truth, either through reading my book or through their own reading of the Bible and relationship with the God who made them fearfully and wonderfully for his good purposes and his glory.
Looking Back at Friendship
I've just started reading Drew Hunter's Made for Friendship. It's a book I've been looking forward to, and just a few pages in I am already hooked. Drew's opening chapter makes that case that we have forgotten the true value and importance of friendship. In the process, he offers some incredible quotes about friendship from figures in church history. Here's a quick sampling.
Two things are essential in this world—life, and friendship. Both must be prized highly, and not undervalued.
From John Newton…
I think to a feeling mind there is no temporal pleasure equal to the pleasure of friendship.
From Gregory of Nazianzus…
If anyone were to ask me, ‘What is the best thing in life?’ I would answer, ‘Friends’.
He who would be happy here must have friends; and he who would be happy thereafter, must, above all things, find a friend in the world to come, in the person of God.
And, of course, the best, from Jesus…
No longer do I call you servants ... I have called you friends.
You’ve probably already seen this…
How often do you find yourself saying ‘if only…’ I know I do so, both consciously and subconsciously. And my ‘if only’ rate has probably increased during this covid-season. I expect that’s the case for us all, with all the things we wanted to do but haven’t been able to, or didn’t imagine we’d be doing but have.
I think my ‘if only’s’ increase with getting older too. When I was young it was easy to think ‘if only’ about all the things I didn’t have and hadn’t achieved. Now that I’m properly middle-aged my ‘if only’s’ have changed but I have a lot more life to look back on and ‘if only’ about! How easy it is, at every stage of life, to waste life thinking, ‘if only.’
Jennie tackles this head on and her book is an extended exploration of these questions:
So let’s get really practical. What is it that you need (or want)? What is the thing about which you think, “If only that were resolved, then I’d be happy” or “Life is fine, but I wish this part of it were different”?
Through the prism of scripture and the honest telling of her own ‘if only’s’ Jennie guides us through the way of regret and frustration towards contentment and peace. It’s very well done and very poignantly told and I really recommend it. The defining ‘if only’ of Jennie’s life was her desire – and expectation – of marriage and motherhood. These things have not happened for her. I’ve seen plenty of other people – men and women – in a similar position: waiting for Mr or Mrs Right to come along, but that never seeming to happen. Too often I’ve also seen some of these people decide to bail on their Christian convictions and go looking for romantic satisfaction in the wrong places. Jennie has chosen a different path, and found that God is sufficient for her most significant ‘if only’:
I may not have a husband, but I’m doing almost all the things I thought I needed a husband to be able to do. Even my longing for physical intimacy no longer stings quite so deeply as I have grown in spiritual intimacy with God. I released the dreams I was clinging to, only to find that he gave them back in rich and wonderful ways I could never have imagined.
We’ve been trained by our consumer society to constantly ‘if only’. Pastorally I find it a huge challenge to help people see that there is satisfaction and completeness available to us in Christ, whatever else we may lack or feel we lack. I feel the challenge of that personally, too. This book is a wise and compassionate answer to our confused hopes and longings.
If Only is released next week. Please buy it, read it, and pass it on.
What Would Abundant Life Look Like To You?
What is it that you need (or want)? What is the thing about which you think, “If only that were resolved, then I’d be happy” or “Life is fine, but I wish this part of it were different”? What would abundant life look like to you? A spouse? A different spouse? Children? Full health? A better job? A bigger house? A helpful exercise might be to make a list of those things, or to write a description of the life you’re longing for, highlighting the bits that you feel are missing. Then think about why you want those things - are there deeper needs that lie underneath them? What need are you looking for that house or that spouse to meet? For many of us it is simply a sense that we haven’t achieved or acquired the things we thought we would (or should) by this age. Is it a case of broken expectations? What does the enemy tell you that this lack means about who you are and how your life is going?
Defining Critical Race Theory
Like postmodernism twenty years ago, terms like CRT, intersectionality and wokeness are being disagreed on fiercely in both Christian and mainstream circles, yet often (although not always) people are talking about strikingly different things. I can’t be sure, but it seems to me that Neil might agree with large parts of CRT if it was defined by Rasool, and Rasool might disagree with large parts of it if it was defined by Neil. My experience suggests that is frequently true in this discussion, and that before wading in to cheer or condemn something, we first need to be clear on exactly what it is. This conversation helpfully illustrates why.
Letting Injustice Rip
We all know the rationale behind lockdowns: to stop the health service being overwhelmed by limiting the spread of the virus and to save lives. We also know the problems with lockdowns, in both national and local manifestation. There is, of course, the disruption to our personal lives, which has been considerable. Then there are the larger issues of the impact on the economy, the rise in mental health problems, and so on. And we know the almost impossible demands upon national leaders as they have to make huge decisions and wrestle with very different opinions as to how the pandemic should be handled.
In his various updates the Prime Minister has been using the phrase, “We cannot just let the virus rip.” This is a somewhat pejorative expression, aimed at the likes of the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration, who advocate a different approach from that being pursued by the government. It is clearly meant to imply that those who question the strategy are careless of human life and health. But if the impact of lockdown is anything like what David Nabarro suggests then what we are really seeing rip is terrible injustice to the poor.
This should be an issue of concern for Christians, who are called to the cause of the poor; but it is not an easy one to parse. There is no simple equation for calculating what saving one life in the West might do to exacerbate the poverty of many in the developing world. But it is an issue that should influence how we respond to government policy.
In 2017 689 million people were living in extreme poverty (on less than $1.90 per day). This was terrible but the number of people living at this level of poverty had actually been falling for more than twenty years. If Nabarro is anywhere near correct we could witness the shocking reality of all that work being undone and hundreds of millions more people falling into extreme poverty. That will mean millions and millions of children who have their life chances entirely blighted. It will mean huge numbers of children dying.
Measuring the value of one life against another is invidious, but it is not irrelevant that in England & Wales there have so far been just six deaths of children aged 14 and under with covid.
These are very difficult waters in which to wade, but – surely – there must come a time when we at least begin to debate whether the impact of the West’s response to the pandemic is too great a price to expect the poor of the world to pay. And – surely – these are the kinds of questions that Christians, of all people, should be starting to ask. The issues are bigger than what time pubs and restaurants in our cities close, and the impact of that on jobs and businesses here. These are issues of global justice. We must remember the poor.
A Christian Perspective on Mental Health
Today is World Mental Health Day. This year the day may feel particularly relevant. We're all aware that mental health problems are a significant and growing issue in the world around us, and that was all true before coronavirus hit. Now there is increasing evidence emerging that the pandemic and our experience of lockdown measures are aggravating this growing problem. This is a moment where we need to talk about mental health.
And this is true for Christians too. As Christians and churches we have not always done well at talking about mental health, in fact, we’ve often just not talked about it at all. But of course, we as Christians can struggle with our mental health just as much as anyone else, and many of us will be finding that coronavirus is having an impact on this area of our lives.
I recently had the chance to give a short introduction to a Christian perspective on mental and emotional health. Drawing on my own experiences, biblical wisdom, and reflections from several years of thinking about the topic, I sought to provide something of a framework within which for us to engage with this complex topic. My hope and prayer is that it might be a help both to those of us who experience our own mental health struggles and to those who walk alongside us.
Rethinking the Land Promise
The place of the land promise in redemptive history is a complicated and controversial matter. How do we understand the fulfilment of the land promise in the church age and beyond?
Many modern evangelicals incline towards a spiritualising answer: The land promise was originally about the physical land of Canaan but with the coming of Christ that is spiritualised and now applies to the coming new creation. But in Bound for the Promised Land: The land promise in God’s redemptive plan, Oren Martin makes an interesting case that the promised land was always meant to be understood as a type of the ultimate fulfilment of the land promise in the new creation. It is not that the fulfilment of the promise changes but that the promised land was only ever meant to be a picture of what was to come. On Martin’s reading, the fulfilment of the land promise is not a slightly awkward problem to be explained away but just part of the broader flow of God’s plans for redemptive history.
One of the helpful arguments that Martin makes is that the Old Testament itself, from as early as the promises to Abraham, suggests that the land promise was always about more than the geographical land of Canaan. Martin offers six pieces of evidence in support of this position.
- The promises given to Abraham are a reinstating of the role given to Adam which was itself a call to impact further afield than just the land of Canaan.
- The form of the promise given to both Abraham (Gen. 22:17-18) and Jacob (Gen. 26:3-4) suggests a much larger and greater fulfilment than the promised land later inhabited by Israel.
- In Deuteronomy, the coming entrance to the land is presented as a return to the situation in Eden, linking it to the wide scope of the call on humanity in Genesis 1 and 2. Entry to the land is also connected with securing rest suggesting it is a type of entering God’s eternal rest.
- Joshua presents something of a tension between the fulfilment of the land promise and a yet-to-come fulfilment, suggesting that the original promise was about more than just Canaan.
- The reigns of David and Solomon again introduce the themes of Eden and rest, both of which suggest broader fulfilments. As things begin to fall apart in Solomon’s reign, the prophets draw on Eden, Abraham, and David to further open up the scope of what God had promised.
- In their discussion of the return from exile, the prophets speak of both national and international elements and envisage a return to the land which is coextensive with a new creation.
‘There are exegetical grounds both in the immediate context of the Abrahamic covenant and across the entire Old Testament to argue that God’s original intention for the land was not merely to be limited to the specific geographical boundaries of Canaan. In other words, when situated within the biblical covenants and viewed diachronically, the land functions as a type or pattern of something greater that will recapture God’s original design for creation’ (Bound for the Promised Land, p.166).
He Cares, So He Cuts
Jesus tells His disciples that the Father is also a faithful gardener who cares for His own. He cares so much that He cuts them. He cuts away the bad and burns it; He also cuts the good to stimulate growth. But it’s the kind of growth that takes time, the kind that goes against your natural instinct to preserve growth at any cost. Instead, the Father is concerned with fruit that lasts. He’s concerned with good fruit.
This doesn’t make much sense to people who honor quantity over quality, who want it to come fast and quick. Always onward and upward. Always expanding. More productivity. More gains. More profit. Instead, pruning prefers healthy growth and knows that flourishing is not a race. Pruning knows that abundance in the future often requires loss in the present.
By now, I’m not thinking of peach trees or grape vines or figs. I’m thinking of lost dreams, lost hopes, and lost desires. I’m thinking of all those things that have been taken from me. All those things that were cut away.
I had dreams of fruitfulness, dreams like tender shoots, growing from the very center of my being. They were not dreams of vanity, pride, or lust. They were hopes for goodness and flourishing. And then they were cut off. Out of nowhere, with no explanation, cold steel cut through my flesh, slicing, marring, disfiguring. I stood limbs outstretched, exposed, and embarrassed. I had been audacious enough to hope, audacious enough to send out a shoot, and now it lays on the ground, dead.
Was it for disease that I was cut or was it for growth and how would I know the difference? And does it even matter when the loss feels the same?
I’m thinking too of how often pruning happens right when you feel like you can’t take any more, when you’re already in a season of dormancy and the world around you lies gray and lifeless. But it’s in these late winter days that the gardener can see most clearly, when the cover of your fig leaves are gone and you stand naked before Him. And when He’s done His work, don’t be surprised that you’re half the person you knew yourself to be.
Jesus tells us that our Father Gardener prunes us for our fruitfulness and the writer of Hebrews tells us this same Father chastens those He loves. And I believe this, but it still hurts, and most days, I don’t have the courage or the faith to believe that this is for my best. Too many days, I want the old part of me back because it is familiar. I forget that losing my life is the only way to find it; I forget that I’ve been cut to be made whole.
But some days, I remember. Some days I remember the taste of sweet, ripe peaches and clusters of purple grapes. I remember that Nathan did this last year. I remember that we’ve been through this before. I’ve seen these trees and vines cut back, and I’ve seen these same trees and vines grow back. I’ve seen them stripped down, and I’ve seen them flourish again. I remember that I’ve got peaches in my freezer and jam on my shelf and hope for more. I remember that abundance and life came from the cut.
Foraging for Goodness
Given the dangers associated with the earth, it could be easy to skip foraging altogether. And I suppose in a modern context, we have that luxury. Who would take the risk when you can simply buy food at the grocery store? Because despite the growing interest in foraging, I know that we don’t do it for the same reasons my grandmother did or her grandmother or her grandmother before that. Foraging is peasant’s work, the gifts of the earth to those who most need it. But I also wonder if we’re missing out, if we’re missing out on morels and ramps and fiddleheads. I wonder if our search for safety means that we’re not searching for goodness.
So what are we to do? In foraging circles, the solution is simple: you learn. You learn what is good and what is bad so you can enjoy the good.
Like many such skills, foraging is primarily passed down from person to person; and in the absence of a grandmother to tell you not to eat the toadstools, you can opt for guided walks, classes, and even books. But mostly, you have to put the time in. You have to learn by doing. Because as any seasoned forager can attest, goodness does not grow in neat clumps or carefully tended rows. It is wild and you have to work for it. You’ll have to go out in the chilly spring rain and tramp for miles. You’ll have to keep a keen eye, and even then, you’ll likely miss what’s right in front of your face. You’ll have to admit what you don’t know, and in humility and patience, learn from others.
Likewise, the psalmist tells us that the earth is full of the Lord’s goodness, and in Philippians 4:8, the apostle Paul invites us to forage for this goodness, neither fully accepting nor rejecting what the world offers. Instead, he invites us to search out “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is commendable.” Because if you do, if you’re humble enough to learn the difference between life and death; if you seek whatever is excellent and worthy of praise; if you look for it in the underbrush and around trees and hidden in the hillsides; if you take the time and make the effort; you’re sure to find it.
Who Are the Vulnerable?
One of my fellow elders has cystic fibrosis. You wouldn’t know, because he is very healthy, so I wouldn’t call him ‘vulnerable’, even if, technically, he is. At the moment he is fully involved in church life but we’re having conversations about whether he will need to withdraw more. I don’t want him to get sick.
Not all those labelled as vulnerable are willing to accept the term, even if they look more vulnerable than my fellow elder. Disability campaigner Baroness Jane Campbell recently highlighted some of the problems.
She said that many disabled people placed in the category of “vulnerable” or those who were told they needed to “shield” – as she has – had been forced instead to campaign for their basic human rights throughout the pandemic because the concept of “vulnerability… simply serves to anonymise our humanity and human rights”.
She pointed to the use of Care Act easements under the Coronavirus Act that led to disabled people losing vital care and support; the use of “frailty scoring” to prioritise ventilation and intensive care treatment; and GPs “ringing around asking the vulnerable if they wanted to consider a DNR on their notes”.
She said: “It began to feel like there was only a very short walk from being one of the ‘vulnerables’ to the chilling club of the ‘expendables’.”
From Baroness Campbell’s perspective, to be labelled ‘vulnerable’ actually makes the disabled more vulnerable. That’s a perspective worth thinking about.
Perhaps our perspective needs widening further still. We know that those who are most ‘vulnerable’ to covid have pre-existing health conditions. The majority of those who have died with the virus are aged over 80 and almost all of them had co-morbidities. It’s easy to look at a sick old person and label them vulnerable. But with a different perspective the most vulnerable could actually be the young and healthy – those who are at almost no risk of serious illness or death from the virus itself.
In the UK it is the young (scolded for being selfish and ‘killing their grannies’) who have been most negatively affected by the response to the virus. It is young people who have had their education massively disrupted. It is young people who have the least job and financial security. It is the young who live in the most cramped accommodation. It is the young who are paying university tuition fees while being kettled in their halls of residence. It is today’s young people who will have to pay off our extraordinary national debts tomorrow.
This gets worse at a global level. Back in May, Indian media was reporting what could be the result:
At least 49 million people across the world are expected to plunge into “extreme poverty” — those living on less than $1.90 per day — as a direct result of the pandemic’s economic destruction and India leads that projection, with the World Bank estimating some 12 million of its citizens will be pushed to the very margins this year.
More anecdotally, this update from Simon Guillebaud in Burundi brings the issues home:
As with so much of the developing world, the economic impact has done far more damage than the disease itself. Celestin and I shared an office for 5 years at our income-generating King’s Conference Centre. He quietly asks me for a chat and says he’s speaking on behalf of the staff, several of whom I observed on arrival were noticeably thinner. Due to covid and loss of business, either some workers had to be let go, or everyone would have to take a salary reduction. They decided to stick together, but everyone has had a 40% cut. Imagine your salary was $100/month, and now it’s $60… and food prices have gone up! “Simon, it’s desperate. We can’t afford the bus so are walking each day in the sun all the way, some of us upwards of 20km.”
Perhaps, then, when we talk about ‘protecting the vulnerable’ we should be thinking on a global level and the impact of our actions on the economically poor.
Another angle on this is that if a safe and effective vaccine is developed it is likely that wealthy nations, like the UK, will scoop up as much of it as possible, leaving poorer countries – again – more vulnerable.
Or, back closer to home, perhaps we should think of the ‘vulnerable’ as those who have not received health provision they normally would. According to the Health Services Journal, “Official data from mid-September shows that nearly 6,400 people had waited more than 100 days following a referral to cancer services.” More than 100 days? If you were waiting that long for a cancer referral I imagine you would feel vulnerable.
So vulnerability is much more than just who is at greatest direct risk from the virus. It has social, economic and global dimensions. ‘Vulnerable’ is probably too inexact a word and maybe we should stop using it – to stop, “anonymising humanity and human rights”. The Bible is more specific in its terminology of need: widow, orphan and alien are among the more precise terms it uses. At the least, it might expand our prayers, and adjust the focus of our concerns, to define who it is we are talking about when we worry for the vulnerable. ‘The vulnerable you will always have with you’ – but they might not be who you think.
We’ve been here before: Lessons from 1957 & 68
So asks Vaclav Smil in a fascinating post that asks similar questions to ones I have previously raised here but looks at different historical examples. While many have made comparisons between covid and the Spanish flu, why do we barely remember the pandemics of 1957 and 1968 - more deadly than the coronavirus but leaving barely a trace on our collective consciousness. Why is that? What’s changed - what’s changed in us?
Answers on a postcard please!
On Keeping Churches Open
It’s worth watching for two things in particular. Firstly, the frequency with which he quotes Scripture in such a short segment (in contrast, sadly, to the fluffier varieties of clergy you often hear on news broadcasts). Secondly, the enormous grin from within his dog collar when he first appears, as if he can’t quite believe he’s wearing it.
Great work, Ian.
Learning from Self-ID
Last week the government announced that they would not progress with proposed reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act which would have allowed people to change their legal gender and obtain a new birth certificate through self-identification. The announcement is the long-awaited response to a consultation ran back in 2018. Unsurprisingly, there have been mixed responses to the news.
At the moment those who want to legally change their gender have to meet certain criteria (such as a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, two years living in the new gender, and the intention to live in this gender for life). Some people feel these criteria are unnecessary and unhelpful and they therefore support a system of self-ID, where an individual can change their legal gender based solely on their own testimony and intention (as is already the case in several countries, including Ireland, Norway, and Argentina).
The government’s consultation on the possibility of introducing a self-ID system received more than 100,000 responses, with 64% saying that a diagnosis of gender dysphoria should not be necessary to change one’s legal gender. However, ministers decided against proceeding with the reform because they believe that the balance of responses was skewed by responses from trans rights groups. (Interestingly, a more recent survey found a decrease in public support for transgender women having access to single-sex spaces.)
The government’s decision is quite surprising, both because ministers, including then Prime Minister Theresa May, had seemed to be in favour of the change and because self-ID has been introduced in several other countries over the past half-decade.
Regardless of the final outcome, the fact that many of those responding to the consultation were in support of the change is revealing. It shows us how approaches to transgender experience have changed over time. As in so many situations, it is worth stopping to think more deeply about what the results demonstrate.
The Journey to Self-Identification
The last few decades have seen several stages in the journey to support for self-identification. Each contains a different understanding of transgender experience and in the process reveals changes at a deeper level.
Up until 2013, medical professionals used the term ‘gender identity disorder’ to describe the experience of those who today would be diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Although there were ongoing debates as to whether the experience should be classed as a mental health condition (and the UK government had declared that it is not), the use of the term ‘disorder’ clearly implied that there was something wrong when an individual’s biological sex and sense of internal gender don’t match. To an extent, this approach valued both the body and the internal self. If there is something wrong when they clash, both are deemed important.
With the publication of the DSM-V in 2013, gender identity disorder was replaced with the diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’. This new diagnosis placed the emphasis on the distress caused by a mismatch between sex and gender. (Distress was one of the diagnostic criteria for gender identity disorder, but it wasn’t the dominant feature.) This shift in focus to the distress accompanying transgender experience suggested that the disconnect between biological sex and internal gender isn’t, in and of itself, a problem. It is the effect the disconnect has that is a problem. The generally accepted treatment for gender dysphoria was (and is) to transition to live in line with the internal self, rather than biological sex. The body must change to align with the internal self. This change in emphasis and the treatment option supported was a step towards devaluing the body, but the experience was still understood in medical terms.
Support for Self-ID shows a significant next step in this journey. If self-ID is accepted, then anyone can define their own gender, without any consideration to the body or even their internal sense of gender. (No doubt many would make use of self-ID to change their legal gender to match their internal sense, but an internal experience wouldn’t actually be a necessary criterion for the change.) Self-ID rejects the body as a source of authority, but it also allows us to reject our internal feelings as a source of authority. The only authority left is our own choice. There need be no supporting evidence or experience, external or internal, to defend our choice.
Self-ID also marks a significant change in perspective: transgender experience isn’t a medical issue; it’s an identity issue. And it no longer need be an internal identity, based on desires and feelings we find inside. It can now be a self-created identity, based on our own choice and declaration. We are who we say we are.
The high level of support for self-ID among many of those responding to the government’s consultation reveals the next step in our culture’s understanding of gender. It’s a shift from, ‘We are who we feel we are’ to ‘We are who we say we are’.
We’re already seeing the outworking of this in some of the non-binary gender identities that are becoming particularly popular among young people. In some cases, these young people do not experience gender dysphoria, and their chosen gender isn’t particularly rooted in strong internal feelings; it is purely rooted in a personal decision. Who do I want to be? Or even, who do I want to be today?
Learning from the Journey
These are ideas among which many people—especially young people—are swimming. How do we help Christians to swim against the tide?
We need to talk about identity. A lot. (Regular readers of Think will not be surprised to hear me say that!) The clash between Christianity and culture on sexuality and gender centres on the issue of identity. We must help people to see this and show how God offers a better answer to our search for identity. We are not how we feel (which can change, be unclear, and be bad) and we are not who we say we are (which puts an almost unbearable weight on us, asking us to make our own choice (out of nothing) on one of the most fundamental and life-impacting questions of life). We are who God says we are (which offers a solid, stable and life-giving identity and takes the pressure off us and puts it onto him). We can’t do too much to help people understand and live out this truth.
We need to affirm the goodness of authority. Self-ID rejects the authority of the body and of medical professionals. Abuses of authority have created a huge distrust of all authority. Many people, especially young people, can’t fathom how any external authority can ever be a good thing. We need to help them see that when used well, authority is life-giving not oppressive or destructive, and we need to introduce them to the one who has ultimate authority and yet laid aside his own rights and position to serve them. This is an authority we can trust, an authority that is good for us.
We need to affirm the goodness of the physical world and especially the body. In a world where life is increasingly lived in the non-physical world that is the internet, we must continue to affirm and demonstrate the goodness of the physical world and of our own bodies, the very place in which God speaks to us about who we are as men and women.
Self-ID has been rejected as law in the UK, but the fact that many supported it helps us see how ideas about gender are continuing to change in the culture around us. As Christians, we need to recognise these changes and equip ourselves and others to stand firm in God’s truth in the face of them. We do this not just because we know God’s truth to be true, but also because we know it to be good, and we get to demonstrate that goodness to the world around us.
Last month Kristine Nethers posted on how the Spanish flu of 1918 affected churches in the US. I asked Kristine if she could dig up any corresponding data for what happened in the UK. This is what she found:
At the onset of my research on British church responses to the Spanish Flu, I would have assumed that newspaper articles and church accounts would have revealed similar responses to what I had discovered in the U.S. My initial research did not produce many primary sources on British church responses, which was surprising. (There are a few mentions, such as here.)
The more I researched, it was fascinating to see how press coverage in 1918-1919 seemed to encourage British people towards a resilient and stoic approach to the Spanish Flu (and not towards publishing the efforts to mitigate the disease by closures, masks, etc.). The motive behind the silence seemed to indicate that the British government and sympathetic newspapers did not want to cause alarm in the British people, nor advertise home front weakness to other nations during the war, nor decrease public morale even further as the first wave hit in May 1918. (The workings of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” campaign were under way!)
Even during the second wave during the winter of 1918, the press accounts seemed to downplay the pandemic. As one researcher put it, “Yet for all the destruction wrought by the Spanish flu, stoicism seems to have been the characteristic response even during the later waves of the pandemic. ‘Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the face of the world’, commented The Times in December 1918, ‘[and] never, perhaps, has a plague been more stoically accepted’’.” His research, linked here, is helpful in understanding the larger context of British people and the media response in that time.
Therefore, I could find little primary evidence of how British churches responded. While newspapers and church records did mention closures, there does seem to be a nonchalant tone towards responding to the pandemic.
What was the reason for this nonchalance? It certainly seems to be a rather different attitude to what we are currently experiencing, despite Spanish flu being far more deadly than the coronavirus. Kristine goes on,
I can surmise why the British and American approaches are different based on the context. American involvement in WWI was far less and deaths and casualties were far fewer per capita than the UK. After four years of a war it makes sense that British people were numb emotionally.
That is a fascinating observation – that the trauma of war in some way inured the British against the horrors of the pandemic. As Kristine observes, “The research does show the psychological response of a ‘survivor-mode’ after prolonged stress, trauma or crisis.”
This might suggest that one of the reasons we have taken extreme measures in response to the current pandemic is because we have not been hardened by previous trauma in the way our ancestors were a century ago. Despite terrorist attacks and long-running conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq the reality is that we have enjoyed a longer period of peace than any previous generation. At the same time we have experienced the most extraordinary improvements in public health. We rarely see death in the way previous generations did. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to infer that this has made us far more sensitive to threats to our health and peace. (A version of Moynihan’s Law.)
Perhaps this also helps explain why we seem to be more sensitive to ‘unusual’ causes of death, like the coronavirus. It is striking that the winters of 1999/00 and 2014/15 saw excess deaths in numbers not dissimilar to those we have experienced over the course of the pandemic, yet those deaths caused no public alarm and no draconian interventions by government.
What can we learn from this? At least four things stand out for me:
1. That we can be thankful for not having lived through a war.
2. That the response to our current pandemic is driven by cultural factors as well as scientific ones.
3. That experiencing this trauma might harden us in the face of future ones. Kristine comments that at her church, “I can see a bit of that survivor-mode take effect and I do think it’s important for church leaders to notice that in themselves and in their congregations during this time.” Some more stoicism wouldn’t go amiss but we surely wouldn’t want to become indifferent to death and suffering.
4. That pastors have a responsibility to teach about death. It is probably only in church that people are likely to regularly hear the message, “You are going to die.” This is a message we need to hear: because it is true, and we shouldn’t labour under the misapprehension that death only happens to other people. And because there is the corresponding Christian hope that death is already defeated and one day that last enemy will be seen crushed under Jesus’ feet.
So what does history teach us about how to respond to the pandemic? Is there a Christian alternative to ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives.’? Perhaps a simple formula for Christians would be something like: ‘Stiffen your spine. Soften your heart. Keep trusting Jesus.’ I think I prefer that one.
Praying…Through Gritted Teeth
I sit on a school governing board and see the huge pressure bearing down on the leadership team at this time. Whatever decisions are made in response to the pandemic there are parents who complain. How much greater must be the pressures on those who are making the decisions at a national level? Who would want to be Prime Minister at a time like this?
Being a pastor has its complexities too. I want to encourage and empathise with those who are fearful at this time. I have genuine concerns for those in my congregation with health issues that make them vulnerable to the virus and want to see them properly protected. And I have to reconcile this with my own wish that the British government had been more Swedish in its approach to the pandemic, and listened more to the likes of Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan than to certain other advisors.
So I didn’t much enjoy Boris Johnson’s address to the nation last night.
I wish that rather than saying the disease has “caused havoc to economies everywhere” he had said that it is the response to the disease that has caused havoc.
When he said, “We can see what is happening in France and Spain”, I wish he had also referenced what is happening in Sweden and Germany.
I disagree that the new approach is “robust but proportionate.” Robust, yes. Proportionate, not so much.
I agree that, “The tragic reality of having covid is that your mild cough can be someone else’s death knell.” But no one is suggesting “we should simply lock up the elderly and the vulnerable – with all the suffering that would entail.” And I wish he had acknowledged that whole sections of our society are in effect already locked up. My daughter starts at university in the North East next week and will have no face to face lectures and is not allowed to meet anyone outside the house she is living in. How is that fair when the under-20s are at effectively zero risk from the virus? How is that not being locked up?
I think the threat that, “we will enforce those rules with tougher penalties and fines of up to £10,000. We will put more police out on the streets and use the army to backfill if necessary”, is rather scarier than the virus itself. Any government that employs such disproportionately severe penalties has lost its moral authority and is relying more on fear and coercion to govern than the goodwill of the people.
I wish he had acknowledged how making the health care system all about covid has meant that many people have not received treatment for other conditions. I wish he’d said that there have been many deaths as a consequence of this missed treatment, rather than repeating the mantra that, “If we let this virus get out of control now, it would mean that our NHS had no space – once again – to deal with cancer patients and millions of other non-covid medical needs.”
I wish he wasn’t flying kites for, “mass testing so efficient that people will be able to be tested in minutes so they can do more of the things they love”, when we know the tests currently being used produce a very significant number of false positive results: so that there are plenty of people who don’t have the virus receiving a positive test and then having to self-isolate or face a fine of £10,000.
I wish he had reined in his tendency for hyperbole. “Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour.” Spanish flu? Black death? WWII?
So no, I didn’t think much of the PMs speech.
And yet the word of God instructs me to pray for those in authority. More than that, it tells me to do this with thanksgiving (1 Tim. 2:1). It’s easy to pray for, and give thanks for, people in the abstract. It’s also easy to do it for those with whom we are in agreement and who we like. It is much harder when it is not abstract, and when we don’t like what the authorities are doing. But the command doesn’t change!
I think this is one of the biggest discipleship challenges for Christians in the West. We are so culturally conditioned to assume that our personal opinions and desires should be paramount and to share in the general societal disdain for political leaders. We seem to think it acceptable to ridicule – hate even – those with whom we disagree. But the word of God demands something different of us.
So we must pray – and not even through gritted teeth, but thankfully. We might not find it easy. I know I don’t. But we must do it. We do it because ‘godliness & holiness’ are a great prize, as is ‘pleasing God our Saviour’ (1 Tim. 2:2-3). In a few years, decades or centuries the current actions of our governments will seem to matter very little, but our response to them now will have consequences for eternity.
The Virtue of the Lie
In 1950, in Leningrad, I visited the Hermitage in the company of a few Polish friends. We had a guide (a deputy director of the museum, as far as I can remember) who was obviously a knowledgeable art historian. At a certain moment - no opportunity for ideological teaching must be lost - he told us: ‘We have in our cellars, comrades, a lot of corrupt, degenerate bourgeois paintings. You know, all those Matisses, Cezannes, Braques and so on. We have never displayed them in the museum but perhaps one day we will show them so that Soviet people can see for themselves how deeply bourgeois art has sunk. Indeed, Comrade Stalin teaches us that we should not embellish history.’ I was in the Hermitage again, with other friends, in 1957, a time of relative thaw, and the same man was assigned to guide us. We were led to rooms full of modern French paintings. Our guide told us: ‘Here you see the masterpieces of great French painters - Matisse, Cezanne, Braque and others. And,’ he added (for no opportunity must be lost), ‘do you know that the bourgeois press accused us of refusing to display these paintings in the Hermitage? This was because at a certain moment some rooms in the museum were being redecorated and were temporarily closed, and a bourgeois journalist happened to be here at that moment and then made this ridiculous accusation. Ha, ha!’
Kolakowski’s punchline is magnificent (emphasis added):
Was he lying? I am not sure. If I had reminded him of his earlier statement, which I failed to do, he would simply have denied everything with genuine indignation; he probably would have believed that what he told us was ‘right’ and therefore true. Truth, in this world, is what reinforces the ‘right cause’ ... The cognitive aspect of this machinery consists in effacing the very distinction between truth and political ‘correctness.’ The art of forgetting history is crucial: people must learn that the past can be changed - from truth to truth - overnight. In this manner they are cut off from what would have been a source of strength: the possibility of identifying and asserting themselves by recalling their collective past.
Privilege, Oppression, Intersectionality and the Church
Both sets of terms are designed to stack the deck one way or the other. The negative terms are all loaded: nobody self-identifies as a politically correct cultural Marxist, or actually advocates victimhood culture, or champions identity politics, and although there is such a thing as critical theory, precious few people who use the term negatively have ever read much of it. The positive terms are loaded too. If you are not woke, you are still asleep. If you don’t want social justice, you must want social injustice. If you are not Antifa(scist) or antiracist, you are a fascist racist. And so on.
To complicate things further, key terms are used in completely different ways. Both groups want equity and justice, but one group sees this in terms of outcome (eliminating the gender pay gap, or ethnic disparities in university admissions), and the other sees it in terms of opportunity (making all positions available to all people, even if that means more men become CEOs, more women become primary school teachers and more Asians get first class degrees in Maths). Both groups want diversity, but one group wants diversity of identity (sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation), expressed through representation, while the other wants diversity of ideology (religion, class, political affiliation), expressed through freedom of speech. The word “privilege” may be the most neutral word we have available, but given that the many of the key spokespeople on all sides are as privileged as each other, that doesn’t solve the identification problem either.
With no commonly agreed labels for what we are talking about—which is partly a function of novelty, since much of this discourse has sprung up in the last decade—the conversation is difficult.
I. The Context
An awful lot of what I’ve just said would have made little or no sense to any of us ten years ago. (It still makes very little sense to many of our global brothers and sisters, of course; I’m writing very specifically written in the context of the Anglophone West in 2020.) The language and jargon is new, the dramatis personae are new, and the consequences of getting it wrong are, if not new, at least dramatically inflated. The sheer speed at which opinions are moving—at least if you read the broadsheets, as opposed to listening to the conversations in your local barber—are dizzying. We could call this the Nicky Morgan phenomenon, after the former Education Secretary who voted against gay marriage in 2013, decided she was for it in 2014, and was seeing opposition to it as possible evidence of extremism by 2015. When opinions are changing that fast, and that dramatically, it is hard for the church to keep up with the issues, let alone offer a wise response.
Standing at the end of the decade, we can already see how much things changed in the three central years, 2014-16. The first same-sex marriages in the UK and then the US, following the decision in Obergefell vs Hodges; the sudden switch from gay rights to trans rights, embodied (literally) by the appearance of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner on the front page of Vogue, and fuelled by boycotts and policy announcements about mixed sex bathrooms; the killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, the Ferguson riots, and #BlackLivesMatter; the collapse of Syria and the migrant crisis of 2015; the Charlie Hebdo attack and the debate about free speech and Islam that followed; the socially divisive Scottish independence and Brexit referendums; the election of Donald Trump; the sudden emergence of “safe spaces” on university campuses, alongside a spike in references to trigger warnings, secondary trauma, cancellation, call-out culture, and no platforming; and the accompanying rise in temperature whenever these issues are spoken about. Many in the West, whether Christians or not, found the rate of change exhausting. Me too.
Yet like all sudden transformations, this one had been decades or even centuries in the making. In some ways, paradoxically, it is the fruit of Christian theology. Christianity has a built-in moral imperative towards emancipation, freedom for the captives, and dignity for the downtrodden, and it comes not just from Jesus’s teaching (“the first shall be last and the last shall be first”), but from his incarnation (“he has thrown down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek”), and above all his crucifixion (“he made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, and humbled himself to death on a cross”). If truths like that are believed, preached and acted upon for long enough, it can utterly transform the moral imagination of a civilisation, with dramatic implications for the dignity and human rights of women, children, foreigners, slaves, the colonised, and anyone whom society has treated as less than human. The elevation of victims is a specifically Christian phenomenon; if you aren’t sure about that, you can just read Homer. As such, what some would dismissively call “victimhood culture” is actually the result of Christian anthropology, even if it has now taken on a life of its own, and reached some conclusions (for instance on sexual ethics) that conflict with Christian teaching. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
We can also tell the story very differently. We can trace it back to the three major idols of human history (money, sex and power), and the three founding fathers of modernist thought who correspond to them (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche). The Marxist thread insists on a basic division of the world into oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited, and calls all oppressed peoples to unite and revolt against their oppressors. The Freudian thread, in which the suppression of sexual urges is the cause of numerous social problems, eventually leads to the transgression of almost all sexual taboos, the consequent decline of the traditional family, and ultimately any sexual constraint that causes a therapeutic difficulty for anyone, including biological sex itself. The Nietzschian thread starts with the observation that humans are motivated by the will to power, and ends up with Michel Foucault arguing that power is the essential feature of all human relationships. (Foucault still exercises an astonishing influence in the academy; he is currently the most cited academic in any discipline.) If you put all of that together, the world looks like the graphic above.
II. The Challenge
All this is challenging for the church for a number of reasons, some of which we have touched on already. The terminology is slippery, confusing and hotly contested. Things are moving so fast that it is hard to keep up. In some cases we are being asked to accept ludicrous ideas that are self-evidently false. We may therefore be tempted to ignore it, especially since it is mostly concentrated in cities, universities, journalism and antisocial media (at least for the moment), although on balance it is important that we don’t.
Some of it, to be fair, is risible. Men can become women, but white people cannot become black. Asians can become British, but Brits cannot become Asian. Identity matters more than ideas (“you only say that because you’re a …”, “speaking as a …”, etc), until the ideas are unpopular enough, when suddenly they matter more than identity (which is why Peter Thiel is dismissed as no longer gay, Kanye West as no longer black, and Germaine Greer as no longer a feminist, all for expressing ideas that are regarded as beyond the pale). It is no problem for Jamie Oliver to own a chain of Italian restaurants, but for him to serve jerk chicken is cultural appropriation. Authors and actors don’t want to be associated with JK Rowling because she believes sex is real and women menstruate. Schools need parental permission to give a child an aspirin, but not to start treating boys as girls or girls as boys. Unemployed white men in Hartlepool are privileged; a Harvard-educated black multimillionaire, not so much. Inequality is always a result of injustice, except when gays earn more than straight people or Asians earn more than everyone else. Biological males can win medals in female sports and be imprisoned in female prisons, even if they have a history of sexual assault. Howls of oppression are fiercest in the most privileged communities on earth, namely elite universities in rich, Western countries. We could go on. Presented with things like this, the best response is somewhere between a raised eyebrow and a splutter of laughter.
Less absurd versions are available, and they require more critical reflection. In a helpful paper, Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer highlight various “potential conflicts” with Christian theology which may emerge: i) the idea that gender is a social construct; ii) the tendency to reduce truth claims to power plays; iii) the relativist epistemology, whereby a particular sort of lived experience is required for a person to understand the reality of something; iv) the relationship between gender and justice, such that Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is regarded as irredeemably oppressive; v) the collapse of individual responsibility before collective privilege and/or oppression, resulting in all (say) white men being guilty of oppression by belonging to a certain group, and the children being visited with the sins of the great-great-great-grandfathers. Tim Keller, in an excellent article sketching biblical justice and its secular alternatives, offers a related critique, arguing that what he calls critical theory is i) incoherent, ii) simplistic, iii) undermining of our common humanity, iv) in denial about our common sinfulness, v) incompatible with forgiveness and reconciliation between groups, vi) dependent on a “highly self-righteous performative identity,” and vii) prone to domination. Both articles are well worth reading in more detail.
All of this might seem easy to debunk and/or dismiss. But milder and more plausible versions affect the Western church in all sorts of ways. A few examples spring to mind:
Vulnerability and Victimhood. Vulnerability is prized far more than it used to be among church leaders. No doubt all of us have discovered that to some degree in our preaching: people increasingly come to thank us for our honesty, openness, authenticity and courage when we disclose areas of struggle, and some of us have even written books about it (ahem). Some of this is good, reflecting the need for pastors to live lives of integrity and accessibility in front of the people they lead. But we need also to be wary that vulnerability not slide into victimhood. There is an important difference between boasting in weaknesses which would seem to disqualify us from ministry, as Paul does, and disclosing things for the purpose of earning people’s sympathy and thereby qualifying us for ministry, as often happens today. The line may not be clear, but the temptation should be.
Diversity and Tokenism. Is it important to pursue diversity? Most of us would instinctively say yes, for biblical as well as cultural reasons, and probably work harder than we used to at diversifying our leadership teams, conference platforms and even promotional videos in contextually appropriate ways. But things are complicated. It is easy for tokenism to slip in, whereby we want to diversify the platform without diversifying the power. This almost always makes things worse, because it convinces the majority that there is no problem (the “I have a gay friend” defence), and the minority that we are papering over the real issues. We may also prize visible diversity (sex, ethnicity) over invisible diversity (class, education, marital status): we try to avoid photos or websites featuring all male or all white faces, but don’t notice invisible diversity anything like as much, even if at a cultural level it matters more. (Whom do I have more in common with: my black fellow elder who went to a redbrick university and works in an investment bank, or a single white guy who left school at sixteen and works in an Asda on Tyneside?) So it is crucial to ask why we want more diverse teams, platforms and panels, and then apply our answer as consistently as possible.
Progress and Decline. On the basis of most criteria, the contemporary West is just about the richest, safest, most comfortable, most healthy and most educated society in human history. We are far less likely than any of our ancestors, and plenty of our contemporaries, to experience violence, pain, famine, destitution, war, slavery, plunder, genocide, the violation of our rights, or what most civilisations would think of as oppression. Yet we are also more likely than almost any generation before us to lament how awful everything is, especially when we are trying to make political points: the inhumanity of our public policy, the degradation of our hospitals, the violence of our speech, the oppression of our education system, the brutality of the free market, the death of democracy, and the like. It is a version of Moynihan’s Law: the better things are, the worse they seem. It happens on both the left (poverty, racism) and the right (religious liberty, family), and both of them are visible, if not rampant, in the church.
Patriarchy and Eldership. Is patriarchy bad? The cultural answer is obviously yes. Patriarchy is oppressive, and leads to toxic masculinity, harassment in the workplace, pay gaps, rape culture, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and a multitude of other evils. Increasingly this would be the answer in the church as well, sometimes for very defensible reasons (#ChurchToo). But again, things are complicated. Israel was a patriarchy. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were patriarchs, and the nation was led by male kings and male priests. The apostles were all men. The New Jerusalem is a bridal city defended by twelve walls (named after men) and twelve foundations (named after men). The Christian gospel is one in which a faithful husband fights for and rescues his bride from impurity, captivity and peril. And what is eldership if it is not rule by fathers, with the most privileged people—older, theologically literate, respected and usually married men—charged with oversight of the whole community? For better or worse, the church has always been guarded by fathers with authority. The devil hates it. His attempt to make patriarchs the enemy of justice is resoundingly unbiblical, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t at risk of swallowing it.
Privilege and Theology. Should this article—or for that matter my next book, or next sermon—be dismissed as simply another example of white, male, straight, married, cis, rich, educated, Eurocentric privilege? Yes and no. Yes: I am among the most privileged people in human history, and nothing shows that quite so clearly as the act of writing an article about privilege. And you can tell, because I am treating this whole subject as an abstraction, without the pain that comes from being bullied for my sexuality, stopped and searched for my colour, excluded from the room for my sex, or constrained by a disability. But also no: since writing on anything is a function of privilege, requiring money, time, space, physical ability, literacy and education, we cannot dismiss privileged authors unless we are going to stop reading altogether. (The most oppressed do not write books, op-eds or even tweets, because they are too busy trying to survive.) So although we need to take a person’s privilege into account while considering what they say, it is not an objection to taking their argument seriously. If anything, it is the reason we are able to read what they think in the first place.
If we are not already, all of us will face some version of these challenges in the next few years, from its most generous form (do you think it would help you to have a single woman’s perspective in that discussion?) to its most odious one (like the charge that David Cameron experienced “privileged pain” when he lost a disabled child). Many in our churches are well down the track already. It is also the context in which our children, young people and students are being catechised, both formally at school and informally online. So it is worth considering how to respond.
III. The Response
There is a balance to be struck here. We don’t want to be ostriches, ignoring the issue until it goes away. But nor do we want to catastrophise, bewailing every new development as yet more evidence that the West is going to the dogs, and frantically running seminars on the dark menace of critical theory / cultural Marxism / political correctness / grievance studies / identity politics / victimhood culture. (Some of our American brothers and sisters have gone down this route, and so far the fruit has not been very positive.) Instead, let me suggest four things that will help us.
1) Thankfulness. One of the results of being Spirit-filled is that of “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father” (Eph 5:20), which implies that we can find something to be thankful for in everything, a diamond from God amidst any amount of rough. In this case it is easy. As we have touched on already, the defence of the oppressed is a biblical non-negotiable, and would not have emerged in our culture were it not for Christianity. (Ancient Greeks and Romans did not worry about the employment rights of women or migrants drowning in the Mediterranean; some cultures today, less shaped by the gospel, still don’t.) Its current version may have forgotten its Christian roots and got a bit carried away in some areas, but the status of women, children, the poor, slaves, migrants, sexual minorities, and people with disabilities is immeasurably improved relative to two thousand years ago, and in many cases relative to fifty years ago, and this should make us thankful. Addressing the ongoing menace of racism is vital. The last ten years have made sexual abuse harder rather than easier. The provision of gender-neutral kids toilets results from the same instinct as the provision of special needs schools—the desire to be as accommodating and inclusive as possible to vulnerable children—even if I think the latter is wonderful and the former is bonkers. In the grand scheme of things, if we could choose our problems, this would be a decent one to have.
2) Discernment. We often think of discernment negatively, as the art of spitting out the bones within the fish, but there is a good case to be made for seeing it positively: the process of finding all the best fish amongst the bones. Here, once again, there is plenty of good to be found. “Intersectionality” might be a novel bit of jargon with a lot of dubious application, but its central insight—that discrimination based on sex, race, class and so forth overlap—is obviously correct; most of us would see it in the story of the demonised slave girl in Acts 16, for example. In contemporary Britain, black women clearly do face obstacles that neither black men nor white women face. The church has discriminated against gay people, in our language, our humour, our pastoral application, and even our theology (holding the line on gay sex while moving it dramatically on divorce, for instance). Both the reality and the denial of white privilege are ubiquitous in Britain, and are just as visible in the church as elsewhere. So is class prejudice. So is ageism. Intersex people and those with gender dysphoria do struggle in ways that most of us cannot imagine. Our historical narrative is indefensibly Eurocentric, especially in the church. Single and infertile people are treated like second class citizens in many contexts, again, including the church. Those who do not experience all these challenges—like me—invariably are far slower to see them, regard them as significant enough to require action, and take appropriate steps to respond.
3) Fatherhood. Despite the anti-patriarchal rhetoric, there is widespread awareness in our culture of the need for fathers, and of the damage that fatherlessness can cause, especially in the least privileged communities. Research continually highlights the consequences for education, prosperity and crime that flow from growing up without a father; the bizarre result is that “fathers” are valued by the very same people that like to sneer at “married middle-aged men,” even though the two groups are identical. God’s created order runs deep. For all the concern about toxic masculinity, people know that fathers are different from mothers, and that the father’s contribution is particularly important to the development of healthy young men, and that everybody flourishes when those with strength and power use it in love for the good of those in their care, rather than being passive or inert (or disappearing altogether). That is important for us in our practice of eldership and apostleship, since speaking of elders as fathers makes male eldership seem much less arbitrary to people. It is also important for discipling young men in a society that tells them men are dangerous. Training them how to be fathers, spiritually as well as biologically, can be a surprisingly acceptable way of affirming their God-given masculinity.
4) Jesus. Some of us probably thought of it when we saw the intersectionality chart at the top: it is striking how many of the descriptions in the bottom half applied to Jesus. Poor, single, working class, Jewish, from a colonised people; not English-speaking, attractive, European, prestigious or white (if we allow anachronisms for the moment). It has always been part of the gospel that Jesus was born in a Bethlehem stable rather than a Jerusalem palace, died in humiliation and agony, and was strung up on a tree like a lynched and mutilated victim. No one has suffered more injustice, or experienced more oppression for less reason. Victims everywhere find solidarity with this man. Yet Jesus Christ is not just the paradigmatic example of a victim who experienced unjust suffering; he is also the paradigmatic example of unimaginable privilege being used to serve and save those without it. Even as he is being flogged, he is upholding the universe by the word of his power. He remains fully God as he takes a towel and washes the disciples’ feet. As such, he presents a profound challenge to anyone who thinks that privileged people cannot lay it aside and confront injustice—as well as to anyone who thinks that, since privilege is a gift from God, there is no particular need to use it on behalf of the oppressed. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:5-7).
Why Religion Is Awkward For Secular Humanists
Alister McGrath makes a brilliant point that I’d never thought of in The Great Mystery: The very existence of religion is rather problematic for secular humanists.
Secular humanists will often blame God—or as they’d see it, the belief that there is a god—for the ills and evils in the world. They also view God as a fictional creation, arising from the minds of humans. But put these two beliefs together and you’ve got a problem: the idea ‘of God and religion as human fabrications leads to the conclusion not that religion corrupts an innocent humanity, but that corrupt human beings create a religion that is just as evil and degenerate as they are’ (p.166).
So secular humanists get caught in a rather uncomfortable position. The more they criticise religion as the root of all our problems, the more they admit that humanity is actually the root of all our problems, and that isn’t a conclusion that they tend to be too keen on. Criticism of religion is really criticism of humanity.
McGrath drives the point home rather effectively by slightly rewording Dawkins’ famous description of God:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction, created by equally unpleasant human beings who were jealous and proud of it; who were petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freaks; who were vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleansers; who were misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bullies; and who created their gods in their own image.
The reality of course is quite different. When the Bible is understood carefully, the God of the Old (and New) Testaments is not the sort of God that would be created by flawed and sinful humans (hence why he contrasts so starkly with the gods of other religions). The God of the Bible is far better than anything we could ever come up with.