A Biblical Case for Surrogacy?
So how about approaching the subject from a different angle? Rather than simply opposing surrogacy ( this statement summarises reasons for doing so) is there a biblical framework that might cause us to endorse it?
Central to the Old Testament narrative is the essential place of having children. This really is essential because the generation of offspring is the way by which the covenant was enacted. Without offspring there could be no inheritance of the land and no holding onto the promises. This is why instructions and examples are given about family members stepping in to bear children for those who were themselves unable to – either because they had died or due to infertility.
Levirate marriage (described in Deut. 25) prescribes how a man is to marry his dead brother’s wife in order that she may bear children in the dead man’s name. Does this provide us with a positive model for surrogacy? Probably not: if anything it provides us with a framework for polygamy! The first born son of such a marriage ‘belongs’ to the dead man but the biological parents of the child are married (there is no adultery), and the child will be raised by them (there is no maternal separation), and there is no donation of gametes from a third party (again, no hint of adultery). So this really doesn’t provide a model for contemporary surrogacy.
What of cases where an infertile woman nominates a surrogate to bear children on her behalf? The obvious example of this is Sarah ‘giving’ Hagar to Abraham; and we might also consider the fertility arms race between Rachel and Leah and their two servants.
This is the closest we get to a parallel with some contemporary examples of surrogacy. We might compare it with a sister who becomes pregnant by her brother-in-law in order to provide them with a baby. If a biblical ground for surrogacy is going to be developed this could be the strongest plank in the argument.
Even here, though, there are some considerable issues to navigate. One is that this surrogacy strategy never ends happily. In the result, Sarah turns against Hagar in a brutal way, and the relationship between Leah and Rachel is dysfunctional, to say the least. Having a baby is a deeply emotional as well as physical reality so it is unsurprising if it carries significant potential for interpersonal rifts. Should we encourage this kind of potential?
Also, in both these examples, the ‘surrogates’ were servants: in fact, it would perhaps be more accurate to think of them as slaves. There is no indication that either Hagar nor Bilhah or Zilpah had any agency in the decision to make them available to, respectively, Abraham and Jacob. As members of Abraham’s and Jacob’s households they were effectively chattels of the patriarch who then became a kind of wife to him once they entered sexual relations with him. Moreover, they were expected to remain within the household and raise their children themselves. Again, this is more argument for polygamy than surrogacy and it is unlikely that a contemporary surrogate would be prepared to enter a similar arrangement.
A final biblical example that has been suggested to me is around the conception of Christ. This is very dangerous – and sacred – territory but was it a form of surrogacy when the Most High overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:35) and she conceived? Without getting into the deep Christological issues here it should be obvious that the incarnation was of a completely different order from what we see in modern surrogacy. A key, practical, aspect is that Mary herself raised Jesus – he was not snatched away at the moment of birth to be raised by others. Rather, Mary willingly submitted herself to the Lord’s purposes in conceiving and raising her son (Luke 1:38).
It is worth us teasing out these biblical examples as governments around the world increasingly legislate in favour of surrogacy. Christian couples will undoubtedly be caught up in the cultural tide and consider whether this is an appropriate way for them to overcome infertility. I hope that we might be able to withstand that tide.
How Should Christians Think About Gun Control?
There’s a long and distinguished tradition of British people crossing the Atlantic and telling Americans that they should lay down their arms. We’re having this conversation just a few hundred yards from the Capitol building and the Presidential Mansion that my ancestors burned down two centuries ago. So it is probably worth clarifying that this paper is not motivated by a desire for you to surrender your empire, become loyal subjects of Her Majesty, and give us back our tea. If anything, it is motivated by the desire to save American lives, especially those of the most vulnerable in society, rather than to take them.
You all know the statistics, I’m sure. America is a striking outlier amongst rich countries when it comes to gun deaths, and indeed homicide rates in general. Over 100 people are shot and killed every day in this country. 25 times as many people are murdered with firearms than in other rich countries, and 28 times as many women. Guns appear to substantially increase the total number of homicides: last year, there were as many murders in Philadelphia as in England, despite the population of England being thirty times the size. These deaths are disproportionately clustered amongst poor communities and African Americans, with black Americans ten times more likely to be shot dead than white Americans. One million American women have been shot at by a domestic partner. Firearms are the leading cause of death for American children. And so on.
I doubt there is anybody here who is not grieved by these statistics, or who does not see them as a serious problem. The question is whether anything can or should be done about them, and if so, what.
Australia faced that question in 1996. After thirty-five people were killed in a mass shooting in Tasmania, the government took robust action, banning all semi-automatic and automatic weapons, imposing longer and stricter waiting periods and more rigorous licensing and storage restrictions, and requiring a “genuine reason” to own a gun (which included hunting and target shooting, but did not include self-defence). Since then the government has bought back one million semi-automatic weapons, halving the total number of gun-owning households in the country. The number of gun homicides has dramatically reduced in that time, and the overall homicide rate has halved.
I mention the Australian example because Australia seems to me to share a number of cultural traits with the USA which European countries, including mine, do not—low population density, dangerous animals, a legacy of hunting, a Wild West, a popular culture of rugged masculinity—as well as a tragic recent history of mass shootings, and (interestingly) high popular support for tightening firearm restrictions. Of course there are additional political and legal obstacles to reform in the US which do not exist in Australia. But that will not trouble most people in this audience. Pro-life Christians in this country have a track record of advocacy for what they believe is right in the face of congressional and/or juridicial intransigence.
My case today involves four claims, and I have already made the first two:
1) Gun violence is a large and tragic problem which afflicts America far more than comparable nations, and disadvantaged Americans more than anybody else. This is a grievous injustice.
2) International examples suggest that this injustice could be reduced if tighter gun restrictions were applied. Domestic examples do too: regression analysis comparing US states has shown that greater restrictions are strongly correlated with lower gun deaths, although unsurprisingly there is plenty of debate about the whys and wherefores of that.
3) The benefits of tighter gun controls, both for potential victims and the communities in which they live (and die), outweigh the limitations on personal freedom that they involve. (I will save #4 for now, for fear of losing my audience!)
Let us assume for a moment that nobody here is talking about an absolute ban on all potentially deadly weapons for all citizens. I don’t propose a ban on carving knives, baseball bats or moving vehicles, even though they can be used to kill people. I don’t even propose a ban on hunting rifles or target ranges, both of which are legal in the UK, and both of which I have used myself.
At the same time, I will assume that nobody here believes there should be no limits on the potentially deadly weapons that an individual can own. I would be amazed if anyone here thought private citizens should be allowed to own nuclear devices, cluster bombs, howitzers, or VX gas, on the grounds that a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.
In other words, I suspect most of us already believe that citizens have the right to bear some “arms,” and that the right to bear other “arms” should be infringed, no matter what the second amendment says. Put differently, there is a spectrum, with carving knives at one end and weapons of mass destruction at the other. At the light end, we might issue a warning on the packaging, refuse to sell them to children, or restrict their carriage in public spaces. At the heavy end, we would arrest anyone found making or owning one on suspicion of domestic terrorism.
The “rights” in each case are not absolute. They are balanced with the “right” of other people to cut up steak or play baseball—or the “right” not to be blown to smithereens while walking home from work. We think the benefits of using carving knives are greater than the risks of being stabbed by them, whereas the personal freedom to own Molotov cocktails (?) is dramatically outweighed by the chance of killing and maiming innocent people. Our assessment of where something sits on that spectrum, I suggest, is a function of lethality (how many people it could kill), teleology (what it was designed for), and utility (what it is typically used for).
So let me ask this: Where on that spectrum would we put assault weapons? Machine guns? AR-15s? The sorts of weapons that Australia banned 25 years ago? I put it to you that when it comes to lethality, teleology and utility, those weapons are clearly at the heavier end of the spectrum. They are designed to injure and kill people. They are used to injure and kill people, with appalling frequency. They are far more like a Molotov cocktail than a carving knife or a baseball bat. So if implementing Australian-style restrictions would half the number of innocent people being killed by them, or even close to it, then that benefit should take precedence over the personal freedom to own them.
Nothing I have said so far is uniquely Christian. My first three arguments are based on the common good, and can be used in the public square, regardless of whether the audience is evangelical or even Christian. But my fourth and final claim is more radical. 4) Christians should oppose the use of deadly weapons on principle, because we are committed to the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the practice of nonviolence. Followers of Jesus should oppose the use of AR-15s or machine guns in self-defence for the same reason that we should oppose land mines, drone strikes, capital punishment and abortion: Christians should never kill people.
That’s a tricky case to make in sixty seconds, but here goes: Jesus never used violence against people, whether to defend himself or to defend the innocent. He teaches his followers to live the same way, not resisting evil, and turning the other cheek (Matt 5; Luke 6). Every time a disciple tries or threatens to use violence in the gospel, even in defence of the innocent, Christ rebukes them (Luke 9, 22; John 19). The apostles regularly present Jesus’s suffering as an example for believers to follow (Rom 12; Phil 2; 1 Pet 2). Disciples are commended for joyfully accepting the plunder of their property (Heb 10). Our struggle is not with worldly enemies or worldly weapons (Eph 6). Christians conquer not by killing but by dying: by the blood of the Lamb, the word of our testimony, and not loving our lives even to death (Rev 12). And every church father before Constantine who addressed the subject—Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, Athenagoras—agreed that killing image-bearers of God is always wrong.
I’m not naïve: I know my audience will mostly disagree with me here. Be that as it may, there is a strong common good case for tighter gun controls in America, perhaps along Australian lines, which “Just War” advocates could also support. The stakes are high: ten Americans will be shot during this brief debate, whereas in Britain, we average one gun death per week. And the reason why, I submit to you, is encapsulated by Hilaire Belloc, albeit it in a very different context:
We have got
The Maxim gun
And they have not.
They saw the God of Israel
I have read Exodus 24 before. I know I have. Several times, in fact. But somehow I have never noticed this section before. It comes in the middle of lots of laws, and I suspect I have always just glossed over them - or my eyes have glazed over and my mind wandered as I ‘read’.
I only noticed it this time because I spotted Joshua coming down the mountain with Moses in the golden calf episode, when I was sure it was Aaron who had gone up it. I scanned back through the chapters and eventually came to this one (there was a lot more ascending and descending the mountain than I realised!).
This chapter begins with God telling Moses to bring Aaron and two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, up the mountain, with seventy of the elders of Israel. But he tells them the others must not come too close - only Moses may approach.
Moses goes back down, tells everyone what God has been saying, writes down the laws he has given so far, then builds and altar and makes sacrifices on it. He sprinkles (or splashes) both the altar and the people with the blood of the sacrifices - the blood of the covenant, then ascends the mountain again with his brother, his nephews and the elders.
I’m sure they did keep their distance - in chapter 19 even the priests weren’t allowed to set foot on the smoky, fiery, shaking, thundering, trumpeting mountain, and in chapter 20 the people were afraid to go anywhere near it. Yet wherever they were, this passage is quite clear, “they saw the God of Israel”.
They saw him and lived.
Not only did they live, but they sat (presumably) in his presence and ate and drank with him!
I’ve recently been writing about the significance of food in the Bible, of meals, in particular. When God freed his people from slavery to the Egyptians, he gave them a meal to mark the occasion with. When Jesus made a new covenant with his people on the night he was betrayed, he gave them a meal to mark the occasion with, and ate it with them. And here is another meal eaten to mark a covenant. It seems probable that they were eating the meat they had sacrificed earlier that day. That would be consistent with similar meals before the Lord, outlined in Deuteronomy.
There are also two other occasions cross-referenced in my Study Bible - Exodus 18:12 and Genesis 31:54 - where people sat and ate together (though eating specifically bread on those occasions) as a way of making a ‘peace pact’ between two parties. I wonder if something similar is happening here.
A resource from Our Daily Bread that explains what the sacrament of communion is all about, says:
Even today in Arab cultures, there is a phrase, ‘There is bread and salt between us’ which shows a special loyalty between host and guest. To betray your host after sharing their bread (as Judas did in John 13:18) was the worst possible insult, and showed a shameful lack of integrity.
The upshot is that two parties eating from one piece of bread made strangers—or even enemies—into friends.
The Exodus passage doesn’t specifically mention bread, but it is clearly a meal that affirms a covenant, that speaks of loyalty between host and guest, that takes those who were once enemies and makes them friends. And it is eaten in the actual presence of God.
What an incredible event! And not one I have ever heard preached on. I’ve heard about Moses seeing God’s back, and Jacob wrestling with ‘a man’ and realising in the morning that he has seen God and lived, and Isaiah seeing God in a vision - how is this passage not as familiar as those?!
Also, I’ve been chatting with my mum about it on Twitter, and she pointed out that this was the same Nadab and Abihu who later offered ‘unauthorised fire’ before the Lord and were killed because of it (Leviticus 10:1-3). Another link to Judas - even those who sit in the closest communion with the Lord, eating and drinking of the sacrifices with him, are not immune from falling away.
So much richness in three little verses hiding in plain sight in the middle of Exodus. How amazing. And that’s without even mentioning the fact that God’s glory was so inexpressible that all they were able to put into words was what the floor was like!
Yet more amazing still is the passage in Hebrews 12 that points back to these chapters. It says that we have not come to such a blazing, shaking, tempestuous, terrifying mountain, but we have come to:
Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
We don’t simply get a day of feasting in God’s presence, but by the blood of the once-and-for-all sacrifice, we are already in God’s presence - we have come to Mount Zion; we are where he is. When we eat our communion meal in celebration and affirmation of the covenant, we are eating it in his presence. We may, for now, only be able to see what his feet are resting on, but that is glory enough. One day we will see that pavement of sapphire, as clear as the heavens, but for now, let us
Exalt the Lord our God;
[and] worship at his footstool!
Holy is he!
The Christian Veneer of a Sacred Journey
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams caused a stir last week by adding his signature to a letter to the Prime Minster calling for the inclusion of trans people in the upcoming ‘conversion therapy’ ban. One particular paragraph in the letter has sparked a lot of discussion: ‘To be trans is to enter a sacred journey of becoming whole: precious, honoured and loved, by yourself, by others and by God.’
Several good pieces have been written pointing out how this perspective on trans experience is fundamentally unchristian (e.g. here and here). But what has also struck me is that the words of this letter perfectly illustrate the way that a Christian-veneer can be put on a fundamentally secular perspective.
This observation chimes with a point I found really helpful when I recently read Trevin Wax’s Rethink Yourself. In the book, Wax explores different approaches to identity formation, critiquing the approach most common in our society and demonstrating why the Bible’s approach is better.
Wax sums up the secular approach, deemed common sense by many in our culture, as looking in, looking around and then looking up. We start by looking in to find ourselves, then we display that to others and look around for them to affirm us in our identity, before looking up to add an element of spirituality to our existence, looking for God also to affirm the identity we have discovered and defined. Wax rightly notes that while the final step of looking up can give this approach an appearance of being Christian, it is actually just looking for a divine rubber stamp on a fundamentally unchristian approach. We are the ones who define who we are. We are in control. God follows our lead.
The truly Christian approach, the one revealed in the Bible, Wax describes as looking up, looking around and then looking in. We start by looking up to God, allowing him to define who we are. Then we look around, displaying God to others, living out our identity as his image-bearers and receiving both encouragement and challenge from the family of God. Looking in is then the final step, and when we look in, we evaluate our desires in line with what God has revealed, seeking above all to foster our desire for God himself, the source of true life and joy. This is the truly Christian approach, and this is the approach we as humans are designed to take. God is the one who defines who we are. He is in control. We follow his lead.
In describing trans experience – and I think the context suggests they are particularly referring to transitioning – as ‘a sacred journey of becoming whole’, the authors of the letter are taking the secular approach with its veneer of spirituality. They are suggesting that the way we find out who we are and how we can best live is to first look inside ourselves. We then look to others to affirm us in that identity. (‘Every church should be a safe space that affirms people in being who they are, without fear of judgement.’) And finally, we look up to God, assuming that he will also affirm us in our self-discovered identity, looking for his stamp of approval to make our journey into this identity ‘sacred’.
Viewed this way, it’s striking that the authors describe the journey as being honoured and loved ‘by yourself, by others and by God’. Or we could rephrase it, by looking in, around and then up. (I don’t want to overplay this point as I suspect I too would have put God at the end of the list for rhetorical emphasis, but in context, it’s a revealing order.)
The letter is a reminder of how easy it is to make perspectives sound Christian, even when in reality they aren’t. It’s also a reminder of how easy it is to persuade ourselves that we are living as a faithful Christian when in reality we aren’t.
For those of us in leadership and those of us who get to teach other Christians, there are some helpful lessons here. We need to help people gain and maintain a deep understanding of biblical truth. People need to deeply know the real deal so they can easily spot the counterfeits.
This specific example demonstrates that people need to understand biblical anthropology, what it means to be human and how we find who we really are. People need to understand true discipleship, the call to deny ourselves and what we find inside (the ‘in’), in order to live in obedience to God (the ‘up’) and love of our neighbour (the ‘around’). And people need to understand the primacy of God, that he is the one who designs and defines. If we don’t help people get these foundations firmly in place, the Christian veneer on perspectives such as that displayed in this letter will go unnoticed and people will instinctively add their own veneer onto fundamentally unchristian perspectives.
I’d suggest that one of the greatest risks to the Church in the modern west at moment is that we allow secular perspectives to be baptised and given the appearance of being Christian. The danger is profound because the veneer disguises what’s happening. The shifts in thinking are significant, but they look small because they’re disguised behind Christian language. If we don’t become aware of this and seek to tackle it, we may look back in years to come and realise we’ve lost any semblance of true Christianity and it happened right under our noses. If we’re to avoid this, we need deep thinking, deep teaching, and deep faithfulness.
The Unexpected Impact of Sex Education
I’ve recently finished watching the Netflix series Sex Education. The series had been recommended to me as one of the best ways of gaining an insight into how the generations below me are thinking about sex and relationships. That recommendation was spot on. Once you get used to the very candid engagement with a wide range of sex-related matters, the series is incredibly enlightening about where some young people are at on those topics. It turned out to also be quite an enjoyable and engaging watch. But there was one element of the series that was very unexpected.
I expected the series to be all about sex and romance. And it was. The premise of the show is that the main character Otis, the son of a sex therapist, inadvertently becomes a quasi-sex therapist himself, helping his peers at sixth form college with their many and wide-ranging questions around sex and relationships. There is no question that this is a series about sex and romance – or in some cases the lack of those. Every storyline revolves around them in some way.
That did make me slightly apprehensive about watching the series and aware that I’d need to exercise some caution and wisdom in doing so. As a single, celibate, same-sex attracted Christian who wants to faithfully follow Jesus, storylines around sex and romance can be potentially problematic: they can aggravate some of the pain of the self-denial required in following Jesus and they can unhelpfully stir up temptation to stray from the way of Jesus. And yet neither of those was the main effect of the series on me. To be honest, in revealing the vast complexities of sexuality and of romantic relationships, the series actually reminded me of the many blessings of celibate singleness! And despite the fact that all the characters seem to believe it, the series is hardly a good advert for the idea that sex and romance are the route to fulfilment.
But there was something else about the series that really did impact me. Something I hadn’t expected. That was its portrayal of friendship, and in particular the friendship between the main character Otis and his best friend Eric. The pair have been friends since childhood and though their relationship goes through some inevitable ups and downs across the three seasons, it is almost the one constant throughout. It’s the relationship with which the first season starts and the relationship with which the last season ends – almost the only relationship to survive from start to finish.
Otis and Eric’s friendship is a beautiful example of the blessing of true friendship. It’s a relationship of commitment – through good and bad the pair stick together, and they are deliberate in being there for one another when difficulty strikes. It’s a relationship of love – each clearly holds great affection for the other, clear in the way they greet one another, the way they talk and the way they support one another. And it’s a relationship of intimacy – there’s emotional and conversational intimacy as the pair share openly with each other what’s going on in their lives and how they are feeling, and there’s physical intimacy, not in a sexual way, but still in a way which expresses their love for one another – hugs, gentle affirming touches, an arm around the shoulder in moments of sadness or stress.
If I’m honest, I spent the whole three seasons waiting for the point when the writers of the show would start to imply that there was more to the boys’ relationship than friendship. The idea that love and intimacy are always sexual is so prominent in our culture that I thought such a trajectory was almost inevitable for the storyline. Otis and Eric are a classic bromance – a friendship between two guys that is so close no one really trusts there’s not more going on. This expectation was only heightened when it was revealed that Eric is gay. And yet, to my surprise, the story never took that turn. From start to finish, Otis and Eric are just friends, but they show us how misplaced the word ‘just’ should be when it comes to friendship. Friendship is not small or insignificant. It should be a serious relationship of commitment, love and intimacy.
In the end, Sex Education didn’t impact me in the way I thought it would. It did leave me longing for something, but that something wasn’t a boyfriend or someone to hook up with. And it didn’t leave me thinking sex and romance are where it’s at or that I miss out if those aren’t available to me. Rather, it left me longing for the sort of friendship Otis and Eric have. And it left me thinking how important and life-giving true friendship is. Watching Sex Education has challenged me to continue investing in friendships that are built on genuine, expressed love. And it’s reminded me that God hasn’t denied me anything I need. I don’t need sex or romance. I do need love and intimacy. And friendship is a context in which both are open to me, open to all of us.
Perhaps to my surprise, Sex Education has done me good. If only all sex education was like this!
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build.
Talking with other pastors there are some clear themes about how church life looks in this season. Does any of this sound familiar?
Here’s my take on all this: don’t make any big decisions. At least not now – wait until the summer. We all need a few months of more normal life to allow things to settle down before making those big calls we might later come to regret. Yes, it might be hard to see what ‘more normal’ might look like with the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, but we need to get out of pandemic living at least.
I’m concerned about pastors stepping out of ministry; about lead pastors saying they’ll stay on, but only as a team members rather than point leaders; about the amount of deconstruction taking place and the babies that are at risk of being thrown out with the bathwater. After what we’ve been through it is understandable that these issues are coming to the surface: if a pandemic doesn’t make us take a hard look at life and ministry then something is wrong. But that only increases my sense that now is not the right time to make big decisions that could harm us and those we are called to serve. Give it some time. Things could look very different by July.
If you’re a church member thinking about moving congregation: don’t! Get back into the life of your current church and postpone any decision for a few months. Wait and see how you feel in July.
If you’re a pastor thinking about giving up and doing something else: don’t! Trust God is with you, put your head down and push on. Wait and see how you feel in July.
If you’re about to announce a major shift in your theology or ecclesiology: don’t! Allow those issues to bubble away beneath the surface while you get on with the vital work of proclaiming Christ and caring for his people. Wait and see how you feel in July.
There are times when it is right to move congregation, to change occupation, to adjust our theology – but I’m not sure now is that time. Hold fast. Love and serve Jesus by loving and serving the church. Plant and heal and build. It’s that time.
Praying in Response to Evil
There are some passages in the Bible that can leave us feeling a little uncomfortable. Often these are passages about God’s judgement. ‘Does God really act like that?’, we think. ‘Is that really fair?’, we ask. But then sometimes things happen in our own lives or in the world around us and we see something of the full horror of sin and evil. Our heart response in those situations gives us a little flavour of God’s just hatred of evil. And in the midst of that experience, those uncomfortable Bible passages can start to make a little more sense.
I think Nahum 1 could be one of those passages for us at the moment. Nahum was a prophet speaking in the 7th century BC. He records God’s words about the Assyrians, the powerful empire who at this time had recently invaded and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. Nahum’s prophecy speaks of the judgement and destruction that will soon come to Assyria for their sin and evil.
But Nahum 1 opens with a much broader message. It speaks of God’s response to evil, rooted in who he is. God is one who is jealous, avenging, and wrathful; he takes vengeance on his enemies (Nahum 1:2). He is slow to experience or express anger, but this doesn’t mean the guilty will get away with their evil (Nahum 1:3). Even the sky and the earth and all who are in and on them are under his power (Nahum 1:4-5). No one can endure it when he pours out his wrath (Nahum 1:6). His promise is that he will make an end to those who set themselves against him and for evil (Nahum 1:8). God will not let evil go unchecked and unpunished. He cannot. This is God being God.
We might often find these sorts of words difficult. But world events can help us to understand something of what is being said here. The anger and indignation we feel in the face of evil are a pale reflection of how God feels. Against the backdrop of such blatant injustice, the God of justice shines as a great light in the darkness, a beacon of hope in the hopelessness.
But this isn’t all that Nahum 1 says. Because God isn’t only avenging, jealous and wrathful, He is also good (Nahum 1:7). In fact, it is because God is good that he is avenging, jealous and wrathful. God’s justice and judgement are an outworking of his goodness. And because he is good, God promises to be a safe place in the midst of trouble for those who will come to him (Nahum 1:7). This is God being God.
These words in Nahum 1 are an outworking of who God is. They are therefore also promises rooted in who God is. And promises are good foundations for prayer; we take what God has said and we present that back to him, calling on him to act, partnering with him as he puts into action who he is.
As we face the reality of evil in our world, we can take the promises enclosed in Nahum 1 and from them we can pray for our world. We can pray for the execution of God’s justice on evil – that God would be God. And we can pray for God to be a refuge to those who come to him – that God would be God.
Go Vegan & Electric? Unlikely – I’m an Environmentalist
The greater environmental costs of producing EVs means there is a long catch-up time in their use until those production costs outweigh the environmental costs of manufacturing vehicles with ICEs. Batteries are expensive and difficult to produce and there are considerable environmental downsides in mining the lithium and cobalt they require. And then there are further difficulties of how to recycle degraded EV batteries. All things considered, keeping my fourteen year old gas guzzler running is almost certainly a greener option than it would be to purchase a new EV.
The issues with veganism are similar. Much of global farming, as exemplified by the American feedlot system, has significant animal welfare issues and is environmentally disastrous. Yet the maxim that the antidote to abuse is not disuse but proper use holds true. Crops require fertilizer. This fertiliser comes either from animal waste or the petrochemical industry. The vegan choice of artificial fertilizer thus relies on the petrochemical industry – hardly an environmentally sound option. In a properly organised farming system animals supply manure that fertilizes crops (and improves soil health while artificial fertilizers impoverish it), and also supply us with milk, which we turn into cheese, the whey from which feeds pigs, who produce more manure, and give us bacon. A properly organised farming system minimises food miles (which veganism tends to maximise), improves soil fertility, and is respectful of the animals that are part of it. Vegans tend to be concerned about ethics, but in my part of the world – as is true in many parts of the UK – probably the most ethical food source is venison: local (minimum food miles), organic, free range, and adding economic value back into local communities – as well as being delicious and highly nutritious.
As we watch the unfolding horror in Ukraine these contentious environmental issues become increasingly focussed. The impact on energy and food supplies and prices could have a devastating effect in communities across the globe and we will not be immune to their impact in the UK. As with the covid pandemic we are seeing that the global supply chains we unthinkingly rely on are more fragile than we might hope. What we need is shorter supply chains and more local resilience: it is hard to see how EVs and veganism will help with these.
We see something similar in the experience of the church. During the pandemic many people were choosing to tune into online church where there could be no meaningful community or discipleship. The mega-church on the other side of the planet might have been able to produce a very impressive online service, but they couldn’t supply the things that body and soul really require. It is only in a gathered local church that we can be genuinely pastored, held accountable, known, loved, hugged, celebrate the sacraments. Online church is the spiritual equivalent of EVs and veganism – seeming to offer a ‘clean’ solution but in reality creating more problems than it solves.
It is the ‘deep’ communities of the church that have power to sustain us. We are seeing something of this in Ukraine. Andrew Roberts has observed how,
There is a large underground network of private, non-governmental groups – largely based on Christian groups with long-established family connections – that is transporting huge amounts of food and other non-lethal supplies into Ukraine. They are not taken by lorries that can be targeted from the air, but by van, and they are driven by extremely brave Ukrainians and Hungarians – often women – who take them as far eastwards as they can go. I thought of myself as a somewhat cynical old hack, but I was profoundly moved by their courage. Organisations like the Order of Malta, Order of St John and One Mission Society do truly wonderful work here, but it will be these more shadowy groups that will matter most should the Russians ever reach Ukraine’s western border. Unlike other NGOs run by volunteers, these groups are near-impossible to infiltrate because the relationships between the members tend to go back decades, generating a trust and loyalty that the new organisations coming here, such as the UNHCR and Red Cross, would be hard put to replicate.
Dig deep. Choose community. Shorten the supply chains. Look beyond the easy answers. Our lives could depend on it.
The Private or the Public – What’s More Important?
I’ve sometimes heard leaders talk to other leaders about the importance of our private devotion to Jesus being deeper than our public devotion: time spent on our own, in private, with Jesus, is more important than time spent with others, in public, with Jesus, and the latter should flow out of the former. When I’ve heard this in the past, I’ve tended to nod in agreement and have found it a helpful challenge. However, I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t quite the right way to lay down that challenge.
One morning recently I was reading Matthew 23 – Jesus’ stark and sometimes uncomfortable words about the scribes and the Pharisees. As I reflected on the challenge of these words I began to pray through the woes – asking God to strengthen me and enable me to heed the warnings Jesus presents.
When I got to the fifth and sixth woes (Matt. 23:25-28) I began to pray that I would not be like a cup or plate that’s clean on the outside but full of muck inside and that I would not be a whitewashed tomb, outwardly beautiful but inwardly full of death.
And then I prayed that my private devotion would outweigh my public devotion – but at that point I stopped. I realised the private and public divide was not Jesus’ point. I could be just as much a half-cleaned piece of crockery or a whitewashed tomb in private as I could in public. The issue isn’t the context of devotion, but whether it’s more than skin deep. It’s about the inside aligning with the outside, not just the private with the public.
It’s not that the private isn’t important in our relationship with God – earlier in Matthew Jesus has made clear that it certainly is. Giving, prayer and fasting are all to be done for an audience of one, our Father who sees in secret (Matthew 6:4, 6, 17). But even here, the key point Jesus is highlighting is whether we do these things for others or for God. When Jesus suggests a public-private contrast, it’s actually just a way of affirming the importance of the external-internal contrast.
As I mused on all of this, it struck me that perhaps our preferencing of the private over the public is part of our general preferencing of the individual over the corporate. This latter preference can be seen all over certain forms of contemporary Christianity. It’s seen in our extolling of private devotions over corporate worship. And I think it’s even seen within much of our corporate worship: do the worship practices of contemporary evangelical churches actually allow us to worship corporately, or are we more like a bunch of individuals all worshipping individually just, as it happens, in the same place at the same time?
In many of our songs we speak in the first person singular – it’s all about me and God. If we encourage those who can to raise their voices together employing the gift of languages/tongues, we’re all separately engaging in a practice that Scripture seems to indicate is, unless an interpretation is shared, between just the speaker and God. And when we bring a Scripture to exhort each other in worship or indeed when we seek to open up the Scriptures in preaching, we often read only vertically (God and me, here and now) rather than horizontally (God and us and our place in a bigger story through time).
If this is so, I wonder if we might benefit from learning from traditional forms of liturgy. Prayers to be said together, the recitation of the creeds that unite us with Christians in other times and places, corporate confession and assurance of forgiveness, these are all worship practices that might help us to worship more corporately. We might also benefit from thinking about the Scriptures we choose to use in our corporate gatherings. Ian Paul has made a really helpful point about the three Scripture passages that are at the core of Anglican worship services: how they draw us to see our place in a bigger story of what God has done in Jesus and link us with the people of God throughout the ages. They help us view things in the key of the corporate as well as the individual. Maybe there’s something to learn there. And maybe reclaiming the value of the corporate might also help us to reclaim the value of the public.
I do want my internal devotion to outrun my external devotion. I want what you see on the outside to be what’s there on the inside, but I want that in both the private and the public, the individual and the corporate.
A Prayer for Ukraine
By her bedside I read Psalm 46, my go-to scripture in such moments.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
As Grace & I prayed the truth of this Psalm over Dora, proclaiming the blessing and security it contains, my mind was also filled with thoughts of what is happening in Ukraine. The hope we hold for a dying saint is the same hope we hold for the nations. Only God is the true refuge. Only God can bring a final end to war. He will be exalted among the nations. His people, from every tribe and tongue, will inhabit the city of God and know gladness.
Come O God: break the bow and shatter the spear, and welcome your servant into the fortress of your presence.
“Maybe Theology Is The Wrong Tool For This Particular Job”
I don’t know the commenter, but felt I needed to respond. I told her that I think it’s very important to search the scriptures and work out what we think God says about these things. Everyone’s story is compelling and powerful, so how are we to discern between those whose stories illustrate that resisting their same sex attraction has brought them wholeness and fulfilment and those whose stories illustrate that embracing theirs has? We risk being ‘blown and tossed by the wind’ if we start with the stories we resonate with and try to fit God’s word to people’s experience.
Her response was “I think this is my point. How objectively do any of us come to the Bible? Everyone who takes the topic on sounds very convincing.”
She’s right, of course, and it wasn’t the forum to dig any deeper, but those of us who have any kind of leadership or discipleship role in the church need to be aware that this is how many in our congregations are approaching our teaching (even if they are not self-aware or articulate enough to express it that clearly).
So the question is, how do we equip those in our churches first to recognise that they are likely to be approaching the text with their own assumptions and second to know how to proceed from there.
When we come across two interpretations of scripture that seem equally plausible, what should we do? Especially if one feels more appealing than the other (yes, female elder/Teacher question, I’m looking at you).
Of course, recognising you have a problem is the first step towards solving it, so we need to keep reminding those we are teaching that they have this problem. We all come to every text with biases and assumptions.
Next, I think we have to invite them not to take our word for it, but to go and look for themselves. Insisting you are right and that your congregation/study group/friend must listen to you is not confidence in the gospel, it’s insecurity and bullying. If you really are right, their honest study of the word will reveal that. (And if you’re not, it’s far better that they turn away from your teaching and towards the truth!)
Alongside this is the hard part, equipping them to search the scriptures for themselves. This is one of the reasons why I’ve recently started a women’s Bible study at my church - I want to learn better Bible study skills, and I want to help others learn them too. We’re using Jen Wilkin’s Women of the Word and Andrew Sach and Nigel Beynon’s Dig Deeper. Both are incredibly helpful tools to start you on the journey.
I’m also love, love, loving the Knowing Faith podcast with Jen Wilkin, JT English and Kyle Worley. Across eight seasons so far they have discussed everything from creation to the new creation and back again. It’s really fun listening to three friends do theology together and modelling how to approach questions on which faithful believers disagree. A lot of the time they are discussing how they have come to a particular conclusion, and Jen in particular can often be found pulling them back to “yes, but what does the text say?” It is so helpful, enlightening and inspiring. If you’ve got people, like my Facebook interlocutor, who don’t know where one would start in trying to grow in theological understanding, episode 17, ‘Theology 101’ would be a good episode to point them to.
One of Jen Wilkin’s strengths is that she makes you believe that you can understand the Bible for yourself, that you can weigh up different interpretations and build a framework for discerning which makes the most sense of all the facts - and fits with the full biblical narrative. It probably wouldn’t hurt preachers, teachers and the like to be more explicit about why we so often draw on other bits of the Bible to illustrate our points - helping people make the connection that every part of the Bible is connected to every other part, and it all needs to be understood in context of the whole.
Testimonies are important, but the reason Rachel Gilson began her book with the boring, biblical bit is because that is the foundation on which her story is built - it’s the vitally important bit, and if you only make it through a few pages, it’s better for it to be those pages. Her story - like all our stories - is the embodiment, the incarnation, of her belief system. The way we act is driven by what we believe - even when we don’t yet know what we believe.
Let’s work on helping our people do theology, and giving them confidence that yes, theology is absolutely and always the very best tool for the job.
What Burnout Really Is
I always thought of “burnout” as a rather banal way of communicating exhaustion from overwork. “Make sure you take a vacation,” one might say. “You don’t want to burn out.”
In his new book, The End of Burnout, though, Jonathan Malesic argues that burnout is something else entirely. It is instead “the experience of being pulled between expectations and reality at work.”
That’s very important. It’s similar to the comment I heard from an experienced pastor recently: “People don’t usually crash out of ministry because they are exhausted, but because they feel like they’ve failed.” Malesic uses the illustration of walking on stilts, which represents
the experience of holding both one’s ideals and the reality of one’s job together. When the two stilts are aligned, one can keep them together and move forward. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s possible for one to walk. However, when the stilts are misaligned—that is, when the ideal and the reality are radically different—people find different ways to cope, which can lead to a kind of burnout.
That cashes out in different ways, depending on the organisation. Some people “cling to their ideals while the reality swings away from them,” and eventually collapse in despair. For others, especially in the church,
the stilt walking falters when they ignore the reality and hold on to their ideals anyway. This is the sort of coping mechanism we see in those who wave away the current crisis in the church by saying, “Well, think of all the good things happening” or “Most people aren’t like that” or “The church was never meant to be made up of perfect people.”
Those things are easy to believe, because there’s a sense in which they are all true. But often, in times like these, what they really mean is “Don’t talk about these matters in public; we can handle them on our own in private, but we don’t want to give Jesus a bad reputation.” The problem is, Jesus never asked his church to protect his reputation, especially by covering up when something wrong or dangerous is done in his name.
And that can cause burnout:
If our moral ideals are strong but we reassure ourselves with a false version of reality, we will end up seeing through our own delusions—and others certainly will.
And when that happens, it results in a different kind of burnout—frustration. That is, we begin to despair that anything ever can or will eventually be done to fix things.
We have an inbuilt hatred of hypocrisy, but too often are blinded to our own hypocrisy. Which is why Christ’s pithy illustration has such stinging power.
In the fury at Boris Johnson’s admission that he attended a ‘work event’ in the garden of No.10 during the height of lockdown, the rage at the hypocrisy of it, it is easy to miss the real log in the eye: the lockdown rules themselves. Of course, it was safer for No.10 staffers to party in the garden than for them to be working together inside the building. Of course, under intense pressure and huge workload those staffers deserved the opportunity to kickback in the sunshine with a glass of wine. And, of course, it was gross hypocrisy to do so when the rest of the country was being told it could not do these things: the rule-makers should not be rule-breakers. But the problem was the rules.
It was those rules that told us to stay inside most of the day – when being outside in fresh air was a better defence against the virus. It was those rules that made it illegal to meet with friends or see a dying loved one or get married or go to church. It was the rules that exacted an especially heavy cost upon the young and the poor. The rules were always wrong, morally, and as is increasingly evident they were also wrong epidemiologically. The partygoers in the No.10 garden knew they didn’t make sense and ignored them – the hypocrites!
Bad rules have a tendency to make hypocrites of us all because they are difficult or unreasonable to follow. Case in point, Sir Keir Starmer now being accused of hypocrisy after photos of him having a beer with party workers emerged. While some doubtless followed the rules punctiliously (God bless the Queen!) there were surely many more who criticised the actions of others while bending the rules themselves, and justifying themselves as they did so. Hypocrisy is a very weaselly thing.
Should Boris resign? Probably. Do bad rules result in hypocrisy? Inevitably. ‘Can the blind lead the blind? Will they both not fall into a pit?’ (Luke 6:39) Absolutely.
The Power of Questions
We all know how powerful questions can be. A carefully chosen question can often unlock a situation in a way that a simple statement just couldn’t. The right question can help someone to understand themselves better or lead them to a vital moment of realisation. Questions are powerful, and for those of us who get the privilege of preaching and teaching they can be particularly helpful.1 Here are three ways that I have found questions to be helpful.
A hook question
How can you grab the attention of your listeners? I’m sure that’s something we all wrestle with. Those first few moments of speaking are so important. We all want to know how best to use them. How can we draw people in so that they want to listen to what we’ve got to say?
Because let’s be honest, we can never take for granted that everyone in the room (or watching the livestream) comes with the assumption that what we’re going to say will be worth listening to, and so one of our first priorities has to be helping people see why they should want to listen to us. To achieve that, I’ll often use a hook question.
A hook question both hooks people in and gives something on which to hang the rest of what will be said. Ideally, the answer to the hook question will be the main point of the sermon or talk. That means, if you can get people to understand your hook question, they’re already part of the way to understanding your key message.
To make the best use of a hook question, we want not only to help people understand the question but also to understand why they should care about answering it. Sometimes this is easy – for example, sometimes you can pick a question that many people will already be asking. Showing that what you’re going to say connects with what people are already interested in is a great way of drawing them in. Sometimes you have to do a little more work to show people why it is a question they should care about. If this goes well, you’ve ‘hooked’ your listeners and got them interested and you’ve got something you can often use to hold the rest of your message together.
Structure and Scripture questions
That’s great to get us going, but how do we keep people engaged as we move further through our talk or preach? Here too, questions can be helpful.
The three-point structure is a classic, and for good reason. But throwing three – or more – separate points at people, isn’t always the most effective way of communicating. Better, is a series of three interlinked points. It’s like a journey – you want to take people by the hand through the hook question and then guide them from there through your main points all the way to your conclusion.
And one of the best ways of interlinking your points is to use questions. One point begs a question which you can highlight as you bring that point to a close and then use to introduce the next point, and so on. If our points are a progression that unfolds naturally, they’ll be easier to follow and we’re more likely to keep the understanding and attention of those listening.
And these structure questions can often also be Scripture questions. Asking questions of the biblical text is one of the best ways to wrestle with it in order to understand its message. These questions can sometimes be a good way of structuring what we’re saying. And this has the added bonus that we’re also showing people how to read the Bible well.
All this is helpful, but it still leaves things open-ended. How can we end our preaches and talks well? How can we help people to put into practice what we’ve said?
If you’ve got this far, you won’t be surprised by my answer: questions are also a great way to end a sermon or talk. As preachers and teachers, we’re not just trying to communicate information; we’re trying to encourage a response. We could just tell people what their response should be, but it’s far better to help people to think about it themselves.
Posing questions about how listeners are going to respond gets them involved before you’ve even finished talking. Hearing someone else tell you how to respond is easy; it requires nothing from you. Thinking about what your personal response will be, engaging with some helpful questions from the speaker, requires some involvement, some buy-in. It actually starts the process of responding right there are then before you’ve even finished speaking. Encouraging people to think about their answers and to settle on their response before they even leave helps them to go on and put that response into action.
So, how could questions help you? What type of question’s can you employ when you are preaching or teaching? You may find there’s some real power in them.
- I’m aware ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching’ are words of which we are not always fully confident of the meaning or the difference between the two. I still think Andrew’s explanation is one of the best: ‘What’s the Difference Between Preaching and Teaching?’
My wife teaches at our local boys school while our daughters have attended the corresponding girls one. We’ve noticed, anecdotally, the impact porn is making. The boys expect their girlfriends to perform in ways they’ve learnt from porn; unsurprisingly, the girls often find these expectations objectionable. We’ve wondered about the extent this has contributed to the number of girls identifying as gay/bi/trans – if being with a boy means that then a large number of girls, quite sensibly, would rather not be with a boy.
Rather than leading to increased sexual activity, as was once predicted, the ubiquity and ugliness of porn seems to be contributing to its decline – something social scientists and other researches are noticing more and more. While at one end of the gaussian curve there are perhaps more people who are extremely promiscuous than was true when I was 19, the general trend is towards less sex. To illustrate, a survey of undergraduates by the Higher Education Policy Institute survey found that 66% of male students had not had sex during their time as a student. That is rather different from how I remember things being in my student days.
Against this backdrop the historical Christian approach to sex perhaps starts to look appealing. Rather than being unrealistic, sexual restraint outside marriage and sexual enjoyment within it offers an antidote to the excesses of a porn-sick culture. Poor Billie, and the millions of young people like her, need a dish more hopeful and more healing than the one porn has offered them: in Christ, the church has that hope and healing to give.
On the Teaching of Ethics
Preachers, what do you fear? No doubt there are many answers we would give. Some of them would be shared by a lot of us; some of them may be confined to just a few. I think I recently realised a fear that I hadn’t noticed before. I am easily afraid of being branded a ‘legalist’.
Now obviously, I don’t want to be a legalist. I want to live and proclaim the gospel and to handle all things, including the law, in relation to the gospel. That’s a good thing. But I’ve realised that in that good aim, is the risk of going too far and being controlled by a fear of the accusation of legalism. The result is preaching the gospel but without teaching the law. Or, as I think is more common in my case, only teaching the law if I feel I can make a rational defence for it. There might be nothing wrong with that rational defence, but I think there is something wrong if it wouldn’t also be enough just to know that God has commanded it.
The words which led me to this realisation are from John Stott. Commenting on 1 Thessalonians 4, he includes a short reflection on the teaching of ethics. It stopped me in my tracks.
‘One of the great weaknesses of contemporary evangelical Christianity is our comparative neglect of Christian ethics, in both our teaching and our practice. In consequence, we have become known rather as people who preach the gospel than as those who live and adorn it. We are not always conspicuous in the community, as we should be, for our respect for the sanctity and the quality of human life, our commitment to social justice, our personal honesty and integrity in business, our simplicity of lifestyle and happy contentment in contrast to the greed of the consumer society, or for the stability of our homes in which unfaithfulness and divorce are practically unknown and children grow up in the secure love of their parents. At least in the statistics of marriage and family life, Jewish performance is higher than that of Christians.
‘One of the main reasons for this is that our churches do not (on the whole) teach ethics. We are so busy preaching the gospel that we seldom teach the law. We are also afraid of being branded ‘legalists’. ‘We are not under the law’, we say piously, as if we were free to ignore and even disobey it. Whereas what Paul meant is that our acceptance before God is not due to our observance of the law. But Christians are still under obligation to keep God’s moral law and commandments. Indeed, the purpose of Christ’s death was that ‘the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us’ (Rom. 8:3-4), and the purpose of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling in our heart is that he might write God’s law there.
‘To our current neglect of ethics the apostle Paul presents a striking contrast. It is not just that his letters are usually divided into two halves, the first concentrating on doctrine and the second on ethics, but also that he gives detailed instruction in Christian moral behaviour, even to very young converts. The paradosis (apostolic ‘tradition’) which he ‘passed on’ to them, and which they ‘received’ (2 Thes. 2:15; 3:6), included both the truth of the gospel (1 Thes. 1:5–6; 2:2, 8, 13) and also moral instruction on ‘how to live in order to please God’ (1 Thess. 4:1–2).
‘In fact, one of the distinctive features of the two Thessalonian letters is the frequency with which the apostle refers back to what he taught them when he was with them. Tell-tale phrases like ‘we instructed you how to live’ (4:1), ‘you know what instructions we gave you’ (4:2), ‘as we have already told you and warned you’ (4:6), and ‘just as we told you’ (4:11), enable us to reconstruct the content of the apostle’s ethical teaching while he was in Thessalonica. He emphasized that Christians must live a life that is ‘worthy of God’ (2:12) and pleasing to God (4:1); that such a life will be one of moral righteousness; that God’s commandments include such mundane matters as our daily work (4:11–12; cf. 2:6–9; 2 Thes. 3:7ff.) and penetrate even into the personal privacies of sex and marriage (4:3–6); that God judges those who are sexually selfish (4:6); that uprightness only exempts us from judgment, but not from persecution, since suffering is part of our ‘destiny’ (3:3–4: as ‘we kept telling you’); and that the great stimulus to both holiness and endurance is our expectation of the Lord’s return (1:3, 10; 2:12; 5:2–8). Thus, exhortations to holiness, warnings of suffering and promises of the Parousia belonged together in Paul’s teaching. Within a few weeks or months he had taught the young Thessalonian converts not only the essence of the good news but also the essence of the good life, not only about faith in Jesus, but also about the necessity of good works by which saving faith is authenticated and without which it is dead (e.g. 1:3).
‘There is an urgent need for us, as pluralism and relativism spread world-wide, to follow Paul’s example and give people plain, practical, ethical teaching. Christian parents must teach God’s moral law to their children at home. Sunday school and day school teachers must ensure that their pupils know at least the Ten Commandments. Pastors must not be afraid to expound biblical standards of behaviour from the pulpit, so that the congregation grasps the relationship between the gospel and the law. And right from the beginning converts must be told that the new life in Christ is a holy life, a life bent on pleasing God by obeying his commandments.’
John Stott, The Message of Thessalonians (IVP, 1994), pp.76-77
Babies & Bathwater
The hermeneutic of suspicion, which has been growing for decades, is now at fever pitch. Leadership in every sphere is questioned and suspect. The divisions and polarization created by the era of Trump and Brexit, the pandemic and the response to it, #BLM, #MeToo, #XR, and on and on, are placing incredible stresses on any institution or individual who lays claim to authority.
In the conservative evangelical world I inhabit all these wider cultural currents have been added to by realities that hit close to home. It is now seven years since Mark Driscoll left Mars Hill and many of us have been listening to that podcast with all the gruesome ground it has raked over. Quite apart from Driscoll, we have seen too many examples of coercive and abusive behaviours by Christian leaders. At the same time the cultural and political divisions in society have penetrated the church to an extent that sees respected pastors battling uprisings in their congregations, or even resigning from ministry. All this has meant a battering of confidence among those who are called to lead.
This state of affairs calls for those of us in pastoral ministry to careful reflection. Undoubtedly, evangelical culture has suffered from falling for the cult of the celebrity pastor. (While in the UK our smaller church scene and smaller churches mean we have been more insulated from this trend than is the case in the US, the reality is that many of us have been bruised by our association with celebrity pastors from across the pond.) In this we have aped the wider culture, with its cult of celebrity, and like wider culture we are now busily tearing down many celebrity pedestals.
While the high-profile ministerial failings of our times require us to humbly reflect on evangelicalisms cultural captivity, there is a real danger that the pendulum starts to swing too far the other way. The trend for Christian ‘deconstructing’ often seems to be little more than Instagram self-promotion: another evangelical aping of wider cultural trends. There is a real danger that even if we don’t go the full Josh Harris we could end up throwing out some babies with the bathwater. As I’ve listened and read and watched unfolding events there are a number of babies I think are at risk. Here are five of them.
1. Spiritual fathering
A claim increasingly made, or at least suggested, is that for spiritual leaders to be ‘fatherly’ reflects toxic masculinity and opens a door for abuse. Certainly this is possible: in the church as in the biological family, fathers are capable of abuse. But that does not mean we should dispense with fatherhood – to do the spiritual equivalent of capitulating to the demands of gender ideologues and abandon the term and reality of ‘father’.
Being a father is perhaps the best description we have for understanding what it is to be a biblically qualified elder. The character demands for elders given us in Acts 20, 1 Peter 5, 1 Timothy and Titus are fatherly ones. This is made especially clear in 1 Timothy where the whole letter is an extended description of how the church is to be like a family, and families are to be like the church. The job description of church leaders given in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 (we can assume elders are in view here) that they are to work hard for, take care of, and admonish their congregations could just as well be a job description for parents with their children.
In the church we need spiritual fathers. More than that, scripture demands that those who serve as elders are spiritual fathers. Let’s not throw that baby out with the bathwater.
2. Male sexuality
There is an obvious, direct, link between fathering and male sexuality. To be a father is defined sexually: despite the current ludicrous claims of gender ideologues, women can’t be fathers, any more than men can be mothers. (This is not the least significant reason why ‘female elder’ is an oxymoron.)
Our problem, and the oft-repeated claim, is that male sexuality is toxic. Certainly it can be. There is all too much evidence for that. I am treading on dangerous ground here, but it seems to me that we must wrestle with two problems.
The first is the danger of minimising reality: that we downplay or deny the shockingly all too real examples of men abusing and harming others. This has been conservative evangelicalisms historical problem, and many chickens are now coming home to roost as a consequence.
The second danger, and one I would argue is a current one, is the danger of pathologizing what is ‘normal’. This danger is that all male sexual desire or characteristics are treated as toxic.
Yes, male sexuality can be dangerous. Males are typically significantly larger and stronger than women and these physical traits combined with a strong sex drive can make men dangerous. This is why societies have always developed mechanisms for safeguarding women and children – safeguards that have tended to operate around clear social expectations that sexual activity is meant to be reserved for marriage.
A danger of seeing all male sexuality as toxic is that we can end up in a place in which it is only neutered men who are acceptable but there is a sense in which male sexuality is meant to be dangerous. Men are meant to be potent. Like other dangerous things (fire, water, electricity) male sexuality needs to be disciplined, controlled, contained and channelled. But it should not be emasculated. Emasculated men are not a better option for the health of our churches.
Acknowledging – and celebrating – the potency of male sexuality shouldn’t mean permitting abusive behaviour; rather, we need to find healthy ways to channel it. We have a muddy lake of bathwater to deal with here, but we must watch out for the baby.
3. Sexual purity
The claim being made here is that ‘purity culture’ was abusive. While acknowledging that there were aspects of conservative evangelicalisms approach to this that were unhelpful (and also recognising the significant difference between the US and UK evangelical worlds) we mustn’t throw out the baby of sexual purity. Sexual purity is important.
We don’t want a model of sexuality that is oppressive. We need to be alert and sensitive to the realities of different sexual orientations and so on. I’m grateful that we have a more nuanced and developed appreciation of these matters than we used to. But there is a biblically defined line to which we must adhere: sex outside the marriage of a man and woman is wrong. When the church ditches this baby it is hard to hold onto anything else.
Perhaps the most helpful, comprehensive, review yet available of gender ideology is Helen Joyce’s Trans. Joyce correctly identifies the precipices gender ideology is pitching us over yet she fails to see how the redefining of marriage is the door through which the trans lobby has stampeded. It just isn’t possible to redefine something as fundamental as marriage without creating many other hostages to fortune, whether that means lesbians being coerced into relationships with transwomen or biological males competing in women’s sports. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes the same mistake in an article condemning the growing moves to make paedophilia acceptable.)
Joyce is an atheist, not a Christian, and her advocacy for same-sex marriage is of a piece with her secular liberal views, but in the church we cannot afford to make the same missteps. We do need to fight for sexual purity, and the distinctiveness of marriage – as well as against hypocrisy, judgmentalism and coercion. We are not fighting for illusions of the 1950s but we must fight for a prophetic vision of what humanity is meant to be. Sexual purity is essential to that vision. Don’t throw that baby out.
4. Evangelical piety
That spiritual disciplines can become abusive is plain, but Bible study, prayer, confession and accountability are all good.
There is always a fine line between what is helpful and what is controlling. I’ve witnessed that in my own history. These, again, are dangers of family life. Parents can be controlling and manipulative. Parents can be abusive. But parents can also fail to parent.
Luther (quoted by Michael Reeves in Rejoice and Tremble) expressed these twin dangers well:
But let us call these two faults by name: softness and harshness. Concerning the former, Zech. 11:17 says: “O shepherd and idol, you who desert the flock.” Concerning the latter, Ezek. 34:4 says: “With force and harshness you have ruled them.” These are the two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors come.
A maxim to live by is that the antidote to abuse is not disuse but proper use. Yes, the practices of evangelical piety have, at times, led to abuse but that does not mean we should abandon them. Instead we need to drain out the bathwater and keep firm hold of the baby.
5. The reality of hell
The final claim I want to contest is that telling people about hell is cruel. No: not telling them is!
We don’t have to fit the fire and brimstone stereotype of evangelical preachers – I would argue that we shouldn’t – but we do need to remember we are dealing in heaven and hell realities. When Christian pastors forget this we are reduced to being social workers. Social workers perform an essential role. We need good social workers. But pastor, if this is all you are doing you should resign your position and become a proper social worker and not a pretend one masquerading as a preacher of the gospel.
The many pressures we face and the examples of failure we see are leading to a real crisis of confidence amongst church leaders. We need to hold onto our confidence, and hold onto our babies.
Books of the Year 2021
Top Ten Recent Books
Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790. A magisterial survey of the century or so that made the modern West. Astonishing in breadth, scholarship and clarity.
Richard Bauckham, Who Is God? Key Moments of Biblical Revelation. One of the most devotionally uplifting books of the year, without even trying to be, this is Bauckham on top form.
Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night. A beautifully written and pastorally wise exposition of a prayer that you may not know, but probably should. Honest, refreshing and joyful.
Walter Scheidel, Escape From Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity. An audacious claim—that European success stems from the collapse of the Roman empire and the failure of its successors—brilliantly defended.
John Piper, Providence. Piper's best book since The Pleasures of God, in my opinion, filled with spiritual enrichment and joy fuel mined from the most unlikely places.
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. A wonderful story, superbly told (it is Donna Tartt, after all), with a deeply profound meditation on motivation, self-expression and following your heart at the end.
Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages. It is astonishing to be able to describe a thousand years of (often opaque and misrepresented) history as clearly, vividly and entertainingly as this. Book of the year.
Marc Morris, The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England. Part narrative, part origin story, part archaeological detective work, this is an outstanding tale of a period very few people (including me) understand at all. Wonderful.
Rebecca McLaughlin, Ten Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity. Apologetics for teenagers that actually works for everybody, and channels some of Rebecca's other work into an even more accessible format.
Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey, Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment. A remarkable piece of deep, subtle apologetics, drawing on Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau and Tocqueville to illuminate our quest for happiness.
Top Ten Old Books
Leo Tolstoy, Master and Man. Oh, to be able to write sentences and tell stories like Tolstoy. What an ending.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Much more humane, compassionate and insightful than I was expecting. Karen Swallow Prior's new edition is cracking.
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose. A man wakes up without his nose, and later sees it walking down the street dressed as a senior official. Quirky, short and hilarious.
Shusaku Endo, Silence. Pacy, gripping, haunting and deeply thought-provoking, this is among the best examples of twentieth century Christian creativity.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. As Sam Seaborn so famously put it: "You don't think a Communist ever wrote an elegant phrase? How do you think they got everybody to be Communists?"
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. I'd never realised how much of this was about the "nature" and not just the "causes" of wealth, nor how convincing it was.
T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society. I should have read this already, but now that I have, I'm glad I did.
Augustine, Confessions (tr. Sarah Ruden). Augustine needs no introduction, but Ruden's translation makes a masterwork sound even fresher, richer and more urgent.
Cicero, On Old Age. Brief, searching and strangely contemporary, considering it was written two millennia ago.
Gregory of Nyssa, On Not Three Gods. The rigour and thoughtfulness here is typical of Gregory, and not very typical of most modern writers, which makes it well worth reading.
Michael Wood, The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilisation and its People
David French, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker
Ben Wilson, Metropolis: A History of Humankind’s Greatest Invention
Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism
Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, The Education of the Human Race
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot
Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma
Seb Falk, The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery
D. A. Carson, The God Who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story
Roger Scruton, Kant: A Very Short Introduction
Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half
Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Dutch Light: Christiaan Huygens and the Making of Science in Europe
George Saunders, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain
Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven
Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism
William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention
Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire
*T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Francis Spufford, Light Perpetual
Joseph Priestley, Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air
Priya Satia, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution
Prasannan Parthasarathi, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850
Bobby Jamieson, The Path to Being a Pastor: A Guide for the Aspiring
Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God
Harold Senkbeil, Christ and Calamity
Margaret Jacob, The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750-1850
John Adams, Thoughts on Government
Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It
Abigail Dean, Girl A
John Webster, Christ Our Salvation: Expositions and Proclamations
Andy McCullough, The Bethlehem Story: Mission and Justice in the Margins of the World
Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller
Simone Weil, An Anthology
Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty
Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth
Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke, Power and Plenty: Trade, War and the World Economy in the Second Millennium
Peter Leithart, Baptism: A Guide to Life from Death
Tom Schreiner, Hebrews
Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World
Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods
Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed for All God’s Children
David Stasavage, The Decline and Fall of Modern Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today
Michael Reeves, Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord
Philip Hoffman, Why Did Europe Conquer the World?
Daniel Darling (ed.), Ministers of Reconciliation: Preaching on Race and the Gospel
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, The Narrow Corridor: How Nations Struggle for Liberty
Nathan Hill, The Nix
Eric Mason (ed.), Urban Apologetics: Restoring Black Dignity with the Gospel
Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll
Hannah More, Florio: A Poetical Tale for Fine Gentlemen and Fine Ladies
Sergio Cariello, The Action Bible
Adrian Wooldridge, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World
John Cartwright, Take Your Choice
Catherine Ostler, The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalised a Nation
Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny: An Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress
Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution and Human Rights 1750-1790
Alexander Radishchev, Liberty
Thomas Day, Fragment of an Original Letter on the Slavery of the Negroes
Andrew Bunt, People Not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender Experience
Peter Leithart, The Promise of His Appearing: An Exposition of 2 Peter
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life
Judith Sargent Murray, On the Equality of the Sexes
David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing
David McCullough, John Adams
Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different
*C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
Jonathan Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848
Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
Seth David Radwell, American Schism: How the Two Enlightenments Hold the Secret to Healing our Nation
*Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age
Jackie Hill Perry, Holier Than Thou: How God’s Holiness Helps Us Trust Him
Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Hans Boersma, Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew
Denis Diderot, Interview of a Philosopher with the Marshal of ***
Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God
Marquis de Sade, Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man
Scott Swain, The Trinity and the Bible: On Theological Interpretation
Elizabeth Day, Magpie
Sinclair Ferguson, The Dawn of Redeeming Grace
*C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy
Bask in Your Identity
Is it selfish and self-centred to spend time reflecting on and enjoying the new identity we receive in Christ? I’ve sometimes heard people suggest it is. To do so, some would claim, is to put ourselves at the centre rather than God. It is to imply that we are more important than him, and that the gospel is about us rather than about God. To focus on ourselves is to come perilously close to the very heart of sin – putting something other than God in God’s place.
I get these concerns. I really do. Many of us live in cultures that are me-obsessed. We’re surrounded by the message that what really matters is me as an individual, my rights, my happiness, and my freedom to be true to myself. There’s no doubt that we live in a culture that is unhealthily me-obsessed.
But is that the sort of attitude we’re enacting when we reflect on and enjoy Christian identity? Is it just a Christian form of me-obsession? I guess it could become so, but I’m not convinced it has to be. In fact, I think it can be a good and important thing. I think it’s important that we bask in our new identity.
Think of a plant. Plants bask in the sunshine (when they get the chance). They enjoy it, and they lap it up. But we don’t criticise plants for basking in the sunshine. We don’t accuse them of being selfish. Why not? Because we know that their basking is purposeful. It does something. As they bask in the sun, they grow and bear fruit.
The same is true for us when we bask in the identity we receive through the gospel. Basking isn’t just a selfish or self-centred act. It does something. As we bask in the truth of who we are, we grow, and we bear fruit.
For Christians, what we do flows out of who we are as God’s new creations (Ephesians 2:10), and that means that knowing who we are and experiencing who we are is vitally important. To bask in our God-given identity is not selfish or self-centred, it’s part of what helps us to become the people who God wants us to be. In doing so, we become the sort people whom others look upon and see God. We become the sort of people who bring him glory by being satisfied in him. We become the people he has made – and remade – us to be. And because Christian identity is rooted in God – what he has done and what he says – to bask in Christian identity is not just to look in at ourselves, it is, at the same time, to look up to God.
So, bask in your identity. Revel in it. Savour it. Relish it. Enjoy it. As you do, you’ll grow, you’ll bear fruit, and you’ll bring glory to God.
Have Your Say on the Conversion Therapy Ban
Should a teenager who is a Christian and is also same-sex attracted be able to receive prayer and support to help them live in line with biblical teaching? Should pastors be able to offer the same kind of support to adults who want it without the fear that they might later face criminal charges for those activities? Should those working with trans-identified teens be allowed to help them explore whether there are ways they could become more comfortable in their bodies and thereby avoid life-impacting, experimental interventions? If you answer ‘yes’ to any one of those questions, you should be responding to the Government’s consultation on the upcoming conversion therapy ban.
The recently released consultation is the latest step in an ongoing process as the Government seek to fulfil their commitment to end the practice of conversion therapy. The consultation outlines the Government’s proposals for legislative measures to be brought before the Commons next year. Throughout the process, the Government have stated that their intention is to ban coercive and abusive practices while safeguarding access to spiritual and other forms of support. This intention is reiterated in the proposals, but unfortunately it is far from clear that the legislation being proposed would achieve these aims.
The Proposals and Problems
The Government are proposing to create a new criminal offence for ‘talking conversion therapies’. Such activities would be illegal if practised on under-18s and only legal for over-18s if the individual concerned has freely consented after being fully informed of any potential risks. Ambiguities and weaknesses in these proposals mean they could introduce further discrimination for LGBTQ+ people and Christians could face criminal charges for activities that are a normal part of church and Christian life. Consider a few scenarios.
A 15-year-old Christian comes out to their church youth leader as gay. They believe in the historic Christian sexual ethic taught in the Bible and request prayer and support to live that out. The youth leader helps the young person to explore the Bible’s teaching and walks alongside them as they wrestle with what Christian faithfulness looks like for them. This includes sharing with them ideas of things to read and praying that God would help them not to act on their same-sex desires.
Under the Government’s current proposals, this could well be illegal. This 15-year-old would be denied the opportunity to receive the sort of spiritual support they want. They would experience discrimination because of their sexuality and be left alone and isolated while wrestling with their faith and their sexuality. (This could have been me. I’ve told more of my story and how this law would have affected me as a teenager here).
A pastor preaches a sermon on God’s plan for human sexuality. Afterwards, someone who has been attending the church for a few months shares with the pastor that they are gay and that the sermon has challenged and helped them. The pair talk a little further and the pastor offers to pray for the individual. The individual says they would appreciate that, and the pastor prays that the individual would know how much God loves them and prays that God would strengthen them to steward their sexuality in line with biblical teaching. A year later, the individual has moved to a different church and comes to change their beliefs about sexuality. They accuse the pastor of coercing them into agreeing to the prayer and say that the words of the pastor’s prayer have played on their mind ever since, causing them to question who they are, and causing great distress. They report the pastor for an act of talking conversion therapy.
It is plausible that the pastor in this scenario could be charged with a criminal offence under the new law. Once there were one or two cases like this in the media, pastors would become less and less willing to offer spiritual support to same-sex attracted people. LGBTQ+ people would end up being discriminated against and the freedom of pastors and Christians to offer spiritual support would be hampered.
A young teenage girl comes out as trans. They want to start puberty blockers, with the intention of moving onto testosterone and having top surgery as soon as they can. The girl’s parents know that there could be various factors underlying her trans-identification. She went through a traumatic experience a few years before and has already been diagnosed with a couple of mental health problems. They want to help her to explore what might be at the root of her discomfort around her sex and gender in the hope she can find some peace without taking steps that might leave her with many negative side effects, including infertility.
When the parents’ intentions become known, the girl is put under a conversion therapy protection order which instigates safeguards designed to ensure that no one seeks to change her from being trans. If her parents infringe the terms of the protection order, they could face a fine or even imprisonment. Under the criminal and civil measures being proposed, this sort of scenario could happen.
The Government’s stated aim of ending coercive and abusive practices while safeguarding access to spiritual and other forms of support is a good one, but it’s far from clear that their current proposals will do the job.
What you can do
The consultation is our opportunity to raise questions and concerns with the proposals. By responding, we can help the Government to think more carefully about how to achieve their stated aim. We can help them better understand how spiritual support like prayer and pastoring operate and why they are so vital for so many. And we can help them to recognise that their current proposals would have a negative effect on some of the very people they are wanting to protect.
To respond to the consultation, you’ll want to understand a little bit more about the Government’s proposals and the potential problems. The Evangelical Alliance have produced some helpful advice on responding to the consultation. If you want to think in more detail about the way that this legislation would negatively impact trans-identified teens, Transgender Trend have produced some advice for consultation responses specifically focussed around that issue.
Parents, Youth Leaders and Trans Teens
When I was leaving my teens and entering my 20s, I don’t think I knew anyone who identified as transgender. I’m not sure I would even have known what that means. Today, about a decade later, I can pretty much guarantee that any teenager in your family or church will know at least one, and quite possibly more than one, of their peers who identifies as trans or non-binary. In just this short time, trans-identification has become a huge phenomenon among young people, and the understanding of sex and gender among young people has changed radically.
Against this background, many parents and youth workers are left wondering what’s going on, what to think of it, and how best to help their children and young people to navigate life in this cultural context. Some will also find that the topic comes much closer home when their own children start questioning their gender of identifying as trans.
Sadly, despite the fact this has become such a prominent phenomenon among young people, there are very few good resources, and especially Christian resources, available to help parents and those working with young people.
That’s why I was really pleased to recently be invited to teach an introductory session on transgender for parents and youth leaders. It’s only a starting point, but I hope it will be helpful for those seeking to best parent, lead, and love young people.
You can watch the video of the session below and head over to the Living Out website for an outline of the talk, notes, and recommended resources.
Not the Think Conference
Tom Schreiner is a well-known New Testament scholar whose commentary on Hebrews in the Evangelical Biblical Commentary series was published recently. He will expertly walk us through this letter in a way that will stimulate, encourage, and grow us in our knowledge of God and His Word, our love for Jesus through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.
Many of us know the importance and value of studying God’s Word but we often struggle to find the time to go as deep as we would like and, when we do, struggle to understand what we are reading. Those in leadership, particularly pastors, preachers and teachers are often prayerfully considering what to preach through next and would relish the opportunity to have help in having a solid foundation from which to plan a series and sharpen their understanding of the text.
Hebrews is a book that shows us the supremacy of Christ, the Son in whom God has spoken His final word. It is a book written to those struggling in their faith and ready to throw in the towel and, through its rich blend of exhortation and encouragement, helps them, and us, to fix our eyes on Jesus and persevere to the end, the day of salvation. As such, it combines solid content and pastoral application – something we all need. Its weaving of several Old Testament themes, and how they find their culmination in Jesus, can be both daunting and richly rewarding for those studying the book. It is a book that many find difficult, yet contains many key theological themes that give a solid foundation to our faith and life.
You can book your place here.
Onions, Not Artichokes
Over the past few centuries (although the roots go back further), in the West, we have largely lost our belief in God or any sense of a given cosmic order. As a result there is no longer any overarching “sacred structure” that holds the world together. So we are left on our own as individuals in a world without any pre-determined order that tells us who we are in that world, or that gives us a sense of security and “fit” within a wider scheme of things.
Where, then, do we look to find moral guidance and direction? We look inside. We look not to the heavens or the hills, but into our own hearts. We stop looking outside ourselves to God, or the wisdom of the past, and start to look into our own inner emotions and desires, as Freud taught us to do.
If only we were able to peel off every layer of expectation laid upon us by society, the artificial constructions of identity, gender, class and occupation, the irritating demands that others place upon us, we would find our true selves hidden within, like a cook preparing an artichoke, peeling away the rough leaves to find the hidden tender heart inside.
Yet what if we are in fact more like onions than artichokes? What if, when we peel away the expectations of others, the roles we play in society, when we get to the centre, there is nothing there? What if there is no mysterious “self” waiting to be discovered, no essence of “me” that is stifled by the people who expect me to play roles prescribed for me? In an onion, the layers are not disposable intrusions to be jettisoned to find some inner core — they are the onion itself. What if the relations and roles we play — as citizens, neighbours, spouses, friends, partners, parents — do in fact make us who we are? ...
When Jesus was asked the question “what is the greatest commandment?” he didn’t say: “Be Yourself.” He said: “Love God and love your neighbour.” The Christian wisdom is that paradoxically we find our true self when we lose it, by being turned, not inwards in self-obsession, but outwards in love for the God who made us and our neighbours who need us.
Plant a Tree, Have a Baby, Build a House
Even before it begins expectations for the summit are being ratcheted down: neither the Queen nor Xi Jinping in attendance, anticipated strikes on the railways and by refuse collectors, the impression that Boris has overpromised and will underdeliver. I was in Glasgow recently and there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm amongst the local population about the disruption COP26 is causing to their lives as large sections of the city are shut down. But we all know we should be following Luther’s advice and planting trees.
From an environmentalist perspective tree planting is about trying to stave off the end of the world. From a Christian perspective it is a statement of faith – which is why Luther’s statement makes sense and isn’t merely oxymoronic. Christians plant trees because we have faith, for today and tomorrow, regardless of whatever signs of gloom and doom we might be surrounded by.
It is future-oriented hope that enables the Christian to overcome existentialist fear. It means we invest in life. We plant trees, have babies, and build houses as statements of faith: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen…We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. It is future hope that provides us with the faith to invest in life now.
This is very different from the despair that afflicts a faith-less view of the world. As one writer anticipating COP26 expresses it,
If I have children, I can’t protect them. It’s that simple. I can’t protect them, not just from the amorphous dangers that have always kept parents awake, not even just from the severe and multifaceted effects of climate collapse, but also from the all-pervading dread that comes with the looming prospect of climate disaster, which drains every part of life and worsens by the year.
There is a certain logic to this argument: if the planet really is headed on an irreversible trajectory to environmental destruction than having babies is the worst thing we can do. (Of course, the nihilist flip side of this is also true: if we’re all doomed regardless we might as well feed, fight, and reproduce to our hearts content while we have the chance - less hair shirt, more long haul flights and champagne.) That logic can be challenged on rational and scientific grounds – even the most alarmist climate change predictions do not suggest that the planet will become uninhabitable: in economic and lifestyle terms we’re more likely to find ourselves in the equivalent of the 1970s than the 970s.
The response of faith, though, is much more positive than simply a weighing of possible climate outcomes. We have hope, now and forever. We believe! So we plant trees, have babies, and build houses. These are statements of faith, a prophetically lived demonstration of our confidence in the Lord to bless us and keep us.
Whenever the world might end, it’s always the right thing to plant a tree.
No Plato, No Scripture
What is Christian Platonism? Boersma follows Lloyd Gerson in summarising it with five ideas, which tend to stand or fall together:
1. Anti-materialism: bodies and their properties are not the only things that exist.
2. Anti-mechanism: the natural order cannot be fully explained by physical or mechanical causes.
3. Anti-nominalism: reality is made up not just of individuals, each uniquely situated in time and space, but two individual objects can be the same in essence (e.g. both canines) while still being unique individuals (distinct dogs).
4. Anti-relativism: human beings are not the measure of all things; goodness is rather a property of being.
5. Anti-scepticism: the real can in some manner become present to us, so that knowledge is within reach.
Most of us probably have no problem with #1, #2, #4 and #5, and wouldn’t see anything particularly Platonic about them (though Boersma would say we are probably wrong about that). The one we find unfamiliar, even incomprehensible, is #3. Modern people (including modern Christians) are generally nominalists, who deny the existence of universals, as opposed to realists, who affirm them.
Boersma insists that we need anti-nominalism as much as the others, and that this is true for our doctrine of salvation as well as our doctrine of God. In theology proper, it is easier to see that the existence of universals matter, and Boersma quotes Gregory of Nyssa to explain why: the distinction between one ousia and three hypostases depends on it, and without it we would be dangerously close to having three gods.
But it matters for our understanding of the gospel as well. Without universals, it would be very difficult to make sense of our participation in Christ, or of Christ’s recapitulation of Israel’s story:
A nominalist metaphysic, which continues to be the (often unacknowledged) go-to approach of much biblical scholarship, cannot account for Saint Paul’s participatory soteriology. The apostle’s theology operates with a metaphysic in which we are ontologically linked together and in which we genuinely become one new humanity, and it is only a realist metaphysic that is able to do justice to this ... What could it possibly mean to be “in Christ” on the assumption that the human Jesus is his own person and that we are persons ontologically separate from him? Only a realist metaphysic can robustly claim that human beings are saved through a participatory or real sharing in Christ.
This is bound to bother people. The idea that we require any categories from Greek philosophy to make sense of the Scriptures always sparks allegations of Hellenism drowning out Hebraism, pagan philosophy trumping biblical writings, and so forth. So it was delightful to read Joseph Ratzinger’s remarkable insight in the conclusion:
The encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”—this vision can be interpreted as a ‘distillation’ of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
Were Christians to teach that the Incarnate Lord had no true human nature, that he wore his human nature “as a livery,” a disguise or covering, thinly stretched over the Divine Reality, then the Divine Presence would be conceived as a local Power that could brook no creaturely competitor.
Were human acts to be replaced by the Divine Working, God’s Grace or Election destroying human agency and vitality, then Divine Presence would be seen as the Sole Cause, the Sole Power, and human beings truly that stock caricature of Lutheran justificatio , the stone or log or dead thing, destroyed by Grace.
Were Christians to teach that God was self-evident in a fashion Augustinians never dreamed of, directly visible to the eye, spread out on the horizon of creation like a fiery dynamism, human belief would then be impossible, surrender alone possible.
But in fact, the Lord God is not such an annihilating Presence. He is not the Destroyer. He is not the Proud One who dwells only with his Glory, exterminating all the lowly and humble who stand in his way. The One free, holy Lord is rather the lowly Lord, the Humble One, who comes under our roof. He comes as the invisible Presence, compatible with his creatures.
- Katherine Sonderegger, The Doctrine of God
How (Not) To Ban Conversion Therapy
Imagine for a moment a pastoral scenario: a young person shares with you that they are experiencing attraction to people of the same sex. They’ve come to you as a youth leader and as part of the conversation you explain your belief that faithfulness to Jesus in this situation would be to recognise the reality of the attractions but not to act on them. You explain that the options available to them if they want to faithfully follow of Jesus are to enter into an opposite-sex marriage or to live as someone who is single or celibate – the same options available to all followers of Jesus. At the end of the conversation, you offer to pray for the young person, and your prayer includes asking that God would help them to steward their sexuality in line with biblical teaching.
There would certainly be better and worse ways that we could have that conversation, but I’d guess that most of us would see it as fairly unproblematic and as standard Christian pastoral care. It’s the sort of pastoral care that I received, first as a teenager and then as an adult, care that was hugely helpful to me as I worked through how to reconcile my experience of same-sex attraction and my desire to faithfully follow Jesus.
Many of us would see this scenario as unremarkable. And yet, within a year, that exact scenario could make you liable to conviction for a criminal offense here in the UK. I’m not joking, and I’m not overexaggerating. This scenario is taken from the recently released Cooper Report, a document in which some of those campaigning for a very broad ban on ‘conversion therapy’ (or in the report’s language ‘conversion practices’) outline the form they believe the ban should take.
The Cooper Report is the latest release in the debate about how the government should fulfil its pledge to ban conversion therapy. The report describes itself as ‘Recommendations on Legislating Effectively for a Ban on Conversion Practices’. It’s one of the most detailed and sustained explanations to date of what campaigners are wanting. Reading through the report, there are a few encouraging points, but the report also reveals the many problems with what is being proposed.
It’s worth stating upfront, as I’ve written previously, that Christians should be in full support of legislation that seeks to protect people from things that are coercive, abusive, and harmful. Sadly, some of what the report defines as conversion practices, including some practices perpetrated by Christians, fall into this category. We should support a targeted ban on such practices, a ban that can truly play a part in protecting people. The fundamental aim behind this report – to protect LGBTQ+ people – is one we should share in full.
There are a few suggestions made in the report that are encouraging and seem sensible.
The report suggests that the ban should ‘be limited by the requirement that any act be “directed against another person or group of persons”’ (p.3). This is specified as being necessary to ensure that people aren’t guilty of performing criminal practices against themselves. This means people like me could pray for ourselves to have the strength to resist same-sex sexual temptations without worrying that we are breaking the law. The report also notes that this would go some way to protecting freedom of religious and cultural expression as it would be legal to hold certain views on sexuality and gender and even to express them (for example in a preach), so long as they are not specifically directed at an individual or group (e.g. case study 1 on p.A2).
The report also states that ‘Prosecutions are an essential part of the tool kit to ban conversion practices, but they should be the option of last resort and/or reserved for the most serious cases’ (p.10). This seems sensible.
Sadly, despite these few positives, the report reveals the many problems in the sort of ban campaigners want to see enshrined in law. Here are just a few of those problems.
Evidence of harm
The harm done by conversion practices is central to the argument of the report: the harm done by such practices requires their immediate criminalisation and justifies necessary limits on freedom of religion, belief, and expression.
However, the report fails to cite much evidence of this harm. There are only two references offered to support the claim of widespread harm from conversion practices.
One reference is in a summary of an article recently published in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. The paper referenced does claim that conversion practices cause harm, but it contains no direct evidence of this harm and is primarily a paper arguing that proof of harm is not necessary to render conversion therapy practices as worthy of state intervention. It isn’t a great support for the claim of harm.
The second reference is to the ‘Conversion Therapy and Gender Identity Survey 2020’. As I have shown elsewhere, this research has several significant weaknesses which render it unable to offer us any reliable sense of whether harm is caused by various practices deemed to be conversion therapy.
We all agree that we want to reduce harm, but The Cooper Report makes repeated, sweeping statements about the harm caused by a wide variety of practices without actually offering any reliable evidence to support this claim.
I also fear that the approach taken by the report is itself harmful. For example, when offering the illustration of a practice that seeks to suppress sexual orientation – the illustration of the young person talking to a youth leader with which this article opened – the report adds that the young person ‘leaves and later that evening tries to commit suicide as she believes that she will never know the joy of intimacy or love’ (p.A1). This is a classic example of how suicide is irresponsibly weaponised in this and related debates. A young person who hears this story is being told that if someone shares with them life advice that they may not like or may find hard to hear that could lead them to suicide. Given that we know young people are particularly susceptible to suicide contagion and that the causes of suicide are always complex and multifaceted, this is an irresponsible use of a (fictional) suicide story. In this way, this example goes against Samaritan guidelines.
We do need to identify practices that are harmful, and we do need to protect everyone from any such practices, but claims of harm need to be based on good evidence and must be handled in responsible ways.
The purpose of prayer
The report is very clear that a ban must include prayer. The authors claim that prayer can be very harmful, potentially resulting in ‘deep shame, low self-esteem, and internalised self-hatred leading to profound mental health problems’ (p.7). Unfortunately, the report offers no evidence to support this claim.
What is most problematic, however, is the insistence that the ban must cover prayer that has a ‘predetermined purpose’ (p.8). The vast majority of prayer has a predetermined purpose, and the teaching of Jesus would seem to suggest that it should (e.g. Matt. 6:7-8). What would prayer without a predetermined purpose look like?
The report clarifies that the ban would still allow ‘any prayer that seeks to help an individual come to a point of peace and acceptance about their sexual orientation or gender identity, that is which does not have a predetermined purpose’ (p.8) But seeking to help an individual come to a point of peace and acceptance sounds quite like a predetermined purpose. It seems regulating prayer is not as simple as is claimed.
Confusions over transgender
One of the many complicated elements of the conversion therapy debate is the way that practices related to gender identity are being equated with those related to sexuality. This is both inaccurate and unhelpful (as Preston Sprinkle has recently explained).
The Cooper Report reveals many problems with the proposed ban and its impact on those who identify as transgender. The authors raise and offer a solution to concerns that a ban would stop affirmative care for trans people (since some, understandably, have noted that transition looks quite like a form of conversion), arguing that affirmative health care wouldn’t be caught by the ban because ‘it is founded on the position that no gender identity, expression or experience is any more valid, “natural” or “normal” than any other’ (p.1 n.1). But they also define affirmative care as that ‘which seeks to help people come to a consensual, comfortable, and self-accepting place with their gender identity’ (p.1 n.1). This perspective surely expresses a view that one gender identity is more valid, natural, or normal than another – the gender identity that one feels themself to be inside is more valid, natural, and normal than, for example, a gender identity that may be dictated by their physical anatomy. It seems arguable that affirmative care, as the report defines it, would actually be covered by the ban for which the report is calling.
One very legitimate concern has been raised about the proposed ban but is not explored in the report (although it is subtly rejected in the case studies). This is the worry that the ban might stop professionals from being able to offer teenagers experiencing gender dysphoria the opportunity to explore potential roots of their dysphoria (such as mental health, trauma, internalised homophobia) which, if addressed, could help them to lessen the distress they are experiencing without having to embark on invasive and life-altering medical procedures at a relatively young age. There is increasing evidence from referrals to GIDS and the growing number of young detransitioners that this approach could be wise in many cases.
The report makes no mention of detransitioners but does talk about an interesting parallel: ‘There is now a vast library of testimonies from members of faith communities who have denounced conversion practices following their participation in them. These are individuals who actively sought out and “consented” to these practices who have since provided evidence of the severe, long-term, negative psychological impact such practices have on people regardless of their desire to suppress, “cure” or change their own identity at the time.’ A footnote notes a collection of 11 testimonies. (So a relatively small library.)
An almost identical statement could be made about detransitioners: ‘There is an ever growing number of stories (easily accessible online, many linked to here) of people who now denounce the transition practices they participated in having once actively sought them out and consented to them but who now report severe, long-term, negative physical (and sometimes psychological) impact from them regardless of their desire to change their identity at the time.’ If we must listen to and learn from the stories of those who have undergone forms of conversion therapy and now regret them, we must likewise listen to and learn from those who underwent transition and now regret it. The ban proposed in this report would make that hard, if not illegal.
Freedom to explore
The report is very clear that the ban ‘must not inadvertently impact the ability of individuals to safely explore their sexual orientation or gender identity’ (p.4). I agree that that is important. I myself have benefited from the freedom to safely explore the reality of my sexual orientation. But the ban being proposed in the report would actually make it more difficult for many of us to explore our sexuality or gender.
The claim is made that free exploration means exploring ‘without a predetermined purpose’ (p.A1). This of course is impossible. We all have a predetermined purpose to exploring our sexuality and gender. We all want to find the best way to respond to our experience of sexuality and gender so that we can live in the way that is best for us. That’s a common ground – or ‘predetermined purpose’ – for us all.
As a Christian who believes that the Bible reveals God’s good plan for my sexuality, I believe that the best way for me to respond to my experience of same-sex attraction is to steward it into celibate singleness. In the process of exploring my sexuality I have been greatly helped by others who have taught me what the Bible says and who have helped me as I seek to live out that teaching. This ban would make that illegal. This ban would make it almost impossible for someone like me to freely explore my sexuality.
And the report itself is very clear that there is a predetermined purpose to the exploration they want to see safeguarded. The practices to be allowed are those that ‘allow people to explore, better understand and/or affirm their gender identity or sexual orientation’ (p.A3). Practices to be allowed are those that fit the secular, affirming perspective on sexuality and gender. Other viewpoints can be held, they can even be expressed (if not directed at a specific person or group), but they can’t be put into practice.
And this is what it all comes down to really. There are awful, abusive, harmful practices being conducted in an attempt to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These seem to be rare and are almost all already covered by existing legislation. We should be ensuring that such legislation is put into practice, along with good safeguarding and other measures to protect those who are victims of these terrible practices.
But that isn’t really what this report is arguing for. This report is trying to get as close as possible to making it illegal to have a different view on sexuality and gender as it can while still claiming to fit within the parameters set by human rights.
The recommendations in The Cooper Report would not be a good way of legislating effectively for a ban on conversion practices. We need a targeted ban that protects people from abusive, coercive, and genuinely harmful practices while protecting the right that we should all have to hold and express different beliefs on these key topics and to access the care and support we need to respond to our sexuality and gender in line with the beliefs that are most important to us. If we really care about the wellbeing of all LGBTQ+ people, this is the ban for which we must work.
The Genius of Jesus’s Teachings
Challenging Lawful Discrimination
For those who care about protecting young lives, there have been a couple of disappointing court rulings recently. But even when the final outcomes aren’t what might be hoped, such court cases do at least raise the profile of the topics being considered in the cases.
This has certainly been one of the outcomes of the recent High Court challenge to the UK’s abortion law. The case argued that the current law is unlawfully discriminatory since it allows abortion up to birth for babies diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, while most babies can only be aborted up until the 24th week of pregnancy.
The campaigners who brought the case have rightly spotted that the moral logic behind such a law deems the lives of those with Down’s syndrome to be of less worth than the lives of others since the lives of those with Down’s syndrome are not afforded the same level of protection. By allowing such a distinction about lives in the womb, we, as a society, unavoidably make a statement about the worth of similar lives outside of the womb.
The group who brought the case have done a good job of explaining their position in the media. One of my favourite interviews is below. Máire Lea-Wilson, one of those who brought the case to court and mother of Aidan, a 2-year-old with Down’s syndrome, does a great job of explaining why the law is discriminatory. It’s moving to hear her talk of how she was so strongly encouraged to abort Aidan, how he was born at an age when he could legally have been aborted, and how the law seems to place different levels of value on the lives of her two sons – one who has Down’s and one who doesn’t.
Máire does a great job, but the real star of the show is Aidan. (Have a watch and you’ll see what I mean.)
On this occasion, the court ruled that the Abortion Act does not unlawfully discriminate against people with Down’s syndrome. There is still a battle to be fought, both to protect babies in the womb and to affirm the full dignity and right to life of men and women who live alongside us day-by-day. The verdict is likely to be appealed. May we come to see that lives like those of Aidan are as valuable and as worthy of protection as any other. May we see that such discrimination should not be lawful.
A Fascinating New Study on Religion and Poverty
Researchers know that low socioeconomic status correlates with poor mental health. The assumption was once that, as places became richer, this effect would weaken. Being poor in a rich country was presumed better than being poor in a poor one.
But that has turned out not to be true. Abundant evidence suggests the relationship between status and mental health is stronger, not weaker, in rich countries than in poor ones. Ms Berkessel, who studies the psychological effects of religion, noticed that economic development is also inversely correlated with religiosity—the richer a country, the more godless it tends to be. Perhaps that was driving the change?
To check, she and her colleagues analysed three surveys covering 3.3m people in 156 countries. This set of data reproduced the finding that economic development amplifies the link between mental health and status. It also supported the idea that religiosity could attenuate that effect. Among rich countries, for instance, those with higher levels of self-reported religious belief had a weaker relationship between status and mental health.
Other evidence buttresses the theory. One study covering 11 European countries, all rich, found the link between personal income and well-being was stronger in irreligious places than devout ones. After much statistical crunching, Ms Berkessel concluded that declining religiosity accounted for about half of the effect of growing wealth on the relationship between status and psychological well-being.
The upshot is that religion seems to protect people from at least some of the unpleasant effects of poverty. Exactly how is less clear.
One hypothesis is that religious doctrine is directly protective. After all, many of the world’s biggest religions have a sceptical attitude to wealth. Alongside the well-known biblical verses about camels, needles and a rich person’s chance of entering the pearly gates, the researchers point out that the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu holy book, says “The demoniac person thinks: So much wealth do I have today, and I will gain more.” Similar sentiments can be found in the Koran and in some Buddhist texts. If God teaches that the wealthy are spiritually corrupt, or will get their comeuppance on Judgment Day, then poverty may seem less of a burden.
But there are other possibilities. Ms Berkessel points out that organised religion offers a social-support network which might help attenuate the effects of low status, whether or not its members really believe everything their holy texts say about wealth. Her next research project, she says, will look at exactly this point.
Grace, Works and Raducanu
Indeed we do. But this century has seen plenty of popular examples of what Leslie calls “the argument against talent.” David Chambliss, Anders Ericsson, Matthew Syed’s Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers have argued that talent is essentially overrated. Innate ability is less important than perseverance, practice, focus, mental preparedness and so forth.
Translated into theological language: works are more important than grace.
We want to believe this for several reasons, Leslie argues. 1) “It accords with the egalitarian, hierarchy-flattening spirit of the age. We are suspicious of elites or elitism of any kind. Once you set your mind against unearned privilege, it’s a short step to believing that nobody is born to be a champion or a great musician; that everyone has the potential to be as successful as anyone else ... It feels right, it feels just, that the highest rewards should go to those who persevere.” 2) “It is good for business. If talent is innate, then you can’t buy it, and nobody ever got rich selling something that can’t be bought. If what we call talent is in fact a matter of how we behave and what we believe then the free market is very much here to help.” 3) “It is reassuringly technocratic. It meets a certain desire to have everything explained and formularised, made routine and transparent.” The theological parallels are striking.
Yet no matter how loudly we insist that we prefer works to grace, there is something deep within us that longs for grace over works:
In 2011 the psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay presented 103 study participants with written descriptions of two classical pianists. One pianist was described as having innate ability (the “natural”); the other was described as someone who had worked extremely hard to develop her ability (the “striver”). The participants, who were a mix of experts and laypeople, were then played a recording attributed to each musician and invited to say which they rated more highly. Before doing so, they were asked for their views on musical achievement. Most of them stated that training and practice were more important than talent. But their ratings showed that they preferred the natural over the striver - and of course, they had been played exactly the same recording.
Tsay called this “naturalness bias”. Unsure if it applied only to artists, she performed a similar experiment, this time with entrepreneurs making pitches. She got a similar result: participants, especially if they were founders or investors, rated the same business proposal higher if they had been told it was from a natural rather than a striver. Our culture has a deeply ambivalent relationship to excellence. We prefer to attribute it to hard work, yet find ourselves inexorably drawn to stories of innate talent. We admire strivers, but we adore naturals.
Totally. We admire Ronaldo; we adore Messi. We admire Muralitharan and Allan Border; we adore Shane Warne and Viv Richards. We admire Joe Frazier; we adore Muhammad Ali. We admire Stephen Hendry; we adore Ronnie O’Sullivan. Something in our hearts is thrilled by the idea that you don’t always get what you deserve, and that sometimes you inherit great blessings through divine benevolence rather than human diligence. There is something magical about it. Ineffable. Supernatural.
Despite the power of the argument against talent, it has, remarkably, never quite overcome our deep-rooted attachment to the idea that there is something mysterious about the very highest level of excellence; something that defies every effort to break it down into habits, practices and feats of willpower. We continue to stubbornly believe that there are human beings who have an indefinable superiority. We have not eradicated the intuition that talent is analogue, immaterial, and unfairly distributed, and that certain individuals have such an abundance of it that they can do unreachable, incomprehensible things ... Emma Raducanu resists explanation. She does not make sense. And that’s OK - in fact, it’s glorious. Genius can be such a joy.
Our minds applaud works. But our hearts pine for grace.
Vaccine Mandates and Personal Decisions
My friend Bryan Hart, from One Harbor Church, Morehead City, North Carolina, has written a terrific paper for members of his congregation asking questions about possible religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. The post that follows is a lightly edited version of that paper. (NB Where “I” is used, it is me speaking, rather than Bryan.)
The Ethics of the Vaccine and Mandates
Vaccine mandates have created a number of ethical questions, which can be categorized into three areas. First, there are the pragmatic questions: do mandates effectively increase the number of people who get vaccinated and do the vaccines themselves work? Second, there is the civil question: are mandates constitutional? Thirdly, there is the religious question: do mandates conflict with Christian doctrine, belief and obedience?
Christians and non-Christians alike will answer these questions differently. It is not our aim to take a position on the first two areas in this post (whether the mandate makes practical sense and whether it is constitutional). What we want to do is explore the religious question.
There are two significant areas of concern. The first is over the religious ethics of vaccines in general, and the second is in regard to the use of abortive cell lines in the development, testing and production of the COVID vaccine.
1. Religious objections to vaccines in general.
Here, we also need to distinguish between two kinds of objections.
First, there may be some who have a religious conviction that all vaccines are wrongful and opposed to Christian teaching. We do not support or share this conviction: I am very grateful that I and my children have suffered far fewer illnesses than we most likely would have without vaccines. Vaccines are one of the great blessings of our era. However, for the person who sincerely believes vaccines are morally wrong, we can consider them the weaker brother of Romans 14-15, and thus we should “bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). Though I would disagree with their conviction, it is possible that their opposition to the COVID-19 mandate is made in good faith and according to their conscience, and so we wouldn’t object to their religious objection to the mandate. It is worth saying that people in this category are very few in number.
Second, there are those who have historically received all kinds of vaccines, but are particularly opposed to either the COVID vaccine, vaccine mandates, or both. The problem here is the lack of a consistently-applied religious principle. Though a Christian may have a firm belief that this particular vaccine is bad, if belief is not tied to a scriptural or theological principle, then it does not qualify for a religious exemption.
It is not the responsibility of pastors to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do regarding the vaccine (although my personal position is that adults should get vaxxed). However, we discourage people from inconsistently applying religious principles, and so turn Christianity and the gospel into a tool for personal ends. Religion is not the only basis on which to mount an objection to a law or mandate, either. Christians have the right to protest and engage their government as any citizen does. But they must not selectively apply Christian principles.
2. Religious objection to the use of abortive tissue in the development, testing and production of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Before wading into the ethical questions themselves, the situation can be summarized as follows, which is largely taken from the “Statement from Pro-Life Catholic Scholars on the Moral Acceptability of Receiving COVID-19 Vaccines” published by The Ethics & Public Policy Center on March 5, 2021. (It has to be said that Roman Catholic theologians have often had a far more consistent approach to ethical issues than do we Protestants.)
● The four major vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca) have used, in varying degrees, “immortalized” human cell lines, meaning they have used cells that have been developed from a single source. HEK293 and PER.C6 are the two lines that have been used in COVID-19 vaccine research. The former source was derived from the remains of an unborn child in 1973, and the latter from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985.
● The 1973 case is a bit of a mystery, and many people think the child likely died in miscarriage. On the Gospel Coalition website Joe Carter has stated that, “HEK293T is a widely used immortalized cell line that was made from fetal tissue acquired in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The records pertaining to the origins of HEK293T were lost, so it is not known where the fetal tissue originated. However there are strong reasons to believe the tissue came from a miscarriage, and no compelling reason to believe it came from an elective abortion.”
● Even if the 1973 case was an abortion, neither abortion was performed for the purposes of scientific research, and the scientists involved in developing the cell lines were not directly involved in the abortion.
● “Fetal Tissue Cells” and “cells derived from a fetal tissue line” are not the same. HEK293 cells are no longer fetal tissue cells.
● All HEK293 cells were derived from the same source, and there is no ongoing use of aborted tissue to create more cells.
● HEK293 cells are used in a wide range of applications, to include processed foods (prepared by companies such as Kraft, Nestle, Cadbury and others), cosmetics and medicines. “Thus it seems fair to say that in addition to the use of HEK293 cells by the scientific community, nearly every person in the modern world has consumed food products, taken medications or used cosmetics/personal care products that were developed through the use of HEK293 cells in the food, biomedical and cosmetic industries.”
As for the vaccines themselves, another Catholic source describes the extent to which each has made use of fetal cell lines:
1. Pfizer: Pfizer/BioNTech’s coronavirus/COVID vaccine known as “BNT162b2” was developed using genetic sequencing on computers without using fetal cells. The HEK293 abortion-related cell line was used in research related to this vaccine, but not the testing of the vaccine . . . No cell line, fetal or otherwise, is required for the ongoing production of this vaccine. This vaccine is currently in use and requires two doses.
2. Moderna: Moderna’s “mRNA-1273” vaccine does not require aborted fetal cell lines for production, but aborted fetal cell lines were used in both the development and testing of this vaccine. This vaccine is currently in use and is easier to distribute than Pfizer due to cooling requirements. It also requires two doses.
3. Johnson & Johnson: The J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, “JNJ-78436735” does use the abortion-related PER.c6 cell line for ongoing production. This cell line was also used in the development and testing of the vaccine. PER.c6 is a proprietary cell line owned by Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. This vaccine is currently in use. This is a single-dose vaccine, unlike other COVID vaccines which require 2 doses.
4. AstraZeneca: The AstraZeneca/University of Oxford vaccine “AZD1222” does use the HEK-293 cell line for production. This cell line was also used in both development and testing of the vaccine. The AstraZeneca vaccine is not approved in the United States.
5. Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline: The Sanofi/GSK vaccine is not associated with aborted fetal cell lines for production. GSK produces this vaccine using a modified virus cultivated on insect cells. The HEK-293 cell line was used in the confirmatory testing of the vaccine…The Sanofi company is also developing a different COVID vaccine that did use the HEK-293 abortion-related cell line in the research phase.
So is using COVID vaccines immoral, considering their fetal connection? We can consider what type of cooperation exists in this scenario: formal cooperation (when one person cooperates with another person’s immoral action and shares their evil intention) or material cooperation (when one person cooperates with the immoral action of another person without sharing their evil intention). Formal cooperation is always evil, but material cooperation depends on other matters. For instance, using organs from the victim of a murder would not likely be objectionable to most Christians, nor would they object to a Christian owning a car showroom and selling cars despite their knowledge that a tiny fraction of those who buy them may use them for transporting illegal drugs, or even as a weapon. These are both examples of material cooperation.
The use of the vaccine falls into the category of material cooperation. Given the information already stated above, namely that fetal tissue itself is no longer being used, there are two primary questions. First is whether or not using cells from HEK293 or PER.C6 promotes abortion in any way. Many Christian ethicists have argued it does not, since it is both unnecessary and “medically inexpedient” to create new cell lines. It is worth noting that, if biomedical research created a demand for abortions, it would change the moral calculus of using not only COVID-19 vaccines, but all products that depend on HEK293 cell lines. As it stands, however, this is not the case.
The second question is whether using COVID-19 vaccines makes us guilty of cooperating with the killing of two children in 1973 and 1985. “For a number of reasons, many if not most Christian bioethicists would argue that it is not . . . the primary reason being that this situation is morally analogical to the case of the murder victim/organ donor. No one would say the Christian who received the organ was morally responsible in any way for the murder.”
For these reasons, we would argue that Christians are not guilty of sin for using COVID-19 vaccines. (Given that the HEK293 line was likely not from an abortion, as stated above, Christians who are still concerned with a connection to an abortion should consider Moderna or Pfizer as preferable.) However, some Christians may still have a conscientious objection to any of the vaccines. Similar to the above, we would make two distinctions.
1. There may be some who are so committed to avoiding contact with cell lines derived from fetal tissue that they avoid them at all costs in all areas of life. Again, we can say that their opposition to the COVID-19 mandate is made in good faith and according to their conscience, and thus we do not object to their religious objection to vaccine mandates.
2. There are others who do not have a robust objection or concern to the use of fetal cell lines except in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines. If the concern for the use of fetal cell lines is restricted to the COVID-19 vaccine, then we again find a problem with the lack of a consistently-applied religious principle.
Practically, where does this leave us?
Firstly, from all we have argued here, it should be clear that we would want Christians who object to the vaccine to be very clear about their reasons for this objection: is it genuinely on religious grounds, or for some other reason?
Secondly, if the objection to vaccine mandates springs from a concern about civil liberties (a concern with which I would have significant sympathy) then Christians should feel free to protest and engage their governments as citizens.
Finally, our hope would be that in our churches there is the space and generosity for people with different opinions on these matters to continue to love and worship together. The pandemic has created so many divisions: as children of God we need to demonstrate the reality of His ability to bring us together in unity.
Thanksgiving is Foundational
I’ve always found it really interesting that Paul includes a failure to thank God as part of the core of sin when, in Romans 1, he’s explaining the unrightousness and ungodliness against which God’s wrath is being revealed (Romans 1:21). I think I’ve found it interesting because many of us wouldn’t instinctively see a lack of gratitude as a particularly serious issue, and yet here is Paul, identifying it as the heart of all sin, alongside failure to honour God as God. It’s a little detail that’s easily overlooked, but Sam Allberry offers a really helpful reflection on it in his latest book, What God Has to Say about Our Bodies.
‘In the Bible, thankfulness to God is central to our human life, which we see reflected in how Paul describes humanity’s turning away. “They did not honour him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). Ingratitude is actually part of the foundation of all sin. Failing to honour God—removing him from his throne and rightful place in our lives—happens alongside and because of our lack of giving thanks to him. Not to give thanks is to forget the goodness of God. It is to neglect the truth that he is, at heart, a God overflowing in kindness and generosity—every good gift comes from him—and that we are fundamentally recipients of his kindness (even with all the complications of life). That Paul couples honouring God with being thankful toward him shows us that unless we see God as fundamentally good, we will find little reason to follow and worship him. Thanksgiving is foundational.’
What God Has to Say about Our Bodies, pp.28-29.
Bad Church Leadership
War: What is it Good For?
The phrase has come in for much analysis and ridicule since it was coined by George Bush. Was ‘war’ even the right term to describe what was going on? We’ve had surges, counter-insurgency, and counter-terrorism but in the end it’s been retreat and as counterproductive as the ‘war on drugs’. This has not been a campaign won.
When Covid first hit there was also a lot of talk about war. I used the term myself. It probably wasn’t the best turn of phrase. Is a virus something we can really war against?
In Tribe, published four years prior to the pandemic, war correspondent Sebastian Junger describes the surprisingly positive impact that a real war can have on a society. His thesis, and the evidence he produces to support it, is unsettling. The richer and more urbanised we are, he claims, the more depressed and suicidal we become. War might actually do us good: after the 9/11 attack New York saw a marked reduction in violent crime, suicide and psychiatric disturbances – something also witnessed in other areas of conflict, from the Blitz to Sarajevo, and in the aftermath of natural disasters.
Junger explains these disturbing observations by noting how real physical challenge helps foster group cohesiveness. Following a disaster, “class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group.” (Galatians 3:28 anyone?) It is in these more egalitarian, more tribal, settings that individuals feel more necessary. The battle for survival creates space for autonomy, competence and community in a way which is too often absent in modern societies. Without a sense of autonomy, competence and community mental health issues surge, which is why, “Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico but far more likely to suffer from depression.” A more tribal context provides more space for personal agency, something our modern world is deliberately engineering out.
Covid has been presented as a war-like emergency but it hasn’t created more societal cohesion. Instead we have repeatedly heard about the mental health crisis the pandemic has precipitated. There hasn’t been an increased egalitarianism: rather, those with secure income and comfortable homes and gardens to sit in had a rather pleasant lockdown, and saw a nice increase in their personal savings; while the poor have increased their indebtedness, known greater job insecurity and experienced the pressure of doing life in cramped housing. The divisions in society have widened rather than narrowed because of covid.
Our problem is that the pandemic hasn’t been war-like enough. For much of the last 18 months autonomy and competence and community have been stripped away from us. There hasn’t been an actual enemy we could go and grapple with, or lumps of concrete to pull off buried earthquake victims. Instead we were told to stay at home, mask up, keep our distance. Passivity has been more of a virtue than action. Our medics were like soldiers returning from Afghanistan – they’d been in a fight most of us only saw through TV. No wonder it is reported that so many medics, just like those military veterans, are suffering PTSD. They have returned to societies that seem more divided than ever and in which most people have no idea what they have really been through.
Junger wants us to be more tribal. It is that, he argues, which would make it easier for veterans to come home and for the rest of us to live with greater mental equilibrium and a sense of purpose. As he claims in the introduction to Tribe, “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
September is always a month in which churches do something of a reset. Summer is over, the kids are back at school, students returning. This year that reset feels more pronounced than normal as we start to regather after all the disruption caused by the pandemic. Many of us are not only doing the annual reorganisation of our serving rotas and small group structures but asking the big questions about what we need to do differently. One answer to that could be that we try to become more tribal.
That might mean we do less ‘activities for’ and more ‘you take the initiative’, deliberately finding ways by which we can increase personal agency. It might mean getting our hands dirtier, often literally, creating more ways for people to, as it were, lift lumps of concrete from buried bodies. It might mean doing things that feel a little risky, dangerous even. It will certainly mean emphasising our group-ness: that the church does need to be more egalitarian than the culture we swim in. And it will mean reminding one another that we really are engaged in a war, not against flesh and blood, but one that is no less real for that (Eph. 6:12).
Why You Should Preach From Leviticus
What book of the Bible have you rarely, if ever, heard a preach from? There are probably a few candidates, but I bet most of us would put Leviticus pretty near the top of the list.
And you might actually feel glad about that. When I started to tell people that our summer preach series would explore Leviticus, people’s reactions were mixed: some expressed their concern outright, others were politely quiet but struggled to stop their face from showing their real feelings. Very few people were enthusiastic about the idea!
But, as we got into the series, more and more people began to view Leviticus differently, and both their words and their faces were communicating a much more encouraging response. As one Sunday afternoon text put it, ‘I’m really enjoying Leviticus … much more than I thought I would!’
I think Leviticus is a great text for a preach series. Here are five reasons why I think you should consider preaching from Leviticus.
It reveals God’s heart
Leviticus is all about how imperfect people can live with a perfect God. It’s the vital missing piece between Leviticus 1:1 where God has to speak to Moses from the tent of meeting – with Moses outside because God was now inside (Exodus 40:35) – and Numbers 1:1 where God speaks to Moses in the tent of meeting – with both Moses and God inside. It’s a book about how humans can once again dwell in intimate relationship with God, just as was always intended at the start.
And importantly, it’s God who takes the initiative in making this possible. In Leviticus 1, it’s God who starts the conversation. Moses and the Israelites don’t have to try and convince or persuade God to reveal how they can draw near to him. God starts the conversation; he opens the door because he wants people to dwell with him. He wants us. God wants us. That’s the message of Leviticus. That’s the heart of God revealed in this book.
How different that is to what many people – even sometimes we ourselves – assume about God. And what a wonderful message to be able to bring to a culture in which people are longing to be loved and wanted.
It helps people understand Jesus
The subtitle of our series was ‘Finding Jesus in Leviticus’. We found week after week that it is not hard to find Jesus in Leviticus. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s not hard to find Leviticus in the work of Jesus.
Leviticus highlights themes that are central to the gospel and which help us to better understand what Jesus has done for us. Themes such as sin, sacrifice, atonement, purity, holy living, and blessings all help us better understand New Testament teaching.
As preachers, it was great (and easy) to get to proclaim the gospel through a different lens each week and to see people encounter Jesus through a book they have previously avoided.
It’s easier than you think
You may or may not find this surprising, but understanding and preaching Leviticus really isn’t as hard as many might assume. For all of the things we find odd or disgusting in Leviticus, its basic theological points are actually fairly simple. Once you get your head around its overall message and structure and a few of its key concepts, things begin to fall into place and the book becomes a treasure trove of rich gospel truth and godly wisdom.
There are also some really great resources available to help. Both the Bible Speaks Today and Tyndale commentary series have excellent volumes on Leviticus that are a huge help to preachers: Derek Tidball has written the BST volume, and Jay Sklar the TOTC volume. (Sklar is brilliant on Leviticus and has several helpful resources online). L. Michael Morales’ NSBT volume, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord: A biblical theology of the book of Leviticus, is also really helpful for understanding the overall message of Leviticus.
It serves a broad range of people well
Since Leviticus communicates fairly simple, foundational theological truths and does so in, to us, unusual ways, preaching from the book allows us to serve a broad range of people well.
For those who are relatively young in the faith, Leviticus provides the opportunity to get to grips with some foundational theological truths. For those who aren’t yet Christians, Leviticus presents the gospel time after time in various different ways. The oddity of the book also makes it engaging.
And for those who are more mature in the faith, Leviticus gives the chance to be reminded of the sort of foundational truths we all benefit from hearing time after time, but in a way that feels fresh because they are presented in a different form. Preaching Leviticus also brings life to a book that many believers will have read multiple times but may have struggled to understand.
Yes, believe it or not, I think preaching Leviticus can be fun. The oddity and unpleasantness of some of the book’s rituals and laws provide a great opportunity to have some fun with it. We called our series ‘Blood, Boils and Blessings’ and introduced Leviticus as the Horrible Histories of the Bible.
There’s plenty of fun to be had with Leviticus – without actually making fun of God’s word – and that fun helps people to engage.
So, maybe the idea of preaching from Leviticus isn’t as crazy as it might first sound. Why not think about giving it a go?
If you want to see how we did it, here’s the opening preach of the series, and you can find the rest of the preaches here.
THINK 2021 Sessions Now Available
A Guide to Finding Faith
Imagine yourself back in time, to an era — ancient, medieval, pre-Darwin — when you think it made sense for an intelligent person to believe in God. Now consider why your historical self might have been religious: not because “the world is flat” or “Genesis is an excellent biology textbook” (claims you will not find in Augustine), but because religious ideas seemed to provide an explanation for the most important features of reality.
First, the idea that the universe was created with intent, intelligence and even love explained why the world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing: not just orderly, law-bound and filled with complex systems necessary for human life, but also vivid and beautiful and awesome in a way that resembles and yet exceeds the human capacity for art.
Second, the idea that human beings are fashioned, in some way, in the image of the universe’s creator explained why your own relationship to the world was particularly strange. Your fourth- or 14th-century self was obviously part of nature, an embodied creature with an animal form, and yet your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it, with a peculiar sense of immaterial objectivity, an almost God’s-eye view — constantly analyzing, tinkering, appreciating, passing moral judgment.
Finally, the common religious assumption that humans are material creatures connected to a supernatural plane explained why your world contained so many signs of a higher order of reality, the incredible variety of experiences described as “mystical” or “numinous,” unsettling or terrifying, or just really, really weird — ranging from baseline feelings of oneness and universal love to strange happenings at the threshold of death to encounters with beings that human beings might label (gods and demons, ghosts and faeries) but never fully understand.
Got all that? Good. Now consider the possibility that in our own allegedly disenchanted era, after Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein — all of this is still true.
I do not mean to claim that 500 years of scientific progress have left the world’s great religions untouched or unchallenged. The Copernican revolution overthrew a medieval cosmology with a tidier celestial hierarchy than our own. Darwinism created still-unresolved problems for the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Man. Many supernatural-seeming events can now be given purely material explanations. And the modern experience of globalization has had an inevitable relativizing effect, downgrading confidence in any one faith’s exclusive claims to truth.
But there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.
The great project of modern physics, for instance, has led to speculation about a multiverse in part because it has repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. If science has discredited certain specific ideas about how God structured the natural world, it has also made the mathematical beauty of physical laws, as well as their seeming calibration for the emergence of life, much clearer to us than they were to people 500 years ago.
Similarly, the remarkable advances of neuroscience have only sharpened the “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, from the simple experience of color to the complexities of reasoned thought. So notable is the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue that certain materialists, like Dennett, have fastened onto the idea that both conscious experience and selfhood must be essentially illusions. Thus the self that we identify as “Daniel Dennett” doesn’t actually exist, even though that same illusory self has somehow figured out the true nature of reality.
This idea, no less than the belief in a multiverse of infinite realities, requires a leap of faith. Both seem less parsimonious, less immediately reasonable, than a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter, as the mind of God precedes the universe — that the precise calibrations of physical reality and the irreducibility of personal experience are proof that consciousness came first.
In fact, the very notion of scientific progress — our long track record of successful efforts to understand the material world — doubles as evidence that our minds have something in common with whatever mind designed the universe. As much as religious believers (and nonbelievers) worry about the confidence with which our modern technologists play God, the fact that humans can play God at all is pretty strange — and a better reason to think of ourselves as made in a divine image than the medievals ever knew.
I think there is some confusion on this last point among scientists. Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis.
But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”
… The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. It creates an obligation without telling you how exactly to fulfill it. It opens onto further arguments, between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved.
The difficulties of those ancient arguments — along with the challenge of dealing with religion as it’s actually embodied, in flawed people and institutions — are a big part of what keeps the spell of materialism intact. For finite and suffering creatures, religious belief offers important kinds of hope and consolation. But unbelief has its own comforts: It takes a whole vast zone of ideas and arguments, practices and demands, supernatural perils and metaphysical complexities, and whispers, well, at least you don’t have to spend time thinking about that.
But actually you do. So if you are standing uncertainly on the threshold of whatever faith tradition you feel closest to, you don’t have to heed the inner voice insisting that it’s necessarily more reasonable and sensible and modern to take a step backward. You can recognize instead that reality is probably not as materialism describes it, and take up the obligation of a serious human being preparing for life and death alike — to move forward, to step through.
Beyond Public Toilets, Prisons and Pronouns
People not Pronouns helps us look beyond the fraught debates about which public toilets transgender people should use, which prisons those who commit crimes should be sent to, and whether or not we should use their preferred pronouns. It reminds us instead that behind each of those dilemmas is a real person, created by God and deeply loved by him, and that as believers we are called to model that love to all people, especially those who are experiencing so much pain and distress.
The order of Andrew’s three central chapters is important - instead of starting by helping us think through the ideas and concepts at play in the debate about what it means to be transgender, Andrew starts with the heart. What should be our heart response?
He shares a couple of true stories - real life experiences of people with gender dysphoria who tried to come to Jesus in the midst of their brokenness, but were turned away by those who bore his name.
In case you were wondering, Andrew advocates the opposite of this response. Jesus’ example was one of compassion for all those who were suffering - either physically or psychologically - and of love for outcasts and sinners of every kind. Wherever we think people experiencing gender dysphoria sit on that scale, our heart response must be one of compassion.
Andrew next outlines the head response, looking at the vexed question of identity and what the Bible teaches about how we should approach the question ‘who am I?’ Does my identity lie in who I truly am inside, as our culture would teach, or in what others think of me, or perhaps in something given by God? And having identified the true source of our identity, how should we live that out, especially when it feels uncomfortable for us?
Finally, Andrew addresses the hope response. Hope is what Christianity uniquely has to offer to those who feel trapped in a world of suffering, and Andrew unpacks what that could look like for those who have pastoral responsibility for or friendships with transgender people or those experiencing gender dysphoria.
Importantly, rather than simply seeing them as a problem to be solved or even a ‘victim’ group to be cared for, Andrew reminds us that ‘It may also be that those who live with gender dysphoria are a gift from God to the church.’ Over recent years many of us, myself included, have learned so much and gained such encouragement from the writings of same-sex attracted Christians who have chosen to remain celibate. Their testimony of God’s faithfulness in the midst of trials (such as standing against the immense cultural pressure to believe that a life without sexual intimacy barely qualifies as life, let alone one worth living), and their very obvious surrender of all they once held dear for the sake of knowing Jesus are powerful examples and reminders and encouragements to the rest of us. People living with gender dysphoria will have many of the same trials and the same testimonies of God’s goodness, that they can teach to those who have a much easier walk.
As I said, this is a very brief overview of the issue, and at the end of the booklet Andrew points to four longer resources for anyone wanting to learn more, but for anyone short on time, or perhaps wanting a resource to share with church leadership teams or pastoral care teams, People not Pronouns is a great place to start.
Introducing ‘People Not Pronouns’
There was a time in my childhood when I thought I was a girl. I don’t remember much about what else was going on in my life at that point, but I vividly remember the realisation that although everyone thought I was a boy, I was sure that inside I was a girl.
As I grew up, that feeling gradually faded. But it left me with something. It left me with the realisation that it is very possible to feel that inside you are not who you might seem to be. I think this is why when I first learnt about the experience of transgender people, I was instantly interested. This was an experience I had tasted and could fully believe was genuine and powerful. But I also learnt that those impacted by this experience were often misunderstood and sadly sometimes even rejected by Christians. From that point, I set out on a journey of reading, listening, thinking, studying, praying, discussing, and teaching. All of that has led me to write my recently published booklet People Not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender Experience.
What’s it about?
People Not Pronouns is my attempt to give a short introduction to the topic of transgender and to offer the structure for a rounded Christian engagement with the topic and, especially, with those personally impacted by it. It lays down the challenge that we as Christians need to be careful to see the people behind the debates. We need to remember the people, not just the pronouns.
The booklet looks at three key elements of Christian engagement with transgender: a heart response – how we should feel about trans people; a head response – how we should think about transgender experience, and a hope response – how we can bring hope to those who experience gender dysphoria.
Within these chapters, I discuss topics such as how we can put love and compassion into action, the importance of understanding how identity is formed, what it means to live as a man or a woman, the impact of gender stereotypes, and the ways that we as Christians are uniquely equipped both to handle suffering in our own lives and to support others who are suffering.
I hope the booklet will prove a useful starting point for Christians who want to engage well with transgender people and with the broader cultural discussion about the topic.
What others are saying
According to a recent survey by Dr Wilson, a small majority of people find book endorsements ‘useful/informative’, so, for the sake of that group, here’s what a few people have said about People Not Pronouns. (For those interested, each of these people have read the booklet and not all of them are close friends!)
‘For all who shudder at the thought that “those who experience gender dysphoria and who come to follow Jesus are a gift from God to the church”, this brave book by a pastor who is himself such a gift, is for you.’
Dr. Trevor Stammers
Chair of Christian Medical Fellowship 2007-2011 and former Associate Professor of Bioethics and Medical Law
‘Talk around the topic of transgender rarely offers clarity for the Christian or hope for the men and women living with this physical/identity discordance. Until now. Andrew Bunt has managed to strip away the noise and present a clear foundation on which all believers can stand. Under the headings, A Heart Response, A Head Response, and A Hope Response, Andrew presents a Christ-like reaction and faith-filled remedy to this complex and often distressing experience.’
Speaker and author
‘Andrew reflects on transgender experience with compassion and wisdom and I found his integration of head, heart and hope compelling. People frequently ask me what to read about trans from a Christian perspective, and this booklet will now be my new go-to recommendation!’
Principal of Trinity College Bristol and author of The Only Way is Ethics
‘If you have ever considered anything to do with “transgender” as too difficult, and best avoided read People Not Pronouns. If you know anyone who could do with a good introduction to a complex reality in our contemporary world, suggest they read People Not Pronouns.
‘Andrew Bunt writes about people with real suffering, he explains the lived experience of gender dysphoria, and he calls us to love those who so self-identify with all the love and truth of God.
‘For any of us with pastoral responsibility or for anyone in the body of Christ struggling with “perfect love casting out fear”, People not Pronouns will help us know more fully the reality of that perfect love.’
National Director of the Church of England Evangelical Council and former Bishop of Birkenhead
‘An admirably succinct, practical and compassionate introduction to how Christians can and should respond to transgender people in their congregations and communities. Andrew helpfully lays out the heart response, the head response (the order of these is important) and the hope response that we can and must offer, along with a helpful examination of how we discern and live out our identity. This short booklet is an invaluable resource for all believers as they seek to discern how God would have them respond to the people behind the pronouns.’
Head of Public Policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship
‘Andrew Bunt writes with a brilliant combination of deep sensitivity and deep insight, of honesty about his own testimony and honesty about the answers that the Bible brings. Andrew is proclaimer of Christian hope into an arena where many Christians feel tongue-tied and confused. I would heartily recommend this booklet to anybody who wants to learn to pastor transgender people with the truth, love and grace of Jesus.’
Author of the ‘Straight to the Heart’ series of Bible commentaries
The Spirit Promised to Abraham
Drift seems to me to be one of the most dangerous things in the Christian life. It’s easy to drift in the wrong direction in areas of our life without even noticing. When we do, we can so easily miss out on what God has got for us. I wonder if part of Christian maturity is being able to take stock, notice areas of drift in our lives, and then be active in addressing them.
I’ve had to do this recently in terms of my relationship with the Holy Spirit. Over time, I had drifted. I hadn’t come to believe anything heretical, but I had grown to overlook the Spirit’s activity in my life and, frankly, I was often just failing to engage with him.
When I noticed this, I knew I needed to do something about it. As someone who likes to think deeply, I knew that part of the way I could do this was to read some good stuff on the Spirit. (I’m aware that ‘part of the way’ is a key element in that statement – intellectual engagement is not the full answer; intellectual engagement is only worthwhile if it then helps us with practical and personal engagement.)
One of the things I’m reading is Gordon Fee’s Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (his smaller work drawing on the much more substantial God’s Empowering Presence). I’m really enjoying it. The reminder of the centrality of the Spirit in Paul’s understanding of God, salvation history, and the Christian life is increasing my thirst for the Spirit and my desire to engage with him.
There have also been a few great ‘aha’ moments. Including this gem on Galatians 3:14:
‘[T]he promise of the Spirit is equated with the blessing of Abraham, even though the Old Testament passage does not mention the Spirit. Since the “blessing of Abraham” came in the form of a “promise,” this word is the one Paul uses throughout the argument of Galatians 3 to refer to the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant. In a statement crucial to this argument, Paul says the fulfillment of this promised blessing for the Gentiles is in their having experienced the Spirit as a living and dynamic reality. The blessing of Abraham, therefore, is not simply “justification by faith.” Rather, it refers to the life of the future now available to Jew and Gentile alike, achieved through the death of Christ but applied through the dynamic ministry of the Spirit—and all of this by faith.’
Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (Baker, 2011), p.60.
The Unifying Power of Singing
Singing unites body and soul. “My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed” (Ps 71:23). It is wonderful to “make melody in your hearts,” rejoicing before the Lord in our innermost being, but singing aligns the body - the tongue, the throat, the chest, the diaphragm, the breath in the lungs and the vibrations in the thorax - with the rejoicing in the soul, and by doing so reinforces it. By making a decision to sing with our bodies, we can lift our spirits and increase our joy (in part because God, by his grace, has created human beings to release endorphins and oxytocin when we sing). Body and soul are brought together as we praise: “my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2).
Singing unites individuals with other believers. Jennie made this point last month: songs unite us to one another, whether we are in church or at a football match, and reach the parts that other beers do not reach. Psychologists could talk for hours about how songs function as a “hive switch,” turning us from self-absorbed individuals into a self-denying collective. But it is obvious from the way music works: if multiple people talk at once, the meaning of each individual is lost, whereas if multiple people sing at once (and especially when they sing in harmony) the meaning of each individual line is heightened and strengthened by being united with others. It is a glorious picture of what the church is intended to be, and especially so when we remember that if we sing from (say) the Psalter, we are united with the dead as well as the living.
Singing unites humans with other living creatures. The first noise you heard when you woke up this morning, if it wasn’t a vehicle or a small child, was probably the dawn chorus. Creation sings. It always has. Some do what we classically think of as singing (like birds); some make deep melodious notes underwater (like humpback whales) or supersonic cheeps (like mice) or rhythmic musical chants with their knees (like crickets). On the one occasion I woke to the sound of a lion making gentle early morning roars, it had a curious musicality to it. And that is without mentioning the angelic creatures whom we cannot see, who have been singing all day every day for thousands of years. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful hymn begins with the line: “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing!” But in many ways it is the other way around. God’s creatures are singing already, and we are invited to join them.
Singing unites living creatures with inanimate creation. Sometimes people talk about their desire to be, or their experience of being, “connected” to everything, with this sense that they and the world are in harmony and everything is lined up together. Phrases like that are often used about travelling to remote places, or smoking weed, but from a biblical point of view the best way to get connected to everything in the cosmos is to sing. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is 55:12). “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together!” (Ps 98:7-8). “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!” (Ps 148:3). If that all sounds a bit hyperbolic to you, bear in mind that on the one occasion Jesus was asked about people singing too loudly, he replied that if the people didn’t then the rocks would cry out instead (Lk 19:40).
Singing unites creation with God. The song of creation begins and ends with the great Singer, the inventor of melody and fountain of harmony, the word of whose power upholds all things and the beat of whose rhythm keeps the seasons in time. I have just been reading The Magician’s Nephew to my son and marvelling again at the sequence where Aslan sings Narnia into being. But the most delightful aspect of God’s song is that it is not just creative, but redemptive. There is a special song which God sings over his beloved people: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph 3:17). So when we sing together as a church, we are not just aligning ourselves with each other, or with the created order as a whole. We are aligning it with the One who sings loud songs of exultation over his children, and who finished the Last Supper by singing a hymn with his friends.
“I will sing and make melody! Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!” (Ps 57:8).
There Ain’t Nothing Like A Friend
In his book, Friends, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar distils the results of years of research into how human beings form and maintain friendships. There is a lot in this research that could be usefully learned from and applied in our churches. Here are my main take-homes.
Friendship is not an optional extra
Friendship is not only nice to have but is essential to our health, making a measurably large impact on life expectancy. Dunbar claims the research shows that friendship is more significant for our health than what we eat or whether or not we exercise. Only stopping smoking will make a bigger impact on health outcomes.
The impacts of friendship start young. The more socially integrated we are when young, the more healthy we will be when older.
Christianity is a faith that – remarkably – calls us into friendship with God (John 15:15). It is not surprising, then, that church is a place where people make friends. This has been made more challenging through lockdown, and has been especially challenging for children and young people. We need to be intentional about creating opportunities for people to connect and make friendships – it’s essential for our physical as well as spiritual health.
Friendship is limited
Dunbar is best known for the ‘Dunbar Number’. This is the observation that human societies consistently organise themselves into groups of 150, this being the maximum number of people we are able to relate to as friends.
There is a scaling of ‘threes’ in this: typically, we have five close friends; fifteen best friends; fifty good friends; 150 just friends; 500 acquaintances; and 1,500 people we know by name.
This is fascinating sociologically, but also has considerable relevance to church life. It is why in church leadership teams there is often a core group of three to five people and why relationship dynamics get complicated – and messy – if the leadership team exceeds fifteen. It is why most congregations number 150 or fewer. It’s why small groups function best when there are around fifteen members. It’s why larger churches have to structure things so that people operate within groups of five, fifteen, fifty or 150.
These limits on friendship do seem universal. It is unwise to ignore them.
Friendship is sexed
Dunbar offers observations, not moral positions, but he steps into territory that is controversial in our current cultural context; one of which is that there does seem to be a significant difference in how the sexes approach friendship. At the most stereotypical level, girls’ friendships are dependent on talking; the friendships of boys on doing. This is why, “men seem to enjoy, and work more effectively, in clubs”, in a way which isn’t the case for women.
This difference in approach to friendship means the sexes naturally segregate. Dunbar states the research reveals that, “Around 70 per cent of women’s personal social networks consist of women, and around 70 per cent of men’s social networks consist of men (with most, but not all, of the cross-gender members being family members over whom we have little choice).”
This insight might reassure us that it is not necessarily wrong for a church to run activities segregated by sex. Doing so could actually be beneficial to the whole church as it provides space for both men and women to make friends in the way men and women prefer to do. It also means we shouldn’t worry too much if looking around at church events we notice the men in one corner and the women in another – that’s just what tends to happen.
Friendship gets our endorphins going
There are certain things humans do together that raise our endorphin levels and are particularly effective in creating a sense of togetherness and belonging.
One of these is music. When a group of people – even if they are strangers to one another – make music together a strong sense of oneness is created. Moreover, singing in large groups has a more powerful bonding effect than singing in small groups. Laughter also has this effect, as does eating and drinking together.
Research on the effectiveness of the Big Lunch initiative showed that, “Four things emerged as common factors predicting how satisfied they were with the occasion: the number of diners (more is better), the occurrence of laughter, reminiscing about the past, and the consumption of alcohol. The occurrence of laughter and reminiscing both resulted in an elevated sense of bonding to the other people than was the case where neither happened.”
The relevance of this to church life is obvious. Church is a place where we sing, and singing is powerful. We need to get back to singing! Church should also be a place where we laugh. I’m grateful it is a rare Sunday when there would not be real laughter in my church. Churches are communities where we should be regularly eating and drinking together, another thing we’ve missed through lockdown.
All this comes into particular focus in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper: eating, drinking, singing, remembering. And yes, at times laughing, as we proclaim the Lord’s death and anticipate his coming. How denuded our experience of the Supper has so often become: it’s meant to be a celebration, that draws us together as friends to our greatest friend.
Friendship builds on story
Reminiscing is a key part of building friendship and the evidence is clear that we remember stories much more than factual accounts. Dunbar explains that this is because in order to navigate our way through the incredible cognitive demands of the social world understanding why someone acted as they did is more useful to us than knowing what they did. Understanding the why helps us navigate life – which is why we love stories.
Every preacher knows this: people remember the illustration more than the factual content of a sermon. At times this can feel very frustrating, but it shouldn’t be. We just need to get better at telling stories that help people to grasp and remember what it is we are trying to teach them.
Friendship has a limited attention span
Something I have often observed is that a group of us can be sitting in a team meeting, having a conversation, when suddenly there are two conversations going on in the room. This can be annoying – ‘Hey guys – don’t you want to hear what X here is saying?!’ – but Dunbar explains why this always happens.
Conversation is very cognitively demanding and we are simply not capable of holding an extended conversation in a group larger than four. A group larger than four listening to someone speak is a lecture, not a conversation. Conversations don’t last with more than four people – a fifth person joins and within seconds two conversations will form. And there is selective sorting by sex here too: when there are more than four in a group, and both men and women in the room, conversations very quickly split by sex.
This observation has all kinds of practical applications in church life: how we organise discussion groups, team meetings, discipleship structures, and so on.
Friendship is discriminatory
This is another area where the research points in directions we might find uncomfortable: the reality is that we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us – who think similarly. There even seems to be a biological and not only psychological basis to this. Dunbar includes the startling evidence that, “You are twice as likely to share genes with a friend as you are with any random person from your local neighbourhood.”
Our preference to choose our friends by ‘type’ is unambiguous. “Not only do we like people who think more like us, we also tend to prefer people of the same sex, ethnicity, age and perhaps even personality.” Does that mean we are all racist? Dunbar thinks not:
A preference for ethnic origins does not of itself necessarily imply racism, in the sense that we currently understand this term (i.e. differentiation based on skin colour). What you seem to be looking for is someone with the same cultural background because that makes it possible to create friendships and community bonding.
This presents issues for the church. We talk a lot now about racial differences but I’ve always thought that culture – or in British terms, social class – often presents a greater challenge. You might worship in a church which displays many different skin tones, but if everyone is university educated and in the socio-economic ABC1 demographic it is questionable if you really have a diverse church.
So this is a missional and ecclesiological issue: how do we best accommodate the reality that most people prefer to be with people like themselves and equip the saints to reach those who are culturally different? In Christ, that should be possible, but it certainly isn’t always easy.
Friendship is harder with age
As we get older it becomes increasingly demanding to make and keep friends. People move away, and then start dying, and we are more set in our ways. The old are less ‘attractive’ because they seemingly have less to offer by way of friendship. Thus we see the reality of many old people living very lonely lives.
There is a real opportunity for the church here, if, as Dunbar says, “The provision of social clubs and activities for the elderly [are] all the more important as a way of maintaining their mental and physical health.” Most of those clubs and activities got shut down during the pandemic – they need to start again.
Friendship needs to be face to face
Dunbar closes his book with an examination of the impact of the internet on friendship. There is a lot that we still don’t know about this impact – only time will tell. But we do know that close friendships require frequent face-to-face contact. Phone calls and email are great but they can’t take the place of actually being together. Zoom is better but works poorly for larger groups. If we are unable to maintain a conversation in groups of more than four people when we’re physically present there is no way we can manage it on Zoom. This is why so many of us have experienced ‘Zoom fatigue’ throughout the pandemic – being on screen with more than three other people is exhausting.
Friendship needs to be face to face. ‘Online church’ has a very limited shelf-life: it can plug some gaps and do some good but it simply cannot replace direct human interaction.
The pandemic has presented us with many challenges. I’ve been grateful for good friends who have stood by me, encouraged me, rebuked me, helped me and laughed with/at me over these months. But friendship has also been stretched. There are friends I have not seen for a long time, meals I haven’t had, conversations postponed. Friendship is precious – we need friends! Do yourself a favour, go and see a friend.
Is It Really About the Weak and Strong?
As legal restrictions lift in England, life has become a lot more complicated. No longer are there clear parameters for us to follow, we must now make our own choices about how to live in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. This is true for us individuals, but it is also true for us as churches. Should we still ask people to wear masks next Sunday? Should we still encourage or facilitate social distancing? Should we sing? These are the questions at the forefront of many of our minds at the moment.
The questions are very complex, and I’m really not sure what I think are the right or best answers. But as I have been listening to and involved in discussions around these matters, both online and offline, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with a particular aspect of the conversation. It’s something I wonder if we could benefit from bearing in mind as we engage with this tricky situation.
Should we talk of the weak and the strong?
Many of us have understandably been drawn to Romans 14-15 and the concept of ‘disputable matters’ that has been drawn from Paul’s teaching there. In a context where there were disagreements over the best ways to honour God, especially, it seems, in relation to food laws, special days, and perhaps also drinking alcohol, Paul calls the Roman believers to imitate Christ in extending an equal welcome to others regardless of their views on these matters in order to maintain unity in the church. In this context, he distinguishes between ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’ (Romans 15:1), calling on the strong to bear with the weak.
Both the teaching of Romans 14-15 and the concepts of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ have been drawn into the current discussions about church life after the lifting of restrictions. Carefully applied, I think the former can be helpful, but I wonder if the latter is unhelpful.
In most of the discussions I have heard, the clear implication is that those who are inclined to maintain some level of restrictions are the weak and those who want to move quickly back to a pre-pandemic norm are the strong. I am not sure that this is a helpful or fair use of the concept.
It seems unhelpful because to brand one group as ‘weak’ can easily be interpreted to convey – and may sometimes be intended to covey – disapproval. The irony is that in doing this we do exactly what Paul instructs the Romans not to do – we pass judgement (Romans 14:3-4).
Now, of course, the language is taken from Paul himself, and so how can it be wrong for us to use it if he uses it? Because I’m not sure that Paul’s situation maps closely enough onto ours. There are three important differences I think we need to acknowledge.
1. It’s not a clear right and wrong situation
As Paul looked at the different opinions among the Roman Christians, he knew that the position of the strong was actually correct. He makes this pretty clear (Romans 14:20), and yet doesn’t go to any length to convince those who disagree.
Our situation seems quite different. The matter is not clear-cut. The evidence on masks is not clear-cut. The potential outcomes of different choices we make and the development of the pandemic over the coming months are not and cannot be known. And different circumstances and situations mean different ones of us are understandably inclined to take different levels of risk. Unlike Paul’s situation, this is not one in which we can isolate a clear, one-size-fits-all right answer, and yet also unlike Paul’s situation, some seem rather clearly to claim – or at least strongly hint – that there is.
2. It’s not a fair comparison
The Roman believers were divided over the matter of how best to honour God in the way they lived their lives. Their differences of opinion were based on different levels of ability (‘the weak’ in Romans 15:1 is literally ‘the unable ones’) to accept the wonderfully all-encompassing impact of what God has done in Christ. This is why Paul specifies in his first reference to the weak that they are ‘weak in faith’ (Romans 14:1). They are not people who are just generally cautious or sensitive or uncertain, they are struggling to accept one particular element of truth about the work of Christ.
The Roman situation was in this sense a matter of faith. I would argue our situation is a matter of wisdom and love. The question is not whether we have the faith to go without restrictions – as if God has promised to protect us from illness, including its potential long-term effects and death. The question is whether it is wise to do so at the moment and whether it is loving to those who are more vulnerable – whether that be a physical vulnerability to the virus or a mental health vulnerability to anxiety after a year which has been incredibly hard on the mental health of many people.
3. It’s not clear who the strong are and who the weak are
In Paul’s situation, the identification of the strong and the weak was clear because the truth of the matter was clear. Since in our situation it is not clear which view is actually correct, it is also hard to say who are the strong and who the weak.
Most I have heard have seemed to assume that the strong are those who feel comfortable to go without restrictions and the weak are those who would prefer to take a more cautious approach by retaining some protective measures.
But it would be equally possible to say that the strong are those who still have the stamina, after all this time and all we have been through, to persist under restrictions that are frustrating and uncomfortable, but which may be wise and may be a way we can love others well. On this perspective, the weak would be those who have run out of the energy to endure some minor discomfort for the sake of helping and loving others – and potentially themselves.
It’s certainly not clear who the weak are.
So, what do we do?
This is a conversation we need to have. Many of us have already had to or will this week have to make decisions as to what will happen at our churches this coming Sunday. I do believe the principles of Romans 14-15 can help us: we should be working for unity; we should be sensitive to different perspectives, and we should do so without passing judgement on others. But I’m not sure the use of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ is fair or helpful in this particular circumstance.
Let’s love and honour each other. Let’s not pass judgment on each other. Let’s acknowledge that this is complex and that things are not clear-cut. And as we do this, let’s also agree on the simple, clear fact that we want to love one another well, however we may conclude is best to do that.
To Mask or Not to Mask? That is the Question
Throughout the pandemic the wearing of facemasks has been a contentious subject and is becoming increasingly so. At first dismissed as having no helpful impact by the WHO and UK government scientists, last July there was an about face, and mask mandates were applied. From Monday 19th that mandate will be removed (in England at least) although the more cautious government line is that they should continue to be worn in crowded spaces. So what about in church?
The two main reasons for churches to insist (or encourage) the wearing of masks are along the same lines that Sadiq Khan is insisting they remain in place on public transport in London: suppress the virus and give people confidence. Should church leadership teams follow Sadiq’s example?
The first of these reasons is a simple scientific call – though the science is, unfortunately, less than clear. A recent study from Cambridge demonstrated that FFP3 masks, which block aerosols, are very effective in preventing the spread of covid, in contrast to other masks which don’t block aerosols. This is hardly surprising given that the coronavirus spreads largely by aerosols, and not by droplets or surface contact. Each church team will have to conduct their own risk assessment on this one, but for me, the very marginal potential virus suppressing effects of masks (unless you can get hold of FFP3 ones) are outweighed by the many downsides of wearing them. It seems that mask wearing is far more about psychological signalling than actual health benefits. Which leads to the second point of whether mask wearing increases confidence.
This is an even trickier one than trying to work out whether or not masks have health benefits because it is even more subjective. Do we follow what we might call the Gareth Southgate approach and continue to exercise extreme caution? Or should we be somewhat bolder?
Christianity has a bias towards the ‘weaker brother’. In favour of the continued wearing of masks we might employ the instructions of Romans 14 & 15 that ‘those who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak’. The problem in this case is working out who is the weaker brother: are the ‘strong’ those who want to ditch masks or is it actually the likes of Sadiq Khan who have significant powers to impose mask wearing on unwilling wearers?
We might also consider the exhortation of Titus 3 ‘to be peaceable and considerate’ towards one another; or the instructions about clothing and hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 – instructions intended, at least in part, to help congregations act in a way that doesn’t cause offence to a brother or sister.
On the other side of the ledger we could call into play scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 4:3-5; Galatians 2:11-13, 5:1-2; or even 2 Corinthians 3:18!
Of course, none of these scriptures speak directly to the subject of facemasks, although they are helpful in providing a grid for how we act towards one another and seeing the significance that items as apparently insignificant as a small square of cloth can have.
In the end this needs to be a pastoral call. At Gateway we are going to make mask wearing a matter of personal discretion – people will be as free to wear masks or not as they are to wear t-shirts or a suit. Those who choose not to wear masks will need to be gracious towards those who do and those who do will need to refrain from judgment of those who don’t. Yes, this will create space for potential tensions, but whatever decision a church makes on masks will do that. It can feel like whatever decision is made will result in a lose-lose, with someone taking offence. It doesn’t have to be like this in the church though. If we display love towards one another, regardless of mask wearing preference, we can turn this situation into a win-win.
Personally, the downsides of mask wearing – the sweaty, spotty face; the barriers to communication; the discomfort, especially as the weather finally improves – are something with which I no longer want to live. Others are free to choose differently.
Finally, an observation: the pastors I’m talking to who say, ‘We’re really struggling to get people back in church’, are also those pastors who have been generally more cautious throughout the pandemic. Lead cautiously and those you lead become cautious too. While we have a responsibility to care for, be patient with, and sensitive to those who are cautious, we also have a responsibility to lead people into faith, courage and hope: that’s harder to do from behind a mask.
The Great Unravelling
‘Transition is at best a palliative solution to psychological distress. It can never be a resolution because we can never change sex.’ These words are deeply controversial. They’re the sort of words for which some in the UK have lost their jobs. Many would assume they are the words of someone who doesn’t understand trans people, doesn’t realise the deep harm such words can do, and almost certainly doesn’t really care. But these are actually the words of a trans person who transitioned almost 10 years ago.
Debbie Hayton transitioned ‘male-to-female’ in 2012. She is now an outspoken critic of gender identity ideology, calling for the protection of women’s rights and the protection of young people who are quickly being ushered into medical transition. If anyone can talk about the reality of transition, it’s Debbie.
Debbie has written many helpful articles, the most recent of which is a reflection on her own experience: ‘Transition is not the Solution: a Personal Testimony’.
The reflections Debbie shares show how she has experienced the unravelling of gender ideology in her own life. Her story mirrors that of many others. Such stories are increasingly coming into the public sphere.
But Debbie’s experience is perhaps particularly noteworthy because she is not one of the new wave of critics and detransitioners emerging as the first generation of young people who were pushed towards transition reach adulthood. She is also not a ‘female-to-male’ trans person as the majority of the young detransitioners are. And she has many more years of experience of life as a transitioned trans person than most others who are now speaking out. I’m grateful for Debbie’s testimony, for her courage in sharing it, and the work she is doing to try and protect others.
Drawing out some lessons
What can we learn from Debbie’s experience? Several important themes – all of which occur commonly in such stories – are worth noting.
The role of the internet
Very often, the internet plays a central role in the story of trans people. Debbie’s experience was no different. While she had always been aware of a deep desire to be a woman, for many years she ignored this desire and employed coping strategies to keep going. But when the internet came along, and with it an insight into the fact that transition was possible, everything changed. ‘[H]ad it not been for the internet, I suspect that the second half of my life would have been pretty much the same as the first.’
The centrality of identity
In our culture, trans is all about identity. We’re told that how we feel inside is who we are. It doesn’t matter what our bodies or our community or anything or anyone else says; we are who we feel we are. Our true self is the self who lives inside. Therefore, for those whose internal self doesn’t match their body, the obvious thing to do is to bring the body into line with the internal self.
Except, that doesn’t seem to work. ‘I transitioned to try and find my true self. But I had always been my true self. The hormone therapy and gender surgery changed my body but it did not change me.’ It turns out, internal identity doesn’t work. We can’t just ignore our bodies and embrace our true self, because our bodies are part of our true self: ‘[O]ur bodies are more than mere perambulating devices; we are our bodies as much as we are our minds.’
The impact on others
Internal identity says we have the right to embrace our internal self no matter what the impact on other people. Being true to yourself – your internal self – is the most important thing, no matter what cost others might have to pay.
Sadly, the cost others have to pay can be pretty high. Talking of her transition, Debbie notes that it caused ‘so much distress to my wife and children’. Elsewhere, Debbie has written in more detail about the impact on her wife, ‘My transition was hardest of all for Stephanie. While I celebrated new freedoms, her life was made harder. As I crashed through life, she had to pick up the pieces. She counselled our children, looked after the house, and dealt with enquiries. People who walked on eggshells around me unleashed their worries on her.’
Embracing an internal identity is never just a personal decision. It will always have an impact on others.
The deeper reality
Debbie talks about the shift that has taken place in her thinking. Looking back to when she transitioned, she notes that ‘at the time I was convinced that I was some kind of woman’. But now she recognises that her ‘problems were rooted in my sexuality’ and that ‘we can never change sex’.
The consistent thread in those who question their choice to transition is that they have come to realise that their experience of gender dysphoria was in some way tied up with someone else. Since gender was never really the core issue, it’s no surprise that transitioning doesn’t really deal with the problem.
This is why Debbie says that ‘transition is at best a palliative solution to psychological distress’. If we really care about helping trans people, it’s this psychological distress that should be the focus, not the matter of gender. Gender dysphoria is better understood in terms of suffering than in terms of identity.
In another article, Debbie has honestly confessed her uncertainty over whether transitioning was the right thing to do: ‘If I knew in 2012 what I know now, would I still transition? Honestly, I’m not sure … In hindsight, I do wonder whether there might have been some less drastic remedy.’
Applying the lessons
All of these lessons can help us as we seek to understand the reality of transgender experience and to best love and support transgender people.
They are also a reminder of the importance of holding onto the Bible’s teaching and the truth when it comes to this topic. Transgender ideology is unravelling, slowly but surely. As it does, we can be those ready to welcome and support its victims in the years to come, sharing with them the good news of a God who made and loves them, of an identity that is given, not discovered or achieved, and of an eternal hope that can sustain us whatever we face.
Satire, Social Mores, and the End of the West’s Cultural Revolution
The British and American establishments of the late 20th century were historically quite unusual in allowing themselves to be mocked; from the mid-Sixties onwards, television regularly made fun of the habits and beliefs of the powers-that-be, with Monty Python — the most prominent product of the satire boom — pointing fun at the people who ran the country. Their 1979 film Life of Brian even mocked the beliefs of that old establishment. Two of the Pythons debated an Anglican bishop and Catholic writer Malcolm Muggeridge, but no one serious tried to stop the film.
Life of Brian couldn’t be made 20 years earlier, and neither could it be made now; its satire of Jesus, a prophet of Islam, would risk upsetting Muslim sensibilities, which it’s fair to say people have become slightly wary of doing. At the very least it would need to cut out the scene pointing fun at a man who, absurdly to the filmmakers and audiences, identifies as a woman; absurd in 1979, as it had been in 1879 and 1779 and in every year before that, but a sacred idea in 2021. It’s sacred in the sense that its believers have captured the moral citadel where the most powerful ideas are protected by taboo, achieved either by emotional argument or intimidation (and both can be effective).
This is not some dark new age of cancel culture, however, it’s just a return to normality. Those who grew up in the late 20th century were living in a highly unusual time, one that could never be sustained, a sexual and cultural revolution that began in 1963 or 1968. But it has ended and, as all revolutionaries must do after storming the Bastille, they have built Bastilles of their own. The new order has brought in numerous methods used by the old order to exert control — not just censorship, but word taboo and rituals which everyone is forced to go along with, or at least not openly criticise. You might call it the new intolerance, or woke extremism, but all societies need the policing of social norms.
No one would satirise the transgender movement today; no one would dare point fun at BLM, or Pride month; no one would dare joke about George Floyd, because like the publishers of Gay Times in 1977, they might face jail for blasphemy. Instead leading satirist Sacha Baron Cohen makes a living making jokes at the expense of the little people. Indeed the only satire made now pokes fun at the old establishment, like punching the corpse of a once-ferocious zoo animal, or the people who still hold the old beliefs; the elderly, the less educated, the rural and provincial. The powerless.
The Nineties and Noughties were a time of outstanding comedy partly because so much of public morality was up for grabs, and in transition; it was a period in between two quite rigid societies ...
The revolutionaries were always going to create new rituals, new speech codes and new forms of censorship. England has changed a huge deal since our great victory in 1966, but in many ways it has barely changed at all.
A Time to Speak Up
Imagine living in a country where parents could legally kill a baby because it was a girl but they wanted a boy. Or imagine living in a country where it was legal to kill a fully grown baby one day but illegal to do the same the next, the only difference being the location of the baby – in the womb or in the world. Or imagine living in a country where a nurse could legally provide abortions on their kitchen table. Many of us could soon be living in that country.
Next Monday, it is likely that MPs will be given the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (NC55). The amendment would decriminalise abortion in England and Wales, making the procedure available on demand, for any reason, up to birth. This would be one of the most extreme abortion laws anywhere in the world.
The proposal is full of problems. These problems are so serious that even people who have no ethical concerns about abortion should oppose the amendment. Far from helping or protecting women, the amendment would remove many of the safeguards currently in place to protect pregnant women and it would make sex-selective abortion, a practice that always disadvantages girls, easily available.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time that MPs and campaigners have tried to make radical changes to our nation’s abortion law through amendments on other legislation. A similar attempt was made not very long ago, and more attempts will come if this one fails. For the sake of the babies, women and men who are affected by abortion, we must speak up.
Let’s speak up to our MPs. Do a bit of research and write to your MP explaining that this is not the way to make changes to our abortion provision. Highlight the fact that this amendment removes vital safeguards designed to protect women and would contribute to the furthering of gender inequality through the availability of sex-selective abortion. You can find out more about the amendment and make contact with you MP at Right for Life.
And let’s speak up to our Father in heaven. Speak up for the unborn; speak up for women and men who find themselves facing unexpected or crisis pregnancies, and speak up for legislation that protects the unborn and pregnant women.
The Turning Tide of Intellectual Atheism
“I was brought up an atheist—I didn’t become one,” [Ferugson] said. “I regard atheism as the religious faith I happened to be brought up in. It is, of course, as much a faith as Christianity or Islam—and I have the Calvinist brand, because my parents left the Church of Scotland. I was brought up, essentially, in a Calvinist ethical framework but with no God. This had its benefits—I was encouraged to think in a very critical way about religion and also about science, but I’ve come to see as a historian that you can’t base a society on that. Indeed, atheism, particularly in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.”
“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behaviour, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilisation fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.”
For one of the most prominent historians in the world—himself an agnostic—to say that we should go to church is rather startling, but Ferguson’s sentiments also appear to be part of a growing trend. The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at All Saints’ in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith remained cultural; other friends were not so sure. What we do know is that he thought Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilisation, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was utterly indispensable to its survival.
Scruton’s friend Douglas Murray, the conservative writer who was raised in the Church before leaving it as an adult, has occasionally referred to himself as a “Christian atheist.” In a recent discussion with theologian N.T. Wright, he described himself as “an uncomfortable agnostic who recognises the virtues and the values the Christian faith has brought,” and noted that he is actually irritated by the way the Church of England is fleeing from its inheritance, “giving up its jewels” such as “the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer” in exchange for progressive pieties. “My fear is that the Church is not doing what so many of us on the outside want it to do, which is preaching its gospel, asserting its truths and its claims,” he said. “When one sees it falling into all the latest tropes one thinks well, that’s another thing gone, just like absolutely everything else in the era. I’m a disappointed non-adherent.”
Murray believes that Christianity is essential because secularists have been thus far totally incapable of creating an ethic of equality that matches the concept that all human beings are created in the image of God. In a column in The Spectator, he noted that post-Christian society has three options. The first is to abandon the idea that all human life is precious. “Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.” And if that doesn’t work? “Then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.” On a recent podcast, he was more blunt: “The sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive [the disappearance of] Judeo-Christian civilisation.”
Historian Tom Holland’s magnificent Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, published in 2019, makes a similar case. For years, Holland—an agnostic—wrote compelling histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but he observed that their societies were rife with casual, socially-accepted cruelty towards the weak, rape, and sexual abuse towards the massive slave class as an unquestioned way of life, and the mass extermination of enemies as a matter of course. These peoples and their ethics, Hollands writes, seemed utterly foreign to him.
It was Christianity, Holland concluded, that changed all that in a revolution so complete that even critiques of Christianity must borrow precepts from Christianity to do so. (Without Christianity, he writes, “no one would have gotten woke.”) He defended this thesis brilliantly in a debate on the subject “Did Christianity give us our human values?” with atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling, who seemed actively irritated by the idea. Not so long ago, unbelievers like the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that “religion poisons everything”—a sentiment that appears to be retreating as we advance further into the post-Christian era.
Hitchens frequently claimed to be not an atheist, but an “anti-theist”—he didn’t believe in God, and he was glad that he did not. It is fascinating to see intellectuals come forward with precisely the opposite sentiment—they do not believe, but they somehow want to believe. The psychologist Jordan Peterson, who speaks about Christianity often, is a good example of this. Discussing the historicity of the Christian story with Jonathan Pageau, he said, fighting back tears: “I probably believe that, but I’m amazed at my own belief and I don’t understand that.”
He went on: “In some sense, I believe it’s undeniable. You know, we have narrative sense of the world. For me that’s been the world of morality, that’s the world that tells us how to act. It’s real, we treat it like it’s real. It’s not the objective world, but the narrative and the objective world touch. And the ultimate example of that in principle is supposed to be Christ. But I don’t know what to do with that – it seems to me to be oddly plausible. But I still don’t know what to make of it. Partly because it’s too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don’t even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it.”
Not so long ago, the atheists who retreated to their Darwinian towers and bricked themselves up to fire arrows at the faithful wanted to be there. Their intellectual silos were a refuge from faith because they didn’t want Christianity to be true. They hated it and thought we’d be better off without it. Like Hitchens, they were thrilled to find arguments that permitted them to reject it. Increasingly, some intellectuals from across the disciplines—history, literature, psychology, philosophy—are gazing out of what was once a refuge and wishing that, some how, they could believe it. They have understood that Christianity is both indispensable and beautiful, but their intellectual constraints prevent many of them from embracing it as true.
Viewing Western civilisation with its Christian soul cut out, many are now willing to say: “We need Christ.” What they are unable, thus far, to say, is: “I need Christ.” But the political must become personal. Peterson appears to understand that—and is awestruck by the reality of it.
For now, historians like Niall Ferguson recognise that Christianity is a fundamental bulwark of the fragile civilisation we inhabit. “I think the notion that we can deal with these arrows of outrageous fortune without some kind of established and time-honoured set of consolations is almost certainly wrong,” he told me. “I’m one of these people who didn’t come to atheism by choice, and I’ve almost come out of it on the basis of historical study. The biggest disasters that we likely face are actually related to totalitarianism, because that’s the lesson of the 20th century. Pandemics killed a lot of people in the 20th century, but totalitarianism killed more.
“It disturbs me that in so many ways, totalitarianism is gaining ground today,” Ferguson said. “Totalitarianism was bad for many reasons, and one of the manifestations of its badness was its attack on religion. When I see totalitarianism gaining ground not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society, that seems to be the disaster we really need to ward off. Why am I a conservative and not just a classical liberal? Because classical liberalism won’t stop wokeism and totalitarianism. It’s not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilisation and defences against that particular form of disaster.”
The survival of Christianity is essential for the survival of the West. The bad news is that this realisation comes when the day is far spent. The Good News is simpler. “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each of them Christianity has died,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
Not Just An Emoji
It is very easy, when someone relates a need in their life, to send them a prayer emoji. It’s an easy way of acknowledging that persons need and communicates that we are praying for them. I like the prayer emoji. The danger of course is that we leave our prayers simply at the level of the emoji, and that doesn’t mean very much at all.
Real pastoring – real Christian friendship – means real prayers. Not just an emoji; not even well-intentioned ‘be with’ prayers. But prayers that really do desire to bring the other person into a greater experience of the height and depth and riches of the love of Christ.
Many have expressed concern that the volume, instantaneousness and ease of electronic communication lead to superficiality and fakeness. Our prayer life can suffer from these trends too. Let’s not allow our prayers to be like this: prayer should be more than an emoji.
The Rise of the Eunuch
In her book Countdown reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan expands on an eye-popping 2017 study that found sperm counts in western men declined 50-60 percent between 1973 and 2011. Sperm counts are declining at between 1 and 2 percent each year and there is clearly a point at which this will mean widespread infertility.
The reasons for this worrying trend seem to be linked to endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in everyday products, which are now everywhere, and thus very difficult to avoid in the modern world. EDCs cause disruptions in hormone signalling in the womb and have a lasting impact on male reproductive capabilities into adulthood.
It is not just the men that are in trouble though, as research shows women are also experiencing decreased fertility. Added to this, we are seeing an increase in the number of miscarriages and developmental abnormalities, especially in boys, such as small penis development, intersexuality and non-descended testes.
This decline in fertility is so dramatic it is seriously suggested that by 2045 almost everyone will need to use assisted reproduction methods in order to conceive.
That is a problem, on multiple levels.
At the level of national demography we are entering an era in which populations are rapidly ageing and will begin to decline. In order for a population to remain stable every woman needs to have on average 2.1 children but across much of the world fertility rates are significantly lower than this. A particularly stark example is South Korea where the fertility rate stands at only 0.92.
An ageing and shrinking population creates all kinds of problems – not least of which is that it means a smaller number of young, economically productive, people have to support a growing number of older, unproductive, people. A kind of death spiral sets in – as we are beginning to see in South Korea and Japan – where the young make up an ever smaller proportion of the population and seem ever more reluctant to marry and produce children.
How Christians should respond to these demographic and economic issues is worth thinking about; but declining fertility rates raise a number of more pastoral problems. Perhaps Swan’s Doomsday Day predictions will not materialise and we will somehow recover the potency of our grandparents – let’s hope so. However, if fertility does continue to plunge here are some suggestions of problems we are likely to face.
The pain of childlessness
If you have longed for a child and been unable to have one, or if you have walked alongside someone experiencing this, you will know how incredibly painful it can be. In a quarter century of pastoral ministry helping people navigate this has been one of the most difficult things I have had to handle.
With fertility rates plunging as fast as they are childlessness is an exposure to pain we will all be facing more regularly. This will place strain on pastors and on churches as a whole – our churches will increasingly become places where there will be a collective grieving over the inability of many couples to conceive. That will require a great deal of pastoral skill and a new capacity for the kind of godly lament that leads us from despair to hope.
The ethical problems of assisted reproductive techniques
Assisted reproductive techniques are fraught with ethical difficulties, at least for Christians. What of the ‘spare’ embryos often created by IVF? Or the significant issues of donated gametes, that involve a third party in a couple’s relationship (adultery at a half-step remove)? Or the host of ethical problems surrounding surrogacy?
Faced by the pain of infertility many Christian couples will hopefully, blindly, follow the advice of medics, without giving sufficient thought to the ethical bind they may be placing themselves in. Few pastors, even, are sufficiently ethically alert to effectively teach and guide on these issues. That will need to change. If we are to remain a faithful witness it will be imperative for Christians to take often costly stands against the norms of assisted reproductive techniques – and pastors will need to give far more attention to ethics.
Increased sexual confusion
Shanna Swan is far more positive about gender fluidity than I am, but suggests part of the reason for the increase in this could be down to EDCs: “In addition to influencing the physiology of reproductive development, environmental chemicals may be affecting gender identity and sexual preference.”
Whether homosexuality is due to nature or nurture has been a long and inconclusive (and mostly fruitless) argument but we may need to reckon with a world in which human biology is so affected by environmental chemicals that this rather than your DNA, or your relationship with your mother, could be a genuine reason for sexual indeterminacy. We know that exposure to environmental chemicals in other animal species can change both biology and behaviour: an increased incidence of intersex physiology and same-sex mating. It is not impossible that similar factors are at work in humans.
A world in which human biology is significantly disrupted by environmental chemicals would present us with novel pastoral challenges. The Bible has quite a lot to say about eunuchs. We may need to do some more work on that.
Countdown is a rather depressing read. I hope it’s more gloomy prognostications prove false – but those stats about declining sperm counts are real, not modelled. If nothing else it reinforces the obvious fact that Christians should be environmentalists. Our stewardship of the earth should have us doing all we can to reduce fertility-destroying EDCs (this not made any easier in a pandemic-fuelled plastic surge: all those facemasks and wipes). And it should make us think again about how having children is a gift: a gift we need to treasure and cannot take for granted.
Together We Sing
It hasn’t been as bad as I expected thus far, to be fair. I have felt able to enter into the times of worship-with-music (because, of course, all of life, let alone the service, is worship…!); it hasn’t just felt like standing around watching a performance. And yet, it isn’t the same.
My twitter feed has been buzzing with people outraged that football fans are allowed to sing in support of their teams while we are not allowed to sing with greater social distancing, more ventilation and considerably less raucousness than a train-carriage full of happy footy fans.
And now the Government is urging schools to make children sing an odd little song tomorrow about how united Britain is, how much we love each other, and how we have ‘‘opened our doors and widened our island’s shores”. And of course, our pride. Mustn’t forget that word.
Setting aside the significant faux pas of asking all the nation’s schools to sing it on a date after most of Scotland’s schools have broken up for the summer, why a song? Why is it important to get children to sing together at this time? And why do Christians set so much store on singing?
Setting a message to music makes it far easier to learn. The memory verses I learned to music as a child have stayed with me far longer than those I simply memorised by rote. I can remember the slogans and phone numbers of companies who put their radio adverts to music that I heard decades ago far more easily than I can remember important information that I read yesterday.
And music seems to be lodged in a different part of the brain than other things we hear and learn: a lady with dementia at my parents’ church could play hymns on the piano long after she had lost the ability to perform far simpler tasks.
Music connects in a way other sources of information don’t.
But add in a congregational or collective element, and it has even more power. A ragged, too slow, too high rendition of ‘Happy birthday to you’ may not be the height of musical prowess, but we sing it year after year, embarrassing the birthday boy/girl, but communicating in our rough and ready way something that hasn’t been communicated sufficiently by us all showing up, buying thoughtful gifts, sharing a meal together and generally showering the celebree with attention. Together, collectively, we combine our love and felicitations and bestow them on the person lit by a candle glow (before he then propels his germs neatly across the surface of a cake for us all to participate in). It’s quite a weird tradition, when you think about it.
But singing together unites us. It always amazes me how crowds are able to sing together at football matches, how, out of the general melee of noise, suddenly a unity emerges. Who starts these things? How do they catch on? How do they travel so quickly from one bloke and his mates to a mass of thousands of strangers? It is magical.
Singing together has been found to increase our sense of community and belonging. Some suggest this is an ‘evolved behaviour’, though of course, to the Christian it sounds more like a gift of God - especially when we remember that God gave us a whole book of songs to praise and worship him with, and recorded many other songs throughout the Bible. Singing together builds community, it strengthens our bonds with one another. And it can bring life to one another.
My friend Alianoree Smith explained on Twitter earlier this year:
There are a lot of things I miss about in-person church.
But recently, I’ve been feeling acutely the loss of holding and being held by others’ faith - in liturgy, in song, in prayer.
The ‘*we* believe’ of the creed, even when you’re not sure whether *you* believe it right now.
The inkling that by singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ that little bit louder, you are holding up the faith of the friend standing next to you who can’t quite remember what God’s faithfulness feels like anymore, and somehow praying with them that, soon, new mercies they’ll see.
The communal confession and absolution of sin - knowing that we are all sinners together, but God’s mercy is bigger than we dared imagine.
I miss those moments that form our hearts and secure our faith, and remind us that we’re not taking this strange ol’ road alone.
Singing together binds us together, but what we sing matters, too. The songs we gather around express who we understand ourselves to be and embed those identities within us. That’s why most countries have a national anthem - singing a song together about the glory of our country or its leader both expresses to others what we value and reminds us of it, it reorientates us around what we believe in (or at least what the authorities want us to believe in).
Hence a song for OBON Day (yes, I know).
OBON wants to create a spirit of inclusion with a collective purpose and a common future where we all seek to eliminate hatred, intolerance and discrimination of any kind so that all our people can feel and develop a strong and shared sense of belonging in order to showcase their pride, passion and love for our great nation.
And the most effective way of doing this is by singing a prescribed song together.
This is why churches are so bothered about singing together. It forms us and shapes us around the truths we sing about our God, his salvation and his call on our lives. It embeds those truths in us and binds us to one another in a way that no other practice can. And it is wonderful.
Let us hope and pray that the government will join the dots in its thinking and recognise that singing in Christian worship is not just a warm-up act for the preacher or an opportunity for performance, but is an essential part of the process of being a believer, growing in faith and becoming the bride of Christ.
I can’t wait!
What is Woke?
If you were called “woke”, would you take it as a compliment or an insult?
This simple question sums up a lot about the “culture wars” that have become such a focus in the UK in the last couple of years. Only relatively small proportions of the public have engaged in the debate, but those that have often have utterly different perspectives.
Our major new study suggests the public is completely split on the matter, with a quarter saying it’s a compliment, a quarter that it’s an insult – and the rest having little clue what the term even means.
When asked what the phrase ‘culture wars’ brings to mind 43 percent of people are unable to offer any suggestions while only 1.1 percent raise trans/gender identity as an issue and a vanishingly small 0.2 percent suggest the Covid-19 related issues of facemasks, vaccinations, etc. Race was the most frequently cited example of a culture wars issue, but even that was only among 14 per cent of those surveyed.
This seems remarkable given the media coverage of these issues and perhaps unbelievable to those of us for whom thinking and engaging with these things takes up so much time and energy. But it could offer a useful corrective to Think readers (and writers!) who are pastors – that engaging with these issues from the pulpit and other church settings might not be so important as we imagine. While my personal perspective is that anyone ministering in contemporary culture should have a working understanding of what intersectionality is, it might not be that much of a problem if they don’t. Most people are not woke: they don’t even know what it means.
It Is Obscene
There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.
People who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books themselves, while not being able to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by ‘educate,’ they actually mean ‘parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.’
People who do not recognize that what they call a sophisticated take is really a simplistic mix of abstraction and orthodoxy – sophistication in this case being a showing-off of how au fait they are on the current version of ideological orthodoxy.
People who wield the words ‘violence’ and ‘weaponize’ like tarnished pitchforks. People who depend on obfuscation, who have no compassion for anybody genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Ask again for clarity and be accused of violence. (How ironic, speaking of violence, that it is one of these two who encouraged Twitter followers to pick up machetes and attack me.)
And so we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.
I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and re-read their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own. The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.
When is Enough, Enough?
They said that once the most vulnerable were vaccinated we could “cry freedom”.
They said that once all adults over the age of 50 were vaccinated we would be home and dry.
They said that once most adults over 50 had had both jabs, and adults under 50 had been vaccinated we could lose the restrictions.
So we know how this is likely to go…
…July 19th will come and it will be, “Ah, but the children aren’t yet vaccinated and we need these six weeks before schools go back for that to happen.”
And then the kids will go back to school and it will be, “Oh, but now we need to give a booster jab to the vulnerable groups.”
And then it will be the autumn and we’ll hear, “Sorry folks, it looks like there’s going to be a massive flu surge this winter (because there was hardly any flu last winter) and we can’t risk the NHS being overwhelmed, so restrictions need to stay a little longer.”
And then it will be next spring and we’ll still be where we are and we’ll have seen more businesses go out of business, and the poor getting poorer, those with mental health issues suffering more, students still paying thousands of pounds to sit in their bedrooms watching online lectures, churches still not singing, or in some cases even gathering and the ‘precautionary principle’ leading to the general fraying of the social fabric.
So the question (which I first posed last August) arises again: when is enough, enough? When do we start disobeying?
When does our application of Romans 13 submit to our application of Ephesians 5:19, Psalm 96, Psalm 147, etc.? When does our concern for the overall wellbeing of our congregations, and broader communities, override our concern to be seen to be ‘good citizens’ in our punctilious following of the rules? When do the realities of the very limited health benefits achieved by ‘Hands, Face, Space’ become outweighed by the realities of the benefits of more normal human interaction?
When do we finally say, enough is enough?
Two Sides of the Rainbow
Pride and Christianity do, of course, share one sacrament—or at least one sacramental sign: the rainbow. For the LGBTQ+ community, it is ostensibly the symbol of inclusion, a multicoloured banner that, as Lego now promotes to children, means that everyone belongs. More than that, it asserts that everyone can be whoever they want to be (serial killers and religious conservatives excepted). For Christians (as for Jews), the rainbow is quite the opposite: not an assertion of human autonomy but of human dependence. It is a sign of the gracious promise and forbearance of God in the face of human self-gratification and rebellion. The rainbow is a reminder of God’s covenant with all living creatures. It points beyond itself to something magnificent: the graciousness of a holy God. In comparison the Pride rainbow of inclusion is trivial indeed and those churches that choose to display it have thereby trivialized their God.
- Carl Trueman, Pitiful Pride
Have You Spoken About The Lord?
This is the question that seems to start most conversations at the moment. It has even managed to displace the weather as every Brits go-to small-talk standby.
A pastor friend grew frustrated of being asked it again and again, eventually replying to a church member,
“Have you spoken to anyone about the Lord this week?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Well the vaccine is important to you – but it’s important to me that we speak to people about Jesus.”
I felt convicted by that. It’s a good question to ask. Perhaps every time we find ourselves asking someone if they’ve had the vaccine, or someone asks us that question, we should pause and ask ourselves, “Have I spoken to anyone about the Lord?”
Blindness to Kindness
But where is the corresponding emotional intensity, or even mild recognition, of God’s providence when one hundred thousand airplanes land safely every day? That is roughly how many scheduled flights there are every day in the world. And that does not include general aviation, air taxis, military, and cargo. Where is the incessant chorus of amazement and thanks that today God provided ten million mechanical and natural and personal factors to conspire perfectly to keep these planes in the air and bring them to their desired destination safely—and most of them carrying people who neglect and demean God every day?
Even when a plane with no functioning engines lands on the Hudson River, and every passenger walks out on the floating wings of this 80-ton airliner, or when a plane with ninety-seven passengers crashes in Mexico and bursts into flames after every passenger and the entire crew are safely off the plane, where is the public outpouring of thankfulness to the God of wonders? Where is the heart’s cry of thankfulness to God that we hear in Psalm 107:31 for the rescue on the sea?
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!
The world and even thousands of Christians give no praise and thanks to God for millions of daily, life-sustaining providences because they do not see the world as the theater of God’s wonders. They see it as a vast machine running on mindless natural laws, except where our heart’s rebelliousness and self-exaltation find a suitable opportunity to find fault with God and justify our blindness to a billion acts of kindness toward his defiant creation.
One of my aims in writing this book is to help us see the world another way.
- John Piper, Providence, 241-242
The Lies That Serve Us
An Awkward Question About the Image
Question and answer sessions are really helpful, not just (hopefully) for the questioners but also for the answerer. I regularly find that allowing people to ask questions after I’ve been teaching helps me to sharpen my thinking or highlights things that I haven’t thought about but which I need to. One question I was asked last year has been on my mind ever since, and I think I’ve finally made some progress on it.
For a few years now, I have been thinking a lot about the image of God. I fear that the image is one of the most widely misunderstood and abused scriptural concepts. Christians, and especially Christian writers, seem to feel the liberty to link our creation in the image of God with all manner of things without providing any biblical justification for their assertions or paying attention to what Scripture does say about the image. It feels like it’s become an empty theory into which we can put whatever meaning supports the point we are seeking to make.
I’ve written before about what I think Scripture tells us about the image – it is a ‘family-like resemblance between humans and God, the detail of which is unspecified, but which is given by God as a marker of value designed to offer protection to human life.’ It is not lost or damaged because of sin, and this is really important because of how the image relates to some key real-life issues.
When teaching about the image, I have often stated that it marks every human life as worthy of preservation and protection. Then one day, after teaching that, I was asked about Genesis 9:6, a text I had used to make my case. The questioner rightly pointed out that Genesis 9 doesn’t just affirm the value of human life made in the image of God, it also says that humans who end another human life should have their own life ended. It would seem, they pointed out, that some lives made in the image of God are not worthy of preservation and protection.
This question had an undeniable logic to it, and I couldn’t easily fit it into my understanding of the image.1 I did, however, start to try and nuance what I would teach. I avoided the blanket statement that the image marks all human lives as worthy of preservation and protection and tried to speak instead of the supreme value of every human life. I also noted that though the taking of a human life through capital punishment did seem to undermine the right to life of the guilty party, Genesis 9 doesn’t link this to any diminishing of the image in that person. I can’t see any evidence that the introduction of the death sentence in Genesis 9 indicates that the image is lost or damaged through sin.
Beyond that, capital punishment in Genesis 9 remained a bit of a thorn in my side, complicating what I have felt is important biblical teaching about the right to life. Until, finally, I noticed something significant.
Genesis 9 isn’t completely clear whether the murderer’s life will be ended by another human (an executioner) or by God himself.2 But it is clear that whoever acts as the direct cause of the murderer’s death, the life is taken at the requirement of God. This point is made three times in Genesis 9:5 (‘I will require’).
And then it struck me that before God we don’t have a right to life. There are many places in Scripture where we see God putting people to death. We often struggle with these stories, thinking, ‘How can God just kill someone like that?’ But of course, in reality, we get that question the wrong way around. The question is not ‘How can God kill someone?’, but ‘How has God not killed us all? How has God not killed me?’ Before the utterly holy God, none of us deserve to live. Every breath we breathe is an outworking of the grace of God to us. As sinners before a holy God we don’t have a right to life, but from this holy God we do receive the gift of life.
So, does the sentence of death for murderers in Genesis 9 undermine the truth that the image of God marks every human life as worthy of preservation and protection? Does it undermine our right to life? When looked at from a human perspective, I don’t think so. Because we are all created in the image of God, every human life, from birth to natural death, is worthy of preservation and protection. It is only God who can choose to withdraw his gift of life.
And this has big implications for the life and death issues we might encounter today. None of the key ethical debates in our society involve situations where God has passed sentence and demanded the life of an individual. Indeed, heartbreakingly, the reality is usually the opposite. In our society, the humans who are often deemed not to have the right to life are those whom God has most called us to advocate for and care for: the voiceless and vulnerable.
So, I don’t think Genesis 9 does undermine the truth that the image of God marks every human life as worthy of preservation and protection. And I do still think that the image of God and the outworkings of that reality indicated in Scripture are some of the most important truths for us to affirm and apply in our day. In the context of a society that continues to end many human lives that have only just begun, and where many want us to start deliberately ending human lives deemed less worthwhile, the inherent value, dignity and right to life bestowed on every living human by our creation in the image of God is vitally important.
- 1. As it happens, I think there are reasons for assuming that the sentence of capital punishment does not still apply today, but this doesn’t undermine the basic logic of the question.
- 2. In Genesis 9:6b, ‘by man’ (the preposition ב be with the noun אדם ādām) could be translated ‘by man’ (as most modern versions) or ‘(in exchange) for that man’ (a reading supported by the LXX: ἀντὶ τοῦ αἵματος ‘in return for this blood’ (NETS)). The latter would remove human involvement, but the former is the more natural reading of the preposition.
In Defence of Being Directive
Debate continues to rage over the government’s commitment to end conversion therapy. A brief mention in the recent Queen’s speech and an accompanying statement have confirmed that the Government is working towards a legislative ban to protect people from ‘the coercive and abhorrent practice of conversion therapy’. It was also announced that there will be a short consultation before legislation is brought forward and that new funding will be provided to support victims of conversion therapy.
One area of the debate I’m finding rather confusing is the way that some campaigners, even Christian campaigners, are indignant at the idea that a ban might still allow ‘directive’ pastoral care, teaching, and prayer. This has emerged as a prominent point in the debate because of concerns that the Government’s most recent statements pledge only to ban ‘coercive’ conversion therapy practices. The argument being made by supporters of a broad ban is that for a religious leader to be directive is the same as to be coercive.
For example, one such objection written by a Christian states that a ban only of coercive practices ‘will be a licence to continue to pray and give “pastoral support” in a directive way rather than start with the acceptance of a person’s sexuality’. I presume this means that they believe it should be illegal for a pastor to tell me, a same-sex attracted guy, that God has something to say about how I should live out my sexuality. Apparently, all a pastor or Christian friend should actually do is allow me to make my own decision, without wisdom or guidance from anyone else, and then affirm me in that decision.
But surely all Christians should recognise that directive teaching and support are at the core of the Christian faith. In fact, Jesus’ commission to his followers was to make disciples and to teach them to obey everything he has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). To teach people to obey all that Jesus has commanded is an unavoidably directive task. How can we fulfil Jesus’ call to us if we are not able to be directive in our teaching and pastoral care? Every Christian who takes Jesus’ words seriously should recognise that we must fight to retain the right to be directive.
And directive teaching is very different from coercive teaching. Directive teaching lays out a clear position, along with the authority and reasoning that supports that position, and leaves individuals free to choose how they respond to the teaching. That is what I have experienced as a gay Christian and what I do as a pastor.
As a same-sex attracted guy who wants to be a faithful follower of Jesus, I have received directive teaching and pastoral support. At no point has that teaching been forced upon me or been presented in a coercive way or used to manipulate me. I have received teaching (from a variety of viewpoints) and have then engaged with that myself to make my choice about how I will seek to best follow Jesus.
I’ve also always been well aware that decisions I make about how I live in relation to my sexuality will affect the extent to which I can be a part of, and, in particular, to serve and lead in certain church communities. This has always made perfect sense to me: churches are communities of Jesus followers; Jesus laid out parameters by which his followers should live. Therefore, it makes sense that adherence to the teaching of Jesus should be required for certain levels of involvement in a church community. This is not coercion or manipulation, and it’s not an injustice. It’s the natural consequence of the teaching of Scripture.
As a pastor who wants to help others to faithfully follow Jesus, I pastor and teach people directively. These people come to me or listen to me of their own free choice. I present to them what I believe to be true and the reasons why I believe it to be true. I call them to be obedient to that truth, but ultimately I leave individuals to make their choice on what they believe and how they will choose to live in light of that.
My experience and my practice involve things that are directive, but they do not involve things that are coercive. They involve very normal Christian practices, practices that would have many parallels across society: parents teaching children, friends advising friends, doctors supporting patients, teachers instructing pupils.
There is, of course, sadly, in any of these relationships and practices the risk that they could be misused and could become coercive or abusive. This is why safeguarding and accountability are so important, in churches as elsewhere in society. But while directive teaching and support can become coercive and abusive, they are not in themselves coercive and abusive. They are in fact, rooted in key human rights. (Which is one of the reasons the ban being proposed by some would actually contravene human rights.)
In reality, what those who object to directive teaching and pastoral support really object to, is not the nature of the teaching or support, but the direction in which it points. I have no doubt that if I as a gay Christian went to some of the Christians campaigning for this ban and asked them for advice about how God wanted me to respond to my experience of same-sex attraction, they would give me an equally directive answer. But the direction, of course, would be different.
It seems to me that those who are arguing for a broad ban actually want to be more directive than I do and are at risk of using the law to be coercive in their directive practices. These campaigners don’t want me and people like me to have the freedom to explore all the possible Christian understandings of sexuality. They have already decided which should be allowed and which should be illegal. While claiming that they want to stop directive teaching, they are actually fighting for a law that would leave only one legally acceptable understanding of Christian teaching on sexuality. That sounds pretty directive to me.
Any teaching and support can be misused, and we must therefore prioritise safeguarding, transparency, and accountability to make sure that all people are protected from coercive and abusive practices. This is why we should support a targeted ban that will protect people from coercive and abusive practices that attempt to change sexual orientation or gender identity. But directive teaching and pastoral support are not in themselves coercive or abusive. Rather, they are based on our human rights and are necessary to fulfil the commission Jesus has given to us.
What You Fear Shows What You Love
We fear our children getting hurt because we love them. We fear losing our jobs because we love the security and identity they give us. We fear rejection and criticism because we love approval. Some of these fears are healthy, some are overblown, and some betray deeper sicknesses in our character. Some we would hardly label as fears at all. That fear of the leak in the roof, the fear that I left the oven on: they are more like background niggles, anxieties so petty they seem insignificant. Yet they are telling.
So ask yourself: What do my fears say about me and my priorities, about what I treasure? What do they say about where I am looking for security?
Which do you fear more: being sinful or being uncomfortable? God or man? Being a sinner or being exposed before others as a sinner? Our fears are like ECG readings, constantly telling us about the state of our hearts.
- Michael Reeves, Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord
The Cross or the Machine
I grew up believing what all modern people are taught: that freedom meant lack of constraint. Orthodoxy taught me that this freedom was no freedom at all, but enslavement to the passions: a neat description of the first thirty years of my life. True freedom, it turns out, is to give up your will and follow God’s. To deny yourself. To let it come. I am terrible at this, but at least now I understand the path.
In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell. And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through? As we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer each day. Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine. We have always been offered the same choice. The gate is strait and the way is narrow and maybe we will always fail to walk it. But is there any other road that leads home?
Twelve Rules for Loftus
1. The Church in America, for all its sins and accomplishments, is not much better or worse than any other church anywhere else at any other time.
2. Every church service should include a song that’s at least 300 years old, a song that’s at least 100 years old, and a song that’s less than 20 years old.
3. We’re a lot better off with cops than without them.
4. Getting married and having kids is a good norm.
5. You should watch less TV and read more books.
6. The more money you have, the more you should pay in taxes.
7. Living a good life in every sense of the word requires a lot of compromises between competing ethical principles.
8. Children should spend as much time playing outside as they can.
9. Children shouldn’t have or need smartphones. People who make things so that a smartphone is necessary for a child should be tarred and feathered.
10. You can, should, and must legislate morality.
11. Education is all about character formation and people who disagree shouldn’t be trusted.
12. You should have a daily quiet time.
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.)
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.