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1994 and All That, 30 Years On

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Ten years ago I wrote an essay reflecting on the events of twenty years before that: the ‘Toronto Blessing’, or ‘Present move of the Spirit’ of 1994. And here we are, ten years on from that essay and thirty years from 1994. (I appreciate there will be many readers of this blog too young to have any idea of what I am talking about!)

In that previous essay I raised questions as to the extent that our spiritual experiences are conditioned by the culture in which we live. To what extent were the phenomena of 1994 a reflection of wider cultural currents of the time? Ten years on from those questions and observations I can both still detect traces of what happened in 1994 in the ‘ministry shape’ of churches with which I am involved; and if anything I am more convinced of the influence of the wider culture in our spiritual experience.

Way back, in December 1993, I read Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield. This two volume biography of the great 18th century evangelist was very shaping in my life and ministry but it has only been recently, more than thirty years later, that I have picked it up and read it through again. It was only a few months after first reading it that the Toronto blessing swept through our churches and we were laughing, weeping, and falling over. I’m not sure to what extent I connected the dots with Dallimore’s descriptions of phenomena accompanying revival in the 18th century but it is fascinating to read his account and make those connections now.

Wesley, and others, seem to have encouraged the same kind of external manifestations that we saw in 1994 – viewing them as evidence of God’s working. On the other hand, Whitefield, and others, discouraged them – viewing them as a fleshly distraction from the true work of God that risked bringing the revival into disrepute.

A standout moment in Whitefield’s ministry was the revival at Cambulsang, Glasgow, in 1741-2. This provides an interesting mirror against which to hold the events of 1994. As John Arnott wrote at the time of the Toronto blessing, “The fruit produced in a person’s life is the…way to evaluate a spiritual experience.” What was the fruit of Cambulsang? And what the fruit of 1994?

At Cambulsang, and nearby Kilsyth, were two faithful but uninspiring ministers, William McCulloch and James Robe. These men had laboured in the gospel for years but with little result. They were known for being dull communicators but in 1741 something changed. A fresh anointing fell upon these two men and a new spiritual hunger came upon their congregations. Central to this awakening was a conviction of sin. Robe reports, “bitter cries, groans, and the voice of their weeping.”

Whitefield appeared on the scene in July 1742, preached three times in the space of ten hours and reported, “For about an hour and a half there was such weeping, so many falling into deep distress, and expressing it in various ways…Their cries and agonies were exceedingly affecting.”

The following Sunday came the famous Cambulsang communion service. Services were conducted over the whole weekend, culminating on the Monday, with constant preaching by a relay of ministers, and communion served on the Sunday. All this took place outdoors. Those wanting to take part in the communion were personally examined by a minister and if their ‘conversion and manner of life’ was deemed sufficiently genuine they were issued with a small metal token that gave access to the communion table.

A month later Whitefield returned for another communion service. Thirty thousand were in attendance but only about three thousand were admitted to the table: “Worship began at 8.30 on the Sunday morning, and the last table was being served at sunset.”

Dallimore states that there were two kinds of ‘emotional phenomena’ displayed during these services, “the outcrying and trembling among the unconverted and the ecstatic rejoicing among believers.” Not everyone was so affected though (Robe thought it to be one in five of the congregation) and Dallimore concludes,

The bodily distresses were not encouraged, but when they occurred they were considered of value only inasmuch as they arose from a sorrow for sin so intense they could not be restrained.

And what of the fruit? An accounting of the revival, written in 1871 relates,

This work… embraced all classes, all ages, and all moral conditions. Cursing, swearing and drunkenness were given up by those who had come under its power. It kindled remorse for acts of injustice. It won forgiveness from the vengeful… It bound pastors and people together with a stronger bond of sympathy. It raised an altar in the household… It made men students of the Word of God and brought them in thought and purpose and effort into communion with their Father in heaven.

True, there was chaff among the wheat, but the watchfulness of the ministers detected it, and quickly drove it away.

And for long years afterwards, humble men and women who dated their conversion from the work at Cambuslang, walked among their neighbours with an unspotted Christian name, and then died peacefully in the arms of One whom they had learned in the revival days to call Lord and Saviour.

What happened in Cambulsang in 1742 was of a different order to what we experienced in 1994. To be fair, this is why we described what was happening as a blessing rather than as a revival, but it does seem that we placed far too much emphasis on the phenomena. Rather than one in five displaying strong emotional phenomena we looked for everyone to do so. This made it difficult for the few who did not – I remember some individuals becoming very disillusioned because they were untouched amongst a sea of flailing and falling bodies.

With hindsight, my perspective is that the focus on phenomena was a mistake: there was a great deal of chaff among the wheat. And, as I remember it, conviction of sin was almost entirely absent. There wasn’t any great turning of the unconverted to God.

I concluded my 2014 essay with an observation about how culture affects our spiritual responses and then a question,

An obvious question that arises for us out of this observation is at what point our cultural envelope becomes a hindrance to actively receiving the Spirit. Arguably some cultures are more open than others – would a 1970’s style charismatic renewal have been possible in the more straitlaced 1950’s? At the least, we should be alert to the importance of ‘discerning the times’ and aware of the impact of the wider culture upon us. Over the past few years there has been a lot of conversation about the church ‘impacting the culture’. It seems to me that the impact is rather more likely to be the other way around, and most of the time we do not even realise it. That is how culture works, even when we think of ourselves as charismatic.

Over the past ten years there have been some cultural shifts that wash into our expectations and practices in the church. The therapeutic worldview has become increasingly dominant. Technology has more and more impact in peoples lives. There has been a growing suspicion of leadership. To what extent do these cultural realities affect and condition any move of God among us? In our current climate of individualism and leadership suspicion it is very hard to imagine a context in which ninety percent of a congregation would tolerate being kept from taking communion, or in which pastors would have the courage necessary to enforce it!

Thirty years on there are things I am grateful for that came out of our experiences then, as well as things I would do differently now. But oh for a move of God that cuts through all our cultural realities and causes trembling among the unconverted and ecstatic rejoicing among believers.

 

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Body Matters in Genesis

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Your body matters. That’s something I expect most readers of Think already know. There has been a surge of interest in the theology of the body in recent years, and for good reason: the prominence of various body-related topics in contemporary western culture has highlighted the need for us to think more deeply about bodies and what it means to be human.

Many of us will have reflected on the goodness of our bodies; that as the creation of a good creator they can speak to us both about how we should live (ethics) and who we are (identity). And that they are core to what it means to be human, not secondary or irrelevant.

Recently I’ve been struck by this again in the creation accounts. Obviously I’ve been aware before that in Genesis 1 God declares all creation good and then very good after the creation of humans. That would include human bodies and so our bodies are clearly good. But I’d never before noticed quite how strongly the creation accounts of Genesis stress the centrality of our bodies. Both of them seem to imply that bodies are central to what it means to be human.

In Genesis 1, the first thing we are told about humans is that we are created in the image of God. The second is that we are created male and female (Genesis 1:27). What does it mean to be male or female? They are terms that speak of bodily forms – the way our bodies are structured to play one of two roles in reproduction. This is why the statement that we are created male and female is immediately followed by the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’ (Genesis 1:28). Male and female mean nothing apart from bodies.

This means the second thing we are told about humans in Scripture – and so presumably a fairly important thing – is that we are embodied. Bodies, according to Genesis 1, are central to what it means to be human. They are central to who we are.

In Genesis 2, it is striking that God first creates Adam’s body and then breathes life into him (Genesis 2:7). There is no Adam before the first body is created. The first human is not a disembodied being for whom a body is created, as if the body is just a container to hold our true self or a tool through which we can interact with the physical world. The body comes first. It is central to what it means to be human.

Aware of this, I’ve been trying to be more careful of the language I use about our bodies and their relationship with our true self. We often use language that implies our bodies are separate to who we really are: ‘Your body is a gift from God’, implying that the core you exists separately to, or even prior to, your body such that that this you can receive a gift from God.

On one level this is obviously overthinking things (I’m good at that!). I don’t think this statement, or others like it, is completely inaccurate or inappropriate.1 It’s a statement trying to communicate things that are true and important. But in a contemporary context – both cultural and Christian – where the body is so often devalued and seen as separate to our true self, there may be value in thinking very carefully about the language we use.

So what can we say? I’m increasingly talking about us being created as bodies rather than being given a body as a gift, and as being bodies rather than having them (‘You don’t have a body. You are a body.’)

I can already hear the responses. Has Andrew become a monist, believing we’re are only bodies and nothing else? No. I am a convicted dichotomist – we have a body and a soul/spirit (two words for the same thing; see Isaiah 26:9; Luke 1:46-47). I think that’s pretty clear in Scripture (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:7; Matthew 10:28). But those two parts are meant to be united. So while an ontological dichotomist (there are two parts to our being), I am a functional monist (those two parts are designed to work together as one).

That the union and interworking of body and soul is God’s good intention can be seen from the problem of death. The problem of death isn’t that it’s the end of existence – because it isn’t. The problem with death is that it’s the (temporary) end of embodied existence. At death, body and soul are torn apart awaiting reunion at the resurrection (Genesis 35:18; Acts 7:59; 2 Corinthians 5:8).

Do the sorts of phrases I’m proposing run the risk of suggesting that our bodies are prior to our souls? Maybe. And that’s something I probably wouldn’t want to affirm. (I don’t think the creation of Adam in Genesis 2 can be used here as he could easily be an exceptional case!) But aware of the complexities of communication and the reality that we often have to make do with phrases that have some weaknesses, I think the statement ‘You are a body’ leans to the side indicated by Scripture. Our bodies are central, perhaps even primary, in who we are.

In a time when both secular culture and popular Christian thinking have a tendency to undervalue the body and to overvalue the internal or non-physical (whether that’s called ‘true self’ or ‘soul’), I think it’s better to use the imperfect language that might help us to correct our imbalance. I’m trying it out at least.

Your body matters. And so does the language you use about your and other bodies.

Footnotes

  • 1. Arguably, Paul uses language that could also be read as separating body and true self in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. That shows us that such language isn’t completely wrong or inappropriate. But Paul is clearly using the language of ‘your body’ for a very deliberate purpose in that passage (showing how utterly inappropriate sexual immorality is for a Christian) and that has no doubt shaped his use of language.

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Releasing Artists To Renew Culture: A new course to help you engage with the arts

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This is a guest post from Jonny Mellor

A few years ago, the American pastor and theologian Tim Keller wrote,

The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world.

That’s quite a bold statement and a bit of a curveball for most of us. Art is a strange thing. Most people have an intuition that it is somehow important but almost nobody can articulate why! In fact, it’s quite hard to even define what art is. So, for most of us, art is regarded as rather peripheral and extravagant. The cherry, or at the most the icing, but certainly not the cake!

So, why would a sensible fellow like Tim Keller make such an outrageous claim? Why would the church need art to reach the world?

I run a network of artists called Sputnik Faith & Arts and we split our time between two pursuits. Some of our efforts are directed towards encouraging Christians who make art to keep going, to get better at it, to engage with audiences outside the church, and to keep following Jesus while they do it. The rest of the time, we find ways to explain to Christians who aren’t artists why we think Tim Keller hit the nail on the head.

The problem is that art is so integral to human experience that we miss it. Imagine trying to explain the importance of water to a fish. It’s a bit like that. Secular anthropologists would mark the emergence of homo sapiens by the appearance of cave paintings. The Genesis creation story presents the first reported speech of a human being as a song, or at least a poem (Genesis 2:23). From the very beginning, we have created art. It’s fundamental to who we are.

And we are surrounded by art. The pictures on your wall. The chair you sit on. The wallpaper on your walls. The architecture of your house. The design of your shoes. All produced by artists of one sort or another. And this is to say nothing of the digital worlds we inhabit.

To imagine a world without art is to imagine a world without people. In the world. In the church. Anywhere.

But how does art help us, as Christians, to reach the world with the gospel? We could ‘use’ art to package our message more attractively? To pull on the heartstrings? To get in under the radar? Well, we could. And sometimes we do. But this is, at best, the tip of the iceberg.

Art keeps us human. It keeps us asking questions. It stops us drifting into tribalism and robotic pragmatism. It recognises the complexities of life and of God and of church and refuses to flatten the vibrant world that God has created. It reminds us of the abundant life that Jesus promised us, a life of love and generosity not of cold tradition and dogma. It keeps us human and allows us to connect with other humans as image bearers of our artistic God, resonating with other image bearers so as to lead them to find their rest in Him.

I think that’s what Tim Keller meant. And, yes, it’s all a bit vague and mind boggling. It certainly also needs some unpacking.

To that end, I’d like to introduce you to a resource that will hopefully help you to wrestle with this difficult but crucial topic. We’ve put together a course to explore how, as Christians, we might engage with the arts more constructively and support the artists in our communities and beyond. It’s called ‘Releasing Artists to Renew Culture’ and it’s been released through the Broadcast church planting network. It consists of 8 short videos that are accompanied by discussion questions and relevant artworks and Scriptures to help you think it all through.

If you’re an artist, it’s for you.

If you ‘don’t have an artistic bone in your body’, it’s for you too.

If you’re a church leader who is lacking creative contributions to your exoskeleton, it’s especially for you.

Engaging with the arts may not be at the top of your to do list. ‘Reaching the world’ may well be. Tim Keller thought the two things were more connected than we often think so why not watch the first video and see what you think?


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Jonny Mellor is an elder at Churchcentral, Birmingham and also helps run Sputnik, a network of Christian artists. Sputnik works with artists and churches, and aims to rebuild the often damaged bridges that exist between them. To find out more, try: https://sputnikfaith.art

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What Is Christian Nationalism?

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As US electoral politics rumbles on in its current ugly form, one issue of significance is 'Christian Nationalism'. This, like its equal and opposite 'woke', is a term frequently used but not always properly understood. The team I serve on that gives a lead to the Advance movement of churches, asked Bryan Hart, from One Harbor Church in North Carolina, to write a paper for us exploring the subject. Bryan has done an outstanding job and while this paper was written primarily for the benefit of our movement it deserves wider circulation. For those in the States the subject has immediate and obvious relevance, but as what happens over there inevitably has an impact over here I'd encourage Brits to read it too.

(NB I haven't included Bryan's many footnotes and hyperlinks here. If you'd like them please get in touch.)

Introduction

How should pastors respond to Christian Nationalism (CN)? This is a difficult question for two reasons. First, the term “Christian Nationalism” is not clearly defined and has a wide spectrum of applications, even within the US. Second, despite having no consistent definition, CN has rapidly become a lightning rod of attention in news, media, and evangelical circles. The volume is up, but the clarity is down.

The goal of this paper is twofold. First, I survey several theories of CN currently in use: three negative criticisms and three positive defenses. As we will see, what one side condemns is not exactly what the other embraces. Second, I identify three critical issues that are being conflated (or ignored) within the CN rhetoric: the undefined political theology that characterizes much of current evangelical thought, the rise of political disengagement, and the influence of theological positions regarding eschatology and the Kingdom of God. Under the auspices of “responding to CN,” pastors are liable to make some significant missteps if these issues are not first recognized and faced on their own merits. Having clarified them, leaders will be in a better position to wrestle with the various strands of CN.

Note: this paper addresses Christian Nationalism in America and from an American perspective. I cannot speak to the applicability of these insights to the rest of the world.


Theories of Christian Nationalism

CN, as a term, can be traced back to at least the Christian Nationalist Party of the 1940s. However, it reflects an ideology that runs back further, perhaps to the Spanish-American war.  According to Matthew McCollough, it was in that war that “messianic interventionism,” what he sees as a key ingredient to the development of CN and something beyond even the Manifest Destiny of the 19th century, was first embraced as “both Christian duty and providential destiny.” 

The contemporary usage of CN terminology, however, has developed especially within the last ten years. Below I provide a brief survey of several definitions of CN, with the intention of demonstrating just how wide of a spectrum exists within the semantic domain of the term. I have categorized each presentation of CN as either “Negative” (critical of CN) or “Positive” (defensive of CN), and provided my own analysis of each.

Negative Theories

Perry and Whitehead write in their book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States: “Simply put, Christian nationalism is a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.”  They understand it as the syncretism of religion with political conservatism, nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the divine sanction of military action. The result is a framework “that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity.”  Three arguments are key to their thesis:

1. The polarization of American discourse is largely a result of CN. (For example, CN—and not “conservative Christianity”—explains the large numbers of conservative Christians who supported Donald Trump despite his moral failures.)
2. CN may be related to theological beliefs, political sympathies, views on race and gender, and so on—but it is not synonymous or reducible to any of those things. It is a distinct phenomenon that must be understood on its own terms.
3. CN does not equal Christianity or evangelicalism, and the former often influences Christian behavior in ways that are opposite to the latter’s legitimate practice.

In Chapter 1, Perry and Whitehead identify four categories of relationship to CN: Rejectors, Resistors, Accommodators, and Ambassadors. (Interestingly, though CN’s Accommodators and Ambassadors are primarily political conservatives, not all of them are. CN is anchored on the right, but it spans the political spectrum.) Chapters 2 through 4 evaluate CN perspectives on power, boundaries, and order.

Analysis: I find Perry and Whitehead’s definition of CN a helpful and, sadly, accurate description of much of what I have personally witnessed in the conservative South since 2016. In many respects, I share their alarm of the idolatrous relationship many Americans have with our nation. Of particular concern is their research which demonstrates the “take America back for God” rhetoric is actually not about pursuing Christian or religious purposes, but is about the retention of political power. We cannot ignore how many Americans see God as a means to partisan, political ends.

That said, I have three criticisms of their book. First, I think at times they clumsily place too much conservative political action under the umbrella of CN. For example, they identify support of the wall on the Mexican border as “xenophobic.” This is a sweeping generalization of motive that dismisses the complexities and severity of the immigration crisis. Second, though CN is partially responsible for the polarization of American discourse, their volume leaves readers with the impression that it is mainly or even entirely responsible. This fails to account for the corrosive and divisive effect that the ideologies of the political left have had on American society, as well. Third, it seems they think that Christians are only to live out their faith as individuals; any attempt by Christians to pursue wider cultural or community change is liable to be charged as CN. In the conclusion to chapter 2, they write: “Christian nationalism mobilizes Americans to take positions on issues and rally behind candidates that will defend their cultural preferences, preserve their political influence, and maintain the “proper” social order.”  Are Christians not to have positions on issues, choose candidates, or have cultural preferences? Does not every American have a vision of some kind of social order? It would seem that Perry and Whitehead are insisting on Christian political disengagement and that anything else amounts to CN. This is a key problem in the discussion about CN, and I address it below.

Dan Partland & Rob Reiner have produced a documentary called God and Country which warns about the rise of Christian Nationalism. Framed from a leftist position, they have similar concerns to Perry and Whitehead and interview the likes of Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Phil Vischer, Russell Moore and David French, all of whom have been vocal in their own streams about the dangers of Christian nationalism. In the film, David French defines CN as:

“A deeply felt emotional connection between the fate of the nation and the fate of the church. So when someone says, “America is in danger,” at the heart level people are also thinking the church is in danger, my faith is in danger, my religious liberties —it’s all a package.”

Phil Vischer says,

“At a very basic level, it’s the belief that America has a very special, God-ordained role in human history. But, here’s the big issue, and it’s a big issue for America: if I have decided that America is irreplaceable in God’s story, has a role to play that only America can play in God’s story, and democracy gets in the way, then democracy has to go.”

Indeed, pointing to the violence of January 6, 2021, the documentary presents CN as comparable to Nazism and a threat to both pluralism and democracy itself. In a podcast interview with Mike Cosper of Christianity Today, Partland and Reiner argue that CN is a movement that is essentially utilitarian, “a political movement that uses an issue, whatever the issue is, to get what you want, and you’re willing to do anything for it. You’ll do it at the point of a gun.”

Analysis: Like Partland and Reiner, I remain horrified at what happened on January 6 and the Christian trappings used in its justification. Many of the clips of “America-first” sermons throughout the documentary are cringe-inducing examples of what Perry and Whitehead have described. (Andrew Whitehead is interviewed in the film.) However, while I also support a broadly pluralistic society (since the gospel fares well in a free market), pluralism is not a transcendental good, which Partland and Reiner seem to think it is. In fact, there is some irony that the documentary presents democracy and pluralism as practically sacred—revealing another kind of syncretism. Furthermore, in the podcast, Reiner goes so far as to say that the teachings of Jesus are essentially identical to what is found in the rest of the world’s religions. They may understand something of CN, but they clearly misunderstand Christianity. I found Trevin Wax’s comments at TGC particularly helpful:

“In the end, these filmmakers are right to spot the danger in a political movement that harnesses and instrumentalizes the Christian faith toward some other end. Unfortunately, they can’t see they’re doing the same thing. They want to harness and instrumentalize the parts of Christianity that resonate with them as a way of bettering society according to their core, left-wing values.”

The fact is, criticisms of CN are not launched from nowhere—it is significant that many come from the political/cultural left, and are therefore fraught with their own biases and blindspots—and in this case, even a profound misunderstanding of what Christianity is.

Heidi Przybyla, an investigative journalist for Politico, has significantly broadened the scope of CN. In an interview on MSNBC, she claimed that anyone who thinks that human rights come from God (rather than the government) is a Christian nationalist—effectively indicting a significant percentage, if not the majority, of Americans in US history. In an article she co-wrote for Politico, warning about Trump’s desire to “infuse” CN into his second term, she criticized how Christians are using natural law: “Natural law is the belief that there are universal rules derived from God that can’t be superseded by government or judges. While it is a core pillar of Catholicism, in recent decades it’s been used to oppose abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and contraception.”

Analysis: The Declaration of Independence unambiguously asserts: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Such ignorance of history and civics, by an investigative journalist no less, should be of concern to all Americans. But the impact on Christianity is significant: now even basic Christian teaching and the application of natural law to long-standing ethical concerns are being labeled as Christian Nationalism. (This also calls into question the viability of the CN terminology, since it now appears that it can mean anything to anyone.)


Positive Theories

Patrick Schreiner wrote an essay for TGC titled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Christian Nationalism.” Under the section titled ‘The Good: The Influence of Christianity in American Civil Life,’ Schreiner writes, “For some, Christian Nationalism simply means that Christianity has influenced and should continue to influence the nation.” Though he admits that CN rarely refers to this limited sense, he says of it:

“In the best sense, this form of Christian Nationalism doesn’t attempt to dominate the political process or to make the nation completely Christian but seeks instead to bring change by persuasion. Rather than trying to overthrow the government, adherents advocate their cause by supporting laws, electing candidates, podcasting, writing, and developing think tanks. They won’t force their opinions, but they also won’t back down from arguing for them.”

Analysis: Schreiner’s article is more focused on the Bad and the Ugly of CN, but I include his brief remarks on the Good because they reflect the fluidity of CN’s usage and also demonstrate the tension that exists in competing definitions. What is being described here is a fairly traditional take on Christian civic engagement. Schreiner intends it to be a positive, restrained sense of CN, but what he is describing could be included within the pejorative use of the term by those who see any Christian activism as problematic.

Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker co-wrote Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide for Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations. It is a biblical defense of CN, which they define as follows:

Christian Nationalism is loving your neighbor. Who is our neighbor? Our fellow citizens and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. Loving them means protecting them from foreign interests, alien worldviews, and hostile invaders. Christian Nationalism means placing the interests of your neighbor and your home above the interests of foreigners in foreign nations. This doesn’t mean we neglect foreign nations or do not extend love to them, but rather that we place the interests and worldview of our home above foreign ones. 1 Timothy 5:8 tells us that “if anyone does not provide for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.” Nationalism is about taking care of our neighbors, our families and fellow citizens, lest we deny the faith and be worse than an unbeliever.

Torba and Isker insist they are not guilty of the charges that Perry and Whitehead make of CN. They disavow idolatry of the nation; they state that CN is not limited to any race, nation or culture; they do not believe America is chosen by God as a new Promised Land; and they say that CN is not a “marriage of the gospel with patriotism.”  Nor do they wish to overthrow the government. Rather, “after we have attained enough Christians in our nation, we are obliged to peacefully order our state governments in such a way as to help Christianity grow and flourish in our states without restrictions.”  They also understand the US to be a Union of states, and that the states are actually countries, many of which were founded with state religions. It is not their aim to recreate a 17th-century situation but rather to build a CN movement that is more ecumenical. 

“No longer do Christian Nationalists in America seek to establish official state churches or religions, but rather we seek to reestablish states that recognize Jesus Christ as King, the general Christian faith as the foundation of state government, and state laws that reflect (in every way possible and reasonable) Christian morality and charity.”

The rest of the book goes on to make their case. They insist that America is a Christian nation; they criticize the individualistic piety of low-Church evangelicalism which, they say, downplays the understanding of Christ’s Kingdom and political engagement; they heavily criticize dispensationalism and make the case for an alternative eschatology; they rage against critical race theory, cultural marxism, wokeness, luke-warm Christianity, and more. The book ends with a history of the founding of the American colonies in a defense of seeing the origin of the country as “Christian Nationalist.”

Analysis: I suspect most readers of this paper will be put off by the tone of this book and some of its specific arguments. However, I also suspect that most evangelicals would agree with more of it than they might anticipate (even if reluctantly). Hence Peter Leithart’s assessment that the book is “flawed but generally sound.” My biggest point of disagreement is with the eschatological argument. Though they don’t name their views, their presentation is strongly of the postmillennial flavor (more on this below), and much of their thesis depends on this position. I am not a postmillennial, and so I do not share their conclusions. With Leithart, I also found their distinction between Christianity and Judaism to be too severe.  Given their frustration about how much CN has been mischaracterized in the press, I was disappointed at the lack of graciousness with opposing Christian views and the mischaracterization of some of them, especially in Chapter 6. Though unpersuaded to join their project, I don’t think Torba and Isker are proposing anything particularly controversial given their postmillennialism, and certainly not something that threatens democracy or the witness of the Church.

Stephen Wolfe is the author of the incendiary The Case for Christian Nationalism. (Both his book and Torba/Isker’s came out in 2022.) One of the first to embrace the term, Wolfe offers a positive case for it from a far-right, Reformed perspective. He defines CN as,

“A totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ.”

He sees CN as a sub-genus of nationalism and assumes that groups/nations should and will work together for their own common good. He also distinguishes his book as a work of political theory, not political theology. Thus, he assumes a Reformed theological tradition and spends little time in the biblical texts. Wolfe’s arguments are robust and are centered on the nature of man (he engages in theological anthropology and how that shapes social and political life), the nature of civil government (which he argues should enforce both Tables of the 10 Commandments ), and the nature of the magistrate (which he calls The Christian Prince). Furthermore, Wolfe makes a defense of cultural Christianity, he includes a chapter on revolution and one on liberty of conscience, and he offers his analysis of Protestant experience in early America. Many of Wolfe’s conclusions will likely be rejected outright by evangelical readers (e.g. the civil magistrate should have the authority to punish blasphemy and heresy), but it is worth pointing out that his views are rooted in a coherent, historical tradition.

Analysis: Both Neil Shenvi and Kevin DeYoung have written substantial reviews of Wolfe’s book. Given the sophistication of Wolfe’s arguments, I feel somewhat unqualified to write my own and instead will draw on Shenvi and DeYoung’s insights. Both helpfully point out that Wolfe’s book has many strengths that its critics often overlook and, importantly, Wolfe’s presentation of CN is not of the popular variety described by Perry and Whitehead. (For example, of flags in the church building, Wolfe writes, “I’m ambivalent about national flags located inside or outside churches, but national flags should not be displayed in a sanctuary and especially not within sight during worship. The worshipper should see pulpit, table, and font.” )

However, Wolfe’s use of the concepts of “nation” and “ethnicity” are both confusing and problematic. For example, he argues that ethnicity is “your people” and that an ethnic group can be multi-racial. But he goes on to say, “People of different ethnic groups can exercise respect for difference, conduct some routine business with each other, join in inter-ethnic alliances for mutual good, and exercise common humanity (e.g., the good Samaritan), but they cannot have a life together that goes beyond mutual alliance”  [emphasis mine]. Wolfe’s project has been plagued with accusations of kinism, which he exacerbated with some foolish tweets on inter-racial marriage (which he later retracted). But even if we set the tweets aside, Shenvi persuasively shows that Wolfe’s formulation of nations and ethnicities seems to create division, not unity within the church. Indeed, Wolfe says we should become more like non-Westerners: “more exclusive and ethnic-focused.”  This seems to fly in the face of Ephesians 2 and a basic understanding of the gospel’s horizontal, reconciling effects.

Furthermore, in the twitter-sphere, CN has been occasionally connected to ugly forms of physiognomy. In his epilogue, Wolfe contributes to this impression when he writes:

“Christian nationalism should have a strong and austere aesthetic. I was dismayed when I saw the attendees of a recent PCA General Assembly—men in wrinkled, short-sleeve, golf shirts, sitting plump in their seats. We have to do better. Pursue your potential. Lift weights, eat right, and lose the dad bod. We don’t all have to become bodybuilders, but we ought to be men of power and endurance. We cannot achieve our goals with such a flabby aesthetic vision and under the control of modern nutrition. Sneering at this aesthetic vision, which I fully expect to happen, is pure cope. Grace does not destroy T-levels; grace does not perfect testosterone into estrogen. If our opponents want to be fat, have low testosterone, and chug vegetable oil, let them. It won’t be us.”

DeYoung notes that the epilogue, different in tone than the rest of the book, reads like a rant. In paragraphs like the one mentioned above, the gloves seem to come off, and Wolfe’s proposal of CN feels less “magisterially Protestant” and more like an angry, personal vendetta. Much more can be said about Wolfe’s proposal, but ultimately, I join Shenvi and DeYoung in rejecting it.


Synthesizing the Theories

Though more could be said, this should suffice as a survey of some current CN theories. What should become clear is that, though there are definite sides to the debate, they are not exactly lined up directly across from one another. What Perry and Whitehead describe is not what either Torba/Isker or Wolfe embrace. We might label the former “pop-CN” and the latter “classical-CN.” Perhaps these terms are unhelpful—I wish only to distinguish them so that each may be properly evaluated on their own merits. It is my view that the former, where it legitimately exists, is unequivocally syncretistic and idolatrous and therefore should be condemned. (For a more balanced assessment of this kind of CN within the broader ideology of nationalism, and an explanation for why conservative Protestants are uniquely vulnerable to it, I recommend Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies by David T. Koyzis, in particular Chapter 4, titled “Nationalism: The Jealous God of Nation.” )  Classical-CN, however, must be considered more carefully, for reasons that will be seen below.

Before taking sides in these arguments, three issues must be untangled from the CN discourse to avoid superficial criticisms of CN and misguided uses of the terminology. They are undefined political theology, inconsistent political disengagement, and failures to recognize the theological issues at play, in particular eschatology and the Kingdom of God.


Undefined Political Theology

The first issue that must be separated from CN is the field of political theology. Many Christians are using CN terminology to attack political theologies they fail to understand and/or wrongly assume to be novel ideas rather than historic ones.

Political theology can be understood as “efforts to probe the implications of the church’s beliefs, practices and Scriptures for political, social and/or economic realities.”  Scripture has much to say on how Christians should submit to their governments, but it has virtually nothing to say about how Christians should (or should not) wield power on behalf of the state in a constitutional republic—or a monarchy or any form of government, for that matter. Christian governance was simply not a reality of the NT age. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that Christians have found very different solutions to civic governance throughout the centuries. Since the days of Constantine, there have been nearly endless attempts to properly configure the “church” and the “state” in relationship with one another. Though space prohibits a thorough summary of these ideas, the Reformation yielded significant developments that still heavily influence political theologies today:

● Martin Luther was the father of the “two kingdoms” concept. He believed that God ordained two kingdoms, one sacred (the church) and one secular (the state), each with its own functions. However, only the state has been granted the right to wield the sword.
● John Calvin agreed with Luther that there were two, distinct realms, but believed they should work much closer together, as evidenced in his Protestant city of Geneva. In his three-fold use of the law, the second use is the restraint of society. Thus the state, though incapable of creating inner transformation in the life of the believer, is responsible for enforcing the laws of God.
● The Anabaptists believed that neither the church as an organization nor Christians as individuals should have anything to do with the state apparatus. In their view, military, political, and civic service are all off-limits for Christians.

Since the Reformation, there have been many more proposals, often related to increasingly sophisticated questions about how the church is to relate to culture and society more broadly. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, though now quite dated, summarized approaches to Christian cultural engagement as follows: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. Though this grid has been re-assessed and critiqued many times over, it helpfully illustrates the plurality of ways Christians have understood the relationship between the church and the culture around us.

Fundamentally, most Christians in US history have believed that politics and the mechanism of the state are appropriate means by which Christians may engage with culture and public life. This has been true of both the Christian Right and the Christian Left. Those who are against Christian political activity of any kind are in the definite minority, and this conviction is still largely connected to the Anabaptist movement and voices like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

Unless one is prepared to take the Anabaptist position, the ethical questions related to cultural change, political engagement, and the public sphere are profoundly complicated. What should the relationship of the church and state be? Can Christians utilize the state’s power without being corrupted by it or perpetuating injustice? To what extent should Christians leverage their faith in the public sphere in a pluralistic society? As James Woods has asked, “Is there a Christian case for commitment to the nation?” And as Peter Leithart has asked, “What do we mean by nation?” What is the difference between nationalism and patriotism? And so on. As evangelicals, we have not all wrestled with these questions or attempted to place them in a coherent system. And as we have seen from Perry and Whitehead, the expectation is increasingly that we keep our faith private. (And as Shenvi and DeYoung acknowledge, Wolfe’s proposal, for all its weaknesses, is one of the few that is tied to a historical tradition.) The point is this: any attempt to provide answers to the above questions (which I think we should attempt), or to actually do political theology, is likely to receive the charge of Christian Nationalism from someone.

In Part 5 of Center Church, Tim Keller maps his four, broad models of cultural transformation (Two Kingdoms, Relevance, Counterculturalist and Transformationist) onto a helpful diagram which I have pasted below.  In Chapter 18, titled “Cultural Engagement Through Blended Insights,” Keller dismisses the idea that a “perfect union” of all models is possible; at the end of the day, we need to pin our colors to a mast. But he gives very helpful guidance on how to synthesize convictions, seasons, giftings, and calling as we each develop our own views of how Christ relates to culture, which will then inform how we approach governance and politics.

Finally, the argument I am making here is not for one particular type of political theology. Rather, I am recommending that pastors attempt to formulate their own convictions in this regard. As it stands, “Christian Nationalism” has become an easy pejorative with which to accuse anyone to one’s political right. By developing coherent cultural and political theologies, we can be more judicious in our use of this term and our analysis of those who arrive at different conclusions.


The Rise of Political Disengagement

The rise of political disengagement, or political passivity, has been another key influence on the trajectory of CN conversations. Several likely causes are at play.

Perhaps in response to a perceived union of theological and political conservatism, many evangelicals are increasingly suspicious of political and cultural power. Michael Horton’s 2008 Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church was a classic expression of this unease. His book opens with a reference to a sermon from Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse, in which he imagined Satan taking control of cities:

“All of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ is not preached.”

What is being described here is “cultural Christianity,” a concept that evangelicals often use negatively in reference to the hypocritical expression of faith.  In some cases, evangelicals have been so concerned with this hypocrisy, that they have even celebrated the end of Christian influence. For example, in 2015 Russell Moore wrote that the days of Bible-belt Christianity were essentially coming to an end, adding, “good riddance to them.” In his view, even things like “traditional family values” become suspect when practiced at large but without a primary motivation of obedience to Christ. This apprehension about cultural Christianity has surely contributed to the evangelical retreat from the public square.

A second cause of evangelical disengagement has been the out-sized influence of James Hunter Davison’s 2010 book To Change the World. Hunter identifies three “paradigms of cultural engagement” that are specific to contemporary, North American Christianity: ‘Defensive Against’ (typical of the fundamentalist conservatism of the Religious Right), ‘Relevance To’ (typical of the liberal mainline Religious Left, progressive evangelicals, the “seeker-sensitive” movement, and the “emerging church” movement), and ‘Purity From’ (typical of neo-Anabaptists, some evangelical conservatives, most Pentecostals and the “new monasticism”).  Following this analysis, Hunter provides his own proposal called ‘Faithful Presence.’ He sees the future of Christian power as “postpolitical” and writes: “It may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization.”  Although Hunter’s ‘Faithful Presence’ has been criticized as “too passive and concessionary,”  his analysis of the other three paradigms has been highly acclaimed, and his work was a major influence on Tim Keller. Through Keller’s ministry, Hunter’s “postpolitical approach” has shaped large swaths of evangelicalism. And despite his claims in the book that ‘Faithful Presence’ does not mean civic privatism, it’s hard to see how it would lead to anything else.

In the wake of these developments and the decline of Christian influence in the West, a question has crystallized: Should Christians use the civic sphere to actively promote a Christian lifestyle amongst people who are not all genuinely Christian? More and more, it seems that pastors and Christian leaders are answering that question in the negative, even when speaking of majority-Christian contexts.  Such an instinct, however, reflects a kind of neo-Anabaptism that is being selectively and inconsistently applied.

For example, I think nearly all Christians would say that the abolitionist movement was an unqualified good—regardless of whether slavery was abolished in obedience to Christ or not. Similarly, we recognize that pornography is destructive to communities and we believe that people will flourish more without it—regardless of whether the refusal of porn is made in God’s honor. And of course, we want both Christians and non-Christians to stop getting abortions, regardless of motive. Yet all of these are rooted in Christian beliefs and are therefore part of what might be called a Christian lifestyle. Without a coherent framework that accounts for how we want laws, culture, and society to be formed, convictions such as these can begin to feel arbitrary. Some political/societal action is celebrated, but other political/societal action is decried as Christian Nationalism. It’s all very ad hoc.

In a recent TGC video on Christian Nationalism (on the whole, an illuminating discussion), one of the exchanges well illustrates the problem I am describing. Bob Thune asks his fellow panelists about how our convictions on God, Christ, and the scriptures should inform our public policy. Andy Davis replies by contrasting how Christ’s Kingdom advances by martyrdom, whereas the kingdoms of the world advance with the sword. Here’s how the dialogue plays out:

Andy: “We seek to persuade. We seek to exemplify godliness. We seek to pray for people and be willing to lay down our lives. The government uses the sword, it’s what it’s designed to do. I’m uncomfortable with the marrying of those two.”

Bob: “But that doesn’t help me much if I’m a Christian who’s running for office or who’s on the school board or who’s on the city council. That’s where the question gets interesting to me: there’s a lot of people in our churches who can keep those two worlds separate, but there’s many who can’t . . . Taking that a step further, Andy, what would you say to someone who does have a responsibility to instantiate public policy in some way?”

Andy: [After a brief anecdote]... “That’s the challenge.”

Unfortunately, Andy is either unwilling or unable to elaborate. And yet, later in the video, he goes on to argue that competence in governance is vital. This dialogue highlights the problem facing evangelical leaders. Our initial responses to the complexities of the public sphere are often avoidant, pietistic, and quasi-Anabaptistic. And yet, contra Anabaptism, we do want at least some Christians to become competent public servants. Our selectively applied political disengagement is sending a confusing set of mixed messages and has created an ethical vacuum that the ambiguous term “Christian Nationalism” is now filling.


Theological Issues

The third area of interest that bears on the CN conversation is explicitly theological: eschatology and the Kingdom of God. We will consider them in turn.

Eschatology

In Reformed Theology, Michael Allen writes:

The real issue involved in the relationship of Christianity and culture, therefore, is the way in which eschatology and salvation relate. How does the redemption brought by Christ play itself out over the course of the plan of God? In what time and at what pace will these things happen?

What Christians believe about the end, and in particular the millennium, will strongly influence what they believe about Christians’ responsibility to change (or not change) culture in the present. In fact, it may be the most important theological belief that shapes one’s positions on political theology and CN.

Postmillennialism, in particular, teaches that Christians are to work for the transformation of society prior to Christ’s return and is generally connected to the Christian theonomy movement. Of the different views of the millennium, it is the most optimistic about cultural engagement, and therefore the most likely to align with proposals like Torba/Isker’s and Stephen Wolfe’s. (Anecdotally, most of the CN advocates I follow on Twitter are postmillennial.) In contrast, premillennialism, and in some cases amillennialism, tend to be more pessimistic about the present age and therefore less optimistic about the change that is possible. In the debates over CN, both pre-mill and post-mill adherents have pointed to these eschatological differences, though they present the issues differently.

Whereas postmillennialism may find a kindred spirit in Stephen Wolfe’s proposal, pop-dispensationalism is often connected to “pop-CN.” Daniel Hummell, author of The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism, observes that “under-theologized, pop-dispensationalism” has spread while “scholarly dispensationalism” has been in rapid decline. Under the influence of figures like John Hagee and Paula White, Christian political activism in the US has been “Pentecostalized.” However, that new activism is not classically dispensational, but heavily modified. It still maintains strong support for Israel, but does so without explicitly theological or properly eschatological underpinnings. It is beyond the scope of this paper to fully explore the evolution of dispensationalism in the US. The point I wish to make here is that the Wolfe/Torba flavor of CN is far more connected to the eschatology of Reformed postmillennialism than dispensationalism, despite appearances to the contrary, while “pop-CN” is loosely connected to a kind of pop-dispensationalism widely prevalent in the US.


The Kingdom of God

Tim Keller observes: “It is evident that one of the main reasons for many of the divergent approaches to cultural engagement—among many aspects of ministry today—is differing views of the nature of the kingdom.”  These differing views are partially a result of exegetical disagreement: what did Jesus mean when he spoke of the Kingdom of God?

RT France believes that the Greek word basileia should be translated as “reign,” “rule,” or “sovereignty” because the modern meaning of “kingdom” unhelpfully suggests a specific place or people group under the control of a king, such as The United Kingdom. It is worth quoting him here at length:

“The kingdom of God” is not making a statement about a “thing” called “the kingdom,” but about God, that he is king. Thus, “the kingdom of God has come near” means “God is taking over as king,” and to “enter the kingdom of God” is to come under his rule, to accept him as king . . . The classical debate among modern theologians as to whether the kingdom of God should be understood as already “realized” in Jesus’ ministry (Dodd) or still wholly future (Schweitzer) can thus be seen as a false trail. It is based on the wrong assumption that “the kingdom of God” denoted a particular time or state of affairs within history. Instead, the term is a dynamic expression for any and every situation in which God is king, his authority exercised, and his will done . . . As long as God continues to allow his world to resist his rule, so long will there be tension and paradox built into the language of the “kingdom of God.”

Based on these insights, a natural question arises: what, then, is the difference between the kingdom and the church? This is perhaps the most difficult of the many challenging questions related to the Kingdom of God. I will present two views.

Geerhardus Vos, in his book, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church, writes of the invisible church:

From what has been said it appears that every view which would keep the kingdom and the church separate as two entirely distinct spheres is not in harmony with the trend of our Lord’s teaching. The church is a form which the kingdom assumes in result of the new stage upon which the Messiahship of Jesus enters with his death and resurrection. So far as extent of membership is concerned, Jesus plainly leads us to identify the invisible church and the kingdom. It is impossible to be in the one without being in the other.

This is not to say no distinctions can be made between the invisible church and the kingdom (indeed, several can ), but Vos insists that the line that marks the boundary of both is regeneration, which corresponds to France’s understanding of the kingdom God.

Of the visible church, we can affirm that it is an expression or manifestation of the invisible kingdom, but it does not constitute the entire thing.  Vos says that whenever any sphere of life (art, science, etc) “comes under the controlling influence of the principle of the divine supremacy and glory, and this outwardly reveals itself, there we can truly say that the kingdom of God has become manifest.”  This means that both the institutional (visible) church and the individual Christian contribute to expressions of the Kingdom.

However, he asserts that Christ never intended that all spheres of life should be subject to the visible church: the church should not control the state. But what if those who control the state are regenerate? Vos continues:

“While it is proper to separate between the visible church and such things as the Christian state, Christian art, Christian science, etc., these things, if they truly belong to the kingdom of God, grow up out of the regenerated life of the invisible church.”

George Ladd presents an alternative view. In A Theology of the New Testament, he writes:

“The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and, derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced. In biblical idiom, the Kingdom is not identified with its subjects. They are the people of God’s rule who enter it, live under it, and are governed by it. The church is the community of the Kingdom but never the Kingdom itself. Jesus’ disciples belong to the Kingdom as the Kingdom belongs to them; but they are not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is the rule of God; the church is a society of women and men.”

He goes on to argue that not only is the church not the Kingdom, the Kingdom creates the church, the church witnesses to the Kingdom, the church is the instrument of the Kingdom, and that the church is the custodian of the Kingdom.

Taking a comprehensive view of the Kingdom, it would seem that it should include more than regenerated souls, unless we are to believe that the non-human part of creation is excluded. If only for this reason, I tend to side with Ladd.

But both theologians make important contributions here. We can agree with Ladd that the church and kingdom are not the same. Confusing them increases the probability that expressions of the kingdom (like Christians in positions of governance) automatically fall within the domain of the church. This is a slippery slope to a conflation of the church and state. But as Ladd acknowledges, neither the Kingdom nor the church can exist without the other.  Since the church is the instrument and custodian of the kingdom, the church and the church alone manifests the Kingdom. Thus, Vos’s point is still critical, that both the institutional church and the individual Christian participate in bringing the Kingdom to bear on the world. Keller makes this observation of Vos’s perspective:

“There is a tendency to see the kingdom as either strictly spiritual and operating within the church or mainly social and operating in the liberation movements out in the world. Vos’s biblical balance will enable us to avoid imbalances in the cultural engagement and missional church debates in particular.”

How we understand the Kingdom will surely influence how we seek to advance it in the public square. In theory, a country led entirely by Christians in accordance with Christian principles would be, in some sense, an expression of the Kingdom. (Thus, the question of whether a nation can be “Christian” is, ultimately, semantic.) I suspect this is something all Christians desire. What it should be called and how it should be pursued are the questions with which we’re grappling.

A final thought on eschatology and the Kingdom of God: as we have already said, “classical CN” is primarily linked to postmillennialism. However, that belief is inextricably linked to a very specific understanding of the Kingdom: “In postmillennial thought, the kingdom of God is viewed as a present reality, here and now, rather than a future, heavenly realm . . . Its growth will be extensive (it will spread throughout the entire world) and intensive (it will become dominant.)”  Much of what Torba and Isker, in particular, argue is based on a theological conviction that the gospel will triumph in this age because the Kingdom is slowly and steadily advancing. Though their views are couched in the language of “Christian Nationalism,” they are mainly advancing the logical conclusions of their theological beliefs.


Conclusion: Toward a More Robust Assessment of Political and Civic Engagement
As I said above, the Christian Nationalism that Perry and Whitehead defined (what I have called “pop-CN”) is deeply problematic. Idolatry is perhaps the gravest sin of the Bible, the “fundamental crime against Yahweh.”  Should God and/or the gospel become means to ends other than God’s own glory, then we know that idolatry of some kind is afoot. We are right to call such things demonic and judge them accordingly.

But I am also suspicious that everywhere the term CN is used, such syncretism has actually occurred. (We may reject the arguments for what I have called “classical CN”—but that does make it synonymous with the popular variant.) I am also nervous that evangelicals are being bullied out of the public square with injudicious accusations of Christian Nationalism. And I am concerned with our inability to articulate coherent strategies of cultural and political engagement.

My recommendation is that evangelical pastors and leaders, especially in the US, should develop their own views on political theology at a principled and foundational level rather than starting with the downstream issues. The rise of the conservative far-right (e.g., Stephen Wolfe) has been possible largely because of the evangelical retreat in these matters.

As a starting point, Brad East has provided a framework that is perhaps more helpful than either Niebuhr’s or Hunter’s for cultural engagement. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, East suggests four ways to interact with culture and points out that they are not mutually exclusive—sometimes we may need to use more than one at the same time. He identifies them as Resistance, Repentance, Reception, and Reform; for fuller descriptions of what he means by these terms, his essay is worth reading in its entirety. However, even the application of these concepts must be founded in some kind of political theology—and indeed it will be, whether that political theology be thoughtfully crafted or ignorantly assumed piecemeal.

It is likely that, within our movement, there is a wide spectrum of ideas and convictions about how Christians should participate in the public sphere and in culture change. Let’s work to determine our own views on these matters and give one another the best possible hearing. Let’s remember that some of our questions are ancient (e.g. the nature of the millennium) while some are quite recent in world history (e.g. how Christians should participate in democratic and constitutional republics).  And let’s also be cautious that we don’t use the term Christian Nationalism as a cheap insult for political views with which we disagree, or perhaps simply don’t understand. On this subject, in particular, we could use less heat and more light.

 

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Nihilism Without Nihilists

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"The first thing one must know about nihilism as a philosophical and cultural reality," says James Davison Hunter in Democracy and Solidarity, "is that it is not one thing. Rather, it is a cluster of themes that follow from the 'death of God' - or, more accurately, the death of all 'god-terms' - that for most of human history established within the cosmology and culture of societies certain ultimate, transcendent, and universal conceptions of truth, value and purpose." He lists them as follows:

1) Epistemological failure: the recognition that there are now no objective, knowable truths; that all claims to authoritative knowledge are without foundation; that ‘reason’ as an autonomous capacity independent of presuppositions or free from any vested interests is a fiction.
2) Ethical incoherence: the recognition that we are at ‘the end of the moral interpretation of the world’; that there are no absolute moral or ethical values, but rather that right and wrong, good and evil are, in the end, nothing more than vague constructs tied to social circumstances and emotional states.
3) Existential despair, which denies any intrinsic meaning or ultimate value or purpose to individual or social life.
4) Political annihilation, which manifests itself in a will to obliterate all that obstructs the will to power, a will to bring enemies to nothing, to destroy completely.

Put like this, Hunter adds, there are very few genuine nihilists. So why is nihilism so pervasive in Western culture, and specifically in American political culture? The answer will be familiar to readers of Hunter’s To Change the World: “culture has a life of its own more or less independent of people’s intentions or will, and it is most powerful when the meanings or rules by which people live are taken for granted ... For my purposes, passive nihilism is the net effect of large, institutional dynamics intrinsic to the modern world - its technology, its bureaucracy, its markets, its pluralism, its entertainment - unfolding in the public sphere.”

What Hunter calls “nihilism without nihilists” is exacerbated by the conditions of late modernity: “the profound confusion that derives from the sense of multiple realities and multiple ways of knowing, the relativization of value through pluralism and choice, the absence of authority and with it the sense of meaninglessness in life and history, the diminution of the moral worth of all human beings (though some more than others) through their instrumentalization, and the absence of clear, coherent and common purposes to which individual and collective life might be directed.”

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Why Identity Politics Flourishes in Late Modern Society

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"Identity groups are, in effect, compensatory," explains James Davison Hunter in his fascinating (if somewhat depressing) book Democracy and Solidarity. In the context of the late modern society that Hunter is describing, such groups represent

- “a means to power and influence in a world that has rendered average citizens powerless of the conditions of their existence,
- an assertion of distinctiveness in a world that tends to flatten or level all meaningful differences,
- the possibility for meaningful belief and purpose in a world that denies ultimate meaning and renders most beliefs a matter of mere taste,
- an anchor of certainty in a world of contingency,
- a way of belonging in a world that atomizes our existence even as it weakens the ties of local and organic community,
- a heartfelt plea for recognition and the dignity it confers in a world that cares very little for the individual personally and cares for you publicly only insofar as you perform the role that you play, and
- the hope of living a meaningful and significant life, a life that matters, in a world that makes most of us feel our lives are insignificant and inconsequential.

In sum, identity groups are compensatory networks that emerge in response to the dehumanisation endemic to the modern and late modern world.”

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Pursuing the Presence of God

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Last week I was in Houston for the Advance global conference. A highlight of the teaching was this session by Tope Koleoso on pursuing the presence of God. It is really wonderful.


All the other sessions are available here.

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Where Is the Greatness of God?

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What has been the most spiritually nourishing thing you’ve done in recent years?  For me, it would be reading and thinking more deeply about the doctrine of God. I’ve been really struck by how delving deeper into the doctrine of God has deepened my relationship with him in ways I didn’t expect.

A big theme I’ve been thinking about has been the greatness and otherness of God. It’s so easy for us to slip into thinking that God is basically just a better version of us. We forget that he is a fundamentally different kind of being; he’s not just a better version of us, but the most perfect version there could be of anything. He’s the creator of all and all else is the created. He’s the infinite, limitless one; we the finite, limited ones.

You might think that focusing on God’s greatness, his otherness and how different he is from us would make him seem more distant and inaccessible. And yet that hasn’t been my experience. It has been recognising and acknowledging God’s greatness and difference that has drawn me closer to him in recent months.

Focussing afresh on who God is, has reminded me of the depths of the wonder of the gospel. The fact it is the limitless creator who has reconciled us to himself through the sending of his Son and his Spirit makes the gospel even more incredible. Far from making God seem distant and inaccessible, recognising God’s greatness emphasises the wonder of the relationship we can now enjoy with him. The greatness of God doesn’t undermine the gospel, it underlines the gospel.

The greatness of God is also an encouragement and comfort. As we face challenges in life, knowing that the God who loves us and has adopted us as his own is a God who is without limits makes a huge difference. Nothing it outside of his control, nothing is too difficult for him, nothing is going to distract him or incapacitate him. He is the God who is in control of all things and yet is controlled by nothing. There is great comfort in recognising the greatness of God.

But my renewed appreciation of who God really is has also made me realise how often the greatness of God is missing. The focus of so many contemporary worship songs is on the impact of the gospel on us – that we are forgiven, free and loved. The same is probably true of much of our teaching. These are wonderful truths and things that we should celebrate and allow to fuel our heartfelt worship, thanksgiving and obedience. But they can also encourage us to look at ourselves. They draw our focus inward rather than upward, to ourselves rather than to God.

On the flip side, how often do we sing of who God is, of his otherness, and of how the gospel not only brings us many blessings but reveals to us the greatness of God? How often is the greatness of God, his total perfection and otherness the focus of our teaching? I suspect many of us who consider these questions will find there’s often an imbalance when we gather as God’s people.

Looking back now, I feel like I’ve been suffering from spiritual anaemia without even realising it. Sometimes it’s only when things begin to become more balanced that we realise how unbalanced they’ve been up until then.

Could such spiritual anaemia be a broader problem? Maybe. We may have lost the greatness of God. But the good news is that the God who is without limit does not change. His greatness hasn’t diminished even if we have failed to behold it. He there’s, the infinite, unchanging, uncreated creator. He’s waiting for us to rediscover who he really is, and as we do, we might just find that as our perception of God gets bigger, our relationship with him gets deeper.

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Joshua, Judgment, Genocide and Justice

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Gavin Ortlund has a superb YouTube video here on the conquest of Canaan. One of our strongest moral intuitions, he begins, is that killing innocent children is always morally wrong. So how can we accept the goodness of a God who commands Israel to kill (among others) innocent children? His answer is in two main sections, and is a wonderful example of how to approach questions like this carefully and thoughtfully:

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I’m Sorry

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Apologising can be difficult. Being British, ‘I’m sorry’, is a reflexive response in multiple situations. No one would confuse that with a meaningful apology though, much less an act of repentance.

I’d quite appreciate an apology from those who were critical about posts on this blog about the response to covid. The passage of time has demonstrated that, if anything, those posts were too equivocal and cautious. Pastor Sceptic was right. Not getting an apology won’t do me any harm though. It’s not damaging to me. But what of those things that are damaging? What should apology look like then?

One such example of damage is Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. In Britain’s Slavery Debt: Reparations now!, Michael Banner has written a compelling case for genuine apology to be made. When the idea of reparations for slavery is suggested (as it increasingly is) a number of typical objections arise, as expressed by fellow Cambridge academic Robert Tombs:

Precisely what damage today is to be repaired? Who are the victims now? Who alive in the 2020s is responsible for events in the 1720s? How can the monetary cost of remote harms be reasonably calculated? Would resentment be caused by the imposition of reparations? How damaging might that be to present society and to the relationship between payers and receivers? Could resources be better used to relieve urgent 21st-century needs, rather than to pay the distant heirs of long-dead victims?

These might seem insurmountable arguments but Banner deftly exposes their weaknesses and false presuppositions, as well as providing practical solutions. Previously I would have made similar arguments to Tombs but found myself being persuaded by the force of Banner’s reasoning.

Banner sees a biblical case for reparations in the example of Zacchaeus who paid back four-fold those he had wronged. This is an interesting case as at no point in the narrative does Zacchaeus articulate an apology: it is his actions that speak louder than words and Jesus commends him for it. Banner describes this as an example of ‘moral repair’ – it is an action that makes amends for past wrongs – and says that the UK should engage in similar action with the Caribbean nations.

Of course, in the case of Zacchaeus it his personal sin of which he repents and for which he makes restitution. How might this work in the case of the UK and Caribbean? I, personally, haven’t enslaved anyone and the UK as a whole has been opposed to slavery for the past two centuries. So in what way could or should we make apology for something not personally connected to us? Is this actually a mistaken view of the nature and purpose of repentance?

In response, Banner shows how the shame of slavery is ‘mine’ because Britain is ‘mine’.

To take pride in something is to suppose that, on account of it, I gain prestige, worth, and standing; conversely to feel shame regarding something is, in certain cases at least, to think that it somehow detracts from that prestige or standing. And these negative appraisals, like the positive ones, are appraisals of the self, so just as there needs to be some connection between me and the something of which I am proud, so too here. You probably couldn’t make much sense of my saying I feel ashamed of, let’s say, Russian atrocities in the Ukraine, since these are not ‘mine’ in any way you (or I) could fathom.

That, to me, seems to be a key ‘aha!’ insight. Contemporary Britons are not responsible for slavery, but its reality is part of our national story: it is ours. It is something of which we can rightly feel ashamed just as we can rightly feel pride in the abolitionists who fought against it. This means we can own the sins of our fathers while not being personally guilty of them. Banner illustrates this with the example of a stolen bike. Were I to discover that a bike I possessed in good faith had been stolen I wouldn’t be considered guilty for its theft. But I would have a responsibility to return it.

In the case of the Caribbean nations, clearly there was great harm done: the horrors of the middle-passage, the unspeakable nature of slavery on the plantations, and the extreme injustices that followed emancipation. Banner argues that these harms are evident, the consequences ongoing, and that we have a responsibility to make reparation. That reparation should include genuine apology – an owning of our fathers’ sins – and it should include financial restitution. Banner suggests linking this to the £20 million that was paid to slave owners as compensation when slavery was abolished. An equivalent sum (which he calculates at being somewhere between £105–£250 billion in today’s money) would be meaningful, and costly, but measured against total GDP (Banner says this is ‘about £20,000 billion’; the actual figure is £2.274 trillion - one less ‘0’ makes a significant difference!) not ruinous.

Banner recognises that at present making such reparations falls into the ‘ain’t never going to happen’ category, but is hopeful that might change. Afterall, there was a time when the abolition of slavery was in that same category.

Initially sceptical, I found myself increasingly persuaded of the rightness of the cause Banner espouses, and of the solutions he offers. (I have to declare an interest here as twenty years ago Michael was course tutor for my MA and very influential in shaping my thinking. Without him I might never have grappled with Augustine and Nietzsche, Vitoria and Marx. This predisposes me to find him convincing.) Some of my scepticism returned, however, towards the end of the book when he explains the actions of two institutions of which he is a member: Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Church of England. Both of these institutions have embarked upon a process of exploration of their historic involvement in slavery, a recognition and ‘owning’ of it, and an attempt to make reparation, including significant financial investment.

Yet this is the point at which the idea of reparations can start to feel somewhat odd – that institutions as liberal and egalitarian as Trinity and the CofE, whatever the actions of their forebears, should feel it necessary to apologise in the way they are doesn’t quite connect.

We also get into the complexities of how to assess those ancient sins in contemporary terms. For example, the Commissioners of the Church of England have committed £100 million in reparations, potentially rising to £1 billion, reflecting the funds they possess originating in the ‘Queen Anne’s Bounty’. This was a fund generated by the South Sea Company, which was active in the slave trade between 1714-1739.

Three hundred years on, though, it isn’t that easy to demonstrate the financial connection and the whole basis of the Commissioners sums has been called into question. As Robert Tombs summarises it, there is evidence that, ‘the Church Commissioners, with loud fanfare, have earmarked an enormous sum in reparations for a sin that was never committed out of profits that were never made.’

Calculating the extent to which the British economy profited overall from slavery is complicated and prone to very different interpretations. And the reality is that each one of us is most probably, somewhere in our family tree, both descended from slaves and slavers, those who opposed slavery and those who profited from it.

Against those realities the case for reparations can start to founder, yet that does not detract from the fact that very real harm was very evidently done to the people who were the victims of slavery. Perhaps, then, we should quibble less about the details and admit our responsibility. Perhaps it is time to say, with much more sincerity, meaning and empathy, I am sorry.

 

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Wine in Communion: Questions and Responses

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Following on from Wednesday's post on wine in communion, here are some questions, objections and answers to it, again by Alastair Roberts. Whatever your current practice, these are worth considering:

You take the use of particular elements far too seriously. What would you do, for example, in the case of a person with gluten intolerance?

There are occasions when it is perfectly appropriate to make exceptions. The problem comes when people use such valid exceptions to undermine or negate the rule. For example, the fact that some people might be physically incapable of kneeling does not excuse the rest of us from doing so.

What about people with allergies to wine or former alcoholics?

In the case of allergies to wine, it is worth pointing out that the allergy is generally to something other than the alcohol. In such instances I would suggest that it is probably best to serve an alcoholic, rather than a non-alcoholic, substitute. In the case of recovering alcoholics, much depends on the particular case. The vast majority of arguments against the use of wine in communion on account of alcoholism are utterly without foundation. Most former alcoholics can drink wine in communion without any problem. Even if a church chooses to provide a non-alcoholic substitute they should do so for that individual alone. Everyone else should be served alcoholic wine.

Those with scruples about the use of wine should not be catered for. If they won’t accept wine, then they will just have to go without. People with unscriptural scruples should not be encouraged in their errors. Unless there are strong individual reasons why a substitute is necessary, no choice should be offered. Those who unbiblical scruples should certainly not be permitted to hold the rest of the church hostage to their uninformed consciences. Besides, it really is not for the servant to decide what is served at his Master’s table.

The Scriptures are quite undogmatic about the type of bread that we use for the celebration of the Eucharist; doesn’t this suggest that we shouldn’t be that dogmatic about the use of wine?

The Scripture may be undogmatic about the type of bread that is used (although some would dispute that claim), but it makes clear that it must be bread. Likewise, we have considerable freedom in our choice of wine. We can celebrate according to the biblical pattern using red or white wine, sweet or dry wine, regular or fortified wine. It really is up to us. However, we are taught by Scripture to use wine, rather than anything else.

White wine?!

Why not? In a number of traditions, white wine has often been used for the celebration of the Eucharist. This is certainly not a novel or entirely unusual practice. The symbolism of the element does not rest primarily on the colour of the wine that is used. Many believe that the whole symbolism of the wine rests upon its being dark or reddish in colour, making it look like blood. On this basis they can justify replacing the wine with other dark or reddish liquids. I have attended churches where Ribena has been used in the celebration of the Supper. However, in Scripture the significance of the use of wine rests on details such as its being the fruit of the vine and being alcoholic.

Red wine is probably slightly to be preferred over white wine on account of its colour. However, this detail really is an adiaphoron. One benefit of using white wine would be that it would have the effect of shocking us out of unhelpful ways of viewing the sacrament. It is not there to be looked at, but to be drunk. The wine is not there to be a mere ‘picture’ of Christ’s blood, but to be received by faith as the gift of Christ’s blood itself.

Christ may have employed wine in His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. However, He also almost certainly used unleavened bread. Why make an issue about wine and not about the use of unleavened bread?

First, the type of leaven used in the ancient world was different from our yeast. Unless we use sourdough, our bread is technically unleavened.

Second, the Eucharist is not merely the fulfilment of the Passover ceremony, nor, in the NT, is it merely based on the Last Supper. Oscar Cullmann has argued, for example, that the Eucharist was seen by many within the earliest Church as some sort of continuation of the post-resurrection meals and was not merely based on the Last Supper.

Third, the use of leavened or unleavened bread has been a matter of heated debate in the past in Church history, principally between the Eastern and Western Church in the eleventh century. The Eastern Church used leavened bread, while the Western Church tended to use unleavened.

Fourth, leaven is not neutral in symbolism. The Scripture speaks of purging out old leaven to celebrate the feast, drawing on the pattern of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15-20; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). On account of this and the negative symbolic sense that leaven tends to have within the NT (Matthew 16:6, 11-12; Luke 12:1; Galatians 5:9), many have insisted that the Supper must be celebrated without it.

However, leaven is not purely a symbol of evil. At the Feast of Pentecost new leaven was used (Leviticus 23:17). Old leaven is cut off; new leaven is introduced. Jesus uses leaven as a positive image in one of His parables of the kingdom (Luke 13:20-21). Leaven symbolizes the hidden spread of the kingdom of God and its message. At Pentecost the new leaven of the Spirit was introduced. We are to cut off the old leaven of malice and wickedness and introduce the new leaven of the Spirit. The use of leavened bread highlights one dimension of biblical imagery, the use of unleavened another. There may be good reasons for using leavened bread on one occasion and using unleavened on another.

The use of leaven is an adiaphoron for good theological reasons. Such reasons are not present in the case of wine.

Your argument from scriptural symbolism notwithstanding, the Scriptures that God has given us nowhere explicitly teach that alcoholic wine must be used. In light of this, how can you say that the use of grape juice — which is clearly the ‘fruit of the vine’ — is against God’s instructions?

God has not just given us the Scriptures; He has also given us intelligence. God does not insult the intelligence that He has given to us by spelling out explicitly that which is clear to any careful reader.

As James Jordan has remarked, a good servant is attentive to the slightest gesture of his master. Only a bad servant needs to have explicit commands in order to do his master’s bidding. Only an evil servant seeks loopholes in the explicit commands of his master in order to avoid doing that which he knows deep down is his master’s will. If we truly are good servants we will immediately pick up on the fact that God wants alcoholic wine on his table and will act accordingly.

Should a common cup be used? Should individual cups be avoided?

I don’t think that the Scripture presents us with as clear an argument for the use of a common cup as many believe. I suggest that this is another adiaphoron. I am not even sure that there was a common cup at the Last Supper. There were a series of cups of wine drunk as part of the Passover celebration and it is possible that, rather than passing one cup around, the ‘cup’ referred to the particular serving of wine that they were about to drink as part of the celebration. The ‘cup’ would perhaps function like the way that a toast does in our celebrations. Each individual would have an individual cup. Passing around individual cups and drinking at the same time might therefore be closer to the original celebration.

What do you think about the practice of intinction?

The biblical pattern for the Eucharistic rite is really quite simple. Intinction is a practice that breaks with this biblical pattern. Intinction is also more unhygienic than the use of the common cup, a practice that many express health concerns about. The fact that high church Christians often follow this practice means nothing. High church Christians frequently get liturgy wrong and are not the pattern that we should be following.

What size should portions be?

Again this is an adiaphoron. However, I think that portions should ideally be a lot more substantial than they are in most churches. We are eating a meal. A larger hunk, rather than a miniscule morsel of bread would be nice. Also a larger glass of wine would help us to recognize that the Eucharist is not primarily about ideas, but about joy and celebration in the kingdom of God.

In your post you claimed that wine is a drink that is dangerous and that it takes maturity to partake in such a celebratory meal. How does this impact the arguments for paedocommunion?

Wine is dangerous and must be handled with maturity. This is a significant dimension of the symbolism. The Table of the Lord is a place of wisdom and not the table of fools (Proverbs 9:1-6). Young children are trained in wisdom by being taught to treat wine appropriately at the table of wisdom. The supervision of older and wiser persons ensures that young children do not learn to drink as fools drink. The wisdom and maturity that the table speaks of is not an individualistic matter, but something that is true of the congregation as a whole.

I am currently in a church that only serves grape juice. I am deeply troubled by this practice. What should I do?

Important as these things are, we need to beware of causing unnecessary division over them. God is gracious and does not judge us as harshly as we tend to judge each other. I can understand why this would be a difficult and sensitive issue for a pastor of a church to work through or a member of a church to live with. Even if you want to reform the church’s practice, you don’t want the sort of reform that tarries for no one. Reform needs to be taken slowly, in order to avoid unnecessarily alienating people. Reform is important and, if we are obedient we should be working towards it. However, there is a sort of unloving and impatient reform that actually causes great damage, despite its noble intentions. God gives us time to grow out of old practices and does not force us to change completely overnight (witness the significant overlap of the old and new covenants, for instance).

There are occasions when a strong line needs to be taken. Those who want the church to capitulate to their unscriptural scruples should not be pandered to. Although we must be patient and gracious in reform, we must also be persistent. We may reach a point where some people must be resisted, even if this results in their leaving for another church.

The reform that I primarily have in mind here is a gradually phasing out of the use of grape juice. In a church that resists the use of wine altogether, the issue may need to be addressed more forcefully. It is one thing to resist the use of wine for yourself. It is quite another to resist its being served to others.

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The Case for Wine in Communion

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Here is a robust, clear and (in my view) very compelling argument from Alastair Roberts in favour of celebrating the Lord's Supper with wine, rather than soft drinks. (I'll post some objections/questions, and his responses, on Friday.) See what you think, especially if you are remotely Eucharismatic:

The common practice of celebrating the Supper with grape juice or some other form of substitute for alcoholic wine is, to my mind, a serious departure from the biblical pattern. In the old covenant there were many different rites, each with detailed instructions. God expected His people to be faithful to His command and celebrate these rites precisely as commanded. Any departure from the instituted pattern was regarded as a very serious error.

It seems to me that many evangelicals have relegated this precise God, who expects to be obeyed in the details, to the OT when it comes to the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Even some conservative churches, who loudly proclaim their adherence to the ‘regulative principle’, tamper with the menu of the Eucharist. God has only given us a few simple new covenant rites and yet many churches seem determined to play fast and loose with His instructions.

What shocks me is that fundamentalist Christians are generally the worst offenders on this point. Fundamentalists, who are the most adept at ramming the Bible down people’s throats, are often the ones who treat the Bible with least concern when it runs counter to their prejudices. People who will loudly denounce anyone who holds to anything other than full submersion as the proper mode of Baptism will happily celebrate communion with Ribena. Whilst there are occasions when compromise might be appropriate (legitimate compromise does not, I believe, stretch to Ribena), in the vast majority of cases it is merely an unbiblical intolerance of alcohol that causes people to compromise. They nullify the Word of God by their tradition.

What’s the Supper all about?

At this stage some people might argue that I am missing the whole point. To insist on the use of alcoholic wine is to misunderstand the purpose of the Supper. The Supper is essentially about knowing communion in our individual hearts with God, as we meditate on what Jesus did at the cross. The outward elements of bread and wine are little more than pictures that help to draw our attention to the body and blood of Christ.

What such people forget is that the Supper is an inescapably physical ritual and cannot be reduced to a mere linguistic or mental reality. Without the elements there is no Supper. Without the physical act of eating and drinking of the elements in the assembly of God’s people there is no Supper. The danger inherent in many lowgrade forms of eucharistic theology is to reduce everything to the sursum corda. However, Jesus instructed us to ‘do this’, not ‘theologize about this’, ‘look at this’ or even ‘meditate on this’. That which He instructed us to ‘do’ was to eat bread and drink wine. The physical elements and the physical act of eating and drinking are absolutely essential. The Supper is primarily a public event and not merely a time of private communion with Jesus.

We should also recognize that, as many leading liturgical and biblical scholars have observed, the ‘remembrance’ that we are called to is not primarily the private and subjective bringing to mind of a past event, but a public memorializing (much as the Passover functioned in Israel). We should also avoid over-psychologizing the call for self-examination and discernment of the body.

A related, but more important, objection is that the Supper is inescapably public and ecclesial. The Supper is about communion, and not just communion with Jesus in the privacy of the human heart. The Supper constitutes the Church as one body. ‘Private communion’, quite apart from being somewhat oxymoronic, is patently unbiblical. The fact that it is, to all intents and purposes, practiced in many churches where people partake as if the Supper is just a ‘me and Jesus’ meal is extremely worrying and shows how far the eucharistic doctrine of many evangelicals has departed from the biblical pattern.

The Supper is only the Supper when it is performed by the Church of Jesus Christ. The Bible does not teach a merely functional ecclesiology, but presents us with a visible Church outside of whose walls there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. In 1 Corinthians 11 it is interesting to observe the manner in which Paul speaks of the ‘body’ of Christ. One verse He speaks of the sacramental body of Christ (the bread as Christ’s body); shortly after he speaks of Christ’s historical body (the body crucified for us); later he speaks of the ecclesial body (the body as the Church). Only by maintaining the close relationship between the three aspects of the body of Christ can we protect the Supper from the Scylla of becoming a mere mnemonic device (as it has become in a lowgrade evangelical form) and the Charybdis of becoming an extrinsic miracle (as in some extreme forms of transubstantiation).

The Supper is a memorializing meal that is celebrated by the assembled church and not a mere picture for individuals to meditate on. Consequently, the physical elements that constitute this meal are very important.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

By arguing for the validity of grape juice in the Supper, evangelicals have greatly reduced the significance of the Lord’s Supper. The Supper celebrated without wine is a radically distorted Supper, a Supper that is at risk of being entirely eviscerated. In many churches today, the Supper has become a time for people to put on funereal countenances and engage in sombre introspection, whilst meditating on how unworthy they are and how much it cost Jesus to pay the price for their sins. Whilst elements of the Supper instituted by our Lord are undoubtedly retained, the true character of the Supper is badly obscured.

Part of the problem is found in the fact that evangelicals often fail to appreciate that the theological meaning of the Supper is embedded in the concrete practice of it.

There is a world of difference between grape juice and wine. If you were arranging an important party and instructed a friend to go and buy some of the finest wine for your celebration, you would be appalled if he returned with cartons of grape juice instead. The character of a celebration can be considerably altered by the type of food and drink that is served.

I am a firm believer in the statement lex orandi, lex credendi. The manner in which we worship has a powerful effect upon our beliefs. If we consistently worship God falsely, we will be moulding our minds to believe in a false God. Arguably nothing is more urgently required in the Church today than a reformation of worship.

Many evangelicals today find it hard to believe in a God who would command His people to celebrate with wine and strong drink in His presence. They find it hard to believe in the God of Scripture (Deuteronomy 14:26). In place of this God they have created a god in their own image—an irascible and judgmental party pooper. This god would have us engage in morbid introspection and look melancholy at His table. This god is reluctant to have us too relaxed in His presence; we might forget that we are unworthy and sinful worms.

The problem is that for all too many evangelicals the Supper is not a joyful feast of memorial of Christ’s great victory over the powers in the assembly of the Church; rather, it is a time for dour individuals to contemplate their personal relationship with Jesus. It can look more like a funeral than a feast.

Stripping away the Symbolism

The phrase ‘fruit of the vine’ should not be read in isolation from the rest of Scripture. Christ’s institution of the Supper takes place against the backdrop of the Passover, OT prophecies of an eschatological feast, tithe feasts, drink offerings, sacrificial meals, images like that of Lady Wisdom’s feast (Proverbs 9:1-6) and an OT network of symbolism in which wine—the sabbath drink—plays a significant role as a symbol of judgment and blessing.

Wine is the drink that brings gladness (Psalm 104:15), wine is the drink of kings (Nehemiah 2:1), wine is forbidden to the priests because their work is not yet done (Leviticus 10:9); wine is also the drink of victors (Genesis 14:18). Wine is something that matures and is produced by man in time. It does not occur naturally.

The choice of wine was not primarily motivated by its colour, but by its place within a network of symbolism (although wine was certainly associated with blood in the OT). Besides, if we are going to rule out anything except the explicit command of Christ in the institution of the Supper we could just as easily celebrate communion with white wine (indeed, the blinkered literalist could celebrate with tomato juice; tomatoes are the fruit of a vine) as the colour is never expressly stipulated. Of course, whilst white wine or some other alcoholic drink would preserve far more of the meaning of the Supper than red grape juice, there are clear reasons to prefer red wine.

Most evangelicals presume that the alcoholic nature of wine is not an important part of the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper. I disagree. The symbolism attached with wine throughout Scripture plays much on its alcoholic quality. Wine is seen as that which distinguishes between fools and wise. Wine is dangerous and demands wisdom, power and maturity to control it properly. Cups of wine are symbols of judgment for this reason and kings are often associated with wine (we see a few cupbearers to kings in the biblical narrative).

Priests were forbidden to drink wine as their work was not yet done. I doubt if they would have been forbidden to drink grape juice. Jesus refused sour wine on the cross, as he had promised that He would not drink of the fruit of the vine until He had finished His priestly work and entered into His kingdom (Matthew 26:29). Grape juice damages this element of the biblical symbolism.

Wine emboldens and this imagery of wine emboldening for battle is used of both God and man in Scripture (Psalm 78:65; Zechariah 9:15). Wine is that which makes hearts glad, leads people to sing and loosens inhibitions. Grape juice does not have quite the same effect, at least in my experience. Wine is the sabbatical drink, the drink of feasting which men take to relax (e.g. Deuteronomy 14:26). It is therefore fitting that wine is associated with the Spirit in certain places in Scripture. Grape juice empties much of this imagery also.

The Bible is full of feasts of wine. Take Esther, for example. Or the eschatological feast in Isaiah 25:6. Or the marriage suppers. Or the victory feasts. Or the tithe feasts. Are we willing to sacrifice all of this biblical imagery associated with the Lord’s Supper on the altar of modern evangelical prejudices concerning alcoholic drink? We cannot exclude alcohol from the Lord’s Supper without losing much of the theological import of the celebration. Having grape juice at the Lord’s Supper is like having a vegetarian substitute at Passover.

New Testament Teaching

In addition to the OT background, I believe that there are certain other things that can be demonstrated from NT teaching. The Lord’s Supper should be more of a joyous feast than a sombre occasion. It is a foretaste of the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb and should, to some degree or other, be celebrated in a manner that brings this truth out. I believe that it is one of those occasions when we are called by God to ‘rejoice’ (like in Deuteronomy 14:26). We should encourage joy.

A further thing that we should encourage is fellowship. The Lord’s Supper is about communion—not just with God but with one another. If we go through the Lord’s Supper with grave faces and fail to fellowship with others, I believe that our celebration is woefully lacking. We are corporately memorializing the great victory of the Son of God over Satan, in which event the community of the Church sees its foundation; how can we not rejoice?

Few will deny that Christ used wine when He instituted the Supper. However, many argue that the wine of those times was considerably weaker, perhaps so diluted as to barely have any alcoholic content at all. Scholars have produced detailed word studies, trying to argue that the references to wine in the old and new testaments can include grape juice.

The persuasive power of such studies lies purely in the mind of those who want to rationalize their unbiblical practices with regard to the Lord’s Supper. It is patently clear in Scripture that wine is alcoholic and the alcoholic quality of wine is central to both its positive and negative uses. Those who focus exclusively on lexical studies often (willfully) lose sight of the fact that wine is given significance by its place within a system of symbolism; extract wine from this setting and its significance diminishes considerably.

I have yet to see someone explain how grape juice ‘makes the heart glad’ in the same way as wine does. Feasts are practically universally celebrated in scripture with some form of alcoholic drink. The fact that drunkenness is reported to have taken place at a number of biblical feasts suggests that, even if their wine was heavily diluted, they were drinking more than mere thimblefuls of it.

We should also remember that God did authorize the use of strong drink alongside wine in the tithe feasts (Deuteronomy 14:26); there is nothing wrong in principle with the use of stronger alcohol in communion.


The Tradition of the Church

Just about every aspect of the Lord’s Supper has been controverted at one point or another. There have been differences within the church on whether the wine should be mixed with water or not, or whether the issue was indifferent. There were differences between the azymites and the prozymites with regard to the kind of bread to be used. There have been differences over the legitimacy of intinction. The list could go on.

Nevertheless, with regard to the use of wine in communion, there has been a clear consensus throughout the church for well over 1800 years. The impetus towards change on this matter did not arise from some new biblical insight, but from cultural prejudices.

Other arguments

Some Christians bring up such passages as Romans 14 as reason for abstaining from wine in communion. There are weaker brothers and sisters who might be caused to stumble if wine were used in communion.

If anyone has a problem with strong alcohol in communion, it can be diluted. Besides, no one drinks enough communion wine to even get tipsy, let alone completely drunk. If a person in a congregation has a problem with the use of alcoholic wine I would suggest that it would be better for them to abstain, rather than change the biblical institution ...

The reference to wine in Romans 14:21 should be read in context. It is paralleled to v.17 and some have taken it as hypothetical. I do not. The instruction takes place within a particular cultural context in which Jews fasted on particular days and those who did not fast and abstain from wine on those days of fasting (cf. Luke 5:33f., 7:33-34) would possibly cause others to stumble in the young church in Rome. That fast days are prominent in Paul’s mind is clear from Romans 14:5-6. The idea that Paul is thinking of relativizing Christ’s institution for the Lord’s Supper is out of the question. We fast in order to prepare for feasts. The friends of the bridegroom cannot fast when the bridegroom is with them. Joyful celebrations of the Supper, using alcoholic wine, reinforce the truth of the Bridegroom’s presence on such occasions ...

Towards Reform

Many will argue that my position is simply impracticable. Members of churches will not accept a Lord’s Supper without a non-alcoholic option. To be absolutely frank, I don’t see that this should be a real issue. The real question is whether God accepts alcohol-free celebrations of the Supper.

I sympathize with the situation faced by leaders of churches who have large numbers of militant teetotalers in their congregations. However, I believe that such people need to be opposed. God does not want us to tinker with His instructions for the sacraments. We should be far more concerned with what God thinks than with what congregations think.

Change on such matters will undoubtedly be painful, but I do not think that we can see it as optional. If churches are more concerned with keeping congregations happy concrete steps will never be taken towards reformation on such controversial issues. Church leaders need to be prepared to bite the bullet on this matter.

The way that we worship has a powerful effect upon the way that we think about God. If we move away from the biblical form of worship we will move away from the biblical picture of God and of where we stand in relationship to Him. Checking downgrades in worship is, in my opinion, far, far more important than many evangelical and Reformed Christians are accustomed to think. The use of non-alcoholic substitutes for wine in the Eucharist represents just such a downgrade.

If there is one thing that Church history has taught us, it is that old habits of worship die very hard. Calvin pointed out about 450 years ago that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated weekly if we are to follow a more biblical pattern. Countless other theologians have said the same things since. Nevertheless, there is such a powerful inertia in churches that few pastors feel like pushing towards change on these issues. I believe that the leadership of churches needs to be far more proactive in the reformation of worship if we are to get anywhere.

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Men and Women in 1 Timothy

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We just had a fun discussion on the Mere Fidelity podcast on men, women, authenteo, didasko and 1 Timothy 2, in dialogue with Tom Wright, Andrew Bartlett and others. See what you think:
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Rejecting the Guilt of Unanswered Prayer

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When I was still single*, and had been for a long time, I often fell into the trap of thinking that God hadn’t sent me the husband I’d been asking him for because of some fault in me.

‘If only I was tall and slim with shampoo-advert hair,’ I thought, ‘then I’d be able to find a husband.’ Or maybe it was that I needed to pray more or be more generous or less selfish or…whatever it was.

I recognised this (eventually) as vending-machine Christianity – ‘If I just put the right things in and press the buttons in the right order, God will dispense what I want.’ It wasn’t until this week’s sermon at church, though, that I realised it could go by another name: guilt.

We’re just embarking on a new sermon series on unanswered prayer, based around Pete Grieg’s book God on Mute, and our guest speaker sought to help us reflect on disappointments in prayer in a healthy way.

Guilt wasn’t a word I had come across in this context before, but it made so much sense. Obviously we know that when a tragedy happens it is common for people to think ‘If only I had been there, this might not have happened,’ and to experience guilt in that way. Or, sadly, there can be the ‘Job’s comforters’ who assume guilt on the part of the person they are praying for, insisting that their illness must be due to some unconfessed sin in their lives. But this was not talking about those things. It was focussing on unanswered prayer in any context – in contexts like mine.

It is part of our fallen human condition, the speaker pointed out, that we want someone to blame when things don’t go the way we want. (That statement deserves significant reflection in itself, doesn’t it? It is so obviously true of the world we live in, and has been true ever since Adam claimed, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit…”, but I’d never really considered before that it was a consequence of the fall. But I digress…)

Unanswered – or perhaps we should say ‘ungranted’ – prayer is not immune from this impulse. If God doesn’t give us what we want, someone must be to blame.

Perhaps the most honest and clear-sighted people are those who hold God himself to blame. The Marthas and Marys who say, “If you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened” (John 11). They know God has the power to do anything, and that all outcomes are entirely in his hands, so if he hasn’t healed our relative, or got us the job we wanted, or provided us with a spouse, the fault is entirely with him. We can express this desperate disappointment without compromising our honour and respect for God, as Martha and Mary demonstrate, or we can allow it to eat away at the bedrock of our faith in him, and eventually fall away. Either response, however, recognises God’s sovereignty in the situation.

But then there are those who take the blame on ourselves. We feel guilty that we didn’t do more – that we didn’t pray persistently enough, or work hard enough, or diet well enough. We believe, deep down, that the situation is our fault.

In other words, we think we have – and we want to have – control over the situation, and by extension, the world. We think, in fact, that we are God.

If we feel any sense of guilt over an ungranted prayer, we are saying that the outcome was down to us and not down to God after all. Our prayers weren’t so much requests as commands, and if the robot didn’t process them how we intended, it must have been a programming error on our part. So we punch the buttons harder, or go away and try to fix the things we can control, to see if that makes it work.

The solution, as always, is humility and repentance.

We need to remember that God is God, and can answer our prayers however he likes. We must recognise that he knows best, and his plans are perfect – always and in everything. As a good Father, he will sometimes say no, even to things that seem good to us, and we have to trust him in that.

The final point of the sermon was also very helpful: “It’s not about you.”

That is so hard for us to grasp, as everything else in our world trains us to believe that we are the centre of our own universe, the star of our show. But we’re not. It’s not about you. God’s ways are for your good, but they are not for you. They are for him. For his glory. For his kingdom.

So how can you escape from the feeling of guilt over your ungranted prayers?

  • Repent: ask God to forgive you for forgetting that he is God and you are not.
  • Rejoice: choose to find your joy and delight in the Lord, and not the gifts you wish he would give you. Praise him until you feel like it.
  • Re-focus: look to the needs of others. Love your neighbour.

As you reorient your gaze from yourself to your heavenly Father and his other children, you will find your ungranted prayer shrinking back to its proper perspective. That doesn’t mean pretending not to mourn your lack or loss, or putting a brave face on things. It simply means holding those things in their rightful place, and living without the burden of trying to be God.

 
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*Status update: I am no longer contentedly single, but now contentedly married. See this post for the story. For more on how to learn contentment when living with ungranted prayers, check out my book If Only (written as Jennie Pollock). The sermon recording is available on the TVBF website now.

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Online Relationships: Quantity Versus Quality

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Here are three short insights on the way our increasingly online world pushes quantity over quality when it comes to relationships. First, here's a hilarious rant from David Mitchell on why he never joins WhatsApp groups:

Second, here’s Freddie deBoer:

If we’re dividing the hours of the day and our mindshare between more and more relationships relative to the past, we’re almost certainly investing less in each individual relationship. Digital substitutions for real-world social engagement reduce the drive to be social but don’t satisfy emotional needs ... I think this created a really powerful trap: this form of interaction superficially satisfied the drive to connect with other people, but that connection was shallow, immaterial, unsatisfying. The human impulse to see other people was dulled without accessing the reinvigorating power of actual human connection.

And third, here’s Jonathan Haidt in his brilliant new book The Anxious Generation:

When everything moved onto smartphones in the early 2010s, both girls and boys experienced a gigantic increase in the number of their social ties and in the time required to service these ties (such as reading and commenting on the posts of acquaintances or maintaining dozens of Snapchat “streaks” with people who are not your closest friends). This explosive growth necessarily caused a decline in the number and depth of close friendships ... This is the great irony of social media: the more you immerse yourself in it, the more lonely and depressed you become.

Let There Be Light

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This half hour documentary on the abuse that took place under Mike Pilavachi, and what the church can learn from it, is worth half an hour of your time (especially if you are in pastoral leadership). Matt and Beth Redman tell their story, with helpful additions from Amy Orr-Ewing, Chi-Chi Obuaya and Diane Langberg. It is difficult to watch in places, especially for those who (like the Redmans) have loved Mike and benefited from his ministry, but it has a number of important lessons for the church in general and leaders in particular, especially in the final five minutes. In the circumstances, it serves as a helpful application of 1 Timothy 5:19-21: "Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism."

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The Early Church Did Not Have an All-Male Leadership

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Deaconesses performed a great variety of services. They assisted in the burial and baptism of the women. They instructed the women, especially the women catechumens. They cared for sick women at home, visited the poor, and informed the bishop and elders about the condition of the people. Deaconesses were intermediaries between the women and the heads of the community, often presenting the needs of the women to the bishop. Finally, in some communities they presided over the women's section of the assembly.

In order to understand the full significance of the position of deaconess in the early Christian community, one must understand how it relates to the positions of deacon and elder. First, the deaconess was a female deacon. As the Didascalia Apostolorum states, the deaconess, like the deacon, is chosen to work under the bishop as a helper. They are both servants of the community and serve as extensions of the bishop, acting under his direction ...

Like the deacon, the deaconess held a recognised position within the Christian community. Like the deacon, she was not one of the heads of the community but served as an extension of the bishop and elders ... In short, the deaconess can properly be seen as the female position corresponding to both that of elder and deacon. She performed services that both elders and deacons performed. Although the deaconess never bore the authority or independent responsibility of an elder unless caring for an all-female group, she was in certain respects the female elder of the community.

The history and development of the position of deaconess (and widow) in the earl Christian community is complex and uncertain. However, a few key facts stand out clearly. There was a recognised position of leadership for women in the early Christian community, stemming probably from New Testament times, but certainly from within a century afterwards. The deaconess may have performed somewhat different functions at different times and places, but with the widow she performed an important role of leadership in the community, especially among the women, and held an honoured place. The early church did not have an all-male leadership, as has been common in much of the Western church in more recent times.

- Stephen Clark, Man and Woman in Christ, 120-122

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Finding the Edge in Preaching

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"Good preachers find the edge," says Trevin Wax. That's one of the key differences between a spicy sermon and a bland one. It is all too easy to be worthy but dull, biblical but boring, exegetically faithful but culturally unengaged. If we consider the examples of the latter we have heard, the chances are that they will be sermons that lacked what Trevin calls "the edge."

Here’s what he means by that: “How does this biblical text—its world of assumptions, attitudes, and application—cut against the grain of what passes for “common sense” in our world? Where’s the encounter or confrontation of this text with worldly ways of thinking and living? Where’s the sharp point of contradiction? Find the edge. The world says one thing; the Bible says another. Don’t stop planning your sermon until the edge is clear.”

Trevin gives an illuminating example of a sermon (of his) on the Lord’s Prayer that lacked the edge. Its early draft was fine; it was true, clear, well-structured and theologically sound. But it wasn’t very interesting. It didn’t say anything that most of the listeners didn’t already know, and nor did it say it in a way that they would find fresh, let alone electrifying. So he rewrote it, looking for the edge. He began with the question: “How does this line cut against the common sense of the world or the current practice of the church?” For example:

- How does praying to our Father expose our overly individualistic understandings of the Christian faith?
- How does the picture of him being in heaven reveal popular misunderstandings of heaven and earth and how they relate?
- What does it mean to pray for God’s name to be hallowed in a world where most people believe the purpose of life is to see one’s own name magnified?
- How does praying for daily bread stand out in a world that prizes independence and self-reliance?

Tim Keller was an expert at this. As Trevin points out, Keller identified five major narratives in our culture that the Scriptures regularly challenge, and regularly incorporated them into his own preaching: (1) rationality, (2) history, (3) society, (4) morality, and (5) identity. But this did not make him—and it should not make us—preachers who rail against the culture while leaving our own idols untouched. Rather, it made him—and it should make us—preachers who allow Scripture to challenge the falsehoods, assumptions and ideologies that percolate throughout our culture, including within our churches, workplaces and homes.

It’s a great piece. Read the whole thing here.

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The Glory of Easter

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On Wednesday I was at a recital of Bach’s Easter Oratorio. At Easter there is a lot of Bach about, and – if classical music is your thing – it is joyous.

Bach is my thing, but quite apart from the glorious music, sitting in a concert hall with 1,500 other people hearing a 150-strong choir (the excellent Bournemouth Symphony Chorus) belt out these words was certainly a thing:

Praise and thanks let us sing to Christ the King.
Death’s domain for us was broken,
When Hell’s gates He did destroy.

Glorious things shall now be spoken
Here on earth, in hymns of joy.
Then fling wide the gates for the King ever glorious.
The lion of Judah has risen victorious!

The strife is o’er, the battle done;
Now is the Victor’s triumph won;
O let the song of praise be sung.
Alleluya!

Death’s mightiest powers have done their worst,
And Jesus hath his foes dispersed;
Let shouts of praise and joy out-burst.
Alleluya!


Yes! Alleluya! Welcome to the wonder of Easter weekend.

 

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On International Women’s Day

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On International Women’s Day we are invited to, imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. In his Theology of the Body John Paul II helps us to see the theological roots of why the relationships between men and women are not as they were intended to be:

Like the words of Genesis 2:24, these words have a future-oriented character. The incisive formulation of Genesis 3:16 seems to concern the whole complex of the facts that in some way came to light already in the original experience of shame, but were later to become clear in the whole inner experience of “historical” man. The history of human consciousness and human hearts was to confirm repeatedly the words contained in Genesis 3:16. The words spoken at the beginning seem to refer to a particular “reduction” of woman in comparison with man. But there is no reason why one should understand this reduction as social inequality. Rather, the expression, “Your desire shall be for your husband, but he will dominate you,” immediately indicates another form of inequality that woman was to feel as a lack of full unity precisely in the vast context of union with man to which both were called according to Genesis 2:24.

The words of God-Yahweh “Your desire shall be for your husband, but he will dominate you” do not speak only about the moment of union between man and woman, when both unite so as to become one flesh (see Gen 2:24), but they refer to the wide context of relations of conjugal union as a whole, including indirect relations. For the first time the man is here defined as “husband.” In the whole context of the Yahwist narrative, the words of Genesis 3:16 signify above all a breach, a fundamental loss of the primeval community-communion of persons. This communion had been intended to make man and woman mutually happy through the search of a simple and pure union in humanity, through a reciprocal offering of themselves, that is, through the experience of the gift of the person expressed with soul and body, with masculinity and femininity —“flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23) —and finally through the subordination of such a union to the blessing of fruitfulness with “procreation.”

It seems thus that in the words addressed by God-Yahweh to the woman, there is a deeper echo of the shame that both began to experience after the breaking of the original covenant with God. Here we find, moreover, a fuller motivation for such shame. In a manner that is very discreet but nevertheless decipherable and expressive enough, Genesis 3:16 attests how that original beatifying conjugal union of persons was to be deformed in man’s heart by concupiscence. These words are directly addressed to the woman, but they refer to the man, or rather to both together.

…Genesis 3:7 [shows] that in the new situation, after the breaking of the original covenant with God, man and woman did not find themselves united with each other, but rather more divided or even set against each other because of their masculinity and femininity. By highlighting the instinctive impulse that had made them cover their bodies, the biblical account describes at the same time the situation in which man as male or female—before then it was rather male and female—senses himself more estranged from the body as from the source of original union in humanity (“Flesh from my flesh”), and more set against the other precisely on the basis of the body and of sex. This antithesis neither destroys nor excludes the conjugal union willed by the Creator (see Gen 2:24), nor its procreative effects; but it confers on the realization of this union another direction that was to be the one proper to the man of concupiscence. This is precisely what Genesis 3:16 speaks about.

The woman, whose “desire shall be for her husband” (Gen 3:16), and the man, whose response to this desire, as we read, is to “dominate [her],” form without any doubt the same human couple, the same marriage as in Genesis 2:24, even the same community of persons, but nevertheless they are now something different. They are no longer only called to union and unity, but are also threatened by the insatiability of that union and unity, which does not cease to attract man and woman precisely because they are persons, called from eternity to exist “in communion.” In the light of the biblical account, sexual shame has its deep meaning, which is connected precisely with the failure to satisfy the aspiration to realize in the “conjugal union of the body” (see Gen 2:24) the reciprocal communion of persons.

All of this seems to confirm under various aspects that, at the root of the shame in which “historical” man has become a participant, there lies the threefold concupiscence about which 1 John 2:16 speaks: not only the concupiscence of the flesh, but also “the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life.” Does not the expression about “domination” (“he will dominate you”, about which we read in Genesis 3:16, indicate that third form of concupiscence? Does not domination “over” the other—of man over woman—essentially change the structure of communion in interpersonal relations? Does it not transpose into the dimension of this structure something that makes an object out of a human being, an object in some sense concupiscible for the eyes?

These are the questions that spring from reflection about the words of God-Yahweh according to Genesis 3:16. Spoken on the threshold, as it were, of human history after original sin, these words reveal to us not only the external situation of man and woman, but allow us also to penetrate into the interior of the deep mysteries of their hearts.

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Stop Talking About It. You’ll Feel Better.

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The WEIRD world has a problem. This is how Abigail Shrier encapsulates it in her new book, Bad Therapy: Why the kids aren’t growing up:

With unprecedented help from mental health experts, we have raised the loneliest, most anxious, depressed, pessimistic, helpless, and fearful generation on record. Why?
How did the first generation to raise kids without spanking produce the first generation to declare they never wanted kids of their own? How did kids raised so gently come to believe that they had experienced debilitating childhood trauma? How did kids who received far more psychotherapy than any previous generation plunge into a bottomless well of despair?

It’s an important question and the answer Shrier gives is the title of her book: bad therapy. Her argument (and be prepared, it’s a polemic) is that we have been suckered by a therapeutic worldview: that all our therapeutic parenting, therapy, counselling, and drugs have made things worse, not better. But because we are so enthralled to the worldview our response is to try and solve the problem by adding ever more therapeutic parenting, therapy, counselling, and drugs.

The issues Shrier is grappling with are relevant for us all, not least Christian parents and those in pastoral ministry. The greatest danger that I perceive in the therapeutic worldview is its tendency to drive us towards narcissism. We are too easily too consumed with the self, something the Bible warns us against explicitly (2 Tim 3:1-5).

This curving in on the self is dangerous spiritually, as it turns us away from God. It is also dangerous personally, as the evidence clearly suggests that the more time we spend thinking about ourselves the less happy we become. And it is dangerous to community as, by definition, it prevents us from thinking about the wellbeing of others. Shrier illustrates this last point:

About a year ago, I was on a flight, seated behind an American family of four – two parents and two little girls. Mid-air, the girl who was about eight let out a protracted scream so shrill, my eardrums felt like they’d been pierced by a sharp object.
Her father, red-headed and bearded, a gentle giant, attempted to calm her down. He asked her what was wrong. He inquired about the reason for her anger toward her younger sister. He told the younger one not to pinch or whatever she had done. He urged them to reconcile.
He never once mentioned the other passengers on the plane. He didn’t tell either of those girls that when they cried out, they might be disturbing ninety other people. He never mentioned that we were all sharing this space in the air, and we all had a job to do: be good neighbors for the length of the trip. He never troubled his daughters with thoughts of us.

If you are committed to the therapeutic model of parenting you might find this illustration offensive. It’s a very practical one though, and it applies in churches every Sunday, when an entire congregation have their attention torn from worship and the Word by the child whose parent has failed to teach them to be a good neighbour. (A recent post on the TGC site helpfully explored the pros and cons of gentle parenting.)

A plane, or a congregation, being disturbed by an unboundaried child is one thing; more disturbing is the damage being done to an entire generation by bad therapy. Our relentless expectation is that our children should always be happy, yet all we do to try and achieve this can perversely have the opposite effect:

According to the best research, we have it all backward. If we wanted our kids to be happy, the last thing we would do is to communicate that happiness is the goal. The more vigorously you hunt happiness, the more likely you are to be disappointed. This is true irrespective of the objective conditions of your life.

As Christians we know that true happiness comes when we forget ourselves, not focus on ourselves. It is in the moment of absorbed focus on something outside ourselves – something bigger and better than us – that we feel most complete. This is why it is as we give ourselves in worship to God that we find our greatest joy and integrity. It is when we really ‘lose ourselves’ in wonder at the Saviour and what he has done that we truly find ourselves (Matt 16:25).

The therapeutic worldview takes a different approach from this self-forgetfulness. It calls us to constantly monitor ourselves, to be permanently alert to our feelings and state of happiness, but this tends to make us more anxious and depressed! As one professor of psychiatry told Shrier:

If you track a person’s emotions over the course of a day or even a week happiness is actually a very rare emotion, statistically speaking. Of our sixty-thousand wakeful seconds each day, only a tiny percentage are spent in a state we would call “happy.” Most of the time we are simply “okay” or “fine,” trying to ignore some minor discomfort: feeling a little tired, run down, upset, stressed out, irritated, allergic, or in pain. Regularly prompting someone to reflect on their current state will—if they are being honest—elicit a raft of negative responses.

These negative responses are made worse when we insist that everyone talk about them the whole time. Rather than letting it all hang out, not talking about it might help more. Some repression might actually be better for us.

“Really good trauma-informed work does not mean that you get people to talk about it,” physician and mental health specialist Richard Byng told me. “Quite the opposite.”
Byng helps ex-convicts in Plymouth, England, habituate to life on the outside. Many of these former prisoners endured unspeakable abuse as children and young adults. And yet, Byng says, the solution for them often includes not talking about their traumas.
One of the most significant failings of psychotherapy, Byng says, is its refusal to acknowledge that not everyone is helped by talking about their problems. Many patients, he says, are harmed by it.

Rather than go with the therapeutic flow Shrier urges parents to be parents. Her recommendations for how to do so: Parents are the true experts on their kids, and are in it for the long haul – rather than contracting parenting out to ‘experts’ who have a vested interest in keeping the therapy wheel spinning. Put boundaries in place around behaviour – be authoritative. Don’t allow kids to have smart phones, ‘knowing full well that they are linked to a rise in depression, anxiety, and self-harm’. Allow kids more autonomy – don’t track and monitor and supervise them the whole time: let them create their own play. Don’t put them on medication. Don’t go diagnosis hunting.

The challenge here is that even if you agree with Shrier’s conclusions, it is almost impossible for our solitary actions to make much difference. When the whole world is therapeutically shaped (count up how many times you’ve heard the phrase ‘mental health’ today) taking away your daughter’s iPhone isn’t going to remove her from all the other therapeutic influences that surround her. It’s the water in which we swim.

I’ve been on both sides of this. A couple of my own kids have had extensive therapy for significant mental health issues. I’ve also seen the reality of bad therapy and the harm that has done to people. It’s complicated, but surely, in our churches we have the opportunity to do things differently – and better. It’s not going to be easy but it has to be possible for a Christian community to come to unified resolution about how to handle these things, together.

That would mean things like an agreed level of boundary setting for children (and that parents will be shepherds rather than sheepdogs). It would mean agreed habits around the use of phones (perhaps an annual youth camp at which they are banned – and times when the adults leave them behind too. Who really needs a phone with them in a church service?). It would mean allowing pastors to pastor, and not be relegated to a position of less qualified therapist. It would mean agreeing that the gospel is where we find a better hope and salvation.

Our world has come to believe that ‘therapeutic’ always equals ‘good’ but there is plenty of evidence pointing the other way. If it doesn’t help the kids grow up, then therapy is bad.

 

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Five Lies

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This book will make you scream, or at the very least curl your toes. I can almost guarantee it.

Rosaria Butterfield’s latest, Five Lies of our Anti-Christian Age, is a no holds barred evisceration of five contemporary assumptions: Homosexuality is normal; Being a spiritual person is kinder than being a biblical Christian; Feminism is good for the world and the church; Transgenderism is normal; Modesty is an outdated burden that serves male dominance and holds women back.

Butterfield doesn’t start gently and I imagine many will stumble before making it through the introduction. It is worth persisting though. Her arguments should be engaged with. At every point she is erudite, biblically focussed, and the narrative is cast against the background of what she once was: a feminist lesbian professor of English, who ‘helped create this world’.

The closing anecdote gives a flavour of what Butterfield is doing in this book: seeking to be uncompromising, accepting while not approving, sympathetic rather than empathetic, hospitable, biblical, and faithful. In this story she manages to combine clever apologetics, Kuyperian sphere sovereignty, and tight biblical application. It is worth reproducing in full:

Here at the Butterfields’, the gospel still comes with a house key. Let me give you a recent example.

One Lord’s Day morning, early, during the height of the Covid frenzy in 2021 and directly after vaccine mandates were leveled, I was heading out the side door with my two dogs in tow, Bella the Shih Tzu (50 percent dog, 50 percent stuffed animal), and Sully the goofy three-legged dog (75 percent dog, 25 percent plucky comic relief). My older neighbors Bill and Jason were waiting for me at the end of the driveway, with their elegant poodle Trixie.

Bill jumped right in: “I want to know why you Christians don’t believe in the vaccine! Don’t you believe in loving your neighbor?”

Bill and Jason have been in a homosexual relationship for thirty years. As Bill was talking, Jason was holding his cigarette at the left corner of his mouth so that he had two free hands to adjust Trixie’s halter. After the halter met his approval, he allowed Trixie and Sully their special quality personal-sniffing time.

“Bill, I have a question for you,” I countered.

“Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s during our other pandemic, how come gay men rejected wearing condoms? Didn’t you love your neighbor? Or even your sex partners?”

Jason’s mouth opened like a fish on a line and his cigarette fell to the ground.

It was early, around 6 a.m., and maybe they weren’t expecting the word condom to come out of the pastor’s wife’s mouth. Or sex partners. Or both. Who knows?

Bill exhaled deeply. “I never made the connection. Jay, she’s right. Remember [AIDS activist] Larry Kramer supported condoms but most of us thought he was selling out.” Jason recovered and said, “And Kramer was right. So many more of us would have lived.” He choked a little, cleared his throat, and said, “All the funerals. All the young men in the prime of life. That could have been us, Bill—” his voice trailed off. In hoarse whispers he blurted: “It should have been us.”

We walked in respectful silence until we turned the corner, each lamenting in our own life the toll taken by AIDS.

“Do you want to know why some Christians reject the vaccine and why some gay men rejected condoms? Do you want my opinion?” I offered softly, breaking the silence.
My neighbors nodded.

“Because everyone wants freedom to exercise their conscience. For Christians, that freedom comes from the Bible—”

Jason rebuked me, “Oh, sure, like the Bible has anything to say about vaccines! Or freedom!”

“The Bible has everything to say about freedom as well as making health choices, because the Bible has everything to say about spheres of authority”

“Huh? The Bible?” offered Bill.

“Absolutely. The Bible offers spheres of authority: the family, the church, and the civil government. Health decisions are under the jurisdiction of family. The government has the right to issue taxes but can’t tell the church how to serve the Lord’s Supper. And the church has the authority and responsibility to proclaim the gospel to all the nations, warning people about sin, calling them to repentance, and sharing the good news about eternal salvation through Christ, who covers the sin of his people with his atoning blood. You might miss the whole discussion about spheres of authority if you fail to read the Old Testament, but I believe that the whole Bible is true. The church can’t be the government and the government can’t be the family and—”

“Preach it, sister,” said Jason, a retired public-school teacher. His last years of teaching made him feel more like a social worker than a math specialist. He hated that. Jason loved his job when he could actually teach math and loathed his job when all he could do was plug holes of family neglect.

We were heading back into our neighborhood, and my house was right around the next corner.

“So, gentlemen, you answered your own question. Getting the vaccine or not getting the vaccine, wearing a mask or not wearing a mask - it’s a personal choice, not a sin and not a grace. Some Christians reject the vaccine because they are exercising their biblical authority over their health care over their bodies. Everyone wants freedom, and Christians find their freedom in the Bible. When gay men rejected condoms, that was an exercise in freedom. The question is this: Where does our freedom come from – our personal feelings or something greater? Which freedom is safe, and which is not?”

We stopped at my driveway. Sully and Trixie gave each other one last sniff. We all looked in each other’s eyes with love and care.

“I never know what is going to come out of your mouth,” Bill said.

I decided that morning to take Bill’s comment as a compliment.

“I want to talk more about this,” offered Jason.

“Maybe tonight’s dog walk, we can pick up where we left off?” he asked.

“It’s a plan,” I said.

I hope that story encourages you to read the rest of the book, but don’t say I didn’t warn you: there will be things you don’t like.

Butterfield is a theological conservative, an Orthodox Presbyterian. She believes in male leadership in the church and home; she believes husbands are to lead and wives are to be domestically focussed (a home schooler all the way): ‘husbands lead, protect, and provide, and wives submit, nurture, and keep the home’. She is unapologetic in her takedown of the likes of Preston Sprinkle and Wesley Hill and what she sees as their selling out to the lies of our age. Butterfield is uncompromising. Issues like attending a gay wedding, what pronouns to use, or whether ‘gay Christian’ is a legitimate identity receive short shrift.

But press on…

It’s worth engaging with Butterfield’s distinctions between acceptance and approval, sympathy and empathy. (‘Empathy is dangerous because if the highest form of love is standing in someone else’s shoes, no one is left standing in a place of objective truth. If someone is drowning in a river, jumping in with him may break up his loneliness, but having two drowned people produces an even greater problem.’)

Her claim that, ‘The sin of transgenderism is actually the sin of envy’ is an angle I hadn’t previously considered, and worth considering.

And her own story is remarkable, a truly unlikely conversion.

You might not like it, but you should read it.

 

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Is Male Headship in Marriage a Dangerous Idea?

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A lot of people believe that the doctrine of male headship & authority in the home is a dangerous idea that inevitably leads to the oppression of women. Are they right?

The answer is not straightforward.

In her book, The Toxic War on Masculinity, Nancy Pearcey describes two contrasting pieces of evidence on this subject from a US context. On the one hand, she shows that,

Compared to secular men, devout Christian family men who attend church regularly are more loving husbands and more engaged fathers. They have the lowest rates of divorce. And astonishingly, they have the lowest rates of domestic violence of any major group in America. (p.15)

In other words, on average, devout Christian men are better husbands than secular men. She then goes on to show an astonishing contrast:

Surprisingly, research has found that nominal Christian men have the highest rates of divorce and domestic violence – even higher than secular men. (p.15)

Here, ‘nominal’ means a person who identifies as Christian because of their background, but rarely goes to church. The research about such men is tragic and woeful:

They spend less time with their children, either in discipline or in shared activities. Their wives report significantly lower levels of happiness. And their marriages are far less stable. (p.37)

If devout men make the best husbands, then nominal Christian men make the worst. How can we explain that? 

When a man is truly surrendered to Jesus, then he understands his role as head of the home in a radically Christ-centred way. Having authority is in itself neither a good nor bad thing, neither safe nor dangerous in itself. The issue is what you do with that authority. And when a godly man understands his position of responsibility, and then interprets that authority by looking at the example of Jesus, then he seeks to follow that example in the power of the Spirit by laying down his life for his wife and children.

But when a man cherry-picks his theology by embracing male headship, but denying the demands of Christ to die to himself and live a life of surrender, then he becomes dangerous. He’s like a toddler playing with a weapon: He has power but no clue how to use it. In his selfishness and self-centred desires, he ends up abusing his authority and harming those nearest to him. He becomes a brute and a bully, grunting about his God-given rights and privileges, wielding his superior strength and stature to harmful ends, and wreaking destruction in his wake. He reads his Bible ‘through a grid of male superiority and entitlement’ and then manipulates its teaching ‘to justify [his] abusive behaviour’ (p.37).

And this is, in the microcosm of the family, the story of the world. It’s the story of divine power, might, and authority invested in humanity as the pinnacle of creation. Then of that power wielded to the oppression of one another and of the earth itself. But finally, it’s the story of that calling to rule being redeemed in Christ Jesus, the selfless husband of his people, and gracious Lord of his creation. Maranatha! Our Lord, come!

This post first appeared at Grace London.

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When a Baby is a Disease

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Everyone know that an unborn baby is a baby. Most would not go as far as the State of Alabama, with its ruling that frozen embryos are children, but certainly by the time a woman knows she is pregnant what is in her womb is clearly a baby.

This reality received further confirmation last week with the government decision that those who lose a baby through miscarriage before 24 weeks can now receive a baby loss certificate. ‘Campaigners said they were “thrilled” that millions of families would finally get the formal acknowledgement that their baby existed.’ Baby.

We are confused about babies though. A recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics makes the case that being pregnant should be viewed in terms of disease. In such a framework language shifts substantially from ‘baby’ to, ‘Like a disease, pregnancy is caused by a pathogen, an external organism invading the host’s body.’

The goal of this is to reframe how pregnant women are regarded and the services they can access:

Pathologising pregnancy could, in fact, lead to better treatment for women. If pregnancy is construed as a disease and access to contraception and abortion as preventive medicine, it puts the provision of these interventions on a different footing. This is not about ‘family planning’ or reproductive autonomy, but about medical need.

This is revealing. We know that babies are babies. We know that they are human. To abort them is at best distasteful, and by all logic a form of murder. Everyone knows that; but in our cultural moment a woman’s reproductive autonomy is considered more significant than that reality. How differently we might feel though if rather than ‘baby’ we think ‘pathogen’.

It’s a clever play, and entirely in-line with other deconstructive linguistic moves: pregnant people; chest-feeding; people who menstruate. Or, as the Bible has it, ‘putting darkness for light and bitter for sweet’ (Is. 5:20).

It won’t wash. Those ‘millions of families’ haven’t been delivered from a pathogen; they know that they have lost a baby.

Keep pointing out the inconsistencies.

 

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Graphic Preaching

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Preaching is a tricky business. It's something I've done a lot of over the past thirty years but I still sometimes feel like a novice. Learning about preaching from other preachers is essential, both listening to their sermons and reading what they write about the craft. 'Simply Preaching: a visual guide' by Daniel Goodman offers a novel take on this - 150 illustrations highlighting some do's & don't's of preaching. Here's a sample:

Some examples are very practical:


Some reflect mistakes I’ve certainly committed or witnessed:


Some are helpful correctives to what can be unnecessary habits:


Some are more profound:


It’s a different way of thinking about preaching and I found it helpful. Whether you’ve preached thousands of times or are just getting going there will be images here that will challenge and help you. I recommend it!

 

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Joseph and Moses

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James Hamilton and Matt Damico point out the parallels between Joseph and Moses in their Reading the Psalms as Scripture. I had never noticed several of these:

1) When Moses intervened between two Hebrews fighting one another (2:13), the question in Exodus 2:14, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us?” is reminiscent of the question Joseph’s brothers asked when he recounted his dream in Genesis 37:8, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?”
2) In the same way that the dreams indicated that Joseph’s brothers would bow down to him, the facts that Moses’s mother “saw that he was good” (Exod 2:1), and that he was raised in the pharaoh’s household, point to the conclusion that Moses would be used by the Lord to deliver God’s people.
3) Having been sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers (Gen 37:18–28), Joseph was eventually exalted in the pharaoh’s household and given the daughter of a foreign priest as a wife. Similarly, having been raised in the pharaoh’s household, Moses was rejected by his Hebrew kinsmen (Exod 2:15) and fled to Midian, where he was given the daughter of a foreign priest as a wife.
4) Joseph’s foreign wife bore him sons, to whom he gave meaningful names (41:40–52). Moses’s foreign wife bore him a son, to whom he gave a meaningful name (2:16–22).
5) In the same way that Joseph “was shepherding the flock” (Gen 37:2), Moses “was shepherding the flock” (Exod 3:1).

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Do Not Even Eat With Him

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How should we understand and apply the New Testament texts about excommunicating and (perhaps) even shunning people? 1 Corinthians 5 tells the church not to eat with a so-called brother who is sleeping with his stepmother; 2 Thessalonians 3 and Titus 3 talk about having "nothing to do with" some sorts of people; 2 John urges us not to greet people who do not bring the right teaching; two passages talk about "handing over to Satan" a person who has sinned in a particular way; and of course Jesus talks in Matthew 18 about the need to treat unrepentant people like tax collectors. We might be confident of what these texts meant in their original context, or we might not, but how should we apply them now?

Matt Anderson, Alastair Roberts and I discuss on Mere Fidelity:

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Seven Things Church Leaders Need to Consider (Guest post from Jez Field)

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Let me first say something up front: I love my wife. We have a healthy marriage (at least I think so!), and I feel most at peace whenever I’m in her company. I say that because of what I’m about to say, something I believe our churches need to consider.

When we gather as churches for a celebration of the gospel, or when we sit together for prayer, or when we pore over the scriptures in a group, we are, in those moments, touching something much deeper than we realise. We are engaged in something more eternal than our marriages since at these moments we’ve stepped out of the rehearsal room and onto the stage.

You see, the thing is – here’s the thing – our fraternity (being brothers and sisters) lasts into eternity; our marriages won’t. To look at our churches you wouldn’t know it, but it’s true. I’ll be a husband to Amy until I die, but I’ll be her brother forever. (To be clear for a moment, Marriage will last into eternity but our marriages won’t. Christ will be married to his bride, the Church, forever.)

Our marriages are meant to be signposts. They’re physical displays of a higher reality, and ‘good’ marriages are judged as such based on how well they reflect the Ultimate Reality to which they point. It’s important that we help people do marriage well since marriages are windows into the gospel, but once the marriage of Christ and the Church takes place, all husbands and wives will retire their roles and take off the ‘costume’ of marriage, but remain as members of the Church, Christ’s bride.

When Jesus was confronted by the scribes with a trick and a trap, he challenged his interrogators, the Bible experts of his day, by exposing how little they understood their Bibles…

‘Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven”’ (Matthew 22:29).

The scribes’ question assumes the continuation of human marriage, and it’s a question that reveals how little they’ve reflected on God’s eternal plan. They haven’t meditated long enough on the deeper storylines of Scripture: on Yahweh’s love for his people and on the meaning of marriage. It’s classic ‘You’ve missed the woods for the trees!’

In heaven, your spouse won’t be your spouse, but they will be your brother or your sister, and so for that matter will the person you sit next to during the sermon, or knock arms with in worship, or do rota swaps with. Taking it further still, that person you’re married to, or that child you’re raising to adulthood, or parent for whom you’re arranging social care, they may be your spouse/child/aging parent now, but they’ll primarily be your brother or sister for eternity.

True as all this may be (and I think it is), you often wouldn’t know it if you looked at our churches or scanned our leadership team photos or listened to our sermons or saw how often we platform married people over unmarried ones. How many times have I seen a husband and wife duo host a church gathering or heard of a pastor’s wife running the women’s ministry? How often do we overlook unmarried people or insist on a married woman leading a ministry with her husband? Of course, none of those things are necessarily problems by themselves, but it’s their ubiquity and the unspoken assumptions that are the problem.

So, what should we do about it? Here are seven suggestions for how and why we might rethink some common church practices.

  1. Mind your language. Our words make worlds since they create the cultures we inhabit. I hear often from our platforms ‘This is my wife…’ or ‘Let me introduce my friend…’ and whilst not being a problem by itself, I noticed a difference by contrast whilst attending a conference in the Middle East. It struck me how often those from the Middle East welcomed one another with ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and how often the preachers addressed the room as ‘brothers and sisters’. This elevates our fraternal relationships and emphasises our family connection. As a related point, I can see how this kind of language also changes the nature of our interactions online. Addressing someone as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ (on Twitter/X, say) ensures I write to them respectfully and with honour. The language of siblings is also a valuable safeguard in the prevention of unbiblical hierarchies. (Jesus’ prohibition against calling one another ‘rabbi’ may be instructive here.)
  2. Purity is promoted. As men and women, we are all too easily drawn toward trading insults and objectifying one another which leads to suspicion and mistrust. How often do women feel themselves treated like radioactive material, too dangerous to get close to? How often have men felt depressed by wandering thoughts they wish they could control but can’t? Cultures that have been mindful of the dangers that sexual attraction creates respond by erecting fences of separation that keep unmarried adults away from each other. But Scripture’s answer is different: ‘Treat younger women as sisters in absolute purity’ (1 Timothy 5:2). Emphasising our fraternity brings with it a code of conduct that’s based on honour and trust, but that also has clear barriers that mustn’t be violated. It allows for affection for sure, but it also allows for conflict (what siblings do you know who don’t fight?), reconciliation, and partnership. A consequence of this, of course, is that women will be safer in churches. In general, men feel a duty of protection for the women in their lives which means that not only would they resist objectifying their sisters, they are also more inclined to act with their safety and protection in mind. Note, however, that we are ‘brothers and sisters’ not ‘fathers and daughters’. This is an important distinction to bear in mind to avoid unhealthy paternalism.
  3. Seating plans matter. We’re creatures of habit and are also drawn toward comfort. In a crowded room with unfamiliar people, we’re anxious and seek reassurance. Often the easiest way to do this is to sit with the people we know best of all: our nuclear family. But by placing a biblical emphasis on the church as family we find a seat of reassurance and safety next to almost any brother and sister we know. This goes beyond simply ‘including’ unmarried people and gets to the heart of who we actually are. In our houses we ‘have a go’ at family, but on Sundays we practise the real thing, the eternal family. Sit with your spouse on Sundays if you want, but you don’t need to. The same goes for training our children in worship. Imagine a community who understood that on Sundays it’s the job of the whole to help out. When a family arrives for worship, they should be able to sigh with relief because the church will ‘take it from here’. An older brother will encourage your son to sit with them in worship or a younger sibling will follow your toddler around the hall for a while.
  4. Singleness is stupid. The word, not the experience. No one is called to singleness. Chastity perhaps, celibacy even, but not singleness. We are not singles and couples, we are family members and we must preserve ways of interaction that emphasise our relationships rather than treating us as atomised individuals bouncing around from one experience of connection to another. Think about the events you run and who they’re for. I used to love putting on men’s events: ‘Hog & Grog’, ‘Beer & Deer’; you name it (and I love naming things!), we ran it as a church! But the trouble I’ve come to see with some gendered events like these is that they define us in terms that aren’t embedded in our relationships. Dads’ nights or mums’ events or sisterhoods and bands of brothers help much more with this.
  5. Visibility and partnership problems. No doubt we’re all aware of the positive impact that representation has. Who we put on our platforms highlights what we believe, and what gets ‘celebrated’ in this manner is often the thing that gets replicated in the church. This is as true with our relationship status as it is with our cultural and social demographic. Do unmarried people get much public honour in your church? I don’t mean do you clap them or embarrass them publicly with gifts or compliments, but are they on platforms (where they are literally elevated)? When partnership in ministry is required are spouses preferred to unmarried people for the sake of convenience and neatness? What about your website? Do you profile the man but picture his wife as proof of, what, his fidelity?! Celebrate brothers and sisters not only husbands and wives.
  6. Care for and train co-workers as well as elders. In a society like ours many people are bemused or offended by the New Testament’s male-only eldership structure and have concluded that we need to move beyond how the early Church (and the Church through history) structured themselves to a structure that better communicates our anthropology. Partly this is due to our overuse of unbiblical terms like ‘senior leader’ and partly it’s due to practices that have under-utilised (and at times even devalued) the gifts God has given to some of our brothers and sisters who aren’t elders; gifts that are essential for the family’s health. Notice also how little we know of or even hear of elders in the New Testament: in fact, we don’t know any elders (besides the apostle John) by name. Instead, we read about many people (men and women) whom Paul describes as ‘co-workers’. Elevated among and by the early Church (and naming someone publicly does elevate them) are servants: people known not for their office of ministry but for their service in the church. This naming/honouring is perhaps also them applying Jesus’s declaration: the servant shall be the greatest (Matthew 23:11). Our practice is different to the New Testament’s. We elevate and name elders as leaders (a term that doesn’t imply relationship), often at the expense of terms more embedded in social networks. The ‘co’ of ‘co-workers’ makes relationship essential. As much as we equate elders with fathers, the term traditionally speaks of a position of hierarchy and authority more than an individual enmeshed in social ties. It’s important that we care for elders (a whole other article), since elders carry burdens and take hits for the church, but so do workers, grafters, and servants. Emphasising our fraternal bonds also unlocks for us the importance of providing proper profile, pastoral support and power to non-elders, people who may not be our pastors, but who are our siblings. And let’s notice that ‘pastors’ also will cease but siblings won’t.
  7. Family loyalty matters. I’m aware of how quickly things can turn ‘heavy’ when a leader uses the church ‘family’ language to manipulate people into allegiance and loyalty, but don’t miss why that abuse is possible. It’s possible because most people are loyal people and, even in a digitised and fragmented society like ours, we still recognise the claim that family has on us. By stressing the family (or even ‘extended family’) component of church life we help people feel rooted and at home, which actually serves to stabilise identity anxiety. Of course, it’s not enough to use words like ‘family’; we have to breakdown what that means for people, and with multiple cultures and expectations around what family should be, it’s going to require us to be patient and adaptable.

In light of all this I want to appeal to you brothers and sisters, in view of the manifold wisdom of God on display in the Church – a wisdom displayed in the uniting of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – to not be conformed to the pattern of this age that couples-up, idolises sex, and retreats into domestic huddles. Rather let your churches be transformed by allowing the eschaton to renew your life and leadership, and in so doing let us all prove the good, acceptable and perfect will of God. Viva la resistance!

Amen

Jez Field is an elder at Life Church Seaford and host of the New Ground Life and Leadership podcast.

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Welcome More Babies

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Parenting can be hard work. Grace and I have certainly experienced the lows as well as the highs with our four children. But underpinning our parenting are theological convictions that are more substantive than current experience. Heidi Dean, channeling Stanley Hauerwas, helps explain some of this.

The idea that we ought to be pro-children—whether in bearing, adopting, fostering, or serving—runs across all of Scripture. When Jesus showed unusual favor to women, children, and other underdogs of the ancient world, he was continuing God’s pattern throughout the Old Testament, where he repeatedly elevates candidates who were small in the eyes of the culture: widows, the second-born, the outsider, and the child.

Scholars have attested, over and over, to the importance of multiplication and offspring in Scripture’s story. The motif of “seed” (children, descendants, offspring) runs from Genesis to Revelation. It’s integral at every major moment: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, church, and new creation. God’s first commissioning of humanity to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28)— spreading his image around the earth—is finally fulfilled in the last pages. Revelation depicts God’s kingdom as a “city” comprised of “the nations” (Rev. 21), “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).

Historically, the church has flourished when these motifs have fueled its imagination. The early church stood out from Roman culture in its embrace of women and children and its vibrantly pro-life stance that included adopting infants who were left to die. The church’s growth through underdogs surprised its detractors. And to give ourselves for the least of these, including children, continues to be a uniquely Christian hope.

—How Stanley Hauerwas Inspired Us to Have More Kids

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Welcoming the Baby

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In January Andrew noticed that we might have a problem with demographics – that declining birth rates might be the biggest problem our society faces. I’d made a similar observation a decade before that.

This hasn’t been a popular observation, and is still controversial. Rosie Duffield MP recently had to withdraw from a debate on the subject following the torrent of abuse she received for planning to contribute. The statistics are startling though and the consequences profound. In country after country there are insufficient babies being born to maintain the population, and this means shrinking or closing schools, increasing numbers who will never experience parenthood, and declining workforces (and tax base) to pay for the growing number of pensioners.

The reasons for this decline are complex and multifaceted but can be summed up in a single word: modernity. Everywhere, with the very notable exception of Africa, the impact of modernity is declining fertility.

At this time of year, more than any other, we focus on the baby. Christians know that without the coming of the baby we could not be saved. Christians welcome babies. We reject abortion because we believe a child in the womb is made in the image of God and we know that killing babies is wrong regardless of circumstances. We honour marriage and parenthood. We often have larger families than is ‘normal’.

At this time of year most British households have a tree in their house, that house is decorated and somewhere among those decorations, maybe on a Christmas card, is an image of a baby in a manger. These are all symbols of what belief in the baby produces: those who truly believe in Him plant trees, have babies, and build houses. Believing in the baby makes us especially receptive to other babies. It makes us optimistic rather than pessimistic about the fate of the world. It commits us to community. It commits us to commitment.

Welcoming the baby isn’t just Christmastime sentimentality. It changes the world.

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On Domestication

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In Remaking the World, Andrew strays far beyond the confines of the year 1776 to consider what factors contributed to the west becoming economically dominant. One of these factors, he claims, was the presence of animals that could be usefully domesticated.

This is not something that the modern urban person often considers, but without domesticated animals civilisation as we know it would have been impossible. Food, clothing, manure for crops, and muscle power, all were provided by domesticated animals, and all were essential for human flourishing. Thus the regions which possessed such animals had a clear advantage in climbing the ladder of economic progress. As Andrew puts it, “You cannot milk a giraffe, ride a zebra into battle, make a rhino pull a plough, or breed hippos for food.”

The problem with this, however, is that domestication is not as obvious or straightforward as it might appear, especially when it comes to one key creature: the cow.

It was long generally accepted that modern cattle are domesticated descendants of the now extinct European aurochs, Bos primigenius. More recent genetic and archaeological evidence has called this into question but the real problem is explaining domestication at all. Why would anyone try to domesticate something as notoriously aggressive as an aurochs? To paraphrase Andrew, there is no species of wild cattle that you can milk, ride into battle, use to pull a plough, or breed for food. You’d no more consider doing so with an aurochs than you would with a rhino.

In his excellent Till the Cows Come Home, Philip Walling gives a useful overview of the current scientific consensus (or rather, lack of it) around the domestication of cattle and concludes,

Until genetic evidence can be found to show that our domestic cattle have some aurochs DNA, it seems the best that can be said is that we have had domestic cattle for at least 10,000 years, not descended, but as a separate species from the wild variety. And that takes us back to the beginning of the Neolithic period, when we are told that people made the transition from hunter-gathering to settled farming. But as further evidence comes to light, and we find we are having to extend back into ‘pre-history’, the beginning of human agricultural settlement, it must follow that our domestic cattle, being at least as old as farming, have been with us for a very long time indeed. Where they came from I do not know, but as things stand, neither does anybody else. It pleases me to believe that we have had them as long as we have been human, as our constant companions and partners in the great endeavour of taming the wilderness.

There is a similar problem with the commonly assumed notion that dogs are domesticated wolves. When domesticated plants or animals are left to their own devices they typically, after a few generations, start to closely resemble their wild ancestor. As Susan McHugh notes in Dog, feral dogs (those that choose their own breeding partners) should,

…increasingly resemble the original species. In other words, if they were directly descended from wolves, with each generation feral dogs breeding with each other should look increasingly more like them. Instead, such dogs progressively approximate a specific dog type, the medium-sized, reddish-brown appearance of the dingo.

(And no one really knows where the dingo came from either.)

Cattle and dogs are our two most important animals (sorry cat lovers). We’ve had cattle for as long as we’ve been farming and we’ve had dogs for as long as we’ve been human. You might almost say that humans wouldn’t be human without the influence of cattle and dogs. Yet the evidence that modern cows and dogs are descended from wild cattle and wolves is shaky, at the least.

So where did they come from?

Here’s my theory, as unprovable as other theories of domestication, but consonant with belief in a good and sovereign God: humans didn’t domesticate cattle or dogs but were given them, whole and entire. And we were given them because we needed them, as surely as we need clothing and shelter.

I’m not sure what Andrew would make of that, nor its impact upon 1776, but this Christmas as we sing about cattle lowing around the manger, or picture the shepherds with their dogs watching over their flocks, give thanks to the One who gave them to us.

 

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Did Paul Write the Pastorals? Seven Questions For Those Who Think He Didn’t

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Gerald Bray with some probing questions here:

1. Who would have been sufficiently motivated to impersonate Paul, and why?
2. Why did the pseudepigrapher(s) produce three letters when one would have been enough?
3. If (as many claim) the recipients of the Epistles were not deceived, why was their knowledge so easily lost in the next generation? On what basis did they accept the authority of the true author(s), and was his or their identity known to them? If it was, why did he (or they) resort to pseudepigraphy?
4. Why did the pseudepigrapher(s) include personal details of the apostle, including requests from him, if they and the recipients both knew that he was dead? What would have been the point of that, other than to deceive?
5. Were Timothy and Titus still alive when the letters were written, and if so, what did they make of them?
6. Why did the pseudepigrapher(s) decide to address their letters to Paul’s co-workers when the genuine Paul apparently never did that? Would it not have been more convincing if the letters had been sent to churches instead of to individuals?
7. Why did the early church accept the Epistles as genuinely Pauline without dissent, when it is known that they debated the authenticity of several other New Testament books?

Unless and until adequate answers can be given to these questions, the claim that the Pastoral Epistles are the work of the apostle Paul himself, and not of a pseudepigrapher, or even of a close disciple writing after his death, must be allowed to stand as a valid position based on proper scholarly criteria.

- Gerald Bray, The Pastoral Epistles (ITC), 10

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A Zinger from Winger

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Whether you agree with Mike Winger's conclusions or not, this is an astonishing piece of work: a eleven and a half hour video on 1 Timothy 2:11-15, the result of a whole year's research, with hundreds of notes, dozens of citations from ancient sources, copious interaction with secondary literature, and over 200,000 YouTube views in the first week or so.

Admittedly some sections are stronger than others. His first half hour contained a number of errors - a misidentified reference here, an inaccurate ancient term there, and the like - and in several places he makes some remarks about the methods and motives of egalitarian interpreters which I found uncharitable. I was surprised that he didn’t interact with Bruce Winter on the “new Roman women,” since it appears so relevant to his case. And I have a number of points of outright disagreement with him, including on application.

But much of it is excellent. His monster section on authenteo (have/exercise/assume authority), between hours four and eight, is a remarkable deep dive into the New Testament’s most difficult word, complete with careful analysis of ancient sources, a survey of translation and interpretation, fresh scholarship on one of the key texts, interaction with the key secondary literature, a good bit of debunking, and lucid presentation. The short version of that section: 1 Timothy 2:12 means pretty much exactly what it looks like it means in contemporary English versions, and attempts to escape that conclusion have not been successful. Which is nice.

Anyway: hats off to him.

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Is Authority Always Coercive?

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In a superb response to Sohrab Ahmari's new book Tyranny, Inc, Brad Littlejohn has a wonderful section on authority, power and coercion, which is well worth reading. I've added some emphasis for clarity:

Such a book might have begun with the concept of authority, a concept almost entirely absent from contemporary Western life. Both Left and Right, he might have observed, have fallen into the trap of seeing freedom only in relation to power. For the Right, freedom is always freedom from power; for the Left, it is freedom through power. But either way, it always turns out to be a zero-sum game, because one person’s power in relation to me is always my weakness and unfreedom in relation to them. Thus the only solution to this dilemma (at least within the terms of a shared liberalism) is to try to equalize power. The Right does this abstractly and formally through the idea of liberty of contract, trying to pretend in the face of vast real-world power differentials that market relations, based as they are on the formal equality of human free will, in fact represent perfectly free contractual exchanges.

Ahmari makes mincemeat of this in the early chapters of his book, but he does not attend sufficiently to the equal error of the Left, which seeks to solve the problem of unequal power by actually equalizing the two parties. To be sure, there are better and worse ways to try and do this: naked communism is far worse than the “political-exchange capitalism” which Ahmari champions (and which I think to be a reasonable paradigm as far as it goes). But any theory that starts from the assumption that power differentials are inherently bad and inherently hostile to freedom is flawed from the start.

The fact is that it is not true that every unequal power relationship is experienced as a form of at least soft coercion. When the parent teaches the child to ride her bike, the teacher drives his students to understand the Pythagorean theorem, or the charismatic general leads his troops into battle, there is in each case a substantial power differential. And yet in each case, the subordinate is freed by the superior, not oppressed. This is because the key phenomenon in each case is not power, but authority. Ahmari recognizes, of course, that freedom can be constituted through limits—he repeats this point constantly in The Unbroken Thread, and references it in passing on page 136 of Tyranny, Inc.—but why then does his argument assume such an adversarial relationship between workers and bosses?

The fact is that if the employees see their boss is seen as acting on their behalf, his action is not felt as coercion. You might object, “Well right, but he doesn’t act for their interests, so he isn’t seen that way.” And to be sure, a boss should ultimately seek the well-being of his workers. But the idea of acting on their behalf is more basic than that of acting for their interests—it speaks rather to the phenomenon of representation, which is an essential ingredient in many forms of authority. The authority can lead and command those under him without compromising their freedom so long as they see and feel him as representing them. If they do not—if those who must obey find themselves alienated from those who lead—then authority evaporates and only power can take its place.

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The Benevolence of Santa Claus

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As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good — far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me… What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.

- G. K. Chesterton, Black and White (1903)

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Welcome and Witness

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On the final episode of our Post-Christianity podcast we are joined by the excellent Rebecca McLaughlin (who, by the way, is joining us at THINK 2024). We talk about how we reach people with the gospel in the post-Christian West, and how evangelism is hard, humble, hospitable and hopeful. I hope you have enjoyed the series!

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Shoplifting and the Rise of Shame

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The UK is in the midst of a ‘shoplifting epidemic’, with shop thefts having more than doubled in the last three years.

Why is this?

As always the answer is probably more multifaceted than simple: the cost of living crisis; the decline in social cohesion; declining respect for authority; covid (every negative social indicator has got worse since covid, or rather, since the imposition of lockdowns in response to covid). I expect someone will lay the blame on Brexit. It’s always Brexit.

Perhaps it isn’t just these factors that lay at the root of it though. Perhaps it’s our societal shift away from being a guilt-innocence culture to more of an honour-shame one.

In his very helpful book, The 3D Gospel, missiologist Jayson Georges provides a useful summary of these different cultures. First, in guilt-innocence cultures,

The notions of right and wrong are foundational pillars… Society creates rules and laws to enforce what actions are right and wrong. These rules and laws define acceptable behaviour.

In such a culture people don’t steal because they know it is wrong, because it is breaking the law. Yes, there is always theft, but the more strongly people feel the demands of their guilt-innocence culture the less theft there is.

By contrast, 

Shame-honor societies assume a strong group orientation. Honor is a person’s social worth, one’s value in the eyes of the community. Honor is when other people think well of you, resulting in harmonious social bonds in the community. Honor comes from relationships.

In these cultures people don’t steal because doing so brings shame on them; except in those situations where it doesn’t. So to steal from someone outside the group might not be shaming. It might even be a way of accruing honour. It’s why people from honour-shame cultures don’t pay their parking fines while those from guilt-innocence cultures do (see p.41ff in The Weirdest People in the World by Henrich for more on this).

What we are seeing in many of the reports of shoplifting is a total absence of shame – the thieves are brazen. And there is clearly a complete absence of guilt. At first this might seem confusing, especially for those of us who still operate primarily within the guilt-innocence framework. Think your way into an honour-shame worldview though and it begins to make more sense:

I don’t recognise the arbitrary nature of the law.

If someone is foolish enough to not adequately protect their goods from predation that is their problem, not mine.

I don’t understand why I would feel ‘guilt’ (whatever that is) about taking what I want from someone who means nothing to me or my peers.

When I successfully steal goods I get a lot of kudos from my peers. And it is their opinion of me that counts – not yours.

I think this is something of what lies behind the increase in shoplifting. It seems obvious that the shift away from a guilt-innocence culture and towards an honour-shame one is being driven by social media. We are increasingly programmed to seek the accrual of kudos on social media and fear the stigma of a social media shaming. And that changes the way in which we behave – it changes our ethics.

So one way the shoplifters might be deterred from their actions would be if their peers (and it needs to be their peers, not people like me) did shame them on social media – but that probably isn’t going to happen. Simply telling them that it is wrong won’t work either, because (as any missiologist would tell you) that’s a category mistake.

All of which means we can probably anticipate more changes on the high street: either with retailers giving up and retreating entirely online, or security measures being significantly increased, with the negative impact of that on all of us.

Then there is the missiological dimension – that we find ourselves in a context where for a significant proportion of the population the categories of guilt and innocence do not make much sense. And that means you might need to adjust the Christmas message you are preparing this year.

 

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More Books of the Year 2023

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I’m sure that many of Andrew’s fans, like me, felt somewhat short-changed by his pared down Top 20 this year. We have been denied that moment of delicious self-flagellation as we compare the full strength espresso of Andrew’s reading list with the soy-latte wateriness of our own. This has become as much a Christmas ritual as brussels sprouts and the John Lewis advert.

I’m seeing Andrew next week so will be able to rebuke him to his face (Gal. 2:11). In the meanwhile, let me try to make up some of the ballast.

Surely, at No.1 spot on this year’s reading is Remaking the World, by….Andrew Wilson! I did genuinely enjoy this, having, it must be said, been somewhat sceptical. Generally I don’t like the ‘This Was The Most Important Year/Month/Week/Event in the History of History/Economics/Rock Music/Etc.’ format, but Andrew’s book is splendid. Granted, at times it felt like he was having to work hard to demonstrate that 1776 was the year above all other years, but there is so much here that is illuminating and interesting and “A-ha!” The opening illustration alone is worth the price of the book. If you haven’t yet read it, make sure it’s top of your Christmas list.

It’s always good to be able to recommend books by one’s friends, so two others:

Metamorphosis by Matt Hatch. Matt is one of the best put-it-in-to-practice pastors I know and this book on discipleship practices is excellent.

Pastoring Small Towns by Ronnie Martin & Donnie Griggs does exactly what it says on the tin.

Most enjoyed fiction
I really enjoyed reading Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings again, for the first time since I was 15. So much more rewarding than the movies, although I loved them too.
Mark Helprin, Paris in the Present Tense. Helprin is one of the more interesting and intelligent writers I know.

Most helpful Christian books
Abigail Flavale, The Genesis of Gender
Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God
John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals

 

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Books of the Year 2023

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Choosing a book of the year is incredibly difficult. How do you compare a witty, creative and thrilling novel like Rebecca Kuang's Yellowface with Emily Wilson's beautiful translation of Homer's Iliad? What criteria could anyone use to declare that Simon Gathercole's The Gospel and the Gospels was "better" than Tara Burton's Self-Made, or Peter Williams's The Surprising Genius of Jesus, and what would it mean to anyone else if they did?

Admittedly you can group some books together. I read Andrew Roberts’s and Julian Jackson’s biographies of Churchill and De Gaulle, respectively, and was dazzled by both: two extraordinary leaders, nearly contemporary with each other, and both brilliant, infuriating and hilarious, although in very different ways. Yellowface and Pachinko have obvious points of overlap, but while the former is exciting and clever, the latter is sweeping and evocative. Two books on the seventeenth century, Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite on John Donne and Anna Keay’s The Restless Republic on the 1650s, were thoroughly absorbing and marvellously written. I also used over a dozen Christian books in my devotional times, and was captivated by Gathercole and Williams on the Gospels, John Oswalt on Isaiah, David Gibson on Psalm 23, and (my favourite Christian book of the year) John Starke’s magnificent The Secret Place of Thunder.

My habit of counterpoint reading doesn’t always come off. I read Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The World: A Family History, expecting to love both on the basis of their previous work, and found the former a bit underwhelming (and with several odd inaccuracies), and the latter a thoroughly overwhelming, cluttered and tenuously connected list of facts. But more often than not, it proves illuminating. Chris Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory and Tim Keller’s How to Reach the West Again were a great combination. Although neither of them made my top twenty, Susan Neiman’s Left is Not Woke and Tomiwa Owalade’s This is Not America gave two intriguing perspectives on some very important issues.

In the end, my Book of the Year came down to a choice between two utterly different sorts of books. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century blew me away with its portrait of a strange and disturbing period. Her characterisation and analysis are crystal clear and her writing is just sublime; I have just bought her The Guns of August. Even so, I think the book that will make the most lasting impression on me, and cause me to see the world more differently than any other book in 2023, is Iain McGilchrist’s extraordinary The Matter With Things: a totally fascinating and hard-to-describe cocktail of neuroscience, philosophy, psychiatry, science, music, history and imagination that connects the way our brain works with the way we conceive of reality. Volume 1 was breathtaking in its scope and insight. Volume 2 awaits me in January.

Top Five Christian Books to Fuel Joy
Simon Gathercole, The Gospel and the Gospels: Christian Proclamation and Early Jesus Books
John Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39
John Starke, The Secret Place of Thunder: Trading Our Need to Be Noticed for a Hidden Life with Christ
David Gibson, The Lord of Psalm 23: Jesus Our Shepherd, Companion and Host
Peter Williams, The Surprising Genius of Jesus

Top Five Christian Books to Help You Think
Tara Isabella Burton, Self-Made: Creating our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians
Collin Hansen, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation
Rebecca McLaughlin, Does the Bible Affirm Same-Sex Relationships? Examining Ten Claims About Scripture and Sexuality
Karen Swallow Prior, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis
Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory

Top Ten Other Books of the Year
Homer, The Iliad, tr. Emily Wilson
Julian Jackson, A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle
Anna Keay, The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown
Rebecca Kuang, Yellowface
Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
Iain McGilchrist, The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, vol. 1
Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking With Destiny
David Rooney, A History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks
Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne
Barbara Tuchman, Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century

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Faith and Fruitfulness

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Episode 7 of our Post-Christianity podcast is out today. Glen and I get practical on the ways in which Christians can respond to the all the developments we've been talking about:

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Selves and Psychologies

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The sixth of our eight Post-Christianity episodes has just dropped. Glen and I talk to Carl Trueman about selves, psychologies and individualism:

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The Secret to Pastoral Longevity

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From Wesley’s Journals:

This being my birthday, the first day of my seventy-second year, I was considering, How is this, that I find just the same strength as I did thirty years ago? That my sight is considerably better now, and my nerves firmer, than they were then? That I have none of the infirmities of old age, and have lost several I had in my youth? The grand cause is, the good pleasure of God, Who doth whatsoever pleaseth Him. The chief means are, 1. My constantly rising at four, for about fifty years. 2. My generally preaching at five in the morning; one of the most healthy exercises in the world. 3. My never travelling less, by sea or land, than four thousand five hundred miles in a year.

 

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Slippery Slopes & Finding Allies

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Does egalitarian theology inevitably lead to an acceptance of same sex relationships?

In response to the decision made by the Church of England to allow the blessing of same sex relationships, John Stevens, national director of the FIEC, made the observation that,

One thing that I have seen is that a number of evangelical women suffragan bishops are actively campaigning for biblical orthodoxy. I think this ought to be noticed and put an end to a common complementarian argument that supporting women’s ordination is automatically a slippery slope to compromise on human sexuality.
This was an argument easy to maintain when the battles being fought over women’s ordination were largely waged by liberals. However, it is abundantly clear that there are evangelical women clergy and bishops who are thoroughly committed to Scripture and standing firm on the issue of sexuality.

I agree with John. We need to find allies wherever we can and support and encourage those who are courageously standing for orthodoxy. In my own context, I am regularly in gatherings of local pastors, including women, who are equally committed to holding the line. I’m grateful for our common purpose and commitments.

Yet (and while not wanting to confuse correlation with causation) it seems unarguable that an egalitarian perspective is more likely to end up as an affirming one. I’ve never known someone who supports same sex marriage who isn’t also a full-blown egalitarian, while I’ve never known a complementarian who also supports SSM. Perhaps such strange creatures exist, but it seems unlikely. This is most definitely not to say that all egalitarians will end up in the SSM camp – the evidence against that, as Stevens points out, is solid. But it also seems true to say that all those who endorse SSM do have their tents pitched in the egalitarian camp.

I’ve been in gatherings of pastors recently where biblical orthodoxy in regard to marriage has been strongly expressed, but egalitarian arguments have been just as forcibly presented. It feels to me that it is difficult to ride these two horses. Certainly it can be done – but there’s always the risk of a tumble. I’d rather stay securely in the saddle of the complementarian horse.

I’m a complementarian because I believe that is the most biblically faithful position. I do think that the theological jumps made in egalitarianism create, if not a slippery slope, a scaffold for further theological innovations to be made in respect of same sex relationships, even though many egalitarians will never follow that route.

I do believe in eldership as the pattern of new testament church government and I do believe that the new testament is implicit that elders are men. I do believe that to be an elder is to be like a father and that by definition only men can be fathers. And I believe that the church needs spiritual mothers, and only women can be mothers. I do see a pattern of male headship in the biblical narrative: that Adam is the representative head of all humanity; Abraham the representative father of all who are God’s spiritual children; Moses the representative liberator of God’s people; David the representative king of God’s people – and Jesus the one who completes, fulfils and renews all this as the new Adam, the one by whom we are welcomed into God’s people, our great Saviour and King.

Jesus had to be the Son: he had to come as a man, because God’s representative head is always a man. And in that I also see complementarity as without Eve Adam could not have been the father of all humanity; without Sarah Abraham would not have been the father of faith; without Rahab and Ruth David would not have been born and come to the kingship; and without the bride Jesus would not be the Saviour.

And I do believe this has ongoing relevance in how we are to understand ‘headship’ in the home and church: that we are called to reflect the beautiful difference in which we are created.

These are biblical convictions that don’t stop me from fellowshipping with my egalitarian brothers and sisters. I want to hold onto my convictions while also holding onto my allies. So my appeal to my fellow complementarians would be that we are generous to those who hold different convictions to us on this. As John Stevens writes,

Same-sex relationships are not in the same category [as egalitarian convictions]. They are a salvation issue, not a secondary issue. No one was ever excluded from the kingdom of heaven because of the gender of the person who preached them the gospel faithfully, but people are excluded from the kingdom of heaven by those who teach them that it is okay to enter into same-sex sexual relationships.

At the same time I would urge my egalitarian brothers and sisters to be generous to those of us who are complementarian – to acknowledge that our position is born of biblical conviction, not misogyny. To say that all complementarians are misogynists is as much of a category mistake as to say all egalitarians support same sex marriage. It’s hard to be in settings where I want to stand with you around sexuality but feel hostility from you because of my biblical convictions around complementarity.

Yes, it’s true, sadly, that sexism has been a greater reality in complementarian settings than egalitarian ones, just as it’s true, sadly, that support for same sex relationships exists in egalitarian settings in a way it doesn’t in complementarian ones. All of us need to be alert to the ‘shadow sides’ of our theologies. Let’s avoid the slippery slopes and find our allies.

 

 

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This isn’t about same sex marriage. It’s about the authority of scripture.

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If you haven't already seen it, this is worth a few minutes of your time - from last week's synod of the Church of England.

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Coffeehouse Christianity

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On a visit to Norwich John Wesley records his displeasure at the leadership of the local Methodist preachers. He determines to ‘mend them or end them’. The cause of Wesley’s angst? What he perceives as an overfamiliar approach to worship.

Accordingly, the next evening, after sermon, I reminded them of two things: the one, that it was not decent to begin talking aloud as soon as service was ended; and hurrying to and fro, as in a bear-garden. The other, that it was a bad custom to gather into knots just after sermon, and turn a place of worship into a coffee-house. I therefore desired, that none would talk under that roof, but go quietly and silently away.

What would Wesley make of church life today? And what would we make of his threats to ‘mend or end’? The cultural gulf there is vast.

In the contemporary church it can feel as though the coffee is the main event. The area available for coffee in any venue being used by a church is a key consideration. When new church buildings are constructed no one now thinks about the need for a graveyard, but we do think very carefully about the space available for coffee. And in church buildings throughout the land, whether new builds or reconfigured ancient spaces, the highest aspiration seems to be the potential to open a coffee shop – because there is of course a terrible dearth of coffee shops on the typical British high street.

The church I pastor constructed a new building last year. Sadly there wasn’t space for a coffee shop but I sometimes fear that the most tangible legacy of my ministry will be getting rid of instant and insisting on at least drinkable filter coffee. “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword…and some ensured there was a semi-decent cup of coffee available after the service.”

What would Wesley say?

Our culture is a remarkably informal one. That has been one of the great social transformations of the past 70 years and it has of course been reflected in the church. 70 years ago a church minister would have always worn jacket and tie (as would almost all men, on almost all occasions) and probably clerical garb. And he (and it was always ‘he’) would have been addressed as Rev So-and-So, or at least Mr So-and-So. Today, my church would find it odd if I wasn’t in jeans, and even the three year-olds call me Matt. We don’t often notice this change, but it is profound.

There are benefits to informality but what Wesley’s reaction to the goings-on in Norwich helps us see is the distinction we must make between being informal and being casual. These are terms we use interchangeably (e.g., informal clothes = casual clothes) but they should be quite distinct when it comes to our worship.

To be informal in worship can be helpful: It is much easier to be expressive in worship when wearing clothes that are comfortable than when constricted in a stiff suit. By the Spirit we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ In worship it can be appropriate to laugh, cry and dance: I am a charismatic by conviction!

Yet we cannot afford to be casual in our approach to God. He is to be regarded with holy awe.

Probably the clearest biblical example of this distinction is found in 2 Samuel 6. Uzzah is casual towards what is most holy, reaching out to steady the ark, and in consequence is struck dead. Then, when things are done with due reverence and the ark is finally brought to Jerusalem, David dances with an informality that causes his wife to despise him.

Our worship needs to reflect something of this ‘liberated awe’. We might succeed in serving the best coffee in town, but we mustn’t settle for what is in the end merely coffeehouse Christianity. Come before Him with dancing (Ps. 150:4). And come before Him with reverence and awe (Hbs. 12:28).

 

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Progress and Progressivism

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In this episode, Glen and I talk about progress: on slavery, human rights, civil rights, the sexual revolution, and the dashing of hope by two world wars. We consider how these huge cultural and societal changes interact with the gospel, and why Christianity cannot ultimately be forced into the neat political categories of right and left, liberal and conservative.

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The First Sexual Revolution

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In this week's episode of the Post-Christianity podcast, Glen and I are joined by Kyle Harper, author of From Shame to Sin and Professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma. We talk about love, liberty, the first sexual revolution, and what it meant (and continues to mean) for sexuality today:

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The Unity of Isaiah

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Lots of modern interpreters read Isaiah 29:17-24 as if it was written after the exile by a redactor, hundreds of years after Isaiah, and inserted into a (mostly) pre-exilic prophecy. (Similar things are argued of Isaiah 40-66, and various other sections of chapters 1-39.) Here is John Oswalt's careful response, which I have formatted for clarity:

The chief reasons for this are theological, for it is argued that the glowing predictions of salvation to come are not to be found in preexilic prophecy. Apart from the fact that (1) this view begs the question (cf. Micah 4), it must also be asked (2) why redactors felt encouraged to add these passages to Isaiah if the original form of the prophecy was so uniformly negative. Why not to Amos or Micah or Jeremiah? For that theory to be accepted, the original form of the book will have had to have contained the Judgment/Hope motif in more than a germinal way. Of course, if that is granted, then (3) the whole theory of redactions which subtly altered the impact of the book becomes questionable.

Of even more serious import, however, are the theological questions which this point of view raises. The supposed redactors, by putting their words and points of view into the mouth of the older prophet, are (4) making a theological statement which is patently untrue. They are saying “If we repent, there is hope for us, because it was foretold by Isaiah. But, if the causal link is in fact false, their opinions are without force. The redactors have then falsified their evidence to win a case. Can this be the source of some of the world’s great theology?

Finally, there is (5) a literary question. As the text stands now, it has an internal logic: your plans are stupid and corrupt because you will not believe the simplicity of God’s promises. If in fact the prophet had no promises of redemption, what is it the rulers were rejecting? If it be said he had promises, but not these, we are (6) faced once again with redactors whose ethics are decidedly questionable, for they have excised the original promises and replaced them with their own.

- John Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 535

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Protestant Paganism

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The third episode of our Post-Christianity podcast is now out, and Glen thinks it's the best of the eight. It's called "How the West Was Spun: Protestants and Pagans," and I hope you enjoy it:

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Post-Christianity? Contingencies and Convictions

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The second episode of Post-Christianity? is now up. Glen and I discuss the relationship between convictions and ideas on the one hand, and contingencies and material factors on the other, in forming the modern world - and what implications that has for the role of Christianity in shaping our culture. I hope you enjoy it!

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TGC Main Sessions Now Available

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Some of you have been kind enough to ask how my time was at The Gospel Coalition conference last month. The short version is that it was a wonderful experience, and it surpassed my expectations: more joyful, warm, youthful, international, diverse, relational and exuberant than I had been anticipating (I imagine those things are connected), with outstanding worship times led by CityAlight, dozens of intriguing "microevents" (seminars), and top drawer expository preaching. I highly recommend it.

For a longer version, the main session messages have just been posted. There are some cracking sermons in here:

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Post-Christianity? Our New Podcast Launches Today

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The West is increasingly described as “post-Christian.” But is that label accurate? Are contemporary people leaving Christianity behind completely? Or are they adopting some of its values while rejecting others? What’s the origin story for the “post-Christianity” we’re seeing in 21st-century Western culture? How does this story help us understand the rapid cultural changes we’ve seen in recent years? And what do evangelism, mission, and discipleship look like in a post-Christian world?

Glen Scrivener and I have both written books about this topic recently (The Air We Breathe and Remaking the World). In this eight-episode podcast from The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, we consider how we got here, what it means, and how to respond. Our discussion topics range from sexuality, psychology, and economics to identity, theology, hospitality, and art. Also featuring special guests Kyle Harper, Carl Trueman, and Rebecca McLaughlin, I’m hoping you’ll find Post-Christianity? a thought-provoking and hopeful take on contemporary culture.

The first episode is out now.

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Top Tips for Parents

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What advice would you give to a group of parents and other adults involved in the lives of teenagers? That was something I had to think about earlier this year when I was asked to speak to a group of teenagers and parents about the transition from being a teenager to being an adult.

I’ve already shared the advice I offered to teenagers. In this post, I’m going to summarise what I said to parents and other adults.

For parents – Three things to understand

1. Understand that you don’t understand.

I’m sure we all said it, and I imagine a number of us have had it said to us: ‘You don’t understand.’ Of course, in lots of ways, when a teenager says that to a parent or adult, it’s not true. We’ve all been teenagers and we’ve lived long enough to know a fair bit about life and existence. If you’re an adult, you have wisdom to share with younger generations.

But at the same time, I think we need to recognise that it is partly true, and probably more so now than in previous generations. Being a teenager today is hard. Today’s teenagers are growing up in a world that is wildly different from that which we grew up in: The internet, smartphones and social media are defining features of life. They have lived through a global pandemic in some of their most formative years. Popular media, social media, friends, and sometimes even school are telling them they need to work out and express their own identity and their sexuality and gender. They are watching a seemingly endless stream of authority figures be shown to be corrupt and abusive, and they look into the future and see a growing environmental crisis left by previous generations. Being a teenager today is difficult, in ways and to an extent that we probably can’t fully appreciate.

And in many ways, we are not living in the same world as today’s teenagers. When I was a teenager, there weren’t that many TV channels, we could only access the internet on a couple of devices in the house, there was little social media and no music streaming services. My parents were largely aware of the media I was consuming and were usually encountering a lot of the same things I was. That’s just not true anymore. The online world, the exponential growth of popular media and social media, the proliferation of devices that connect us to the internet, all of these mean that teenagers are often living in a world in which we are not.

How should all of this shape us? It should birth love, compassion and patience. It should drive us to want to support more, not to withdraw from supporting. It should birth in us a desire to learn, not just to teach. We need to listen to learn about the pressures and challenges facing young people, asking them what life is like for them and how we can support. We also need to learn by engaging with their world. We probably can’t live in the same world as them, but we can visit. We need to have at least some engagement with the media with which our young people are engaging so we understand something of the context in which they live.

We need to understand that we don’t understand and that therefore we need to learn.

2. Understand that questions are healthy.

As adults, we learn and grow through questioning – we ask, wrestle with and reflect on questions and as we do we decide what we believe. Teenagers are emerging adults. They are transitioning from childhood to adulthood so questioning becomes increasingly important.

Childhood is a time when we are told what is good and true and when, on the whole, our beliefs are strongly shaped by those around us. That’s how it’s meant to be because our brains are not yet fully developed. As adults we need to reach our own decisions on what is good and true. We’re still shaped by what’s around us, but by our mid-20s our brain is fully developed and we’re able to think for ourselves.

Teenagers are transitioning from being a child to being an adult. Starting to think for themselves is not always just rebellion, it’s about becoming the adult God has created them to be. A key part of that is questioning, so we need to recognise that questions are healthy and allow teenagers to ask and wrestle with their questions, even if that means they are thinking afresh about things they have been told or have believed.

For parents, this can be scary. It can take teens into the grey, when most of us feel safer with the black and white. It’s also scary because we don’t know where their questions will lead them. The temptation, therefore, is to shut down questioning and to more strongly declare what is true. But if we do this, we’re not allowing teens to own their beliefs – they’re not able to put down roots which will allow them to continue to stand when the supports of parents and others are removed. You see this in the stories of many in my generation who have deconstructed their faith – they weren’t allowed to ask questions, so they never owned their beliefs, and when exposed to other ideas and experiencing life’s challenges in adulthood they drifted away from what they had believed earlier in life. In the long run, allowing questioning is more protective of faith than not allowing questioning.

This doesn’t mean we encourage radical scepticism, but we don’t close down questioning and we accompany young people on the journey, engaging in dialogue, asking helpful questions in response and pointing to good resources.

And we do all this trusting in God. We’re not abandoning teenagers when we allow them to start thinking for themselves; we’re entrusting them to God. That doesn’t guarantee a certain outcome, but we do so knowing that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.

3. Understand the power of example.

Because teenagers are becoming adults and are learning to think for themselves, they become less open to direct input from parents and other adults. We can easily see this as a negative, and I imagine it must be a hard thing for parents to adjust to. But there is good in this. It’s part of the journey to becoming an adult.

But that doesn’t mean that parents and adults have no role. There’s still a place for speaking into the lives of teenagers, offering wisdom, guidance, encouragement, challenge, sometimes even commands. Speaking is still important. But also important is example. We shape young people not just through what we say, but through what we do.

Example is powerful. Don’t underestimate how powerful it can be. That’s a clear biblical theme for leaders (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:1; Hebrews 13:7), but I think it also stands for parents and other adults.

Have you ever noticed that when people talk about the adults who shaped them in their younger years, they almost always talk about what those adults did more than what they said? It is often people’s example that we remember and that has a more lasting impact than their words. We need to consider what we want our young people to embody as an adult and then ask, ‘Am I embodying that?’.  We help teenagers become the adults we want them to be by being those adults ourselves.

There are lots of ways we need to set an example for the teenagers in our lives. The four areas I highlighted for teenagers are a good starting point to think about.

These are my top tips for parents and other adults who want to support teenagers as they journey through the transition into adulthood. We get to play an important role in this significant transition. We get to be those who walk alongside, cheering on, supporting, making space for questioning, and setting an example.

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Top Tips for Teenagers

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Earlier this year, I was invited to speak to a group of parents and teenagers about navigating the transition from being a teenager to being an adult. I thought it was a great idea.

Transitions are so important to think about and the transition from teens to adulthood may be one of the most significant we all go through. It’s an exciting time – part of God’s plan for us to mature into the adults he has created us to be – but it can also be a difficult time. As a guy in my early 30s, I’m now well through that transition (and would quite like some teaching on how to transition well into mid-life!). I certainly don’t think that I navigated my transition into adulthood perfectly, but I found it really interesting and enjoyable to look back and reflect on the lessons that I learnt.

In the session, I gave four pieces of advice to teenagers and three pieces of advice to parents and other adults. I deliberately addressed the advice directly to each group but also knowing the other group would be overhearing. It’s good for us to hear both sides of the coin.

Here’s a summary of the advice I gave for teenagers – addressed to teenagers. I’ll follow up with a second post with my advice for parents and other adults.

For teenagers – Four lessons to learn

1. Learn to connect with Jesus.

You may not yet be a follower of Jesus, or you may have made a choice to follow Jesus at a young age but now you’re not so sure. My advice to you is don’t let anything stop you exploring the claims of Jesus. You may feel uninterested. You may be concerned about the impact following Jesus would have on your life. You may have been hurt by Christians – I know that’s a sadly common reality, and I’m sorry if it’s been your experience. But none of these things – our level of interest, the potential impact on our lives, even the ways Christians have hurt us – change the reality of whether Jesus is who he says he is and whether what he says is true. If he is, and if it is, it is the most important thing ever. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the claims of Jesus. Maybe for you that means doing an Alpha Course or Christianity Explored at a church. Maybe you just need to open a Bible and read Mark’s Gospel to see what Jesus says for himself.

If you are already a follower of Jesus, learn to connect with Jesus. It’s easy to be a Christian but not to really connect personally with Jesus, to have responded to the gospel but not develop a relationship with Jesus. I know that because I did that for many years. Everything changed in my mid-teens when I did something radical: I gave up watching Neighbours (the now-resurrected Australian soap). Instead, each day, I used that time to connect with Jesus. I started to read the Bible, to pray, and to worship in my bedroom. I began to develop a personal relationship with Jesus, and it was transformative, laying a foundation that saw me through ups and downs in the years to come. This sort of disciplined, deliberate connection with God is vital – it’s what Jesus calls us to (Matthew 6:6) and what he exemplified in his life on earth (Mark 1:35). If you want to start to connect with Jesus personally but you’re not sure how, ask another Christian to help you – a parent, youth leader or member of your church.

2. Learn to expect things (other than Jesus) to disappoint you.

It’s easy to look to the wrong things to satisfy us. You might have a vision of what your life in adulthood will be like. There might be lots of good things you’re hoping for. It’s easy to look to those to satisfy you, but that, and you’ll find they’ll always let you down.

I learnt this the hard way. I thought that by 30 I would have a decent job, I would have accomplished some stuff, I’d be earning money, have somewhere nice to live and life would be great. I got to 30 and most of those things had become a reality, but they didn’t satisfy like I thought they would. Multiple degrees, a worthwhile job, publishing books, speaking to large crowds – all of these things I thought would satisfy me didn’t.

And when that happened, it wasn’t something going wrong, it was things going right because those things were never designed to satisfy me. There’s only one thing that can truly satisfy us – and it’s not actually a thing, it’s a person. What every human heart truly longs for, deep down, is intimate relationship with God. Everything else will let us down. God never will. Prioritise relationship with Jesus, connect with him personally, put him first, look to him to meet your heart’s desire. That becomes the foundation from which to enjoy all of God’s good gifts, remembering that it is not the gifts that are the greatest blessing, but the giver himself.

3. Learn to prioritise friendship.

Second to Jesus himself, I think friendship may be the greatest blessing that God gives us in this lifetime. I’m talking about real friendship – deep connections with genuine, mutual love and sharing of life together.

It’s important to realise this now. Lots of people find they have lots of friends in their teen years, but then they enter their 20s and gradually lose these friends until they reach 30 and have few if any real friends. Friendship takes deliberate effort, especially in adulthood.

This is another thing that Jesus calls us to (John 15:12-18) and that he illustrates himself – Jesus was a man of friendship. Sometimes people joke that Jesus’s greatest miracle was having 12 close friends at the age of 30. It’s a joke, but it’s also very insightful. It notices both that friendship is rare for adults and that Jesus was a man of friendship.

True friends will bring joy and laughter into your life. They’ll bring love and care. They’ll uphold you when life falls apart and celebrate with you when things go well. Friendship can bring more good into your life than the best job, best house, best car or any amount of money. Learn to prioritise friendship.

4. Learn to experience who you are.

Knowing who you are is vital. Identity – our sense of self – shapes how we think, feel and live. Many of us find our identities in wrong and unhelpful ways. We might allow our sense of self to be shaped by what other people think about us. Or we might allow our sense of self to be shaped by what we find inside – our feelings and our desires. Both of those are unhelpful ways to find our identity. The right way, the life-giving way, is to look to God and to receive our identity from him, to allow our sense of self to be shaped by what God says about us.

Knowing who you are is vital. But experiencing who you are is even more important. I learnt this the hard way. If you’d asked me in my 20s who I truly am, what my identity is, I could have easily listed off all the right answers about who God says I am as a Christian. But I wasn’t experiencing that reality. A series of mental health meltdowns and a season of Christian counselling helped me realise I was actually living with a really destructive identity where I was allowing an assumption of what other people thought about me to shape my sense of self: I had come to believe that I was a freak and weirdo and that nobody loved me or liked me.

I needed to learn to experience who I am. That’s what we all need. And that takes some deliberate effort and some hard work. It requires taking steps that slowly move truth from our head to our heart – things like meditating on Scripture, praying our identity, and declaring it in song (there’s a playlist to help with that). Maybe you want to do that but you’re not sure where to start. Why not ask another Christian to help you? Learn to experience who you are.

There’s lots more that could be said, but these are my stab at top tips for teenagers. Maybe you’re a teenager and these can be useful to you. Maybe you know a teenager you could share this post with, or maybe these bits of advice can equip you as you seek to love and support the young people in your life.

And what about those of us involved in the lives of young people? I have three bits of advice for us too – three things we need to understand. Look out for that post soon.

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The State We’re In

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How do we know when a civilisation is nearing its end? If one sign is a general ennui, listlessness, lethargy, then we could well be almost there. We are always prone to moan and complain and imagine that ‘the good old days’ were a real thing (they weren’t) but there is a collective weariness across the British Isles; a sense that nothing is working quite like it should. Broken politics, broken healthcare, crumbling concrete.

We measure and analyse whatever we can to discern the roots of this malaise and suggest solutions. (How I have come to despise that word, solutions. Every business that has ‘solutions’ in its title simply adds to the weariness and cynicism: take your business solutions, your cleaning solutions, your software solutions and drown them in a bottomless sea of apathy.) We see therapists for our personal wounds and angst. Economists present different routes to economic bounty. Politicians spin a brighter future. We’re not very good, though, at assessing how the multifaceted social changes of the past decades have impacted our national psychology. How could we be? It’s too complicated, there are too many variables and unknowns.

Yet those changes must have affected us.

Human beings have almost always existed in societies with high fertility and high mortality. We grew up surrounded by brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and surrounded by death. Now we grow up in small and often fractured family units, without much wider family, but with a generational stretch as increasing longevity means our parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents are a part of our lives far longer than is ‘natural’.

Until a century or so ago we were largely rural, now we are urban. Even those who lived in cities would have looked rural to us – horses drove the economy, and droves of livestock would have been common in city centres.

Until the 1830s and the development of steam locomotives no one had ever moved faster than the speed of a galloping horse.

We were analogue, and now we are digital.

Compared with less than a century ago, even, we are far less formal but in other ways less free.

In The Reign, his droll account of British history since 1952, Matthew Engel describes a society where men always wore jackets and ties (to football matches and university lectures) but children roamed the streets from dawn to dusk without adult supervision or intervention. (As a child of the 1970s, this was my experience too.)

We have more superficial freedom now: we can wear what we want, have sex with who we like, be entertained any number of ways, but it may be that our deeper freedoms have been lost.

Engel gives the example of it becoming a legal requirement in 1973 to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle. Not to wear a helmet might seem madness (riding a motorcycle, period, might seem madness) but a motorcycle helmet doesn’t make life any safer – or more dangerous – for anyone other than the biker. So why should the individual not be free to make that decision for themselves?

A trivial example perhaps, but a metaphor for the way in which our lives are increasingly regulated and controlled.

We are constantly monitored and observed, scanned by dozens of CCTV cameras every day, tracked by our phones, algorithmed by Meta, Google and the rest. We are bombarded with shouty signs telling us what we can or (more likely) cannot do at every turn. We are drowning in regulatory red tape. And there is no way out of this. No one can argue for less health and safety – because then someone will get hurt; we can’t have less financial regulation – because then someone will be defrauded; we can’t have less safeguarding – because then someone will be abused. So we have our endless forms to fill, non-jobs are created so that people can fill in those forms, companies are built to provide ‘solutions’ to manage the hassle of it all, and yet we feel that somehow everything is falling apart.

“Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless, says the teacher.” Perhaps our civilisation is nearing its end.

While on sabbatical this summer I spent two weeks walking in the Pyrenees. Two weeks without the commercials, cars or constant cell phone coverage. It’s been a bumper year for sabbaticals – the finally processed backlog from the covid years. I, along with my friends who also had a break from regular ministry this summer, would have liked a lights in the sky moment, for the heavens to open and the divine voice to speak through the thunder. That didn’t happen. Usually it doesn’t.

I did hear some whispers though. One of the most profound was one of the most simple. It’s Christianity 101: don’t worry, be grateful.

Although I was loving it I found the first few days in the mountains quite stressful. I have little experience in that kind of environment and had all kinds of anxieties about the things that might go wrong. This wasn’t helped by talking with walkers coming in the other direction telling me horror stories about what lay ahead. This meant that fear about tomorrow was robbing me of joy for today (doesn’t Jesus say something about that?). So I consciously chose to enjoy today and not worry about tomorrow. And I chose to be grateful for all the good I was experiencing and the blessings I was receiving. That was a lesson I needed not just for the Pyrenees but for all of life.

‘Don’t worry, be happy’ is trite, a bubble-gum summer tune. What Christ leads us into is deep and satisfying, sustenance that can survive the winter. Being grateful and not worrying is not a CBT mind hack but a deliberate submission to his sovereignty that provides security and hope. Gratitude for common grace, all the good things of everyday life, even among the brokenness – married to gratitude for saving grace, the miracle of God in Christ condescending to meet us in our sin and need: his stooping down to our level.

Confident gratitude for this grace is what empowers us to hand over our worries. He really does hold us. That’s true eternally, and it’s true now, even at the end of the ages.

We live in an era of profound dissonance. Too much has happened, too fast. The impact on our personal and collective psychology will take a long time to shake out. But we don’t need solutions so much as we need to learn who we are in Christ and to build resilient communities of the saints who express deep gratitude to the Saviour and know how to turn their worries over to Him. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

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THINK 2024: Reaching Post-Christians

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The West is not as post-Christian as it thinks it is. No doubt there are places on earth where it can feel like the wider culture is currently rejecting Christianity at an unprecedented rate. But the ideology that characterises post-Christendom is still, despite itself, irreducibly Christian. Imagine a cryogenically frozen Viking waking up in twenty-first century Scandinavia, or a Mayan exploring contemporary Mexico, or Asterix and Obelix encountering German social democracy or French laïcité. As “secular” as those places might feel to many of us, their values would seem deeply Christian to anyone who had not experienced them before.

Still: it is obviously the case that living in the world of late modernity presents plenty of challenges for orthodox believers. Whatever we call the religious outlook—secularism, post-secularism, post-Christianity, or something else entirely (I like the term “Protestant paganism”)—people are still skeptical toward Christianity, and in some cases downright hostile. The old gods are still here, in varying levels of disguise: Mammon, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Gaia and Dionysus in particular. Renouncing them all to follow Christ is still costly. It is still harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. The church still has many flaws, and the cultural influence of Christianity has made those flaws even more unattractive to everybody else.

So how does the Western church not merely survive, but thrive, in this particular moment in history? How do we reach post-Christians: the nones, the dones, the not-yet-wons, our daughters and sons? Some of the answers, of course—prayer, evangelism, discipleship, hospitality, service, the power of the Spirit—are the same as they have always been. But others might require theological, historical and cultural reflection: on how and why we got here, what challenges and opportunities are before us, and how we might respond to them.

So, from 2-4 July 2024, we are going to spend some time thinking about all this. I am delighted to announce that we will be joined by the outstanding duo of Rebecca McLaughlin (author of Confronting Christianity, The Secular Creed, and several other excellent books) and Rachel Gilson (author of Born Again This Way) to help us. The conference will be hosted by Andrew Wilson (King’s Church, London) and will include plenary sessions, breakout discussions, meals together, and time for Q&A.

The cost of THINK 2023 is £150 per person, which includes tea, coffee, and meals together at lunchtime and in the evenings but does not include breakfast or overnight accommodation in London. We will begin at 3:30pm on the Tuesday, and finish with lunch on the Thursday, at King’s Church London King’s Church London, 21 Meadowcourt Road, London, SE3 9DU.

Come. Take time. Be refreshed. Think. You can book in here.

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Remaking the World Launches Today!

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After three years of reading, writing, rewriting and editing, my new book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West is out today. It's a mixture of deep history and cultural apologetics, and it tells the story of the seven transformations that have shaped the modern West—globalisation, Enlightenment, industrialisation, the great enrichment, democracy, post-Christianity and Romanticism—through the lens of one year. It concludes with three ways in which the church at the time responded, and how we can learn from them.

As far as I know, the cheapest place to buy it is here (£12.99!), and it’s also available on Kindle and Audible. Don’t worry: I won’t clutter up these pages with every excerpt, interview and review of it. But I did want to let you know it was out, and I hope you enjoy it!

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Death of the Innocents

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Three different women. Three very different public responses.

In June Carla Foster was given a custodial sentence of 28 months (half to be spent on licence) for “illegally procuring her own abortion when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.” Foster had duplicitously obtained abortion pills during lockdown, claiming she was seven weeks pregnant. Foster’s sentencing provoked widespread outrage and on appeal was reduced to 14 months suspended.

Close on the heels of this was the case of Paris Mayo who, aged 15, delivered her baby in secret and then killed him. Unlike Foster, the Mayo case generated little sympathy and she was roundly condemned. As the BBC report concluded,

Mayo’s version of the story is that of a troubled teenager, a victim herself, who feared her parents’ disappointment and acted in panic.
The prosecution, and the jury, see Mayo as a lesser victim than the baby whose life she extinguished.
Her actions, they decided, were deliberate, cruel and criminal.

Mayo was jailed for at least 12 years.

And then there was Lucy Letby, given a whole-life sentence for the murder of seven babies on a neonatal unit. (“Whole-life orders are the most severe punishment available and are reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes.”) This story generated an incredible amount of coverage and there was widespread horror at the actions of this ‘normal looking’ nurse.

What do these stories tell us about how we understand ourselves?

Objectively – at least for the babies themselves – there is little to choose between these three cases. In each one innocent lives were ended by those who should have preserved them. The very different responses, both in their reporting and in the sentences applied, seem to stem from Mayo and Letby killing babies after they were born whereas Foster killed her baby before it was born; although at 32-34 weeks Foster’s baby was as viable as the babies Letby killed.

In Letby’s case there was a particular revulsion because she was a nurse. The British national myth is largely woven around the wonder that is the NHS with nurses the angels who uphold the whole tottering edifice. So for a nurse to be a killer is a very particular betrayal. But isn’t it at least as much of a betrayal that a mother should kill her baby? That reality was reflected in the sentence handed down to Mayo, but not to Foster.

There’s some incongruity here, and that incongruity comes down to a perception of rights. So Letby is ‘cruel and evil’ while Foster is the victim of ‘archaic’ legislation.

John Piper describes something of this incongruity in his experience of having lunch with an abortionist.

I went to lunch armed with my arguments that unborn children are human beings and therefore should not be killed. I was unprepared for what I heard. He said, almost incidentally, that the main driving force behind his involvement was his wife, because, for her and thousands of other women, he said, this is a root issue of women’s rights. Will they govern their own bodies and reproductive freedom or will others? More essentially, and even more surprisingly, he conceded my arguments immediately and said I didn’t have to waste my time proving that the unborn were human beings. He said bluntly that he believed that. The issue was whether the taking of human life is warranted by the greater good of a woman’s rights. I have found this position repeated in talking with other pro-choice professionals; when pressed they don’t dispute that they are taking the life of human beings. They admit it is not ideal but the lesser of two evils, especially in view of the tragic situations into which so many of these children would be born.

Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, p233

It’s important that those of us who are pro-life see this, just as we would want those who are pro-choice to acknowledge it. We know that killing babies is wrong regardless of circumstances (hence Mayo being described as a lesser victim than the baby whose life she extinguished), just as we know that a baby in the womb is a baby, so killing it should be equally wrong. But we then run up against the shibboleth of reproductive freedom. Something has to give, and at the moment it is the babies.

What to do? Keep on pointing out the incongruities, yes. But grieve. Mostly grieve. Three different women. Three different responses. Each unbearably tragic.

 

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Why Isn’t the Church Speaking Out About Abortion?

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‘Why isn’t the Church doing more to speak out against abortion and help women who have been hurt by abortion?’


This was a question posed to me and others on a hot topics panel at an 18-25s event earlier this year.

I was hugely encouraged by the question. It was encouraging that young adults want to talk about abortion. It was encouraging that they acknowledged that abortion is something Christians should oppose. And it was encouraging that they recognised we ought to speak out not just for the sake of the babies who lives are lost through abortion but also for the sake of the women whose lives are impacted negatively by abortion.

But alongside that encouragement, I also felt deeply challenged. Here was a young person expressing discontent that the Church is not expressing God’s heart of love and justice in relation to the heart-breaking reality of abortion. How often have I heard that discontent from older Christians, and especially from church leaders? Very rarely. My first response to the question was actually to say, ‘I agree’. Why isn’t the church talking? We should be.

Trapped by Fear?

There may be various reasons why the Church isn’t doing more, but I suspect a big reason is fear. We are fearful of what will happen if we do.

Some of these fears are probably wrong: for example, the fear that we’ll lose popularity or social respectability (as if Christians are ever meant to be popular or popularity should trump speaking up against injustice). Many of our fears might be good and understandable: fear of seeming judgemental, fear of causing pain to those who have been personally involved in an abortion, fear of handling a complex and emotive subject badly.

But these fears – even if understandable – leave us trapped. We know we should engage with this topic and yet we feel unable to do so. And so we don’t. In the meantime, those we lead are left without Christian teaching on the subject, abandoned to the perspectives of the world or to quasi-Christian prejudices. Women facing pregnancy crisis situations, and those alongside them, including men, don’t know where to turn for support or how to make decisions that honour God. And those who have been negatively impacted by abortion feel unable to seek help either because the church’s silence communicates that abortion is the unmentionable sin or because it abandons people to the world’s narrative where acknowledging any negative impact of abortion is a betrayal of women’s rights.

Instead of being trapped by our fear, we need to face our fears. Some of those fears will be things we need to reject – things we shouldn’t be prioritising over speaking out for the wellbeing of babies, mothers and fathers – others will be things we need to allow to impact how we engage, but not to stop us from engaging. Our good fears should lead us to engage wisely; they shouldn’t stop us from engaging at all.

Learning to engage wisely

What does wise engagement look like?

It looks like doing our research and understanding the complexities – the many different factors that can drive people to seek an abortion and the many potential negative impacts of abortion on the mother and those around them.1

It looks like taking a wholistic view – recognising that we must speak out for the sake of babies in the womb, but we also speak out for the sake of women who are often negatively impacted by abortion. As it is sometimes helpfully summarised, ‘Both lives matter’.2

It looks like learning to engage with compassion and humility. Before we can engage publicly, we need to be moved privately, moved by the plight of babies in the womb, by the women who feel abortion is their only option, and moved by the women (and men) negatively impacted by abortion. Any head response needs to be first impacted by a God-shaped heart response. And we engage with humility. Of all people, we should be able to call out what is wrong and yet do so in a way that is not judgemental and that doesn’t leave people trapped in shame. The gospel – its impact on us and its offer to others – is what enables us to engage with true compassion and humility.

And it looks like engaging practically. We need to speak out against abortion, but we can’t only speak out. We must also act: act to see the situations and circumstances that drive people to abortions change; act to educate people about the reality of life in the womb; act to see support offered to those negatively impacted by abortion. Ultimately, we want to engage practically to see abortion become both unthinkable and unnecessary.3

A challenge to the Church

The question posed by a young person at that event is a challenge to us. Maybe it’s a question many of us need to ask ourselves. If we do, and we’re honest, we might well find that we’ve been trapped by fear. In the process, we’ve left others in the same situation: those facing crisis pregnancies can be left trapped in fear that they can’t cope with bearing or parenting a child, and they become trapped in thinking that abortion is their only option; those experiencing some of the negative impacts of abortion are trapped in their pain, fearful of talking about their experience and how others, perhaps especially Christians, might respond. If we allow ourselves to be trapped, others are left trapped too.

It’s time for us to face our fears so we can engage in wisdom.

Footnotes

  • 1. A short but very helpful book that acknowledges these complexities well is Lizzie Lang, Abortion (The Good Book Company, 2020).
  • 2. The idea that abortion often negatively impacts women is controversial but, I think, justified. On medical risks and mental health, see ‘Abortion: Risks and complications’ and ‘Abortion and Mental Health’, CMF. For real-life stories sharing a range of experience of abortion, see ‘Abortion Stories’, Pregnancy Choices Directory.
  • 3. For examples of organisations that can help churches think about one form of practical engagement, see Pregnancy Centres Network and OPEN.

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A Letter to the Deconstructing

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Matt Anderson's wonderful new book, Called Into Questions, finishes with a superb letter to the deconstructing believer. I can't think of a better way of persuading you to read the book - which is an excellent treatment of how to ask good questions - than by showing you how he concludes it:

Emily,

“Deconstructing” is a popular term, but a complicated concept.

For some people, it seems to mean a systematic rejection of many of the core tenets or practices they were raised in—like their understanding of God, or the Bible, or church. Many have deconstructed their way out of Christianity; some have made their way into different types of churches. Many of them have experienced pain at the hands of the church, their parents, or other Christians they trusted. Others have felt alienated by some of Christianity’s long-held moral convictions. Some have been frustrated by how political partisanship has captured some Christian communities. Many of them have found each other on the internet, gathering around Twitter and TikTok hashtags. My impression is that people who are deconstructing are often concerned first and foremost with injustice, not whether a theological framework is true or false. They tend to think their church community was not only wrong but harmful. The “deconstructing” are looking to escape and transform their past, as you are. Sometimes they have good reasons for doing so, but much depends on what type of life they “reconstruct” afterward. Generalizations are dangerous, and I want to be careful here.

It is hard to know how to be helpful as you work through your troubled history with the church. “To whom shall we go?” a disciple once asked Jesus, for “you have the words of eternal life.” The disciples were disoriented, confused, and scandalized by Jesus’ proclamation that they would have no part in Him unless they ate His body and drank His blood. His claim offended religious sensibilities and drove people away from Him. His disciples stayed with Him, though. What did they see in Jesus that those who left Him did not? I suspect they did not stay because they understood or thought everything was going to be all right. They could go nowhere else to hear life like that which Jesus offered.

I think about that passage sometimes when I hear one more story of someone who is deconstructing their faith. How can my words participate in Christ’s words of life? It would take a miracle for me to say something that would bring comfort and exhortation, to help turn you again toward the faith you are now turning away from. After all, this is a book about how questions fit in a life of a faith that is bound to the church, with all the suffering and pain that she sometimes causes.

It is hard to believe that God is good when the body He has given us can cause such damage. I hated the church the day she kicked out my dad after seventeen years of faithful service as a pastor. I still remember sobbing as he walked down the aisle of the church after his final sermon. I was twenty-four. I wept while taking Communion this Easter Sunday—not with joy, but with sorrow for all the damage the church and I have caused this world. I am glad Christ rose from the grave and defeated sin and death—but why did He have to leave us to ourselves and stay away for so long? Sometimes it feels like all we do is make a hash of things. I am more impatient than God is, clearly, and shocked myself with how angry I felt at His absence. I pray to God to never know another Easter like it. Our families shape us from the moment we are born, but the church promises us eternal life or death. It has a power over our imagination no other institution can match. The church can do enormous good or cause almost infinite damage.

Still, I do not think the sins of the church are a reason to leave it. Christianity is an odd religion—it builds alienation and pain into the church almost from its beginning. Why should we be free from participating in Christ’s sufferings in church—His body, which suffered at the hands of sinners? None of us have yet been made perfect. The Old Testament is one long reminder of the damage God’s people cause and the persistence of God’s love. God’s forbearance with His people is the real scandal. Why is He so patient with us when we clearly do not deserve it? I realize that this seems like a neat trick to those who are skeptical about Christianity: the church’s sins and failures suddenly become one more reason to believe because the Bible predicted them! I understand the frustration. But if we are going to oppose the church, we should at least accuse it of the right crimes—and Christianity has never held out that people would be safe from sin in her midst. Judgment will begin with the house of God. In some ways, it already has.

It might be that I am willing to put up with the church because I have nowhere else to go. Where else can I hear the truth about my own sins, and receive the power to repent? The fact that I have so many sins makes it hard for me to be severe toward the church. Our sins do not give others license to harm us, and our suffering is not (necessarily) punishment for them. But in an imperfect world, victims have their own vices. In a letter to his son that I recently read, J. R. R. Tolkien points out that the scandals of the church are a convenient temptation to disbelieve because they “turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scape-goat.” Confessing our sins frees us to hold wrongdoers accountable while still offering them forgiveness. Is there a more powerful sign of strength than showing mercy to the undeserving? There is nothing weak about forgiveness.

Maybe I am too sanguine about the church—but I don’t think so. “Sanguine” is an interesting word in this context: it means optimistic and cheerful, but it comes from a Latin word (sanguinis) that means “bloody.” How blood became optimistic has more to do with outdated theories of medicine than it does religion, but history has never stopped writers from making our point, has it? I am sanguine about the church because the blood of Jesus flowed for her, and for me. Where else shall we go? There are words of life here, even if they demand our death with Christ on the cross.

I was recently asked by a non-Christian why I had not tried to convert him to Christianity during his relational turmoil. I reminded him that I did mention Jesus to him once, so I am not that bad of a Christian. But I am reluctant to persuade someone to believe in Jesus because He will make their life better. Sometimes Christ does solve our problems. But sometimes He allows those problems to continue, and sometimes He seems to throw new problems at us. The whole question of Christianity is not whether it will make us feel better, or have better relationships with our parents, or have less anxiety at work—but whether it is true and good and beautiful. The cross of Jesus answers our deepest questions
and liberates us to ask a million new ones. But it is still a cross, which hardly offers the comfort and security we want.

I sometimes wonder whether people today are turning away from Christianity at all—or whether they are rejecting a cheapened, sub-Christian optimism that worships the false god of personal peace and affluence. Many people my age seem to have made Christianity a means to a stable job, healthy family, and happy emotional life—and then are surprised when the world lets them down. Sometimes God sounds more like a “life coach” than the terrible, strange, living God of the Bible. I suspect some of the “deconstructing” are only replacing one form of therapy for another—only access to their new sources of happiness is limited to those with money to pay for it. Think about the practices that have replaced church: people pay for therapy, for wellness classes, for yoga, for meditation apps, for relational counseling, for career counselors, for dieticians and personal trainers, and so on. All those can be helpful. Yet if that is what it takes to live a good life, no one with a working-class job and a couple of kids is going to make it. For all its problems, the church at least offers confession, meditation, and singing for free. All she asks is that you take up your cross and follow Jesus.

I am running out of space here, and this letter is already too long—though I dare say you expect such rambles from me by now. I want to close by putting some questions to you. I know doing so is dangerous: questions can easily sound like judgment. I do not mean them to be. I offer them only as opportunities to think about deconstruction with someone who is outside the community. My questions are not neutral. They are rooted in my impressions of what deconstructing has come to mean. Whether they are helpful will be limited by whether you resonate with them. Yet I offer them as expressions of my love for you. I wish you knew how troubled my soul is on your behalf—not because I am angry, but because I am grieved for the damage you have suffered and the course you have chosen.

First: Are you sure that deconstructing is the right stance to take toward the intellectual and religious inheritance you have received? We tear down buildings that we have judged to be condemned. Is being raised in a narrow corner of the faith enough to condemn it? Or is there more to Christianity than what you were given? Our intellectual inheritances are often more ambivalent than the language of deconstructing seems to permit. The tools we use to tear down were often given to us by the systems we are now turning against, and by the people who believe in them. The church I grew up in broke my heart—but they also helped me pay for college. We might need to cultivate gratitude for the gifts we were given alongside our anger at the pain we suffered. Otherwise, we risk reacting against a distorted picture of the world we grew up in.

A related question: Does deconstructing as an intellectual posture offer you sufficient resources to avoid cynicism? I take it that the aim of debunking is to see through a framework, to expose it as insufficient, whereas the aim of understanding is to discover how and why it works the way it does. The former offers no constructive alternative because it does not need one to survive; the latter mode of inquiry allows better options to emerge from within if the outlook under consideration is found wanting. Understanding strives to truthfully see the world; cynicism wishes only to dismiss it. If you will indulge me, I think C. S. Lewis said this better than I:

The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.

It is possible that the community you grew up in worshiped idols. Sin is real and really distorts our understanding. But the mantle of deconstructing those idols is a heavy one to carry on our own. Where does the deconstruction end? As Oliver O’Donovan has written, the “prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion.” What kind of damage are you willing to cause in order to undo the damage that has been done to you?

Third: Are you confident the digital community of deconstructionists is helpful? Publicizing our doubts changes them. We become more attached to beliefs that we broadcast, as attaching our reputation to them raises the stakes for us. Having company in our questions is intensely comforting, to be sure. Many people have gathered in online communities because they have struggled to find offline connections. But the social pressures of groups make it easy for them to take us places we never set out to go. (This is true of churches as well: any group of people that gathers around a shared set of interests runs the risk of becoming narrower as time goes on.) Off-line groups have other points of connection to hold them together, though, which makes it easier to keep things in proportion: members of a church live in the same city, are subject to the same politicians, and enjoy the same weather. They have much besides church to talk about, which helps keep their religious life from devolving into fanaticism.

This is less true of digital communities, as the people who gather only have their shared interest in common—whether it is their love of a sports team, a movie, or an influencer. The more time we spend in narrow interest groups online, the easier it is for them to take on a disproportionate significance in our self-understanding. It is undoubtedly helpful for people wrestling with doubt to have support—but we need solidarity from those who know us in real life, so they can help us keep perspective on what we have been through. Social media is a constant performance, which makes it difficult to know what is real about our doubts. Are you sure deconstructing in that environment is helpful?

Finally: Do you think it noble or good to love your enemies? Are your questions to the church motivated by charity or suspicion? Are your questions aimed at calling the church to repentance—or destroying it? Would you prefer a church that only offers comfort, or are you willing to accept one that makes demands? Justice is the external form of love, and love is the inner core of justice. They live and die together. Yet justice and love depend upon distinctions, on separating this from that. They demand an openness to the world, a capacity to be surprised. Are you sure your questions about your church embody a desire to tell the truth about it, rather than only to tear it down? What is true of one institution like Mars Hill Church in Seattle might not be true of another. You might have “seen this story before,” but you also might not have. The details, the actors, the context—all of them might need a different set of questions than those from the stories you have heard.

I have argued in these pages that seeking understanding should be the primary impulse of the Christian mind—but I really just mean the mind, whether Christian or not. Maybe that is wrong. But it seems to me that we should avoid turning deconstructing into a program or project. If nothing else, it distorts the intellectual life by turning one away from its primary aim and end.

Christianity is far stranger than many of its critics know and more compelling than most of its defenders can imagine. If it is true, everything hangs upon it. I hope you will allow the sorrow you feel to drive you deeper into the depths of God—for I am confident that you will discover words of life there more beautiful and good than those I can offer.

With my prayers,

Matt

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Is Same-Sex Marriage an Issue of Equality?

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One of the things I sometimes hear is that I am a victim of discrimination. Traditional Christian teaching, still followed by many denominations and churches, holds that only opposite-sex couples can unite in Christian marriage. In these contexts, two people of the same sex cannot unite in Christian marriage. This, it is claimed, is discrimination against people like me who feel exclusively attracted to people of the same sex. For those who make this argument, the acceptance of same-sex marriage in the church is a simple matter of equality, and failure to accept such unions is discrimination.

There are some things in this argument that resonate with me – and probably with most of us – because they are good things. There’s a hunger for justice. There’s a right belief that inappropriate discrimination is wrong and that equality is something we should be fighting for. These very beliefs are rooted in the Christian tradition: they flow from the truth that every person is made in the image of God, and from the example of Jesus.

But I think this argument is also confused and unfair. Same-sex marriage is not an issue of equality. Restricting Christian marriage to opposite-sex unions is not about discrimination, it’s about definition and distinguishing.

Definition

Christian marriage is, by definition, the union of a man and a woman. This has always been Christian belief, rooted in God’s creational design, as revealed in Genesis 1 and 2 and reaffirmed by Jesus (Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:1-9). And it’s a purposeful definition: the union in difference of opposite-sex marriage reflects the union in difference of Christ and the Church. Restricting marriage to opposite-sex unions is not about discrimination; it’s about definition. It’s simply an outworking of what marriage is.

This same principle can be seen elsewhere in life. For example, I couldn’t join the Royal College of Surgeons because I am not a surgeon. The fact that they would deny me membership of the organisation is not unacceptable discrimination; it’s simply an outworking of definition. Similarly, I couldn’t get an academic scholarship through a scholarship scheme for ethnic minority students. Again, that wouldn’t be outrageous discrimination; it would simply be an outworking of definition.

The traditional Christian restriction of marriage to unions of one man and one woman is an outworking of the definition of Christian marriage, not an act of inappropriate discrimination. And same-sex unions aren’t the only place we see this at work. Whatever our views on same-sex marriage, there will be some forms of relationship we don’t feel can qualify as an acceptable marriage. For us that might be unions of more than two people or unions where one person is already married to someone else. The point is, we all have a definition of marriage that we feel should dictate who can and cannot enter into such a union.

So people can and do disagree that Christian marriage is, by definition, an opposite-sex union, and that is a conversation that needs to be engaged in. It’s something to be discussed, debated and defended, not a conversation to be overlooked or shut down through unfair accusations of discrimination and inequality.

Distinguishing

The traditional Christian perspective on marriage is also an issue of distinguishing: distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships.

The general concept here is unexceptional. Pretty much everyone agrees there are some relationships that are inappropriate and that should not be sexual. That’s not really an area of disagreement. However, disagreement emerges when we consider where the line falls between acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships.

For Christians following a traditional sexual ethic, that line is dictated by God’s plan and design for sex, as revealed in Scripture: that the only relationships that should be sexual are marriage relationships between a man and a woman, reflecting the relationship between Christ and the Church.

Christians are not unusual in distinguishing between relationships that can legitimately be sexual and those that should not be. We might place the dividing line somewhere different from other people, but the fact we believe there is a line is not unusual.

This being the case, we should be able to explain why we believe the dividing line should fall in a certain place and should be up for discussing and defending that in dialogue with others who would put the line in a different place. Claims that Christians following traditional Christian sexual ethics are unfairly discriminating fail to acknowledge that we all distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships. Such claims can also be used to try and shut down the conversations that might help us to better understand each other’s positions.

So, I don’t think there’s any reason to say that I am a victim of discrimination when churches and denominations hold to the traditional Christian sexual ethic in relation to marriage. It’s not about equality and discrimination; it’s about definition and distinguishing. Claims of inequality and discrimination are unfair and unhelpful, making it hard to cultivate respect for each other and to dialogue about our differences. So let’s put to one side the strategy of accusation and instead take up the strategy of conversation.

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The Moral Argument Still Works

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If you haven't come across Gavin Ortlund yet, he's doing some outstanding work on apologetics, philosophy and historical theology on his YouTube channel. This is an excellent half hour response to the claim that the moral argument for God no longer works (the first half summarises the discussion so far, and the second half is his response). It's excellent:

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Jesus on Procreation

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A few months back, I shared a revelation I had while reflecting on Jesus’s discussion with the Pharisees about marriage and divorce. Jesus’s deliberate choice to quote from both Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 help us to understand his perspective on both same-sex marriage and what it means to be a man or a woman.

More recently, it has struck me that another of Jesus’ conversations also reveals something important about his perspective on marriage. This conversation was with the Sadducees – another of the Jewish groups in Jesus’s day. You can read it in Mark 12:18-27, Matthew 22:23-33 and Luke 20:27-40. It was a little detail in Luke’s account that stuck out to me recently.

The Sadducees were a group who didn’t believe in the resurrection – the truth that God’s people will be raised from the dead at the end of this age to spend eternity with him. So, they proposed a scenario that they thought proved the idea of resurrection to be absurd. They were trying to catch Jesus out.

The Sadducees ask Jesus to imagine a man who marries a woman but who dies before they have any children. In that scenario, following an Old Testament law designed to ensure the continuation of the family line and to secure an heir for the man who had died, one of his brothers would be expected to marry his widow and have a child on behalf of the deceased brother (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The Sadducees share a hypothetical story in which brothers keep dying, each time with the next marrying the woman but none of them producing any children. If the resurrection is true, the Sadducees challenge Jesus, this woman will be married to seven men in the age to come. Surely that’s absurd? You can’t really believe in this resurrection idea?

But Jesus’s response is not to deny the truth of the resurrection but to explain why the Sadducees’ story doesn’t work. They had assumed that resurrection life will be just like life in the here and now. But that’s not the case, Jesus says. In particular, ‘those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’ (Luke 20:35). Human marriages are a reality in this age, but not in the age to come. Marriages that exist now won’t exist then and those who are not married now won’t enter into marriages then. Marriage – and so also sex – are temporary. They are part of this age.

And why is this? There are probably multiple reasons, but Jesus offers one explanation explicitly: ‘for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection’ (Luke 20:36). There’s no marriage because there’s no death. What’s the logic here? No death means no need for procreation which means no need for marriage and sex because sex and marriage are, in part, about procreation.

Notice what this shows us about Jesus’ understanding of marriage and sex. In part, they exist for the purpose of procreation. The rest of Scripture shows us that is not all they are about, but it is part of what they are about. Both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 would suggest the same.

Recognising this helps us to further understand Jesus’s perspective on what marriage is. Marriage is meant to be a relationship that is be open to the possibility that God will bless it with the gift of children through the act of sex.1 This tells us that Jesus understood marriage as being a union of two people and only two people – only two people can be involved in the production of children through the natural means of sex. And it tells us that Jesus understood marriage as the union of a man and a woman – only that union-in-difference can result in a child through the act of sex.

I still sometimes hear it claimed that Jesus had nothing to say on the matter of same-sex marriage. In strict terms, it’s true to say he didn’t address the topic directly. And why would he in a Jewish cultural context where everyone recognised that same-sex unions fell outside of God’s parameters for marriage? But to admit Jesus didn’t address same-sex marriage directly isn’t the same as saying he didn’t communicate anything relevant to the matter and that we can’t know what he would say to us now. Jesus’s conversation with the Sadducees is another place where the words of Jesus himself help us to understand his view on what marriage really is.

Footnotes


  • 1. Two things might come to our mind at this point – contraception and infertility. On the first, it’s helpful to remember the place of sex in marriage. Sex in marriage is not a series of one-night stands but part of a whole-self, whole-life union. It is this union which is to be orientated towards procreation, not every sex act within it. In practical terms, this probably means that while contraception for wise family planning is acceptable, the deliberate attempt to exclude procreation from a marriage through the consistent use of contraception probably doesn’t fit with God’s plan and vision for marriage. It seems every marriage should at some point leave open the possibility that God will bless it with the gift of biological children.

  • On infertility, it is sometimes asked whether an emphasis on procreation as a central purpose of marriage is insensitive to those who experience the deep pain of infertility. However, we should rather recognise that it is the affirmation of a God-designed link between marriage and procreation that explains and legitimises the pain of infertility. Affirming the marriage-procreation link should increase our understanding of and compassion for the pain of infertility and our commitment as church families to weep with those who weep and to be the kind of community where everyone gets to have a genuine experience of family.

Editing the Declaration

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In one epoch-defining edit to the Declaration of Independence - from "sacred and undeniable" to "self-evident" - Benjamin Franklin captured the spirit of the post-Christian West. Here's a short explanation of how, which serves as a sort-of-trailer to my new book, Remaking the World. Happy Fourth of July to all our American readers!

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Introducing the Risbridgers

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This week, after fifteen years of running a Leadership Training course (and ten years of doing it for the Catalyst network of churches), I am handing it over to John and Alison Risbridger. It's a huge privilege to be able to pass the course on to such outstanding and experienced leaders - and I can already see how they will improve the training and take it beyond where I have been able to - but I am also aware that there are plenty of people who don't know them at all. So I thought it would be a good idea to introduce them by asking them a few questions. If you like the sound of what they have to say, you can find out more about the course here.

Tell me a bit about yourselves.
We have two young adult daughters, one a Civil Servant and the other a recently qualified Doctor. Since we felt God was leading us to move on from our previous church, Alison has been teaching English to internationals at Southampton City College, reflecting her heart for people from all the nations, and John is doing an MA at All Nations Christian College in Church, Mission and Global Christianity. We love being part of King’s Community Church with our dear friends Andy and Janet Johnston and enjoy spending time walking and running in the New Forest where we live.

What do you think is the greatest leadership challenge of our generation?
Equipping and repositioning Spirit-dependent churches to live and speak the gospel openly, faithfully and plausibly in a post-Christian, secularised world.

Where do pastors come from? How are they best identified, developed and trained?
The ideal is for pastors (and other leaders in churches) to be identified, developed and trained by the local church and the wider movement of churches working together in partnership, so that they are rooted, discipled and accountable within their church community, but also supported, stretched and given a broader vision by being exposed to other leaders and thinkers within the wider movement. God wants to grow us as whole people so leadership training needs to balance and integrate input for the heart, the head and the hands so that people grow in their character/spirituality, their theological understanding and their gifts and skills.

How have you both developed and invested in future leaders in your ministry to this point?
In our previous church we worked with others to develop a discipleship/leadership school, based on Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. The program focused on biblical theology, spiritual formation, missional leadership and practical disciple-making. Alongside this we’ve worked extensively with emerging and existing leaders in one-to-one, team and conference settings.

What excites you about the next phase of your ministry together?
As a couple we have always felt called to ministry together and, while we share the same heart for Jesus and for people, we complement each other in terms of our different gifts, experiences, strengths and weaknesses. We’re excited about being part of Catalyst and love the vision for growing churches which are deeply rooted in the Bible and expectant for encounter with the Holy Spirit.

It’s been so encouraging already to see the calibre of the men and women on the course, and we have seen for ourselves some of the great things it equips them to go on to do. It’s an incredible privilege for us to have the opportunity to invest in future generations of leaders - both in teaching on the course and in getting alongside individuals.

What are your hopes for Catalyst Leadership and Theology Training? Why did you want to take on the role of Course Director, and what do you hope God will do through it?
For quite a while we had been sensing that a big focus of our next chapter in ministry would be on growing and supporting emerging leaders. This was powerfully confirmed in a prophetic word for us from someone who had never met us before, just as we were deciding whether to apply for this role.

God has given us a big heart for mission in and through the local church, and for the cross cultural mission opportunities on our doorsteps. So we are really excited to be involved in growing and equipping leaders to step into that vision, with a heart to witness to Jesus in words and in actions and to see his love and power transforming individuals and communities.

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Cancellation and Accountability

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Some typically clear thinking here from Jake Meador on a very important distinction:

One effect of the irritable gesture problem is that language is now mostly used as a tool to gain control or power rather than as a descriptive tool or something we use to try and approach truth together. For example, many now use the idea of “cancelation”, which is a real thing and a genuine problem, as a way of redirecting responsibility when a public figure is criticized for doing something reprehensible. So instead of a person “experiencing the consequences of their actions,” that person is now “canceled,” and can now be deployed as a martyr for the cause. This has the effect of insulating your side from critique because real problems with your movement as well as sound criticisms of it can now easily be brushed aside as “cancel culture.”

This, for example, is how some reactionary Reformed Christians have tried to absolve Thomas Achord of all wrongdoing. Because Achord lost his job, Achord was “canceled.” The facts of his case can then be ignored, minimized, or brushed aside. Once it’s been declared that he was “canceled” it no longer matters that he was, by his own admission:

- trying to smuggle white nationalism into the classical Christian school movement
- posting plainly misogynistic and anti-black racist sentiment on his many anonymous accounts
- rudely criticizing the church that hosted his school from anonymous social media accounts
- making creepy comments that sexualized children
- praising the attempt to “lay” as many women as possible
- comparing Afro-American teens to “chimps”

And it doesn’t matter, to them, that he did all of this while working with and educating children.

But it should matter, shouldn’t it? If you were a parent, would you want a man who said all the things Achord said on his anonymous accounts educating your children? I would not. And the board of his school, given all of this, decided that Achord was disqualified from his job as the headmaster of the school. This is not “cancelation.” This is “experiencing appropriate consequences for your behavior.”

So when I refer to someone being “canceled,” I am not referring to someone who experienced proportional, real-world consequences for bad behavior.

Even so, the reason that “cancelation” has such cache now is that anyone who has spent five minutes on the internet knows that it refers to a real thing that often happens online. So it won’t do to simply dismiss the entire idea of “cancelation” anymore than it would to act as if any form of severe criticism is “cancelation.”

A distinction from church life might be helpful here:

For pastors, there are certain sins that clearly disqualify you from continued ministry as a member of the clergy. If, for instance, a pastor has an affair, he should lose his job and his ordination should be revoked immediately.

There are also sins that might require a pastor to lose his job and have his ordination revoked: If a pastor has a pattern of verbally abusive behavior toward church staff, it may be that the pastor needs to be fired. Or it may be that the pastor simply needs a stern warning from the church’s leadership board or the presbytery or bishop overseeing the congregation and also needs to make amends with the people he has hurt with his unkind speech.

Then there are other cases where pastors sin and no such action of any kind is called for beyond the ordinary penitence and restitution we are required to make any time we sin. Everyone sins and in most cases the right response is simply to confess that sin, ask forgiveness from the parties wronged, and then get on with life.

In other words, when we’re reckoning with the social import of a given sin, we need ways of making distinctions between, say, a person who had an affair, a person with a divisive spirit, and a person who was rude on social media for a few weeks before shutting down their account because they recognized what it was doing to them. All three are examples of sin, but the way each is addressed will (rightly) look different.

Cancelation is when every form of moral offense is treated like a fireable offense, when, say, a bad attempt at writing in the Christian mystical tradition about sex and marriage leads to you losing a fellowship and your pastorate. Or, to slightly shift metaphors, it is when the notion of venial sin is lost altogether and every sin is treated as a mortal sin.

In other words, cancelation works by flattening important moral distinctions between actions and then punishing that action in the most severe way possible. So it by definition cannot be merciful or gracious, nor can it even engage in basic forms of moral deliberation. (A closely related point, I expect, is that when things like mercy and grace are largely unknown to a culture, all that remains to atone for wrongdoing is penance and often penace of a rather extreme sort.)

Because cancelation operates according to the logic of PR rather than the logic of reflection and deliberation, cancelation isn’t intended to be gracious or merciful. It doesn’t care about that, if we can ascribe intent to the concept in that way. Cancelation is an automated process whose goal is not the restoration of the wrongdoer or the reconciliation of severed friendship or trust. The goal, rather, is to either cow the swarmed party into suppliance or to purge the swarmed from the community so as to preserve the moral rightness or purity of that community.

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Arctic Forests

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Objectively speaking, you might say, the Arctic and the equator receive the "same amount" of sunshine. The critical difference, of course, is when and how. Not even the nonstop sunshine of an Arctic summer can make up for the night. The "same amount" of sunlight is not equally distributed ...

What if the first eighteen years of your life were an Arctic winter? What if all the sunlight in your life comes late, at an oblique angle? What if the sun cyclically disappears from a life for nights that seem like they’ll never end? To grow just one membraned layer under such conditions is a feat. To add another ring - to endure - is an achievement. Some years are longer than others.

Don’t compare your sturdy temperate trees to your neighbour’s Arctic forest. You can’t imagine how much implacable energy it took to grow those saplings. You might not be able to fathom what they have endured. You don’t know how ancient that forest is, how much time it has spent enveloped in darkness.

Even more importantly: don’t compare the trees of your tundra existence to someone else’s equatorial rain forest. God doesn’t. They live in different conditions. The sun shines upon the just and the unjust, but not at the same angle or with the same intensity. The birch saplings that have punched up through the crust of your prior life are miracles of grace. (Remember when you thought nothing could ever grow there?) They’ve never lived through your winter. They don’t know how long your night has been. By the grace of God, you’ve endured the dark.

- James K. A. Smith, How to Inhabit Time, 53-54

Understanding Violence Against Women in the Bible image

Understanding Violence Against Women in the Bible

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The accounts of violence against women recorded in the Bible are probably some of the passages that make us feel most uncomfortable and that we feel most inclined to avoid, whether as Bible readers or Bible teachers. We feel unsure how to interpret them, unsure how to teach them, and even unsure why they are even in the Bible. But these stories are important because they speak to a reality that is sadly ever-present in this age and they reveal to us God’s heart in the face of this reality. Claudine Roberts, a former human rights solicitor, has just published a great book in the Cover to Cover Bible study series, exploring six biblical stories of violence against women. I asked Claudine to share a bit about the book and about this important topic.

AB: What led you to want to write on the topic of violence against women?

CR: In 2019 God started speaking to me about my own experiences of male violence, causing me to turn to the biblical stories of violence against women and cry out in prayer, “What do you say about what happened to me, Lord?”. I needed to understand why those stories of violence are included in the Bible and what we’re supposed to learn from them. I looked for a study guide or book that would help me find those answers, but I couldn’t find what I wanted. I did find various books tackling one or two of the biblical stories, but many of them were academic in style, a challenging read, not widely accessible. As I made notes on the stories for myself and noticed the common threads and God’s response to violence against women, I believe God showed me that I was writing the accessible guide I’d been looking for and it would be helpful for others in the Church who want to understand the Bible on the subject.

AB: What missteps do we need to avoid when reading stories of violence against women in the Bible?

CR: First, it’s important to note that sometimes the violence is difficult to spot. For example, we may be very familiar with the story of Abram and Hagar in Genesis 16. That account doesn’t actually say that Hagar was raped, but there are elements in the narrative that point to sexual violence – for example the fact that Hagar’s voice is entirely absent in that part of the story, she isn’t given a choice in the matter, Hagar’s mistress Sarai just decides she will be the answer to their infertility. So we need to read the biblical narrative with an understanding that at times the text offers no moral judgment, it’s simply an historical account of the facts, but that doesn’t mean everything that happened was good and just and within God’s will.

We also need to be careful about the language we use to describe biblical characters and our resulting preconceptions. For example, Abram (Abraham), Jacob, David and others are often described by Christians as ‘Bible heroes’, which might lead us to approach Scripture with the idea that those characters will always be the ‘hero’ in every story. In fact, we need to read these accounts with an awareness that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that the only Bible hero is Jesus. We can expect the Bible to include stories of great men and women failing and demonstrating sinful attitudes and behaviour.

AB: What hope and help can studying these biblical accounts offer to women who have experienced violence?

CR: The biblical stories of violence against women really do point to the hope we have in Jesus. They systematically demonstrate that our hope and salvation does not lie in family members, judges, or kings, only in Jesus who sees our suffering and is moved by compassion to act.

Personally, I also found that these stories helped to negate the lies I had come to believe about myself as a result of the violence committed against me. I was seriously sexually assaulted twice in my teens and then raped in my twenties and on each occasion the enemy told me that my ‘no’ didn’t matter, my voice didn’t matter, and therefore I didn’t matter. Slowly I began to believe that lie; it crept in. The biblical stories of violence against women and God’s response to that violence show that God cares about victims and survivors of violence, they matter to Him. For example, God cares so much about Hagar that He seeks her out in the wilderness, invites her to be part of His family and makes promises to bless her. I hope other women will receive truth in studying these stories too.

AB: The subtitle to your book is ‘Discovering El Roi, The God Who Sees’. Why did you choose that subtitle?

CR: Studying the biblical stories of violence against women has deepened my understanding of the character of God. At times, we can forget that God is the same yesterday, today and always (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8), and we can separate the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament who we see in the person of Jesus (Colossians 2:9). It’s often the Old Testament stories of violence that cause this disconnect. Hagar gives God this title, ‘El Roi’, because His response to her abuse changes everything for her. She is seen, known, and loved by Almighty God. I pray that others (victims, survivors, perpetrators and others) will also discover that they are seen, known and loved by Him. The subtitle is an invitation to know Him.

AB: What advice would you give to church leaders who want to engage with the subject of violence against women as they teach the Bible?

CR: I would love to see more church leaders and preachers engaging with the subject. It’s imperative that we begin to preach on these stories in our regular church meetings, not just at women’s days or one-off special events, because they’re there in the Bible and so many people in our churches need to know what God says about what happened (or is currently happening) to them.

Leaders need to be aware that there will be victims and survivors of violence and abuse within their churches. The first step will be to ensure that the church has robust procedures in place for dealing with any disclosures, so that victims and survivors are listened to, believed, and supported to take action if and when they are ready.

In terms of preparing to teach on the Bible stories, I would urge church leaders to recognise the limitations of their own life experience and read or listen to different voices on the subject. (For an excellent overview of the different forms of violence against women and girls I would recommend Elaine Storkey’s Scars Across Humanity, and on domestic abuse I would recommend Revd Dr Helen Paynter’s The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So.) Specifically, male church leaders may want to invite a female preacher to speak on the subject, or give female leaders an opportunity to input, even if they won’t be teaching. They may also want to consider inviting an outside organisation (like Restored) in to provide training, support, or a guest speaker.

Given the resources now available, there’s no excuse for avoiding the biblical stories of violence against women and remaining silent on the issue when it’s such an important issue for many and so frequently in the news. We, the Church, need to recognise that we are called to speak out against injustice and oppression, and Jesus is the answer to the problem of male violence against women.

If you would like to seek support in relation to any of the issues raised, you may want to contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Line on 0808 500 2222 in the UK (both 24 hours).

Time to Think image

Time to Think

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For many years, cracks have been appearing in the (metaphorical) walls of the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), the only NHS gender-specialist service for under-18s. Those cracks – in the form of concerns from staff members, employment tribunals, court cases, and deeply discontented ex-patients – were warning signs that the foundations of GIDS are unsafe and unfit for purpose. The Cass Review has now given official confirmation of this, and a demolition order (still metaphorical!) has been issued. GIDS will soon close and will be replaced by new NHS services that will follow a very different approach to that which has been the norm at GIDS.

Time to Think by Hannah Barnes tells, as the subtitle states, ‘the inside story of the collapse of the Tavistock’s gender service for children.’ It is not a comfortable read. Barnes offers a thorough account of the progress and subsequent demise of what’s hard not to conclude has been a significant medical and safeguarding scandal.

The scope of the book is primarily to tell the story of GIDS: ‘This is a story about the underlying safety of an NHS service, the adequacy of the care it provides and its use of poorly evidenced treatments on some of the most vulnerable young people in society. And how so many people sat back, watched, and did nothing’ (p.22).

In the process, however, through interviews with staff, patients and parents, and through examination of the available data and research, Barnes also gives us a lot of helpful insight into the phenomenon of trans-identification among teens. For those of us who have been engaging with this phenomenon for a while, there’s nothing particularly new, but there’s a lot to confirm what we already know or have suspected. Here a few points I think are particularly helpful for us to be aware of, especially those of us working with young people.

It so often isn’t about gender

For many – perhaps most – young people identifying as trans today, there is very good reason to think that gender isn’t the main issue. So often, gender is a symptom of something else, not the root cause. This means the best way of helping young people, is to support them holistically, not letting gender trump everything else, and helping the young person to put gender in perspective.

‘Why were more teenage girls being referred to the clinic than ever before, many of them with no previous problem with their gender identity in childhood – girls who often had complex mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm? Could the past traumas of some of these children explain why they wanted to identify as a different gender to escape from their bodies? Did the increasing number of patients who appeared to experience homophobic bullying before identifying as transgender need to be explored in greater detail? Was GIDS actually medicating some gay children, and some on the autistic spectrum?’ (p.20).

‘An audit of patients in the early 2000s ‘showed that it was very rare for young people referred to GIDS to have no associated problems. This was true of only 2.5 per cent of the sample. On the other hand, about 70 per cent of the sample had more than five “associated features” – a long list that includes those already mentioned [e.g. family difficulties, depression, time in care, self-harming] as well as physical abuse, anxiety, school attendance issues and many more. Those who were older (over 12) tended to have more of these problems’ (p.31).

‘What was really going on was that I was a girl insecure in my body who had experienced parental abandonment, felt alienated from my peers, suffered from anxiety and depression, and struggled with my sexual orientation … I was an unhappy girl who needed help. Instead, I was treated like an experiment’ (p.332).

‘Harriet says her trans identity provided “an easy answer” to her poor self-esteem and mental health problems. “I think sexuality was my big trigger for it at the time, where I started freaking out. I was a repressed lesbian at a girls’ school. And then I was quite a heavy Tumblr user. And it was like, you can jump ship and be this other thing … I’m very into computers, and always have been,” she explains, and this was portrayed as being interested in “male” pursuits. Reflecting on those conversations now, Harriet says many were symptoms of autism. Or just being a teenage girl’ (pp.382-383).

It’s usually about distress

To say that gender isn’t usually the main issue, isn’t to say that there isn’t something real going on for these young people. For many, it seems that trans-identification is embraced as an explanation for very real distress and transition is then seen as the solution. In many ways, the trans narrative is a gospel – good news of salvation from distress. The problem is, it’s a false gospel.

‘Clinicians did not agree on what exactly they were treating in young people: were they treating children distressed because they were trans, or children who identified as trans because they were distressed? Or a combination of both? It was unsurprising then that they couldn’t agree on the best way to treat it’ (p.43).

‘I kind of wonder if in these moments of distress in people’s lives – it’s not that I’m saying being trans or [poor] mental health causes you to say you’re trans, but that that might be the thing you think it is because you’re so unwell … you might think that your life might be better if … you’ve got a label for the struggle you’re feeling that isn’t mental health, and it’s part of your identity’, Jack, a trans man (p.94).

‘[H]ere was a potential solution to that distress. The problem with that was that part of what GIDS was trying to do as a service was to “support families to support young people with distress”. “Part of life and development is learning how to manage and tolerate distress, not thinking it’s supposed to be taken away,” [Dr Natasha] Prescott explains. The decision may have been well meaning, but “lots of things can be well meaning, and ill-informed”’ (pp.122-123).

Sexuality is very often a factor

The thing that most surprised me in reading Time to Think was the prominence of sexuality. I knew that many of the young people identifying as trans experience same-sex attraction. I knew that past studies have shown many children who express discomfort with their gender prior to puberty turn out to be gay in adulthood. I knew that being gay at school often isn’t deemed cool, but being trans is. I think I just hadn’t realised how big a factor this is and how hard it is to be a same-sex attracted teenager today, especially if you’re a girl.

‘Homophobic comments from young people themselves, or their families, would be an almost daily occurrence … Some young people themselves would be repulsed by the fact that they were same-sex attracted’ (pp.203-204).

‘He [the patient] had “experienced horrific homophobic bullying” after telling another boy he had feelings for him. This had then spread around the school. “In talking to this young person, I could hear lots of things which pointed towards same-sex attraction, and very little which pointed towards gender dysphoria, discomfort with a body, nothing more indicative of a trans experience”’ (p.204).

‘When GIDS asked older adolescents about who they were attracted to, over 90 per cent of natal females reported that they were same-sex attracted or bisexual. Just 8.5 per cent were opposite-sex attracted – attracted to males. For the natal males, 80.8 per cent reported being same-sex attracted or bisexual’ (p.206).

‘[T]here were families who could not “tolerate” their sons being gay: “the child then sees trans as a way out of this dilemma and the family pressure the child to go along with this”’ (p.211).

‘Young people appeared to be experiencing internalised homophobia and […] some families would make openly homophobic comments … Some parents appeared to prefer the idea that their child was transgender and straight than that they were gay, and were pushing them towards transition’ (pp.309-310).

There are still many unknowns about the impact of transition

While transitioning is often trumpeted as the solution to gender-related distress, there is much we still don’t know about the impact it has on a young person. We need to be honest with young people about this.

‘While there are studies that describe the self-reported high satisfaction of young people and their families of being on puberty blockers, and some improvement in mental health, others suggest there is evidence that puberty-blocker use can lead to changes in sexuality and sexual function, poor bone health, stunted height, low mood, tumour-like masses in the brain and, for those treated early enough who continue on to cross-sex hormones, almost certain infertility’ (p.18).

‘There is a lack of evidence on the impact of social transition, and what limited data there are can be interpreted in different ways. A study showing that only a small proportion of children who socially transitioned later reidentified with their birth gender has been argued to show both how gender identity is stable and unlikely to change through time, and that social transition shuts down options for a child, cementing a gender identity that may change. While there are opposing views on the benefits versus the harms of early social transition, it has been argued that “it is not a neutral act, and better information is needed about outcomes”’ (p.130).

‘Transitioning was a very temporary, superficial fix for a very complex identity issue’, Keira Bell, a detransitioned woman (p.341).

Young people need adults to focus on their long-term good

While things are changing at the level of official NHS policy and this should have an impact in other areas (such as schools when new guidance is released shortly), this will not quickly change things in youth culture. If anything, the changes in official policy may cause a further solidifying of the dominance of the trans narrative among young people.

This is a generation who are suspicious of traditional authorities. They often prize personal experience over professional expertise. And many are more likely to turn to the internet for answers to their questions than to the adults in their lives. The task of rescuing young people from the unhelpful narratives to which they have been exposed will be a bigger and slower one than the task of changing official policy.

So, it’s likely that for a while we will continue to be in a context where adults will sometimes have to act in the long-term interests of young people, even if doing so will be unpopular with those young people. This will be particularly important for parents (and probably won’t be a new situation for most parents!).

‘I wish someone would have been there to tell me not to get castrated at 21’, a detransitioned woman (p.330).

‘When I was 16 … I never considered that I could be interested in my [long-term] health’, a destransitioned woman (p.330).

‘Harriet believes that with more discussion of her sexuality, and the fact that she was a heavy social-media user, she may well have decided not to go through with medical and surgical transition … “I would have liked to be challenged on why I thought certain things were signs of gender dysphoria, such as not liking skirts or not liking my voice. They could have questioned why I changed identities so rapidly through non-binary to trans boy to whatever else’’’ (p.383).

Reading a book like Time to Think it’s hard not to conclude that as a society we have failed a huge number of young people. I imagine we can expect various attempts to hold certain people accountable for that in the coming months and years. Looking forward, this recognition gives us a chance to make a difference. We can do better at protecting and helping teenagers who are finding the challenges of life too much. We can love them well, not by denying their distress or offering false quick fixes, but by coming alongside them in their distress and helping them learn how to navigate it well. For Christian parents, youth leaders and church leaders, this is a moment of opportunity. Time to Think shows us it’s time to love.

From Worldvision to Worldview image

From Worldvision to Worldview

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"While we all begin life with a worldvision, a proper worldview is a momentous achievement," writes James Eglinton. "Few individuals move from one to the other." It's a conceptual framework he draws from J. H. Bavinck, and he describes the distinction like this:

A worldvision is a set of intuitions about the world formed in all individuals by their family and home environment, their teachers and education, and the broad culture within which they live. It is also closely bound to the idiosyncrasies of an individual person’s temperament. That particular combination provides a workable (albeit limited) frame of reference with which to live from day to day. Indeed, it is possible to spend the entirety of your life only looking at life and the world through the single lens that is your worldvision.

In the same sense, it is possible to spend an entire life navigating the streets of New York City only in a first-person perspective, never seeing a map of the city (and all that lies beyond it) or climbing a skyscraper in order to move from the limitations of your individual vision of each street to a more capacious view of the whole city. Worldview relates to worldvision in that sense. It elevates the limitations of first-person vision to the breadth of a bird’s-eye view. An individual vision within the world is a necessary starting point, certainly, but it should not be confused with a capacious view of the world. Every individual has a worldvision, but few have a worldview ...

To adapt one of J. H. Bavinck’s own illustrations, a worldvision is like a map of the world that has been crumpled up into a paper ball. Although that ball now feels manageable in your hand, and while its visible parts offer you some tools for navigation (and a limited degree of truth about the world depicted), it nonetheless must be uncrumpled. The map’s potential far exceeds whatever the crumpled ball can offer.

As a complement to that cartographical picture, Johan Herman adds a further useful illustration: if a worldview is a map, a worldvision is a compass. Those who have no wish to make a map, who reject the struggle to cultivate a worldview in order to remain grounded in whatever worldvision life happens to have given them, have something far more basic—a tool that orients and directs them, albeit without offering any grand view of the world in which they move.

In Personality and Worldview, neither worldview nor worldvision is inherently bad. In fact, quite the opposite is true. A person’s worldvision is a necessary starting point in life, a location in God’s good creation, a set of home coordinates somewhere in nature and history. As such, we must all begin with a worldvision and should see it as a basic good. It is by God’s kind providence that no one starts off nowhere.

Despite this, worldvision nonetheless becomes problematic when it is made a permanent abode rather than a starting point. A worldvision shows you one way to live in the world on the basis of all manner of untested assumptions, and as such, it is utterly subjective. It is an assumption—but not the truth—about the world.

Ethical challenges posed by biological neuronal networks image

Ethical challenges posed by biological neuronal networks

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That computer technology grows ever more powerful, refined, and efficient is self-evident. Moore's law observes that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years, and we are familiar with factoids such as the phones we carry in our pockets containing more computing power than the Apollo spacecraft that carried men to the moon.

There are now suggestions that the rate of improvement in chips is slowing as development starts to run up against the physical limits of silicon technology. Impressive as today’s computers are, there is no doubt that they are in many ways puny compared with the power and efficiency of animal brains. While a smartphone has hundreds of thousands of times the memory and processing power of the Apollo computers, they still lag way behind the brains of mammals.

While silicon computers transformed society, they are still outmatched by the brains of most animals. For example, a cat’s brain contains 1,000 times more data storage than an average iPad and can use this information a million times faster. The human brain, with its trillion neural connections, is capable of making 15 quintillion operations per second.

This can only be matched today by massive supercomputers using vast amounts of energy. The human brain only uses about 20 watts of energy, or about the same as it takes to power a lightbulb. It would take 34 coal-powered plants generating 500 megawatts per hour to store the same amount of data contained in one human brain in modern data storage centres.


This vast disparity in storage, processing speed, and energy efficiency between animal brains and silicon-based computing means that researchers are beginning to explore the possibility of creating biological computing.

This possibility was brought into focus when Melbourne-based Cortical Labs incorporated brain cells in a computer chip. In a paper describing their research, the team show how they made these first steps in creating a ‘synthetic biological intelligence’ (SBI). Their ‘DishBrain’ computer used neurones from both rodent and human sources to create a computing network that learnt to play a version of the classic arcade game Pong.

A biological neuronal network (BNN) like DishBrain offers great potential for more powerful computing as the ‘wetware’ of neurones integrates with computing hardware using the common language of electricity. DishBrain demonstrated that a BNN is capable of self-organising - that neural development can occur as the computer responds to stimuli and learns to better complete the task it has been set.

This fascinating piece of research represents more than mere scientific curiosity: BNNs really could offer the potential for much faster and more powerful computers, breaking free of the constraints imposed by silicon circuits. As well as massively improved processing power, these neural computers could use far less energy than existing machines. They would be smaller, more flexible, and cheaper to run than silicon-based computers.

But alongside these fascinating possibilities lie substantial ethical questions.

The very name chosen by the Melbourne team is troubling: DishBrain highlights the disembodied nature of what has been created - human neurones, yes, but human neurones operating in a Petri dish culture rather than within a human body.

The researchers report significant differences in performance between different cell sources, with human neurones possessing superior information-processing capacity to rodent neurones. If this is the case, we would expect human neurones to be preferred in future and used in more sophisticated BNNs. How might we feel about super-powerful computers running on wetware comprising self-organising human neurones? And what ethical considerations should researchers and legislators be mindful of as such computers are developed?

The human neurones in DishBrain were developed from a stem line from ‘an XY donor isolated from neonatal foreskin’. As stem lines go, this is ethically a relatively untroubling one. But if BNN’s are developed from stem lines such as this, we should still ask ethical and practical questions.

For example, what of donor consent? If tissue samples are used in the creation of neural computers, do the donors need to know this and give consent? What rights might donors then have? Presumably, BNNs could be of significant economic value, so might donors expect some financial compensation? What about intellectual rights as synthetic biological intelligence develops? Or copyright if such computers are able to self-replicate?

DishBrain is described by its creators as a first step in synthetic biological intelligence. This raises the question of whether BNNs could develop a form of consciousness. Might they be able to feel pain? If so, would they have some kind of rights analogous to existing human or animal rights? What would be the legal status of such entities?

These ethical questions might feel less sharp if human stem lines were being used to develop, say, cardiac or skin cells that were then somehow incorporated in a computer. That it is neurones being used certainly ‘feels’ more problematic, even if at a fundamental, ethical level, the questions are similar. The reason neurones will be used is because of their ability to self-organise. It is this neural plasticity that will enable more powerful BNNs to be developed. But does this mean we really could end up with a brain in a dish?

An issue here is the common dualistic tendency to separate consciousness from bodies rather than to speak of humans having embodied consciousness - the ‘embodied soul’ we see in the biblical account of the creation of human beings. In the popular imagination, human consciousness resides in human brains, and machines that incorporate human neurones might therefore be assumed to have the capacity to develop human-like consciousness. Certainly, AIs are increasingly able to pass the ‘Turing test’ and give the appearance of consciousness, even if this is only appearance and not reality. It is likely that BNNs would push ever further in this direction.

If computers increasingly incorporate human neuronal networks, and the information they hold is passed from one computer to its replacement, the idea that humans are essentially brains contained in disposable ‘meat shells’ will be reinforced. This notion, in turn, will have a bearing on other applications of technology in health and on some gender-related issues that society is grappling with. This is one reason why the use of neurones, as compared with other types of cells, feels significant.

So we need to be clear: a biblically framed understanding of humanity would reject the notion that DishBrain represents the first step in creating human intelligence abstracted from the human body. Biblically speaking, human beings can only be understood as embodied souls created in the image of God.

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

This creation was bodily (material flesh and blood), binary (male and female), and self-sustaining (oriented towards reproduction). Human beings are not smartphones whose hardware can be upgraded while the SIM card of the soul is maintained. There is a body-and-soul integrity to men and women which cannot be abstracted one from the other. That we might use the analogy of computing hardware and software to understand human intelligence (just as previous generations used the analogies of the technologies of their day, such as steam power, or clockwork) is understandable. But we are made in the image of God, not the image of a computer.

The fantasies of sci-fi seem to be increasingly being realised, and it is not impossible to imagine that, in time, we will be able to create androids with ‘brains’ built around a BNN and bodies that are able to interact with the world in a way analogous to how humans do - like Bishop in the movie Aliens. Such creations would be impressive and ethically troubling, but they would not be human. They would still be hardware and wetware, not embodied souls created in the image of God.

Far more likely than such a scenario, however, is that BNNs start to be incorporated into more prosaic computing technology to improve battery life, processing power and memory. Even if we are clear that such computers are not human, we will still need to decide whether their use is appropriate - where on the ‘lawful but not beneficial’ spectrum would such machines sit?

So long as the stem-cell lines from which neurones are produced are ethically sourced and issues around consent and ownership properly addressed, we might find no particular problem in the use of BNNs. In this case, we might view neurones as simply a type of circuitry. However, it is likely that many would feel disturbed by such computers or troubled in conscience by their use. An analogy might be found in vaccines developed using fetal tissue lines. That there is a direct connection, albeit distant and attenuated, with a real person could cause understandable disquiet.

Another theological line of thought to consider is the general biblical prejudice against one human possessing ownership of another human or even parts of their body. This is seen in a variety of biblical sources, from the rigid prohibition against murder in Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 20:13, to a rejection of prostitution, to the condemnation of slave traders. Within our cultural framework, this Christian legacy has led not only to the abolition of slavery but to the fact that in English common law, no one actually legally owns a dead body.  (There was a subtle but significant change in this in May 2020 with the introduction of the ‘opt out’ register for organ donation.) If BNNs were to develop to the extent that the phones in our pockets contained human tissue; tissue which we own, that would represent a significant moral and legal shift.

For these reasons, and others space does not allow us to consider, we should be extremely cautious about the development of BNNs. As with developments in embryo research, we should wish for governments to be a step ahead of researchers in setting ethical guardrails around the development of such technologies. Sadly, that might be wishful thinking.


This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of Triple Helix, a publication of the Christian Medical Fellowship.

 

On Church and Culture: Look East image

On Church and Culture: Look East

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Brad East has written one of the essays of the year so far, on the subject of church and culture for Mere Orthodoxy. He summarises and critiques some of the ways that modern Christians have understood the relationship between church and culture, and then proposes an alternative.

In the 1950s, Richard Niebuhr described five ways in which the church engaged with the culture, and clearly favoured the fifth one:

1. Christ Against Culture (Anabaptists, radical sects)
2. Christ Of Culture (German Protestant liberals, Clement of Alexandria, Abelard)
3. Christ Above Culture (Thomas Aquinas, theorists of Christendom)
4. Christ and Culture in Paradox (Luther, Kierkegaard, Troeltsch, early Barth)
5. Christ the Transformer of Culture (Paul [!], Augustine, Calvin)

James Davison Hunter’s much more recent overview (remember To Change the World?) was somewhat different, and was deliberately offered as an alternative and corrective to Niebuhr’s. Cultural engagement in American Christianity, for Hunter, can emphasise:

1. Defensive Against (conservative populist activism)
2. Relevance To (liberal mainline, pop evangelicalism)
3. Purity From (neo-Anabaptists, urban monastics)
4. Faithful Presence Within (Hunter’s own vision)

Hunter’s summary has been hugely influential in Reformedish evangelical circles, even among those who have never read it, not least because of the influence it had on Tim Keller. But it suffers from several drawbacks, several of which (it pains me to admit) were highlighted over a decade ago by our very own Matt Hosier. As Brad East argues in this essay, although Hunter’s call for faithful presence sounds unobjectionable and even irrefutable on the surface, it is articulated in a way that is (a) deeply American, (b) deeply modern and Western, (c) upper-middle class, and most importantly (d) naively sanguine about the professions and institutions in which Christians are called to be present:

When my students read Hunter, they readily voice agreement. I then ask them a simple question: In what professions or spheres of life would “faithful presence” not be possible for a Christian? After not quite following my meaning, they start to rattle off answers. Pimp. Prostitute. Pornographer. Stripper. Slumlord. Drug dealer. Torturer. Assassin. Abortionist. Nuclear weapons manufacturer. Lawyer. Politician. Spy. One student wondered aloud about selling guns or alcohol. Another volunteered that her dad, a pastor, also runs a gun shop. (I teach in west Texas.) Still another raised the question of marketing — a popular major at my university. If marketing aims to manipulate consumers to buy what they don’t need with money they don’t have, may Christians do it? Or suppose that marketing per se is licit; what of working for a firm that advertises an immoral product?

The point is not that my students are right, about these or other jobs. It is that, even setting aside the fact that our imagined audience is white-collar professionals and not the Christian community as a whole, the Kuyperian-Hunterian vision does not prepare believers to consider all the ways their faith will require them not to participate in the workforce, not to attain lucrative careers, not to benefit from the economy, not to “engage” the culture.

It is a powerful point, powerfully made.

So what is East’s alternative? Well, he argues, there is no one “model” or “posture” that we need to adopt to all cultures in all places. Rather, we have four ways of faithfully engaging with the culture which will all be needed at different times according to context, often simultaneously. They are:

Resistance. “The church is always and everywhere called to resist injustice and idolatry wherever they are found. It does this whether or not it has any social power or political prestige to speak of.”
Repentance. “The church is always and everywhere called to repent of its sins, crimes, and failures. Which is to say, the injustice and idolatry the church is universally tasked with resisting is reliably found, first of all, within the church, not without.”
Reception. “The church is always and everywhere called to receive from the world the many blessings bestowed upon it by God. For God is the universal Creator; the world he created is good; and he alone is Lord of all peoples and thus of all cultures.”
Reform. “The church is always and everywhere called to preach the gospel, which is the word of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ ... The gospel, in a word, reforms. It generates adjustment in the way things are with a view to what they shall be in the kingdom of Christ.”

Such a response has several benefits, East concludes. It recognises that context is everything; it does not prioritise paid work as the setting in which the church encounters culture; it is not limited to a particular class, or particular sorts of political or economic regimes; it is concerned with ways of living rather than results or impact; and it is differentiated. (I would add another: it is alliterated.) Sometimes the church has to enter in, settle down, get married and plant vineyards; sometimes she has to “come out from them and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean” (2 Cor 6:17). We need all four modes at our disposal, depending on the times and seasons in which we live.

I think that is tremendously wise. Read the whole thing at Mere O.

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The Case for Passivism

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This is a really nice little piece on "passivism" (as opposed to activism) from Jeff Reimer. "Activism is about getting angry, refusing to accept the status quo, and agitating for change," he writes. "Passivism is the opposite of all that. Passivism is about learning to be a connoisseur of letting things happen. It’s about aspiring to be an ordinary dude living your best life now. Its praxis is very mellow."

Reimer elaborates:

Actually, passivism and activism are not mutually exclusive ... Passivism is the way to incorporate the inevitability of failure into your attempts to accomplish good in the world. Because let’s face it: change is going to happen to you (It already has! It just did again!), and chances are you’re not going to be able to do a thing about it. Even if you give changing the world the old college try, the likely outcome is that you’re going to get steamrolled by the inexorable force of history and have to accept a world you did not choose or want. Better to do that well than poorly. The more activist you are, it turns out, the more important it is to be a passivist.

He then gives ten ways of cultivating passivism, and expands on each:

1. Be born.
2. Log off.
3. Put your own house in order.
4. Pray the Psalms.
5. Plant a garden.
6. Suffer.
7. Serve somebody.
8. Lose a political battle.
9. Start a project you will never finish.
10. Die.

It’s a great read.

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What is the most interesting article on Think?

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That’s a question I put to Bard, the new Google AI. His (“its”?) response was,

That’s a tough question, as there are many interesting articles on the Think Theology blog. But if I had to choose, I would say that the most interesting article is “The Most Attractive Quality in a Leader.” In this article, Andrew Wilson argues that the most attractive quality in a leader is not power or charisma, but humility. He writes that “the most attractive quality in a leader is when you discover that the inside is bigger than the outside.” He goes on to say that “the best leaders are those who are not afraid to be vulnerable, who are not afraid to admit when they are wrong, and who are not afraid to ask for help.”

I think this is a very important and timely message, as we live in a world that is often obsessed with power and celebrity. Wilson’s reminder that the best leaders are those who are humble and vulnerable is a much-needed corrective.

Whether or not you agree with Bard’s assessment, that it should be able to articulate it feels fairly remarkable. Why it chose this article is presumably buried deep in the algorithms by which Bard operates: the number of times this post has been shared, liked and commented on. And, one suspects, a Google ‘anti-Trump’ leaning that makes a post on leadership humility approvable.

The power of AIs like Bard has garnered a lot of attention recently as their sophistication increases. There are times when Bard feels more like a computer program – when it gives answers that are more bullet-point in format and could have been cut and pasted from Wikipedia. But much of the time Bard feels very human, which is of course what it is striving to achieve. Actually, a very interesting human. Because Bard has read everything, it can be asked anything, and is able to supply interesting answers – it feels like a dialogue.

This apparent humanity is the very thing that makes AIs alarming. It means that AIs (as is the case with Replika) can be designed to stimulate and reinforce very human emotions and desires. And if your AI always gives you the answer and affirmation you feel you need, why speak to real humans, who tend to be far less reliable and more cranky.

There will be a lot more comment in the days ahead about all this. Elon Musk’s recent intervention being a case in point. But this is Easter week, when we focus particularly on the bodily suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Core to our Christian hope is that what Jesus experienced was genuinely bodily – it was not a ‘conjuring trick with bones’ or mystical metaphor. Christ died, Christ is risen. Hallelujah!

It is in the living, flesh and blood, Saviour that our hope of re-creation is centred. Not an upload of ‘consciousness’ into a galactic mainframe, but the certainty that we too will be raised as spiritual bodies. Not as AIs but as imperishable people, found in the image of Christ.

Bard reaches the limits of its knowledge when it comes to questions of faith. It says,

For example, if you ask me “What is the meaning of life?”, I can provide you with information about different philosophical and religious perspectives on the meaning of life. I can also tell you about the different ways that people have tried to find meaning in their lives. However, I cannot tell you what the meaning of life is for you. That is something that you will have to decide for yourself.

If you ask me “Does God exist?”, I can provide you with information about different arguments for and against the existence of God. I can also tell you about the different ways that people have experienced God. However, I cannot tell you whether or not God exists. That is something that you will have to decide for yourself.

But we are not AIs. We are able to know. We know Jesus, slain for our sin, raised for our righteousness. And that is way more than interesting!

 

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A Twelve Percenter

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Apparently I’m one of the twelve percent: three years on since the first lockdown was imposed only twelve percent of the British population strongly agree with the statement, “In retrospect, lockdowns were a mistake.”

I am part of the “dissenting minority” who, “Have had to grapple with the possibility that, through panic and philosophical confusion, our governing class contrived to make a bad situation much worse.”

If you’re part of the majority can you,

Imagine living with the sense that the manifold evils of the lockdowns that we all now know — ripping up centuries-old traditions of freedom, interrupting a generation’s education, hastening the decline into decrepitude for millions of older people, destroying businesses and our health service, dividing families, saddling our economies with debt, fostering fear and alienation, attacking all the best things in life — needn’t have happened for anything like so long, if at all?

And I was sceptical right from the beginning about it needing to happen at all. This seemed clear from what happened aboard the Diamond Princess, which on February 20th, 2020, contained half the known cases of covid globally, outside China. 3,711 passengers and crew (median age of passengers, 69). 712 infections. 13 deaths. Not good, but not the end of the world.

Despite the evidence, then and much more since, that lockdown was A Bad Thing the majority of people still consider it a good thing, with many thinking we didn’t lockdown enough. Extraordinary.

Being in a minority is often challenging, but then I’ve spent my whole life holding to minority positions. I’m a Christian, and an evangelical, generally Calvinistic, one at that. A minority thrice over! A far smaller minority than twelve percent. Twelve percent would look like winning!

Being in a minority is uncomfortable. It feels like being constantly buffeted – of always walking into a strong wind. But, as Andrew wrote a few months before the pandemic, “intransigent minorities” can have incredible power for social change.

I tried not to be too intransigent about lockdowns (though some readers of Think thought me too intransigent by far). I was pastoring a church in which most of our members agreed with the general lockdown narrative: it was more important for me to pastor them than to precipitate divisions. I would contend that those of us who were sceptical read the data and projected the outcomes more sensibly than the lockdown zealots, but no one really knew how the pandemic would pan out, or what effect non-pharmaceutical interventions would have.

But I do want to be intransigent about my spiritual convictions. I don’t want to look back at the end of my life knowing I conceded ground where I should have stood firm. What happened during the pandemic was hugely important – people either died or didn’t because of the measures that were taken – but it wasn’t ultimate. The gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimate. It is the good news for all peoples. Believing that makes life uncomfortable at times but I’m happy to walk into that wind, believing the power of the gospel to change lives. Number me amongst the intransigent minority!

 

 

 

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What is an Emotionally Healthy Christian?

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Monday 19th November, 1739
I earnestly exhorted those who had believed, to beware of two opposite extremes – the one, the thinking, while they were in light and joy, that the work was ended, when it was just begun; the other, the thinking, when they were in heaviness, that it was not begun, because they found it was not ended.

What is the state of your emotional health? This is not only a very au courant question but one that John Wesley was dealing with three hundred years ago. I doubt that Wesley would have used the term ‘emotional health’ though, or even known it, but he was concerned for the spiritual health of believers and the spiritual and emotional are deeply connected.

As a good pastor, a physician of souls, Wesley identifies the reality that our emotions are often deceptive. The currently trendy maxim to ‘follow your heart’ is about the worst advice that could be given. The heart – the emotions – are so often deceptive.

Not that Wesley was afraid of emotion. He knew that those deeply affected by an encounter with God would display ‘enthusiasm’ and his journals are littered with accounts of people swooning, crying, and shaking as he preached. But these emotional responses need to be understood as exactly that: responses, not the thing itself.

When someone first comes to Christ (and I’ve seen this many times) there is often a response of incredible joy. Life is transformed, everything looks different, and there is a spiritual/emotional high. Quickly though, as Jesus warned (Matt. 13:20), the realities of life can lead to that joy withering and the new convert drifting away, disappointed. Equally, those who have been in the way a long time can become weary, ‘heavy’ in Wesley’s terminology, and allow that emotional state to dictate their relationship with God.

A key element of Christian maturity is discerning our emotions and learning to lean into what is truly healthful while rejecting that which undermines us. Our emotions need to serve us, not lead us. How we feel is not always the most reliable guide to where we are. Wesley knew that; so should we.

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Masculinity, Marriage and Maturity

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I’m a young(ish) man. Young men often get a bad rap in contemporary society. Apparently we are lazy, with a fear of commitment and a failure to take responsibility. Some say that we are in an extended adolescence. Obviously this isn’t universally true; I’m not even sure it describes a majority, but it probably is sometimes true and it certainly seems to be something people are worried about.

Sometimes in Christian circles, I hear this situation referred to as a crisis of masculinity. What we really need is for these young men to start being real men. And what that often means is that they need to get married. We call men to true masculinity through marriage.

And let’s be honest, sometimes such a call works. I have a friend who says he can relate to the stereotype of a young man in contemporary culture. In his younger years, that was him. And what helped him out of that was being challenged to be a man and get married. He heard that call and heeded that call, stepping into commitment and responsibility through marriage.

Marriage often does young men a lot of good. I’ve observed that in many of my male friends. In particular, I’ve observed that marriage is often good for the spiritual lives of my friends. Before marriage, their walk with Jesus seemed a bit lukewarm and half-hearted. In marriage, they seemed to quickly grow in maturity as a follower of Jesus.

It was this observation that really got me thinking about this phenomenon. It got me worried about single guys like me. If marriage is often the thing that helps young men get serious about being a follower of Jesus, what does that mean for men who don’t get married, and especially for those of us who are unlikely to ever get married? It seems to me that calling young men to true masculinity through marriage is problematic – it leaves some of us unable to be truly masculine and at risk of being unable to be real adults. (It also runs the risk of lumping young women with men who are still like teenagers and are not ready to take on the responsibilities of being a husband!)

But it’s also problematic because it’s clearly not what the Bible teaches. For one thing, the New Testament doesn’t call us to a certain form of masculinity. The New Testament authors lived in a world that had very clear ideas about masculinity – to be a man was to be one who mastered both oneself and others. Masculinity was mastery; femininity was being mastered. The form of your body wasn’t as important as the way you acted. Having a male body might give you a head start on being a man, but it didn’t guarantee that you would be considered a real man.

Into this context comes Jesus. A man who in his example and his teaching taught men (and women) to lay down any right they might have to master others and instead to use their position to serve others. A man who allowed himself to be mastered, to suffer at the hands of others, in order to benefit those who had wrongly tried to master their own lives and the lives of others. Jesus radically undercut his culture’s expectations about masculinity.

And, following the example of Jesus, the New Testament authors don’t partake in the masculinity games of their day. They recognised that being a man is a given identity, received through the gift of a male body, not created through acts of mastery. The New Testament doesn’t call men to masculinity; it calls men (and women) to Christlikeness.

The New Testament also doesn’t call us to marriage. Marriage is seen as a good gift, certainly. It’s seen as an opportunity to model the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). But men are not called to marriage in the New Testament. If there’s any challenge laid down for men in regards to relationships, it’s to seriously consider whether long-term singleness might be the right path for us (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:6-7, 8, 40). Marriage is good; so is singleness (and let’s be upfront, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says it’s better). The New Testament doesn’t call men to marriage; it calls men (and women) to faithful sexuality whether in marriage or, even better, singleness.

That means we have a problem. The New Testament doesn’t call men to masculinity or to marriage. And yet it seems Christian leaders often do. But what we men are called to is maturity. Maturity doesn’t equal masculinity and it doesn’t require marriage. Maturity can be lived out by men who fit all our cultural stereotypes about masculinity and by those who fit none of them. Maturity can be lived out by those who are married and those who are single. If that’s not been our experience, we might need to consider why: how can we help single men to grow into maturity?

So, let’s stop calling young men to masculinity and marriage. That’s not what God asks of us. But let’s start calling young men to maturity. And let’s do what we can to help them grow into that maturity.

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Who Are the Poor?

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I was put in mind of this quote while having lunch in a restaurant at a table alongside a group of striking school teachers. Their placard, propped up on a seat, read, “Too poor to buy soap or deodorant” – which made it difficult to imagine how they could afford lunch in a restaurant. About as hard as it is to imagine that in living memory people were going to the butcher to have their teeth extracted.

Poverty has a way of being like that – you know, a bit relative.

While it might not now be routine for the British to go to the butcher to have their teeth removed, there are still plenty of poor people in the world. Sadly, the covid pandemic (or at least the response to it) pushed 70 million or more into extreme poverty. That was the result of all those lockdowns and closing of economies. I don’t believe anyone intentionally hoped to push tens of millions into teeth crumbling poverty but that was the result, and that result was very predictable from very early in the pandemic – just as current inflation rates were a predictable result of all that magicked-up cash being injected into the economy. The lockdowns were inhumane – they were a fuel for poverty.

While hundreds of millions live in extreme poverty (and despite the impact of covid), the overall decline in poverty is one of the miracle stories of our age. As recently as 1990 38 percent of the global population, some two billion people, lived in extreme poverty. By 2019 these figures were down to 8.44 percent and 648 million people. Christians pray “Thy kingdom come!” Those look like prayer answered statistics. We should celebrate the incredible strides taken in reducing global poverty while grieving the grip it yet exerts.

Deuteronomy 15:4 tells us that, “There need be no poor people among you” yet seven verses on it says, “There will always be poor people in the land”. There’s no need for anyone to be poor: there is sufficient abundance in the world for all. But corrupt structures, personal sin, inequalities, and sheer ‘bad luck’ mean the poor are still with us. 

And every time you walk past a butchers shop, or a protesting teacher, give thanks if you can afford to keep your teeth.

 

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Off the Cliff

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"To our 21st-century, Western ears, love across racial and cultural difference, the equality of men and women, and the idea that the poor, oppressed, and marginalized can make moral claims on the strong, rich, and powerful sound like basic moral common sense. But they are not. These truths have come to us from Christianity. Rip that foundation out, and you won’t uncover a better basis for human equality and rights. You’ll uncover an abyss that cannot even tell you what a human being is. Like cartoon characters running off a cliff, we may continue a short way before we realize that the ground has gone from underneath our feet. But it has gone."

The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims by Rebecca McLaughlin


"My comments about her, err, the person, being a rapist is in context of what should happen to them within the prison service…She regards herself as a woman. I regard the individual as a rapist."

— Scotland’s First Minister
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From WEIRD to Absurd

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Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest People in the World may be way too long and convoluted but his overarching thesis is compelling: that the ‘marriage and family programme’ of Christianity completely reordered western society and is the reason for our liberal values, democracy, and economic success. Imposing the rule that you should not marry more than one person, and that person should not be your cousin, transformed everything – and made us WEIRD.

That Christianity lies at the roots of western values and assumptions is something we’ve often posted about on Think. It’s been the observation behind some fantastic books we’ve profiled (hello Siedentop, Holland, Trueman and Scrivener), and other excellent ones we haven’t (like those by Hobson and McLaughlin). Christianity is ‘the air we breathe’ – without it we simply wouldn’t assume that freedom, equality and consent are values everyone holds, and should hold.

Often the purpose of the books we’ve highlighted and posts we’ve written has been to point out not only western society’s debt to Christianity but the way in which the very values conceived by Christianity are now being distorted and threatened. That this is the case is all too evident.

We may be WEIRD but it is surely absurd that (as currently in Scotland) it is considered ‘righteous’ to earnestly believe someone with a penis can really, truly, be a woman, but to believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, and that children should be born to those so married, is morally repugnant. When WEIRD-ness morphs into absurdity we have a problem.

This is not a problem only for those like Kate Forbes who wish to lead political parties but for society at large. It risks putting a hole below the waterline of the very things that explain our success.

As I watch the debates in Scotland, and talk with my Anglican friends – agonizing as they are over the implications of their bishops’ absurd decisions around same-sex blessings – I grieve but also feel a growing conviction that we shouldn’t take any of this too seriously. The devil loves to be taken seriously, he hates to be mocked. What we are living through is ridiculous, absurd, and passing. Christianity gave the world an enduring model for success; the current distorted representation of that model will limp on only briefly. We need to be more Luther-like and laughingly defy what is so self-evidently preposterous.

We also need to see that the best hope for our world is the true message of Christ. We are not single-issue fanatics, except about the gospel, because we believe the gospel is good news for all the world. As Carl Trueman writes,

We can become so preoccupied with specific threats that we neglect the important fact that Christian truth is not a set of isolated and unconnected claims but rather stands as a coherent whole. The church’s teaching on gender, marriage, and sex is a function of her teaching on what it means to be human.

We’re not the absurd ones. We have the message that speaks to the heart of what it is to be human. That’s not absurd, it isn’t even WEIRD: it’s beautiful.

 

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Virtually Everything I Know About Preaching

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Recently I sat down with Jez Field to talk about preaching for the New Ground podcast: what it is (in spite of what most people think it is), how to preach like music (in which I draw a sermon and talk about how we communicate well), and how to prepare a sermon. I don't know much about preaching, but virtually everything I know is in these three videos, or if you prefer, on the podcast.

See you after Easter!

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Jesus’s Most Important Redundant Words

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It struck me recently that some of Jesus’ most important words for us today were arguably almost redundant when he first said them.

In Mark 10:1-12 (and Matthew 19:1-12), the Pharisees are trying to test Jesus. Desiring to catch him out, they bring up one of the big contentious issues of their day: divorce. Jesus’ response is well known. Rather than debate a point of law with the Pharisees, he goes back to creation, back to Genesis, to God’s design for marriage and makes his case from there.

Jesus’ basic point is simple enough. In marriage, God unites two to become one and no human should seek to separate what God has joined together. To support his case, he quotes Genesis 2:24, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh’. It’s this concept of the two becoming one flesh that Jesus is drawing on to support his position on divorce.

But Genesis 2:24 isn’t the only part of the creation narratives that Jesus quotes here. He also quotes Genesis 1:27, ‘God made them male and female’. Strictly speaking, as far as I can see, Jesus didn’t need to include that quote. His point about not separating what God has joined is rooted in Genesis 2:24, and Genesis 1:27 has nothing to add on that point. In formal terms, Jesus’ use of Genesis 1:27 in this conversation is redundant.

And yet, for us, the inclusion of this additional Genesis verse is vitally important. By quoting these words, Jesus gives us an insight into his perspective on two of the biggest debates of our day.

Sexuality and marriage

When Jesus thinks of marriage, he thinks of God’s creation of male and female. The juxtaposition of Genesis 1:27 – ‘male and female he created them’ – and Genesis 2:24 –‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife…’– shows that Jesus viewed the creation of two different types of human, men and women, as a key reason for the existence of marriage.

The fact that Jesus retains the original ‘Therefore’ at the beginning of his quote of Genesis 2:24, placed immediately after the quote of Genesis 1:27 in Mark’s account, further strengthens this point. The word ‘therefore’ means ‘this thing I’m going to say is true because of what I’ve just said’. The thing he’s going to say is that a man and woman unite in marriage. The thing he’s just said is that God created men and women. Jesus is saying that marriages exist because God created men and women. He couldn’t make it any clearer: he believes that marriage is, by definition, the union of a man and a woman.

This is of huge significance to us. At a time when the church is tearing itself apart over the question of whether to bless and accept romantic and sexual unions of two people of the same sex, we need to hear Jesus’s words. The claim that Jesus has nothing to say about same-sex marriage just isn’t true. When trying to help people understand what marriage really is, Jesus explicitly stated that it is the union of a man and a woman. He could have made this point simply by quoting Genesis 2:24. After all, the union in that verse is clearly of a man and a woman, and yet, he decided to put it beyond doubt by also quoting Genesis 1:27.

To be a follower of Jesus is to submit to him in our thinking and our living. Any person who wants to take following Jesus seriously has to take what he says here seriously when considering the topic of same-sex relationships.

Gender and identity

Jesus’ double Genesis quote also helps us understand how he would answer one of the most contested questions of our day: what does it mean to be a man or a woman?

One popular view in our culture says that to be a man or a woman is to feel like a man or a woman. Our bodies don’t reveal who we really are; only our internal experience of gender can do that. A popular move on this view is to make a separation between the terms male/female – which are thought to refer to body types – and man/woman – which refer to true identities, based on internal realities. So, you might be born with a male body, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a man. Only you can know who you are. What really matters is what you feel inside.

But Jesus’s words here show us that he sees no division between these two sets of terms. He places Genesis 1:27 – using the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ – alongside Genesis 2:24 – using the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ – side by side, taking for granted that they refer to the same thing.1 Jesus saw no distinction between males/females and men/women. For him, to be a male is to be a man and to be a female is to be a woman.

And we can be confident that Jesus would have understood these words to refer to primarily bodily realities. In Genesis 1, the creation of humans as male and female (Genesis 1:27) flows immediately into the command to procreate (‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’, Genesis 1:28). Why? Because to be male or female means to have a body that is structured towards playing one of two roles in procreation. The Bible points to the same definition of maleness and femaleness as is used by biologists to classify creatures across the species.2

This means that Jesus’ words on marriage also offer us his perspective on one of the most contested questions of our day. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? For Jesus, it means to have a male or a female body. God determines who we are and communicates that to us through the body he gives us.3

Jesus offers us answers to the biggest questions of our day. Followers of Jesus need look no further than Jesus himself to find clear guidance on what marriage is and who we are as men and women. The implications of how we live this truth out may be a little more complex, but the truths themselves are made clear by Jesus, and all through a redundant quote from the Old Testament. Maybe Jesus knew his words wouldn’t prove to be redundant after all.

Footnotes

  • 1 In Mark 10:7 and Matthew 19:5, the word translated ‘wife’ is the standard Greek word for ‘woman’ which, in certain contexts, can take on the meaning ‘wife’. The same is true of the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:24.
  • 2 Lawrence Mayer & Paul McHugh, ‘Sexuality and Gender Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences’, The New Atlantis 50 (2016) 10-143: ‘There is no other widely accepted biological classification for the sexes’ (p.90).
  • 3 This remains true even when we acknowledge the reality of intersex conditions or differences of sexual development (DSDs). In most intersex conditions, an individual is clearly male or female with their body exhibiting only minor variations from the expected form. In cases where there is genuine ambiguity over biological sex, this is best understood as a very small number of people being a blend of both sexes. Importantly, there is no third body structure that can play a role in reproduction and so there is no third sex. For more, see Preston Sprinkle, ‘Intersex and Transgender Identities’, Living Out.

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Institutional Leftism: An Alternative Explanation

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Last week I posted Janan Ganesh's explanation for the fact that cultural institutions always lean left in the end: essentially, he argues, it is because right-leaning people today prefer commerce and business to arts and education. Here is an alternative (and more mischievous) explanation from Ed West, who thinks it is the result of elite overproduction:

The politicisation of previously neutral institutions is a facet of elite overproduction; large numbers of people are going to universities to study areas of the humanities and social sciences where progressive ideas about deconstruction are overwhelming and unopposed. The number of these courses has expanded to the point where they no longer select for people bright enough to question their claims, and who struggle to find useful or profitable work afterwards.

The quickest route towards advancement in such a competitive environment is by pushing progressive orthodoxy further, and because there is almost no pushback, these organisations get increasingly extreme until the only step left is to denounce their own founders.

I suspect that a) these two explanations are complementary rather than competitive, b) right-leaning people will prefer this one, and c) left-leaning people will prefer Ganesh’s one.

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Ups and Down’s

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The American Journal of Medical Genetics documents the results of a remarkable study of a particular people group that is not generally characterised by worry: "Among those surveyed, nearly 99% ... indicated that they were happy with their lives, 97% liked who they are, and 96% liked how they look. Nearly 99% ... expressed love for their families, and 97% liked their brothers and sisters."

Who are these extraordinary people? The answer: those with Down’s syndrome. “A slew of recent studies has shown that people with Down’s syndrome report happier lives than us ‘normal’ folk. Even happier than rich, good looking and intelligent people.”

Wouldn’t you suppose we’d want more people of any group characterised by such happiness? Tragically, however, studies show that of mothers who receive a positive diagnosis of Down’s syndrome during the prenatal period, 89 to 97 per cent choose to get abortions. This means that the children most likely to be happy are also most likely to be killed before birth.

- Randy Alcorn, Happiness, 377

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Does Original Sin Involve Victim-Blaming?

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The idea that the fault line runs down the middle of us all may well raise some concerns among those with a heart for protecting the weak, poor and vulnerable. Surely some people are victims, "more sinned against than sinning," so to speak, and surely some are oppressors who need to be stopped. When we say that "we are all sinners," are we not in fact blaming the victim and enabling the perpetrator?

No, we are not. The same Bible that shouts loud and clear “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10; Pss 14:1; 53:3) also raises its bullhorn and hollers in the face of the powerful that “the LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (Ps 103:6).

How can these two truths be held together? The response comes in two steps.

1. There is indeed a pure victim, and unmitigated oppressor, and a perfect liberator, but they are not us. The only truly innocent victim was Christ; the only unredeemable oppressor is the devil; and the only perfect liberator is God.

2. Innocence is not a precondition of love and liberation. God does not clothe Adam and Eve and make them promises because they were innocent dupes of the serpent; he does not liberate the Israelites from Egypt because they are innocent victims (Deut 7:7-8).

- Chris Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 129

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The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics

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It's a huge privilege to be one of the inaugural fellows of the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, which launched yesterday. The basic idea is expressed in this video; the list of fellows includes a number of people who will be known to regular readers, including Sam Allberry, Josh Butler, Rachel Gilson, Mike Kruger, Rebecca McLaughlin, Glen Scrivener and Trevin Wax. Check it out:

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Why Do Cultural Institutions Always Lean Left?

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This is probably the best article I've read this year so far, from Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times. Why do cultural institutions - in education, the arts, literature, comedy, and so on - invariably lean left? Basically, because the right are more interested in money:

There is an axiom that is often attributed, probably wrongly, to the historian Robert Conquest. Any organisation that is not explicitly rightwing will sooner or later become leftwing. The genius of the insight is that it avoids paranoia. It doesn’t pretend that there is a plot afoot. It doesn’t imagine some Gramscian scheme to train up leftist cadres and send them on a long march through the institutions. It just recognises a general gravitation of left-leaning people to careers where the profit motive isn’t paramount ...

Imagine, if you can bear it, the life of the average stand-up comedian. You traipse from pub to club for a small fee and expenses. “Success” is the occasional slot on a television panel show. You start a deeply unremunerative podcast. You self-publish a novel and lose money on it.

No one who is financially motivated would enter this world. Those who prioritise other things, such as creative expression or public exposure, might. And that — not the innate unfunniness of conservatives, not a liberal plot against them — is why comedy is a near-monopoly of the left. The right is usually the first to say that a state of affairs can be “unequal” without being “unfair”. It struggles to do so in this instance.

Conservatism is to a large extent self-eroding. A philosophy that (rightly) salutes enterprise will not attract enough people who want to serve in the culture-shaping institutions. Sure enough, the culture becomes less and less conservative. This problem is all the more acute in the US, where conservatism so exalts the profit motive that it is itself an industry. Burning away in the Republican gut is a historic grievance. Even as the “movement” achieved electoral success over half a century, the texture of life in the country went the other way. The school curricula. The policing of language. The positive discrimination. Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes didn’t win for this.

Some conservatives have rationalised this discrepancy between electoral triumph and cultural retreat as a kind of leftwing swindle. Or, worse, as proof of democracy’s futility. Their own complicity is lost on them. There are Republicans who can’t believe how leftwing universities are and also can’t believe that anyone would ever choose the unlucrative life of an academic. At some point, you’d hope, the irony will dawn on them.

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Is 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 Pauline?

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Was 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 written by Paul? Was it interpolated, and if so why, and by whom? Is it even antisemitic, or is that just a function of poor punctuation? Is it unclear? Have the NIV and the ESV made a mess of the phrase eis telos by translating it "at last"? I think this is one of the best Mere Fidelity discussions we've had recently, and if you've wondered any of those things - or if you're wondering them now - have a listen:
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Climate Change or Demographic Collapse: Which is the Greater Danger?

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This is a fascinating piece from Ross Douthat in the New York Times, which argues that (a) demographic collapse is a greater challenge than climate change, and (b) there are five geopolitical rules which follow from this. Agree with him or not (and honestly I'm not sure yet), it's a very insightful and thought-provoking article:

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe the defining challenge of the 21st century will be climate change, and those who know that it will be the birth dearth, the population bust, the old age of the world.

... Whatever the true balance of risk between the two, the relative balance is changing. Over the last 15 years, some of the worst-case scenarios for climate change have become less likely than before. At the same time, various forces, the Covid crisis especially, have pushed birthrates lower faster, bringing the old-age era forward rapidly. The latest evidence is the news from China this week that its population declined for the first time since the Great Leap Forward, over 60 years ago. A tip into decline was long anticipated, but until recently it wasn’t expected to arrive until the 2030s—yet here it is early, with the Chinese birthrate hitting an all-time recorded low in 2022.

This means that just as China emerges as an almost-superpower, it’s staring into a darkened future where it grows old and stagnant before it finishes growing rich. Meanwhile, variations on that shadow lie over most rich and many middle-income nations now—threatening general sclerosis, a loss of dynamism and innovation, and a zero-sum struggle between a swollen retired population and the overburdened young. (The week’s mass protests in France over Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 were a preview of this future.)

So it’s worth thinking about some rules for the age of demographic decadence—trends to watch, principles that will separate winners and losers, guideposts for anyone seeking dynamism in a stagnant world.

Rule No. 1: The rich world will need redistribution back from old to young.
In recent decades we’ve seen many cases of technocrats proven wrong in their assumptions—from the widespread belief that we needed deficit reduction almost immediately after the financial crisis, to the unwise optimism about the effects of free trade with China. But in an aging world, the technocratic desire to reform old-age entitlements will become ever more essential and correct—so long as the savings can be used to make it easier for young people to start a family, open a business, own a home. And countries that find a way to make this transfer successfully will end up far ahead of those that just sink into gerontocracy.

Rule No. 2: Innovation isn’t enough; the challenge will be implementation and adoption.
If you want growth in an aging world you need technological breakthroughs. But as the economist Eli Dourado noted in a recent piece about the effects of the new A.I. technology, the big bottlenecks aren’t always in invention itself: they’re in testing, infrastructure, deployment, regulatory hurdles. And since aging, set-in-their-ways societies may be more inclined to leave new inventions on the shelf, clearing those bottlenecks may become the central innovator’s challenge.

Rule No. 3: Ground warfare will run up against population limits.
You can see this dynamic already in the Russia-Ukraine war. Vladimir Putin’s mobilization efforts aren’t what they presumably would be if his empire had more young people. Ukraine, with lower birthrates even than Russia, faces a deepening of its demographic crisis if the war drags on for years. The same issue will apply to Taiwan and other flash points: Even where strategic ambitions militate for war, the pain of every casualty will be dramatically compounded.

Rule No. 4: In the kingdom of the aged, a little extra youth and vitality will go a long way.
This is true internationally: Countries that manage to keep or boost their birthrates close to replacement level will have a long-term edge over countries that plunge toward South Korean-style, half-replacement-level fertility. And it will be true within societies as well: To predict the most dynamic American states and cities, the most influential religious traditions and ideologies, look for places and groups that are friendliest not just to the young but to young people having kids themselves. (Also, expect to have a lot more Amish neighbors.)

Rule No. 5: The African diaspora will reshape the world.
The faster aging happens in the rich and middle-income world, the more important the fact that Africa’s population is still on track to reach 2.5 billion in 2050, and reach four billion by 2100. The movement of even a fraction of this population will probably be the 21st century’s most significant global transformation. And the balance between successful assimilation on the one hand, and destabilization and backlash on the other, will help decide whether the age of demographic decline ends in revitalization or collapse.

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Lessons from a Clinical Psychologist

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I recently had the pleasure of connecting with Jo Johnson, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. I learnt so much from her understanding and experience that I thought others might also benefit from hearing from her. Kindly, she agreed to sit down and answer a few questions for me.

AB: Jo, you’re a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. Can you explain what that means and tell us a bit about what you’ve done in your professional life?

JJ: Hello, a clinical psychologist is a psychologist who works in health-related settings, for example the NHS. Psychologists are interested in how human beings think, feel and behave; why we do what we do. A neuropsychologist specialises in conditions impacting the brain, like stroke or brain injury. Neuropsychologists assess abilities like memory, attention and language and help people adjust to the changes after a diagnosis or injury. 

I worked in the NHS for eighteen years in the field of neurology. I have worked mostly with people with dementia, brain injury or multiple sclerosis. I left the NHS in 2008 as I wanted to prioritise my four children’s needs and that was increasingly difficult with a demanding job. 

I’m currently employed by the local constabulary to provide anti-burnout training. This means I train large groups of police officers and staff to manage difficult thoughts and feelings. 

I would love to do more psychological work within a Christian context. In a secular context, I feel I am offering a flimsy Elastoplast to address a life-threatening bleed. Most people seek psychological help because they are feeling overwhelmed by big emotions such as guilt, shame or a sense of failure and hopelessness. I long to tell them of the remedy that works, that Jesus Christ died to bring life and an antidote to those feelings. 

 

AB: What has your work taught you about people and about the Christian faith?

JJ: That the Bible is right about human nature. Of all the textbooks, the Bible includes the most accurate description of how we flawed humans truly think, feel and behave. The Bible says we are created in the image of God but are also deeply flawed. It’s the only ‘textbook’ that explains correctly why we do what we do and why we can’t do what we’d like to do. 

Many people who seek my help have been hurt because of the lies that are being pedalled as truth. Beliefs like the idea that we deserve happiness, that we must find our true selves, that you can have sex with whom you like without harm. By seeking happiness and pleasure as a primary goal, people lose what gives true meaning and suffer terrible self-loathing. I have learnt that the most attractive, wealthy and successful people are still hurting because their soul problem remains unaddressed.

 

AB: You like to make use of the acceptance and commitment therapeutic model (ACT). Tell us a bit about that and why you’ve found it helpful.

JJ: I love acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT as practitioners call it. It’s one of the more recent versions of Cognitive behaviour therapy or CBT. CBT sensibly said that thoughts impact feelings. So, if I believe the thought that ‘I am stupid’, it will undermine me, make me less willing to speak out and perhaps force me to decline opportunities. Traditional CBT encouraged people to challenge negative thoughts with evidence to the contrary. So, I could argue I have two degrees, I wrote some books etc. For some, CBT is helpful, but increasingly the research suggests thought-challenging doesn’t really work.

ACT recognises that humans are flawed and that as a part of our condition we experience negative thoughts and feelings. The Bible says that too. The response of ACT starts with values. It says what helps people feel better is to discover what and who is important. Then, to focus on behaviours that move them towards those important things and people. It acknowledges that we find it difficult to behave well because of our undermining thoughts, urges and feelings.

For example, I have chosen each day to take my husband a cup of tea in bed. That’s one of my chosen committed actions towards what and who is important. But, even a tiny act of goodness provokes tricky thoughts and feelings. I feel bored because I’ve done it every day, anxious that I might make myself late. I have the urge to not bother. I have thoughts like, ‘He’s lazy. When did he make me a cup of tea?’ So, even these small acts of goodness create in me an inner rebellion. ACT teaches some easy tools to manage difficult thoughts and feelings so you can choose what you want to do and not be sabotaged by your inside stuff. These tools help but provide only a partial solution. Only the Holy Spirit has the power to change us from the inside out in a lasting way.

ACT fits well with the Christian faith and is a helpful model of therapy for Christians. The tools have helped me and can be adapted to use with many difficulties including clinical depression, addiction, OCD, trauma, gender confusion and also with everyday struggles like relationship conflict, over-eating or jealousy. 

 

AB: In your work, you’ve often helped people think about identity. What are your key observations after many years of these conversations?

JJ: As a clinical psychologist, an exercise I frequently use in therapy is the ‘I am’ exercise. You can try it. Simply write out ‘I am’ five times. What are the first things that come to mind when you complete that sentence?

For me, it would be:

  • I am a mum
  • I am a psychologist 
  • I am a writer 
  • I am clumsy 
  • I am healthy 

I see a diverse range of people in my clinic. They all come because they are experiencing high levels of psychological distress. The problem can often be traced back to one or more ‘I am’ beliefs.

Our ‘I am’ beliefs are central to our identity, the ways we have come to think about ourselves. They might be to do with my job ­– I am a psychologist. They might be roles I have ­­– a youth leader, a pastor, a housewife, a mother. They might be things I do – I am a writer, a runner. They might be to do with my mental or physical health – I am depressed, I am healthy, I am disabled, I am infertile. Or my physical appearance – I am fat, ugly, pretty. Or my abilities – I am useless, I am clever. ‘I am’ beliefs show what you hold in high esteem, even if you don’t perceive yourself to have it! 

I see people who’ve defined themselves by their success at work. Then they retire, are made redundant or are sacked. Others might pride themselves on being healthy and invincible or strong, and then they are diagnosed with a long-term or terminal condition. I might pride myself on some of my roles like wife, psychologist, mother. But sadly, every ‘I am’ is vulnerable to being lost or undermined. 

1 John 5:21 says ‘Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts’ (NLT).

My ‘I am’ beliefs give me clues about the things that could potentially become so important that they may take God’s place. Many of them are not objectively bad. In fact, my family, work, health, and abilities are gifts from God, things he intends for my blessing, skills I could use in his service. 

As Christians we need to be careful since anything we put after ‘I am..’ has the potential to distract us from God and also to destroy us if we lose them. 

When we become saved, Jesus Christ swaps his righteousness with our sin and shame. As Christians the only safe ‘I am’ is ‘I am in Christ’. No one can change that. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

Any other ‘I am’ that gives me a sense of value or self-worth is vulnerable and its loss might make me psychologically vulnerable.

 

AB: You’re also a novelist and have used fiction writing to explore some big themes. Tell us about your books.

JJ: My novels are psychological suspense. I am told that they are fast-paced with satisfyingly flawed characters and always a good twist. They are all free of smut, bad language, blasphemy and violence. I’ve just published Surviving Her, my second novel which explores the theme of emotional coercion. My first, Surviving Me explored depression, neurological illness, and suicidal thinking. I’m working on a third called Surviving Him about dementia and adolescence. 

 

AB: If you could pass on a few key lessons to pastors and others who help support people, what would they be?

JJ: I think the most helpful thing anyone can do is to listen without agenda and then acknowledge a person’s pain. Often, we think we know what it’s like to stand in someone else’s shoes, but if we don’t listen we can’t understand. Most people who seek help are in emotional pain. We might need to tell them what they want will harm them or that they have created their situation, but it is rare to find a situation where we can’t first affirm their deep pain. 

If the pain is a result of loss – loss of a person, role, hopes or dreams ­– we can reassure people their pain shows they cared. We can also confirm that emotional pain is natural and not hurting would be abnormal. 

I also feel it’s helpful if we can all acknowledge our own struggles. The Bible tells us we will suffer and experience trouble. We all experience difficult thoughts, feelings, and urges. If we can be open about our own struggles, others will be able to be open about their own. This builds authentic communities where people are safe to share burdens, confess sin and grow. Shame and sin thrive on secrecy and a desire to pretend.

The most recent research has highlighted self-compassion as a positive thing. We are called as Christians to show compassion, but often we are harsh with ourselves. We can model self-compassion and help people see when they are self-beating.

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Everyone Has Faith. What’s Yours?

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This is a fabulous three minute piece of apologetics. We are all believers - in consent, equality, progress, compassion, and numerous other things which cannot be "proved" scientifically - whether or not we believe in the Christian God. And many of our beliefs derive directly from the Jesus revolution. (This is obviously a short version of the argument. For a medium sized version, see Glen Scrivener's The Air We Breathe, and for a long version, see Tom Holland's Dominion.)

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The Basis is Biology

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On Christmas Eve Melissa Courtney set a new women’s parkrun world record at Poole parkrun. Melissa is originally from Poole so all our local runners basked in the reflected glory as she ran a time of 15 minutes and 31 seconds.

This was a truly world class performance. There have been millions of parkruns completed by women, but 15:31 is the quickest ever. One of the really fascinating things about it though, is that on the same day, just at Poole, four male runners were quicker than Melissa. Three of whom were teenage boys.

Abigail Favale (The Genesis of Gender, p.122) writes how during a gender theory class discussion,

I noticed some students parroting the line that biological sex is “assigned” at birth by doctors and parents rather than identified or recognized. “Wait a second”, I said. “Is sexual orientation innate, something we are born with?” My students nodded readily. This is well-established dogma. “And you’re also saying that biological sex is a construct, a category arbitrarily ‘assigned’ at birth?” More vigorous nods. “How is that possible? Aren’t those claims contradictory? How is possible to have an innate attraction to something that is merely a social construct?” Aha. In that millisecond, I saw a brief glimmer of light cut through the postmodern haze. Even if they quickly turned away, they had at least recognised the contradiction.

It’s a brilliant observation but the pity is that the postmodern haze is more an impenetrable fog. Biology is objective, essential, given. Male and female bodies are different: even parkrun demonstrates that. Yet in our foggy world the subjective and psychological is accorded a greater ‘reality’.

I sit on the board of an organisation that (very on trend) recently adopted a menopause policy. Under the ‘Definitions’ section of this policy was a statement that while most people who experience the menopause are women, not all of them are.

I contested this definition but was soundly outvoted. The majority of those voting against me were educated, middle-class, ‘cis-gender’, straight, men, in their 50s to 70s. Even that demographic, who might be expected to be more conservative, have been so captured by the cultural narrative that they reject objective reality.

This can all feel rather depressing. It is depressing. Yet I also see light at the end of the tunnel, the fog beginning to disperse. The current gender construct is a house of cards. It has no solid foundation. It is a fairy castle in the air, built on oxymorons and the theorizing of the paedophile Michel Foucault. It cannot stand. At some point the wind will shift and it will fall.

So if you are enduring indoctrination sessions with your work HR department over the correct use of pronouns, stand firm. If a teenager you love has announced they are trans, don’t despair. If you’re flabbergasted by the way Rosie Duffield MP has been treated in Parliament. These things will pass. Sometimes it’s best just to laugh at the craziness of it all, because the postmodern narrative cannot bear to be mocked. Thus, a closing illustration from Abigail Favale:

“What, pray, are you?” asks the caterpillar.
“I’m a woman.”
“Oh are you?”
“Yes, at least…” I pause, suddenly unsure. “I think so?”
“Do you feel like a woman?”
“I’m not sure” I say. “What does it mean to feel like a woman?”
“To feel like a woman is to be a woman”, pronounces the caterpillar, taking a long drag from his hookah.
“But what is a woman?”
“Someone who feels like a woman.”
“But…what does it mean to feel like a woman, if being a woman is defined as feeling like a woman?”
“Transphobe”, puffs the caterpillar.

 

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Hope Amidst Judah’s Collapse

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There is a fascinating recurring pattern in the closing chapters of 2 Kings, and it bears witness to the mercy of God and the order he is able to bring out of political chaos. Look:

1. Judah’s king reigns for three months (Jehoahaz / Jehoiachin).
2. The king does evil.
3. A foreign emperor captures him (Pharaoh Neco / Nebuchadnezzar).
4. The foreign emperor appoints a new king (Eliakim / Mattaniah) ...
5. ... and changes his name (to Jehoiakim / Zedekiah).
6. The new king reigns for eleven years.
7. He does evil.
8. The old king (Jehoahaz / Jehoiachin) is taken into exile by the foreign emperor (Pharaoh Neco / Nebuchadnezzar).
9. Eventually, the new king (Jehoiakim / Zedekiah) rebels against Nebuchadnezzar.

With the tenth parallel comes the surprise. Having read 2 Kings 23, we are assuming that Jehoiachin will die in exile, just like Jehoahaz did. But instead, something thoroughly unexpected (and wonderful) happens, which assures us that God is not finished with Judah:

Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, as long as he lived. (2 Kings 25:27-30)

Judah, like Jehoiachin, has been sentenced to exile for her sins and the sins of her fathers, but will find mercy there and be lifted up, freed and fed by the king himself. Evil and exile will turn to emancipation and exaltation. Even in the darkest moment of Israel’s story, there is hope.

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Prodigals and Spares

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It's hard not to notice the parallels between the sibling rivalries in Scripture and the royal one playing itself out in the media at the moment. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, David and his brothers, Adonijah and Solomon, Israel and Judah, the older brother and the prodigal son ... and now William and Harry. Clearly the struggles between brothers is a staple of human experience. Here's a great column from David Abulafia on that:

A historian should feel a strong sense of déjà vu on reading about Prince Harry’s rebellion against his family. Rebellious ‘spares’ are a constant feature of English history since at least 1066. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s characteristically vivid new book The World: A Family History offers plenty of gory examples from ancient Egypt, medieval China and even, when we move away from royalty, within dynasties such as the Kennedys. While the Byzantine emperors preferred to poke out the eyes of family members who competed for power, the Ottoman sultans regularly had their brothers strangled within hours of acceding to the throne. North Korea, where Kim Jong-un appears to have disposed of his half-brother by having him poisoned at Kuala Lumpur airport, is a recent example of lethal sibling rivalry within a ruling dynasty.

Turbulent princes might but presumably will not turn to the Bible. A constant refrain there is the way younger sons supplant elder brothers. These stories were probably tailored to justify the seizure of the ancient throne of Jerusalem by younger sons. The Bible describes how King David (himself a youngest son) chose Solomon as his heir, unaware that another son, Adonijah, had already tried to seize the throne from his dying father and his much younger brother. The theme of younger brothers gaining not just human but divine preference is there in the story of Jacob and Esau, even if Jacob was younger than his twin only by a matter of minutes. The worst case of sibling rivalry, the sale of Joseph into slavery by his jealous brothers, culminated in their humiliation when they appeared as supplicants in front of their unrecognised brother, now the Pharaoh’s vizier in the greatest empire on Earth.

Primogeniture is not entirely to blame for resentment on the part of younger princes. Elective monarchies too have had their share of sibling conflict. The great assemblies at which the Mongols elected their supreme leader generated rather than suppressed sibling rivalry. Mongol law required the youngest son to take charge of the family’s lands, while his brothers fanned out across the vast Eurasian spaces that had already been conquered, fracturing the empire into what became competing states. But there have been imaginative solutions to the problem of succession. In Sumatra, the early medieval kingdom of Srivijaya controlled the prosperous trade routes leading into the South China Sea. At court ceremonies the king was expected to wear a very heavy crown adorned with hundreds of jewels, and the succession was decided by choosing from among his sons the one who could bear its weight on his head. If tried here, my guess is that Prince Andrew, the burliest of the late Queen’s sons, would have lasted longest under the 5lb weight of St Edward’s Crown.

Prince Harry is open about his resentment at being number two. In medieval Europe there were imaginative but strikingly unsuccessful ways of addressing sibling jealousy. Lands recently acquired by conquest were often seen as disposable. William the Conqueror provides one of the best examples. The rivalry among his sons Robert, William and Henry, and the Conqueror’s sense that the true patrimony of his family lay not in England but in Normandy, led him to confer his Duchy of Normandy on his eldest son, and to grant William Rufus England and the royal title. This left Henry hungry for a share in the proceeds – everything resolved itself nicely for him when Rufus was shot by accident in the New Forest, and within hours Henry I had seized power.

The Christian kings in medieval Spain had for centuries tried to deter in-fighting between royal princes by dividing up their kingdoms in their will. Even so, this tended to set off fighting between Christian princes that was more bitter than their famous battles against the Muslim rulers of southern Spain. The will of King James I of Aragon deprived his ambitious elder son Peter of the newly conquered island of Majorca as well as the area around Perpignan, the ancestral lands of their Catalan dynasty, all of which was granted to his younger brother James as a separate kingdom. Peter grudgingly promised his father that he would live in harmony with James after their accession. But in 1283 Peter took advantage of a wider war for control of Sicily in which they stood on opposing sides. Peter hunted down James in the Palace of the Kings of Majorca that still stands in Perpignan. As Peter hammered on the door, James barricaded himself in his bedroom, insisting he was suffering from flu, and then fled through a sewer under the floor – an undignified and messy escape.

Keeping an eye on younger brothers was essential. Among the four sons of King Henry II of England, intense rivalry erupted into armed conflict between the eldest, also named Henry, and the immediate ‘spare’, Richard. Then, after Henry predeceased his father, Richard faced the unbridled ambition of the new spare, John, whose fits of anger sometimes had him rolling on the floor in fury. Later, King Edward IV failed to foresee that his scheming brother Richard would declare Edward’s children bastards and seize the Crown for himself.

Rather different, though, is the case of Edward VIII. Albert, Duke of York, had no ambition to supplant his elder brother, but after the abdication the envy went in the other direction: for several years the Duke of Windsor seems to have hoped for his restoration, even if it would be at the hands of Nazi allies. And, as nowadays, what he saw as ill-treatment of his wife sharpened his pain.

What is so very different now is that it is possible to harness the world’s media in just about every form. The new weapons are the press, television (notably Netflix), Twitter and book sales: better obviously than Richard or John taking up arms, but also very risky. At least there is no danger of the loser being locked up in the Tower.

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Project 23

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I don't usually promote events here (except for the THINK conference, obviously), but I wanted to make an exception for Project 23, an event for students and 20s in Newfrontiers churches. It's being held in Milton Keynes from 17-18 March, costs just £25, and will involve a bunch of great hosts and speakers including Tim Simmonds, Taylor Bentliff, Andy McCullough, Katherine Brown and Tom Scrivens. As someone who benefited enormously from Mobilise over many years, I am a fan of events pitched at this age group, especially national ones. Here's a two minute promotion for it:

You can book here.

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On Dismissing 1 Timothy 2

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I've hugely enjoyed and frequently recommended Dale Bruner's commentaries on the Gospels, especially his two volume masterpiece on Matthew. He has always struck me as someone who takes the authority of Scripture, as well as the tradition of the Church and the pastoral needs of today, seriously (and he does his exegesis in animated and often beautiful prose, too, which is not always the case in biblical commentaries). So I was both astonished and dismayed to read this in his new commentary on Romans:

We now rightly dismiss the Paul-attributed texts against women teaching or preaching in the church (1 Tim 2:11 and 1 Cor 14:33b-36), not least because the risen Lord had women sent as his first resurrection messengers in all four Gospels. Should we also, perhaps, pass over Paul’s present condemnation of homosexual practice in the light of Jesus’ general silence on the subject? (The Letter to the Romans, 17)

Leave aside for a moment the question of homosexual practice within the argument of Romans. (Reading Bruner’s comments in context leaves me unclear on what exactly he thinks about it; it was slightly odd to hear that his reason to “appreciate afresh Paul’s present conviction” in Romans 1 was reading an article about drag queens in the Los Angeles Times.) What I find dismaying here is the way that a scholar of Bruner’s standing can simply “dismiss” parts of Scripture, feel the freedom to say that he is doing so “rightly,” suggest that we might also “pass over” other passages in the same way, and publish it all in a biblical commentary. Perhaps it is just an Eerdmans thing; perhaps putting that word “now” at the start gives the game away (as if previous generations had never noticed that the witnesses to the resurrection were women, let alone considered how that might be compatible with Paul’s teaching); perhaps the denominational debates of the last few years have ground him down. Anyway: alas.

Plenty of egalitarians do not reason that way at all, of course. Ian Paul and Andrew Bartlett, to take a recent example, do not “dismiss” or “pass over” 1 Timothy 2 in their response to my “Beautiful Difference” essay; they just read the passages differently. (They think, as far as I can tell, that Paul is prohibiting some women from teaching men falsely or exercising authority illegitimately; I think there are good lexical, grammatical and contextual reasons for disagreeing with that.) Nevertheless, in a culture like ours, it may still be worth asking: does the way I handle this text make it sound like I am “rightly dismissing” it? Would a new person hear me talk about it and conclude, “Ah, so that’s OK: there are some bits of Scripture we simply overlook”? Or would they see me taking the Word of God seriously, wrestling with it carefully, and acknowledging the authority of all of it, even those passages I struggle with most? (This cuts both ways, obviously. Complementarians need to ask similar questions of Acts 18:26, Romans 16:7 and so forth.)

Incidentally, on a related note, the last few months have seen a flurry of new contributions on this subject which you might find interesting. I have a review forthcoming of Abigail Favale’s The Genesis of Gender and Josh Butler’s Beautiful Union, which are both superb; Preston Sprinkle is working on a big book on the topic, which I’m really looking forward to reading; and although I haven’t got either of them yet, I’ve had people recommend both Graham Benyon and Jane Tooher’s Embracing Complementarianism and Stef Liston’s Gender Quality. So much to read, so little time ...

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Nativity and History

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If you've been listening to The Rest is History over the festive period - and if you're a regular reader of this blog, there's a decent chance you have - you may have heard their two episodes on the historical Jesus. In general they make an excellent case for the existence, strangeness and genius of Jesus, the basic plausibility of the Gospel narratives (in outline if not in detail), and the importance of the first century context in which both make sense. But the second episode, particularly at the very start and the very end, makes two points with which Christians will want to disagree. The first relates to whether the nativity stories actually happened, and the second - which is obviously related - to whether historians can talk about supernatural phenomena at all.

Both are fascinating discussions, not least because they present standard challenges to Christian belief in sympathetic and persuasive ways. The fundamental issue, it seems to me, comes at the end of the second episode when they engage with the question of methodology. Can a historian say that the most likely explanation for the data we have, given the principle of Occam’s razor, is that Jesus was indeed the Son of God? Or is historical enquiry committed to materialist or naturalist explanations by its very nature, and therefore unable to acknowledge the possibility of miracles or religious truth claims more generally? (I found it interesting that the logic of David Hume and Edward Gibbon loomed so large in Tom Holland’s response here; it’s almost as if 1776 has ongoing cultural significance.) Clearly, if the word “history” is defined in such a way that divine interaction with the world is ruled out altogether, then many of Scripture’s most important claims cannot be “historical.” Whether that definition is warranted, or suitable for studying a figure like Jesus in the first place, is another matter.

Here is a much fuller discussion on the question of method, and the historical problems (and solutions) in the nativity stories, from the reliably excellent Glen Scrivener and Peter Williams. If you listened to the episodes and were pondering the issues they raise, or are simply curious about how to respond to such questions from a Christian perspective, it is well worth a look:

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Melchizedek & the Loins

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Hebrews 7 is not an easy chapter for the casual Bible reader: who is this Melchizedek? But, for the non-casual reader, Melchizedek is a figure of fascination and importance (Don Carson once gave the best talk I’ve heard on this).

The point of Melchizedek is to point towards the superior greatness of Christ, but the writer to the Hebrews does this in a way that feels circuitous. The greatness of Melchizedek is demonstrated by how he was honoured by Abraham, culminating in Abraham’s offering of a tithe to Melchizedek. This tithe, says the writer, shows that Melchizedek’s priesthood was superior to that of the Levites, the descendants of Abraham, because, “Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (Heb. 7:9-10).

Much could be said of this but of particular interest in light of contemporary discussions around ‘identity’ is the bodily connection envisaged between Abraham and his great-grandson Levi. Levi is ‘in the loins’ of Abraham and so, somehow, directly engaged in Abraham’s offering. In this worldview identity is tied to ancestry: Levi the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah… What counts is not so much who Levi is, but who is father is.

In such a worldview the idea that personal psychology could determine identity is literally unthinkable. It is a very biological view of identity: the son springs from the father’s loins – there is no way the son could then imagine himself to really be female. It is also a very hierarchical view of identity: the son does not get to choose to be anything other than his father’s son and has to carry forward the familial identity and responsibility that go with that. There is no self-defined ‘my truth’. Identity is objective and given, not self-realised.

Such a view of identity has been the traditional one, the ‘normal’ one. It is certainly the view that has characterised the institution of the Royal family – an institution that depends for its survival on heredity. That Harry has so deliberately sought to cut against this tradition is what has led to the widespread ridicule of his and Meghan’s narcissism. By seeking to invent a new, personal and subjective ‘truth’, Harry has denied his birth right.

The thing about subjective truths is that they are not really true: Harry can no more deny who he is than a man can become a woman. The tragedy to come is when the Montecito fairy-tale begins to crumble, as it surely will: when Harry wants to return to the fold will he find the earth too scorched and all possible bridges burnt?

As we approach Christmas we think of the one who was like Melchizedek: the one who was greater even than Abraham. Yet in his greatness he condescended to empty himself, taking on the nature of a servant (Phil. 2). In this we see that Jesus was constrained – he didn’t attempt to write his own destiny, but rather,

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission (Heb. 5:7).

True greatness, and in the end true freedom, won by true obedience. That is the place to find our true identity.

 

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Emending Grace

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And so our theologian comes to his inevitable emendation of Romans 5:8: "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, on the condition that after a reasonable length of time we would be the kind of people no one would ever have had to die for in the first place. Otherwise, the whole deal is off."

- Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three

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The Bethlehem Story

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This is a fantastic animated Christmas poem from Laura Tomasello and Nadine Walker, which manages to be both child-friendly and deeply thought-provoking. "Every culture has two types of city," it begins: the City of Kings, and the House of Bread. It's well worth four minutes of your time: