Am I Gay?
The reality is that I acknowledge my same-sex desires. I talk openly with family and friends about homosexuality, especially as it relates to my commitment to Christ. More importantly, I’m honest with God about my struggles with same-sex attraction. I don’t pretend the feelings aren’t there; on the contrary, I consider them very real temptations. The only denial happening here is self-denial, the daily charge to take up my cross and follow Christ (Luke 9:23). That’s the calling of every Christian, not just those who fight against homosexual desires.
Does that make me gay? If by “gay” you mean attracted to men, then sure. For as long as I can remember. Ever since elementary school, when I told my playmates about my crush on the blond boy who won the hula-hoop contest, and even before then. I’m not convinced (and not concerned) if I was born this way, but it certainly seems as though I’ve always been attracted to the same sex.
But if by “gay” you mean one who embraces homosexuality and chooses to pursue same-sex relationships, then absolutely not. I’ve heard arguments that try to reconcile Christianity and homosexual practice. As a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction, even I’m not convinced. The Bible is clear: homosexual practice is a sin. So yes, I still have a moral problem with homosexuality. I still have a moral problem with lots of things that I do. That’s part of life on this side of eternity.
So am I gay?
Here’s the problem: it’s hard to cram a whole conversation’s worth of cultural context, theological concepts and personal convictions into “yes” or “no.” For Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction, the answer is really “yes and no.” Yes on the surface level (being attracted to the same sex) and no in the truest sense (as a new creation in Christ). So if someone asked if I’m gay, the best answer is “Kinda sorta yeah not really.” It’s a complicated answer. But so is the question ...
Why am I telling you all this now? Well, this isn’t your average “coming out” story. It’s not a celebration or a step toward freedom. That happened more than twenty years ago when I gave my life to Christ. I’m talking now because the world is talking. “Be who you are, embrace your sexuality, it gets better.” They have slick campaigns, celebrity endorsements and flashy bumper stickers. One thing they don’t have is hope.
Jesus is that hope. He came into the world to save sinners—gay, straight and everything in between. God reconciles us to himself when we put our faith in Christ, who died in our place so that we may be called righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). That faith doesn’t take away our temptations—sexual or otherwise—but it takes away the condemnation (Romans 8:1). That’s the gospel. That’s a story that needs to be told. That’s why I’m talking now.
Since becoming a blogger at The Two Cities, I’ve written about gay marriage, the “born this way” debate, gay identity, ex-gays, homosexuality according to Jesus, and how to love gays. These articles weren’t just about theology and culture. They were about me. Someone who has studied same-sex attraction, yes, but who also experiences it. Someone who is kinda sorta yeah not really gay.
The whole post is well worth reading, and kudos to Bryan (whom I don’t know personally) for his courage.
Charles Spurgeon Thinks I’m Stupid, And At Least Half-Mad
All of which means that Charles Spurgeon, if he were around today, would hope I was insane, think I was hypocritical, stupid and at least half-mad, and apparently regard all the prophetic utterances I have had, witnessed or received from others as being from the devil. (It appears Tim Challies may agree with him on this, but I can’t be certain). Here’s what Spurgeon says:
Take care never to impute the vain imaginings of your fancy to Him. I have seen the Spirit of God shamefully dishonoured by persons—I hope they were insane—who have said that they have had this and that revealed to them. There has not, for some years, passed over my head a single week in which I have not been pestered with the revelations of hypocrites or maniacs. Semi-lunatics are very fond of coming with messages from the Lord to me and it may save them some trouble if I tell them once and for all that I will have none of their stupid messages. When my Lord and Master has any message to me He knows where I am and He will send it to me direct, and not by mad-caps!
Never dream that events are revealed to you by Heaven, or you may come to be like those idiots who dare impute their blatant follies to the Holy Spirit. If you feel your tongue itch to talk nonsense, trace it to the devil, not to the Spirit of God! Whatever is to be revealed by the Spirit to any of us is in the Word of God already—He adds nothing to the Bible, and never will. Let persons who have revelations of this, that, and the other, go to bed and wake up in their senses.
I only wish they would follow the advice and no longer insult the Holy Spirit by laying their nonsense at His door.
I doubt there’s ever been a better preacher than Spurgeon, and there is hardly anybody in church history whose ministry has blessed me more. But then nobody’s infallible, are they?
The Nasty Side of Calvinism
• His martyrology is full of deeply moving accounts of men and women who laid their lives down for the Gospel.
• He was flexible in his approach to church building. When he was the pastor of the Antwerp congregation when it was first planted in mid 1550s he encountered opposition from some in the church who resented the time he gave to wealthy people on the fringe of the community who were nervous of full blown membership because of the potential cost involved. A division grew up between ‘binnen’ and ‘buyten’ (insiders and outsiders) but Van Haemstede as a gifted pastor evangelist was able to minister to both communities.
• He showed a generosity of spirit to the Anabaptists without compromising theologically. His mildness towards them meant that his name as author of his martyrology was omitted from the title page of all editions from 1566 onwards because his approach was disapproved of by certain people in the Reformed community. He was generous-spirited enough to even include some arguably Anabaptist executions in his accounts of martyrs and he later on in his ministry petitioned the Bishop of London for toleration of the Anabaptists not because he agreed with them theologically but because they were ‘weaker members of Christ’ (ie still part of the universal church). Van Haemstede paid a heavy price for his generosity of spirit and was eventually suspended from preaching, excommunicated and expelled from England.
The two turning points in the history of the Reformed churches occurred in 1566 and 1572. 1566 is known as the ‘Wonder Year’ in the history of the Netherlands. After years of smallness, a combination of economic crisis in the country, collapse in the authority of central government and boldness in preaching (even though it was technically illegal) meant that the seemingly impossible became possible. The Calvinists for the first time were able to worship openly. Iconoclasm – the tearing down of Catholic statues and images – became common place all over the Netherlands. Repression came swiftly the following year but in 1572 Reformed Churches were established legally for the very first time.
Legal recognition did not mean the Calvinists had everything their own way from 1572 onwards. Compromises on a whole range of issues (e.g. poor relief, appointment of ministers, control of access to the sacraments), now had to be made with magistrates and town councils. In many cases ministers were forced to give ground to maintain the support of the state for their newly privileged position.
Two unfortunate traits are discernible in this period of Dutch Calvinism.
• A narrow and mean-spirited theological approach. Casper Coolhaes, a minister in Leiden who was a moderate undogmatic theologian of a broadly reformed perspective, for example, was accused of ‘daily vomiting forth poison’ by his hard line opponent Polyander. The Leiden Academy (the future University of Leiden, created in 1575), meanwhile was accused of ‘spreading errors and hiding the truth rather than spreading it’.
• Legalism. Efforts to establish and build the church did not produce improvement in the morality and conduct of daily living. This produced a frustration in Calvinism that was manifested in attempts at mere outward conformity. Drunkenness, non-attendance at church and general disregard for the ‘Sabbath’ and other forms of ‘licentious’ behaviour were met with behaviour control. Hostility to dancing and the theatre, for example, were not universal amongst the Reformed but steadily increased as the sixteenth century wore on.
In this short series of blogs I, as a moderate Calvinist (I described myself in an earlier blog as a 1536 Calvinist) have touched on some of the less attractive facets of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Calvinism. This is not just an academic exercise. On balance, I would lean more towards the Counter Remonstrant than the Remonstrant position. However, there is much in the spirit and tone of seventeenth century Calvinism that I find distinctly unpleasant. It is possible to be right theologically on an issue and be wrong on so many other levels. Isn’t this at least part of what Jesus was driving at when he rebuked the Pharisees quoting Hosea 6:6 ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (Matt 9:13)?
Many years ago my wife and I were leading a small group meeting where we were looking at 1 Peter 3 – we had been working through 1 Peter systematically and had got up to a potentially controversial chapter. The lady leading the study took a strong egalitarian line. Before my wife or I could offer an alternative complementarian perspective (which I am genuinely committed to), the poor woman was rounded on by an obnoxious, opinionated and unpleasant man. As far as the theology was concerned, he won the argument hands down but at every other possible level he lost – he lost in any ability to show grace, to maintain relationship even when we disagree and he lost respect.
I love much that Reformed Protestantism/Calvinism offers but I utterly reject and intensely dislike the legalism, pride and arrogance that Reformed Protestantism has far too frequently exhibited. Let’s make sure as second generation people that we model something different in our spirit to second generation Calvinism. Let’s continue to enjoy God’s grace in a spirit of humility and openness to the wider body of Christ.
Creation and Science: The Key Areas of Conflict
For the sake of this list, I’ve simplified dramatically (so the nuances of evolutionary theory and the exegesis of Genesis have been largely skipped), and I’ve taken the simple extremes of scientific and Christian interpretation, by talking in terms of “the Richard Dawkins view” and “the Ken Ham view”. This is obviously open to criticism on all sorts of counts, but I hope you’ll forgive me for wanting a simplistic way of personifying each line of interpretation.
1. Was God Responsible for Creation? Richard Dawkins: no. The full range of plant and animal life on planet earth has come about through an unguided process, with a cosmic explosion, followed by the chance emergence of life, followed by genetic mutation working alongside natural selection to increase the variety and complexity of living things. God had nothing to do with this process. Ken Ham: yes. God is responsible for creation, and as such all planets and living things exist, not because of an unguided process, but through his creative activity. Nothing in God’s world is random.
2. How Old is the Earth? Richard Dawkins: the earth is 4.6 billion years old, based on a variety of dating methods which overlap with one other. Ken Ham: God created the world in six twenty-four hour days, culminating in the creation of human beings on day six, which means that the earth is only around 6-10,000 years old.
3. In What Order Were Things Created? Richard Dawkins: the sun and the stars formed around 13.7 billion years ago, nearly ten billion years before the formation of the earth and the plant life on it. Ken Ham: God created the sun, the moon and the stars three days after the formation of the earth, and a day after the creation of plant life.
4. Was Creation Perfect Before the Fall? Richard Dawkins: the earth began as a lifeless, volcanic, turbulent mess, and has always had hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and so on. Ken Ham: creation was originally “very good”, and as such did not suffer from these sorts of afflictions until after humans rebelled against God.
5. Did Animals Die Before the Fall? Richard Dawkins: animal life has been dying on planet earth for over a billion years, with all sorts of creatures, including (famously) dinosaurs, becoming extinct tens of millions of years before humans ever existed. Ken Ham: animal death is an intruder into God’s good creation, and no creature died before the fall, a few thousand years ago.
6. Did Humans Die Before the Fall? Richard Dawkins: human beings have gradually evolved into what we are now, and our ancestors have always died; death has been part of who we are from the beginning. Ken Ham: human death is an intruder into God’s good creation, and no human being died before the fall, a few thousand years ago.
7. Was Adam Descended from Pre-Human Creatures? Richard Dawkins: human beings descend from a group of pre-human hominins, who were themselves the result of a long period of evolution. Ken Ham: Adam was created from the dust of the earth, rather than evolving from any previously existing living creature.
8. Was Eve Descended from Pre-Human Creatures? Richard Dawkins: all humans have the same origin: pre-human hominins, who were themselves the result of a long period of evolution. Ken Ham: Eve was created out of the rib of Adam, rather than evolving from any previously existing living creature.
9. Are All Human Beings Descended from Adam and Eve? Richard Dawkins: modern humans have a large group of ancestors, and we cannot all trace our lineage to the same human couple. Ken Ham: all humans who have ever existed trace our lineage to Adam and Eve, and in fact to Noah and his immediate family.
10. Is the Fall Historical? Richard Dawkins: the fall story, as narrated in Genesis, never happened in history, and there was never a time when human beings began to die physically. Ken Ham: the fall story, as narrated in Genesis, did happen in history – the land was cursed, human beings were separated from relationship with God and started to die physically, and the gospel was promised.
Those ten questions cover a lot of ground, and my guess is that most readers will agree with Ken Ham on some things and with Richard Dawkins on other things. The only deal-breaker for Christians is #1: there is no way that somebody can agree with Richard Dawkins on this point and remain an orthodox Christian in any sense of that word, since to be a Christian is to believe in creation by God. There may be a number of others that cause massive problems for different people, but Christians can hold – and have held – different views on numbers 2-10. For example, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, would (as far as I know) side with Ken Ham on all of them; Peter Enns, formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary and author of The Evolution of Adam, would side with Richard Dawkins on all of them. Many of us will find ourselves somewhere in between.
In several cases, the problem of reconciling science and Scripture is more apparent than real. Any philosopher of science will tell you that science cannot adjudicate on the question of whether God created the world, for instance (#1). The idea of an originally perfect world, in which no animals died until the Fall (#4 and #5), involves (in my view) a significant overinterpretation of the text of Genesis, as I have argued here before. Then again, if a human being is a creature into whom God has breathed so that he becomes a living soul (Gen 2:7), there is no way of scientifically establishing that human beings have always died, nor that the account of the fall is not historical (#6 and #10); the most that could be established is that hominins have always died, since the spiritual state of fossils is beyond the reach of even the most diligent archaeologist. And of course there is no scientific basis for saying that the woman was not created out of the rib of the man (#8), any more than there is a scientific basis for saying that the Red Sea never opened or that Jesus never rose from the dead – that is simply beyond what science can reliably tell us. So on six of the ten key questions, resolving the issues is not as difficult as it might appear.
Nevertheless, that still leaves four important areas of conflict – relating to the age and order of creation (#2, #3), and the biological lineage of human beings (#7, #9) – which require more thought. The first two are prompted by Genesis 1 and geology, and the second two are prompted by Genesis 2-4, genetics and genealogy. See you next Wednesday.
Come Holy Spirit!
Andrew and I had an exchange of emails about a recent Wilson post (yes, two Wilsons in the mix can be confusing, but ours is a leftie pacifist while the other is a righty gunslinger so it should be easy to work out which is which) and thought this worth quoting:
If the Spirit is poured out in power, then we will have what future generations will call a great reformation and revival. If He is not poured out, then we are toast. Our situation is desperate.
But, some ask, if He is not poured out, what should we do in the meantime? That is a reasonable question, and we do have to do something. But everything we do should be in the spirit of Elijah arranging wood on the altar, waiting for the fire to fall, and which recognizes the absolute need for the fire to fall. And when you get to the point of that showdown on Mt. Carmel, there is no plan B.
In the meantime, we do not need for the bishop to process up the central aisle, like the biggest crow in the gutter. We do not need another message from Doctrine Man, with ten rivets in each subpoint. We do not need the worship leader to take us through yet one more orgasmic chord progression. We don’t need a doctrine of responsible stewardship and sustainability that worries more about how many times we flush than how many babies we kill. We do not need any more cardboard cut-out celebrity pastors, grinning at us, as smug as all dammit. In short, we don’t need any more of what we currently have. A.W. Tozer once cuttingly observed that if revival means more of what we have now, we most emphatically do not need a revival.
In short, we need the Spirit to be poured out upon us. And when God is pleased to make this happen, the Spirit will do the work He always does, which is that of making men new. He will make them new in the middle of some metrosexual posedown in front of the mirror. He will make them new in the middle of some stupid sermon they are busy preaching, with puffs of dust arising every time a page is turned. He will make them new in the middle of an academic conference on feminist counter-narratives. He will make them new in the middle of renting one more skeezefest on Netflix. He will make them new in the middle of their very last angry outburst against their wives. He will make them new while they are in the middle of yet another eggy Facebook post directed at what little faithfulness we have left. The Spirit will interrupt us, and He will make us new. That’s what He does.
I’m not sure I know what either a ‘skeezefest’ or an ‘eggy post’ are, but I know I like this quote! It has also prompted Wilson (our one) and me to suggest we run some posts on the person and activity of the Spirit later in the year. We’ll let Andrew get through his creation series first (now that is going to be fun!) and then see how we do.
Daddy, My Daddy!
The closest equivalent to ‘Abba’ in English, we are told, is ‘Daddy’, though since generations of translators have eschewed it in favour of the original, it’s presumably not really close enough to be considered equivalent. Nevertheless, many a preacher will draw the comparison in an attempt to encapsulate the sense of intimacy and acceptance we have with the Father; the image painted is usually something like that of Jenny Agutter’s Bobbie flying down a station platform crying ‘Daddy, my daddy!’ at the end of The Railway Children. If you can watch that sequence without a tear springing to your eye, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am – I’m welling up just writing the phrase!
The message is that God is not merely ‘Father’, that stiff, remote, Victorian patriarch to whom we are presented only when we’ve been suitably cleaned up, brushed down and smartly turned out. He’s ‘Daddy’, waiting with arms open wide, longing to be reunited with us after an absence.
It wasn’t until I visited Israel earlier this year, however, that I realised the full strength of the word and its many layers of meaning. I heard a child use it, not in the context of a gleeful reunion, but in the pleading whinge of request: ‘Ab-baaaaa?’
How many times did you hear that this summer? ‘Daaaaad, can I have an ice cream? Daaaad, will you play football with me? Daaaad…?’
Or how about the angry, foot-stomping scream? ‘Dad-dyyyy! I don’t want to go! It’s not fair!’
Then there is the cry in the midst of the nightmare, the beckoning summons to see an interesting seashell or watch a new trick, or the matter-of-fact seeking of advice or information.
With tiny variations of emphasis and tone, that one simple word – the first word most children learn – can convey a host of meanings, none of which is achievable with ‘father’.
Although biologically ‘father’ and ‘dad’ are the same person, linguistically ‘father’ is a name which often creates and bespeaks distance, while ‘dad’ speaks of a far closer relationship. You can be a father without ever seeing your child. These days you can be a father multiple times over and never know it. You can’t be a dad without knowing it.
It is important to hold these names of God – and the resultant attitudes they conjure up – in tension. Discussing it in my Life Group recently, we acknowledged that it is dangerously easy for ‘our kind of churches’ to err too much towards the (over?)familiar and neglect the awe and wonder which God is also due. That said, though, it has refreshed my prayer life greatly to recall that God is ‘Dad’; he’s not just progenitor and provider, but someone who’s interested in the cool seashell I just saw, proud of the new skill I’ve learned and always available to give the very best possible advice and guidance. He’s also willing and able to cope with my whines and whinges, delights in giving me good gifts, and rushes to comfort me when I cry out in the darkest nights. Knowing – feeling – that he is these things reminds and inspires me to pray to him in these different ways.
This won’t be true for everyone, of course. If your connotations of ‘daddy’ are of someone distant, capricious or abusive, employing that term in your prayer life may not be helpful; using the less emotionally-freighted term ‘Father’ may well be a more useful intellectual exercise as you come to understand and experience the true father-child relationship. I have found it a helpful image, though, and if it helps me move to a more mature, steady, constant relationship to my holy, awesome, heavenly Father, that can only be good. Better by far than the cycle of drift and re-discovery that I’ve often gone though in the past – as I’m sure Bobbie would agree.
BNTC Part 2: Responses to the Apocalyptic School
I’ve talked here before about Doug Campbell and his ‘Athanasian’ reading of Paul, which would generally be referred to as an ‘apocalyptic’ reading. In a nutshell, an ‘apocalyptic’ view of Paul involves seeing the gospel as primarily being about God’s invasion of the cosmos to liberate people through the Christ-event, rather than about God judging sin, forgiving people and keeping his promises to Israel (which would be the “covenantal” view). For scholars like Lou Martyn, Martin De Boer and Campbell, in fact, Paul is directly opposing people who teach the covenantal view. For them, the false teachers in Galatia (and Rome?) are preaching that forgiveness of sins is now available and that the law can be written on believers’ hearts, and are operating within a fundamentally forensic and retributive framework: God is a judge and a justifier, the problem is Adam and Eve’s transgression, the result is liability to judgment, the means of rescue is repentance and obedience to Torah, and the pictorial world is that of a law court. Paul, in contrast, preaches an apocalyptic gospel from within a cosmological framework: God is a warrior and liberator, the problem is the fall of the angels into slavery at the time of Noah, the result is slavery to evil angelic powers, the means of rescue is a unilateral divine strike against the powers, and the picture is that of a battlefield. In its more developed (extreme?) form, Paul opposes all human activity, does not see faith as a condition of anything, and believes salvation is totally unconditional and therefore necessarily universal: “we are all in Christ, so wake up and smell the coffee”, as I have quoted previously. Admittedly, that’s a tightly packed nutshell, but to fit anything inside a nutshell requires it to be compressed somewhat.
Well, the push back is on. The challenges to Campbell’s view in particular are numerous - a recent review in the Expository Times compared it to solving a puzzle by sweeping half the pieces off the table - particularly with respect to his highly contentious reading of Romans 1-3 (an excellent brief rebuttal of which, by the man with the best upper class English accent in the world, can be heard here.) But two papers at the BNTC contended that the apocalyptic anti-covenantal reading is not even the best interpretation of its most central texts, namely Galatians and Romans 5-8. John Anthony Dunne, from St Andrews, argued that a truly apocalyptic reading of Galatians would necessarily be a covenantal one. The split between these two categories owes more to Karl Barth than to first century Jewish apocalyptic literature, he explained: the language of “invading the cosmos” implies an almost deistic conception of divinity which first century Jews would not have shared, and if Galatians is set against a background of suffering, then apocalyptic is precisely the way in which we would expect covenantal hope to be expressed. (I found this second point interesting, but I am not completely convinced about the background of suffering in Galatia, and I am unpersuaded that the cry of “Abba Father” in 4:6 is a cry for assurance in the midst of trouble.) If Dunne is right, though, the apocalyptic versus covenantal split is a false antinomy, set up by Martyn and followed by Campbell and others, and should be abandoned by serious students of Galatians.
An even more telling critique, in my view, came from David Shaw, who is working at Cambridge with Simon Gathercole. Shaw sees three encouraging trends in the apocalyptic school, which he thinks point to an increasing harmony between apocalyptic and covenantal readings. Firstly, there is an anthropological pessimism to the apocalyptic school which is replacing the heavy emphasis on angels and demons which characterised Wrede and Schweitzer, and this makes covenantalism more persuasive: if humans are in bondage to sin, the flesh, death and the law, and therefore need divine deliverance (as Martyn and others believe), then aren’t we faced with the very same problem that the new covenant promises of Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, not to mention Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3, are intended to address? Secondly, the stress on pneumatological participation in Campbell’s work (Martyn talked more about the Son) makes covenantal readings more plausible, since the new covenant texts are so concerned with the Spirit - although, Shaw admits, Campbell has not read the pneumatological dimension covenantally, as Schweitzer did. Thirdly, epistemology and ethics leave the covenantal door open - how do we know, and how do we live? - with passages like 2 Corinthians 3 addressing these issues, but giving heavily covenantal content in very apocalyptic imagery. So several developments within the apocalyptic school indicate that the chasm is not as wide as it sometimes appears.
So why do people argue for apocalyptic as opposed to covenantal? Well, Shaw says, it rests on two foundations: Martin De Boer’s antinomy between Paul as cosmological and his opponents as forensic - which he argues is misplaced, quite rightly - and the apocalyptic heartland of Rom 5-8. But even Romans 5-8 is more covenantal and forensic than the apocalypticists allow. Doug Campbell makes much of the fact that the word krima (judgment) is not used in Romans 6-8, but as Shaw points out, this both rather arbitrarily excludes 5:16-18 from the picture, and crucially neglects the use of katakrima (condemnation) in 8:1-4. Not only that, but 8:3 talks sacrificially, and the climactic 8:4 concludes, not with “that we may be free” or equivalent, but with “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled.” (In the discussion which followed Shaw’s paper, Wright threw in 8:34 as a further example, before letting off steam about Campbell’s three hundred page, largely unsourced rant about Justification Theory being necessarily contractual.) So to present chapters 5-8 as apocalyptic to the exclusion of covenantal categories owes more to a recently invented, neo-Barthian polarity than to what Paul actually says.
What is really going on here, then? If Campbell’s reading doesn’t emerge clearly from Galatians or Romans 5-8, let alone from Romans 1-4 or 1 Corinthians, then where does it come from, and why is it being advocated so forcefully in some quarters? The discussion on this question was left to the lunch table, since it is of course not an exegetical issue, but the general feeling was that the target of the apocalyptic reading, and Campbell’s work in particular, is American evangelicalism (unsurprisingly, American evangelicals were also the foil for the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s - although it’s interesting that the Jesus Seminar found them too apocalyptic, rather than not apocalyptic enough!) If the covenantal reading can be marginalised, then a whole raft of its corollaries can as well, including modern betes noires like God’s wrath, the necessity of faith for salvation, judgment for sin and Jewish sexual ethics. Far more appealing then, in certain circles, to have a unilateral intervention by God with universalist ramifications, particularly if Romans 1:26-27 can be written out as non-Pauline in the process.
I doubt many readers have got this far, and of those that have, I doubt many will intuitively support Campbell’s interpretation anyway. But he does have a number of followers, and although I think he is wrong, he is both very intelligent and very forceful. Fortunately, a new generation of bright young scholars is picking up his challenge, and critiquing him on his own terms. It’s a fascinating discussion.
Clarifying the Kingdom
And this is Scot McKnight on the broadening of ‘kingdom’ to include anything good:
This Kuyperian tradition has a tendency to understand Kingdom as a manifestation of common grace and to get Kingdom too far from church, and to see Kingdom wherever there is something good in this world — and I push back against this because of how kingdom is used by Jesus (I don’t think Jesus would ever say Herod’s good roads were kingdom stuff or what Caesar was doing in Rome with providing dole to be kingdom stuff). I also get a bit concerned with spherical sovereignties that are not integrated with one another enough or that are not connected enough to church … but all this is saying that I’m anabaptistic and Kuyper, well, he wasn’t.
Which is to say: don’t use the word ‘kingdom’ in such a way as to make it a mile wide and a inch deep. Let the reader understand.
At 42, I routinely describe myself as middle-aged, and on a purely actuarial basis this seems indisputable. With life expectancy being around 80, I am – all things being equal – at the tipping point of life. Of course, life expectancy keeps pushing upwards, so I may last out a bit longer. I heard somewhere that simply by virtue of being alive now and enjoying the benefits of contemporary health care and diet, we are all adding the equivalent of five hours a day to our life expectancy. By way of contrast, if you smoke that will take about 30 minutes per day off your life expectancy – but as that would still leave you 4.5 hours to the good it is amazing we worry about smoking so much.
Anyway, a survey this week revealed that most people consider middle-age to only begin at the age of 55 and continue until age 70. The survey was conducted among people in their 50’s and so suggests to me a denial of reality. “Middle-age is a state of mind” was a frequent survey response; so is self-delusion.
This is all very interesting from an anthropological, sociological and theological perspective. One observation is almost too obvious to state – people don’t like the idea of growing old, and that implies a fear of death, and the answer to that fear is hope in a redeemer who has destroyed death.
A wider issue it reveals is the extent to which modern western society differs from traditional societies where the old are revered. Our cult of youth makes us fearful of ageing. Old age represents the opposite of everything we value as a culture – sexual vigour, physical attractiveness, being cool. We don’t really know what to do with the elderly, because they are an affront to our core values, so we pretend to be younger than we actually are, and hide away those who are genuinely old in nursing homes, rather as previous generations did with the disabled.
A challenge for Christians, and the churches we make up, is to resist the pressure of our culture and offer a better appraisal of ageing and a greater appreciation of the old. Those of us in churches that (rightly) focus on mission, church planting, and so on, easily fall prey to the cult of youth as we imagine it is young people we need to be reaching, and who will then have the energy to do the work we think we should be doing. In part this is correct. Any church that neglects to reach the young is signing its own ‘do not resuscitate’ order. But in a nation where there are more people aged over 65 than there are under 16 we are missiologically crazy to ignore the old. And there is also the rather inconvenient gospel fact of the “first being last” to consider. This tends to turn everything upside down and require of us that attention be given to the weak and sick and poor in preference to the strong and healthy and rich.
Another gospel challenge is for us to think about how we get a self-delusional people to face the realities of life, to see that acting like an 18 year-old when you are 45 is undignified and silly, and that clinging to youth cannot save us.
Next week we have the funerals of two elderly people from my church. One was the last surviving ‘original’ who had been at the church when it was started in 1925. Her service has been long and faithful. In the four years I have been here she was certainly never cool, or strong, or productive in any measureable way. But she was a saint, and it was a privilege to know her. As the leader of our old people’s work (himself in his late 70’s) put it on Sunday, “When you’re looking at me, you’re looking at your future!” He was being funny and ironic, but you know what, being like him – old but faithful – isn’t such a bad destination.
And if I needed any further evidence that I am indisputably middle-aged it came yesterday when I went for a run with my not-quite-13-year-old and she took me to school. Yep, it was pretty obvious who was middle-aged in that little scenario.
The Otherness of Biblical Sexual Ethics
It is not easy for people living in such different worlds to understand each other. The secularist and the Christian co-exist happily enough in a society like Australia where the dominant culture is a Christianized secularism or a secularized Christianity. But every now and then a word—like submission—draws attention to how different our worlds really are. The clash is more than the horror of a bride submitting herself to a monster (or a groom sacrificing his life for a shrew). That is the horror of a bad marriage, not of marriage itself. No, the clash is over the very concept of submitting yourself to anybody or laying down your life for anybody. That is what is so foreign and alien to the materialism, hedonism and individualism that our Western culture values. But a society built on those values will not make for happy families. We will not make stable families when we ‘try before we buy’, or make prenuptial agreements on how to dissolve the relationship before we start it, or pretend that men and women are the same and that their experience, expectations and outcomes in marriage will be identical.
And second, the inimitable Carl Trueman:
The beautiful young things of the reformed renaissance have a hard choice to make in the next decade. You really do kid only yourselves if you think you can be an orthodox Christian and be at the same time cool enough and hip enough to cut it in the wider world. Frankly, in a couple of years it will not matter how much urban ink you sport, how much fair trade coffee you drink, how many craft brews you can name, how much urban gibberish you spout, how many art house movies you can find that redeemer figure in, and how much money you divert from gospel preaching to social justice: maintaining biblical sexual ethics will be the equivalent in our culture of being a white supremacist.
Both articles are well worth a read.
Chickens and Eggs - Ecclesiology and Soteriology
Those who were to become the Counter-Remonstrants were in favour of the strict ‘Beza-ite’ theology, a ‘gathered’ church with a clearly identifiable membership, ministers and consistories that confirmed through the exercise of Church discipline who was part of the church community and who was not, a strictly controlled right to take Communion and the affairs of the church firmly in the hands of its ministers. The Remonstrants took a pretty much opposite stance at every turn. Their theological practice was more relaxed, they saw the church as much more embracing of the local community, ministers mainly preaching and exercising pastoral care rather than exercising discipline through the Consistory and Communion over to all who called themselves believers.
1575 Some persons wished the Ministers would be contented to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments without excluding anybody from the Holy Table … The same persons… said the establishment of Consistories was a new sort of monkery and that the clergy would in time make use of them to encroach upon the Civil Government as they had done in the time of popery.
1578 Hubert (Duifhuis – Minister of an evangelical but not strongly Calvinistic church in Utrecht) had a conference with three Reformed Ministers: he was asked in that conference whether he had not read the small treatise of Beza, wherein he shows that the magistrate has a right to punish heretics with death. ‘Ah! Gentlemen’, said Hubert, ‘is this the thing you are aiming at? Let not my soul partake of your counsels. I will have no correspondence with such people.’
1579 The magistrates of Leiden declared that no ministers should be chosen, but such as are able to comfort penitent people and reprove obstinate sinners, that the church ought to be governed by Christ alone, and not by minsters and Consistories, lest they should set up for heads of the church and rule over conscience; by which means, the yoke of a new papacy would be introduced to the church.
1580 Gaspar Coolhaes had another dispute with Luke Hespe his colleague. The latter said, that ‘All those who come to the holy table with him, must be of the same opinion in everything; otherwise he would not give them Communion, nor even look upon them as his brethren.’ Coolhaes maintained on the contrary, that we ought to acknowledge for our brethren all those, who, agree fundamental points, and desire to live peacefully with us, otherwise… we must reject John Hus, Luther, Zwingli and many other excellent divines.
What should we make of all of this? There are a number of observations we can make:
A ‘gathered church’.
Our churches are very much ‘gathered’ groups of believers rather than churches that embrace the whole of our community. For the Dutch Reformed, however, their theology of a gathered church came less from Calvin and Beza and more from the pressure of co-existence alongside Anabaptist (Mennonite) churches who, through a strong emphasis on believers’ baptism and church discipline, had developed a strong concept of gathered communities of believers. Whatever else the theological shortcomings of the Anabaptists, they had a clear sense that they were called to be a ‘holy people’ and the Reformed communities knew it! There was a tension in the Reformed communities between a theology of infant baptism which predisposed them towards inclusivity and a doctrine of election plus pressure from the Anabaptists which pushed them towards exclusivity.
A strong emphasis on Church discipline.
For Calvin, discipline held three purposes – the glory and honour of Christ, to bring the sinner to repentance and to prevent sin from infecting the church. Discipline was enforced through the Consistory (a committee of pastors and elders which met on a weekly basis). Yet here again the Reformed were strongly influenced by the Mennonites though they never cared to admit it. Their emphasis on a ‘gathered’ church achieved through believers’ baptism and the ‘ban’ (church discipline) was something of a thorn in the side of the Calvinist churches in the Netherlands. Anabaptists were often more godly in their conduct than the Reformed and the ministers in the Reformed churches knew it if they only cared to look.
In our commitment to a ‘gathered church’ today baptism and church discipline play crucial roles. In New Testament terms it is baptism which surely defines membership of the body of Christ (even if we also happen to use joining courses to undergird vision and values). Let’s also be aware that church discipline used wisely is a vital tool in maintaining the health of the local church. In all of this, however, let’s be aware that our debt lies at least equally with Anabaptism and with Calvinism.
Series: Creation and Science
Creation and Science: Ten Models
One comment I should probably make at the outset is that the following list does not look like most other lists I’ve seen, and there’s a good reason for that. Taxonomies in this area are frequently a bit confusing, in my view, because they fail to distinguish between specific models of harmonising science and Scripture (like these), broad types of model (young earth creationism, old earth creationism, theistic evolution), and views of Genesis (historical account, poetic narrative, literary framework, etc). So in Mark Driscoll’s list, for example, the literary framework view is presented as an alternative to theistic evolution, rather than a reading of Genesis which is sometimes said to allow for it, and so on. They also sometimes use titles for particular positions which skew them, either positively (“historic creationism”), negatively (“the naive view”), or mystifyingly (“the God days view”). So I’ve used my own labels, followed by a brief description in each case, which attempt to sum up each view as fairly as possible.
One or two minority positions are missing from the list, because I so rarely encounter them (Wiseman’s view that the days represent the days on Sinai where Moses heard all this, for instance), but broadly speaking, almost every evangelical Christian I know or have read operates with one of the following ten models.
Young Earth Creation Models
Mature Creation view. The earth was created with the appearance of age. Humans were created as adults, and trees as trees rather than seedlings, so why could the earth not also appear older than it actually is? Similarly, natural resources (metals, minerals, coal, oil) were also placed in the earth as a blessing to humans.
Flood Geology view. The dramatic cataclysm of Noah’s flood, in which the entire earth was covered with water, would have affected the rock formations and fossil strata in numerous ways. Assuming that our dating methods are accurate with respect to the antediluvian world is therefore impossible; the data has simply been distorted at a global level.
Contingency of Science view. The fact that scientific conclusions are always changing makes it a dubious basis on which to criticise the biblical account. At the moment, no satisfactory harmonisation of science and Scripture exists, but then again hardly anybody in the academy is pursuing one; in time, a convincing model will emerge.
Old Earth Creation Models
Day Age view. The six days of Genesis 1 represent six ages of time. The big bang, the emergence of oceans and an atmosphere, the appearance of plants on the earth, the visibility of the sun, moon and stars, the development of fish and bird life, and finally the arrival of animals and humans, each takes several hundred million years.
Gap Theory. A large chronological gap exists between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, lasting millions or billions of years. The rebellion of Satan, and consequent judgment of the earth, took place in this period; rocks aged, and plants and animals died. The six days of Genesis 1 thus describe the reformation of the earth, rather than its original creation.
Land of Israel view. Although Genesis 1:1 is about the creation of the universe, 1:2-31 is specifically about the preparation of the land of Israel (which is the same area as the Garden in Eden) for human habitation. This is the focus of the entire Pentateuch, and it means there is no conflict between Genesis and scientific evidence.
Evolutionary Creationism Models
Special Creation view. Evolution is the means God used to create the diversity of plant and animal life on planet earth. Human beings, however, were specially created by God, and do not share common descent with the great apes - Adam was created from the earth, and Eve was created from Adam’s side. All humans descend from them, and the fall literally happened.
Neolithic Farmers view. Evolution culminated in hominids, and eventually homo sapiens. The “dust of the earth” means matter, or physical stuff: in this case two Neolithic farmers whom God chose, granted his image, and into whom he breathed spiritual life. Not all humans descend from Adam and Eve; God created other humans in the same way. But the fall literally happened, and affected all humans, with Adam as the federal head of the human race.
Mixed Ancestry view. Human ancestry is mixed. Adam and Eve were created as per the special creation view, but many other early humans were created from pre-existing material as described in the Neolithic Farmers view. (A variant sees Adam as created from a hominin, but Eve as uniquely created from his side). Not all humans descend from Adam and Eve, but the fall literally happened, and affected all humans, with Adam as the federal head of the human race.
Accommodation view. God accommodated ancient ideas about origins in the Genesis story, even though Adam was not historical, and the fall as described in Genesis 3 never happened. Adam is an analogy for Israel, and the fall for Israel’s failure to follow God. Jesus and Paul operated with an ancient understanding of origins, and although incorrect historically about Adam, they were right theologically.
Have I missed any important ones? And are there any on here which people think should be ruled out altogether? Personally, there are six of these that I find completely unconvincing, and four that I’m open to, one of which causes me fewer problems than the others. But what does everyone else think?
Is Your Christology Too Small?
For those of us who are charismatics this is a warning worth heeding. I understand the emotion, and don’t question the integrity, of those who fervently pray before every Sunday meeting or conference gathering, “Change us O God! May we never be the same again!” Yet I find myself reluctant to join in full fervour with them. Instead, I choose to focus more on the change that Christ has already wrought through his death and resurrection. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Paul does not think that the church has to make a difference. Rather, for Paul, Christians must learn how to live in the light of the difference Jesus has made.” Now, there is plenty that Hauerwas writes I disagree with, but on this point he is spot on. The apostolic message is consistent and clear: “This is what Christ has done, therefore everything is changed, live in the light of that.”
The dangers of constantly looking for ‘encounter’ with God is that it makes our faith contingent on the latest experience. It can actually discourage discipleship. Like the drunk who gets in a fight and says, “It wasn’t my fault – it was the booze,” we can say, “God didn’t meet with me in that meeting, so it’s his fault I’m not being obedient today.”
I believe in encounter with God. I am a charismatic after all! But my defining encounter with God was the day he caused me to born again. From that moment on I have been definitively changed, and the response required of me has been to live in the light of that transformation, confident of what it has accomplished now, and will accomplish eternally.
An obsession with the latest experience of transcendence reflects our cultural approach to relationships generally. Rather than faithful marriage that lives sacrificially in response to promises once made, the more normal expectation now is, “Are my needs being met? Is my sex life hot enough? Do I feel in love?” If the answer to such questions is “no” then it is typical to pack up and move on.
There was a day on which I got married. It was a good day, but to be honest Grace and I have enjoyed days since which have been much better; we have also endured much worse days. But that day is the defining day. Before it I wasn’t married; after it I was. This is analogous to my relationship with Christ – there are days when I feel much more aware of his presence in my life than others, but the way I feel on any particular day is not nearly so relevant as the fact that there was a day when he changed me. Discipleship, like marriage, is about working out that change, day by day rather than continually seeking another change.
If our Christology is too small we will keep running after the latest fad, and will give way to the kind of spiritual passivity that keeps us from active discipleship. A large Christology daily rejoices in what Christ has done, and the certainties that means for us. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Christians are changed people who are being changed into the likeness of Christ. Think about the implications of that next time you are headed to church!
Series: British New Testament Conference
The British New Testament Conference: A Review (Part 1)
James Crossley, the mischievously iconoclastic professor at the University of Sheffield, opened the conference with a critique of the way Jesus’ Judaism is used as a rhetorical tool in New Testament scholarship. With the title, “A Fundamentally Unreliable Adoration?”, Crossley argued that the Jewishness of Jesus, as presented in the works of numerous scholars, has become something of a rhetorical device to marginalise the conclusions of other scholars, rather than a necessary corrective to contemporary distortions. Nobody denies Jesus was Jewish these days, after all. So why are scholars insisting on the Jewishness of Jesus so loudly? The antisemitism of previous generations, Crossley argued, has been replaced by a very self-conscious philosemitism, leading to a flurry of works pressing the point that Jesus was a Jew - which is fine - but then using this as a stick with which to beat other interpretations of Jesus which are deemed insufficiently Jewish. In places this is almost comic, as when James Charlesworth says that “Jesus ... is perhaps the most Jewish Jew of the first century” (to which Crossley impishly asked: who is the sixth most Jewish Jew?), but in places it has serious consequences, as when the Jesus Seminar are accused of constructing a non-Jewish Jesus, and sometimes even linked with Nazism for doing so (Crossley cites Birger Pearson, Tom Wright, Mike Bird and Richard Rohrbaugh in this regard). But of course the Jesus Seminar are not Nazis, and they do not (in Crossley’s view) deJudaise Jesus at all, as the work of Dominic Crossan and others should make abundantly clear.
For Crossley, in fact, despite the repetition of the “Jesus was Jewish” mantra, what emerges in the work of many Christian scholars is more a Jesus who is “Jewish, but not that Jewish”. So Jesus is “opposed to some high-profile features of first century Judaism” (Wright), and “a marginal Jew” (Meier), who according to Christian scholars is robustly anti-Sabbath, pro-gender equality, anti-temple, and so on. Crossley cites Slavoj Zizek to the effect that this tactic is a commonplace of engaging with otherness: you have to include the other, but exclude the problematic bits of otherness. So, in Crossley’s critique, “Jesus the Jew had to be domesticated in our terms: Jesus the decaffeinated other. Jesus the fully other never had a chance. Jesus the Jewish-but-not-that-Jewish does.” The criterion of dissimilarity, which he believes is very overrated, has made scholars much more open than they should have been to stories in the Jesus tradition that are unlike first century Judaism. Perhaps, if the rhetoric surrounding the Jewishness of Jesus was taken down a notch or two, we might find a Jesus (like that of Vermes) who was much more like his Jewish contemporaries than Christian scholarship has been claiming.
The reaction to Crossley’s paper - a paper which, it is fair to say, contained a good number of disparaging and mocking comments about other scholars, including one or two in the room - was intriguing. When he had finished and asked for questions, none came for a substantial period of time, and the more senior luminaries in the room sat there in what felt like a rather awkward silence. The discussion I listened to over lunch the next day included words like “disrespectful”, “inappropriate”, “disappointing”, and even “John Barclay was very angry”, and the general impression was that the enfant terrible had rather got up people’s noses (which, I suspect, was part of the point). Some felt he had misrepresented the “Jesus the Jew” approach, which is frequently an appeal to locate Jesus credibly within second temple Judaism and therefore not to marginalise apocalyptic as an important part of that context, and others regarded him as engaging in gratuitous nose-tweaking without any serious biblical engagement (he only discussed one brief text in his lecture). James Crossley is clearly something of a character; my two previous experiences of him involved him debating (and, by his own admission, losing to) William Lane Craig on the resurrection, and calling Tom Wright and Mike Bird homophobic. The reaction to his main session, at least amongst the people I spoke to, indicated that his views were not necessarily representative of the group as a whole. To put it mildly.
The seminars at the BNTC are divided into different streams, and because of my research focus I was part of the track on Paul. On the first morning, I heard Andrew Boayke from Manchester give a paper on “the law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2, and argue that it referred to the Torah as summarised in the command to love God and love neighbour; Matthew Novenson from Edinburgh provocatively asked whether Paul believed in Judaism, and concluded that he didn’t, since the one place where he talked about Ioudaismos (Gal 1:13-14) he was referring to the defence of Jewish customs by Jewish people rather than the practice of what we call “Judaism”; and Rafael Rodriguez from Tennessee contended that Paul’s interlocutor in Romans 2:17-29 is not a Jew, as usually assumed, but a Gentile proselyte to Judaism who “calls himself a Jew”. Boayke’s paper, which was the least ambitious of the three, survived largely intact in the Q&A, but Novenson’s was challenged on the grounds that Galatians 1:13-14 sounds like it is talking about a school of Judaism, and Rodriguez’s paper failed to convince on the basis of Romans 2:23-24 in particular (a text which leaves his theory “scuppered below the waterline”, as Wright put it). As you would expect, the more creative or daring the proposal, the harder it is to get it through a room of experts unscathed.
The second plenary session was a treat: Tony Thiselton, at the grand old age of 75, speaking with the title, “Must we rest content with binitarianism in New Testament studies?” His question, obviously, concerned whether the Holy Spirit is spoken of as divine within the pages of the New Testament, and he answered with a fairly unequivocal “yes”. Admittedly, the Spirit is not worshipped as God in the New Testament, and it takes a while for the threefold gloria to emerge. But this, Thiselton argued, is due to what Barrett called “the self-effacing reticence of the Holy Spirit”, in that the Spirit always seeks to exalt Christ. The key reasons to speak of the Spirit as divine include (1) the fact that he is clearly uncreated, a powerful argument for his divinity that I can’t believe I had never noticed, (2) the use of the word “holy” as part of his name, a word which is regularly applied to God in the Old Testament, (3) the very trinitarian narratives, like the baptism and resurrection stories, (4) the use of “Holy Spirit” as a periphrasis for God in the old Testament, and (5) the evocation of theophany in the language of Pentecost. For Thiselton, the first is the crucial one: as Athanasius put it, the Spirit must either be created or uncreated, and if he is uncreated, then worshipping him cannot be idolatrous, since he is not a creature. So yes, the New Testament moves beyond binitarianism in various ways.
But the joys of the talk, from my perspective, were the random rants that punctuated it, frequently issued at a far higher volume than you would expect from a sedentary septuagenarian. “Why on EARTH does half the church call the Holy Spirit an ‘it’? Is he created? Unbelievable!” Or, halfway through a question about calling the Holy Spirit “she” because ruach is feminine, “I get really annoyed when I hear that, because ekeinos is masculine! I hear people say “she”, and suddenly the political correctness is making me think about gender when I should be thinking about God.” (That went down like a lead balloon in certain quarters, obviously.) Or: “Some people talk about the Spirit as if he is somehow the same as power. People use industrial metaphors for him, like electricity, or steam. But if that’s the case, then what on EARTH does Zechariah 4:6 mean? ‘Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit.’ Yet there’s still all this talk about him as a power. Power evangelism. Power healing. It’s all about control, actually.” Crumbs! At one point, he even borrowed a rant from Gregory of Nyssa: “How can God be a quantity? What are we using numbers for? Oneness refers to the fact that what the Father does is also done by the Son, and what the Son does is also done by the Spirit. How can you count God, as if it was counting gold coins?” A brilliant old man with a passion is a wonderful thing to behold.
That’s a summary - lengthy for a blog post, but brief for a review of many hours of taught content! - of the main sessions, and a handful of the seminars. I’ll talk some more about the more explosive and insightful of the seminars (now there’s a teaser for you) next week.
Sticks and Stones
If we deny the impact of words we will either withdraw or build an impenetrable thick skin. Matthew Hosier wrote about picking his battles and his intent to fight for marriage and not over the words people choose to use to describe him or others seeking to defend marriage. This is in the light of the furore sparked by Nick Clegg’s words issued in a press release describing opponents of equal marriage as bigots, which was then hastily recalled and re-issued with bigots replaced by ‘some people’. Whether or not it was intended, the public relations version of doing the hokey-cokey guaranteed widespread coverage.
Matthew’s intent is certainly admirable, and a realistic response to the current political contours of the debate over whether marriage should be changed to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. We don’t want our actions to be defined by whether or not people like us, otherwise we would find ourselves on a perpetual merry-go-round seeking approval and affirmation. When I sketched out my thoughts on the issue earlier in the year when the government consultation closed I hesitated because I did not want to be labelled as a bigot or branded with a particularly vociferous form of hatred. I wanted to avoid the ire of people who disagreed with me. I wanted to set out my thoughts without provoking a backlash, but I also did not want to be silenced just because I knew that people would disagree with me, and in the end, that was the main force behind putting my views on record.
Just now I wrote: ‘debate over whether marriage should be changed’, if you looked at comments from those proposing such a change they would phrase it differently, they might say marriage should be opened up or extended, or made equal. The words we use matter. The debate is set out in two different terms of reference, for one side it is about changing marriage, for the other it is about removing restrictions that unfairly prevent some people from accessing it. And the side that most effectively frames the debate begins with a handsome head start.
A vital part of framing this debate is allocating your opponents a space on the margins. If in anyway you can present your opponents as a receding minority you are well on your way to winning the argument. And this is where being called a bigot matters. Even words such as ‘traditional’, ‘orthodox’ ‘religious’ and ‘Christian’ become used to define an opinion as on the sidelines of the debate, and while worthy of protection or respect, they are damned with faint praise to a life outside of the mainstream.
There is a strange mentality within Christianity that sometimes likes attacks on our beliefs and actions. There is something in it that validates those beliefs by the very act of opposition, the ‘if they’re attacking us then we must have got something right’ mentality. And we may well face attacks for our faith, but I think too often people are not offended by the gospel that we preach but by those who preach it. We imagine that the more people hate us, the more right we are.
This just leads to a spiralling descent into a culture war. Positions become entrenched and we authenticate our actions by the opposition they provoke. We mark out our differences with pride, guarding the line with passion, defying nuance and losing relationships in order to win the war of words.
I’m with Matthew in not wanting marriage to change but I think we need a better language. We need to make the charge of bigot nonsensical rather than just shrugging the insult off and moving on to a fight we think matters more. If we can’t get the language right then we are throwing troops armed with peashooters at a full scale cavalry charge.
Does God Love Everyone?
Does God Love Everyone?
The question is deceptively difficult. The Bible speaks of God’s love in several different ways. D.A. Carson, in his excellent book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, mentions five (pp. 16-19):
1. The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father.
2. God’s providential love over all that he has made.
3. God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world.
4. God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect.
5. God’s love toward his own people in a provisional way, conditioned upon obedience.
After giving a brief biblical explanation for each way, Carson explains the danger of emphasizing one aspect of the love of God over the others.
If God’s love is defined exclusively by his intra-Trinitarian love, which is perfect and unblemished by sin, we won’t grasp the glory of God in loving rebels like us.
If God’s love is nothing but his providential care over all things, we’ll struggle to see how the gospel is any good news at all because, after all, doesn’t he love everyone already?
If God’s love is seen solely as his desire to save the world, we’ll end up with an emotionally charged God who doesn’t display the same sense of sovereignty we see in the pages of Scripture.
If God’s love is only understood as his electing love, we’ll too see easily say God hates all sorts of people, when that truth requires a good deal more nuance.
And if God’s love is bound up entirely in warnings like “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21), we’ll fall into legalism and lots of unwarranted self-doubt.
Talking about God’s love sounds like a simple theological task, but it’s actually one of the trickiest. I’ve heard of churches debating whether their kids should be taught “Jesus Loves Me” (some of the children might be reprobate, you never know). I know many more churches which so emphasize God’s all-encompassing love for everyone everywhere, that it’s hard to figure out why anyone should bother to become a Christian. The fact is that God loves everyone and he doesn’t. He hates the world and he loves the world. He can’t possibly love his adopted children any more than he does, and he is profoundly grieved by our sin. The challenge of good theology is to explain how the Bible provides warrant for all those statements and how they all fit together.
Friday Fun: A Lesson in Spheremantics
I am, of course, talking about the divine command to come up with names for stuff.
In Genesis 2:19-20, God paraded animals before Adam one by one, allowing him to name them. Right at the heart of God’s plan for mankind is that they would be adept at deciding what to call things. If it lives, moves, breathes – every creeping thing – brand it, slap a slogan on it and start a Facebook page.
I am delighted to hear, therefore, that the recent multiplication of apostolic spheres within Newfrontiers has created a natural context for us to recover this vital element of our divine commission. With spheres popping up all around the place, and questions being asked about how we articulate our spherical allegiance, we can finally get back to what God designed us to do: naming stuff!
(And as an aside: I have heard of a few detractors who have expressed some reluctance about naming spheres. And good complementarians too! This strikes me as somewhat odd. Since the role of naming things was given to Adam before the creation of Eve I cannot help but wonder if those cynics amongst us who are hesitant about naming apostolic spheres aren’t actually in danger of undermining gender roles in ministry and diminishing something of their God-given masculinity in the process?!)
But let’s face it, when left alone with the animals, Adam did make some pretty poor choices, as did those who came after him. ‘Dragonfly’ conjures up all sorts of interesting possibilities, whilst the creature itself proves to be somewhat disappointing; the ‘Killdeer’ is a pathetic little bird, who couldn’t achieve anything remotely close to what his name suggests; and the Australian ‘Aha ha’ wasp is frankly embarrassing!
I must admit some fear that, if left unaided, apostles might make similar errors. So, having some personal experience in naming things (3 children, 6 books, 4 pets and a car) I thought I should offer some advice to budding apostolic nomenclators:
When naming spheres, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Is the acronym fun, catchy and trendy?
No matter how great you think your name is, people are going to always want to shorten it. So think about whether the abbreviated form has some pizzazz to it. Let’s be honest, N.F.I. was acceptable, but hardly a fun or culturally relevant acronym. Why not try to come up with a name that abbreviates to some modern text talk like L.O.L, or R.O.F.L? It shows you’re aware of modern culture, and that you’re making yourselves accessible to a younger generation. (As does, for that matter, mixing up your spelling by switching Cs for Ks and Zs for Ss. Trendy youths love that!)
Also, think about whether the word is pleasing to say. Words like ‘sasquatch’ or ‘kumquat’ are just enjoyable to utter. If you can manage to come up with a name that shortens to something fun, it will bring a smile to people’s faces every time they say it.
2. Does the name make other Christians think you’re clever?
You want people to think you’re serious right? And serious about the Bible. So why not name your sphere after the most obscure thing you can find in Scripture: a type of tree mentioned only once by a minor prophet, or the Hebrew name for a patch in a desert where one of the Patriarchs happened to dig a well. It will sound cool and spiritual and get you some real kudos from those in the know.
Or think about some words that have fallen out of common parlance over the last couple of decades, and revive them. Just because a phrase hasn’t been uttered outside of a church since the mid-eighties doesn’t mean it’s a bad word, it means it just needs to be reintroduced to society. Slap it on a banner. You may seem out of date for a short while, but in time everyone will be using it, and you’ll be vindicated as having been ahead of the curve.
Consider creating deliberate ambiguity. Go for names that intrigue and make people think. For example, Hope 3:16 sounds like a pretty straightforward name – most Christians will assume it’s to do with John 3:16 (whilst many non-Christians will just assume it’s your service start time), but what if it’s not? Think of the fun Christians will have rooting through Scripture and wondering if you’ve actually named your sphere after Exodus 3:16, “All fat belongs to the Lord”; or 1 Kings 3:16, “Two prostitutes came and stood before the King”; or 2 Chronicles 3:16, “He made a hundred pomegranates and put them on chains”; or Revelation 3:16, “I will spew you out of my mouth” – how’s that for a message of hope? Or most amusing of all, Isaiah 3:16, “They walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet.” It will provide much amusement and keep them guessing for ages!
3. Are there other brands you would like to emulate?
Inspiration can come from a myriad of places, and Google is your doorway to a million ideas. Check out other brands that capture something of the feel you want for your sphere, and then copy them. Perhaps change the spelling or something if you want it to look inconspicuous.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Hotel chains make great use of aspirational nouns related to rivers, mountains and plant life. Why not trawl through Trip Advisor for suggestions?
- If you want a strong and zealous imperative, recruitment consultants or self-help groups are the place to look. Inspire! Equip! And don’t forget the exclamation marks. They make otherwise average names really exciting.
- People, Christians particularly, just can’t get enough of war metaphors, so check out army websites and re-runs of Band of Brothers. Use language about battlefields, armour, advancing and attacking and people will flock to your meetings. (Sure, pacifists might be a little turned off, but let’s be honest, you probably don’t want them in your sphere anyway.)
- If you want to use verbs like longing, loving, seeking, searching, dreaming and so on, you’re well and truly into the territory of dating websites, so draw inspiration from lonely hearts columns.
If you want something a little unexpected, check out brands and organisations from other nations. Browsing through lists of Eastern-European dog food, shampoo, TV channels, or pop groups will turn up a whole load of options you would never have thought of. Just make a mental note never to send church planters to that part of the world – the results could be embarrassing!
Why not check out other Christian movements, networks, podcasts and publications. Find the really successful ones and copy them. And I’d suggest you keep Matthew 10:8 and 1 Corinthians 6:7 up your sleeve in case they find out and are somewhat less than godly in their response!
And of course, I’m sure you’re all dying to know the name I have settled on for my own sphere. Well, I wanted to aim for a combination of a powerful word, with resonances of the Holy Spirit and fire (so I stole one from a fuel company), and a strapline that expressed some of our key spiritual values and abbreviates to a memorable form.
So ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce: TOTAL: Charismatic, Reformed, Apostolic Partnership.
These two theological statements are, in many ways, the book-ends of Dutch Calvinism, the first implying theological consensus and the second underlining a theological chasm which had grown up. The more we look, however, the more we see an underlying tension growing within Dutch Reformed circles between those who adhered to a strong Beza-style Calvinism which eclipsed Calvin in many ways and those who did not. What follows is a series of quotations from Gerard Brandt’s History of the Reformation in the Netherlands (1668-74) which all serve to illustrate this time bomb that eventually exploded at Dort.
1573 - There was some difference of opinions among the Reformed. John Isbrandtson, Minister of Rotterdam, preached against the doctrines of predestination, such as Calvin taught it; and Clement Martenson, the first minister of the Reformed at Horn, declared frequently that he had never believed, nor preached predestination, but in the sense of Melanchthon’. Most of the ministers in Holland followed Calvin’s opinion about that doctrine but some…did not approve of it. That doctrine…could hardly be relished by everybody, since the works of Erasmus and Melanchthon, the book of Bullinger for the use of families and the Guide of the Laity written by Veluanus, were highly esteemed.
8 Feb 1575 a University was founded at Leiden as a reward for the bravery of its inhabitants. John Holman was one of the first Professors of Divinity in that town: his doctrine concerning predestination was the same as that of Melanchthon. It was this Professor that was recommend by the famous Beza, who believed that Melancthon’s theology was more proper for the Dutch, and that it would appear to them more edifying…
14 Oct (1574) died Frederick III Elector Palatin. He was a Prince endowed with great virtues; he introduced into Germany the Confession of Faith of the Helvetic Churches, and ordered some of his Divines to compose the Heidelberg Catechism. He assisted the Protestants of France and the Low Countries. That Prince in his last will, exhorted his children in a very pathetical manner to avoid quarrelsome and violent clergyman. But above all things, said he, let my children beware of turbulent ministers and professors, who undertake here and elsewhere to raise disputes about words and scandalous contentions, and to thunder out anathemas in churches against those who nevertheless agree with us about the main articles of our religion, and ground the hopes of their salvation as we do, upon the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Any lessons here? I don’t think for a moment that we as a family of churches are sitting on major theological time bombs. However, we would be naïve if we imagined that there was perfect 100% agreement amongst us across the board. As I have said earlier, it has never been our style to underpin the unity we have with tightly defined theological statements. Rather, our relational unity has been expressed by doing things – by being on mission together. In a “brave new world” where we have multiplied apostolic ministry across the world and also in the UK we must be aware of the potential for theological fracture. We need to be big-hearted and generous-spirited with what appear to be polar opposites but, happily, in the economy of God, can co-exist. The moment, like the Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants, we take pot-shots to demonstrate that our “system” is the only lens through which to view Scripture is the moment we lose something very precious amongst us. Unity with diversity is something to be valued not to be feared.
A Bigot? Moi?
The thing that gets me is that the use of the b word should cause this furore at all. Of course, it has echoes of “Bigotgate” when then Prime Minister Gordon Brown described Gillian Duffy as “some bigoted woman” – an incident that nailed fast shut his electoral coffin. I felt rather sorry for Brown on that occasion. After all, which of us has not said something in private that we would die a thousand deaths for if it were broadcast to a wide public? Also, while bigot is not the politest word, Brown was entitled to think that Duffy’s views on immigration displayed a certain narrowness of generosity. It seemed to me that he was being beaten with an unfair (even bigoted!) stick.
So, as an opponent of gay marriage, should I feel offended that Nick Clegg considers me a bigot? Because I don’t. Not one little bit. Instead, I think he should have every right to label as bigotry what he considers to be bigotry; just as I also think I should every right to express the views I hold about marriage. I think the Brighton Green Party have displayed bigoted behaviour in expelling Councillor Christina Summers for her opposition to gay marriage. They, in turn, consider her a bigot for these very views. Someone is right and someone wrong in their views here, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to express them.
The great thing about living in a democracy is that we do not have to vote for people whose views we disagree with. Nick Clegg’s views may be silly, ill-informed and wrong, but that doesn’t mean he should be condemned for expressing them. Indeed, the fact that he has expressed them should make it easier for his constituents to make a decision about the way they mark their ballot papers come the next general election.
When it comes to the culture wars we need to think carefully about which battles we choose to fight. I want to fight for marriage, but I’m not going to get up in arms about what people call me in the process.
The Emperor’s New Frontiers
The official answer, of course, is no. Newfrontiers - which, originally, was simply the name given to Terry Virgo’s apostolic sphere - has always included a number of established and emerging apostolic ministries, and the only thing that is changing at the moment is that we are formally recognising and releasing them. The name will continue, the values will continue, and the relationships will continue, so to use the language of “breaking up”, let alone “fragmenting” or even “ending”, is inappropriate. Nobody has fallen out with anybody; we still have the same mission, the same DNA and the same shared history.
But. Now imagine I’m not talking to leaders within the movement, who already understand the way things work, but to moderately informed people both within and without – like many readers of this blog – who have heard something like the following: Terry Virgo is retiring; five separate guys in the UK (and a bunch more overseas) are leading their own teams, choosing their own names, setting up their own websites and training courses, and leading their own Bible weeks; there is no unifying statement of faith, and the team leaders are free to develop their own doctrinal distinctives; there are no events at which all leaders from around the world (or even from across the UK) will gather; the Newfrontiers office is closing in December; and there will be no central budget. In a conversation with such a person, talking about remaining together and developing more apostolic spheres could seem, in the light of the facts, like spin - a flat denial of what looks to many like a reality - and that costs you credibility in leadership. (When the little boy shouts out that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, everyone wants to applaud him; the only people denying it are the weavers and spinners who sold him the “clothes” in the first place.) So for a while, I wondered whether the best thing to do, if asked whether Newfrontiers was breaking up, was simply to answer “yes” and be done with it, and then explain why, and what that meant in practice.
But. The problem with doing that, or something like it, is that it completely misrepresents what Newfrontiers has been, and what it is developing into. If a corporation turns into five companies, each with their own leader, name, board and budget, then it’s fair to say that the original corporation has “broken up”. If a denomination fragments along theological lines into five smaller denominations, distinguishable from each other not just by geography but also by convictions, purpose and values, then that might be called “breaking up”, too. But if a family reaches the stage where the children no longer live under their parents’ roof, and leave home to form families of their own, nobody calls that a “break up”. Rather, it’s understood as the natural outcome of growth and maturity, and the best possible way of ensuring that growth and maturity continue into the next generation. The sort of language we use for it is positive, not negative; we mourn the physical separation, but we know how important it is for the family to continue to flourish.
So how do you tell the difference between a denomination breaking up, and children leaving home? That is, how can we tell if what is happening in Newfrontiers is the latter, as opposed to the former? Well, self-identification is one thing: when children leave home, they still describe themselves as being part of their original family, even if they are beginning to form their own, whereas fragmented denominations and divested companies immediately abandon their old names and announce new ones (PCUSA, PCA, OPC, and so on), so that their new identity is clear. Another clue is that extended families visit each other’s houses, get to know each other’s children, exchange gifts at Christmas, and meet together to celebrate weddings, whereas denominations who have split don’t generally do those things. And of course, family members keep in touch, desire the best for each other, and continue to update each other on significant things that are happening in their lives; in contrast, companies and (sadly) denominations can soon become rivals, who no longer feel like they’re united on the same team.
For me, then, what’s happening in Newfrontiers at the moment looks much more like a family leaving home than a corporation or a denomination splitting up. Admittedly, the new names being announced by some spheres might seem to suggest otherwise (and that’s one reason why, personally, I have some reservations about them), but from what I can tell, both spheres and churches will continue to self-identify as Newfrontiers, even if they also use a sphere name. Spheres will continue to support each other, exchange gifts (in the form of ministry, people and finances) and work together on common projects, of which this blog is just one. There will be contexts for meeting together, albeit much less frequently than in the past. Visiting other churches and getting to know them will continue to happen (of the churches I’m visiting this year, all but one of them are from other spheres), and so will the encouragement, news updates, sending of people and partnering in mission, and so on. All of those things, to my mind, are much more important indicators of unity than having the same leaders’ conference or the same website.
One other brief observation on this: at a practical level, very little of all that’s happening will bother the average person in a Newfrontiers church. From the perspective of the people in my life group, for example, being part of Newfrontiers means being part of Kings, with the values we have, and being connected to a wider worldwide movement through people who visit and serve us in various ways. Almost none of them went to Stoneleigh; none of them have ever spoken to Terry Virgo; it’s five years since any of them would have seen him or heard him speak; and I would bet that none of them could name more than one of the sphere leaders anyway. So for all that church leaders talk about the implications of what is currently taking place - and I do a fair bit of that myself! - we need to remember that most of these are implications for us, but not necessarily for those we serve. Just a thought.
So when people ask me whether Newfrontiers is “breaking up”, I’m back to saying no. I never “split from” my parents, my brother or my sisters, and nor am I planning to. In the long run, I actually ended up with a lot more people in my extended family as a result. Which is as it should be.
One Too Many
Douglas Adams, with characteristic prescience, foresaw what this would be as long ago as 1980. “After cures had been found for all the major diseases, and instant repair systems had been invented for all physical injuries and disablements,” he wrote in an episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “the only doctors still in business were the psychiatrists - simply because no one had discovered a cure for the universe as a whole.”
Deaths from disease or disability might be falling, but it was sobering to learn yesterday that the global suicide rate is on the increase.
Yesterday was World Suicide Prevention Day, and the British Government marked it by unveiling a new £1.5m suicide prevention strategy. Reporting on the launch, The Guardian quoted care services minister Norman Lamb as saying:
One death to suicide is one too many – we want to make suicide prevention everyone’s business.
Over the last 10 years there has been real progress in reducing the suicide rate, but it is still the case that someone takes their own life every two hours in England.
We want to reduce suicides…
These comments are in line with the World Health Organisation’s Publication Public Health Action For The Prevention Of Suicide which states that “suicidal behaviours are a major public health problem” (p. 7) and that “suicide prevention is a collective responsibility, and must be spearheaded by governments and civil society throughout the world.” (p. 20)
What they’re not so clearly in line with, however, is Mr Lamb’s own position on assisted suicide, which he was asked about while promoting the suicide prevention strategy on Radio 4’s Today programme:
In these circumstances, where there is someone who is facing a terminal illness, there is a case for a debate. My personal view is that there is a case for reform.
Yes, you read that right – less than two minutes after saying “One suicide is a suicide too many”, he said that in certain circumstances suicide might be such a desirable option that it should be legal for someone to help you carry it out.
If that sounds like some kind of Orwellian double-think, well, that’s two very prescient writers I’ve referenced today. Orwell’s only mistake was in thinking that it would take an oppressive regime to engender double-think – today we do it all the time, and call it rationalism.
That someone can hold two such opposite views on the subject without noticing any conflict is due in part to a perceived category-difference between physical and mental illness. I imagine that, if pushed, Norman Lamb would say that those who seek assisted suicide have something genuinely physically wrong with them that cannot be cured, whereas those who seek to take their lives due to depression or because they can’t cope with their life-circumstances just need help to adjust their perception of reality or their circumstances. In other words, one is right to consider death as the only escape from his or her circumstances, but the other is wrong; one should be helped to die, the other helped to live.
Why should that be the case? Why is it reasonable for someone with a physical disease to want to end it all but not for someone with a mental or emotional one? Proponents of assisted suicide like to play the ‘pain’ card at this point. Knowing that none of us wants to see our fellow human beings in physical pain, they appeal to our compassionate natures, asking ‘isn’t it wrong to condemn a person to years of physical agony if they wish to escape that?’ Yet mention the UK’s outstanding palliative care provision and you soon find that the physical pain actually isn’t really the root issue; dignity is.
And there we find the source of the perceived distinction between suicide and assisted suicide. From suicide notes and the testimony of suicide survivors, we know that many who take their own lives do so because they believe there is no other option. Their families would be better off without them; they can’t face the shame of people discovering the truth about them; life is just too hopeless; they simply don’t have the strength to go on. Those of us outside their heads and circumstances can identify that these are not true statements and seek to help them correct the untruths. When someone terminally ill says they want to commit suicide because their life has become ‘dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable’ as Locked-in Syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson put it, we are not sufficiently convinced of the essential dignity of the human being to enable us to counter this agonised cry. Lots of people find life dull, miserable, demeaning and intolerable, but we tell them that’s just the way life is. The WHO and the Government are going to work hard to make sure those people don’t resort to suicide as a solution to their misery, but no-one’s promising that everyone can be happy and fulfilled all the time. Throw in the word ‘undignified’, though, and that’s a different story. If you are unable to make what you consider to be a valid contribution to the world, if you are dependent on others to provide for your needs and take care of your most basic bodily functions, if your body is limiting the interaction you want to have with the world, and if you are able to express this lucidly and without coercion, our conception of freedom suggests that you ought to be able to choose death over that life.
It is a fine, fine line, and an issue which has troubled and divided philosophers – which circumstances do we accept as valid criteria for suicide? Can a person ever be said to be in his right mind if he is choosing death over life? Is it ever right to knowingly allow someone to commit suicide? Is it ever acceptable to help someone commit suicide? Is it ever acceptable to overrule someone’s freedom of choice and prevent him from committing suicide?
I am very pleased to hear that the Government is committing time and money to researching the issues surrounding suicide, and even more pleased that money and support will go to organisations working to identify those at risk of suicide and help them to find a way out of their pain and into life. I sincerely hope, though, that they will also think to include assisted suicide in their research, rather than treating it as an entirely separate question, because it is not. Our understandings of what it is to be human, and what it means to have dignity and value underpin both questions, and we would do well to pay this foundation some serious attention.
Worship is a Better Apologetic
My dad was impressed by how well the JWs are equipped in their arguments.
(The example the JW gave was from John 9:17 where Jesus is described as “a prophet.” However, he was mistaken about this example as in this case there is no choice to be made about the subject/object being either “was prophet” or “a prophet” – the “a” is inserted simply to make the sentence read smoothly.)
My experience when speaking with JWs (and members of the other heretical ‘Christian’ sects) is that inevitably things end up in a very dry argument. Sometimes this can be quite fun, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a proselytizing member of one of these groups who has endeared themselves to me. I think they are wrong, and the certainty of their beliefs only hardens me in my rejection of those beliefs.
Sometimes I wonder if the arguments we Christians make about our faith to non-believers have the same effect.
In talking with JWs I’ve never got any sense that they delight in the God they proclaim. There are lots of ‘facts’ but precious little worship. Perhaps in our arguments we can end up sounding the same. Instead of this, the church is called to witness the truth about Jesus Christ through our worship of him. Tasting the grace of God that is ours in Christ should fill us with a delight that is a more powerful testimony than any other argument.
One of the most famous, and perhaps most profound examples of this is given to us by Augustine:
Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new; late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
Now, that sounds like a convincing argument to me!
Pencil, Ink and Blood
When I was a child faith matters were all wrapped up in one huge bundle with all of equal value. I learned, “Christians don’t smoke and drink” and “Christians believe in the virgin birth and resurrection” and “Christians go to Sunday school and Sunday evening service.” I was too young to make any distinction between smoking, the resurrection and Sunday school attendance—they all were in the “Christian bundle” and of equal value for judging who was a Christian or not. I assumed people who drank beer or denied the resurrection or didn’t have a Sunday evening service weren’t Christians—at least not “real” Christians (later termed “Born again Christians”). As a child I made no distinction between levels of faith and practice and simply lumped them all together in one huge bundle. It is simply how a child views things…
Then I discovered some things are written in pencil. I had won a mural contest and gotten a pile of tickets for Kennywood Park. This was before all-day-one-price entry fees so a pile of tickets meant I could ride all day at our school’s annual Spring outing. I gave the tickets back. I knew Christians didn’t attend a carn-evil or cir-cuss or amusement parks (which were “just a carnival in a permanent location”). I quietly told my teacher after class, “Christians don’t go to amusement parks” and he reluctantly took the tickets back. (I discovered 30 years later that mister Krome, a Presbyterian, had called my parents that evening to ask, ‘What sort of strange religion is this?’) Not going to Grandview schools’ annual outing wasn’t all that bad—I got the day off to play at home. Yet on that morning in May, 1957 my father woke me early to announce “we’re taking a trip.” And we did—driving almost 100 miles to (you guessed it) an amusement park. (At first I thought my dad had backslidden). He announced I could ride all day and he’d foot the bill. Late that afternoon he took me to an old stump that was designed as a sort of bench and we sat together—just the two of us. He said something pretty much exactly like the following (a son can’t forget his father’s words like this):
“Keith, I brought you here to teach you a lesson. There are two fences in life: God’s fence and the church’s fence. The church’s fence is always smaller than God’s fence. God doesn’t care if you go to amusement parks or not, but a lot of church folk do and they think it is wrong. That’s why we drove this far—so we won’t be seen by the people in the church who would spiritually stumble by it. But there are a lot of Christians who do go to amusement parks, and there are even Christians in other countries who drink a bit. As you grow older you might push against the church’s fence. You might even break down the fence other Christians put around you—even the fence your mother and I have built. But be careful as you do this that you do not run so fast and far from being fenced in that you smash through God’s fence—for His fence is at the very edge of a precipice. And that’s why I brought you here today—to teach you this important lesson-remember it as you grow as a teenager.”
This is how I learned that some things are written in pencil. Going to an amusement park wasn’t as important as the virgin birth in the bag of beliefs. It was a pencil-belief (actually a pencil-practice). It was one generation’s attempt to resist worldliness and they wrote it down. But they wrote it with pencil and I had an eraser. Indeed every generation has its own eraser and can erase their parent’s pencil work. Did I abandon the faith when I went to an amusement park or started going bowling? No. I simply erased some of the previous generations’ pencil work. I learned that all the stuff I had in one belief bag really had a second category—some things are written in pencil and can be erased without damaging my soul.
In college I discovered some things are written in ink… In high school I had worked with lifestyle matters that were mostly pencil written. In college I encountered doctrinal things that were written in ink. In a student Bible study I became convinced that my denomination was completely wrong on doctrine. My denomination was Arminian-Wesleyan and after a freshman year of Bible study I concluded they were completely wrong. I became a Calvinist. I discovered that doctrinal matters aren’t written in pencil—they use ink for doctrine. I was disheartened that my professors and my denomination refused to capitulate to my faultless logic. The Bible was so clear and my denomination so deluded and I tried to set them straight. I once gave my whole spring break over to trying to convert my mother to Calvinism, but she stubbornly refused to fall before the scythe of my superior intellect. I could not imagine how any honest reader of Scripture would refuse to believe in eternal security. I could accept that there were folk with such small minds they could not fathom the notion of predestination, but eternal security—well any honest person must accept this obvious teaching of Scripture…
At seminary I discovered some things are written in blood. Then I went to Princeton Seminary. I met professors and students there that rattled the bones of my belief system all the way down to my toes… This is how I found the creeds. Really. I did not even know they existed until I was in seminary. I suppose I had heard of them but I had never heard them. They were never said in my church—they were “too high church.” I never even encountered them in college—we had revival meetings and testimonies in college. The first time I met the creeds was when several faithful professors at Princeton tossed them my way as a rope to a drowning student. I had erased most of the pencil work I was raised with. I had inked out much of my denomination’s doctrine. And now I was faced with reading people who didn’t even believe the core issues of the Christian faith. What could I believe? I took hold of the creeds—the Nicene but especially the Apostle’s creed—and hung on. Credo. I believe. The creed for me was not pencil work of earlier generations—their preferences, or lifestyle convictions. Neither were the creeds written in ink—merely the doctrinal positions of one particular denomination. The creeds were written in blood—they are life and death issues for the Christian church. I would not die for the doctrine of eternal security or entire sanctification. Hold a knife to my throat and demand I say, “I could backslide” or “I’m eternally secure” and you’ll get whatever answer you want to save my life. Hold that same knife to my throat and demand I say, “Christ was not divine” and I will refuse. At Princeton, under the mentorship of several godly professors I melted down to the core—to the Apostle’s creed. Everything else burned away like wood, hay and stubble. All I had left were 18 phrases.
Then I started rebuilding. I suppose this is why I am not alarmed when my graduates say they are melting down their belief bag. It was a good thing for me… eventually. After settling on the core faith found in the creeds I quit asking, “What do I doubt?” and started asking, “What do I believe?” I asked, “What else do I believe beside the Apostle’s Creed?” And I found that I did believe more than the core. As I examined doctrines one by one I began to adopt many again—this time not as “inherited doctrines” but as my own. I’ve written quite a bit in ink since then—doctrines I hold dear and would even write books about. In fact, in the rebuilding I actually became Wesleyan again and abandoned my Calvinism (though I have never abandoned the flavor of it). And I’ve even done some pencil work—I still do not cut my grass on Sunday though I can’t logically argue that you shouldn’t.
In fact you could accuse me of having big belief bag again and you’d be right. However my bag now has three compartments. I know the difference between what is written in pencil, written in ink and written in blood. You can be a Christian in my book if we disagree on the pencil and ink stuff. But neither you nor I can say we are Christians if we reject those things written in blood. Examine the blood-writ truths if you must, I did. But do so very carefully for you are dealing with the essence of what makes a Christian a Christian. And remember that picture of the knife at your throat. For some Christians today that is not an imaginary exercise.
John Frame’s Advice for Young Theologians
Value your relationship with Christ, your family, and the church above your career ambitions. You will influence more people by your life than by your theology. And deficiencies in your life will negate the influence of your ideas, even if those ideas are true.
Learn to write and speak clearly and cogently. The best theologians are able to take profound ideas and present them in simple language. Don’t try to persuade people of your expertise by writing in opaque prose.
Cultivate an intense devotional life and ignore people who criticize this as pietistic. Pray without ceasing. Read the Bible, not just as an academic text. Treasure opportunities to worship in chapel services and prayer meetings, as well as on Sunday. Give attention to your “spiritual formation,” however you understand that.
Be generous with your resources. Spend time talking to students, prospective students, and inquirers. Give away books and articles. Don’t be tightfisted when it comes to copyrighted materials; grant copy permission to anybody who asks for it. Ministry first, money second.
When there is a controversy, don’t get on one side right away. Do some analytical work first, on both positions. Consider these possibilities: (a) that the two parties may be looking at the same issue from different perspectives, so they don’t really contradict; (b) that both parties are overlooking something that could have brought them together; (c) that they are talking past one another because they use terms in different ways; (d) that there is a third alternative that is better than either of the opposing views and that might bring them together; (e) that their differences, though genuine, ought both to be tolerated in the church, like the differences between vegetarians and meat-eaters in Romans 14.
Be willing to reexamine your own tradition with a critical eye. It is unreasonable to think that any single tradition has all the truth or is always right. And unless theologians develop critical perspectives on their own denominations and traditions, the reunion of the body of Christ will never take place. Don’t be one of those theologians who are known mainly for trying to make Arminians become Calvinists (or vice versa).
Be active in a good church. Theologians need the means of grace as much as other believers. This is especially important when you are studying at a secular university or liberal seminary. You need the support of other believers to maintain proper theological perspective.
Come to appreciate the wisdom, even theological wisdom, of relatively uneducated Christians. Don’t be one of those theologians who always has something negative to say when a simple believer describes his walk with the Lord. Don’t look down at people from what Helmut Thielicke called “the high horse of enlightenment.” Often, simple believers know God better than you do, and you need to learn from them, as did Abraham Kuyper, for instance.
Learn to be skeptical of the skeptics. Unbelieving and liberal scholars are as prone to error as anybody—in fact, more so.
Respect your elders. Nothing is so ill-becoming as a young theologian who despises those who have been working in the field for decades. Disagreement is fine, as long as you acknowledge the maturity and the contributions of those you disagree with. Take 1 Timothy 5:1 to heart.
There’s twenty others, including some which really made me stop and think (always do your seminary training in a place that regards the Bible as God’s word, for instance). The whole thing is worth a look.
The first confessional churches were established by the Anabaptists from 1530 onwards. They suffered severe setbacks after the collapse of their lunatic millennial kingdom at Munster in 1535 but regrouped thereafter under the leadership of a former Catholic priest, Menno Simons to become a much more Biblical community of believers. The Anabaptists were confessional almost from the outset. An Anabaptist theology was clearly defined which distinguished them from other evangelicals, believer’s baptism, the gathered church and use of the ban (excommunication) being the most essential ingredients. Pacifism, refusal to swear oaths, to do military service or to take any part in civil government also became defining characteristics of the movement.
Outside Anabaptist circles the whole process took much longer. No explicitly Lutheran churches were established until 1566. In the 1520s and 30s evangelicals would continue to go to Mass and then meet in the pub for Bible-based discussion after the service. Out of these groups grew regular Bible study and discussion groups which church historians call conventicles. Evangelicals who approached Luther for advice on forming a more coherent underground church were strongly discouraged from so doing. Other foreign reformers offered similar advice. In the early 1540s the Strasbourg reformer Wolfgang Capito advised against quitting the Roman church despite all her imperfections.
It was not until 1543-44 that evangelicals living in the Netherlands were counselled to abandon the Roman church. When Calvin heard that evangelicals were still going to Mass he was horrified. He wrote a pamphlet in which on the basis of Romans 10:10 he argued that genuine faith must find appropriate outward expression. If the Mass dishonours God, said Calvin, how then can an evangelical honour it with his presence? Many in the evangelical community thought that Calvin was being over harsh and complained of such and a spokesman for them made the somewhat unwise suggestion that Calvin write another tract to set their minds at rest. In his Excuse to the Nicodemites, Calvin condemned Nicodemism (secret discipleship) and called for commitment:
How long will you go on limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him, but if Baal, then follow him.
The impact of Calvin’s advice was highly significant for Dutch evangelicals. By the mid 1550s churches were beginning to be formed. The most significant was a thriving congregation established in Antwerp led by a gifted pastor by the name of Adriaen van Haemstede. There was also a distinct change in the pattern of evangelical publishing in this period. Non-confessional loosely evangelical pamphlets were largely replaced by catechisms, psalm-books, church orders and the like which were specifically designed for use within the Reformed community. Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite tracts which had appeared in French in the 1540s were now translated into Dutch alongside other books of a similar ilk.
At the same time as an explicitly confessional Calvinist church was being established in the Netherlands, Calvinism was becoming the dominant variety of Protestantism all over Europe. The model church Calvin had established in Geneva was rolled out in France, Scotland, Germany and beyond. Calvin’s Institutes (definitive edition 1559) made him the dominant theologian of the Protestant churches. Success brought its fair share of problems. In France civil war had begun to brew by the time of Calvin’s death and aspects of Calvin’s theology, particularly the doctrine of double predestination came under fire both from Catholic and Protestant theologians alike. Calvin himself was prepared to live with “loose ends” and never sought in doctrine to go beyond where Scripture was explicit. After Calvin’s death in 1564, however, his successors, notably Theodore Beza in an ironic canonization of their hero and mentor felt a need to defend every aspect of his theology to the nth degree. This led to an over-rigid over defined theology amongst the Calvinist churches by the start of the seventeenth century both in the Netherlands and in Europe as a whole.
Of what interest and significance is this for us? There are, I think, a couple of interesting parallels. First, like Calvin back in the 1550s we have established new churches both in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Newfrontiers as a family of churches traces its roots back to the “Restoration” movement in the 1970s. The Charismatic movement in the 1960s had seen an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in mainstream denominational churches. For some in those churches the end game was renewal and God has undoubtedly and wonderfully blessed churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton that have grown out of that experience. For us, there was a more radical approach. Without suggesting for a moment that British denominational churches were like the Church of Rome in the sixteenth century like Calvin, we adopted a more root and branch approach to applying what God was doing amongst us and, in our determination to see a New Testament pattern, new churches were birthed.
So far so good. The danger now is that like the Calvinists in the immediate post-Calvin period we over-confessionalize. Back in 2009 when Mark Driscoll was with us at Brighton he encouraged a number of routes forward that, for various reasons we have chosen not to take. Terry Virgo has not handed over to one successor and we have chosen to go the way of multiplication. We have not dispatched the word “family” from our strapline believing that it is an apt and appropriate descriptor of how New Testament churches functioned and related together. Mark also encouraged us to write lots of theology. This could be both a good thing and potentially a bad thing. Clearly, gifted thinkers in our movement such as Andrew Wilson and Phil Moore should be writing all sorts of books – Bible commentaries, apologetics etc. But Mark, as I recall, was encouraging something more than this. He was encouraging us to define our theology more concretely as a movement, in other words, to confessionalize. This has never been our style as a movement. All sorts of people over the years have either encouraged us to have a statement of faith or have been amazed that we didn’t already have one! We have resisted and should continue to do so. Our identity as a family of churches, a movement, has never been defined by a theology we all need to sign up to (the nearest we ever got was 17 values that don’t say anything at all about many of the central doctrines of evangelical Christianity). That sounds slightly strange as it could imply we are not very serious about theology when, of course, the reverse is true. Terry Virgo always insisted that it was relationships that held us together. I would suggest that it is not so much relationships that have held us together, but doing things in a context of relationships. This is what Paul defines as fellowship, koinonia, partnership in the Gospel (Philippians 1:5). Let’s write great theology by all means, but let’s never try and come up with a confessional statement for Newfrontiers churches. It didn’t work for the Calvinists in the second generation and it won’t work for us.
The Pink Pamphlet: Soul Survivor’s Position on Women in Leadership
I also love Soul Survivor. How could I not? The largest Christian youth event there is, a passion for the Bible and the Holy Spirit, hundreds making responses to the gospel every year, led by one of the country’s most gifted communicators, a veritable factory of young worship leaders, and many of the best songs to be written in my generation. Tim Hughes, Matt Redman, Ben Cantelon, Mike Pilavachi and Jeannie Morgan have all come down to serve our church brilliantly in the last few years (and two of them were instrumental in getting my books off the ground), I’ve spoken there, and a bunch of my friends spend most of their summers there. It’s an amazing event, and an amazing movement.
But. (You knew it was coming.) A friend of mine, who leads young people at a Baptist church, recently sent me a copy of the pink pamphlet they handed out this year entitled, “Women in Leadership: Soul Survivor’s Position on Women in Leadership”, written by Graham Cray, and asked me what I thought about it. Normally, I’d just email back my brief reflections and move on. But the scale of Soul Survivor, the number of young people I know who go, and some of the errors and problems with the argument within it, taken together, made me think a careful review was in order. So here goes.
I’ll start by saying that there is a lot in the pamphlet that is excellent. As is so often the way with these things, there’s far more to agree with than to disagree with, which is a good thing: the equality of men and women, the story of women with leadership roles in the Old Testament, the massive affirmation of women in the story and ministry of Jesus, the implications of the cross and of Pentecost, the roles women played in Paul’s apostolic ministry, and the broad interpretation of the controversial passages about head coverings and silence in churches, to name but a few. I haven’t counted, but I suspect the total percentage of sentences I would take issue with is extremely small – and that is hugely encouraging for future dialogue.
Having said that, the pamphlet is tainted by some obvious errors. Aside from the typos (which I presume indicate it was put together quickly), there are a number of factual inaccuracies. 1 Corinthians 16:19 does not indicate that Priscilla and Aquila were leaders at Corinth, but (and this may be relevant for the interpretation of the Pastorals) at Ephesus, from where Paul was writing at the time. The nouns for New Testament leadership offices like presbuteros and episkopos are masculine, not neuter, and so are some of the qualifications (husband of one wife, managing his household well, and so on). John does not tell us that Mary Magdalene was sent to the other apostles, and the word apostello is not used, and it does not “literally” mean “apostled” anyway; in fact, the only people whom we know Jesus to have sent in the gospels with the verb apostello are men (e.g. Matt 10:5, 16; Luke 24:49; John 20:21; etc.) It is simply false to say that “in the Hebrew or Greek way of thinking, being the head had nothing to do with being charge or making decisions”, as a quick survey of the lexicon entries for, or the hundreds of biblical occurrences of, rosh (Hebrew) and kephale (Greek) will make clear. Nor is it the case that Paul always used the word “Lord” rather than “head” when he was talking about Jesus being in charge of the church (Eph 1:22 is the most obvious counterexample). It’s hard to tell which of these are mere slips of the pen, and which are more central to the argument – but either way, the fact is that these statements are incorrect.
The pamphlet also makes some highly contentious exegetical judgments without notifying the reader that they are contentious at all. Perhaps the most obvious concerns the (hugely debated) meaning of kephale:
There is just one use of the word ‘head’ in the English language that gives some indication of what the original language meant and that’s the head of the river. This doesn’t mean a part of the river that’s ‘in charge’ but the part where it starts before it becomes a more fully flowing river. It’s a word that means ‘source’ or ‘origin’.
The risk here is one of bamboozling the unwary by appeal to original meanings to which readers do not have access, and doing so in a way that implies a scholarly consensus that does not exist. Twenty five years ago, Gordon Fee made the case that kephale meant ‘source’ in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (not Ephesians!), and a number of other scholars have agreed (Murphy-O’Connor, Schrage, Barrett), but the vast majority of articles and commentaries in the last fifteen years have rejected this interpretation, preferring either the view that kephale connotes ‘authority’ or ‘hierarchy’ (Fitzmyer, Grudem, Ciampa and Rosner) or ‘pre-eminence’ (Perriman, Horrell, Thiselton, Garland, Best) – including leading egalitarian scholars like Howard Marshall and Ben Witherington. To argue for the meaning “source” at all, in academic circles, is controversial; to simply state it without alerting the reader to what a minority position it is, with reference to Ephesians 5:23, is extremely misleading. The same sort of thing happens with reference to 1 Timothy 2:11, where the submission is claimed to be to God, rather than (with most commentators) to the teachers and/or the teaching. Minority views aren’t necessarily wrong, of course; we wouldn’t have had a Reformation if they were. But when so many scholars reject your views, it is at best confusing and at worst disingenuous to drop them in without qualification, when writing for young people who usually won’t have the original languages.
The texts which are omitted from consideration are also, in my view, of some significance. The structure of the pamphlet is fairly simple: start with some basic affirmations; move through Genesis, the Old Testament, Jesus and Paul, demonstrating how men and women are equal throughout (amen!); and then with that foundation in place, deal with the four “passages that cause controversy” in Paul’s letters (Eph 5:21-33; 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:8-15). The approach, unsurprisingly, is to limit the number of “problem texts” to four, and then explain why they do not conflict with the argument being made. But Ephesians 5 is not the only text that talks about submission in marriage. What about Colossians 3:18-19? More extensively, what about 1 Peter 3:1-7? Why do we die “in Adam” if Eve sinned first (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22)? If one-way submission indicates inequality, then what about the passage that talks about Jesus submitting to the Father when he returns (1 Cor 15:28)? Similarly, what about the texts that deal with qualifications for eldership (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)? As far as I can tell, the word “overseer” never appears and the word “elder” only appears once in the pamphlet, in the very last paragraph, despite its centrality to the wider discussion about gender roles. Even there, the explanation is not at all satisfactory:
As the letter goes on in 1 Timothy 3 we read instructions for appointing elders and deacons. Although many Bibles translate the commands as ‘he’ (i.e.’he must manage his own family well’) the original texts didn’t use masculine nouns for these leadership titles but neuter ones, so they do not automatically exclude women. That would again point to the fact he was only temporarily stopping women from teaching until they themselves had been taught.
I’ve already pointed out the inaccuracy of the statement about neuter nouns, which is the primary response in this paragraph to a commitment to male eldership. At least two of the qualifications are explicitly addressed to men (3:2, 4-5), and the same is true when we consider the qualifications in Titus (1:6). Furthermore, for what it’s worth, I have yet to encounter a commentator, of any theological commitment, who does not believe that the Pastorals assume overseers/elders will be men. Of course, a twenty-page pamphlet cannot address every passage. But given that the two main differences between complementarians and egalitarians concern marriage and the office of overseer/elder, it does not seem at all adequate to treat the two passages which list qualifications for the latter so briefly and inaccurately, and to ignore two of the three passages which address the former altogether.
A further problem is the pamphlet’s confusing use of language. It is not clear to me, as a relatively well-informed reader, how exactly the differences between terms like “hierarchy”, “authority”, “leadership”, “in charge”, “take priority” and “dominance” are to be understood. From what I can tell, “leadership” is compatible with “equality” and is used whenever the nuance is intended to be good, and the other words are incompatible with “equality” and are used whenever the nuance is intended to be bad – but that may be an oversimplification. Jumping between them makes the argument difficult to follow: there is no hierarchy in the Trinity, and man is not supposed to be in charge of woman or take priority over her, but men and women can both exercise leadership. Which makes me want to ask: if a woman “leads”, is she thereby exercising “authority”? Part of a “hierarchy”? “In charge”? “Dominant”, even? I’m not being awkward here; I genuinely don’t understand the differences being drawn, and it makes me suspect (though I hope I’m wrong) that the main differences are in the emotional freight they carry. If a find-and-replace was to take place on the document, and every one of these terms was replaced by “servant leadership” – which, for Jesus as for Paul, is the only sort of gospel-shaped authority there is – I wonder if the pamphlet would take on a different, and perhaps more even-handed, flavour.
On a related note, the pamphlet frequently pitches equality against hierarchy / authority / leadership (men and women are equal, so neither of them ought to be leading the other). This approach, although (sadly) common in the debate, is very problematic. Take this very important question, for example: is it possible for one person to have a leadership responsibility with respect to another, and yet be equal with them? If the answer is yes, then the fact that a husband and a wife are equal (which, of course, I believe) is in no way an argument against one having leadership responsibility for the other. If the answer is no, on the other hand, then a whole series of questions emerge: is a woman church leader not equal with the people she serves? Does the fact that the author of the pamphlet calls himself “Bishop Graham Cray” several times indicate that he believes he is superior to others? Does acknowledging the leadership responsibility of an Emperor, or a Prime Minister, make me somehow unequal with them before God? Surely not. One would assume the answer, then, was that leadership – authority exercised in such a way as to serve others – is compatible with equality. As such, affirming (rightly) the equality of men and women has no bearing at all on who gets to be overseers/elders, and whether the husband leads his family.
Finally, when it comes to marriage, the pamphlet seems to come out against any role distinctions in marriage at all, but it doesn’t quite say that. To be honest, in a document explaining why Soul Survivor believe women can lead in the church, this section need not have been included at all; many leading egalitarians, including several of those cited at the end of the pamphlet, argue that women can be overseers/elders/bishops in the church, but that men should take primary responsibility for their families as servant leaders (Tom Wright, Ben Witherington, Chris Wright, and so on). At any rate, the standard popular egalitarian arguments on Ephesians 5 are presented, namely (1) headship means source, and (2) Paul was talking about mutual submission. But again, when the weight of church history and New Testament scholarship are considered, (1) becomes virtually untenable in this context – even egalitarian scholars cited in the pamphlet (Tom Wright, Howard Marshall), who tentatively suggest it might mean “source” in 1 Corinthians, admit it must refer to leadership in Ephesians 5 – and consequently, (2) does not have the force the pamphlet implies, since the way husbands and wives submit are clearly different (husbands, like Jesus, as servant and self-sacrificial leaders, with wives, like the church, responding in joyful and voluntary submission). There are, of course, a whole bunch of egalitarian scholars who agree with the pamphlet’s basic position. But their way of getting there – effectively, admitting that Paul and Peter affirmed male leadership (Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Pet 3:1-7), but that we have moved beyond that now – is wholly different, and would, I suspect, give many of the team at Soul Survivor significant hermeneutical concerns. And rightly so.
I began this article by affirming my support for women in leadership, and my love for Soul Survivor as an event, a team and a church. This morning I listened to a Soul Survivor worship album before leaving for work, two weeks ago I introduced a woman deacon in our church to speak in our Sunday morning meeting, and as I write this article my wife is on Eastbourne seafront with our children, exercising the most important leadership role there is in life. So the significant concerns I have with the pink pamphlet, and my continued view that God intended men to be elders and to lead their families, does not affect my support for women leaders, my thanks to God for Soul Survivor, and my ongoing love and appreciation for them. Graham, Mike, Jo Saxton, Jeannie Morgan and many others have repeatedly shown that their love for people and their partnership in the gospel matters far more than any theological disagreements they may have. I wholeheartedly agree, and my hope is that this review comes across in the same spirit.
For further reading, you may want to look at Andrew’s short series on gender: Mutual Submission, Twenty Myths in the Gender Debate, Twenty Facts in the Gender Debate, The Presumption of Complementarianism, and Twelve Words, Twelve Interpretations.
Another Dog in the Fight
Ironically, I was walking my dogs the other day when one of them had an encounter with another dog, as a result of which he has a hole in his shoulder that required 15 stitches, and there is a hole in my bank account thanks to the lack of an NHS equivalent for dogs. Even more ironically, the other dog owner was someone I know and was walking across the park to greet, in a very missional type way. His dog and mine have history and it was an accident waiting to happen. Clearly they were not feeling missional.
Anyway, I was reading Mark Dever’s latest book, The Church: The gospel made visible, and thought he gives a very good illustration for how Christians should understand their cultural role:
The Bible calls individual Christians to live lives of justice and generosity toward others. Organically, Christian disciples scatter and represent Christ powerfully and in ways the Bible does not call the institutional church to act. An analogy might be helpful here. A married man goes to work as a married man and goes to the store as a married man, and the fact that he’s married affects how he interacts with others at work and the store, but neither his work nor shopping are an intrinsic part of being married. In the same way, a member of a church follows Christ in all sorts of ways that are not tied to the work that God entrusts to the local church in any institutional fashion. But the individual’s membership should affect how he does everything outside the gathered church.
As I say, that is a good illustration. Practically, it means that as a dog owner I am responsible to get my dog to the vet when he is injured – being a Christian and church member does not have any bearing on that. As a Christian I have a responsibility to not hold any bitterness against the owner of the dog who damaged mine. As a member of the church I have a responsibility to do what the church is called to do and proclaim the good news of the gospel whenever and wherever I can; which isn’t always so easy, especially if the dogs are fighting.
What it most certainly does not mean is that the church should assume ownership of all the dogs in the park.
Why Pushing Right is Harder than Pushing Left
It’s true institutionally, and not just personally. When, forty years ago, churches like the one I belong to started to emerge, they were pushing left with gusto, and they were loving it. Lifeless hymn sandwiches? Let’s get some experience of God in our meetings! Legalistic lists of things we can and can’t do in church? We’re under grace now! Tradition? Yah, boo, sucks! (Or words to that effect.) And despite all the mockery and all the marginalisation they experienced, there was a sense of being part of something fresh, and revolutionary, which made it all worthwhile, and brought whoops of delight from the church (“we may be ridiculed for being happy clappy - but we’d rather be happy clappy than humpy grumpy!”)
These days, though, the boot is often on the other foot. The things that make me, and my church, the subject of ridicule now are not areas in which I’m pushing left, but areas in which I’m pushing right. The things I believe are the same as the things my Dad believed a generation ago, but the church landscape has changed, making me a reactionary rather than a revolutionary. Charismatic gifts are mainstream (at least in the UK); people across the spectrum fall over themselves to talk about how grace-filled they are; churches which preserve tradition at the expense of experience are dying slowly. So the things that make me and my church stand out are now the areas where we’re conservative: a high view of the gathered church, biblical authority, an orthodox view of hell, Reformed soteriology, complementarianism, and things like that. And for some reason, pushing right on these things doesn’t feel anything like as exhilarating as pushing left on the other things. It doesn’t draw the same whoops from the crowd, nor the same admiration for being courageous. (In fact, when I get called courageous at all, it’s usually for pushing left on something that most people approve of, even though this requires much less real courage than pushing right. It may just be me, but I think it requires far more bravery to say the things Al Mohler says than the things Brian McLaren says, even though the latter is far more likely to be admired for his courage.)
So I was wondering: why is that? I recognise sin in my own heart in this area; the temptation is to push left on something for the sake of it, just to feel creative and new and quirky and impish again, even if the real need is for someone to stand up and hold a line. But why does the spectrum work that way (if it does)? What factors make going left cooler than going right? Why is there so much more swagger in those who push left (“well, if I was going to be very controversial, ooh-er, I’d cheekily ask whether the Bible actually does mean that, as dangerous as it is to say so!”), even when it is normally far less dangerous to ask the question than to answer by reaffirming what the church has always said about something? Why does that generally hold true, even down to the comments on this very blog?
My guess is that there are at least three factors at work. The first is to do with the youth-centred spirit of the age, in which freshness is more fashionable than faithfulness, innovating inspires people more than imitating, technology trumps tradition, and novelty is confused with creativity. Many still think that the Dylanesque call to change everything your parents stood for is iconoclastic, without noticing that true iconoclasm is to be found when people challenge the deepest convictions of a culture, and (say) teach that children should obey their parents rather than tell them to move over because they don’t understand the world no more. When you add to that the modernist metanarrative of progress (which is not completely dead yet), and the wider social obsession with the possibilities brought by technology, it is easy to see why the view could creep into the church that changing things was Good and conserving things was Bad.
The second is equally obvious, in some ways, but it is worth saying anyway: contemporary secular culture is well to the left of the Bible on most things it teaches. Non-Christian Britain thinks the Scriptures are backward on all sorts of topics, including judgment, evolution, tradition, war, marriage, slavery, sexual ethics, holiness, gender roles, and the idea of teaching doctrine in the first place. So when we move to the left, we are almost without exception moving closer to what the culture around us thinks, and that makes the process much more comfortable for us. (I’m not saying, of course, that moving to the left is thereby wrong, merely that it is easy - and therefore that, if I know my own heart, the temptation to distort the Bible to get there is likely to be more acute.) Moving to the right, on the other hand, makes us more likely to be ridiculed by The Independent, Stephen Fry, the writers of sitcoms, our social network, and all the other cool-ade people we desperately want to like us. It shouldn’t, but that does make it harder.
The third factor, related to this, is that the victims of excessive rightishness are much easier to identify, and to feel sorry for, the victims of excessive leftishness. An anti-war protest is much easier to recruit for than a pro-war protest. It’s easy to make movies, or posters, about the victims of slavery and domestic abuse; not so much about the victims of abortion, since they don’t live long enough to be given names. When a couple splits up through unfaithfulness, causing massive pain to their children, the individualistic, morally leftish values that made it possible are not personified, and nobody blames the newspapers, TV shows or movies that make short-term romantic fulfilment life’s ultimate purpose. Being ostracised for challenging church dogma makes a great story, but being gradually dulled to the wonders of God because the gospel is not being preached clearly does not. Suffering under authoritarian leadership results in a narrative with clear goodies and baddies, replete with emotive terms like “spiritual abuse” and “cultish leadership”; the thousands who go nowhere under directionless leaders, with churches being endlessly hijacked by oddballs and dominated by the loudest voice there, have far less grotesque villains and do not lend themselves so compellingly to Oprah. In the modern world, if you’re going to make a public argument, you need a victim and a villain. And leftish victims and villains are just that bit more identifiable than rightish ones.
So there’s three reasons why I think pushing right is harder than pushing left. Practically, my guess is there’s some implications we should draw from that, affecting the way we lead, teach, and (yes) blog. But I’m done for now. I’d love to hear your thoughts.