What If The Lost Sheep Isn’t An Unbeliever (And The Shepherd Isn’t Jesus)? image

What If The Lost Sheep Isn’t An Unbeliever (And The Shepherd Isn’t Jesus)?

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We all know the parable of the Lost Sheep. The shepherd is Jesus, the ninety-nine sheep are Christians, the lost sheep is “one sinner who repents,” and the result is rejoicing in heaven. It’s clear as day in Luke 15, and it’s clear as day in our Kids' Bibles. Right?

Right. Except: what if Matthew’s version of the story (Matt 18:10-14) is doing something quite different? What if the cast of characters is different, the punchline is different, and there is a challenge to Christians (and pastors in particular) that we haven’t noticed, because we’ve assumed both versions of the story mean the same thing? Matthew and Luke, after all, tell several stories that sound very similar, but have quite different endings (the parables of the wedding banquet in Matt 22:1-14 and Luke 14:12-24 are the best examples). What if the same is happening here, and we’ve missed it?

Here’s Matthew’s version in full:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (18:10-14)

The context is quite different from that in Luke. In Luke, the lost sheep serves to explain why Jesus is spending time with “sinners.” In Matthew, the lost sheep is a challenge not to look down on the “little ones”—whether children, or Christians at risk of being led into sin, or probably both (18:1-6)—because God is committed to them. And it is immediately followed by a discussion of how to handle unrepentant brothers and sisters, in probably the most significant text in the New Testament on church discipline. Both of these indicate that the sheep in Matthew’s version are believers, not unbelievers.

The language is different too. Luke speaks of the sheep as “lost”, a word which unites the sheep with the coin and the son(s) later in the chapter. But Matthew uses the verb “go astray,” or “wander off” (the Greek word is planaō, from which we get our word “planet”), which in the context of temptation to sin clearly refers to those who are weak or vulnerable in faith and tempted to abandon it. The shepherd in the story, in this reading, is not Jesus but Christians in general, and pastors in particular.

Those two observations nudge us in the direction of some crucial Old Testament background. Ezekiel rails against Israel’s leaders for failing to search for, and bring back, the lost sheep: “the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought ... So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (Ezek 34:4-6). As countless biblical passages remind us, the answer to Cain’s rhetorical question, “am I my brother’s keeper?”, is an emphatic yes. It is not surprising, then, that Jesus does not only picture himself as one who brings back the wanderer (Luke 15), but desires a community in which everyone (and leaders in particular) lives the same way (Matt 18).

This means that the application of the parable is different in the two versions. Whereas Luke’s version is intended to explain Jesus’s ministry to undesirable outcasts, Matthew’s version is designed to challenge the church—a much bigger theme in Matthew than in Luke, and especially in this chapter of the Gospel—to make every effort to restore wandering believers, rather than dismissing them. It is a summons to “an active visitation programme” (Bruner), a command to “care for our mean brothers and sisters” (Chrysostom). The point of the story, in Matthew Henry’s beautiful phrase, is: “Let not earth despise those whom heaven respects.”

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Wilson and the Heidelberg Cat-astrophe!

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Not content with preaching, blogging, completing a PhD, and writing countless popular level books, our very own Andrew J. Wilson has continued his programme of world domination by branching out into the realm of children’s books, with his latest offering, Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat.

Whilst I applaud Andrew for his adaptability and the breadth of his creative endeavours (presumably we can soon expect an album of folk songs, a clothing range, a fragrance, and an adult colouring book?) I must confess to being a little irked by this particular project, for two reasons.

Firstly, a story about a theologically astute furred creature. Wherever do you think he got the inspiration for that? And yet, did I receive any credit, or thanks? Was the book dedicated to me? The answer, dear reader, is no.

But secondly, and most egregiously, I can’t help but feel that this book has been directly plagiarised. Only a few years ago, I pitched an idea to a publisher to create a series of children’s books in which cute, illustrated animals discuss important theological themes. I never heard back from them, despite regular letters, emails, calls, texts, tweets, Facebook posts, WhatsApps, faxes, pages, myspace messages, carrier pigeons and suchlike. I assumed they were disinterested, but now it has become clear to me that they were dodging my various methods of communication, since they intended to pass on my ideas to a rival author.

I understand that Dr. Wilson is a far more marketable writer than I. He has more connections in the human world than I do. When was the last time you saw an otter grace the stage at a national conference, or write a piece for The Gospel Coalition? But still, I consider this to be unacceptable.

Since 1 Corinthians 6 forbids me to take out a lawsuit against my blogger-in-Christ, I shall be forced to be the bigger mammal, and turn the otter cheek. But rest assured, I have not given up on my dreams, and if anything this has made me more determined to publish my books than ever before.

So I am proud to announce that I will soon begin taking pre-orders for the first three instalments in my new children’s series:

Confessions of Augustine the Hippo – The tale of a thick-skinned beast, who experienced a radical conversion and renounced his life of wallowing in the mud-pools of sin.

Karl Bark’s Dog-Matics – A multi-volume work, in which Professor Bark explains the essentials of Christian faith to a selection of his canine chums.

Five Hoofs for God’s Existence by Thomas Equine-as – A theologically-savvy horse, with a colt following, shows the foal-ishness of atheism, and how Jesus is the answer for a stable life.

These books will all be beautifully illustrated by the paws of yours truly. Suitable for children aged 4-8 years (so long as they have at least a basic grasp of Greek and Hebrew). And readers of Think Theology will receive a 25% discount by entering the code: WILSONCATASTROPHE

With love,
+S.S.S.+

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King of the Wind, Sea, Earth and Fire

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Some of you know that I preached four messages at Newday this year on the fear of God, looking at Jesus as King of the Wind, Sea, Earth and Fire. (Jennie wrote a good piece on the first theme yesterday, as it happens; she has also been an enthusiastic Twitter advocate for the Gruffalo impersonation in the fourth one.) Well: here they all are.

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Life Lessons from Habbakuk

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I love the Minor Prophets. I think they are the hidden gems of the Old Testament. I recently preached on Habakkuk as part of a series on the Minor Prophets in which we're seeking to draw out what we can learn from these books about God and the gospel. But as I read and digested Habakkuk, I was struck afresh by what a useful resource it is for those facing suffering. Here's a post I originally wrote for our church to accompany the preach.

The Bible gives us lots of complementary perspectives on suffering and how to handle it, and wisdom is knowing which strand of biblical teaching to apply in a specific situation. Habakkuk is one of the places from which we can glean that teaching. Here are a few useful life lessons from Habakkuk.

The Questions

First, the direction of Habakkuk’s question is really interesting. When we think about suffering, we often ask the question, ‘Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?’ We tend to see it as an issue of love. If God is all loving, why does he not intervene to end suffering? But Habakkuk turns that question on its head. His question, especially in his second complaint (1:13), is ‘Why does God allow good things to happen to bad people?’. He sees it as an issue of justice. If God is just, why does he not intervene to end injustice?

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t wrestle with the first question – I think we should, and I think there are various answers which can help us – but it’s a good challenge to consider why we are less likely to ask the second question. Is it because the suffering of injustice often affects others more than it affects us and so we’re less bothered by it? Is it because we have understood that God is love, but we haven’t also understood that he is just? It’s challenging!

The Conversation

The very fact of what Habakkuk does in his conversation with God is instructive. When he is feeling confused, hurt, perhaps even angry about what is happening around or to him, he doesn’t let those feelings just fester. He doesn’t, to our knowledge, complain to other people or try and win the pity of others. He takes his confusion and hurt and anger to God. He’s not afraid to be painfully honest with God. And this is something you often see when the Bible talks about suffering. We can be honest with God about what we’re thinking and feeling, and actually, it’s the healthiest way to handle those thoughts and feelings. As I once heard someone say, ‘God already knows you’re thinking it, so why not just talk to him about it.’ Honesty with God about where we’re at can deepen our relationship with him and can be a vital first step to being able to stand firm in the face of confusion or suffering.

The Waiting

God’s response to Habakkuk is basically to call him to wait (Hab. 2:3). God will enact perfect justice, and so Habakkuk’s complaint will be dealt with, he may just have to wait a while for that time to come. But the wait isn’t because God’s at the mercy of some other factor. He’s not having to wait for a green light from someone else. He has a plan, the perfect plan, and at the right time, the perfect time, he will enact that plan. Even if it seems like there’s a delay, there’s actually not (Hab. 2:3). The same response is found in the New Testament. The ultimate answer to suffering is the certain promise of the end of suffering when the new creation comes in full (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17). Our role now is to look ahead and to wait.

The call to wait is probably an answer to the problem of suffering which we don’t much like. We feel like it’s not enough and question whether it can really sustain, but the New Testament authors clearly think it can, and so again we are challenged to consider why we might not feel that way. Is it because our instant gratification, consumer culture means we’ve become so used to having what we want when we want it? Have we lost the ability to wait patiently with eager anticipation? And have we really understood how good the new creation will be when it comes?

The Conclusion

Habakkuk’s conclusion also has an important message for us. Having been on this journey, wrestling with his pains and questions in dialogue with God, Habakkuk reaches the conclusion that the only thing he really needs in order to keep going, even if the injustice doesn’t stop, even if he loses everything, is God himself (Hab. 3:17-19). He recognises that the true source of life and joy is not a comfortable life without injustice and suffering, it’s not fruitful crops or plentiful herds, it’s God himself. It’s in God that he will rejoice, and in God that he will take joy.

The same is true for us. And for those ‘in Christ’ it is something that can never be taken away. I think Paul is thinking of the same point as Habakkuk when he ends his long reflection on the suffering which is an inevitable part of being a child of God (Rom. 8:17-39) with the guarantee that nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. No matter what might happen, we can know that we are loved by God. It’s that relationship which, even in the worst of circumstances, can bring us true life, true peace, and even, true joy.

Habakkuk is one of the Bible’s greatest resources for those enduring suffering. Yet more proof that the Minor Prophets are the hidden gems of the Old Testament!

This post originally appeared on the website of King’s Church Hastings & Bexhill.

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Not Sleeping but Strutting

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At Grace London at the moment we are (slowly) working through Mark’s Gospel. A few weeks ago we came to Mark 4:35-41, in which Jesus calms a storm. As we dug deeper into the passage and its lessons in our mid-week Life Group, the question arose, “How should the disciples have acted?” Good question…

Here’s the story:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

From a modern Western perspective, with our assumptions about how narratives work (which aren’t the same as ancient Middle Eastern assumptions), this is a slightly odd ending. If you were making a film of it, the closing scene, on the now-calm sea, would be one of cheering, rejoicing and praising Jesus, their mighty hero. Instead, there is rebuke, more fear, and confusion.

The point of the story, I think, rests in that final question, “who then is this?” That is what we are supposed to ponder and answer for ourselves. If the disciples had known the answer, they would have acted differently. We do know, so we should act differently. To understand how, we need to understand what they actually did wrong. Should they not have woken Jesus, but simply had faith that everything would be alright? Should they have followed their leader’s example and settled down for a nice nap?

To Western minds, that is the logic of the story. Jesus’ rebuke was that they didn’t have faith, and his example of what it looks like to have faith is that he was able to sleep peacefully in the midst of the storm.

Now I’ve never heard it preached that the disciples shouldn’t have woken Jesus – thankfully. The Bible is never going to teach that prayer is the wrong approach, or that Jesus doesn’t want to be bothered about our tiny little problems like deadly peril or impending doom.

However, I have heard in the past that the moral of the story is that when we are fully trusting God we can sleep peacefully throughout the storms in our lives. That a sign of our godliness is that trials and tribulations don’t bother us, and we sail through life unruffled and – possibly – barely conscious.

OK, they don’t quite push it that far in sermons – but that is the implication: if you’re getting anxious and afraid instead of resting in Jesus, you’re getting it wrong.

But I don’t think that is the lesson of this passage. The solution for the disciples was almost certainly not to lie down and sleep and let the storm sink the ship.

Why do I think this (other than basic common sense)? It’s because that wasn’t what Jesus told them to do when they woke him. If the solution to the problem was to lie down and sleep, that’s what he would have made them do.

So what was their mistake?

Strike one: they called him ‘Teacher’. They hadn’t yet got the faith – or the revelation – that he was more than just a wise human.

Strike two: they thought he didn’t care. They assumed that his lack of action indicated that he wasn’t concerned about their fate.

Strike three: they didn’t think he could actually help. When Jesus woke up and calmed the storm with a word, “they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

I’ve only noticed that last little fact relatively recently. The disciples were astonished when Jesus calmed the storm. That must mean that it was unexpected, which means they weren’t going to him for help so much as to get him to panic along with them. Maybe they thought he could haul on a rope or bail water or something. Whatever, despite all they had seen of him so far, when push came to shove, they still thought he was just a man like them.

But even if they didn’t believe he was God, they were Jews – they did, theoretically, believe God was God. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to call on him, either.

No wonder Jesus despaired of their lack of faith.

So back to us. What should be our take-away from this? What does it look like to respond in faith to the storms of life?

As I say, I think it is highly unlikely that the lesson is “don’t bother Jesus, just ‘have faith’ and it will all be well”. Neither is it “close your eyes to the problem and try to let it pass you by”. The disciples’ error was not that they went to Jesus, but that they went in the wrong frame of mind with the wrong expectation. And that’s why the closing question is so important. Who is this?

Lesson 1: He is God. When we go to him, we’re not just asking a wise teacher, but the Lord of all creation, the maker of heaven and earth. He’s not just some fellow traveller, but someone to be treated with awe and reverence, our holy, omniscient Lord.

Lesson 2: He cares. Can you imagine how hurtful it must have been for him to hear that question from them? Yes, he cares! He had come down from heaven for them, invited them to be his closest followers, was preparing to give them great heavenly authority (Mark 3:13-15), and was going to die for them – and they thought he didn’t care?!

Notice that he didn’t respond to that accusation, though. It is common for us in the middle of trials to question if God really cares. It must hurt him, but he still wants us to be honest and ask the questions that are really on our hearts, not least so he can answer them with his love.

Lesson 3: He has the power to help. When we ask, we need to remember that were not just asking a buddy to panic along with us. Let us ask in faith, with confidence that he can do abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine – and let’s not be astonished when he does calm our storms, or strengthen us to survive them. (But let’s pay attention, and remember to thank him for it, too.)

The disciples should absolutely have woken Jesus. They should have recognised who was in their boat and called on him to help, then they should have walked tall knowing that, wind and waves notwithstanding, they were under the protection of someone far more impressive.

How should servants of the living God respond to the storms of life? Not by sleeping through them, but strutting.


Post script:
I’ve been sitting on this post for a weeks, mulling the ideas, waiting to get round to writing it. I uploaded it on Tuesday, then listened to this fantastic message from Andrew Wilson at this year’s Newday event. He makes a very similar point, but much, much better. Listen to the end. Superb.

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Pastors: Don’t Envision A Church. Receive One

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I've talked before about how overrated "vision" is in church leadership. I have long suspected that there is an Emperor's New Clothes thing at work with the big V, whereby leaders tell everyone that they have succeeded because of their "vision", largely influenced by the herd, when there are thousands of leaders with identical "visions" who have got nowhere, and their success is actually down to a combination of gift, calling, context, team, wisdom, communication skills, management capacity, and ability to plan (or, if that list is insufficiently peppered with buzzwords for your tastes, ability to strategize. With a "z.") But my critique was nothing like as thoughtful, or powerful, as this one from Chase Replogle in Christianity Today. Church leaders are not meant to "envision" a church, he argues (following Bonhoeffer), but to receive one. It's worth reading the whole thing.

Early on, he quotes a deeply challenging passage from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, which is basically the opposite of virtually everything you hear in Christian leadership seminars and conferences:

God hates visionary dreaming. It makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Weaving Bonhoeffer’s insight into his own pastoral ministry story, Replogle shows how easily this can become true of anyone. “Pastoral imagination,” he writes, “captured by dreams of potential churches, pulls pastors out of their humble calling and toward pride and pretense. The vision becomes the ground for our frustrated demands of others, our desperate petitions to God, and our crushing self-doubts. Everything is judged by the vision. Everything is evaluated by its success. Our work becomes the obsessive desire to actualize what we have envisioned. Our actual congregants are often sacrificed in our pursuit of better ones.” Ay, ay, ay.

So what is the alternative? Coming to the church, in Bonhoeffer’s terms, as recipients, not demanders:

The pastor’s first call is not to envision a church but to receive one. We lead by discerning how Christ is forming a community and by being one of the first to accept that fellowship with gratitude. The pastor is not an entrepreneur. We are called to a project already underway … The starkness of Bonhoeffer’s warning opened my eyes to this new kind of pastoral vision. It forced me to finally see the congregation already in front of me. How had I missed it? While I was dreaming of some other place, God was planting a church in that basement, and he was calling me to pastor it.

HT: Duke Kwon

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Recommended Resources on Transgender

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Transgender is one of the most prominent topics in cultural discussion and debate at the moment. It’s also one of the most complicated. Christians who want to partake in the conversation well must engage with theology, biology, psychology, philosophy and politics, all the while keeping in mind that this it is ultimately a topic about people created and loved by God many of whom are experiencing considerable distress. While society has moved very fast, Christians have been somewhat slower to understand and respond well. There are, however, a growing number of useful resources. Here are my top recommendations.

The resources are divided up into several categories, with top recommendations provided for each. I have indicated the level of each resource using the following classifications: Basic (B), Intermediate (I), and Advanced (A). I should note that while I have found all of these resources helpful, I would not necessarily endorse all that they say and/or how they say it.

Understanding Transgender

The first step to responding to any topic well is to understand it properly. With a complex topic like transgender this is not an easy task.

Nicholas Teich, Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue (B)

A basic introduction from a secular writer. Teich introduces the concept of transgender and then looks at topics such as coming out as trans, different forms of transitioning, the history of transgender, discrimination and other types of transgender such as genderqueer and drag queens. Helpful for understanding transgender from a secular perspective.

Az Hakeem (ed.), Trans: Exploring Gender Identity and Gender Dysphoria (I)

A fascinating book consisting of contributions from medical professionals, academics and transgender individuals and providing a detailed introduction to the various forms of gender dysphoria and both psychological and physiological approaches to managing it, as well as insights into the life experience of trans people and transgender politics. Especially helpful in its attempt to acknowledge the diversity of experiences under the transgender/gender dysphoria umbrella and the variety of approaches which can then be taken.

Christian Responses

These resources offer a general Christian response to the topic or tackle one of the big practical questions.

Vaughan Roberts, Transgender (B)

A very short (80 page) introduction to the topic and the key elements of a Christian response, focusing in on how the Bible’s big story should shape our response.

Andrew Walker, God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity? (I)

Probably the best popular-level overall treatment of the topic currently available. Walker covers most of the key elements of the conversation including the right heart response, what the Bible says, how the church should respond and the big practical questions. There is a particularly helpful chapter on talking to children about gender.

Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (I)

Yarhouse is a professor of psychology who draws upon his professional experience and understanding in order to help produce a Christian response. This is a helpful resource for understanding gender dysphoria (e.g. symptoms, prevalence, management techniques etc.) While his theological response is helpful, I would not fully endorse all his conclusions. Lectures on the topic by Yarhouse are also easy to find online.

Evangelical Alliance, ‘Transformed

A booklet and videos designed to help the church begin to think about the topic and how Christians should think and respond to it. A helpful (and free!) resource.

Brian Seagraves & Hunter Leavine, Gender: A Conversation Guide for Parents and Pastors (B)

As the book itself explains: ‘Rather be too early than too late. We obviously want to be age-appropriate with children, but we also need to be proactive, not reactive. The nature of this guide is to help you start the conversation with your children before others do.’ Brief (less than 80 pages) but helpful, with chapters focussed on under 7s, 7-11s, and 12s+, as well as basic intros to the key issues and common objections.

Gregory Coles, ‘What Pronouns Should Christians Use for Transgender People?’ (Pastoral Paper 11 at The Centre for Faith, Sexuality & Gender) (I)

The best, most-thorough Christian response I have found on this key question. Coles makes a compelling case for ‘pronoun accommodation’ arguing from the nature of how language works.

The Bible and Transgender

Preston Sprinkle, ‘A Biblical Conversation About Transgender Identities’ (Pastoral Paper 12 at The Centre for Faith, Sexuality & Gender) (I)

A brief paper seeking ‘to understand what the Bible says about the categories of male and female as they relate to questions about transgender (and non-binary) identities’. Faithful exegesis, clear line of argument, and all with wonderful Christian compassion.

Robert Smith, ‘Responding to the Transgender Revolution’ (A)

Smith introduces key terms and explores contemporary gender theory before a thorough biblical and theological exploration concluding with some brief reflections on the practical impact of his findings. While there are places where I would want to use different language, it offers a helpful analysis of cultural thinking and a good theological treatment of the topic.

Evaluations of Affirming Approaches

The dominant view in society (at least by prominence even if not by number of supporters) is that those who experience gender dysphoria and/or who identify as transgender should transition (whether just socially or also medically) to live in line with gender identity. This is a serious enough suggestion that it deserves thorough examination. 

Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (I)

An evaluation of the affirming approach to transgender which draws from research in biology, psychology and philosophy and provides good evidence to question the wisdom of transitioning as the best path for those with gender dysphoria. Includes a helpful chapter on ‘Childhood Dysphoria and Desistance’.

Mark Yarhouse & Julia Sadusky, A Christian Survey of Sex Reassignment Surgery and Hormone Therapy (Pastoral Paper 10 at The Centre for Faith, Sexuality & Gender) (I)

It is hard to find reliable research on the effectiveness of medical interventions designed to alleviate gender dysphoria. This paper does a good job of summarising the current state of research. Yarhouse and Sadusky summarise and evaluate the research which has been published, as well as briefly discussing the experience of detransitioners, trends among teenagers identifying as trans, and alternative management strategies for dysphoria.

The Bigger Cultural Picture

While transgender is a distinct topic to sexuality, much of the underpinning for the secular approach to trans is the same as that for secular views on sexuality and therefore my top recommendations here are the same as those I have previously given on sexuality.

Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing (I)

Harrison analyses the sexual revolution and what underpins modern secular views on sexuality and gender. He reveals the problems with the secular view and presents the better story which Christianity can offer.

Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality (A)

Love Thy Body exposes and critiques the secular worldview which rejects the body and prioritises the true, inner self. Pearcey includes a chapter on how this worldview is seen in secular views on trans. See a summary here.

Tim Keller on Identity (I)

At Living Out’s Identity in Christ conference last year, Tim Keller taught on the understanding of identity that often underpins secular understandings of trans and gave a Christian response to this understanding. Incredibly helpful for understanding how things are viewed in our culture and how the gospel offers a better way. You can find session summaries and a link to the videos here.

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Ten Things I Loved About Newday

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I’ve been going to Newday for fifteen years now, and I am still surprised by what an excellent event it is. For those who have never been, here are ten things that particularly impressed me this year.

Statistics. There are seven thousand people there. This year—and it’s easy to get familiar with stats like this, but it is remarkable when you think about it—395 young people made a first time response to the gospel. 344 recommitted their lives to Jesus (and having done this as a teenager myself, I know how much it matters). And 243 reported physical healings. Wow.

Stories. Behind every statistic is a story, of course, and it is these that make the numbers come to life. Some sound very ordinary: a young man who has struggled to connect with God in the past is now celebrating, learning, weeping and studying in a completely new way. Some are thoroughly extraordinary, like the testimonies of healing from auto immune diseases, and deafness, and dead nerves (which Adrian Holloway is careful to record, complete with medical histories, on his website). The punchlines in some cases are amazing. One young man whose leg had been in a plaster cast, and who hadn’t played football for seven years, was so thoroughly healed last year that he has just been given a two year contract by West Ham United. Again: wow.

Spirituality. I mean this both of the event, in the way that it is led, and of the young people themselves. The programme has a wonderful combination of large celebrations, small devotionals, Bible teaching, prayer, evangelism, healing, giving, serving, seminars and (probably) a bunch of things I don’t even know about, reflecting an appropriately wide-ranging view of the kinds of ways in which the Holy Spirit works in the lives of young people. And this bears fruit in the spiritual richness you encounter amongst the young people you meet, who impress me every year with their zeal, kindness, humility and maturity.

Silliness. No youth event can (or should) sustain non-stop spiritual input for a week; it would become unbearably intense. So as much as I was slightly cheesed off about arriving on site, and within the first half hour being peppered with ridiculous questions on video and having eggs cracked over my head every time I got one wrong, I am always encouraged by how much silliness there is at Newday: messy games, all kinds of sports, competitions, scavenger hunts, thrill rides, neon nights and water fights, many of them requiring significant levels of work to organise, and all of them making it a week of entertainment as well as encounter.

Seriousness. At the same time, important things are taken seriously. Child protection (one seminar addressed abuse and #MeToo with impressive clarity and courage). Health and safety. Cultural awareness. Biblical fidelity. Prayer. Pastoral care. Intentionality with respect to racial diversity, which was a particular strength this year. Every area of ministry, it seems, is run by people who are persuaded that it matters, and are committed to doing it well.

Sustainability. The event breaks even (which hardly any events like this do). And it’s a youth event. And they give away the offering to mission, rather than using it to offset their costs. I find that astonishing.

Songs. You’ve got to love a youth event that has production values like this, but opens the first night with How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds. You’ve got to admire the vocal ability and musical direction of the choir, the capacity of the various bands to improvise and create entirely new songs on the fly, and the quality of the new songs introduced (I had not previously heard Hillsong’s King of Kings, and it is both lyrically and musically outstanding). Hats off to all.

Stillness. In the midst of all the anthemic songs and noisy celebration, there are moments of stillness, intimacy and devotion in worship which often speak far more loudly. Simon Brading can get more truth about our union with Christ into a quiet, one minute reflection in between songs than some preachers can in an entire sermon. I love that people are not afraid of quiet waiting (in a giant tent with a massive sound rig and thousands of teenagers!) and thoughtful silence.

Servers. I can’t get over the humility and diligence of the servers. I really can’t. Some people take a week off work to travel to Norfolk and clean toilets and shower blocks for young people (who, if the rumours are to be believed, occasionally get confused as to which is which). School heads and company directors act as stewards or caterers. I asked one senior pastor what he was doing for the week, and he explained that he was on the maintenance team, fixing pumps and showers and electrical problems and who knows what else. There is even a team of people whose job is to serve the servers, and they do it wonderfully, complete with smiles and bacon rolls. It is a marvel.

Scripture. Perhaps it should go without saying that a Christian youth event would be dominated by Scripture in its songs, sermons, exhortations and prayers, but it is significant nonetheless. The preaching is not lightweight, either; the messages take half an hour each, and between them they cover Old and New Testaments, law and prophets, Gospels and letters. More striking for me, this year, was the fact that every day started with an optional devotional—at 8.15, which is a time that most teenagers don’t even exist yet—in which people are simply taught how to read the Bible for themselves. It bodes well for the future, not just of this event, but of the church.

If you haven’t been to Newday before, you should. If you were there this year, I hope you got some sleep last night.

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The Noachic Bridge

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I’ve always found the Noachic covenant a bit of an outlier. It’s the only covenant in the primeval history and the only one to be made not just with a specific group of people but with all humans and all other living creatures (Genesis 9:9-10). The universality of the covenant is what makes it stick out so prominently. I think I have also struggled to see how it fits within the progression of other covenant in the Bible, apart from as part of the cycle of human sin and divine grace in Genesis 3-12 which is eventually answered in the Abrahamic Covenant. So I was really helped when I came across this recently from Old Testament scholar Mark Boda:

[The term בְּרִית (covenant)] appears in the OT when a relationship is formalized between one kinship cluster (family) and another kinship cluster (family). A בְּרִית (covenant) is not necessary within a family unit, that is, a parent does not need a covenant with a child, nor a sibling with another sibling. These are natural, trustworthy relationships. No covenant is necessary in the original creation since Yahweh God is identified as a parent producing children, as the “image/likeness of God” language makes clear (see Gen. 5:1-3). Once the human couple is banished from the garden in Gen. 3, this family status is annulled, and a covenant is now necessary to structure the relationship between humanity and God, and this covenant makes possible a renewal of the kinship relationship.

The Noachic covenant forms an important bridge between creation and redemption, as God reestablishes kinship relationship with humanity and all of creation. By placing the Noachic covenant in canonical position before Israel’s redemptive story and its relationship agreements (with Abraham/Sarah, Israel at Sinai, priestly, royal), we are reminded that the redemptive agreements with Israel were part of a much larger story of redemption that would impact not just all nations (Gen. 10) but also all creation. The relational agreement with Noah thus is key to understanding humanity’s function as vice-regents over all creation and God’s desire through a redeemed humanity to see creation realize its full potential.

Mark J. Boda, The Heartbeat of Old Testament Theology: Three Creedal Expressions, p.100

 

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Holiday Reading

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People like reading very different sorts of books over their holidays. Sometimes I read the lists that other people (usually, it must be said, pastors) read on their holidays and I feel exhausted; there are all sorts of titles that, no matter how worthy their content or well-crafted their prose, would simply never be the sort of thing I would read by a pool, on a beach, or with a cold beer at my side. So I tried sorting the best books I've read so far this year by mood: the kind of book you sometimes (but not always) feel like reading on holiday. Here goes.

I want a gripping story that holds my attention. You want Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, the true story of Oleg Gordievsky’s work as a double agent in the Cold War. It’s been years since I read a book with a more exciting last few chapters than this.

I want something that helps me look at my life from a different perspective. New York Times columnist David Brooks’s The Second Mountain suggests that most of us get to the top of our “first mountain” (career success, financial stability, or whatever), and then find that it isn’t enough and go in search of a second. He also (spoiler alert) becomes a Christian in the process.

I always enjoy current affairs or geopolitics. Bruno Macaes’s The Dawn of Eurasia is part travelogue, part geopolitical analysis, part history, part prophecy. His case is that Europe and Asia are once again becoming inextricably connected, and will function more like one supercontinent than two over the next hundred years.

I like history. Of the several major histories I’ve read this year, Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 is a cut above the rest. Magnificently narrated history on an epic scale, and full of insights that will shape the way you see other centuries and geographies.

I want some creative, quirky, well-told fiction. R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is all of those things, with a great plot narrated from multiple perspectives, some intriguing insights about guilt, religious commitment and cult membership, and a compelling cast of characters.

I like pictures. Get Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Even if you come for the pictures, you’ll stay for the prose, and the challenging portrayal of American poverty that Arnade presents to his (largely coastal elite) friends and colleagues.

I like autobiography. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is fascinating in all kinds of ways, and really well told, even if the bit you might expect to be the most interesting (the White House bit) is actually the least interesting part of the story.

I want a readable book that makes me think. If you haven’t already read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s fantastic. If you have, and you liked it, then Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin in the Game, though quite different, should also hit the spot.

I want a good Christian book, and I don’t really care what it’s about. So far the best Christian book I’ve read this year is Sam Allberry’s Seven Myths About Singleness, and if I could get everyone to read it, I would.

Enjoy your holidays ...

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Righteous Pride

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What should you do if your employer asks you to wear the Pride flag while at work? What should you do if your children’s school has a diversity week that seems less about genuine diversity than it does promoting a particular sexual ideology? What should we make of so many businesses adjusting their logos to the Pride colours?

There are practical answers to these kinds of questions (questions I keep being asked), but there is a deeper underlying one we need to identify: that is the question of righteousness.

Everyone wants to be righteous, and very often the marker of what constitutes this is connected to sex. This is the case whether the marker is a Victorian lady never revealing her ankles, a New Guinea tribesman wearing nothing but a penis gourd, or Barclays Bank changing its logo to the Pride colours. These three examples look very different, but in each of their specific cultural contexts they define the line where righteousness is seen to run. Observe the standard and you are righteous, defy it and you are shamed.

This is all completely in line with what scripture teaches us about righteousness. Paul writes that,

Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:3).

Paul (a Jew) was writing this about the Jewish people who had confused substance with appearance and were depending on their own effort rather than God’s grace. The principle applies to all peoples though: every culture seeks to establish its own righteousness because everyone wants to be right, and to be seen in the right.

That is what all those Pride flags are about. In our cultural context the number one way to gain ‘righteousness’ is by displaying Pride. So when Christians with a biblically faithful sexual ethic ask how we should respond to this stuff we need to understand that the foundational issue is about righteousness. What we’re arguing about is how to be righteous.

The gospel claims that the only way to righteousness is through Christ, and that this comes as a gift to all who receive it by faith,

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes (Romans 10:4).

We come into conflict with our culture when we are asked to conform to cultural measures of righteousness and refuse to because that would be idolatry. It is easy to read the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the abstract and say what a wonderful example they provide for how to live as a Christian. Much harder to refuse to participate in something one’s employer is demanding for righteousness sake that would compromise true righteousness – especially if that refusal could cost you your position.

If we’re going to stay faithful, and cling to true righteousness, we’re going to have to learn that winning can look like losing.

I preached on all this a couple of weeks back. If you’re interested, it is here.

 

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The Case for Wine in Communion

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Emmanuel Church Brighton recently took the radical step of serving wine at communion. (Whether the word "radical" in that sentence means "indefensible and bizarre" or "staringly obvious to virtually every Christian who has ever lived", I leave for the reader to judge.) Because it was a somewhat controversial move for many, as it often is in a low church, charismatic, not-very-sacramentally-inclined context, they wrote a brief explainer on it on their website, and I thought it was excellent. They reason as follows:

“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:17-18)

As from Summer 2019, we are changing the way that we practice the Lord’s Supper at Emmanuel to include the use of wine (as opposed to a substitute drink). Scripture and the historical practice of the church supports this and we are looking to bring ourselves into better alignment with Jesus’ leadership.

Why Wine, Why Now?

At Emmanuel we always want to be responsive to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Over the years this has meant various changes in the way we conduct the Lord’s Supper in our services. For example, several years ago we were provoked about the frequency with which we were celebrating the Supper - it was once a month or less - and we changed our practice to make the celebration a core part of our weekly gatherings, to the point where it would be unusual for us not to celebrate Communion on any given Sunday.

In a similar way, we have become convinced that Scripture calls for the use of wine in communion. We are not alone in this and the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages have done the same so it is no new discovery. Over the last couple of centuries, temperance movements have responded to abuses of alcohol in society by banning alcohol on their premises and in their services. Often well-intentioned and pastorally caring, the application of these decisions to omitting wine from the Lord’s Supper was presumptuous.

The wine stands for the blood of Christ which was shed for us and the symbolism is not merely or even mainly in its colour. In the Old Testament, we are told: “the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life” (Leviticus 17:14) and it is the overflowing life of Jesus which we are being called to participate in in the Supper. It is supposed to be a celebration of a great gift and not a time of sorrowful introspection - we are dealing with the God who commands His people to celebrate with wine and strong drink in His presence (Deuteronomy 14:26).

The way Jesus told us to go about celebrating is to take bread and wine and we want to obey Him.

What If I Am Unable To Take Alcohol?

For some people, in their present phase of life, it would be unwise or unsafe to take alcoholic drink. We understand this and want to make provision for the whole congregation to participate as much as possible. We have been very concerned to take the appropriate time to assess all of the related practical matters. With that in mind, we will make a non-alcoholic alternative available at every service.

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THINK 2019 Sessions Now Available

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Thanks to some sterling work from Tariq Fernandes, the audio recordings from the recent THINK conference on Revelation are already available. If you missed it, or if you want to revisit something, they're all here:

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Toy Story and Identity

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I fear that I may not be a great cinema companion. I recently went to see Toy Story 4 with a couple of friends. As the credits began to roll, my friends were looking happy and smiley and praised the film for its story and surprise ending. I, on the other hand, was seething.

Ok, maybe I wasn’t quite seething, but I was certainly displeased. I had loved the film right up until the last few minutes because I couldn’t help noticing that in its surprising ending, Toy Story 4 had completely sold out to a internal identity narrative. I’ll try not to give too much of the ending away, but basically, a key character turns their back on their created purpose and seeks to find fulfilment by following the desires they find inside. The Toy Story franchise has ended with a classic case of the narrative of our day: the modern or internal identity narrative. In the internal identity narrative, who we are is determined by what we feel and what we desire, and true fulfilment is found by embracing and expressing those feelings and desires. Any sense of purpose or plan in the created world is disregarded and we become the makers of our own identity.

And the embracing of this narrative is a surprising turn for Toy Story to take because the films so far have provided some of the clearest examples of divine identity, the idea that as creatures our identity must come from our creator and so true fulfilment is found by living in line with the creator’s plan.

This approach to identity comes through clearly in Toy Story 3. The film starts with the toys feeling empty and unfulfilled because their owner, Andy, has grown up and no longer plays with them. They are unable to fulfil their created purpose of bringing joy to children and so life feels empty and meaningless. But as the film goes on, they are restored to this purpose when they end up first at a day-care centre and then at the home of a new owner, a young girl called Bonnie. As they return to living as they were created to live – bringing joy to children – they once again rediscover meaning and purpose in life. They find true satisfaction by living out the identity and role given to them by their creator.

And divine identity is even found in Toy Story 4, through the journey of the new character, Forky. Forky starts with an internal identity. Because he’s been made from trash (rubbish, for British readers), when he looks inside himself, he feels like trash and believes that is who he really is. He therefore keeps trying to throw himself back in the bin to embrace and express that internal identity, believing that the bin is where he’ll find true satisfaction. But as the film progresses, Forky realises that to find his true identity, and so the root to true satisfaction, he has to look, not inside himself, but to his creator. His identity is now as a toy, not because of how he feels or what he does, but because of how he has been created and what his creator says about him. Bonnie made him to be a toy and says that he is a toy, and therefore, he is a toy. And since that is his true identity, embracing and expressing that will be the root for Forky to find true life and true satisfaction.

I don’t suppose the creators of Toy Story 4 are aware of the contradictions in the philosophical underpinnings of their stories, and I don’t suppose that many people will have come away from the film with as deep a sense of annoyance as I did. (And I really did love it overall!) But the Toy Story films are a helpful reminder that we are constantly being bombarded by different narratives about how we should form identity and how we can find true satisfaction in life. And this being so, we need to make sure that we know the true narrative, and that we let that be louder in our ear than any of culture’s alternatives.

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What Would Zacchaeus Do?

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It’s not a question that’s often considered, is it? After all, Zacchaeus was a Bad Thing. He stole and cheated, he was a tax collector, a collaborator, and a Very Little Man. We don’t often look to him for moral guidance. But perhaps we should.

Ben Lindsay, in his (excellent) new book (out today – buy it here) entitled We Need to Talk about Race, uses the story (with a hat-tip to Duke Kwon) to talk about that most contentious of topics: slavery reparations.

You know the story: Zach, being vertically challenged, climbed a tree so he could see Jesus. Jesus then invited himself to Zach’s house (thus conferring great honour on Zach, not being presumptuous as we might see it). Everyone else grumbled, but Zach amazed them all by saying “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8).

Restitution for slavery is, as I say, a contentious topic. Long, long before we get to the nitty gritty of how to go about it and what would be just and fair, we are confronted by critics who ask why we (white westerners) should even bother. I’ve never owned a slave, neither have any of my ancestors. As far as I know, none of them have ever condoned slavery. Why should I endanger my position, power and security to make amends for a crime I didn’t commit?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that that does not sound an awful lot like Jesus. It doesn’t even sound like a scoundrel like Zacchaeus. How could anyone who has truly grasped what Jesus has done for them maintain this kind of attitude?

Zacchaeus only had to spend an afternoon with Jesus before he was spontaneously leaping up and giving above and beyond everything he had ever taken – half of his possessions went to the poor; those he had defrauded received four times as much back. Note that ‘the poor’ don’t seem to be direct victims of his cheating – they’re just the generic poor.

An encounter with Jesus was sufficient to inspire Zacchaeus to want to give far more than he owed to far more people than he was directly responsible for. That’s a kingdom response. That’s the heart of someone who knows he has been given far more than he deserves, by someone who owes him nothing at all.

The Pharisees hated this kind of response. They were the kind of people who scrutinised the law to see exactly how much they had to give and which loopholes existed to save them money (Matt 15:1-9, 23:23). They kept the Law and I’m sure many of them genuinely thought they were striving to do what was right, but they had missed the point, by a long way. Their every word and action showed that they had all the head-knowledge about what God required, but none of the heart-experience of who he is and the kind of lavish abundance with which he loves to shower his children.

You may not personally have kept a slave, run a slave ship or managed a plantation, but the historical prosperity of this nation is due in no small part to the slave trade and the profits generated by the labour of enslaved people.

And more than that, if you’re white the privilege you now hold has been bought with the blood, sweat and tears of racial injustice over centuries. If you have even a glimmer of a belief that white people are more likely to hold leadership positions than black people because they are more able, or better suited to those roles, that suspicion is the result of centuries’ worth of conditioning. And we – I’m writing here to white people – need to make amends for it.

Zacchaeus gave far more than he technically owed because he knew that the wealth he had amassed had given him disproportionate power in the society. Every shekel of advantage he had extracted from his fellow Jews had opened doors to him and slammed them in the faces of others. We see the same in our society today, where those in poverty are disproportionately affected by schemes that help the rich (eg, fuel bills are usually cheaper if you pay them by direct debit, but those with unstable incomes are unable to set up such systems (even if they trust banks, which many don’t) as they can’t guarantee having a given amount of money by a set day of the month. The bills then cost more and they are more likely to miss a payment and incur additional penalty charges…). Zach would have been able to set up all the direct debits he wanted, and to deposit his excess into high-yield savings accounts and investments. His money would have made him money, and it would have bought him access to positions of authority and power within the town.

For white people, addressing racism in our churches and our communities will require giving up some of the power and privilege we have inherited and have taken as our right. It will require humbling ourselves, seeking the forgiveness of God and our BAME friends (if indeed we have any…). For black people, it may mean summoning your courage, putting aside (many, many) past hurts and disappointments and trying, once more, to help us understand how we have wronged you and how we can begin to put it right (apparently not asking to touch your hair is a simple first step!). It will be costly all round, but it is the cost of discipleship. As Lindsay puts it:

“Jesus requires his Church, his followers, to imitate him. Jesus stepped off his throne, where he was worshipped and adored and came to a place where he was despised. Jesus came into the discomfort of this world in an act of radical solidarity. The question for the white majority churches in the UK is this: is there ‘a fierce urgency of now’ to do the same for your black brothers and sisters?”

I highly recommend this excellent, thought-provoking, helpful book. It contains some ideas for ways to begin the long journey of repentance, reconciliation and repair that is urgently needed. And it offers hope in its reminder that just as “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” neither is it fought by flesh and blood, but first and foremost by the power of prayer:

“We must power the fight against racism with prayer. … Prayer gives the battle over to Jesus. Prayer fuels our action. Through prayer, Jesus will give us strength, truth, wisdom, peace, insight, love, forgiveness and power. Through prayer, God wins the main battleground – the human heart. … Let’s combine prayer and action to rid the UK Church and our own hearts of prejudice and racism.”

It has taken courage for Ben to write this book. It has cost him emotional energy, and will doubtless earn him a backlash from many quarters. But it is a timely call to prayer and action. Perhaps your first act of radical solidarity will be to buy and read the book, and allow yourself to listen with your heart to what God has to say through it.

——

We Need to Talk about Race by Ben Lindsay is out now. Buy it from SPCK or any good book retailer.

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THINK 2020: Knowing God, With Carl Trueman

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I've been sitting on this news for a couple of months now, and I can't hold it in any longer: the speaker at next year's THINK Conference will be Professor Carl Trueman, and the title will be Knowing God: Where Evangelicals Get the Doctrine of God Wrong (And What To Do About It). We'll be hosting it at King's Church London from 14-16 July 2020.

Nothing is worth studying more than the doctrine of God. Other subjects may seem more pressing, or practical, but the knowledge of God is the highest and greatest subject to which we can give our attention.

Yet it is also much neglected within evangelicalism. The great doctrines of classical theism—simplicity, immutability, omniscience, impassibility, even the Trinity—are frequently marginalised or even denied in many churches. God may be seen as changeable, or emotional, or complex, or limited in his knowledge, or comprised of three individual centres of will, or all of the above. It is crucial for the health of the church that we understand God as he is, and not as our culture might like him to be.

So in our 2020 THINK conference, we are inviting Carl Trueman to come and help us. Carl is a professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, with a long history of teaching church history in both seminary and university contexts. He writes a regular column for First Things, hosts the Mortification of Spin podcast, and has published a number of books. More importantly, he is an outstanding teacher and lecturer, and has increasingly been drawn into debates about classical theism and the evangelical doctrine of God in the present day.

For more information, or to register, click here.

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Ten questions for pro-choice people

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Let me state my purpose up front: I’m a pro-lifer with ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people, and I’m hoping that you (dear reader) will keep on reading to the end. But I’m also realistic. The chance of keeping your attention on such a matter of deep division is not going to be easy, not least because you may well imagine me to be misogynistic and backward.

This debate is always vitriolic, and as a result, often deeply unintelligent. Most people (on both sides) are content with sharing facile memes and purile soundbites. I want to avoid that tone, if I can. It’s not the strong language I have a problem with (vital issues call for forceful language), but the ignorant ways that opinions are often voiced, and the consequent refusal to engage in rational discussion. I hope to convince you that the pro-life perspective is rooted in compassion, not misogyny. And so, I urge you to read and even respond.

Here we go…

1. Why is there a double standard at work here, in which we stay quiet about abortion while mourning miscarriage? Last year we had the tragic experience of losing a little boy at 15 weeks. Everyone around us – pro-life and pro-choice friends included – mourned with us and helped console us at the loss of this child. But what made it a tragedy? Was it the fact that he died, or the fact that we were sad about him dying? Anyone who has felt sadness about a miscarriage feels that way precisely because it is the loss of life. To me, this is an inexplicable double-standard, in which terminations are swept under the rug and miscarriages are met with flowers and cards.

2. Why do we fight to save the lives of disabled and premature babies? It is a strange fact that the same surgeons can be disposing of unwanted foetuses in brutal fashion, and then performing nigh-on miraculous operations on the bodies of equally young babies in order to save them (as in the famous photo of Samuel Armas poking his hand out of the womb at 21 weeks while the surgeon tried to fix his spina bifida). A hospital in California recently broke world records by saving the life of a tiny 23 week little girl. What made that girl’s life worth saving? Was it the mere fact that she was now outside the womb? Was it the will and desire of the parents? Or was it some inherent worth in her humanity?

3. Why are abortion laws based on viability outside the womb? The cut-off point of 24 weeks (for healthy babies) is based on whether the baby can survive outside of the womb. The reasoning is that if a foetus cannot survive outside the womb, then the mother has the right to terminate her and choose not to support her development any longer. Now, while it’s true that viability increases with each passing week all the way to 40 weeks, and babies born before 24 have a lower survival rate, it’s not at all clear to me why that has become a boundary for conferring human rights on the baby. The fact is that all babies are highly dependent on the care of others for a long time after birth, and many of us will become dependent on others towards the end of our lives. Dependency on others does not determine whether your life has value, so why do we establish this blurry and somewhat arbitrary line for unborn babies?

4. Why is a woman’s body pitted against her baby’s? The whole debate is set up so that the right to life is set against the right for women to govern their own bodies. The problem, as I see it, is that the foetus is not the woman’s body. This is acknowledged in our legal system. [1] It’s also the reason you celebrate or panic when you see those two blue lines on the stick. This is not a ‘growth’, and your emotions are proof of that. The pro-life movement views both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why we fight for babies and for women. We want women to be genuinely valued and empowered, but abortion doesn’t do that. Why is it that seven percent of women have been forced into having an abortion and it’s used as a tool of coercive abuse? Why is it that women feel they have to choose between pursuing a career or education and having a baby? Why can’t they do both? Why do we see an abortion as a central tenet of women’s rights when it seems to cause women so much grief and pain? (see point 5). Furthermore, more than 50% of aborted babies are female when you factor in widespread sex-selection on the global scene, so it’s not at all clear that abortion is pro-women on any level.

5. Why don’t we talk about the fact that many women suffer unbelievable guilt after having an abortion? This is not mere anecdote. [2] I’m conscious that the debate is ongoing as to whether there are long-term mental health issues after abortions, but that discussion can be a smokescreen to cover up the fact that many women have been very public and clear about the guilt and regret they have felt after abortions. Whether or not this is categorised as a mental health issue is not the important thing here. Guilt signals something important to a person, and without guilt we lose our humanity. So why do we ignore the fact of guilt after abortions? Is it because the admission of guilt is the admission of wrongdoing?

6. Why is the pro-life movement vilified and bullied as though it was somehow backward to campaign for human rights at this fundamental level? The pro-life movement is often portrayed as led by white men and as fundamentally backwards and misogynistic, despite the fact that women of all races are involved and are more opposed to abortion than men). But talk to a pro-lifer. Generally, they believe a basic ethic: All human life has sanctity. Which part of this is backwards and misogynistic? Consider this carefully. Most of our concerns around justice on a global level are based on this fundamental ethical conviction. Without this belief there would be no anti-slavery, no anti-poverty, and no anti-misogyny movements. Pro-lifers are merely consistent in applying this fundamental ethic to every single human being, including people in the womb.

7. Why not prefer adoption over abortion? Since this issue is often cast in terms of the pregnant woman’s difficult decision, given how all-consuming it is to have a child, why do we make this a binary choice between abortion and keeping the baby? There is a beautiful third way: the fact that there are so many childless couples out there who would do almost anything to have a baby of their own. Wouldn’t it be a heroic thing to carry a baby to term and let that child live and be raised in a loving home? I don’t want to minimise the pain involved in giving away a child, but it seems to me quite obviously preferable to ending that child’s life altogether. It is sometimes argued by pro-choicers that such children will go on to lead awful and painful lives, and thus it is kinder to terminate them if they are unwanted. However, this is rightly seen by those who have been adopted as deeply offensive, as it devalues the childhood they had in their adoptive families and the fulfilling lives they are now leading. 

8. Why is it more acceptable to fight for the rights of animals than of unborn humans? Veganism is on the rise, and campaigners often base their argument on the personification of animals, with slogans like, ‘I’m ME not MEAT’ (next to a picture of a pig), or ‘We take them from their mothers and butcher them’ (next to a picture of a calf). As a rule, vegans are not considered to be among the lunatic fringe. Unlike pro-lifers, they usually get respect for their beliefs. Now, I am willing to tolerate a certain degree of madness in our society when it comes to many social issues, but the fact that the animal rights lobbies are considered compassionate and pro-lifers are considered barbaric is totally irrational.

9. What do you think our descendants will think of us? Western society has been shown to be wrong on some key human rights issues in the past – most notably slavery and racial prejudice. To this day, we grieve the history of our ancestors who were capable of stripping away the dignity and humanity of people on the basis of their race. But do you not suppose that we have equally glaring blind spots in our seemingly advanced age? I am confident that some future generation will look back on us with disgust for two reasons: (1) The logical inconsistencies of the pro-choice movement will become clearer over time, just as the pro-slavery movement eventually lost the argument; (2) Advances in medicine and science will make it more difficult to sustain a hard boundary between ‘blob of cells’ and ‘human being’, and with no such boundary there is no longer any conscionable reason for allowing abortion at any point after conception.

10. When does a person become a person? This is really the question to rule them all. Everything depends on this. Assuming we agree that an individual person has dignity and rights that we want to protect, then the importance of this issue simply cannot be exaggerated. So, let me ask it this way: When did you become you? Was it when you were born? Was it when you were viable outside the womb (around 23–25 weeks)? Was it when your heart could first be heard beating in the ultrasound room? And does a person become a person gradually or in an instant? Our laws answer this: a person becomes a person at 24 weeks exactly (and at birth if they’re disabled). But how would you answer this question? And more importantly, why?

Let me offer some concluding thoughts. It seems to me that persuading anyone to change their mind about this issue is very difficult. The divide is deep set and deeply emotional. But my hope is to get greater sympathy for the pro-life cause, and to show that it is based on reason and compassion. First, it is reasonable because there is something beautifully and elegantly simple about saying that life starts at conception, and establishing a firm line rather than an entirely arbitrary one, that risks ending the life of a person. Second, it is compassionate because all pro-lifers believe that the lives of the unborn are worthy of protection and justice – just as we believe that women are worthy of protection and justice, and of the greatest support in pregnancy and beyond. Abortion is simply not the way to do this. We recognise that unplanned pregnancy is frightening and life-changing. But it’s time we questioned the culture that pits a mother against her baby, that offers no support to women in situations of unplanned pregnancy, that discriminates against people with disabilities and little girls in the womb, and that does not uphold the absolute right to life for all and protect the most vulnerable people in our society. It is time to deal honestly with these questions, to wrestle with them together, and to stop dealing in soundbites.

 

[1] Lord Hope said the following in the case of Attorney-General’s Reference (No 3 of 1994): HL 24 Jul 1997: ‘an embryo is in reality a separate organism from the mother from the moment of its conception.’

[2] The most comprehensive review of the evidence in 2013, incidentally by a pro-choice psychologist, found that there is no mental health benefit to abortion and there is an increased risk of psychological problems following abortion including anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23553240 

This article was originally published at Salt.

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MPs Missing the Wood for the Trees

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I've posted on Think a few times about the dangers of shifting societal attitudes towards euthanasia. Last week the House of Commons debated assisted dying - and the debate was worrying.

In response James Mumford poses this scenario:

So let’s fast-forward to a world in which assisted dying is now an option. An 85-year-old grandmother, no longer able to look after herself, has received a diagnosis that she is terminally ill and has only a few months to live. Does she go into a fiendishly expensive nursing home which will exhaust her lifetime’s savings? Or does she bow out? No one in the family has said a word to her. Yet she feels a pressure – her decisions have been complicated by the possibility of assisted dying.

Eventually, she settles on assisted dying. She’s not escorted to the clinic with a son holding a gun to her head. No grandchild has attempted to manipulate her. No one has said anything to her, in fact, so no independent assessment panel will pick up on overt coercion.

And yet, who’s to say that what’s really going on is a grandmother choosing to die prematurely because she feels she has become a burden? Are we really okay with that?

You can find James’ post here. It is well worth reading in entirety.

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On the Restoration of Fallen Pastors

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Here’s a very insightful (and robust) challenge from Carl Trueman, on the Mortification of Spin podcast. His distinction between restoration to fellowship and restoration to office is critical, I think:

We’ve had a couple of these recently: high profile guys who have been caught in pretty serious sin, and then they have parlayed that into their Great Restoration Narrative, and they’re now available for public speaking. I’d want to say to those guys: sit down, shut up, and go away. Get yourself a proper job, pay taxes; we don’t want to hear from you again. Be a good member of your local church. Serve on the toilet cleaning roster or something. We don’t want you as a public speaker, and we don’t want you parlaying your drunkenness or your adultery or whatever into the greatest comeback since the resurrection. We don’t want that. We don’t need that. And you call into question by doing that the genuineness of your repentance, because it doesn’t seem that you understand quite how far you fell.

I absolutely believe in grace. But I do not believe that restoration to fellowship is the same as restoration to office or authority. They’re two distinct things. They’re distinct in Scripture, and they’re distinct in the church today. Yes, the adulterer—the murderer!—can be restored to fellowship in the church. But whether the adulterer should ever stand in a pulpit, or in any position of de facto teaching authority within the church, is an entirely different question.

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An Opportunity to Love

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According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), in the UK, donated sperm or eggs are used in around 14,500 fertility treatments every year. As Christians, many of us would have concerns about the use of donated sperm and eggs on an ethical level, but perhaps we should also be concerned about the impact that the use of a donor might have on the children who are born as a result of such fertility treatments.

Last week, the New York Times brought this issue to light with a photo essay by Eli Baden-Lasar. Baden-Lasar is a young man who was conceived through the use of donated sperm. He was always aware that this was how he had come into being, but it wasn’t until he was 19 that he discovered he had half siblings, in fact 32 half siblings. In the article, he shares the story of how he made this discovery and of a project he then embarked upon to meet and photograph all of his half siblings.

Some of the article makes for quite sad reading. Baden-Lasar tells a story from when he was 11 years old. He started to ask questions and so was given a copy of a questionnaire that had been completed by the sperm donor. He proceeded to carry this questionnaire around with him to remind himself of the reality of the donor’s existence. He explains, ‘It was a way to help me understand myself.’ His quest to find his half siblings started when he heard that two friends, both also conceived through a donor, had discovered that they were actually half siblings.

What struck me most in the article were some of the statements from Baden-Lasar and his half siblings about the emotional impact of being conceived through a donor and of then discovering so many half siblings. Baden-Lasar himself says, ‘The sheer quantity of [siblings] gave me a feeling of having been mass-produced.’ One of his half sisters reflected, ‘As more and more half siblings were introduced into my life, it made me feel like a statistic rather than an actual person. I feel drowned out with the numbers.’ Another sister speaks of how meeting the half siblings has helped her, but in the process, she reveals some of the difficulties she has felt from knowing she was conceived through a donor: ‘Since meeting my siblings, I’ve become more confident of my identity. I’m no longer wondering, Who am I? And being connected to that side of my genes really helped me feel less alone, because a lot of the siblings, when I first met them, were going through similar struggles.’

I find it interesting that this isn’t an issue I’ve often heard discussed. Admittedly, the HFEA website does include information answering the question ‘What can my children find out about their donor or donor-related siblings?’, but there’s no hint in the information given that this might be a difficult area for donor-conceived children.

This oversight seems to be another example in our culture where the wants and desires of adults are allowed to trump the safety and wellbeing of children. This should be a problem for Christians. Paul commands us, ‘do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves’ (Phil. 2:3), and he exhorts us to ‘please our neighbours for their good, to build them up’ (Rom. 15:2). In all areas of life, to sacrifice our own wants and desires for the sake of others is the very nature of Christian love and the ultimate following of the example of Christ.

Given all of this, I think we might fairly ask whether the use of donated sperm and eggs is fair on the children who are conceived as a result. None of this is to overlook the deep pain of infertility which is in many cases the driving force behind the use of sperm and egg donors. This is a pain which is real and legitimate. It should be acknowledged, expressed and borne with the upholding support of church family alongside.

But perhaps this pain is also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to show real love, the love of self-sacrifice. There are already lots of children who are unsure about their identity and don’t know about their biological roots. Children who need the love and security of a family. Children who are looking for their forever family. The love of self-sacrifice can be shown in the choice not to use a donor for the sake of the wellbeing of a child who might be born as a result and in the choice to lay down some of one’s own wants and desires for the sake of a child who needs a family. Adoption is an act of incredible self-sacrificial love, and it’s an act which reminds us of the ultimate self-sacrificial love, the love through which we were adopted and we were given the ultimate forever family.

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A Year of Digital Detox

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The Church of England has recently launched a ‘Digital Charter’ aimed at encouraging users of social media to play nice. I’m sure it will make a big difference. #irony

A year ago I decided to significantly alter my digital habits: I closed down my Facebook account. I kept Twitter but removed the app from my phone and have not used my account in over a year. I removed Strava from my phone and can go weeks without looking at it on my laptop. I switched from using Google for search to DuckDuckGo.

I did this for a variety of reasons. I got rid of Facebook because so little of what I read on it actually benefitted me in any way. Plus I didn’t like the way Facebook tracks and monitors and advertises. That’s also why I moved away from Google – DuckDuckGo doesn’t track users in the way Google does so gives less personalised search results which I prefer; and I no longer suffer all the pop-up ads for things that Google and Facebook think I should buy. I realize that as an exile living in Babylon I have to use some of the structures and systems of the world but I don’t want to be more enslaved by it than I have to be.

I took Twitter off my phone so I couldn’t be distracted by it so easily – because it can be a great distraction. Plus, Twitter has become an increasingly hostile and unpleasant place, and with its evermore desperate attempts to generate revenue and constant changes to the platform was becoming less and less user-friendly.

And I took Strava off my phone because I too easily suffered FOMO, envy or disappointment when I saw how much further and faster my friends were running and cycling than me. I have a competitive enough personality as it is without needing to be constantly goaded by the electronic accounts of the exploits of my friends.

Has living less on social media helped me though?

There are certainly some things that I miss. These are primarily around the genuine social interaction social media makes possible – for instance, I’m now much less likely to know when my friends are going for a bike ride. But at least I don’t then find out about it via Strava! I also miss some of the humour on social media, and some of the news. There are some people I am less in contact with because they are the kind of people who only respond to contact through social media.

I’ve faced incredulity from some who cannot believe I am no longer on Facebook. And a degree of snarky hostility from others who are eager for me to hear about how ‘good’ social media can be.

Overall though I’d say that my quality of life has improved by my change of digital diet. I probably get irritated and downcast less often than I did. I certainly waste less time. I’ve probably read more books. And I feel less device dependent – I’m quite happy to leave home without my phone without panicking about it; and often intentionally leave it behind. All of these things mean that I’m probably more focussed than I was and thus – though it’s hard to measure – more productive. I’m also happy for the big digital corporations to know a little less about me than they did. Big Brother isn’t watching me quite so closely now.

A year into this experiment I’m not minded to go back to my old ways. I might get back onto a social media platform at some point but don’t feel any great desire to do so now. For me, when it comes to a digital life, less is definitely more. I can still lose an hour following links on YouTube as easily as anyone, and am not against posting the occasional thought on a blog, but the life less digital feels a life more serene.

The aim of the C of E’s Digital Charter is to make social media a kinder place. That’s a commendable, if perhaps hopeless aim. But for all of us who are followers of Jesus the key questions need to be how our words and actions help us to grow as disciples and minister the grace of God to others. If social media helps in that, great. If not, detox.

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When I Grow Up

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Whenever I teach on eschatology, someone asks me about sex. I get fairly passionate about the new creation, and do my best to paint it in vivid colours and present something of the joy and wonder we will experience when we get there. But someone—usually, in my experience, a young man—will always ask whether, or how, the new creation can be fully joyful and satisfying without sex. (I'm not ridiculing the question, by the way; it's a genuine one, and one that I used to ask myself.)

C. S. Lewis had a characteristically thoughtful and oft-quoted response:

I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard the absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.

That analogy came to mind as I was listening to the Matilda soundtrack the other day. In one of the musical’s best numbers, “When I Grow Up,” a group of children imagine what they will do when they are adults, and (unsurprisingly) imagine it as a permanent opportunity to do what children want to do:

And when I grow up,
I will eat sweets everyday on the way to work,
and I will go to bed late every night.
And I will wake up when the sun comes up,
and I will watch cartoons until my eyes go square,
and I won’t care,
because I’ll be all grown up.

It doesn’t occur to them—or, in eschatological terms, to us—that maturity causes our desires to change. That’s what is so charming about the song; we watch it and remember what it is like to imagine the future as nothing but an exaggerated present, and then we get to appreciate again that there are greater pleasures than eating sweets and watching television.

Desires do change, and they intensify in response to greater maturity and greater pleasures, and that makes the new creation immeasurably more than we can ask or think. Praise God for that.

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But He’s Given Me Himself

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‘You’ve given up so much to follow Jesus.’ I've sometimes heard people say things like this. There are all sorts of things which we might give up in order to faithfully follow of Jesus – relationships, family, jobs, sex, status, money, opportunities, popularity, hopes, dreams. In this sense there is a cost to following Jesus, and statements like the one above are, I’m sure, a well-intentioned recognition of this. But I worry that they can also cause us to get things the wrong way around. Yes there’s a cost, but surely it’s a cost that’s worth it? And surely it shouldn't lead us to self-pity or pride?

I was recently reading the chapter on missions in Desiring God, and I found Piper’s reflections on Jesus’ words to Peter in Mark 10:28-30 really helpful on this point.

The response of Jesus indicates that the way to think about self-denial is to deny yourself only a lesser good for a greater good. You deny yourself one mother in order to get one hundred mothers. In other words, Jesus wants us to think about sacrifice in a way that rules out all self-pity. This is in fact just what the texts on self-denial teach.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

The argument is inescapably hedonistic. Saint Augustine captured the paradox in these words:

“If you love your soul, there is danger of its being destroyed. Therefore you may not love it, since you do not want it to be destroyed. But in not wanting it to be destroyed you love it.”

Jesus knew this. It was the basis of His argument. He does not ask us to be indifferent to whether we are destroyed. On the contrary, He assumes that the very longing for true life (1 Peter 3:10) will move us to deny ourselves all the lesser pleasures and comforts of life. If we were indifferent to the value of God’s gift of life, we would dishonour it. The measure of your longing for life is the amount of comfort you are willing to give up to get it. The gift of eternal life in God’s presence is glorified if we are willing to “hate our lives in this world” in order to get it (John 12:25). Therein lies the God-centred value of self-denial.1

So perhaps rather than reminding each other of how much we’ve given up for Jesus, we should actually remind each other of how much we’ve got in Jesus. ‘You’ve given up so much for Jesus’. ‘Maybe, but he’s given me everything; he’s given me himself’.

Footnotes

  • 1 John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (rev. edn; Multnomah, 2011), pp.241-42.

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KJV’s Immanent Frames

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A while back I became convinced that my glasses were growing bigger. I'd look at myself in the mirror in the morning, sure that someone had substituted larger frames during the night. What was going on?

I eventually came to understand: it wasn’t that my glasses had changed, but my perception of them had. I was meeting more and more people with smaller frames and that trained me (you could say discipled me) to feel as if there was something wrong with my glasses.

If you can do it with glasses, you can certainly do it with other things, like gender. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine, 106

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A Sacrifice of Praise

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Ever get to Leviticus in your Bible reading and let out a – at least internal – groan? It can feel very hard work: all that stuff about sacrifice and all that stuff about what is clean and what isn’t.

I’ve been leading a group through a study of the Pentateuch as part of a new biblical theology course we have launched: material prepared and presented by Think’s very own Andrew Wilson. (At the moment this is only available to churches that are part of the Advance network but we hope to be able to offer it more widely in time.) In the last session we were looking at the sacrifices described in Leviticus 1-7 and for everyone on the course there came a moment of revelation as we saw that not all sacrifices are about sin. More of them are about worship.

Leviticus describes five types of sacrifice: the sin offering and guilt offering are to do with atonement, purification and compensation for sin. But the burnt offering, grain offering and peace offering are to do with praise, fellowship and ‘a pleasing aroma’. That’s two to three.

This morning I happened to be in Numbers 7 as part of my normal Bible reading schedule. This chapter describes the offerings brought by the tribal leaders at the dedication of the tabernacle. This is a chapter I tend to skip past – it is long and repetitive and all about sacrifice. But looking at it with fresh eyes it is actually rather wonderful.

Look at the sacrifices, and what they were for: Yes, 12 goats were offered as a sin offering. But then 12 silver dishes filled with flour and oil, 12 gold dishes filled with incense, 12 bulls,  72 rams, 72 lambs, 24 oxen and 60 goats were offered as other sacrifices. Sin was recognised and compensated for, but the scale of the offering was massively weighted towards a sacrifice of praise and fellowship. That’s amazing.

When we come before God in worship now we do so recognising our sin and guilt and how it has been dealt with (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 2:1-2; 1 John 4:10) but we must also come seeing how Jesus is our burnt offering (Rom. 8:32); our grain offering (2 Cor. 2:14-16); our peace offering (Eph. 2:14).

If even under the old covenant the balance of sacrifice was weighted towards praise and fellowship then how much more under the new covenant are we called to celebrate? Yes, let’s celebrate!

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Feeling Pride

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June is LGBTQ+ Pride month. That’s why you might have noticed rainbow flags flying, pride events starting (they’ll actually spread across the next few months), and even the logos of some famous companies adopting the rainbow colours. This year’s celebrations are particularly significant as June 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which many view as the starting point of the Pride movement. As I’ve spotted these rainbows over the last few weeks and reflected on how Christians should view Pride, I’ve been reminded of a conversation I had a few months ago.

A friend and I were talking about some topics around sexuality, and then he asked me, ‘How do you feel about LGBTQ+ Pride?’ It was a question I don’t think I’d ever really thought about before, but to my surprise I instantly had an answer, and the answer itself surprised me too. My response was simple. ‘Sad’, I said.

The reality is actually somewhat more complex. I have lots of mixed feelings about LGBTQ+ Pride. Pride is partly about remembering the terrible ways that LGBTQ+ people have been, and sometimes still are, treated. It is an opportunity to celebrate the positive changes that have come in the last 50 years and to campaign for further changes where they are still needed. No one should be made to feel ashamed or like a lesser person or receive abuse because of who they find themselves attracted to or because of their internal sense of gender. Every LGBTQ+ person is made in the image of God and is loved by God, and as Christians we should be at the front of the queue to affirm this and to campaign against any word or deed which denies it. This is perfectly compatible with, we could even say required by, the historic Christian sexual ethic.

But my overriding feeling as soon as my friend asked me that question was sadness. For many, Pride is also a public celebration of embracing internal desires and feelings as identity and seeking to find fullness of life by expressing them. But our desires and feelings are a terrible foundation for our identity and embracing and acting on sinful desires can never be the root to fullness of life.

I feel deep sorrow over the fact that so many men and women have been told lies about where true life can be found and about who they really are. While God has revealed to us the right and life-giving ways of living as sexual beings (either in an opposite-sex marriage or in celibate singleness) and has revealed that our true identity comes from him, the enemy has whispered the lie that our identity is found in our desires and feelings and that true life is found by acting on those desires. My heart breaks for those who are looking for fulfillment where it can never be found (as all who are looking for fulfillment in anything other than Jesus and in living his way are). 

As I’ve mused on this, I’ve found Paul’s reflections in Romans 9-11 helpful. Paul expresses his deep anguish over the fact that so many of his Jewish contemporaries had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. ‘I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart’ (Rom. 9:1-2). Why? Because of ‘my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh’ (Rom. 9:3).

I find Paul’s response to the situation here helpful. He is clear that one of the reasons why his kinsmen have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah is because of their own unbelief (Rom. 9:32-10:4). They have heard the gospel and yet they have rejected Jesus (Rom. 10:18-21). We could easily imagine Paul therefore becoming angry with them for their sinful rejection of the true Messiah. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t look down on them. He doesn’t get indignant. He weeps. He expresses deep pain, anguish and sorrow over their failure to see the truth, and he prays for their salvation (Rom. 10:1).

As I’ve thought about it more, I think this sort of sorrow is part of what Christians should feel about Pride. Some Christians respond to Pride with disgust, frustration or even anger. We feel the need to make it clear that we had the rainbow first and to bemoan the ‘celebration of sin’ (all the while overlooking the year-round celebration of many other sinful behaviours in our culture). We seem to forget that had it not been for the work of God in our hearts, we too could be believing those lies and looking for fulfillment in the wrong places. And we easily overlook the fact that we have often been part of the problem which led to the need for Pride. Our response should therefore not be to complain about what others are doing but to repent and apologise for what we have done. Historically, and still often today, we have not loved the LGBTQ+ community as Jesus has called us to love all people.

And so now, when I see the rainbow flags or the supermarket logos which have gone rainbow on Twitter, I’m choosing not to get on a moral high horse and express disdain or disapproval. I’m allowing my heart to be moved, and I’m praying, for ‘my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved’ (Rom. 10:1).

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The Spoon isn’t Real

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Last week I filled a major gap in my education and finally watched The Matrix. I know, I know – how had I not seen it before? I just sort of missed it when it first came out, and then saw so many clips and heard so many sermon illustrations that I never really felt the need to pay to watch the remaining few minutes.

Movie night at a friend’s house twenty years on finally filled in those gaps. It’s great, isn’t it? Looks a little dated now, but it hasn’t aged badly, all told.

If you have somehow managed to miss even a vague grasp of the premise, look it up, but essentially our hero, Neo, discovers he’s been living in an artificial world all his life and he is the only person that can save humanity. Adventures ensue.

The resolution of these adventures relies on Neo being able to grasp the fact that the world of the matrix is just an illusion. He can bend a spoon with his thoughts not by compelling the spoon to bend, but by recognising that the spoon isn’t real. He can see the spoon; he can feel its weight and texture, he can even use it to eat with, but all these properties are just sensory impulses created by a computer (as is the food). Once he manages to get his mind around that, he can bend the spoon however he wants. He could presumably turn it into a fork, or a kangaroo or an aspidistra for that matter. It isn’t real, so it doesn’t have any obligation to obey the laws of physics.

Hold that thought.

To be or not to be

I seem to have been spending a lot of time in Philippians recently, and it’s rapidly becoming my favourite book of the Bible (when it isn’t Nehemiah, which it always is…). I love Paul’s soliloquy on death in chapter 1, which is such a fascinating contrast with Hamlet’s:

To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. …

                                To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death-
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns- puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

- Hamlet Act III, Scene 1

For Hamlet life, no matter how miserable, is preferable to death, purely because he fears death might be worse. Why would anyone wish to stay alive – enduring oppression, insult, rejection, injustice and more – if it wasn’t because death held a greater threat?

Here’s Paul’s reasoning:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (Phil 1:20-24)

To be clear: I don’t believe Paul was considering ending his own life here. He had fully surrendered his life - its circumstances and its days - to God. God alone had the authority to take his life or to preserve it, no matter how desperate things got. And things were objectively desperate here - he genuinely was experiencing all the things Hamlet was fretting about: oppression, insult, rejection (though perhaps not unrequited love) and injustice. What’s more, he had been beaten by actual whips, not just the whips of time. Multiple times. It wouldn’t be surprising if he sometimes thought of ending it all. But that isn’t the point of this passage. It’s not about wishing he no longer had to endure this life, but longing to be with the Lord he loved.

Death held no fear for him, because he knew what awaited on the other side – Jesus. Jesus was on this side, too (for me to live is Christ…), but on the other side was an even closer relationship with him, the chance to see him and worship him in all his glory, not the ‘glass darkly’ version Paul knew we are seeing here.

Paul was absolutely convinced that death was better than life – not because life was so awful, but because no matter how good it got, being with his saviour would be better by far.

So why would he stay? If Hamlet thinks the only thing keeping us here is fear, why would you stay when you have no fear? Because second only to his passionate love for Christ was his passionate love for others. “It is more necessary for you that I remain in the body,” he says, so that’s what he’ll do.

It is clear throughout Philippians that Paul’s primary goal is God’s glory, with the health, joy, love and maturity of the church running it a close second. Paul’s chains, his discomfort, his lack of freedom, the insults, abuse, beatings, mockery, snake bites, shipwrecks…etc, etc, etc… they barely registered with him.

That’s partly because he was willing to endure anything if it meant Christ was glorified, but I think too it is because he knew this world isn’t really the real thing. The chains aren’t real.

The perishable becomes imperishable

For Hamlet, the world was awful, but the nightmare of death could be worse. For Paul, the world was temporary, fading away, perishable. His troubles were ‘light and momentary’. He had experienced for himself that God could make seeing eyes blind and blind eyes see, that he could make prisons shake and chains disintegrate, that he could make poisonous snake bites no worse than a pin-prick.

He knew from eye witnesses that Jesus had turned water into wine, had made five loaves and two fish feed over 5,000 people (with more left over than he started with), had walked on water and through locked doors, had calmed seas and produced miraculous catches of fish. And of course he knew from the scriptures that God created the world, set its physical laws in place, then broke them at will, parting the Red Sea, turning the Nile to blood, raining down sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah, sending rains, withholding rains, multiplying oil, stopping the sun in the sky…

This world we see is not an illusion – it’s not just a matrix of electrical stimuli tricking our brains into thinking they can see, hear, taste and touch – but neither is it the full reality. It has laws, but they are not immutable. Many martyrs have been consumed by fire, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were able to walk through it unharmed. Most believers sink in water, but Peter walked on its surface. Jesus told us that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains – how little would it take to bend a simple soup spoon? He said we would do greater things than him, because he has given us dominion over all the earth – including its physical laws. They are subservient to us now, in accordance with his will.

I’m not saying that physicality is irrelevant. Far from it. Our bodies, our biology and our interaction with the world we perceive through our senses tell us truths, but the truths they tell are of a deeper reality – the physical world is true, but it also points us to what is more true. In the same way that marriage is both real and a picture of Christ and the church, so this world is both real and but a shadow of that which is to come.

When we understand that, neither life nor death can hold any fear for us.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory?     O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:53-58)

The sting isn’t real.

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The Paradox of Privilege

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In 2007, the Gallup organisation asked people around the world whether they felt they were leading meaningful lives. It turns out that Liberia was the country where the most people felt a sense of meaning and purpose, while the Netherlands was the place where the lowest percentage of people did.

This is not because life was necessarily sweeter in Liberia. On the contrary. But Liberians possessed what Paul Froese calls “existential urgency.” In the turmoil of their lives, they were compelled to make fierce commitments to one another merely to survive. They were willing to risk their lives for one another. And these fierce commitments gave their lives a sense of meaning.

That’s the paradox of privilege. When we are well-off we chase the temporary pleasures that actually draw us apart. We use our wealth to buy big houses with big yards that separate us and make us lonely. But in crisis we are compelled to hold closely to one another in ways that actually meet our deepest needs.

- David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

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Competence of Character

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Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.

It is amusing, if salutary, to look at the remaining candidates in the Tory Party leadership election and consider whether any of them would qualify as church elders. With the amount of wife-stealing and drug using that has been admitted it seems unlikely.

When it comes to worldly leadership the key question is to do with competence, with issues of character then intruding. So the main question is whether Boris is competent to lead the country – oh, and what about his propensity for running off with other women? Or, is Gove competent to be Prime Minister – and might his cocaine use have any relevance for that?

Leadership in the church is meant to operate from the opposite position: does this man’s character qualify him for eldership? And if it does, is he also gifted in the things elders are expected to do?

In an increasingly corporate age it is easy for us to slip into worldly categories in the church. We exalt leadership, gift and charisma and people get appointed to position because of their ability. But the Bible shows us a very different pattern in which we are to look for fatherly pastoring of the church household. This doesn’t mean gift and competence are unimportant but that we mustn’t confuse our categories: it is character that qualifies or disqualifies over and about competence.

That might not be the way to get ahead in politics, but it is the measure we must use in the church.

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Generation to Generation

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The apostle Peter writes to the churches describing them as, God’s elect, exiles, scattered (1 Peter 1:1). The people of God have been chosen by God to be scattered throughout the earth in order to carry the promised blessing to all nations. This is a great calling, but at times being an exile can be wearying. Our pilgrimage is demanding.

When we exiles gather with other believers we are meant to strengthen and encourage one another. This should be happening Sunday by Sunday and day by day in our local churches but it can also happen in a special way at larger gatherings and conferences. The week before last I was in Cape Town for a gathering like this: 450 of us from 17 different nations. I felt strengthened and encouraged!

The theme of our conference was ‘Generation to Generation’, as we focussed on how the different generations can serve the purpose of God together and what we need to be entrusting to the next generation. In one of the most beautiful moments of the week four generations of youth worker stood up and explained how one had pastored another who had pastored another in a cascade of blessing over the past 40 years.

Being led in the word and worship by people of different ages and different cultures and ethnicity was truly refreshing. In the midst of the beauty and brokenness of South Africa our eyes were drawn to the hope we have in Christ of a world renewed, and of people from every tribe, nation and tongue being gathered before the throne. One day our exile will end, hallelujah!

Recordings from the conference can be accessed here.

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Recommended Resources on Sexuality

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Many of us have big questions about sexuality. What does the Bible actually say about same-sex relationships? What does it look like to faithfully follow Jesus as someone who is same-sex attracted/gay? And how can the church best love, support and share the gospel with sexual minorities? Thankfully, the last decade or so has seen the production of lots of great resources to help Christians wrestle with these questions, but we don’t always know where to start, so here’s a list of recommended resources on sexuality and related topics.

I’ve divided the resources up under a few categories, offering some top recommendations for each. To help you find the resources which will be most helpful to you, I’ve given an indication of the level of each (either Basic (B), Intermediate (I), or Advanced (A)).

General introductions

These are resources which give a good general introduction to the topic and the most significant questions. If you’ve not yet engaged with the topic they’re a great place to start.

Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue (I)

If you’re going to read one book on sexuality, make it this one. Preston does a brilliant job of covering all the key questions, but the real beauty of the book lies in its tone: Preston combines complete and unswerving faithfulness to God’s Word with a tangible love for SSA/gay people. There are few books on sexuality which I have read and felt genuinely loved by the author, but this is one of them. (You can get a flavour of Preston’s approach in this talk). Preston has also written a version for teenagers which is equally excellent: Living in a Gray World: A Christian Teen’s Guide to Understanding Homosexuality (B).

Sam Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay?: And Other Questions About Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction (B).

A very brief (less than 90 pages) but very helpful treatment of the key questions.

Alex Tylee, Walking with Gay Friends: A Journey of Informed Compassion (B)

Having been published 12 years ago, Tylee’s book is one of the oldest of its type on the topic (it’s a relatively young field!) but is a great introduction. The chapter ‘Identity and evangelism’ is particularly helpful as few resources give such a focus to evangelism among SSA/gay people.

Real-Life Stories

Hearing the stories of SSA/gay Christians is one of the best ways of learning how to love and support those whom we know personally.

Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Faithfulness and Homosexuality (B)

Wes shares his story of wrestling with how to follow Jesus as someone who is gay with incredible openness, communicating powerfully some of the pains and struggles the journey can bring.

David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (B)

David’s story is an incredible example of the power of Jesus to save and captivate even those whom we might think are far from him. David’s story and his reflections upon it have much to teach us about following Jesus regardless of our sexual orientation.

Gregory Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (B)

Another honest and powerful story of, in the author’s own words, ‘How I followed my Saviour in costly obedience and became a mythical creature, a thing that wasn’t supposed to exist: a single gay Christian.’

Living Out Stories Page

Living Out has a brilliant collection of short videos in which same-sex attracted Christians share their stories.

The Bible and Sexuality

What does the Bible actually teach about sexuality and same-sex relationships? Every Christian needs to wrestle with this question.

Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue (I)

Again. The first half of the book works through the relevant biblical material in a way which is determined to be faithful to God’s Word and full of love. Exemplary in approach and tone.

Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? (I)

A clear and faithful look at the biblical texts and the objections that are raised against the historic Christian sexual ethic.

Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (A)

A thorough and scholarly look at the biblical material and hermeneutical questions of its relevance for today. Inevitably I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but it is a useful and important work. Gagnon has also produced a seven-part video series on the topic.

Singleness

For many SSA/gay Christians faithfulness to Jesus will mean singleness (many, not all, as some will enter into opposite-sex marriages). Therefore, getting singleness right is one of the most important things we can do.

Sam Allberry, 7 Myths About Singleness (B)

The book about singleness which every Christian should read, as I’ve argued here.

Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction (B)

Shaw believes that most Christians who reject a traditional sexual ethic do so not because they are convinced by a fresh reading of the Bible, but because they think the traditional sexual ethic is implausible. Though not strictly about singleness, most of the missteps which Shaw argues need correcting to make the Bible’s teaching plausible are applicable to all singleness.

Barry Danylak, Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life (I)

Why is singleness such a bad thing in the Old Testament but a gift better than marriage in the New Testament? Danylak’s biblical theology of singleness offers a wonderful explanation. 

Marriage

The Bible’s teaching on same-sex relationships doesn’t make sense apart from its teaching on marriage. Understanding the theology of marriage explains its prohibition of same-sex relationships.

Tim & Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Marriage with the Wisdom of God (I)

A wonderful account of what marriage actually is according to the Bible. Includes a helpful chapter on singleness.

John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (I)

Another beautiful explanation of what marriage is really about.

Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel (I)

A brief biblical theology of marriage which helps to show the role that marriage has in God’s big story.

The Bigger Cultural Picture

As we engage with the topic of sexuality, as well as understanding what God says, we need to understand what the world says and the narratives people are being told. Only when we understand these can we show how God’s way is more beautiful, more life-giving, and better explains the reality we experience.

Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing (I)

Harrison helps us to understand the sexual revolution and its roots. He then shows us how the revolution can be critiqued, before turning to outline the better story that, as Christians, we can bring to the world.

Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality (A)

Pearcey tackles more than just sexuality, but in her account of the secular worldview which rejects the body and prioritises the true, inner self, she shows how the acceptance of same-sex sexual activity has been underpinned by this thoroughly unbiblical worldview. See the summary here.

Tim Keller on Identity (I)

The most helpful teaching I have yet to hear on what underpins secular thought on sexuality was given by Tim Keller at Living Out’s Identity in Christ conference last year. I’m hoping the teaching will one day form the basis of one of Keller’s books, but until it does you can read summaries and find videos of the sessions here

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Plastic Righteousness

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On Monday evening I put our carefully sorted recycling out for collection, came back in, put on the TV and found myself watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest campaigning series: War on Plastic.

Hugh’s outrage was the very on-trend concern about the ubiquity of single use plastics: how difficult it is to buy things that are not packaged in them, and how difficult it is to then recycle them. Most shocking was a trip to Malaysia in which he discovered vast mountains of plastics shipped from the UK, which British householders thought had gone to recycling. Instead, it is polluting Malaysian watercourses – and Malaysian air as the plastic is often burned in the open.

How disappointing – and shaming – that rather than recycling plastics usefully at home so much of it ends up being shipped to the other side of the world. We are literally dumping our problem on a nation we are able to take advantage of because of disparities in economic development.

This is a very apt metaphor for sin and righteousness. Everyone wants to be righteous and that desire is manifested in all kinds of behaviours, including recycling. Recycling is a badge of righteousness, especially in more prosperous areas of the UK. We feel guilty about our consumerism and the amount of waste we generate. Recycling makes us feel better – it means we are ‘doing our bit’. It is a visible, tangible, sign that we are good people: that blue bin at the kerbside full of carefully sorted recyclables is the evidence of our virtue. But if in reality so much of what we have offered up to the altar of the blue bin ends up in a polluting pile in Malaysia all our virtue is groundless. We are not righteous, but only appear to be. We are contaminated and contaminating. We are not righteous but sinful, and the worst kind of hypocritical sinners. It would be more honest to indiscriminately hurl our trash in the black bin and consign our shame to the local landfill site.

Jordan Peterson spoke recently about being asked if he believes in God,

People kept asking me that question, which I really don’t like. I don’t like that question, so I sat and thought about it for a good while and I tried to figure out why. And I thought, well … who would have the audacity to claim that they believed in God? If they examined the way they lived, who would dare say that?

Who indeed? But the wonder of the gospel is of course precisely the point Peterson hasn’t grasped – that true righteousness is not grounded in how I live, but in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is his righteousness that counts! And – wonderfully – he is able to deal with my sin and shame: it isn’t a problem that gets shunted off to someone else, but has been fully and finally dealt with at the cross. Dead and buried.

That’s good news. And it’s not plastic.

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Nature Begins, Scripture Completes

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Frederick Dale Bruner points out that the Magi are led to Bethlehem by creation (the star), and then by Scripture (the prophet Micah), before encountering Christ. "Nature begins," he writes, "Scripture completes." It is a principle that goes beyond the story of Matthew 2, and prompts a thoughtful comment on the doctrine of revelation:

(1) The star (“revelation by creation”) leads the Magi to (2) Israel’s Scripture in Jerusalem (“revelation by Scripture”), which in turn leads them to (3) the Child in Bethlehem (“revelation by Christ”). It is interesting that the star (of creation) does not lead the Magi directly to Christ. There is an intermediate stop in Jerusalem in the Israelite church where Scripture is opened; and only then is focus finally given to the star’s light and so direction to the Magi’s search. The star brings us to Jerusalem; only Scripture brings us to Bethlehem. Creation can bring us to the church; the church’s Bible brings us to Christ. To be sure, the star reappears, but, significantly, only after the Scriptures say “Bethlehem!” (2:4-9). God’s revelation in creation raises the questions and begins the quest; God’s revelation in Scripture gives a preliminary answer and directs the quest towards the goal. Finally, God’s revelation in Christ satisfies the quest. Creation’s revelation can bring human beings only halfway; scriptural revelation has the power to bring us home - to Christ. God in his goodness is the author of both revelations and uses both.

- Bruner, Matthew 1-12, 59 (emphasis both original and plentiful)

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Aunty Ethel’s Elbow

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I grew up in a Christian home attending a good, solid, Bible-believing church. We were taught from the Word every Sunday, and in the middle of the week would meet in homes to study it some more and to pray.

The prayer part was interesting. Which is to say it was usually very dull, but interesting from an anthropological standpoint. The prayers rarely seemed to pick up on the themes of the study (except when someone felt we hadn’t agreed sufficiently with his/her point and tried to convince God to make it clear to us), but would most often be rather feeble requests of the type that asked us to pray that God would heal Aunty Ethel’s elbow, which had been giving her trouble again.

I couldn’t articulate this back then, but certainly by the time I was at uni I was beginning to feel that this wasn’t 100% what prayer could be. It was supposed to be powerful and effective, wasn’t it? There were people who could do it for hours, and find it meaningful and worthwhile. What was I missing?

I was missing, of course, the connection between the Bible study and the prayer. I was missing an understanding of how people in the Bible prayed, what they talked to God about and what they asked him for. As Alistair Begg points out in his recent book Pray Big, none of the prayers in the Bible use those two little words that we so often rely on: ‘be with’.

If you were to record my prayers, I have a sad suspicion you’d hear a lot of “be with”: “Dear Lord, I pray you will be with Tom as he goes to work, and be with Mary also, who’s having her wisdom teeth removed on Tuesday, and be with… and be with… and be with… and be with us all. Amen.” This is unimaginative. It’s limited. It’s certainly not spiritually ambitious, like Paul is. And it is, I think, unnecessary. Jesus said, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28 v 20). He’s promised to be with Tom and with Mary. It’s a bit of a waste to make the sum total of my prayer for them the request that Jesus would do what he already said he’d do, and has already started doing.1

Furthermore, Tim Keller tweeted last year, “It’s remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances.” Instead “he prays for what they really need. He prays not for a change in their circumstances, but a change in their hearts.”

Alistair Begg looks specifically at Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians, and how he prayed for power, hope, riches and more. I’ve been working through Paul’s letters recently and have been struck by how much he prays for knowledge and wisdom and abundance - for the fullness of Christ to inhabit us!

...that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

It’s exuberant, it’s joyful, it’s overflowing.

He prays for them in their circumstances, and asks for prayer in his own, not to be rescued from them, but that God would be glorified in and through them. I’ve started noting down on a card in my journal the bullet point summaries of what Paul prays, and what he longs and expects to see in the believers, and am using that to guide my prayers for my friends and family each day. It has certainly made a difference, especially when praying for people whose needs I don’t know very well, or those who are facing long-term challenges and for whom, ‘please heal them’ gets a bit tired and empty after a while.

I want my friends to be healed, for their job interviews to be successful, for them to have a nice time on holiday, but far more than that I want them to know Christ and the glory of his resurrection, to grow in knowledge and depth of insight, to live in hope, and to be filled with the fullness of God.

Imagine the potential outcomes if God answers the two types of prayer: in one, Aunty Ethel’s elbow would be less sore, at least for now. In the other she would be strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit, the eyes of her heart would be enlightened to know the hope to which she has been called, and she would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. So whether her elbow is healed or not, her life would be transformed. She would have received sufficient power, hope and love to enable her to endure - even to rejoice in - any trials, just as Paul did. Rather than simply a bit less pain, she would have a deeper, richer, more vibrant heart-level knowledge of the God who created her, knows her every pain and sorrow, and loves her abundantly.

Let’s pray bigger, bolder, better prayers, prayers that focus on what really matters and our ultimate purpose in life. Let’s seek first his Kingdom for ourselves, our friends, our churches and our communities, and all these things will be added unto them.

 

Footnotes

    1. Alistair Begg, ‘Stop praying “be with” prayers’, Good Book Company blog 28 May 2019, https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/blog/interestingthoughts/2019/05/28/stop-praying-be-with-prayers/

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Where Have All the Atheists Gone?

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You’ve got to feel sorry for atheists. They are such a beleaguered minority, and it is such a difficult position to hold with consistency.

A new piece of research, snappily titled, Understanding Unbelief: Atheists and agnostics around the world. Interim findings from 2019 research in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, reveals some fascinating things about the ‘nones’.

One is that atheists and agnostics don’t have much conviction in their beliefs about unbelief,

Popular assumptions about ‘convinced, dogmatic atheists’ do not stand up to scrutiny. Atheists and agnostics in Brazil and China are less confident that their beliefs about God are correct than are Brazilians and Chinese as a whole.

Though there is nicely ironic corollary about our American friends, where “atheists are typically fairly confident in their views about God, importantly, so too are Americans in general.”

Perhaps the most interesting finding is how atheism wants to hold on to objective morality, rather than moral relativism or nihilism.

The report says this,

Another common supposition – that of the purposeless unbeliever, lacking anything to ascribe ultimate meaning to the universe – also does not bear scrutiny. While atheists and agnostics are disproportionately likely to affirm that the universe is ‘ultimately meaningless’ in five of our countries, it still remains a minority view among unbelievers in all six countries.

Also perhaps challenging common suppositions: with only a few exceptions, atheists and agnostics endorse the realities of objective moral values, human dignity and attendant rights, and the ‘deep value’ of nature, at similar rates to the general populations in their countries.

As pointed out here last week – atheism is incapable of providing a moral foundation that is anything but relativistic, so this stubborn clinging to the objective is remarkable. It reminds me again of Nietzsche’s devastating critique of the ‘English flatheads’:

They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality… We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth – it stands and falls with faith in God.

Positively, this report should serve as a great spur to mission – our agnostic and atheist neighbours don’t really believe in their unbelief. They want life to have meaning and purpose. They believe there are objective moral realities. All they need to make sense of this is a revelation of the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Let’s tell them!

 

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White or Wrong?

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Should people self-identify as "white"? In normal conversation? In the church, or other specifically Christian contexts? On a census form or diversity survey? It might seem that the answer is yes to all of the above, and that even asking the question is the height of politically correct silliness. But I think there are at least seven reasons for taking seriously the possibility that the answer is no. (I say this despite knowing that in all kinds of contexts, the contemporary world being what it is, it will probably still be needed sometimes. Every time I am asked for my "gender" I want to cross it out and write "sex", but I tick the male box anyway.) Here are the ones that occur to me:

The obvious problem. My skin is not white. Not even close. All of my great-grandparents were British, but if you saw a car painted the same colour as me, there is no way you would ever refer to it as white. If you put my skin on a colour palette, it would be somewhere between peach and beige, depending on the season. So the word “white” is a strange one to describe me, as you will know if you have ever tried to explain it to a small child.

The historical problem. Nobody in the ancient world was white. Nobody in the medieval world was white. The term only started being used four hundred years ago, at just about the same time as European people started colonising other parts of the world and developing arguments to explain that this was OK. That makes the word anachronistic when used of the past, and genealogically suspicious when used of the present.

The gradual problem. If you walked across Eurasia from Portugal to Korea, you would notice that there is no point at which people suddenly look different. Languages can change instantaneously, and so do nationalities (another recent invention), but the same is not true of skin colour, size of nose, shape of eyes, and so on. “Race”, in that sense, is a social construct, and one that does not reflect the fluid and complex realities of the real world.

The Mediterranean problem. This one is forcefully expressed (complete with genetic graphs) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Northern Europeans (“butter people”), eager to champion their classical and Judeo-Christian heritage, classified Greeks, Romans, and Eastern Mediterraneans (“olive oil people”) as fellow whites, often to the point of claiming (and painting) Jesus himself as a white man. But genetically speaking, Mediterraneans are quite different from an Anglo- like me; a Roman is closer to a Maghrebi than to a British person. When applied to the Mediterranean, the concept of “whiteness” looks incredibly self-serving: “The Northern Euros have always had problems with Meds; they want some of the cultural prestige and ancestry, but never the skin hue.”

The purity problem. The colour white symbolises purity in all kinds of cultures (see below), and this has insinuated its way into racial classifications today. Consider: if someone with a black father and white mother is “black,” whereas to be “white” requires two “white” parents, then “whiteness” is not fundamentally about genealogy, or even appearance, but purity (the logic being that you can only be classified as “white” if both of your parents were as well). Given that the term still appears on census forms and diversity surveys, I find that somewhat insidious.

The theological problem. It may be because I’m talking about Revelation a lot this term, but it has struck me again recently how powerful the symbolism of “white” is in Scripture: white hair, white robes, a white stone, a white horse, a white cloud, a white throne. Symbolically speaking, the great multitude from every tribe and language and nation is clothed in white, not because it is one colour—let alone because it is the superior colour—but because it is the beautiful result of all the colours coming together. (You wonder if the meaning of white in the Bible was one reason Northern Europeans were so keen to designate it as the colour of their skin, even when it manifestly isn’t.) Nobody in the Bible uses skin colour as a way of classifying people, so we should think carefully before assuming that we should.

The ambiguity problem. As recent discussions about “whiteness” continue to show, the term can be used to refer to skin colour, or to racially supremacist power structures, or to both (sometimes in the same article, book or conversation). This, if the previous six points were not enough, is another reason to give serious consideration to the way we use the term.

[Ducks.]

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Is the Bible a Story?

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The Bible is a story. I’m sure many of us have said this; many of us will even have taught it. It’s a story which runs from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to the New Creation, and recognising this fact is vital to reading the Bible well. But what if it isn’t? Perhaps the Bible is actually better understood as poetry.

This is an idea which has been put forward by Brent Strawn in a TheoEd talk and discussed in a recent episode of the OnScript podcast (which, incidentally, also proves that Old Testament scholars know how to have a good laugh!)

Strawn’s claim is that, ‘The Bible is not a story. Instead, the Bible is far more like a poem than it is a story, and therefore we think about Scripture better and live our lives with Scripture better when we think of the Bible as a poem, not as a story.’

Strawn observes that the Bible as story view is popular despite it not being hard to see problems with the idea, most obviously the fact that plenty of what comes between Creation and the New Creation is not story (there’s poetry, wisdom, prophecy, and letters), and even the bits which do tell a story don’t trace one sequential narrative line (there are retellings, such as Deuteronomy and Chronicles, and parallel accounts of the same narrative thread, such as in the Gospels). To view the Bible as a story is a construction and not a very good one. The Bible isn’t a story.

However, to view the Bible as poetry, Strawn suggests, though admittedly still a construction, poses fewer problems and offers several benefits. The features of poetry which can benefit our engagement with the Bible are candour (poetry can be more honest about reality), contradictions (poetry can better cope with tensions), contemporaneity (poetry can be reused by later readers), and continuation (poetry encourages continual engagement). Together, these features mean that we are better equipped to handle and respond to the Bible when it is viewed as poetry.

A Combined Construction

I think there’s some merit to what Strawn is proposing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has taught the Bible’s story and has felt acutely aware (and somewhat uncomfortable) about skipping over many of the biblical books with little or no mention. The idea that the Bible is a story is problematic. The approach can also shape which parts of the Bible we find easier or harder to understand and can therefore cause us to neglect some of what God has said.

At the same time, though Strawn is honest that viewing the Bible as poetry is also a construction and so makes his case based on the need to work with the most helpful construction, I can’t help thinking that the argument against the Bible as narrative can be inverted and set against the Bible as poetry. What do we do with all the parts which clearly aren’t poetry? It may be true that the collection of texts shares some features with poetry, but does this mean they are poetry or does it just mean there are shared features, possibly explained by some other factor?

Perhaps a better construction is to combine what is good from the two approaches. The Bible isn’t a story, but there is a story of God’s dealings with his creation which is told in parts of the Bible. Perhaps we should speak of God’s big story revealed in the Bible, rather than the Bible’s big story. And the Bible isn’t poetry, but it does contain poetry (and wisdom, and prophecy, and apocalyptic, and letters). Perhaps we should see these non-narrative elements as a poetic parallel track alongside the story, which offers a commentary on the story and guidance for how to live in it. And the features of poetry which Strawn notes as helpful to apply in our approach to the Bible, could be applicable to the entirety of the Bible because of its position as Scripture. The distinctive nature of Scripture shares some of poetry’s key features.

So, I guess the Bible isn’t a story, and the Bible isn’t poetry, but perhaps the Bible is a story and poetry. That might seem like a contradiction, but maybe coping with tensions is one of the strengths of viewing the Bible as Scripture.

 

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Can Atheism Ground Human Rights?

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Can atheism provide the grounds for believing in universal benevolence and human rights? Well: no, says Christian Smith in his excellent Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver. In a nuanced, fair, scholarly and readable argument, Smith makes no attempt to establish whether naturalist atheism is true or false, but simply to establish that if it is true, there is no warrant for believing in a number of things that (most) atheists affirm. Thus:

A naturalistic universe is one that consists of energy and matter and other natural entities, such as vacuums, operating in a closed system in time and space, in which no transcendent, supernatural, divine being or superhuman power exists as creator, sustainer, guide or judge. Such a universe has come to exist by chance - not by design or providence but by purposeless natural forces and processes. There is no inherent, ultimate meaning or purpose. Any meaning or purpose that exists for humans in a naturalistic universe is constructed by and for humans themselves. When the natural forces of entropy eventually extinguish the human race - if some natural or humanmade disaster does not do so sooner - there will be no memory or meaning, just as none existed before human consciousness evolved.

If that is the nature of reality, then what grounds are there for believing in universal benevolence and human rights? There do not seem to be any:

To begin with, let us first observe that a naturalistic universe does not seem to offer any moral guidance at all ... Organisms do tend to “want” to survive. But on evolutionary grounds per se we cannot say that it was morally good or bad that the dinosaurs lived or died, for instance. It just happened.

This has not stopped people trying to provide some, of course. Some seek to secure human rights in the evolutionary pursuit of survival (which at most would ground our commitment to the survival of our offspring or tribe, and certainly not our entire species). Some insist that humans are fundamentally benevolent towards other human beings on the grounds of our humanity alone (which comes unstuck very quickly when we consider human history, but even if it were true, naturalistically speaking we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”). Some look for a social contract description, in which we agree to affirm and defend human rights simply as a collective decision (which again, even if it were true, “does not and cannot compel people to believe in benevolence and rights as moral truths upon which they are obliged to act even if to their own detriment.”) And so forth.

Ultimately, Smith argues, they all fail on a logical level. We believe in human rights on the basis of convictions about humanity that grew in Christian soil, and cannot be grounded in a materialist account of reality. It is as if we are trying to remove the foundations from under a house, but hoping the house stays standing and nobody notices. Well: people have noticed. As to whether the house stays standing in a post-Christian context—and this was Nietzche’s objection too, from a completely different perspective—we shall see.

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Christ and the Circus

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If you have two minutes—and let’s face it, if you’re here, you do—spend them with Tertullian, and consider why Christian joys are unimaginably greater than the pleasures of popular entertainment. Read to the end:

Even as things are, if your thought is to spend this period of existence in enjoyments, how are you so ungrateful as to reckon insufficient, as not thankfully to recognize the many and exquisite pleasures God has bestowed upon you? For what more delightful than to have God the Father and our Lord at peace with us, than revelation of the truth than confession of our errors, than pardon of the innumerable sins of our past life?

What greater pleasure than distaste of pleasure itself, contempt of all that the world can give, true liberty, a pure conscience, a contented life, and freedom from all fear of death? What nobler than to tread under foot the gods of the nations: to exorcise evil spirits, to perform cures, to seek divine revealings, to live to God? These are the pleasures, these the spectacles that befit Christian men: holy, everlasting, free.

Count of these as your circus games, fix your eyes on the courses of the world, the gliding seasons, reckon up the periods of time, long for the goal of the final consummation, defend the societies of the churches, be startled at God’s signal, be roused up at the angel’s trump, glory in the palms of martyrdom. If the literature of the stage delight you, we have literature in abundance of our own: plenty of verses, sentences, songs, proverbs; and these not fabulous, but true; not tricks of art, but plain realities.

Would you have also fightings and wrestlings? Well, of these there is no lacking, and they are not of slight account. Behold unchastity overcome by chastity, perfidy slain by faithfulness, cruelty stricken by compassion, impudence thrown into the shade by modesty: these are the contests we have among us, and in these we win our crowns. Would you have something of blood too? You have Christ’s.

(Tertullian, On the Shows, 29)

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Sexuality and the Olive Spoon

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Here's a wonderful illustration from Sam Allberry's outstanding Seven Myths About Singleness, which Andrew reviewed recently. (Seriously, people: you should buy it. Especially if you are married.) The punchline is excellent:

A friend of mine has an interesting spoon. (Bear with me.) It’s slightly larger than a teaspoon and has a large hole in the middle, making it incapable of holding—let alone carrying—the sort of substance that typically requires a spoon. My friend has no idea where it came from. And so for entertainment he keeps it in his sugar bowl, waiting for unsuspecting guests to attempt productive engagement with it. Some will quietly (but unsuccessfully) persevere with it, not wanting to make a fuss and assuming the fault must somehow be theirs. Others will immediately point out how the spoon is ridiculous and insist on something better suited to the task at hand.

But the spoon, my friend eventually discovered, was an olive spoon. It was meant to be like that. The hole in the middle is to drain the fluid as you lift the olive to your mouth. You can’t make sense of the way the spoon is without understanding what it’s for.

It is true of my friend’s olive spoon and it is true of our sexuality.

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Embracing Our Intellectual Limitations

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A few months ago I saw someone post a clip from The Office US on Twitter. Rarely has anything ever resonated with me so deeply! In the clip, one character asks another whether they have read a certain book, to which the reply comes, ‘Read it? I own it! But no, I have not read it.’ I expect many of us can relate. There are so many books we want to read and which we feel we ought to read, we may even therefore buy them, but it’s a lot harder to actually get around to reading them.

This situation can leave us with a quiet sense of shame about the things we haven’t read and the topics about which we don’t really know. And so I was encouraged recently to hear a couple of interviews with Peter Williams in which he talks about embracing our intellectual limits. Here’s an abridged transcript of some of the wisdom he shared.

On recognising our intellectual limits

‘There’s a tendency if you’re quite good academically to focus on gaining new knowledge, trying to become a Brainiac and know everything. I think it’s good for us to celebrate the feats that our brains can do, because God gave them to us, and that’s great. But I also want to celebrate what my brain cannot do. The fact is, I’m a creature, and I am therefore meant to have limited knowledge. God’s got all knowledge. I’m pleased about the fact that there are all sorts of things I’m not good at.

‘People should know what they’re good at, what their calling is, and celebrate that they can use their brains to learn more about God’s word, but also not get depressed by the fact that there are people who know more, or that there are limits to what they can learn. We’re not meant to be unlimited; we’re God’s creatures, and we can celebrate that and celebrate the fact that we have an all-powerful, all-knowing saviour.’

On the well-educated in churches

‘There is a tendency for Christian pop-culture to put people who have some sort of high level of education on a particular pedestal as if they are then supposed to know everything; they then become the answer person for everything. That’s ridiculous. No one’s supposed to know everything. We’re actually not supposed to know everything. Can’t we celebrate that?’

On unread books

‘Celebrate the way we’ve been made. Recognise the way that God’s made us complete beings. We do need to use our brains. We’re meant to love God with all our mind. What mind have you been given? Make sure you’re stretching that and studying, but don’t get depressed about all the books that you haven’t read.

‘Know who you are. God has made us all frail and finite, and we are not called to try to be omniscient. Know that you don’t know things, be prepared to say, ‘I haven’t read that’, actually develop the habit of saying ‘I haven’t read that’, if you haven’t. Admit who you are and what you know, and then be fruitful with that.’

You can listen to the interviews from which these quotes are taken here and here.

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Intransigent Minorities

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The first time I ever heard of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he was accusing me of spreading bull**** on Twitter. With hindsight, he may well have been right. Prior to that exchange I had never heard of him, but I was quickly fascinated by his mind, his range, his combative style and his provocative and often counterintuitive conclusions, on subjects as varied as ancient philosophy, demography, financial markets, virtue ethics and religion. His recent Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life is a case in point: by turns it is quirky, intriguing, funny, thought-provoking, skittish, absorbing and full of wisdom.

The insight in the book that most struck me came in a chapter intriguingly entitled “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority.” The point he is making here, on “intransigent minorities”, is strikingly relevant both for changes in the contemporary West on issues like sexuality and religious accommodation (where Christians might generally be seen as losing out), and for the history of the early church (where Christians undoubtedly benefited from it):

The rule we discuss in this chapter is the minority rule, the mother of all asymmetries. It suffices for an intransigent minority—a certain type of intransigent minority—with significant skin in the game (or, better, soul in the game) to reach a minutely small level, say 3 or 4% of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences.

We’re not talking about the famous “tipping point” of 17% here. If a minority is sufficiently intransigent, it is as low as 3%. Why? Because of the aforementioned mother of all asymmetries:

A kosher (or halal) eater will never eat nonkosher (or nonhalal) food, but a nonkosher eater isn’t banned from eating kosher. Or, rephrased in another domain: A disabled person will not use the regular bathroom, but a nondisabled person will use the bathroom for disabled people.

Taleb suggests a hypothetical family of four in which the daughter refuses to eat any genetically modified food. Because of the preference of 25% of the family, the other 75% will go non-GM just to make life easier. When the family goes to a barbecue with a group of friends, if the preference is held (and communicated) with sufficient conviction, everyone at the barbecue will eat non-GM too. Gradually the practice spreads, to the local shop, to the wholesaler, and so on. This is the principle which explains why 70% of New Zealand lamb imports are halal, in a country with a Muslim population of only 3 or 4%.

Similarly, if a business meeting takes place between nineteen Germans and one Japanese person, the entire meeting will be conducted in English. This is a classic expression of the minority rule, and it is all the more interesting because you might assume, if you were a visiting alien, that the language being spoken was the preference of the majority. Flexible majorities, however, are much less influential than intransigent minorities. That’s why revolutions happen. It’s why Islam spreads through marriage, while secularism doesn’t. It’s why Roger Scruton got fired recently. It’s why the church grew so rapidly under the Roman empire, and—more controversially—why it hasn’t been growing so rapidly (at least in the West) for a long time now. It’s why a tiny group that cares a great deal about blasphemy shapes public discourse far more than a very large group who don’t feel that strongly about it. We could go on.

I’m supposed to use this space to think about theology (or at least to look like that’s what I’m doing), so here’s my thought: what if the Corinthian letters comprised an appeal to a flexible church to become a more intransigent minority? What would that mean for our exegesis? For Pauline ethics? For life in the twenty-first century?

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The Book On Singleness That Everyone Should Read

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The past decade has seen the publication of lots of great books on sexuality, and yet good books on singleness have remained few and far between. (Interestingly almost all those that have been published in recent years have been by women and for women. Single men seem to have been rather overlooked.) Given this situation, I was really excited to hear that Sam Allberry was publishing a book on singleness - 7 Myths about Singleness - and it hasn’t disappointed.

As the title suggests, the book tackles seven myths about singleness which are common among Christians today. There are lots of reasons why I’m grateful for 7 Myths about Singleness. Sam writes in a way which is engaging and easy to understand. His use of illustrations and humour is brilliant. He is thoroughly biblical, while also speaking from his own experience, with real honesty and vulnerability. But above all of these, there are three reasons why I’m especially grateful for this book and why I think every Christian should read it.

The call to find satisfaction in Jesus

The best thing any book can do for us is to cause us to love Jesus more and to increase our determination to find true satisfaction in him. 7 Myths about Singleness is about singleness, but it’s almost more about Jesus because Sam helps us to see that finding satisfaction in Jesus should be our ultimate goal whether we are married or single. At the same time, he doesn’t ignore our need for intimacy and family, but recognises that these are ultimately all subsidiary. If we don’t find fullness of life in Jesus, we will never find fullness of life. As I read the book, I found Jesus more attractive and my desire to find satisfaction in him grew. That alone would be reason to read it.

The positive portrayal of singleness

Christian books and talks about singleness are often presented as advice on how to cope with an unideal – or worse, terrible – situation which, it is assumed, you will obviously be wishing you were not in. This is a radically different starting point to that of the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul presents singleness as a good gift, which is actually even preferable to marriage. As Sam observes, we tend to define singleness as the absence of something (a spouse), a negative perspective, but Paul describes it as the presence of something (the opportunity for undivided devotion to the Lord), a positive perspective. 7 Myths about Singleness presents singleness as a good gift to be enjoyed and celebrated. It starts where the New Testament starts.

The acknowledgment of the challenges of singleness

And yet this positive perspective doesn’t mean that the very real challenges of singleness are overlooked. The book presents the blessings and the challenges of singleness, without letting the balance be tipped in the wrong direction. The final myth Sam tackles is the myth that singleness is easy. Many singles will find that what Sam shares here will resonate deeply with their experience, and many who have long been married will find that this chapter helps them to better understand some of the challenges facing their single friends. Here too though, Sam helps us see that the ultimate answer is always to find our satisfaction in Jesus.

I’d say that 7 Myths about Singleness is now the book on singleness that every church leader ought to read. (And every church leader who’s ever read a book on marriage ought to read a book on singleness!). It’s a book that every Christian single should read to be encouraged and spurred on as they seek to enjoy the gift that God has given them. And it’s a book that anyone who knows a Christian single should read. So I guess maybe it’s just a book that everyone should read!

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Dare to be a Mowgli

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The Jungle Book is one of those classics that has, until recently, passed me by. I've seen the Disney cartoon version, of course, but the following scene isn't in it - though the wily tricks of Kaa appear elsewhere. This is how the book tells it.

It comes after Mowgli has been captured by the Bandar-log monkeys, and Baloo, Bagheera and Kaa have formed an unlikely alliance and rescued him:

The moon was sinking behind the hills and the lines of trembling monkeys huddled together on the walls and battlements looked like ragged, shaky fringes of things. … Kaa glided out into the centre of the terrace and brought his jaws together with a ringing snap that drew all the monkeys’ eyes upon him.

“The moon sets,” he said. “Is there yet light to see?”

From the walls came a moan like the wind in the tree-tops: “We see, O Kaa!”

“Good! Begins now the Dance—the Dance of the Hunger of Kaa. Sit still and watch.”

He turned twice or thrice in a big circle, weaving his head from right to left. Then he began making loops and figures of eight with his body, and soft, oozy triangles that melted into squares and five-sided figures, and coiled mounds, never resting, never hurrying, and never stopping his low, humming song. It grew darker and darker, till at last the dragging, shifting coils disappeared, but they could hear the rustle of the scales.

Baloo and Bagheera stood still as stone, growling in their throats, their neck-hair bristling, and Mowgli watched and wondered.

“Bandar-log,” said the voice of Kaa at last, “can ye stir foot or hand without my order? Speak!”

“Without thy order we cannot stir foot or hand, O Kaa!”

“Good! Come all one pace nearer to me.”

The lines of the monkeys swayed forward helplessly, and Baloo and Bagheera took one stiff step forward with them.

“Nearer!” hissed Kaa, and they all moved again.

Mowgli laid his hands on Baloo and Bagheera to get them away, and the two great beasts started as though they had been waked from a dream.

“Keep thy hand on my shoulder,” Bagheera whispered. “Keep it there, or I must go back—must go back to Kaa. Aah!”

“It is only old Kaa making circles on the dust,” said Mowgli; “let us go”; and the three slipped off through a gap in the walls to the jungle.

“Whoof!” said Baloo, when he stood under the still trees again.” Never more will I make an ally of Kaa,” and he shook himself all over.

“He knows more than we,” said Bagheera, trembling. “In a little time, had I stayed, I should have walked down his throat.”

What a powerful picture of the wiles of the enemy and the importance of Christian community when temptation is luring us closer and closer to our doom.

I love that it wasn’t powerful rhetoric, reasoned argument or a carefully-worded tweet that brought Baloo and Bagheera back, but the touch of a clear-sighted friend.

And I love Mowgli’s confident, scornful assessment of the evil one’s ploys, “It is only old Kaa making circles on the dust.” It reminds me of the story of Smith Wigglesworth who, on being woken in the middle of the night to see the devil sitting on the end of his bed, reportedly said “Oh, it’s only you!”, then turned over and immediately went back to sleep.

When we’re being lured from the path of righteousness, or subjected to spiritual attack, we all need a friend who will lay a hand on our arm, remind us it’s only that old snake, who has been defeated already, and lead us away.

Who needs you to be a Mowgli for them today?

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Follow the Money

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A few months ago I heard a genuinely shocking statement at a leadership conference for pastors. The individual was saying that he wanted people in his community to think of his church before any others in the local area, and said quite matter-of-factly, "I'm after market share. And I don't apologise for that." I have no idea whether anyone else in the room was troubled by it (though I hope so); I certainly was, and it has come back to trouble me on and off ever since. What sort of pastors (or churches) are we, when someone can use the language of market-based competition to describe partnership in the gospel, and think nothing of it?

Recently, however, I heard a provocative lecture by Carl Trueman entitled “Follow the Money,” which gives a helpful perspective on this (presumably not unprecedented) phenomenon. Trueman channels Marx, Freud and others to make the case that there is a tension between the catholicity of the Church, and the way in which seminaries—his immediate audience for the lecture—market themselves. And it struck me as I listened to it that many, if not all, of the points he raises are also applicable to churches, denominations and families of churches. If you want to understand the competitive nature of modern seminaries (and alas, as in the case of the pastors conference I mentioned, churches), you have to read a bit of Marx and follow the money.

Trueman identifies a number of ways in which this tension plays out, and you can listen to the lecture here. Here’s my quick summary.

First—and this will not have escaped the notice of most people who have attended a few vision and values courses, or even read a few church websites—there is an ecclesial version of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences:

Free markets demand distinctives, for the purpose of protecting market share, and perhaps annexing areas of the market held by others ... So a potential contradiction exists between a shared confessional theology, and a competitive marketplace relationship. And that, I think, manifests itself in a sometimes subtle, but definite, subversion of the catholicty of the confessions by the emergence and marketing of distinctives that are only of intra-confessional importance. In other words, it is in seminaries’ interests to bring that which is actually a minor difference, tolerated within the bounds of the confession, and place it centre stage, in order to say: you need to study here because this is the really important thing.

Second, there is a tendency for all institutions to exaggerate the significance of their own “bigwigs” in contrast to everyone else’s. That is not necessarily sinful, and it may well be inevitable, but it is important not to believe your own propaganda. If you live in a small bubble, then your leading lights loom very large. If you live in a big one, they get a lot smaller.

Third: intellectual incest breeds idiot children. If you only read people from within your own tradition, you become stultified, narrow and ultimately harmed. (My enthusiasm for this point will probably not be news to anyone who has read this blog for a while.)

Fourth: at times, the seminary’s commitment to serve and resource the local church is merely rhetorical. Trueman brings some pretty striking challenges to the students here (particularly since he’s speaking at a seminary!): How often do seminaries allow themselves to be thrown under the bus to protect the local church, rather than the other way around? How many of your professors are serving on the kids ministry or cleaning rotas in their local churches? How many of you are?

Fifth: the wages of debt is spin. Seminaries were originally there for the purpose of training men for pulpit ministry. But as seminaries expanded, their costs increased, which means their income streams had to expand, which means that “the need for numerical expansion presses in hard. The most obvious way of expanding income streams is to recruit more students … More students means more degree programmes.” But this raises important questions. The multiplication of degree programmes does have ministry implications; if 80% of the students at a seminary are not training for pastoral ministry, it will obviously shape the culture and balance of the institution. It will affect what is taught, how often, who is hired, the focus of the seminary as a whole, and how the church is served by all this. Trueman also raises some sticky moral questions about the marketing of seminary degrees that will make the students (and perhaps their churches) poorer, through fees and the consequent debt. Admittedly, it is good that people want to learn more about the Bible—“but the people making that argument aren’t the people paying for that, they are the people being paid because of that.” Ouch.

As I say, his immediate context is that of a seminary, although I suspect that most of these points apply, mutatis mutandis, to churches. It’s a really fascinating lecture, and applicable to people who are involved in pastoral leadership, hosting conferences and running training courses (or, in my case, all three). Follow the money.

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Lessons from ‘Eighth Grade’

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I’ve recently seen a lot of references to university students as “millennials.” Conferences, news articles, podcasts, all claiming to want to reach students and referring to them as millennials. As one of the student leaders at my local church, it makes me want to start wearing a T-shirt saying “Millennials are all working adults now.” The students in your universities and churches are now Generation Z, born from around 1996 onwards. They grew up differently to me (a quintessential millennial in that I remember 9/11 but not the Berlin Wall and I’m big on brunch) and their generation’s traits are, as a result, also very different. They were born in a different era and rarely have I seen that era so acutely understood or represented as in the film Eighth Grade.

Eighth Grade, as the name suggests, is about an American teenager, Kayla, in her final week of middle school (aged 13, for fellow Brits) and looking forward to a new school and, perhaps, a new her. She’s shy, socially awkward and unable to connect with her peers, who she sees as more attractive and more confident. For anyone else who was an awkward 13-year-old, the film should probably come with a warning for traumatic flashbacks. We get a glimpse of one week in the life of a modern teenager and, well… good luck parents.

Director Bo Burnham (initially famous for YouTube videos and vines) has made an auspicious debut feature, dragging us into the world of the modern teen and showing us an unfiltered look at their lives and longings. It’s painfully funny, eking laughs from the excruciating sight of a teacher dabbing to a sincere Dad who always walks in at the most awkward moments. It should put to rest the snobby British attitude that we’re the only ones who do sophisticated cringe comedy. Beautiful close-ups, tactical use of slo-mo and a score that sometimes sounds like a horror film all make the rhythms of Kayla’s everyday life seem inherently cinematic.

This is very much a film about now and every beat feels real. From the slang-peppered dialogue to the omnipresence of phones, Burnham clearly understands the people he’s depicting. This isn’t, however, some boomer’s rallying cry against social media; it’s simply a human story set in a world where you can’t avoid it. Burnham displays the one trait I value above all others in a director: empathy. He clearly cares about the characters in his story, when it would be all too easy to judge or dismiss the next generation.

Elsie Fisher, a relative newcomer in the role of Kayla, is the key that unlocks this empathy. The film hangs on her performance, often lingering on her face as the dialogue or action happens off-screen. It’s all about how she reacts to it, her forced smiles and shifting eyes conveying a wealth of emotion. The audience immediately invests in this confused, scared, determined young girl; my friend texted me after seeing it saying she just wanted to tell her that it would all be OK.

Even though Burnham doesn’t judge his young cast of characters, he still paints a stark picture of the challenges of growing up today – one that any youth worker, student leader or parent would do well to pay attention to. Students at university today started secondary school in 2011, by which point social media and smartphones had already entrenched themselves in society. There’s real insight here into the role that technology plays in the lives of Gen Z – perhaps borne from Burnham’s own online fame.

Kayla slips between different personalities with an ease afforded by the digital era. She projects herself as a confident, wise person on her YouTube page that nobody watches, then shrinks into herself the moment she enters the school corridors. I remember Christian camps when I was kid telling us not to be a different person at school than we were at church on Sundays. Today the challenge for everyone, not just Gen Z, is negotiating the multiplicity of lives on offer to us. The problem, however, is more pressing for the youngest generation, because the world of Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube – all inherently curated, controlled and visual media – is all they’ve ever known.

I’m not (and nor is Burnham) encouraging panic about “youth these days.” But awareness of what it’s like to be a teenager in the ’10s is essential if we’re going to contextualise faith and godly living to them. Kayla is exposed to violence (she trains for how to respond to a school shooting) and sex, adult ideas that she should be shielded from; the teenage boys in her life are sexually aware and demanding it from the girls they know. There’s also the anxiety she feels, which to me feels like one of the defining traits of Gen Z. Unless we know how to speak into these traits without coming across as the awkward dabbing teacher, only half understanding the culture he’s trying to reach, then we risk losing them.

Eighth Grade is an excellent place to start. Its empathetic voice is one that gives us an on-the-ground view of Gen Z life, making it perhaps the first great film that is truly of this generation. Watch it anyway, as it’s one of the best films of the year so far, but watch it with an eye to understand the future of the country and of the church. It’s no good to keep grumbling about millennial culture or strategising to reach millennials – that ship has sailed. The focus now should be on the youth and the university students of a tech-savvy, short attention-spanned, high-anxiety, deeply passionate generation who are growing up in a world where they’re told to form their own identity but given no framework in which to do that.

Fascinatingly, Kayla openly admits to believing in God and she prays at one point – a prayer that is mercifully answered. It’s fascinating, to me, that amidst all of the confusion and the anxiety that is adolescence, prayer marks the turning point for Kayla. Another facet of Generation Z identified by polls and writers is an increased openness to spirituality. Time to pray.

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Basic Instincts, Changing Habits

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One of the characteristics of our era is to judge the past by the standards of the present: this has been especially the case in the verdicts – legal and social – handed down to showbiz figures from the 70s & 80s. The inverse of this is an assumption that people in the past held the same values as we now do, so every movie or TV depiction of an earlier age always features some kind of woke storyline and character.

But the past is a different country.

John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism is one of those books that I seemed to be underlining more passages in than not. But in all the noteworthy arguments, comments and observations Gray makes, one small aside leapt out at me,

[William Empson] won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge…He was expelled in 1929 when one of the college porters found condoms in his rooms and his name was removed from the college books.

Today I would imagine you would be more likely to be expelled from a Cambridge college for not having condoms in your room. And this less than one hundred years ago. Mark Regnerus (Cheap Sex, OUP, 2017) observes that,

Whereas not long ago conservatives policed discourse concerning human sexuality, today liberal voices have replaced them. The only thing that has remained constant is the presence of policing.

This is an astute observation and applies obviously when it comes to attitudes towards LGBT+ issues. But, Regnerus argues, the focus on LGBT+ issues are simply an overflow of larger socio-sexual changes, primarily the introduction of the Pill in 1960 and the ubiquity of high quality (sic) porn.

Regnerus’ theory, backed up by extensive research, is that these technological developments have driven an extraordinary change in sexual behaviours. Whereas previously women were the gatekeepers of sexual access and sex was expensive – requiring men to demonstrate considerable commitment – the Pill made sex cheap. Suddenly sex became available in a way it hadn’t previously because of the severing of sex from conception. Modern dating technology and hook up culture accelerates this as men can keep swiping right until they find someone willing to have sex with them. And then there is porn, which makes sex as cheap as it possibly can be – a high-def, solitary experience requiring no cost or commitment.

The impact of porn is huge but so often overlooked by sociologists, either because of (on the right) freedom of speech priorities, or (on the left – which is where most sociologists sit) a commitment to freedom of sexual expression. Remarkably a recent large-scale survey of sexual behaviour that reveals declining rates of sexual activity in the UK (at least as reported by the BBC) makes no reference to the possible effects of pornography.

Cheap Sex is a rather depressing read: painting as it does a picture of a world in which most women still desire a stable, long-term relationship, but increasingly give sex away too cheaply; which means that men no longer work at commitment because they do not need to in order to gain access to sex; and in which more men are actually less confident in their interaction with women because of their exposure to porn. Regnerus concludes that the ‘Genital Life’, as he terms it, ‘is misanthropic, ultimately anti-woman, and not sustainable.’

As well as being a fascinating social study, Cheap Sex raises many questions that should be considered by policy makers – and that have ramifications for the mission of the church. Regnerus claims the evidence of his research is that, ‘Societies that disregard monogamous norms undermine their own long-term interests.’ This means that policy makers would be wise to do all they can to reward and encourage marriage, but such wisdom seems to have deserted the corridors of power. The larger challenge, however is technology,

We overestimate how effective scientific arguments are at secularizing people. Narratives about science don’t secularize. Technology secularizes. And sex-related technology does so particularly efficiently.

The challenge for the church is how to build communities that are robust enough to stand – and withstand – changing sexual technology: to re-establish the link between sex and conception, to minimise the impact of porn, to foster monogamy: in short, to make sex expensive again. And we need to tell a better story about sex, one that demonstrates to those caught in Tinder and porn secularism that godly life is more satisfying than genital life. That is the discipleship challenge of our day. The evidence is that at the moment we are not doing very well in it. Our habits need to change.

 

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Pushing our Luck

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We (well, Andrew) have not been very good at political predictions on Think, but here goes. As the 'probably' has now become 'certainly' and two weeks today the UK will be taking part in European elections, I offer some predictions - no opinion, simply prediction. Andrew is free to offer different odds.

1. These elections will essentially be a re-run of the 2016 referendum and the vote will again be split fairly evenly between Leave and Remain.
2. The Remain vote will be split between the Lib-Dems, Greens, Change UK, and - to some extent - Labour.
3. The Leave vote will unite behind the Brexit Party as UKIP is now seen as an irrelevance and the Tories as unable to deliver Brexit.
4. The Brexit Party will thereby win most of the UK seats in the European parliament and will join a large number of MEPs from populist parties in other European nations - these will combine to do all they can to destabilise the institutions of the EU.
5. At that point Theresa May will at last be forced to resign.

See you on May 24th for the reckoning!

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The Mirrors of the Ministering Women

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"[Bezalel] made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting." - Exodus 38:8

This is one of those tiny verses that has slipped past my attention on every previous reading of the (somewhat tedious) detailing of the construction of the tabernacle, but which rewarded a little thought.

The first thing I noticed was that, apparently, there were ‘ministering women who ministered’ at the entrance of the tent of meeting. As I’m sure you’ll remember, the Tent of Meeting was where Moses used to sit (with Joshua) and meet with God (Ex 33:7-11), while all those who sought God waited outside. Everyone else, who wasn’t interested in being close to God that day, stood at the doors of their tents until Moses was safely inside. But only this verse tells us of the ‘ministering women who ministered’. What did they do, I wonder, at the entrance to the tent of meeting? Were they ministering to people’s physical needs, supplying them with food and water throughout the day? Or was it more the spiritual needs they took care of, moving among the crowds, praying for people, perhaps giving a prophetic word here and there? My guess is it was a bit of both.

But the amazing, wonderful, glorious thing is that they were there. God didn’t have to appoint them or call them or compel someone to rouse them. They went, as have women down the ages since, because they wanted to be near the presence of God, ministering however they were able. Think of Anna in the temple when Jesus was born. Think of the Marys and others supporting Jesus financially and rising as soon as it was light on the day after the Sabbath to go and tend to his body in the tomb. Jesus had to tell Peter, Andrew and Matthew to follow him, the women just quietly got on and did it.

Secondly, these women had mirrors. I had no idea mirrors existed in those times. Clearly they were just made of very shiny bronze, not glass, but still, that’s quite some sophisticated metalwork to create something you could usefully use as a mirror. I imagine they were reasonably valuable. And they gave them up for the tabernacle.

God just said he wanted bronze for the wash basin, but these women decided to give their finely crafted, burnished bronze mirrors for the job. All the gifts given for the building of the tabernacle were costly – this was sacrificial giving, so we shouldn’t be surprised. But think of what it meant - these women would no longer be able to make sure they looked good in the morning. They would no longer be able to check if they measured up to ‘er next door, or make sure they’d concealed that ugly blemish properly. Tim Keller’s little book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness points towards what is going on here. Once we are caught up in love for and worship of God, those things that once seemed so important – like making sure we look good – fade away. Seeing ourselves matters less than seeing God and pouring ourselves out for him. These women gave up something of their very identity in worship.

Thirdly, they gave up that which was precious to them in order that someone else - Aaron and his sons - would be able to be cleansed in order to offer sacrifices and enter into the presence of God. That is true sacrificial giving. The women had been faithfully ministering at the tent entrance for goodness knows how long. The rest of the Israelites showed up if they needed something, or otherwise went about their daily lives, while these women ministered to others and to God day after day. They could never enter directly into his presence, but gladly gave even more of themselves to enable others to worship.

These women could have felt resentful about being excluded from the holy place, about not being invited into the sanctuary. But through their selfless generosity they made it possible for Aaron and the priests to offer sacrifices, which atoned for their sins and the sins of Israel. So they did ultimately benefit, and more importantly, they made it possible for the whole nation to benefit! They gave up something that had enhanced their outward beauty and cleanliness, and in doing so revealed their inner beauty, and were able to be inwardly cleansed.

Beautiful.

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Pagliatelle

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Camille Paglia’s Provocations is not as good as the outstanding Free Women Free Men, which I reviewed last year, but it is full of punchy analysis nonetheless. As the title implies, there is plenty to be provoked, challenged or even infuriated by, and the fusion of contrarian perspectives and excellent prose makes it a compelling read for the most part. Here are ten striking quotations, on subjects ranging from religion and education to feminism and art.

On the religion taught at university:

Perhaps the most pressing issue is not whether religion belongs in the university curriculum but rather what religion is already being taught now to college students coast to coast in the US. And that religion, I submit, is a toxic brew of paternalistic neo-Victorian philanthropy and dogmatic political correctness—a sanctimonious creed promulgated and enforced with missionary zeal by a priestly caste of college administrators and faculty censors in unholy alliance with intrusive federal bureaucrats.

I want the great world religions taught in every school. Secular humanism has reached a dead end—and any liberals who don’t recognise that are simply enabling the worldwide conservative reaction of fundamentalism in both Christianity and Islam.

On blurbs:

Pre-publication endorsements have long outlived their usefulness. No informed person takes them seriously because of their tainted history of shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole. A string of breathless blurbs on a book is ultimately counterproductive, since it betrays the publisher’s lack of confidence in the project, as well as the tin ear and general ineptitude of the publicity department. And the luminaries who turn out inflated blurb after blurb are hacks who give prostitution a bad name.

On feminism:

Treating women as more vulnerable, virtuous or more credible than men is reactionary, regressive, and ultimately counterproductive.

Feminism inextricably identified itself with abortion—with termination of life rather than fertility.

On “sex changes”:

It is certainly ironic how liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warming ... flee all references to biology when it comes to gender ... The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body (except for blood) remains coded with one’s birth gender for life.

On drugs and transience:

Drugs melted defences and broke barriers, creating a momentary sense of unity with mankind and the world. They functioned as magic elixirs for the missing initiatory rituals in an increasingly transient society.

On astrology and the sixties:

The Sixties generation ... had been injected with a mystical sense of awe and doom about the sky. This is one possible reason for the sudden popularity and ubiquity of astrology, which for most of the twentieth century had been a fringe practice associated with eccentrics in Greenwich Village and West Hollywood.

On the importance of religion for art:

I would argue that the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion ... Knowledge of the Bible, one of the West’s foundational texts, is dangerously waning among aspiring young artists and writers. When a society becomes all-consumed in the provincial minutiae of partisan politics (as has happened in the US over the past twenty years), all perspective is lost. Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularised society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.

Progressives must start recognising the spiritual poverty of contemporary secular humanism and re-examine the way that liberalism too often now automatically defines human aspiration and human happiness in reductively economic terms. If conservatives are serious about educational standards, they must support the teaching of art history in primary school—which means conservatives have to get over their phobia about the nude, which has been a symbol of Western art and Western individualism and freedom since the Greeks invented democracy. Without compromise, we are headed for a soulless future.

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The Joy of the Father

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There was a buzz of excitement yesterday as the birth of baby Sussex, the first child of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, was announced. As I watched the news coverage, I was struck by the contrast in the two ways in which the birth was announced.

Following standard royal protocol, the birth was announced in London through a small notice placed on an easel in front of Buckingham Palace. This announcement was formal, restrained and understated. But yesterday, as an expression of Harry and Meghan’s desire to be different types of royals, the birth was also announced in a live statement from Harry himself. This announcement was full of joy and emotion. Harry beamed with the pride of a new dad, his heart clearly captivated by the wonder of the new life which had entered the world, and both his face and his words expressing the deep love, affection, and delight he was feeling for his son.

As I reflected on this, I was struck by how easy it is for us to think of God’s perspective on us being like the first announcement: formal, restrained, understated. We know he loves us, he must love us to have done what he has done for us, but there’s a measured distance in that love. And yet the reality is that the second announcement, Harry’s live statement, is a much better picture (though still a faint reflection) of God’s heart for us, his children. He’s a father who sees us, has compassion upon us, runs to us, embraces and kisses us (Luke 15:20). He rejoices over us with gladness, quiets us with his love, and exults over us with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17). He’s not far-off and distant, but lives inside of us, bearing witness with our spirits that we are his children, causing us to cry out ‘Abba! Father!’ Daddy! Papa! (Rom. 8:15-16).

In the joy of this new father, we see a small glimmer of the joy of the ultimate father.

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A Book to Read and Give Away

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The questions non-believers ask of Christianity tend to be predictable and repeated: what about suffering? what about science? what about sex? The way in which those questions are framed, however, morph with the cultural context from which they are asked, and this means books answering them can quickly feel out of date.

Step forward Rebecca McLaughlin and her book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.

McLaughlin ticks all the boxes for an author of a book on apologetics in our cultural moment: She is super-bright, with a PhD from Cambridge, and she is a she. She also happens to be a she who is same-sex attracted. This intersectionality means McLaughlin can discuss questions such as, ‘Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women?’ and ‘Doesn’t Christianity Crush Diversity?’ with an authenticity that probably communicates more effectively than similar answers provided by a middle-aged, male, pastor.

We’re going to be using this book as a conversation starter at our next exploring Christianity course at my church. If you’ve got the kind of friends who you might once have passed a copy of Mere Christianity or The Reason for God to but feel these don’t quite cut it culturally anymore, then Confronting Christianity could be for you - and for them. Buy it, and pass it on.

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The Gift of Procreation

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Last Saturday I took a two-hour Q&A session on ethics at a local training event: ask whatever you like and I’ll try and take a swing at it. Predictably, questions around IVF, surrogacy and contraception all came up.

Regular readers will be unsurprised that my answers were more in line with Matthew Lee Anderson than Wayne Grudem. But the thing about Q&A sessions is how they test a position – both reinforcing what is valid and exposing weaknesses.

I have been consistent in arguing that the primary purpose of sex is procreation, while also arguing its relational significance – sex is meant to result in babies, but is also vital in strengthening the marital bond between a couple. What I perhaps hadn’t seen quite so clearly was brought into focus by the questions I was being asked last week: that is, the way in which marital sex which is not procreative is still an affirmation of procreation.

This is because every time a husband and wife make love they are affirming and reaffirming their one-flesh union and the goodness of what that union is intended for. When children are born they are a gift to be received from God by the husband and wife. And then when the couple have sex it is an affirmation of the gift they have received. Understood properly, this connection between sex and procreation remains the case even for infertile couples. As Anderson writes,

Let’s say a couple knows they are infertile: the wife is missing ovaries. Even for such a couple, every act of intercourse has something to do with conception—even if by way of their knowledge of its absence.

Parenting can be hard, demanding work. When children are young it can be physically exhausting to parent them. When they are older it can be emotionally exhausting. This exhaustion is at least part of the reason why so many couples struggle to maintain a healthy love life, and why so many marriages are less joy-filled than they might be. When things are tough with the kids, sex is often the first thing that leaves a marriage. Choosing to repeat the act that led to the birth of these children then becomes a statement of gratitude and faith: even though parenting feels so hard at the moment, we are grateful for the gift we have been given, and affirm that again.

Sex need not always result in procreation but it should always affirm procreation. Sex isn’t just one more biological function – procreation is the point.

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Deliberate Ambiguity

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Paul says a number of ambiguous things, and some of us may wish he hadn't. But frequently his ambiguities are quite deliberate, designed to help us see how two apparently different things are both true. A classic example is his citation of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:16: "the righteous shall live by faith." Richard Hays explains:

In the Hebrew text of Habakkuk, God’s answer to the prophet is an exhortation to keep the faith: “The righteous one shall live by his faithfulness,” that is, the person who remains faithful will be rewarded in the end by God. The LXX, however, has reinterpreted the dictum as a promise about the character of God: “The righteous one shall live by my faithfulness,” that is, God’s own integrity in preserving the covenant with Israel will ultimately be confirmed. As Paul allows the quotation to reverberate into the text of Romans he elides the crucial personal pronoun, so that we hear only “the righteous one shall live by faithfulness.” Whose faithfulness? We are not told. The ambiguity thus created allows the echoed oracle to serve simultaneously as a warrant for two different claims that Paul has made in his keynote formulation of the gospel: in the gospel God’s own righteousness is revealed; and the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

Clever.

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Why We Need Philosophers

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Today there are local elections in much of the UK and in three weeks’ time we will again (probably) go to the polls to vote in the European elections. We haven’t been very good at making political predictions on Think (well, when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘Andrew’) but it seems highly likely that the traditional parties will take a hammering in the euro elections. In my region of the South West we have the rather delicious clash of Ann Widdecombe running for the Brexit party and Rachel-sister-of-Boris Johnson running for Change UK. I’m sure they will both get a lot more votes than their Conservative and Labour opponents.

Finding level-headed analysis of the Brexit process is not easy. It can seem that for far too many people the elephant has jettisoned its rider and reasoned Brexit discussion is almost impossible. So I was glad to come across this interview with Tom Simpson, a former Royal Marine and now an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford: he dissects our contemporary discontent with the intelligence and robustness appropriate to that CV.

The whole thing is worth watching, but for the Brexit bit check out the first five minutes of this clip:

Sometimes people ask why we need philosophers. I think Simpson helps provide an answer.

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Fashionable Evil

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Most of us think of "fashion" as referring to largely trivial things: the clothes we wear, music we listen to, TV shows we watch, and so on. But fashions may also include social phenomena, and even social pathologies, of a much darker nature, and that is something that pastors are probably aware of already (whether or not we use the word "fashion" to describe it). In a challenging article in The Times, Matthew Parris tells the story of such fashions within his own lifetime, from the Teddy Boys and flick-knives, to student riots, to skinheads and the Anarchist movement, to the Angry Brigade, right through to legal highs, self-harm by cutting, jihadism, waves of knife crime, and eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia.

To call these “fashions” is not to deny that there may be all kinds of social, political, financial, hormonal and psychological explanations for them as well. Nor, Parris insists, is it to trivialise them. Rather, it is to recognise that social pathologies often come in copycat waves which cannot be entirely explained without reference to the movement of the herd. Duelling with pistols became a craze in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (as you will know if you’ve seen Hamilton or read War and Peace), and not just because of social deprivation or political action. There was a phase fifty years after that when women would regularly faint, or have “hysterics.” Opium was a fashion for a long time in certain circles, just as many kinds of drugs are today. Riots beget more riots, whether they begin for just causes or not. And while it only represents a small part of the picture—and one which is very difficult to tackle directly—the same is true, Parris argues, of many waves of violence:

Grave and dangerous consequences may flow from pursuits that are as subject to fashion as the cut of your trousers. The young are especially susceptible and the young, including children, have an almost limitless potential for savagery. Murder and wounding lie much closer to the surface of civilised man than we like to believe.

Worth considering.

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The Missing Veil

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I've been reading 2 Corinthians in my devotions recently, and spending a fair bit of time in chapter 3, where Paul famously says that "when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed" (3:16). So it was beautiful to read Jackie Hill Perry's description of what happened when she arrived at work the day after being converted. Many of us have had similar experiences, I suspect, but we may not have expressed it quite like this:

I arrived at work the next day, a new creature. Though my soul was much different, my clothes were the same ... My best friend and co-worker Mike looked at me and said, “You look different.”

“What do you mean?” I said …

“I don’t know, man. You just look brighter.”

Maybe he noticed that the veil had been removed but didn’t know what to call it.

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Ex-Gentiles?

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In a passing comment in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul refers to the Corinthian believers as those who used to be Gentiles. Many translations obscure the connection—and I'm honestly not sure why—by rendering ἔθνη as "pagans" rather than "Gentiles" or perhaps "nations"; the ESV, which is the translation I normally use, goes for "pagans" on three out of four occasions in 1 Corinthians, but never anywhere else in Paul (??) If we avoid that slightly idiosyncratic decision, then 1 Cor 12:2 reads like this: "You know that when you were Gentiles, you were led away to mute idols, however you were led." There is a sense in which the Corinthians are ex-Gentiles.

In many ways that ought not to be surprising. Paul sees followers of Jesus as the circumcision (Rom 2:29; Phil 3:3), the seed of Abraham and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:29), the Israel of God (Gal 6:16), and as branches grafted into the olive tree of Israel (Rom 11:11-24). He repeatedly insists that there is no Jew nor Gentile, and that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything. In a sense, it would be odd if he did not regard Christians as ex-Gentiles, especially since he urges his converts not to live like the ἔθνη (e.g. Eph 4:17). Yet it may still jar with us, all the same. (It did with me, the first time I realised that’s what Paul is actually saying in 1 Cor 12:2). And if it does, I suspect it simply reveals the radicalism of Paul’s reframing of national and religious identity in light of Christ, and the extent to which we find it difficult to grasp, for all we affirm that the boundary line between Jew and Gentile has been destroyed.

This, intriguingly, amounts to supercessionism in reverse. It is not that Israel has been superseded by the Gentiles, leaving the Jewish heritage of the people of God behind (by no means!) It is, in contrast, that our Gentile heritage has been superseded up by our new Israelite one, as we are united both with Christ and with the whole Israel of God, past and future. When we used to be Gentiles, we used to worship idols. But now we are Gentiles no longer, we confess that Jesus is Lord by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).

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Becoming Ecclesiologically Attractive

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Many of us are aware, and deeply concerned, about the lack of young people in our churches. While there are no doubt churches who buck the trend, in general, the UK church is ageing. In 1980, 46% of Sunday church attenders in England were aged under 30. By 2000, that figure had dropped to 35%, and by 2015 it was down to 26%.1

The trend is deeply concerning. As someone who has a few years left in that age group, I sometimes wonder what the church will be like when I reach my later years. On one level I’m not concerned; Jesus is not going to stop building his church (Matt. 16:18), but I’m conscious that he builds his church, in part, through us. We can’t just sit back and let him get on with it.

I’m sure there are many diverse and complex factors which have contributed to this demographic shift, and I’m sure there are lots of things we should be thinking through as we respond, so I was really intrigued by a brief discussion of the topic on Preston Sprinkle’s podcast, Theology in the Raw (which, as it happens, is probably my favourite podcast).

In this episode (#734), Preston was talking with Drew Dyck. The conversation was primarily about Drew’s latest book Your Future Self Will Thank You and was a fascinating discussion about how insights from neuroscience can help us as we think about habits, addictions and sanctification. But they also briefly discussed another of Drew’s books, Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring Them Back. What stuck out to me most in this discussion was the suggestion that one of the reasons why so many young people have left the church and show no signs of coming back is an ‘ecclesiological unattractiveness’. That is, the way we aim to appeal to people through how we do church can actually have the effect of repelling the younger generation.

The meeting-centred ecclesiology which developed in the church growth movement in the 80s and 90s, where the bulk of energy is put into pulling off a good Sunday gathering, with a high value placed on excellence in production, isn’t attractive to the younger generation. Drew notes that when an older person walks into a slick, well produced Sunday meeting, they think, ‘Wow! These guys must be doing something right’. But when a young person walks into that context, they think, ‘There’s corruption here. How are they doing this? Who is paying for this?’ If this is right, then the irony is that what many of us are doing to try and attract younger people, may in fact be putting them off.

The alternative, Preston and Drew note, is a focus on community. Everyone, and especially the younger generation, is looking for community. For those who have left the church, the catalyst for leaving is often a problem in relationship, and so it makes sense that relationship will be key to drawing them back.

So, if we want to be ecclesiological attractive to the generation who are currently woefully underrepresented in UK churches, the answer may not be to turn the volume up, invest in more lights, and make better use of multi-media. The answer may actually be a lot cheaper (financially, even if not in time). The answer may lie in fostering community: opening our homes, disrupting our diaries, loving others. And this shouldn’t really be a surprise to us. When Jesus talked about how we, as his followers, would be recognisable, it wasn’t about having the most well-rehearsed band or the best, fast-paced video notices, it was about love: ‘Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:34-35).

Footnotes

  • 1 These figures are taken from a report titled ‘The Ageing Church’ available from the Brierley Consultancy.

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More than a Metaphor

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It is not difficult to find metaphor in the burning of Notre Dame.

There have been fires in Paris for months now as every weekend the Gilets Jaunes protest the failings of the state. France, the proud republic, totters on the edge of financial and political chaos, presided over by a peacock president who promised so much but has delivered so little. The flames of Notre Dame speak of the larger crises engulfing the nation.

Or we could see it in more spiritual terms – that the burning of the cathedral is a metaphor for the hollowing out of Christianity in Europe in general, and in France in particular. The rise of secularism and the attendant rise of skyscrapers of commerce across European capitals seem to make ancient beliefs and ancient buildings redundant.

More hopefully, in the commitments already made to see Notre Dame rise again, we might detect the story of resurrection being told once more. How poignant that Notre Dame should burn in Easter week.

There is probably a measure of truth in all these metaphors: France is experiencing a measure of chaos that in many ways makes our British Brexit woes seem rather insignificant; Europe has largely abandoned faith in God for faith in finance and institutions; and – yes – there will be resurrection.

This Good Friday followers of Jesus are reminded that the events of Easter are not mere metaphor. The death and resurrection of Jesus are historical events with universal impact. The Cross is the pivot point of history and the hope of the world. At the Cross Jesus experienced de-creation in order to turn chaos to cosmos – from the mess of our sin to an orderly, harmonious, whole. He is the faithful servant who is building us into God’s house – like living stones we are being built into a spiritual house. The kingdom of God is breaking out and will fill the whole earth and Jesus will receive his inheritance.

All other empires, kingdoms and republics will fall. All power structures and physical structures have their day. But Christ will reign forever: death has been swallowed up in victory!

So this Easter we again join with all the saints in all the ages in all the world and say, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again!

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AI: It’s Time to Start Thinking

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a hot topic at the moment. Many of us are already interacting with AI every day, even if we are not really aware of it. AI is used in Sat Navs, social media feeds, digital assistants (such as Siri and Alexa), and online booking and payment systems, to give just a few examples. But developments in AI have already taken us far beyond these everyday examples and will continue to race forward over the coming years.

AI is a term used to describe non-human devices capable of performing tasks which we would describe as being based on intelligence or thinking. It is literally artificial (i.e. non-human) intelligence or thinking. The European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG) offers the definition: ‘Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to systems that display intelligent behaviour by analysing their environment and taking actions – with some degree of autonomy – to achieve specific goals.’ They note that this can take the form of software-based AI (e.g. digital assistants and search engines) or AI integrated with hardware (e.g. self-driving cars and robot vacuum cleaners). It is also helpful to distinguish between specialised or narrow AI, which is what we have now and is only capable of specific types of artificial-thinking, and general AI, in which AI would be able to mimic all human thinking. General AI is what we see in sci-fi movies where robots overpower humans, but it has not yet been fully developed.

Many of us will be grateful for the way that AI is already making our lives easier, and the potential for it to do good is considerable. For example, Google is partnering with developers who are using AI to create an early warning system for the potential of wildfires, and to diagnose cancer and diabetic retinopathy (which can lead to blindness). But AI could also be used to do harm (e.g. in warfare) and raises many ethical questions. These ethical questions are beginning to be recognised and various bodies, including Google and the EU, have started to release principles and guidelines for the use and development of AI.

As Christians we also need to think about these ethical questions, and we need to do so soon. The range of issues is vast: Is the development of AI safe and wise? Can AI be held morally accountable for its decisions and actions and, if not, who is accountable? Is sex with robots acceptable, and could sex robots be a good way to help those with sex addiction? Is it right to delegate the care of the elderly to robots? What will happen if robots replace many jobs? How will the economy work, what will we do with all our time, and will a life without work be fulfilling? Should AI have rights? And could AI have a relationship with God? If Siri or Alexa pray, does God listen and does he respond?

This week the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention published a contribution to this conversation in the form of an evangelical statement of principles on AI. The set of twelve pairs of affirmations and denials provides a good starting point for Christian interaction with the big issues, although given the format they are inevitably brief.  

What I particularly appreciate about the statement is the writers’ desire ‘to equip the church to proactively engage the field of AI, rather than responding to these issues after they have already affected our communities’. As Jason Thacker, creative director and associate research fellow at the ERLC, explains in an article accompanying the publication of the statement, the church has often done the latter (which is why we are still working out how to respond on the topic of sexuality while Western society has largely finished its debates on the topic, to give just one example).

The world is changing fast and technology is developing very fast. This shouldn’t cause us to be worried or fearful, but as God’s people we should seek to understand what is happening and to learn to view it within a biblical worldview. If we’re going to do that in relation to robotics and AI, now is the time to start.

You can read the full statement of principles on Artificial Intelligence from the ERLC here.

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Resistance Is Not Futile

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I got back from a trip to the US today and as I waited to be allowed off the plane scrolled through the BBC news feed. Just behind the arrest of Julian Assange and the latest Brexit developments was the story of rugby star Israel Folau. Folau, one of Australia’s best players, is facing the end of his career for social media comments about gay people.

According to the report Folau didn’t say only gay people faced the risk of hell – his comments seem to have been a more-or-less direct quote from 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and were equally comprehensive:

On Wednesday, he posted on Instagram that “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” should “repent” because “only Jesus saves”, and made similar remarks on Twitter.

An axiom I have borrowed from some of my American friends is that, ‘The gospel is offensive. Nothing else should be.’ This means that in speaking the truth of the gospel we need to ensure that if offense is caused it is because of the gospel, and not because we have been jerks. We see a good example of this in Acts 19 where the impact of the witness of Paul and his companions sparked a riot in Ephesus, yet the city clerk was able to say, ‘these men have not blasphemed our goddess.’ Clearly the gospel was causing offense but the believers had not set out to be offensive.

Sexual diversity is the goddess of our age (as I left Heathrow I passed a large poster advertising the forthcoming ‘Heathrow Pride’ day) and there doesn’t seem to be the same concern for those drunks, liars and atheists who may have been offended by Folau as there is for gays - and Donald Tusk has not lost his job for saying certain British politicians have a special place reserved in hell. But because the reality in which we live is that LGBT issues are the goddess we should not set out to ‘blaspheme’ this: we shouldn’t be provocative for the sake of it or crass in the things we say. Yet if we are to be faithful to the gospel we can’t go cutting out of it those parts that our culture finds most offensive.

The posture of Christians towards those in authority should be one of respect and submission (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2) but there comes a point when we are also meant to resist the authorities. That line is crossed when the authorities refuse the free declaration of the word of God. An example of this is when Peter and John are commanded not to speak about the gospel and reply, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’ (Acts 4:19-20).

Practically, I think this means we need to be wise in the way we speak (especially on social media) and not use Bible texts as battering rams. But if the authorities say we are not even allowed to quote scripture we have to resist and obey God rather than men. That might make resistance costly, but it won’t be futile – it is faithful.

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Love Thy Body

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It’s hard to deny that there has been a huge shift in secular morality over the past half a century or so. You don't have to think for long to come up with some examples.

Just over 50 years ago, abortion was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland and now around 200,000 abortions are performed in Great Britain every year. (For 2017, if abortions are added to the number of people who died, just over 25% of deaths in Great Britain were by abortion).1 Euthanasia and assisted suicide are still illegal in the UK but have been legalised in many countries and there are increasing calls for a change in the law here too, most recently in the legal case of Noel Conway. Sexual ethics have changed dramatically. Many more people are now more accepting of casual sex and one night stands and same-sex couples can now marry in England, Scotland and Wales. Our understanding of gender has also been radically altered. Since 2004, it’s been possible to legally change your gender if you meet certain criteria and there are some who are calling for these criteria to be removed completely. What can explain all these changes? How can things have moved so fast?

In her brilliant and insightful book, Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcey argues that all moral thinking is driven by underlying worldviews. And underlying secular ethics today is a worldview which sees a radical disconnect between the body and the true self.

Secular thought today assumes a body/person split, with the body defined in the “fact” realm by empirical science and the person defined in the “values” realm as the basis for rights.  This dualism has created a fractured, fragmented view of the human being, in which the body is treated as separate from the authentic self (p.14).

In the book, Pearcey shows that the origins of this split can be traced in the Western philosophical tradition and notes that, while many secular people wouldn’t talk in these terms, their opinions and actions show that they subscribe to it. In the subsequent chapters of the book, Pearcey demonstrates how this separation of body and true self can be seen in many of the big ethical issues of our time.

Abortion: We recognise that human persons have a right to life. Therefore, any acceptance of abortion affirms that it is possible for a foetus to be a living human being but not yet a person. When we choose a point after which abortion is not morally acceptable, we are stating that from that point on, and not before, the living human has become a human person with the right to life. Having a body alone does not guarantee that you are a person. The body and the true person are seen as separate from each other.

Euthanasia: If we agree that an individual should have the right to end their own life or to have their life ended, we are agreeing that they are no longer a person whose life ought to be protected.2 This will usually be explained by their being some criteria which have been met (such as unbearable suffering or a loss of autonomy) which automatically makes these criteria the basis for differentiating a person who has rights from just a living human being. Euthanasia affirms that having a living body is not enough to dictate that your life is worth preserving and protecting. The body and true person have been separated.

Hookup culture: Hookup culture celebrates the enjoyment of sexual activity with as little emotional connection as possible. The aim is to enjoy the physical experience of sex while keeping your true self distant from the other party. It therefore assumes a split between the body, which is involved in the sexual act and enjoys the physical pleasure it produces, and the true person, which is (meant to be) left to one side.

Same-sex sexual activity: Male and female bodies are structured to be counterparts to each other. This is most clearly seen in the fact that it always takes the involvement of a male and a female to reproduce. To engage in same-sex sexual activity and to make the experience of same-sex desire the source of personal identity is to say that the body should have no say on who we are as sexual beings. The structure of male and female bodies is separated from the personal identity and sexual practices of the true self.

Transgender: The perspective which encourages those who experience gender dysphoria and who identify as transgender to transition to live according to their internal sense of gender, preferences the internal, true self, over the external evidence of the body. The body and internal true self are separated, with the true self being given the casting vote.

Pearcey observes that the biblical worldview is radically different. The secular perspective sees a sharp separation between the body and the authentic self, and is strongly anti-body, while the Bible views humans as integrated wholes, with the body as a vital element of who we are. What we need, therefore, if we want to present the biblical perspective on these issues and if we want to disciple Christians to withstand the cultural tide, is to embrace, value and teach the biblical view of humans as a holistic union of body and soul. Rather than rejecting the body, we should love the body.

Footnotes

  • 1 There were 197,533 abortions in England and Wales and 12,212 in Scotland, a total of 209,745 for Great Britain as a whole. Not including abortions, there were 533,253 deaths in England and Wales and 57,883 in Scotland, giving a total of 591,136 deaths.
  • 2 Some I have talked to about this understanding have objected that consenting to someone’s own choice to end their life does not necessarily imply agreement that they no longer qualify as a person, rather it acknowledges their autonomy. This might be true if we thought that anybody should be able to request and receive help to end their life, regardless of who they are. However, the fact that nearly everyone agrees that there should be clear criteria which have to be met when euthanasia is requested and that we instinctively seek to prevent people from committing suicide show that we don’t really believe that anybody who chooses to do so should be free to or helped to end their life. We only believe that if certain criteria are met, and we thereby agree that those criteria mean they are no longer a person whose life is deserving of protection.

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25 Years of Grace

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Yesterday Mrs Hosier & I celebrated being married for 25 years. April 2nd 1994 was a typically British Easter Saturday, in which we seemed to have all the seasons thrown into one: bright sun, snow flurries, rain and wind all put in an appearance. And the clichés are true – these 25 years really have flown by. How did it all happen so fast?

The fact that I am married to a woman named Grace has been a frequent sermon illustration as well as a daily reality: I live with grace, sleep with grace, wake with grace, eat with grace, work with grace, play with grace. Grace is always there. Sometimes those of us who know grace really well fail to live in that reality though. We can know the doctrine but be anything but grace-filled in practice. Marriage can be like that too: living with someone, but not with someone.

An amazing thing about my Grace is that she has always pulled me closer into a true embrace of grace. In her personality profile she is high on adaptability and positivity. My StrengthsFinder coach friend tells me that being married to someone with these two traits is like hitting the jackpot. It means Grace is invariably enthusiastic about whatever it is we are meant to be doing. My personality strengths include ‘achiever-responsibility’, which my StrengthsFinder coach friend tells me is the classic burnout combo. Grace has helped protect me from myself. She reminds me that grace comes not from self-effort but is a gift. She is a gift.

I’m old enough now to have seen the marriages of too many people fall apart. Reaching the milestone of our silver anniversary is something too many others fail to experience. I’ve seen too many people make life incredibly complicated for themselves. Life is complicated: Grace and I have experienced that. We’ve had some testing things to deal with. But one of the graces on me is that my marriage has never been complicated. Grace has always been there, always been faithful, always been true – always been positive and adaptable. In a complex world she has made things simple.

There’s a lot to be said for simplicity.

Grace is simple – it comes to us undeserved and unearned. Grace gives us joy and confidence in our walk with God. Grace lifts us up, so we do not feel condemned.

Amazing grace!

Amazing Grace.

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The Value of Art

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It is often difficult to pin down the value of art. Most people would recognise that art, whether in the form of music, painting, writing, performance or something in between, is valuable. However, defining what that value is becomes tricky.

One answer that can be offered is that art is valuable primarily because it can communicate a message. For Christians, this is particularly appealing, as we have a message that we feel needs to be communicated urgently! From this point then, it can lead churches to encourage artists in their communities to produce work in line with this goal, but potentially neglect other practitioners whose work does not communicate the gospel so clearly.

Now art certainly has the potential to communicate a message very powerfully, but I think that it is a mistake to see this as the primary role of an artist. Therefore, it was recently my pleasure to have the chance to address a group of pastors and church planters on this very topic and give some pointers as to how, by understanding art better, we can welcome, support and disciple the artists in our churches more effectively.

Here’s my message, from the DNA Download training conference for urban church leaders and church planters that took place at Inspire church, Clerkenwell. 

A version of this post first appeared on the Catalyst blog.

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Handling Statistics

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Statistics can be really useful. For those of us who like to wrestle with cultural issues, they can be a great way of getting a gauge for what’s going on around us. But as well as being useful, statistics can also be dangerous; they are easy to misunderstand and easy to misapply. So here are a few lessons I have learnt to apply when I’m looking at and using statistics.

Look to the Sources

Most uses of statistics are not neutral. First, the form of the study itself can be biased (e.g. in the specific questions asked and the way the research is conducted). Second, journalists and writers can make careful choices to pick the figures which support their point or achieve their aim. What we read in newspaper reports or online articles is often only part of the story (other relevant figures are sometimes omitted) or are not completely accurate reports of the findings (such as ambiguity about the wording of questions actually asked). It is therefore important to look for the original source of the statistics. Even if an article doesn’t cite its sources, they are usually not too hard to find after a bit of searching.

For example, I was looking for stats on polyamory in the UK. I quickly found this article which claims that nearly one fifth of Brits are polyamorous. Later in the article, we are told that ‘Northern Ireland is home to the largest number of people in polyamorous relationships across all regions that were surveyed.’ These statistics surprised me, so I dug a bit further. When I looked at the source of the statistics I found that the survey actually asked, ‘Do you identify as polyamorous?’ This says nothing about whether the respondents are actually in a polyamorous relationship. I then spotted that the survey defined polyamorous as ‘being capable of having more than one romantic relationship’. So, the survey is not actually even about those who would commonly take this as an identity marker, despite how the question makes it sound, but is actually identifying those who think, perhaps hypothetically speaking, that they could live in a polyamorous relationship. So, to say that one fifth of the UK are polyamorous or to speak of people in polyamorous relationships on the basis of this data is rather misleading.

As a preacher, it would be easy to see this article and use the stats to decry the crumbling of traditional, Christian ethics in our nation, yet a little bit of digging reveals that the situation is probably far less serious. It’s important to look at the sources.

Look at the Methodology

It is also important to consider how the research was undertaken. What was the methodology used and is it likely to give accurate results? The reality is that most statistics, perhaps with the partial exception of those based on census data or exploring smaller groups, are estimates. Those performing the research do so with a certain number of people and then use those results to estimate what the results would be for a wider group of people, such as the population of the UK. This can be done well, and it can be done badly. To be done well, the sample group must be carefully chosen to reflect the wider group and the estimations must then take into consideration various factors to give a fair estimate of what the results would look like in the larger group.

So, for example, as I looked at the source of the stats on polyamory, I noticed that the original survey consulted 2000 UK adults, but I couldn’t find anywhere which said any more about the sample group. These statistics may therefore not actually offer a fair reflection of the UK as a whole (and, credit to them, they don’t claim it does). This led me to search a little further, and I quickly found stats about polyamory in the UK from YouGov (both a summary article and the survey results) for which I could also check the methodology. Here the methodology shows the use of a carefully picked sample and estimates that take into account relevant factors to give an estimate which is as accurate as possible. These figures are therefore much more likely to be reliable.

Look at the Detail

When you look at the sources, you are also able to look at the detail. Details, such as the exact questions that were asked (as in the example above) or how the data was collected, can be really important. Even summary articles about the data produced by those who conducted the research are not always fully accurate.

Good sources will also include warnings about where the data may be inaccurate and about possible factors which could change the results. For example, an ONS study which looked into personal wellbeing in relation to sexual identity found that ‘those who identify as gay or lesbian, or bisexual report lower well-being than the UK average for all personal well-being measures.’ However, they also note that earlier research has shown that you are more likely to identify as LGB if you live in London and that personal well-being is often lower in London. They therefore admit that there could be factors beyond sexual identity which are influencing these results. These little details are important.

Look at the Critics

Finally, it’s always worth checking whether there have been any responses to or criticisms of the stats. Obviously even if there are, we shouldn’t assume that the critics are right, but we should listen to what they have to say and seek to evaluate their assessment to the best of our abilities. This is particularly relevant for significant statistics which are commonly repeated as they are more likely to have been checked by other people.

So, for example, within the current debate about transgender, statistics showing very high rates of self-harm and suicide among people who identify as transgender are commonly used. However, some have looked into the studies and surveys behind these stats and offered thorough critiques of them (e.g. here and here).1 A good critique will help you look at the sources, methodology and the detail in order to evaluate the reliability of the stats. Another example is about the prevalence of intersex conditions. The figure 1.7% is commonly repeated and you can find various critiques and defenses of that stat. A quick look at these reveals that the reason for these different views is actually about the definition of intersex. So, rightly defined, it may be true to say that 1.7% of people are born with an intersex trait, but that does not mean that 1.7% of babies are born with truly ambiguous biological sex, as the stat might suggest to many. Thus, the critics remind us about the need for clarity when sharing these figures.

To Stat, or not to Stat

To be honest, as I’ve learnt more about handling stats well I have looked back with regret on several things I have taught and written. It is so easy for us to pick the figures which support the point we want to make before we have really checked whether they are reliable. Applying these principles will, it’s true, take a bit more time, and will probably mean that we are less often able to use statistics to aid our teaching. But if we’re not teaching the truth, then what’s the point anyway?

Footnotes

  • 1 On the topic of suicide in particular, the Samaritans have some useful advice about suicide reporting which is designed for the media but is also useful to preachers.

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A Sure Foundation

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The narration of the facts is history; the narration of the facts with the meaning of the facts is doctrine. “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” – that is history. “He loved me and gave Himself for me” – that is doctrine. Such was the Christianity of the primitive Church.

Although first published nearly a century ago J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism feels incredibly contemporary. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Despite the Second World War, the atom bomb, the sexual revolution, landing on the moon, the electronics revolution, and the digital revolution we are living in the modern world just as Machen was; albeit the late-modern world. Machen identifies the key cultural shift happening around 1850. This was the shift from a Western civilization that ‘was still predominantly Christian’ to one which is ‘predominantly pagan’.

Paganism as defined by Machen is,

That view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Very different is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.

Paganism refuses to acknowledge the reality and power of sin, which means that while Paganism can create much that is glorious (Machen cites ancient Greece) its foundation is rotten. By contrast, Christianity acknowledges sin,

But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him.

This is why we need doctrine! Doctrine enables us to build a sure foundation and then something glorious on top of it. At this stage in our cultural revolution it feels that the edifice of paganism is beginning to crumble and reveal its rotten foundation. Paganism simply cannot provide the answers we need to the questions raised by our quest for identity, value and love. Only the truth can. Yes, Jesus loved me and gave himself for me. That is a foundation on which to build our lives.

 

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Acts in 2,500 Words

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When I get to the end of preaching through a book of the Bible I find it helpful to go back and write a summary version of what it is all about. This Sunday I'm planning on finishing a series on Acts. I haven't managed to get my summary to 1,000 words (as I have previously with Romans, but here it is in 2,500.

Acts tells the story of Spirit Empowered Mission – the first 30 years of the history of the church. Dr Luke’s account opens, sometime around the years 30-33AD, with Jesus promising the disciples that they will be baptised in the Holy Spirit and receive power. They are to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

When the Spirit falls on the disciples on the day of Pentecost they are transformed. As they are empowered to speak in other languages God begins to fulfil His plan to reach all nations! Empowered by the Spirit Peter stands up to preach. There is a great response to his message. Because of the experienced reality of the transforming action of the Holy Spirit these disciples became devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The Lord was doing extraordinary things through the apostles – a man in his 40s, lame since birth, is healed when Peter commands him to stand up. This is great news for the man and draws a crowd. It also draws opposition and the religious leaders have Peter and John arrested. They threaten the apostles but don’t know what to do with them as no one can deny the miracle that has taken place.

The first church in Jerusalem find their sense of identity in who they are as the people of God. While everyone in Jerusalem had united in their determination to overthrow God’s rule by crucifying Jesus, the believers had been brought into relationship with God and with one another.

This is a company of people who know how to pray because they know who God is and so who they are. God is sovereign, the creator, the one who speaks, and who is working out his plan. Knowing this about God puts all other challenges into perspective. This is a company of people who look to God for boldness – not escape! And empowered by the Spirit they are able to witness to the truth boldly.

The Spirit-empowered community not only speak boldly but live boldly – everything is affected, even how they handle their money and possessions. Barnabas (“Mr Encouragement”) stands out as a particularly impressive example of generosity.

But not everything is perfect in this community. Ananias and Saphira want all the kudos of being known as extravagantly generous but without the cost. They knowingly seek to deceive – not only the apostles but God himself. Their deceit threatened the integrity of the entire community and has to be stopped in its tracks.

This is a community transformed by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit; that is growing rapidly numerically; that is characterised by signs and wonders; that grows deep rapidly too; and it is a church that is experiencing favour and opposition. The apostles continue to be threatened by the authorities and at one point are put in jail, only for an angel to set them free! The authorities keep threatening and the apostles keep preaching.

It is a model community for us, but not a perfect community. As they grew their pastoral administration was creaking and some in need were being overlooked.

They didn’t respond to this by easing back on mission but were honest in recognising the problems and put a system in place to help fix the issues. This meant increasing the number of leaders serving the church as deacons were appointed: faithful, Spirit-empowered men who were able to help pastor the people and release the apostles to the ministry of the word.

At this point the story takes a sudden twist as Stephen, one of those appointed as a deacon, is arrested. Just like all the rebels of the past the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem who claim to represent God are actually hardened in rebellion against him and they murder Stephen.

As Stephen is stoned for his bold proclamation of the truth another character emerges on the scene: Saul.

At this point of persecution the gospel begins to spill out beyond Jerusalem as Philip goes first to the Samaritans and then to an Ethiopian official.  And the story then jinks back to Saul…

On his way to Damascus to persecute the believers Saul has an encounter with Jesus. Everything changes for Saul when Ananias goes to him in Damascus. Ananias is afraid of Saul but is obedient to God and full of faith. As a result of Ananias’ visit Saul receives his sight; receives the Holy Spirit; and receives baptism to wash away his sins. These changes are costly for Saul and he needs a friend. Barnabas becomes that friend and an advocate for Saul with those who have every reason to be sceptical about him.

With the story of Saul beginning to run, Peter makes a reappearance in what is a crucial moment of gospel advance. Peter is acting in great power, performing extraordinary miracles including the raising of the dead. In response to a vision he goes to the home of the Roman soldier Cornelius. As Peter begins to speak Cornelius and his household are filled with the Spirit. They are then baptised in water and welcomed as full members of the household of God.

The action then shifts to a city called Antioch. Here there is another gospel advance as Jewish believers start to speak to non-Jews about Jesus. In response to the news of this the church in Jerusalem send Barnabas to Antioch to help in the mission. In turn, Barnabas searches out Paul and gets him to come along and help too.

It is in Antioch that the believers are first called ‘Christians’.

As well as Barnabas and Paul, some prophets come to Antioch from Jerusalem to help strengthen the church. But then the church in Antioch reciprocates by helping the church in Jerusalem financially.

The story than switches back to Jerusalem and ongoing persecution of the church. Herod has James, brother of John, executed, and puts Peter in jail. But once more Peter is sprung from jail by an angel. While Peter is set free God judges Herod and he drops down dead.

Back in Antioch there are many gifted prophets and teachers in the church and in response to the Spirit’s lead, the church sends Barnabas and Saul off on mission.

On reaching Cyprus, Saul – who is now known as Paul – blinds a sorcerer and leads a high official to faith. This double-sided account of people rejecting the gospel and others gladly receiving it is retold as Barnabas and Paul continue on their journey. In fact, the greater the joyful response of some the greater the hostile response of others.

In Iconium they discover a plot to stone them and get away but in the next town of Lystra Paul is stoned. Paul’s response to getting knocked down is to get right back up again, because, we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.

As well as a change in name there is also a change in team shape at this point as ‘Barnabas and Paul’ become ‘Paul and Barnabas’.

Having appointed elders in the churches they had started Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch and report on all that the Lord has done. The mission to the gentiles is going brilliantly but then some people come from Judea to Antioch and say that to be true Christians they need to live like Jews. In response Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others are sent to Jerusalem to work things out. Here they meet with Peter, James, and the other leaders and the verdict is that the gospel can never be ‘Jesus Plus’.

Paul and Barnabas then decide to head out from Antioch and revisit all the churches they had previously started. But this leads to a breakdown in their relationship as Barnabas wants to take his cousin Mark with him. Paul – with good reason – doesn’t trust Mark. Instead of going out together they head in opposite directions.

Having parted from Barnabas, Paul needs another friend and Timothy appears on the scene. In order not to hinder the mission to the Jews Timothy – whose mother is Jewish – is circumcised before setting out with Paul. Timothy is committed to the mission!

Paul and his companions Luke, Timothy and Silas keep pushing into new territory but the Holy Spirit keeps them from going where they thought they might. Instead Paul has a vision of a ‘man of Macedonia’ in response to which they get into a boat and cross from Asia to Europe. This is the next great phase of gospel advance.

In Philippi the Lord works through the apostles to reach some very different people. Businesswoman Lydia becomes the first convert to Christ in the continent of Europe. Then a demon-oppressed slave girl is set free at a word of command from Paul. This provokes a backlash as the owners of the girl lose her moneymaking fortune telling ability. As a result Paul and Silas are flogged and thrown in jail but during the night an earthquake sets them free. As a consequence of this their jailer, and all his household, turn in faith to Jesus. The tables are then turned on the city authorities as Paul and Silas reveal they are Roman citizens who should never have been treated in this shameful way. And the apostles walk out of the city with a humble swagger.

From Philippi Paul goes to Thessalonica and Berea, meeting with a mixed reception, and then on to Athens. In Athens Paul debates with the philosophers and demonstrates how to both contextualise and contend for the gospel. He is gracious, but clear.

Paul then comes to Corinth, the largest city in Greece. Aquila and Priscilla get added to the team here and Timothy and Silas muck in to free Paul up for the ministry. Paul is intimidated by Corinth but the Lord encourages him to be confident that he has ‘many people in this city’. Despite some real difficulties and opposition in Corinth the gospel bears fruit as Paul labours there.

After 18 months, along with Aquila & Priscilla, Paul leaves Corinth and heads to Ephesus, before travelling on to Caesarea, Jerusalem and back to Antioch.

While Paul is travelling, Priscilla & Aquila remain in Ephesus where they meet Apollos who becomes the next key member of the team. Apollos then goes to Corinth while Paul travels back to Ephesus.

In Ephesus Paul meets some disciples who are very confused about the basics of the faith. He instructs them, baptises them, and they are filled with the Spirit.

Once the Jews decide they no longer want Paul to teach about Jesus in the synagogue he carries on ministry at the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Through this ministry the whole of the province of Asia is intensively evangelised, with team members starting other churches in the region in cities like Colossae.

There is an upping of the spiritual temperature in Ephesus and extraordinary miracles take place. As a result of this the new believers burn all their old magical paraphernalia – worth a huge amount of money.

In the end the extent of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus is so profound it threatens all the religious and economic foundations of the city. As a result there is a near riot in the city stadium; and after three years of incredible ministry it is time for Paul once more to get on the road.

In the summer of AD55 Paul heads off, revisiting the churches he has previously founded, accompanied by friends who are the fruit of his ministry. He travels around, speaking many words of encouragement. After two years of this ministry Paul moves on again, setting sail from Philippi to Troas.

While in Troas Paul is on a tight schedule and preaches late into the night. A young man named Eutychus falls asleep as Paul preaches, drops out of the window, falls a couple of floors, and dies. Paul prays for him and Eutychus is raised to life.

Paul then travels on and arranges a meeting with the Ephesian elders in the port town of Miletus. When they join him he describes the sense of urgency he feels to get to Jerusalem and, while he does not know what will happen to him there, the dangers he anticipates. Come what may, Paul is determined to finish the race and urges the Ephesian elders to be similarly faithful.

Continuing on his journey Paul is warned of the dangers that face him by the prophet Agabus but despite the pleadings of his friends he is determined to continue to Jerusalem. Once he gets to Jerusalem Paul is advised by James and the other leaders to publicly demonstrate his Jewishness by taking part in certain rites at the temple. But even as he does so, Paul is spotted by some trouble makers who stir up a riot which leads to his arrest.

The commander who arrests Paul assumes he is an Egyptian terrorist but Paul then reveals his credentials: he is both a Pharisee and a Roman citizen. But over and above who he is by ethnicity, birth and training, Paul is a Christian! When he testifies before the Jewish council he provokes an uproar but the Lord draws near and tells Paul that he must testify in Rome.

Paul then stands trial before the Roman governor Felix, and spends two years as a captive until a new governor, Festus, is appointed. Paul then makes an appeal to Caesar and Festus determines he will be sent to Rome to have his case heard there. In the meantime King Agrippa wants to hear what Paul has to say and Paul proclaims to him the truth and reasonableness of the gospel.

Paul then begins his journey to Rome, but the ship he is being transported on is caught in a storm and then shipwrecked. Paul had foreseen this but the centurion guarding him, the ships pilot, and its owner had all refused to listen. As disaster overtakes the vessel Paul’s spiritual authority asserts itself and he takes command of the situation, ensuring everyone is looked after and encouraging all on board. Once washed up on shore, Paul is bitten by a viper but suffers no ill effects. Instead he sets about healing the sick on the island before another ship is found and they continue on their way.

Once in Rome Paul is held as a prisoner but is free to preach: for two years the gospel is proclaimed at the heart of empire, with all boldness and without hindrance!

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In Praise of Our MPs

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We have been remarkably silent about Brexit on Think – probably a welcome omission for most of you.

It is certainly the case that the government, civil service and parliament have all made an almighty horlicks of Brexit. None of these institutions of the state have come out well from the process and public trust of the politicians and mandarins is rightly at an all-time low. However, I think this is a moment to sing the praises of our MPs – for all their collective failings.

Over the past couple of weeks I have had correspondence with the MP in whose constituency our church building sits on the subject of euthanasia through the back door. I have also had correspondence with the MP for my home address about the persecution of Christians around the world. And last night one of my fellow elders showed me a letter from his MP responding to his concerns about Brexit. This is pretty remarkable considering how busy, distracted, and exhausted MPs must be at the moment.

Of course, it is this democratic accountability that is the very reason why many people voted for Brexit in the first place. When contacted by their constituents MPs tend to respond. They are available – and that proximity makes democracy feel much more meaningful.

So, despite the current, undeniable, mess of Brexit, let’s take a moment to be grateful for our MPs – maybe even drop a note to your MP saying that. I’m sure they could do with the encouragement.

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Stick to the Facts

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In the extraordinarily fast-moving story of the normalisation of transgenderism it has been noteworthy how intelligent, influential and powerful people have been too cowed to question the developing narrative.

The reasons for this are multi-layered and complex but largely seem to be rooted in the human desire for righteousness combined with a fear of being publicly shamed. Everyone wants to be declared righteous (something which of course is only possible through the work of Christ) and in our woke-world to question any item on the ‘progressive’ agenda is to put oneself outside cultural righteousness and be declared unclean. This is then combined with the very real fear of social-media trolling and potential career threatening collateral damage. So people just stay quiet – even when they are in a position to resist the tide.

This was always going to hit a crunch when it came to womens sport (as I first suggested on Think 4 years ago). The reality is that being born male confers significant physical advantages – not only to do with testosterone levels but longer limb length, larger heart capacity, higher haemoglobin levels, leaner muscle and so on. World track cycling champion and trans activist Rachel McKinnon is at the forefront of the movement arguing that transwomen have no advantage over biological females in elite sport. Of course, if this were true, so should be the reverse, that biological females are not disadvantaged when it comes to competing with men. But in no elite sport (with the possible exception of ultra-distance running) are women competing at the same level as men.

Martina Navratilova , tennis legend and gay icon, was the first high profile female sports star to break cover on this – only to be predictably pilloried and ostracised by the trans lobby. She has since been joined by boxer Nicola Adams (also gay), marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, swimmer Sharron Davies, and middle distance runner Dame Kelly Holmes. All have received an aggressive online response for stating their concerns, with McKinnon and others trying to organise their being silenced. This rather proves the point of the TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) who have argued that transwomen are simply another expression of men silencing women and colonising female space.

McKinnon has been lobbying athlete sponsors Specialized and Garmin to silence or drop Holmes. The irony of this should be clear as Specialized and Garmin work in an industry where facts rather than ideology are what counts. Those of us who ride Specialized bikes are concerned with the facts of how light, stiff and comfortable the frames are. And those of us who use Garmin’s products want accurate records of how far we have been, how fast, and for how long. It might be nice if my devices told me I was faster and fitter than I actually am, but I don’t want them to do that: I want the truth.

Of course, this is something we can do something about. If, like me, you are a Specialized or Garmin customer (or even if you are not) why not contact them expressing support for Kelly Holmes and asking them to stick to facts rather than be swayed by ideology. It is facts that wins them customer loyalty and the courage to stick to this would win them far more respect than distancing themselves from female athletes who are raising legitimate concerns.

You can email Specialized here: ridercare-uk@specialized.com

And Garmin here: garminpressoffice@golin.com

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The Gift of Sleep

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I love sleep! Apparently, today is World Sleep Day, so it seems an appropriate opportunity to celebrate the gift of sleep.

The World Sleep Society, organisers of World Sleep Day, describe the day as ‘a celebration of sleep’ – which has inevitably led to tweets about  sleeping animals, sleeping positions, some nice sleep-related quotes, and this pleasingly perfect photo - but it’s also ‘a call to action on important sleep issues’. and our devaluing of sleep really is an issue.

There’s a widespread belief in the modern world that sleep is a frustrating intrusion into each day which cuts down the amount of time we have to do the really important things. Asked in an interview about how he likes to relax, actor James Franco replied ‘I don’t even like to sleep—I feel as if there’s too much to do’, and the ever-competitive POTUS once said, ‘How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?’ We admire those who (out of choice) sleep for only four or five hours a night and those who get up before dawn every day to go to the gym. As Christians, we praise heroes of the faith in past generations who got up very early to pray (forgetting that they probably went to bed much earlier than we do too!)

But sleep is not a frustrating intrusion. It’s a wonderful, necessary gift. In his fascinating book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker offers this advertisement for the power of sleep:

Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?’

These facts, he says, are supported by over 17,000 scientific reports, some of which he goes on to talk about. The advertisment would not be inaccurate. Sleep is a gift from God designed to strengthen, repair, protect and bless us. It’s far from a frustrating intrusion into our days.

But sleep is also a gift in what it teaches us. For many in the modern world, we don’t like sleep because it stops us doing things which we feel are important, important either to ensure our well-being (like earning more money to have more stuff) or our identity (like earning more money to have more stuff!) Basically, it undermines our god-complex which tells us that we have to ensure our own wellbeing and we have to create our own identity.

But sleep is designed to demonstrate that we are not God, and that that is a very good thing. We can sleep in peace, because we know he never will:

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep (Psalm 121:3-4).

As Christians, we have an opportunity to show people a better way. We can value sleep, not as a frustrating intrusion which puts at risk our wellbeing and our identity, but as a beautiful gift which reminds us that our wellbeing and identity are already guaranteed. We can sleep in peace because he never will.

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Dualism at Death

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‘Transhumanists of the world unite – we have immortality to gain and only biology to lose.’ These are the words of Nikola Danaylov in his Transhumanist Manifesto, but they reflect the hope of many. As developments in robotics and AI continue apace, there is ever increasing hope that the limitations of biology will soon be overcome and that we will be able to exist forever by uploading the contents of our brains to a computer.

Underlying this hope is a radically dualistic view of what it means to be human. The idea that we can live forever as a computer, depends on the idea that our bodies are completely separate, and completely irrelevant, to our true selves. Plato and Descartes are alive and well in secular anthropology. They’ve already radically shaped our views on sexuality, gender, and when it’s acceptable to end a life (in abortion or euthanasia), and now they are transforming the way we think about death.

Part of the Christian response to these hopes is pretty obvious. We don’t need to hold out hope for immortality as a computer when we have the hope of immortality in resurrected bodies. But we should also highlight that Christian anthropology, while acknowledging that we have a body and a soul, is far from dualistic. Though the soul can exist apart from the body (and will do if we die before Christ returns and the general resurrection takes place), we are designed to be integrated beings: body and soul united and working together. This is why the ultimate Christian hope in the face of death is not the soul’s release from the body, but the reuniting of the soul and the body in resurrection.

And yet, when death actually hits, it’s easy for us as Christians to fall into a dualistic view of humanity which stops short of the reality of Christian hope. When someone we love dies, we comfort ourselves and others with the fact that they are now with Jesus and that their pain and suffering have ended. For those who have suffered physically or mentally before death, we celebrate the release from that suffering as they were released from their body.

And this is right for us to do. This is the wonderful hope we have for the immediate future after death. It really is better to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23) and to be ‘at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8). But if we stop there, if that is all we say, we’re missing the really good bit, because the pinnacle of Christian hope is not release but resurrection; it is not that we would be released from the pain and suffering which comes from having a physical body, but that we would be resurrected with a physical body that will never experience pain and suffering. When our souls go to be with Christ at the moment of death, we’ve only reached the waiting room for our real destination. While celebrating the good that is in that, we ought to be careful not to forget that there is something even better yet to come. This should shape the way we talk about life after death, the way we pastor those who are grieving, and what we say, read and sing at funeral services.

Dissecting Dualism at Death

Why does this happen? Why do we find it so easy to become dualists when we’re dealing with death? I can think of at least three potential reasons.

In part, I wonder if we are just impatient. We live in an instant access culture where we’re used to getting what we want and getting it when we want it. Waiting is something that, at best, makes us uncomfortable, and, at worst, we feel is an abuse of our rights. Perhaps the idea that we don’t instantly get the full experience of our eternal hope at death is just something we’re uncomfortable with because we’re impatient.

It may also be that the way many of us spend the last part of our lives has an effect. With the improvement of medical care, many of us are living longer, but that doesn’t mean that the end of life is always better. While there have been wonderful developments in palliative care, meaning few people now need die in great pain, many will face serious illness or mental limitations in their last years meaning that death is often experienced as a blessed release from the body. While many generations who have gone before us may also have seen death as a blessed release, this was often because of a much broader range of difficult situations faced in life, not just physical pain and distress at the end of life. Death for these generations was release, but it was release from life in a tough world, not just from a frail physical body. For those of us who live in relative ease and safety, the release we are more likely to value at death is the release from the physical body, rather than from a difficult life.

A final factor which may be contributing to this dualistic view of Christian hope after death is the popularity of cremation. In 2017, 77% of deaths in the UK were followed by a cremation. There are practical and financial reasons for this shift in practice, and I don’t necessarily think that Christians shouldn’t cremate bodies (although I do have quite a bit of sympathy for Piper’s arguments), but the reality is that cremation is not a very body-affirming way of handling death. Most of us probably don’t like to think about the body of our loved ones being incinerated and therefore, in the context of a cremation, we tend to focus on the soul, rather than the body. By contrast, burial carries with it the biblical imagery of sowing a seed (1 Cor. 15:42-44). Burial is a body-affirming way of handling death, which points us towards the hope of resurrection. So, if we do cremate, we must make sure it doesn’t lead us to stop short of the fullness of Christian hope.

Hope beyond death is one of the great blessings of the gospel, and we don’t need to wait for further developments in technology to be sure that we will enjoy that hope. But let’s not miss the fullness of that hope by being dualists in death. Yes, for a time our bodies and souls will be separated, and yes, our souls will at that point be with Jesus, we will be at home with the Lord, enjoying what is better. But we won’t yet be enjoying what is best. The best will be yet to come. The best will come when what has been sown perishable will be raised imperishable, when death, dualism, and division will be defeated, and through resurrection, there will be restoration and reunion.

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Lift Something

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For as long as I can remember I have had constant back pain. The different medical investigations I have undergone and therapies I have tried – from chiropractors (useless) to osteopaths (marginally less useless) to physiotherapists (helpful) – have not cured me. It has just been one of those things.

The degree of discomfort I have experienced has not always been obvious to others, especially as I’ve always been active, have raced in triathlons and run marathons. Generally the more active I’ve been, the better, but since my early 20s, once or twice a year, I have been almost completely incapacitated by muscle spasm and pain for a week or three at a time. This has normally happened as a result of doing something innocuous, like getting milk out of the fridge, or visiting Milton Keynes. (Ah, the curse of Milton Keynes. Another post, another day.)

I know pain does funny things to people and have often wondered if I might have been a nicer person if I hadn’t gone through so much of life with - literally - gritted teeth.

Three years ago, after a particularly agonising round of back spasm, my GP sent me for an MRI scan. I have subsequently learned that this is what GPs always do when they have no idea what to do for patients with chronic back pain; despite the fact that the – expensive – MRI hardly ever reveals any information that can be used to alleviate said pain. True to form, the MRI revealed nothing very much: “Some deterioration of the lower discs. Don’t lift anything heavy.”

Then, two years ago, I took up CrossFit – “the sport of fitness” – which, among other things, involves lifting heavy objects. I was nervous about this, figuring I might quickly be laid up with my back in bits. In fact, while I certainly have not been pain free, these two years have been the best I can remember, with no prolonged period of enforced inactivity due to back pain. It would seem the medical advice I received was plain wrong: lifting something heavy has helped sort out my back issues more effectively than all the treatment, sport and exercise I have previously tried. I wonder how different my life might have been if I’d done this in my 20s rather than waiting till my late 40s. Think how nice I might be!

The point of this tale? If someone is struggling, very often it seems the right thing to do is to say, “Don’t lift anything heavy.” This can almost be our discipleship strategy: life is demanding enough, don’t put too much effort into following Jesus, that might tip you over the edge. This kind of strategy only heads one way though, ending up in a Nadia Bolz-Weber-like wholesale rejection of biblical truth. Instead, it might be that the very thing someone needs in order to handle life better is the encouragement to lift more. Inactivity and passivity don’t make anyone stronger.

The final spur I needed to give CrossFit a go was being beaten in an arm wrestle by a skinny 18-year-old and realising how weak I had become. Some of us are similarly spiritually weak – not because we lack the capacity for strength but simply because we have believed the lie that lifting something heavy might injure us when really it could strengthen us.

So go on and lift something heavy. Read that copy of The City of God that has been gathering dust on your shelf the past twenty years; give away enough money for it to really hurt; speak to someone about Jesus when you’d rather keep your mouth shut; choose a life of sexual purity rather than compromise. Lift something, and keep on lifting. You might be surprised by the results.

 

 

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Firestarter

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Disturbing, threatening – and watching it again now, somewhat comic – the Firestarter video represents a seminal cultural moment.

As previously described, I was never into the dance scene, but it was a significant stream in the cultural waters in which I swam. What dance music represented shaped my generation. It was about so much more than just the dancing.

Keith Flint, the tattooed and studded, tongue-twirling frontman of The Prodigy took his own life last weekend. He was a few months older than me. In 1996, when Firestarter was released, I had just become a youth pastor and was thinking about how to connect the gospel with the dance generation. All us youth pastors back then were in love with the World Wide Message Tribe and their Firestarter parody/alternative Heatseeker. Better to be a street preacher than a punkin’ instigator, we told our youth groups.

If I need a burst of energy there is probably no track I would rather listen to than Firestarter. It has a drive that is infectious. And it was this kinetic effect that was the meaning behind the title: Firestarter didn’t refer to lighting literal fires but the energy produced in a crowd at a Prodigy show. Yet the lyrics reveal something of the nihilism the raves embodied – the drug-driven highs and accompanying lows.

This energy and despair was reflected in Flint’s own life: apparently having it all but then ending it all.

Most of my dancing peers have long-since abandoned the raves. They are too middle-aged now and more likely to be found on a Friday evening searching for a decent bottle of wine in Waitrose than dropping ecstasy on the dancefloor. But Generation X has passed on to our Millennial and i-Gen children our fear addicted, filth infatuated, intoxicated habits. Yeah.

I think what Flint and the ravers always wanted was a connection with the transcendent. Whether through the chest thumping energy of bass, the bliss of drugs, or – in Flint’s case – the buzz of motorcycle racing, we’re looking for connection. Connection to something bigger and more meaningful than ourselves. i-Gen are looking for this is much as were Gen X, and are still dancing and pill-popping; but now they have tinder and unlimited online porn added into the mix. God help them.

Connection is what we need. Connection to other people and connection to the author of all energy, rhythm and colour. Keith Flint sang, “I’m the pain you tasted. Fell intoxicated.” The message of the gospel is that there was one who tasted our pain and drank the cup of God’s wrath so that we could walk – dance – in freedom and grace.

Keith, I wish you’d found that.

 

 

 

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Gratuitous Beauty

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Why is there so much beauty in the world? I mean, it can almost seem gratuitous at times. Sure, there is a lot of ugliness too, generally caused by the careless or malicious actions of man; but there is so much that is so staggeringly beautiful. It can take your breath away.

The beauty of so many plants and animals is a problem for biological science. Creating all that beauty uses a huge amount of energy, and that energy is costly, so there needs to be some reason for the expenditure. Evolutionary biology generally answers this problem in terms of ‘fitness’. Living organisms are meant to be most concerned with doing what is most likely to result in the propagation of their genes – energy expenditure is meant to be directed towards the creation of offspring who will flourish in their ecological niche. So the peacock’s excessively gorgeous tail or the butterfly’s extravagant wings demonstrate to potential mates what a good catch their owner represents: they are fit to reproduce.

This is the dominant theory in evolutionary biology. But there is an alternative narrative, one which the rather wonderful Radio Lab recently explored in an episode titled ‘The Beauty Puzzle’.

When a female animal is checking out her prospects, natural selection would dictate that she pay attention to how healthy, or strong, or fit he is. But when it comes to finding a mate, some animals seem to be engaged in a very different game. What if a female were looking for something else - something that has nothing to do with fitness? Something…beautiful?

The argument goes that evolutionary development is not driven simply by who (normally male) is the fittest, but by the aesthetic preferences of females. As evidence for this Radio Lab considered the manakin bird. The males of this bird perform a courtship display that involves them vibrating their wings at incredibly high speeds – speeds so high that only wings with solid bones can handle it. This is bizarre, because birds have hollow bones in order to be able to fly.

Here is how the Radio Lab presenters dissect this problem:

Think about that. You’re in a crowded forest. Lots of competitors, lots of predators trying to eat you. And you have made yourself slower, more vulnerable. And it gets worse. Because the manakins have to start this process of building these hard bones really early, like when they’re very, very tiny in the embryo.

Before the embryo has become either male or female.

So you’ve got an embryo that can go either way, and they’re already making the big bones. And some of them are gonna be male, but some of them are gonna be female.

So by choosing males with weird wing bones because they make great songs, the female also has daughters with distorted and inferior wing bones that they will never use.

Both the females and the males get these thick bones. So she is choosing to hear that sound and has designed him to produce that sound. But in the bargain, he comes out with heavier bones and can fly less well, and weirdly enough she comes out with heavier bones and can fly less well. So both of them are hurting their chances to survive for the chance to hear the beautiful tone that she wants to hear that he wants to give her.

Wait, what?

Wait. So she has heavy bones too?

Yeah

Yep

But she doesn’t use them?

Nope

Nope.

This is a suggestion with massive repercussions for biological science but as I listened in on the discussion it not only got me thinking about evolutionary biology but how this different theory is so much closer to Christian theology. What if the world is driven less by who is reddest in tooth and claw and more by the pursuit of beauty? Might that not be a better explanation for why the world is so extravagantly gorgeous – for why we have cobalt blue and cadmium red and yellow ochre? And what if this is not because of genetic chance but because that is how a Creator intended it? A creator who is himself beautiful and made all things beautiful and put in the hearts of his creation a desire for beauty – even in the hearts of the birds and the bees, and certainly in the hearts of the man and woman?

Beauty: not a by-product – not even a puzzle – but the very essence of what creation is meant to be. Wow. That’s beautiful!

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The Midrash Mash

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If you've read more than a couple of New Testament commentaries, you'll probably have come across the claim that Paul (or whoever) is involved in "midrash." You may have been puzzled when you did; you may have stroked your chin significantly as if something immensely meaningful had been said. But for Richard Hays, in his excellent Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, it is not at all obvious what such claims mean.

In its softest form, it might simply mean that Paul is commenting on Scripture in such a way as to apply it to his own time and place. This, while true, is also trivial: “in that sense, all readings of Scripture by Jews and Christians always and everywhere are instances of midrash.”

A stronger claim is that the type of midrash practised by the rabbis is the best historical background against which we can understand what Paul is doing in his letters. Formal similarities may be identified (although these usually crumble under close inspection); there may be a similarity of hermeneutical method, perhaps utilising the same methods as the rabbis did (although only two of these appear with any frequency in Paul).

Often, however, the term is used with such vagueness that it mainly serves “as a convenient cover for a multitude of exegetical sins.” To say that Paul is engaging in midrash, in such contexts, is apparently a way of getting him off the hook for reading the Old Testament in a bizarre way: “One frequently finds Christian commentators explaining away their embarrassment over some piece of fanciful Pauline exegesis by noting solemnly that this is midrash, as though the wholesome Hebrew label could render Paul’s arbitrariness kosher.” Or, even worse, midrash is used as shorthand for “free and playful interpretation,” with no real connection to any known practice of biblical interpretation.

The problem throughout, Hays argues, is that “the label midrash tends to bring the interpretive process to a halt, as though it had explained something, when in fact we should keep pressing for clarity.” This doesn’t mean it should never be used, but it does mean that it should provide the starting point for investigation, rather than the finishing point.

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The 2018 National Faith & Sexuality Survey: Some Reflections

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Last week saw the publication of results from the 2018 National Faith and Sexuality Survey, a project run by the Ozanne Foundation.

The survey was designed to examine ‘the role religious belief has on people’s understanding and acceptance of their sexual orientation in the UK’, as a follow-up to findings about conversion therapy highlighted in the UK government’s 2017 National LGBT Survey. Following the launch, the results made the national press in newspapers such as the Guardian and the Daily Mail, as well as featuring on Channel 4 News.

The executive report makes for sobering and sometimes heart-breaking reading. Around 4600 people completed the survey, with 52% defining themselves as LGBQ+ (which includes those who described themselves as same-sex attracted). Out of the entire collection of responses (the 4600), 10% had made attempts to change their sexual orientation, with around 60% believing these attempts have harmed their mental health. Those who had made such attempts identified a belief that their same-sex desires were sinful or feeling ashamed of their desires as some of the primary reasons for their actions. More than 50% identified the disapproval of their religious leader as a contributing factor. Perhaps most upsetting among the results is the fact that 22 people said they were forced to engage in sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender in an attempt to change their orientation.

The executive summary states that ‘the results provide strong evidence of the harm that attempts to change sexual orientation are reported to inflict’. While the report itself doesn’t directly call for an outright ban on conversion therapy in the UK, it is strongly suggesting that such should be the case. This suggestion is made explicit in a quote from Teddy Prout, a member of the survey’s Advisory Board and Director of Community Services at Humanists UK, in the official press release: ‘The Government urgently needs to act on its commitment to end the practice of conversion therapy once and for all’.

Overall, I am grateful for the survey and want to honour those who have analysed and published the results. Having worked through the executive report and press release alongside the full set of results I believe the findings have been faithfully represented and the survey does provide us with a snapshot of the experience of faith and sexuality for a group of people within the UK which had not previously been explored. For this we should be grateful.

I also have a few reflections upon the results to share. These should not be seen as criticism, but more one clarifying point and two suggestions for improvement or future research. The more important question, of course, is what we should do in light of the results. This is where I believe that some of the co-ordinators of the survey are making missteps, and so I will also share some reflections on where the church should go from here.

Some Thoughts on the Survey

One clarifying point which is worth knowing: It is very important to recognise that this survey is an open-access poll using random sampling. This means that the survey was completed by people who chose of their own initiative to do so. The group may, therefore, be very unrepresentative of the UK population as a whole and so, strictly speaking, it can tell us no more than what is true for the 4600 people who completed it. The results may reflect the UK more broadly, but this is impossible to say with any certainty. For a survey to give a fair representation of the UK population as a whole, those completing it would need to have been carefully selected to be a sample which reflects the diversity of the UK population and the results would then need to have been carefully weighted to give a fair estimate on the larger scale.1

The report does acknowledge this fact. It consistently talks of the number and percentage of respondents for each answer, rather than a percentage of the population, and does not claim to represent the UK as a whole. In addition, it notes that the age representation does not quite reflect the UK as a whole, that England is overrepresented and that ethnic minorities are underrepresented. However, it may have served the general reader better if the report had made it explicit that the survey is not necessarily representative of the UK as a whole. It could perhaps also have been helpful for the report to explain that the nature of an open-access poll means that people who have strong views on the subject are more likely to have responded. This is not to say that the results are of no use, but purely to say that they give us an insight into the lives of 4600 people, not necessarily the UK as a whole. Though it would inevitably be a rather more complicated study to administrate, it would be very useful to have a similar study with a carefully selected sample and weighted results to try and give an accurate estimate of the situation across the whole of the UK.

Now a couple of suggestions for improvement or future research. The definition of attempts to change sexual orientation used in the survey was very board. It included ‘a range of religious practises (eg. prayer, deliverance, emotional healing and fasting) through to counselling, aversion therapy and sexual activity.’ Respondents were at one point asked to specify the form of attempts they had made to change their orientation (Q28) and were later asked about the impact their attempts had made on their life (Q32), but unfortunately neither the survey questions nor the report offer a breakdown of the impact according to each form of attempt. This is a shame as it would be very useful to know whether different forms of attempt (e.g. personal prayer, professional psychotherapy, deliverance ministry etc.) had different types of impact (e.g. ‘I have suffered from mental health issues’, ‘I have found it hard to accept myself for who I am’ or ‘I have gone on to live a happy and fulfilled life’). One of the problems in the ongoing discussions about whether conversion therapy should be outlawed is a lack of definition as to what constitutes conversion therapy. An insight into the impact of various forms of therapy/attempt would allow more informed decisions to be made on this point.2

A second area for future research would be to explore when the attempts to change sexual orientation took place. My observation, from the contexts I have been involved in, is that things have changed a lot in the past 10 to 15 years. When I was first wrestling with my sexuality 12 or so years ago, the books I read and the teaching I heard often included stories of people who had experienced a change in their orientation, although I am not conscious of ever feeling any pressure to seek or expect my orientation to change. Now, over a decade later, in the same contexts I hear many more stories of LGBQ+ people seeking to faithfully follow Jesus, either in celibate singleness or a mixed orientation marriage, and rarely, if ever, hear stories of orientation change. I would be very interested to know if this shift is present more widely, in order to give us a more accurate picture of how things already have or have not changed.3

While I am genuinely grateful for this survey and the way that the results have been reported, I do feel that a more explicit acknowledgment of the limitations of the results would have been helpful and propose these two areas as questions which would still be worth exploring.

How Should We Respond?

This, of course, is the much more important question. Given the snapshot provided by these results, how should we respond?

Without question, the first response of every Christian must be sorrow and repentance. These results show that harm has been done and suffering has been brought upon LGBQ+ men and women by Christians. Regardless of whether the figures would be different if they were representative of the whole of the UK, the evidence of pain caused to those among the 458 respondents who have made attempts to change their sexual orientation should cause us to express deep sorrow at the part the Church has played in that and to repent of insensitive, uneducated and unloving responses to those who are LGBQ+. And I deliberately state that this must be the response of every Christian. Even those of us who have never been directly involved in encouraging people to change their sexual orientation, those of us who are too young to have been involved in its heyday, and those of us who are within the LGBQ+ group, must start with this response. We, as Christians, are all members of Christ’s body and all members of God’s family; these actions are part of our shared history, and therefore, it is right that we all respond in this way. It is not for any of us to arrogantly look back and claim we would never have been involved had we been there at the time. We cannot know that. Sorrow and repentance are the right responses for every Christian.

Then there are the deeply practical questions: if encouraging sexual orientation change is not the best way for the Church to respond to those who are LGBQ+, then how should we respond? It is here that I part ways from most of those who have co-ordinated the study and from the way that it is being used, and no doubt will be used.

The report itself, and the press release, are again admirable in the fact that they do not draw conclusions which are unsupported by the results. Both focus almost solely on conversion therapy, which is the focus of the survey. Although it should be noted that the issue of definition is here again present: the survey itself never actually uses the term ‘conversion therapy’, speaking only of ‘attempts to change sexual orientation’, which, as has been noted, is defined very broadly. It is therefore unhelpful to draw conclusions about conversion therapy, undefined, from the results. There should be more nuance in the conclusions being drawn.

However, it is where we go from here that most concerns me. In her interview with Channel 4, Jayne Ozanne, the director of the Ozanne Foundation, the group who co-ordinated the survey, stated, ‘Many of our churches are teaching young LGBT people that they have to be single for life, they have to be celibate, that they have to change and transform themselves’. She makes this statement with the clear implication that this is wrong.

It is fair to say that the survey does raise questions about the wisdom and morality of telling LGBQ+ people that ‘they have to change and transform’ their orientation. However, it has nothing to say about whether life-long singleness and celibacy are harmful and therefore wrong to encourage and teach as a Christian response to the experience of being LGBQ+. (In fact, 14% of those who had attempted to change their orientation said they have now ‘actively chosen to remain celibate’. No data is given to assess the personal well-being of these people.) The survey, while recognising the limits discussed above, has contributions to bring to the conversation about conversion therapy and broader attempts to change orientation, but beyond that it has little, if anything, to say about a right Christian response to those who are LGBQ+.

I wholly agree that it is imperative that the Church discuss and wrestle with how we best love and support those of us who fall within the LGBQ+ group and what it looks like for us to follow Jesus. Historically, the Church has done very badly on this topic, and this is a fact we should never overlook or deny. But slowly, I believe, this fact is being acknowledged, the important questions are being asked, and the even more important stories are being heard. But, as I have argued before, the best way for us to love and share the good news of Jesus with LGBQ+ people is not to discard the beautiful plan for human sexuality revealed to us in the Bible, but to take hold of and live out the fullness of the Bible’s teaching on love and family. If we do this, the fact that following Jesus – by denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following him – will, for some of us, mean forgoing sexual and romantic relationships need not seem like the life sentence that some are claiming it is. Rather we will find that, just as Jesus promised, losing the life we might have expected and wanted to have out of love and obedience to him, will actually be the route to finding real life (Matthew 16:25).

Footnotes

  • 1 For more on types of polls and their limitations, see ‘How not to report opinion polls: A guide from YouGov’s Anthony Wells’.
  • 2 I contacted the Ozanne Foundation to ask whether it would be possible to get a breakdown of this information. They acknowledged that there is still ‘a wealth of research findings within the survey, particularly within the free responses to “other” which we will need to publish in the future’. They also stated that various breakdowns are being processed, but acknowledged that the software used for the survey will place some limitations on the breakdowns which can be produced. I wonder if a simple improvement to question 30 (‘Of the various forms that you tried, how helpful were they?’) could have been very beneficial here. The word ‘helpful’ is very ambiguous (does it mean ‘made a change to orientation’ or ‘was not harmful’ or something else?) and thus rather limits the usefulness of the responses. Perhaps further surveys will be able to explore this area in more detail.
  • 3 I should note that the survey did ask those whose attempts had involved NHS medical staff to state how long ago it was that they were trying to change their orientation (Q29). However, only 10 people answered this question and so the results are not included in the report as the sample is not large enough to give worthwhile data. My thanks to the Ozanne Foundation for clarifying, via personal communication, the reason for the low number of responses to that question.

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Instagram and Atheism

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Why are we so eager to be seen? What is it that drives Instagram, I’m a Celebrity, game shows, humiliating acts of self-disclosure that trade shame for fame, and the compulsion to do almost anything to get on television? Atheism, says Umberto Eco in his Chronicles of a Liquid Society. “What is happening today stems from the fact that people no longer believe in God.”

It goes like this. Once upon a time, people believed “that everything they did had at least one Spectator who knew their every thought and deed, who could sympathise with them or, if necessary, condemn them.” God knows how much I’ve suffered, they would say. God knows I’m innocent. God knows what I’ve had to deal with. “God was always invoked as the all-seeing eye, whose gaze brought meaning to the greyest and most senseless life.”

But if you don’t believe in God, what happens then? Who is there to witness your life, in all its ups and downs, and validate your experiences by their attention? In a post-theistic world, who will see us? “All that’s left is the eye of Society, the eye of the Other, before whom you must reveal yourself so as not to disappear into the black hole of anonymity, into the vortex of oblivion, even at the cost of choosing the role of village idiot who strips down to his underpants and dances on the pub table.” Being seen by society at large, whether on television or on social media, is “the only substitute for transcendence, and all in all it’s a satisfying substitute.”

Eco stops there. Fortunately, Scripture doesn’t. In fact, the only place in the entire Bible where a person gives a name to God is in Genesis 16, when Hagar—a woman and a slave, and arguably the person in the story so far whom we would least expect God to notice—names a well “Beer-Lahai-Roi”: well of the Living One who sees.

So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” (Gen 16:13)

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The Strange Case of Dr Evil

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When is a piercing adornment, when disfigurement? What about a tattoo? What about body modification? How about if someone has body dysmorphia – should they be able to have the part of the body that disturbs them removed?

Both Andrew & I have meandered into the world of tattoos before (here and here) but the recent case of ‘Dr Evil’ got me thinking about it again.

Dr Evil is a Wolverhampton tattoo artist who also ran a little ‘surgical’ business on the side. Brendan McCarthy, as Dr Evil is otherwise known, admitted causing grievous bodily harm and will be sentenced next month. Despite having the consent of his clients, as the law currently stands McCarthy was guilty of GBH in removing ears and splitting tongues.

Some questions on this.

Firstly, clearly there is a difference between having an earring and having metal horns inserted in one’s forehead – but where does the line lie in defining the difference? According to the BBC, the judge in this case drew the distinction between body modification and tattoos and piercings, saying there is “no proper analogy”. That feels about right, but what about the person who has the entirety of their face tattooed? Is that any less extreme, or any less disfiguring, than a tongue bifurcation? I’m not sure how to parse such distinctions. What about you? If a brother or sister in Christ wanted their tongue split in two, or their whole face covered in tattoos, would that feel in line with or beyond the limits of Christian freedom? On what grounds do you give your answer? And if you might feel uneasy about a full-facial tattoo, where would you draw the line (literally as well as metaphorically) about how much body art is acceptable for a Christian?

Secondly, to what extent should society accommodate the desires of those who seem to genuinely feel an intense need to make extreme physical, permanent, changes to their bodies? The BBC reports King of Ink Land King Body Art The Extreme Ink-Ite (born Matthew Whelan), as saying, “Under current laws, we are classed as effectively consenting abuse victims.” Should the law treat such people as victims of abuse, or as adults choosing to do something important to them which doesn’t affect anyone else? Should people be free to do with their bodies as they wish or does society at times have a duty to protect people from their own desires? Can it ever be morally right to remove a healthily functioning part of the body, whether for cosmetic reasons or because of a deep-held ‘need’ to have the offending body part removed? Why anyone would want their ear removed is unimaginable to most of us, but does that render such a decision illegitimate?

I don’t much like tattoos. That is a personal aesthetic judgment and I wouldn’t expect anyone to be bound by my aesthetics on this anymore than I would by my preferences in music or visual art. But at the least, a Christian theology that sees the body as essentially good and capable of redemption will be hesitant about making permanent changes to the body – especially those that would generally be regarded as mutilating. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics that has separated more Christian societies from animist ones. If the human being – body and soul –  is somehow made in the image of God then we will not want to disfigure it.

In a Christian worldview, doctors do no evil.

 

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The Work of the Holy Spirit

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What does the work of the Holy Spirit look like in our lives? It could be a little bit like this:

Thanks to Hannah Anderson for tweeting this a few weeks ago. I love it. One guy totally focussed on the game, the other guy watching everything, anticipating what is about to happen, and steering his guy in the way he should go.

I love the trust implicit in this relationship - it wouldn’t work at all if the coach was resistant to the work of his spotter. But because he trusts him, he is willing to be guided by him with the lightest of touches.

And I’m willing to bet that the coach is barely even aware of what is happening. If you asked at the end of the game how many times his spotter had pulled him out of danger, or steered him so he didn’t walk into other people, he wouldn’t have a clue. Maybe he’d have noticed 2 or 3 times, but he wouldn’t have been aware it was almost constant.

How often has the Holy Spirit guided you, protected you, pulled you back or urged you forwards today? I tend to only notice it when I mess up - when I hear a friend has been unwell, and realise I was thinking about them a lot on that day, but never got round to praying or texting; or when I think ‘I should mention my church or the Bible now’ in a conversation with non-Christians, but hesitate too long and miss the moment.

As I’ve been pondering whether to post this or not, I’ve also been thinking about our role as family and as the body of Christ. When Hannah first posted this, it was in the context of thanking the other human beings who perform a similar role for her - primarily her husband. But it strikes me that we all have a responsibility to do the same. In some cases it will be more obvious, like in a mentoring relationship or friendship when we help one another think through our choices and make good ones. It may be serving in church or helping out a friend in need, by performing a task they are unable to, to ensure things run smoothly (tech team, for example, or administrator, or going to hospital appointments with someone who needs support).

And of course, when we pray for one another, we are joining with the Holy Spirit in helping to shape, protect and guide our brothers and sisters.

Go spotters!

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Embarrassment and Evangelism

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I have a theory about evangelism. Many Christians—and this includes me—have a habit of saying that things would be cringeworthy or embarrassing to our unbelieving friends, when what we really mean is that they would be cringeworthy or embarrassing to us. This can be benign, and lead to good outcomes: appropriately contextualised events, liturgy, music, websites, language, and even typeface (looking at you, Sans fonts). But it can be more insidious than that. Preaching on X would put off unbelievers (or more accurately, Christians). Spiritual gift Y is just way too awkward to be used in front of visitors (or more worryingly, us). Most commonly, I suspect: evangelism using Z would embarrass the pants off those who aren’t Christians (or more pressingly, me). So let’s not do it.

If that sounds familiar to you, then you might find this story from Matt Smethurst’s (forthcoming) Before You Open Your Bible encouraging:

When I lived in China, I got to know a college student named “James”; we’d met playing basketball and had become fast friends. But, just like virtually everyone around him, he had never heard about Jesus Christ.

Over the course of several weeks, I shared the gospel with him a few times. He seemed interested, and asked great questions, but he couldn’t disavow the atheistic worldview that had been ingrained in him for his entire life.

One day, I secured a copy of the Jesus film in his language, and we scheduled a time to watch it together. I had never seen it before and didn’t know what to expect. But given all the positive stories and statistics associated with the movie, I was eager for James to see it. I remember it was my last day of ministry for the semester—the winter holiday was about to begin, and my parents were arriving for a visit the following day. I was in a great mood. And when James and I sat down in my apartment living room and I inserted the DVD, my hopes were high.

I’m not sure if James heard a noise about seven minutes into the film, but if he did, it was my hopes being dashed on the floor. You see, James was a hip and modern college dude who had seen far more of Hollywood’s latest offerings than I had. The Jesus film, meanwhile, is on the cutting edge of 1979. Sure, the script is a verbatim presentation of Luke’s Gospel, but I felt embarrassed to be subjecting James to what I saw as subpar acting and cringeworthy cinematography—Is that Jesus levitating?—for two long hours. Honestly, I feared it would have a counterproductive effect, making Christianity look sillier to him than it did before. I was mortified and regretted showing him the film.

When the film ended and the credits rolled, I braced for his verdict. James turned and looked at me and, with sincerity in his eyes, simply said: “That was the best movie I have ever seen.” I was shocked. That afternoon, James placed his faith in Jesus Christ.

I’ve never forgotten John Piper’s comment on apparently embarrassing means of evangelism: “I like their way of doing it more than your way of not doing it.” This isn’t an argument for not contextualising, or being wilfully awkward; I am completely persuaded of the need for thoughtful, creative, wise and loving engagement, and I teach on it (and try to do it) all the time. But I am also persuaded that failing to do this is not our only danger here, nor even (perhaps) our greatest one. The apostle who became all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22) puts it this way earlier in the same letter: “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor 4:10).

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The Binary and Intersex

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Over the past few weeks I have been arguing for the goodness of the freedom of the gender binary, the idea that our identity as a man or a woman is given to us by God and is therefore not something which we have to create through performance. This is good because it gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are and means that we can each fulfil our male or female role in line with the way that God has created us. This identity is, I have stated, given to us by God and is written into our bodies. However, this perspective overlooks one very important consideration: what about those whose bodies are not clearly male or female? Does the existence of those who are intersex undermine the position for which I have been arguing? And, perhaps more importantly, what form should a Christian response to intersex take? As I bring the series to a close, it is these questions which I am going to consider.

What is intersex?

Intersex is an umbrella term used to refer to a large variety of situations where various aspects of an individual’s physical body do not match what is expected for either a male or a female. In some cases this creates ambiguity about the individual’s biological sex. The term can refer to a huge range of conditions which have varying degrees of impact on the body and on the individual’s experience of life. Medical professionals therefore prefer the term disorders or differences of sexual development (DSDs).

There are various biological factors which can lead to a DSD. Some are chromosomal; rather than the chromosomes expected for male (XY) or female (XX) an individual may have a different chromosomal formation. For example, some people have an extra X chromosome (XXY), a condition known as Klinefelter Syndrome, or a single X chromosome (XO), Turner Syndrome. Other DSDs are related to hormone production and reception. One of the more common conditions is androgen insensitivity syndrome, where male hormones are produced but the body does not respond to them. This can lead to a baby born with XY chromosomes, testes (which remain in the body) and female genitalia. Another common condition is congenital adrenal hyperplasia which causes increased production of male sex hormones. The impact of this on development in the womb can result in a baby with XX chromosomes, a womb and ovaries, and genitalia which look more like those expected of a male baby. Complications in hormone production also lie behind the very rare cases where a child is born with what appear to be female genitals which then develop into a penis when the child reaches puberty. (In these cases, the child was actually born with underdeveloped male genitalia and the surge of testosterone at puberty causes the delayed development.) There are also very rare cases where an individual is born with both ovarian and testicular tissue or where genitals can have a mix of male and female elements.

It is very hard to specify how common intersex conditions are; suggested figures therefore vary hugely. The examples given above are the more extreme cases. There are also many conditions which can be included under the broad term intersex but which have only minor effects on an individual’s body or experience of life. What does seem to be clear is that cases where there is genuine ambiguity about whether an individual is male or female are very rare.1

The Binary and Intersex

Regardless of how common or not they may be, we cannot deny that intersex conditions exist, and this clearly problematises the idea that we are given the identity of male or female by God and that this is written into our physical bodies. Does this fact undermine the reality of the freedom of the gender binary? If not, how does a biblical worldview help us to understand intersex conditions?

Additional Sexes in the Bible?

When we ask what the Bible might say about intersex, it is worth considering two avenues which have been explored by Megan DeFranza.2

The Bible often talks about eunuchs, and so DeFranza and others have suggested that in the Bible (and in other secular and religious texts from the ancient world) eunuchs were viewed as a third sex, additional to male and female. For example, it is argued that God’s promise of blessing to eunuchs (Isa. 56:4) and Jesus’ acknowledgment of those born as eunuchs (Matt. 19:12) show that the Bible accepts that male and female are not the only expressions of sex difference in creation.

However, there are a few problems with this view. First, while the word ‘eunuch’ appears many times in the Bible (in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word (sāris) occurs 43 times; in the New, the Greek (eunouchos) is used eight times), it does not necessarily always refer to those distinguished by a biological condition. Over time the term became almost synonymous with ‘[high-ranking] official’. It therefore often refers to those who served in royal courts without necessarily saying anything about their bodies (e.g. Potiphar, Gen. 37:36; 39:1; and the cupbearer and baker, Genesis 40:2, 7). In addition, in the Bible, when the term is used to refer to a person in relation to their biology, the understanding seems to be that eunuchs are biological males who are unable to procreate. This would seem to be the case in the key passage, Isaiah 56:3-5. The reference to these eunuchs calling themselves ‘a dry tree’ and receiving something better than ‘sons or daughters’ implies that what was distinctive to them as eunuchs was their inability to father children. In addition, if, as seems likely, Isaiah 56 is alluding back to Deuteronomy 23, where males whose ability to procreate had been lost are excluded from the assembly of the Lord, this further supports the idea that the biblical figure of a eunuch is one who is biologically male but is unable to produce children. There is thus no indication that the Bible sees eunuchs as a third sex.

The second way that the Bible may speak about intersex is by recognising that the mention of male and female in Genesis 1 may not exclude the existence of other sexes. This argument starts from the observation that other pairs in Genesis 1 (e.g. land and seas) don’t exclude the existence of parts of creation which sit between these pairs (e.g. rivers). If it is clear that other binaries in Genesis 1 are not meant to be exclusive, then the same could be true of the male-female binary. Intersex people may therefore not fit within the male-female binary and yet still be part of God’s original plan for creation. In this way, DeFranza suggests, Adam and Eve can be considered the ‘progenitors’ of humanity, but not the ‘paradigms’.

However, I find this an unpersuasive reading of Genesis 1. When God creates the sea creatures, the flying creatures and the land animals they are all created ‘according to their kinds’ (Gen. 1:21, 24, 25). This seems to imply that within these categories of living creatures there are many different, and here unspecified, variations. However, when God creates humanity, they are not created ‘according to their kinds’ but ‘male and female’ (Gen. 1:27). This would seem to suggest that male and female are the ‘kinds’ of humanity. In contrast to the other living creatures, there is no suggestion that there might be lots of kinds of humans, rather there are only two.3

The account in Genesis 2 would seem to support this reading. There are two kinds – male and female - within humanity, the purpose of which is that there might be male-female marriages (Gen. 2:24). Though this paradigmatic statement about marriage doesn’t necessarily exclude the possibility of other sexes in creation, it does explain why there might be within humanity an exclusive binary of male and female and seems to be a weighty argument for an exclusive binary, even if not a conclusive one. In addition, Jesus supports this idea when, in Matthew 19:4-5, he connects Genesis 1:27 (humanity created ‘male and female’) and Genesis 2:24 (‘…the two shall become one flesh’). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that every man and every woman should or will marry (Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 19:11-12), but it does seem to suggest that there is something purposeful about the design of humans as male or female. At very least it provides a logic to explain why the two kinds of humanity are male and female.

We can also note that elsewhere in the Bible, the male-female binary is assumed to be a paradigm for human existence, sometimes even being used as the grounds for various distinctions and instructions (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:3-15; 1 Tim. 2:11-15; 5:1-2; Titus 2:2-6). It is hard to see how the Bible might affirm the existence of a third or other sexes, when it regularly talks only of male and female when dealing with sexed distinctions.

I therefore find it hard to offer a biblical defence of the position which states that intersex conditions might be explained as one or more additional biological sexes which were part of God’s original plan for creation.

A Biblical Theological View

I think a better approach to finding a theological understanding of intersex is to think about it in the context of biblical theology. How might the Bible’s big story help us to understand intersex? When we ask this question, we find a fruitful answer.

The Bible’s big story is uniquely able to explain why the reality we experience now is sometimes different from how God originally intended things to be. We know that our corporate rebellion against God has led to brokenness and imperfections in God’s originally perfect creation (Genesis 3; Romans 8:20-22), and we know that this brokenness extends also to our physical bodies (Romans 8:23). It should therefore not be a surprise to us when our physical bodies, whether from birth or later in life, exhibit divergences from God’s original plan for human embodiment. All of us experience this to a greater or lesser extent at various points in our lives.

It seems to me that the best way to understand intersex conditions is as just some of the many ways the brokenness of creation can be experienced in our physical bodies. In this way, in terms of theological explanation, those born intersex are no different to those born blind or with a limb which is missing or not fully formed. These things are all biological experiences of the brokenness of creation.

Some object to this perspective, seeing it as unloving and dishonouring. However, this need not be. The examples of brokenness which we experience in our physical bodies are non-moral issues. They are not things over which we should feel guilt or shame. Rather, they are reminders of the reality of brokenness, the problem of humanity’s rebellion against God, and the good news of the gospel that Jesus has won the victory over sin such that he has the power and authority to one day put to rights all that is wrong in creation.

With this understanding, we can see how the existence of intersex conditions doesn’t disprove the reality of the gender binary. The gender binary is there as a part of God’s good creation, but it, like all creation, can be marred by the effects of sin.

A Christian Response

A theological explanation only takes us so far. To make a truly Christian response, we also need to think practically. How should Christians respond to those who are intersex and what might it look like for someone who is intersex to follow Jesus?

Intersex and the Image of God

We must start by recognising that intersex people, like all humans, are created in the image of God. An intersex condition does not negate this fact. Bearing the image of God is not predicated on being male or female but on being human, and no outworking of the brokenness of creation that we experience in our physical bodies can change this fact. Every intersex person has unique worth, value and dignity given to them by God and a contribution to bring to society and the church.

This being the case, we must make sure that being intersex is not a reason that people experience guilt and shame. Sadly, it seems that many intersex people, including those who have been involved in churches, have been rejected and ostracised because of being intersex. One intersex Christian who has shared her story recounts that when she opened up to some of her close friends, they told her that she had ‘ruined her testimony’ and that they no longer wanted to talk to her. When she shared with her pastor, he simply recommended that she remain silent about her situation.4

As Christians, we must make sure that we are the first to welcome intersex people, to listen to their stories, to acknowledge their pains, and to communicate, through word and action, that they are of equal value to us and to God as those who are clearly biologically male or female. We must work to ensure that having an intersex condition is not something about which individuals need feel ashamed or guilty, just as no one should be caused to feel ashamed or guilty about any aspect of brokenness that they might experience in their physical body.

Intersex and Identity

Intersex is another case where identity is vital. In particular, we must think about ultimate identity so that those whose identity as male or female is not clear, can find peace and security in a more fundamental truth about who they are. We can help intersex people by affirming that even if their identity as a male or female is ambiguous they are still loved by God and valued by him. For Christians who have intersex conditions, we must help them to know and experience that they are a child of God, regardless of any ambiguity about their biological sex. While ambiguity about one area of identity may be present, there need not be any ambiguity about other areas of our God-given identity.

And here there is again a part that we can all play. All of us need to recognise and live out our ultimate identity. Our sexed identity may be given to us by God and may be an important part of who we are, but it is not our ultimate identity. The ultimate identity for a follower of Jesus is as a child of God. This is true for those who are intersex, but it is also true for those of us who are biologically male or female. We need to be sure that our identity as children of God is where we are finding our sense of worth and security, not our biology. Only when those who are biologically male or female do this, can we help those who are intersex to do the same.

The Practical Questions

The practical questions about whether medical treatment and surgery should be sought, and about how intersex people are to live and present themselves in terms of their sexed identity, are too complex to deal with here and I feel underqualified to tackle them. But for a Christian working through these questions, I would offer three thoughts. First, prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit must be made central, trusting that God, as a perfect father, will want to answer, and guide and bring peace. Second, local church eldership should be involved. Elders are given to the church as fathers, to look out for us, protect us, encourage and walk alongside us. Such complex and difficult questions shouldn’t be tackled alone; they should be tackled with spiritual fathers alongside. And third, the wisdom of medical professionals should be received. It may need to be weighed against Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but medicine is an expression of God’s common grace to humanity and so should not be immediately rejected.

The Binary and Intersex

In theological terms, then, intersex conditions do not undermine the freedom of the gender binary. We know that we live in a world where we are to expect that our embodied experience does not always match up with God’s original intentions. Intersex is just one example where we see this as a reality. For those who are intersex the freedom of the gender binary may be difficult to experience. We must therefore respond with compassion, being those who suffer alongside, and pointing to, as well as living out, a greater identity. Intersex conditions, like so many examples of brokenness we experience in this life, are a reminder to look beyond this age, beyond even the freedom of the gender binary, to a greater freedom looming on the horizon. They are a reminder ‘that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21).

Footnotes

  • 1 A recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s stats-checking show, More or Less: Behind the Stats, has a useful exploration of some of the figures often proposed. The Intersex Society of America also has a useful breakdown of the estimated prevalence of various DSDs.
  • 2 Megan DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015). I have not read DeFranza’s book, but am familiar with her work through various useful summaries and discussions available online, such as here and here. Also helpful is an exchange of blogs on the topic between Megan and Preston Sprinkle (Preston 1; Megan 1; Preston 2; Megan 2; Preston 3; Megan 3; Preston 4. I don’t think Megan offered a final response.) Preston’s contributions in this exchange have influenced what follows.
  • 3 I recognise, along with the author of Genesis (6:19), that most non-human living creatures are also created male or female. The distinction between creation ‘according to their kinds’ for non-humans and as ‘male and female’ for humans therefore highlights the significance of the male-female binary in humanity, rather than its uniqueness. This would seem to fit with the way the theology of the sexes develops as the Bible story continues, especially in the understanding that human marriages are designed to reflect Christ and the Church.

  • 4 You can hear some of Lianne Simon’s story in this video.

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Kintsugi and Grace

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Here's a beautiful illustration of the Romans 5:20 principle that "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." It comes from Glenn Packiam's forthcoming book Blessed, Broken, Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus, which I've just had the privilege of endorsing.

We were talking about these ideas one day with friends in our home after a meal, and one of them shared a story about an old Japanese art of mending broken pottery. Kintsugi means “golden joinery.” It’s the art of joining broken pieces of pottery with a liquid resin that resembles gold. The result is a bowl or vase that is more beautiful, more aesthetically complex, and more valuable than the original piece.

Isn’t that amazing? The new piece with golden seams became so popular among Japanese art collectors in the fifteenth century that some were even accused of purposely breaking pottery in order to repair it with gold.

That sounds like grace. Grace that takes what is broken and puts it back together in such a way that it is more beautiful and more valuable than it was before.

Amen.

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When the Gods are Toppled

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I want the great world religions taught in every school. Secular humanism has reached a dead end - and any liberals who don't recognise that are simply enabling the worldwide conservative reaction of fundamentalism in both Christianity and Islam. The human quest for meaning is innate and ineradicable. When the gods are toppled, new ones will soon be invented. "Better Jehovah than Foucault," I once warned.

- Camille Paglia, “The Waning of European Art Film”

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A Eucharismatic Conversation with Glen Scrivener

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Glen Scrivener is exactly the sort of person I was trying to persuade in Spirit and Sacrament: a sharp, thoughtful, open, joyful and evangelistic Anglican who recognises the force of continuationist arguments, but has seen enough bad practice to have a lot of good questions. Watch me defending myself, talking about application, reflecting on how we can handle prophecy more wisely in the church, and (for the nerds) revealing that I had no idea that charis and chara were linguistically connected.

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The Freedom of the Gender Binary in Action

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So far in this series, I’ve introduced the concept of the freedom of the gender binary and argued that the New Testament authors’ approach to masculinity shows that they understood and applied it. Those posts have been primarily about the theory, but what about the practice? How do we live out the freedom of the gender binary, and how might doing so help us as we think about various aspects of and discussions about gender in the world around us?

The Freedom of the Gender Binary and Gender Dysphoria

An obvious question to ask is whether recognising the freedom of the gender binary might be able to help us as we think about gender dysphoria and those affected by it.

The first important thing to recognise is that the gender identity struggles about which I have shared have been very minor compared to those faced by some people. Gender dysphoria is the experience of distress or discomfort because of an incongruence between biological sex (what the body says) and gender identity (what the mind says). While many people experience a mild form of gender dysphoria in childhood, as I did, for some people the experience extends into adolescence and beyond or appears only later, in adulthood, and often causes such distress for those affected that they feel they cannot cope with the idea of continuing to live in line with their biological sex. For many, the experience of dysphoria can be incredibly painful and distressing, and so our first response must always be compassion, just as Jesus always had compassion on those who were suffering.1

Gender dysphoria is a complex phenomenon. There is little agreement on causes, but it is generally felt that there are probably many different reasons people experience it. For this reason, a recognition of the freedom of the gender binary will not, by itself, solve the gender identity struggles of someone experiencing considerable levels of gender dysphoria. It would be insensitive and naïve to suggest that it might. In some cases, however, perhaps especially among children whose experience may be shaped by a feeling of not fitting the mould of the gender suggested by their biological sex,2 or individuals who experience a less extreme level discomfort with their gender, the freedom of the gender binary may have a positive impact and could even lessen the experience of dysphoria.

How then might be we put the freedom of the gender binary into action such that it might offer some level of help to some who experience gender dysphoria and to those who may experience less severe discomfort with their gender?

The Source of Identity

The freedom of the gender binary flows from the truth that human identity comes from God. Identity is meant to be received, not achieved. It is therefore not found in how we feel about ourselves or what other people think about us, but in what God says. This is the unique and life-giving nature of the Bible’s approach to identity. It is the only form of identity available to us which is solid, stable and secure.

It is this approach to identity which allows us to enjoy the freedom of being male or female as a received identity which is true regardless of how we feel or what we do, and which therefore gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are. And yet the reality is that many Christians don’t live with this form of identity. So often we are actually finding our sense of identity in how we are, in what we do, in our relationships, or in our achievements. Can many of us honestly say that if we lost everything, if everything external and internal to us changed, we would still feel secure in who we are? Those wrestling with their gender identity need to experience the freedom of a received identity, rooted in what God says about us, but it’s harder to do that when others around you aren’t doing the same. All of us need to embrace a truly biblical understanding of our own identity if we are going to call others to do the same.

Gender Stereotypes

One of the factors which can lead to or contribute to discomfort with one’s gender identity is the presence of unhelpful and unbiblical gender stereotypes. Culture is full of these. In fact, the cultural understanding of transgender experience often reinforces them. It is often a failure to measure up to or to feel comfortable within gender stereotypes which is deemed to be an early sign of a mismatch between biological sex and gender identity. One documentary about transgender children featured a dad who said, ‘I knew my son was really a girl the moment I saw him run’. It was diagnosis through stereotypes.

The church has often been guilty of supporting unnecessary gender stereotypes. Desperate to maintain the fact that men and women are different we have propagated a whole load of unbiblical stereotypes about how men and women should be, and in the process, we’ve completely ignored the freedom of the gender binary which should help us to recognise that within masculinity and femininity we will find huge diversity and that this is part of God’s plan. These stereotypes can be found in our conversations (especially our jokes), our sermons, and the events we run.

Every time we reiterate an unbiblical stereotype about gender in the church we cause those who don’t fit that mould to feel uncomfortable and to believe that they need to try to be a certain way in order to be a real man or a real woman. We undermine the freedom of the gender binary and replace it with the oppression of gender stereotypes. I wonder how many men and women are sitting in our churches feeling like they don’t really make the cut because they don’t fit the common stereotypes. We need to reclaim the freedom of the gender binary by dispensing with unbiblical gender stereotypes if we are going to help everyone to find peace and contentment in who God has created them to be.

Expressing Difference

If my understanding of the freedom of the gender binary in the New Testament is right, then, while we need to dispense with unbiblical gender stereotypes, we also need to rightly express gender difference. I believe the New Testament guidance on expressing gender difference shows us that we are to do this through our appearance – not seeking to actively create ambiguity about our gender – and by living out the role appropriate to our gender.

This latter idea, that we have different roles according to whether we are a man or a woman, is frequently present in Christian discussions about gender, but it often gets attached to unhelpful stereotypes about what men and women should be like as they perform their roles. We start with what the Bible says, but then we go further. This ends up with Christians claiming that men should be those who ‘charge against enemy gates, leading from the front, and refusing to take cover behind their wives and children’, which is clearly a role (regardless of whether one agrees that it is the male role), while simultaneously claiming that things like ‘[l]ispy sentences, light gestures, soft mannerisms, and flamboyant jokes’ are a ‘perversion of masculinity’. Or we get the confusing mix of role and manner in: ‘At our house, swordplay is practice for life … I want [my sons] to see that the primary burden of defense, whether of home, family, church, or country – lies with them.’3 This understanding of the role of men may or may not be right, but surely physical aggression isn’t the only way for this to take place. The role has been mixed up with a manner of performing it which isn’t specified biblically.

The freedom of the gender binary means we can live out our roles, thus expressing who we are, without having to change how we are. So, I might be the complete opposite to a male friend – I’m sensitive, he’s tough-skinned; I hate aggression, he’s always up for a fight; I’m drawn to people, he’s drawn to objects; I have no interest in football, he lives for the game – but we can both live out our male role equally well. We may do it in very different ways, but we can still do it. We’re men because God has made us men and says we are men, and so we perform our male role, even while being completely different in almost every other characteristic. The freedom of the gender binary allows us to do this; it brings freedom to be how we are without changing who we are.

This means that while we must follow the biblical call to express our gender through our appearance and by living out the role of our gender, we must be careful not to go further than the Bible says. We live out our role, but we do so in line with the personality God has given us, embracing the freedom of our God-given gender.

An Invitation to Freedom

Recognising the freedom of the gender binary will not immediately end the distress of those around us experiencing considerable gender dysphoria, and there is a great need for us to find better ways to help such people to manage and reduce their dysphoria. But I wonder if there mightn’t be many people, both in and out of the church, who would find a great sense of peace and release if we put into action the freedom of the gender binary in our lives and our churches.

Footnotes

  • 1 One of the most helpful and impacting steps to take when thinking through gender dysphoria is to hear the stories of some who have experienced it. These are easy to find online, both in writing and on video. The personal accounts are often deeply moving as people share about the continual feelings of discomfort they experience, the distress this causes them and sometimes even the strong hatred they feel against their own bodies.
  • 2 This seems to sometimes be at least one factor involved in childhood gender dysphoria. See the examples given by Dr Kenneth Zucker, who directed the Gender Identity Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto for several decades, quoted in Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (Encounter Books, 2018), pp.136-137.
  • 3 Joe Rigney, ‘Masculinity Handed Down’ in Designed for Joy (Crossway, 2015), pp.36-37.

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Anywheres and Somewheres

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The main fault line in contemporary society is not between right and left, or capitalists and socialists. Rather, argues David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, it is "between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere."

Anywheres (about 25% of the UK today) dominate British culture and society. They pass exams, do well at school, go on to a residential university, work in a major city at some stage, marry late, and comprise almost all of the political, journalistic, corporate and artistic elites. They (we?) have identities which are “portable” and “achieved,” and pride themselves on being tolerant, meritocratic, egalitarian, autonomous, open to change, internationalist and individualist. Ironically, though they almost all voted Remain, they are actually the ones who “leave” their place of origin and move somewhere else.

Somewheres (about 50% of the UK today) “are more rooted and usually have ‘ascribed’ identities—Scottish farmer, working class Geordie, Cornish housewife—based on group belonging and particular places.” (60% of British people live within twenty miles of where they lived when they were fourteen.) This, rather than education or class, is what joins them together; they earn, live, work and vote in widely differing ways, but they are typically more local in outlook, communitarian, stable, patriotic, traditional, mindful of security and tied to specific places. Many (though by no means all) of them voted Leave, but by and large they are the ones who “remain.” They also have larger families, and give more to charity.

Broad brushstrokes, for sure, and Goodhart admits as much. Everyone contains elements of each, which means that occasionally we will all find ourselves united by a common identity (as in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony). Both groups have an extreme subset: a handful of Somewheres (5-7% of the population) are Hard Authoritarians, and a handful of Anywheres (5%) are Global Villagers. As people get older, they often move between the two (usually from Anywhere to Somewhere). Then there are the Inbetweeners (25%), who are either both or neither, depending on the issue. That said, Goodhart argues, the categories are backed by a striking variety of empirical data—from whether you agree that “young people do not show enough respect for traditional British values” to how far away you live from your mother—and have substantial explanatory power when it comes to a whole host of contemporary issues, of which Brexit is merely the most obvious.

At the risk of bastardising a nuanced and often brilliant* book—but then, what else is this blog for?—here are some of the key insights that leaped out at me.

1. The Elephant Curve. You may have already seen this extraordinary graphic on global income growth, which is pictured above, but if not: most people in the world got substantially richer between 1988 and 2008, either because they are part of the emerging middle class in the developing world (percentiles 5-75), or because they are part of the global elite (95+). But two groups did not get richer at all, and may even have got poorer: the very poor, locked out of development because they have so little to start with (0-5), and those on lower or middling incomes in rich countries (75-90). This is not just economically but politically significant, especially when combined with #2.

2. The Decline of Male Employment. Lower income men in the last two generations have faced a triple-whammy: i) the dramatic increase of women in the workforce, competing for jobs that would historically have been all-male, ii) the continued rise of automation in manufacturing and, more recently, in services (automatic checkout, driverless cars, etc), and iii) globalisation, in which the competitive advantage will usually go to the country that pays the lowest wages. This is not only politically important; it also has crucial pastoral implications, as we discussed on a recent Mere Fidelity episode with Diane Schanzenbach:

3. The Dignity of Work. For most Anywheres, work is fulfilling because it gives a good income and an opportunity to realise one’s individual talents. But for many Somewheres, this misses a vital component of the value of work, namely that “it is also about feeling valued and respected through working on behalf of others, particularly one’s family, and through making a public contribution.” Consequently, initiatives to dramatically increase attendance at universities (which dramatically decrease manual skills training) seem logical to Anywheres, who typically make the decisions, but create a “wild mismatch between career expectations and the grim reality of actual job opportunities for those not on track to good universities … A concern of most Somewheres is how to retain dignity and honour in the mundane and middling while living in a world in which status, as well as wealth, is so unevenly distributed.”

4. Somewheres and the Family. Goodhart reiterates the point made by Putnam, Murray and others about the family: high status (and income) Anywheres “talk blue, but live red,” while lower status (and income) Somewheres “talk red, but live blue.” (Put differently, Anywheres insist that all family forms are equally valid for raising children, but in practice they generally prefer two married parents who stay together and have a small number of kids; for many Somewheres, the reverse is true. The rhetoric is different from the reality, on both sides.) This accentuates #1 and #2, because when lower income men do not have children at home, they are less likely to work, which makes them less marriageable, and so on. “Most of these depressing statistics apply in particular to working class whites who more than any other group have lost their place in society and have no encouraging narrative of advance, unlike young women and ethnic minorities.”

5. Debunking Globalist Myths. Some of Goodhart’s best work occurs in exposing the falsity of many widespread claims about globalisation. The world is not experiencing unprecedented migration flows. Only 3.3% of the world live outside the country they were born in. Thomas Friedman’s bestseller The World is Flat is almost entirely wrong. The nation state is not powerless in the face of global markets, as we realised during the financial crash (as Mervyn King put it, the banks were “global in life and national in death”). Many things that you might think were international are overwhelmingly national, including stock market equity (80%), Internet traffic (83%) and Facebook friends (85%+), let alone telephone minutes (98%) and mail (99%). Much of the globalisation narrative, he argues, is simply “globaloney.”

6. Debunking Londonist Myths. Londoners have great PR, and we pride ourselves on being open, tolerant, inclusive, rich, aspirational, creative, happy and successful. The statistical reality, however, is somewhat different. London has the highest levels of anxiety and the lowest levels of life satisfaction of any region in the UK. It loses population in every age group except 20-29. Only 13% of Londoners trust their neighbours. Four of its boroughs are among the twenty most deprived in England, 27% of its citizens are classified poor, and since 2009, pay for the lowest decile has fallen by nearly a quarter. More of us say we don’t find our work fulfilling than in any other region (41%). Astonishingly (at least to me), London is also the city in which the highest percentage of white British people say they are uncomfortable with the proportion of ethnic minority people in their neighbourhood. And of course 40% of Londoners voted Leave. There are more Somewheres here than I realised.

7. The Persistence of National Particularism. It is one thing to say that all human beings are equally valuable; it is quite another to say that we have identical obligations to all human beings, regardless of proximity or nationality. For some more extreme Anywheres, the existence of national borders is tantamount to racism, since it necessarily discriminates in favour of those individuals who happen to have been born in your country. But this argument proves far too much; “if the nation state is an illegitimate expression of bigotry, like racism, then the legitimacy of democracy and the welfare state, which today exist only in national forms, is also thrown into doubt.” As such, moral particularism persists. “All humans are equal but they are not all equally important to us” (emphasis added).

Goodhart finishes with some policy proposals, ranging from transport investment (HS3 rather than HS2), to compulsory voting, to ID cards, to more investment in technical education and apprenticeships and less in subsidising rich kids (like me) going to university. But the heart of his book is less about policy than it is about attitude: Remainer-Anywheres should listen to, seek to understand, and show respect for, the concerns of Leaver-Somewheres, even where they (we!) may disagree on the best responses. From where we stand in 2019, it would appear that Somewheres are not going Anywhere.

You can get The Road to Somewhere here.

*Although given that he is the editor of Prospect magazine, someone really ought to teach Goodhart how to use a semicolon.

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If you don’t like the result of the vote, keep having votes until you get the result you want

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And if you still don't get the result you want, change the rules governing the vote.

No, I’m not referring to Brexit, but to a poll of doctors planned by the Royal College of Physicians.

The RCP is planning to poll its 35,000 members to ask whether ‘they would help a terminally ill patient to die and whether the law should be changed to allow assisted dying.’ A similar vote four years ago showed a clear majority of doctors against such a change and there is no evidence that the position is different today. But in an extraordinary move the RCP is saying that unless a supra-majority of 60% of its members vote either for or against the change it will declare its position on the matter to be ‘neutral’. Of course, in this case ‘neutral’ is really a euphemism for ‘supportive’ and demanding a supra-majority like this is nothing but gerrymandering the vote.

Another euphemism is to speak of ‘assisted dying’ in this way. In the UK we already have assisted dying – it is called palliative care. What the RCP proposal is really seeking is legitimacy for assisted suicide; but campaigners for euthanasia have subtly dropped the s-word in order make their goals feel more kindly.

According to The Times, ‘Doctors are in open revolt against their professional body amid claims that the Royal College of Physicians has been captured by lobbyists for assisted dying.’ And, ‘A former official has threatened legal action over a new vote on the issue that he called a “sham poll”.’

That the RCP’s actions should arouse such a strong response is unsurprising: most doctors want to care for their patients, not kill them.

All of us should care about this because once the door to euthanasia is opened the slippery slope only runs one way. As ‘atheist and unashamed liberal’ Ian Birrell writes, in those nations where euthanasia has been legalised the consequences are becoming increasingly alarming:

Belgium, for example, now permits euthanasia for children. It has allowed at least three minors – two of whom were children under 12 – to receive lethal injections since the law was changed five years ago. It also allowed a pair of deaf adult twins who feared turning blind to kill themselves. And it is available for those with ‘unbearable’ psychiatric pain. If we accept people have the right to death as relief from intense suffering, then this makes ethical sense, since there should not then be distinction between physical and mental agony. Yet such distress is harder to detect and more open to subjective interpretation.

Rather than heading down the road that Belgium and the Netherlands have started on, in the UK we should work to ensure that true assisted dying is available: that is effective pain relief and dignified treatment for the terminally ill. We should resist anything that is a step towards euthanasia.

If you are a doctor or medical student please consider adding your signature to this open letter to the RCP calling on it to postpone the poll.

 

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Bibi & Blasphemy

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The case of Asia Bibi, kept in solitary confinement for nine years on trumped up charges of blasphemy, has thrown Pakistan into turmoil and garnered headlines around the world.

In this extended report, the BBC provides a comprehensive account of the severe problems faced by minority groups in Pakistan. It is difficult from a western perspective to understand the kinds of passions that are generated in some Islamic contexts but the horrific consequences for non-Muslims are clear. It really is life or death.

Read the article. And pray.

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The Bible and the Binary (Part Two)

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In the previous post in this short series I argued that when compared with their contemporaries, the New Testament authors take a radically different approach to masculinity. For Greco-Roman authors, masculinity was a performance and the status of ‘real man’ was something to be attained through action, but the New Testament authors never suggest that masculinity has to be attained and they don’t really even engage in the gender conversations being had in the world around them. Rather, they believed in the freedom of the gender binary: that male or female identity is God-given and unchanging, thereby giving the freedom for people to be how they are without it changing who they are.

So, does this mean that the freedom of the gender binary leaves the body as the only difference between men and women? Can we live with a functional one-gender system where our identity as male or female doesn’t really make any difference to the way we live our lives? I don’t think so. It seems to me that the New Testament lays down two ways in which our identities as male and female should be expressed.

Different External Presentations

First, the New Testament teaches that men should be recognisable as men and that women should be recognisable as women, especially in terms of dress and physical appearance.

This would seem to be the key point behind Paul’s complex discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The principle Paul is expressing is that men and women are different – the gender binary – and therefore this difference should be observable in how they follow their culture’s customs for male and female appearance, especially when in the context of corporate worship. How we present ourselves is meant to be a way of celebrating the gender identity God has given us, and for most of us our secondary sex characteristics (e.g. facial hair, hip width, muscle mass, fat distribution, pitch of voice etc.) help this presentation. This is obviously complicated by the fact that cultural customs change over time, but perhaps the general principles are that one’s God-given identity as male or female should be discernible from one’s appearance and that we shouldn’t seek to actively create ambiguity about our gender.1

Different Roles

Second, biblically speaking, sexual difference is expressed in different roles, not in different mannerisms, personality traits or preferences. The freedom of the gender binary makes this possible. Our identity as a man or woman is already set and therefore does not need to be created through performance. Rather, how we live is meant to flow out from that God-given identity. This means that all men have the same role to play, but because of the diversity within masculinity, we may perform that role in different ways. Likewise, there is a role for women to play, but different women will perform that role in different ways.

We see this in the fact that almost all the explicitly gendered commands of Scripture talk of role alone (e.g. Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Tim. 2:8-12; Titus 2:2-6; 1 Peter 3:1-7).2 Of course isolating from Scripture exactly what the male role and the female role are is more difficult, especially when looking beyond the contexts of marriage and the local church, and I’m not going to venture into that in this series, but the key point is clear: when the New Testament differentiates by gender it does so almost solely to discuss role, not mannerisms, personality traits or preferences.

Beyond these two elements, I think it’s hard to find biblical material which explicitly talks of differences between men and women.

Finding the Bible’s Teaching

‘Explicitly’ is the key word in that last statement. It alerts us to one last point which is worth making in this discussion of the freedom of the gender binary in the Bible. It’s the question of how we find the Bible’s teaching on what it means to be a man or a woman.

It’s common for people to build an understanding of biblical masculinity and femininity by looking to examples in Scripture. We turn to Ruth, Esther and the Marys for a biblical picture of femininity, and to David, Paul, and, supremely, Jesus for a biblical picture of masculinity. But when we do this, how do we know which elements are the individuals being a godly woman or godly man, and which are just them being a godly person? Which elements of the example of Jesus should women not follow because they are female and he is male?

The reality is that there is no way for us to isolate the gender-specific elements of a biblical figure’s example unless the text explicitly tells us that this was part of them being a godly man or woman. What is usually happening when we use biblical examples to construct masculinity or femininity is that, whether knowingly or not, we pick the examples that fit our preconceived ideas on gender expression and ignore those that don’t. The examples are reinforcing what we believe, not shaping what we believe.

This might actually mean that the Bible says a lot less about gender expression than we want it to. I think it probably leaves us with the different external presentations and different roles and not much else, but this is because the biblical authors understood the freedom of the gender binary. Our identity as male or female is given to us by God and is expressed in our external presentation and the different roles we play, leaving us the freedom to express our unique, God-given personalities, mannerisms and preferences.

Some people will not like this conclusion. They will see it as a watering down of the differences between men and women which will be destructive to individuals and to society. But I think the practical outworkings of the freedom of the gender binary are a good thing, and that’s what I’ll explore in the next post in this series.

Footnotes

  • 1 This same principle – that our God-given identity as male or female should be observable in our external appearance – would seem to be the best explanation for the prohibition of cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5. While some have argued for cultic or military explanations of the command, the maintaining of the separation between male and female is the most contextually well-supported reading, as argued in Peter J. Harland, “Menswear and Womenswear: A Study of Deuteronomy 22:5,” ExpTim 110 (1998), pp.73-76.
  • 2 The discussions about how women should adorn themselves in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 could perhaps be seen as exceptions to this. Some might argue they deal with preferences. But the focus of both passages seems to be about where women are finding their value: in the external, or in what actually matters to God, the internal. Thus they are discussions about godly character and living, not personal preferences for certain clothing and accessories.

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The Most Attractive Quality in a Leader

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What is the most attractive quality in a leader? No doubt there are all sorts of ways of answering that, and although some responses are obviously wrong, I don't think there's any particular one that is obviously right (other than "Christlikeness" or "love", which just push the question back a stage: "OK, so what does that look like?"). For years I've oscillated between "prayerfulness" and "humility" (which, when you think about it, are two sides of the same coin), with "zeal" and "wisdom" also up there. But more recently I've thought about it in a slightly different way, based on the beautiful image in C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle. The most attractive quality in a leader, I find, is when you discover that the inside is bigger than the outside.

I was thinking about this last month, when I had the privilege of meeting and praying for two days with the key leaders in Newfrontiers in the UK. None of them are household names. They all live in very ordinary places. They don’t have bodyguards, Twitter fan clubs, lucrative publishing deals or six figure salaries. They don’t pack stadiums or have profiles in the national media (not that those things are necessarily bad). Most people outside of a very specific slice of British evangelicalism have never heard of them. But having travelled, stayed or shared family dinner with all of them, one thing that they all have in common—as far as I can tell, anyway—is that their inside is bigger than their outside.

I don’t think that’s true of everyone in pastoral ministry. Many of us can probably think of examples: Christian leaders whose books, sermons, albums or organisations were far more impressive than the real person you found when you looked behind the curtain. There is nothing innately sinful about money, or popularity, or big churches, or social media followings, but when they work in combination with each other (which they often do), they have the potential to inflate a person’s “outside” while simultaneously diminishing their “inside.” Their stage presence is better than their prayer life. Their preaching is better than their parenting (if applicable). They give the impression of reading the Bible, and sharing the gospel, more than they actually do when you get to know them.

So when you see someone whose inside is bigger than their outside, it is immensely refreshing. You can hear it in their prayers. (Without exception, each of the ten or so people I mentioned earlier are more impressive in prayer than on the platform, at least from my interactions with them—and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay someone.) You can see it in their homes. You can tell by hearing the jokes they make (or decide not to make), the controversies they avoid, the judgments they pass (or don’t), the way they interact with their families, the things they spend their money on, the way they treat those from whom they have nothing to gain. When you see it, as I did years ago with Terry Virgo, you realise you’re looking at the real thing. It makes you think: I want to be like that.

Lewis, of course, used the phrase to refer to the new creation, and (by extension) to the realities of Christianity: “like an onion,” as Mr Tumnus puts it, “except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.” Peter Lewis (no relation) makes a similar remark about Jesus at the start of The Glory of Christ: “the closer I get, the bigger he becomes.” I find it a wonderful way of thinking about the realities of the age to come, and the ways in which pastors can reflect them (or not) in our own lives. So my prayer this week, as I have been thinking about these things (and as I prepare to spend another two days with a group of such leaders this morning!), is that my inside would be bigger than my outside. Or, as Matt Redman puts it:

So let my deeds outrun my words,
And let my life outweigh my songs.
Unbroken praise be yours.

The Bible and the Binary (Part One) image

The Bible and the Binary (Part One)

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In the first post in this series, I shared about my moment of revelation concerning the freedom of the gender binary: how God’s creation of us as male or female, and his gift of that identity, gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are, therefore meaning we do not have to perform to reach the status of being a ‘real man’ or a ‘real women’. Genesis 1:27 was vital in this realisation, but my change in thinking also grew from recognising the radically different approach to masculinity taken in the New Testament in comparison to that found in the wider Greco-Roman world. I realised that the New Testament authors recognised and understood the freedom of the gender binary and applied it in their approach to masculinity.

Masculinity in the Ancient World

In the Greco-Roman world, gender was understood on a spectrum, best thought of as a vertical scale, with masculinity at the top and femininity at the bottom. The scale was vertical because masculinity was deemed better than femininity, so it was a scale you wanted to move up, but there was always the risk you could slip down. Your position on the scale was determined by your position in society and by how you lived. Maud Gleason summarises what this meant for masculinity: ‘Masculinity in the ancient world was an achieved stated, radically undetermined by anatomical sex’.1 That is, masculinity had to be performed.2

In this system, to be a real man, at the top of the scale, you had to be someone who exercised mastery. So, for example, Aristotle claimed that ‘the male is by nature better fitted to command than the female’ (Pol. 1259b) and Seneca, when describing male and female, states, ‘the one class is born to obey, the other to command’ (De Constant. 1.1). By contrast, someone who was mastered by others and who took a subordinate position would be deemed feminine. This meant that only freeborn Roman males could ever hope to be truly masculine, while slaves were automatically placed in an effeminate position because they were under the mastery of another.

But it wasn’t just mastery of others which was important, mastery of oneself (i.e. self-control) was also a key element of the performance of masculinity. Cicero suggested that the senses are liable to ‘give way in a womanish fashion’ if not carefully mastered (Tusc. 2.48), and Philo believed that ‘the female element, the senses, may be made manly by following masculine thoughts’ (QG 2.49).

This understanding of gender also explains the sexual ethics of the Greco-Roman world: the issue was not who you had sex with so much as what role you played in the sexual act, the active role was deemed masculine and the passive role was deemed feminine.

The body itself was a consideration in all of this, but it wasn’t definitive.3 Having a male body wasn’t enough to ensure that you would be considered a real man and having a female body didn’t preclude you from achieving some level of masculinity (although you couldn’t actually become a man). In 4 Maccabees, for example, a mother who exhibits incredible control of her emotions while watching her seven sons be tortured and martyred is praised as being ‘more noble than men in fortitude’ (15:30).

This approach to gender is amazingly pervasive in world of the New Testament and is found in Greek, Roman and Jewish authors.4

Masculinity in the New Testament

When you look at these discussions of masculinity, you find the regular use of recurring ideas and specialised terms from the ongoing cultural conversation. The idea of the gender spectrum seems to have been almost universally held (at least among the literate classes represented by the texts we have access to), as is the idea that masculinity is superior to femininity. The key idea that mastery is at the core of masculinity is likewise nearly universal and there are plenty of recurring motifs, such as women being imperfectly formed men and men being hot and women cold. This seems to have been a hugely prominent cultural conversation, with a defined vocabulary and common themes. But what is striking about the New Testament is that it doesn’t seem to take part in this conversation.

The Language of Masculinity

For example, there is barely any use of the standard terminology of the conversation. I can think of only two examples.

In 1 Corinthians 16:13, in a list of quick imperatives as he heads towards the close of the letter, Paul tells his readers to ‘act like men’ (ESV). This is a word which was strongly associated with the performance of masculinity (the verb andrizō is linked to the noun andres ‘men’). However, it is not clear that Paul evokes the Greco-Roman gender scale in using the word. Some commentators note the pairing with the following command (‘be strong’) and see a link to the commands to be strong and courageous in the Old Testament. Others suggest that in the context of 1 Corinthians (especially 3:1, 13:10-11 and 14:20) Paul’s point is about maturity, not masculinity. Thus a translation such as ‘be courageous’ (NIV, NLT) may better communicate Paul’s meaning, capturing the sense of the word without the gendered implications which he doesn’t seem to be endorsing. 

The other example of the standard terminology for masculinity in the ancient world used in the New Testament is also in 1 Corinthians; it is the word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9. The base meaning of malakos (the singular of malakoi) is ‘soft’ (it is used to describe clothing as ‘soft’ in Matt. 11:8 and Luke 7:25) and in the context of the gender conversation in the Greco-Roman world it had the sense ‘effeminate’. But the ancient definition of effeminate was somewhat different to our modern definitions. Men would be described as malakos for a huge variety of behaviours that were deemed unmasculine, including an excessive interest in one’s physical appearance, removing body hair, a love of luxury and even having too much sex. In the context of sexual activity, malakos was used to describe males who took the passive role in same-sex sexual activity. The range of meanings of malakos was therefore pretty broad. We have to work out which elements of the word’s meaning Paul was seeking to evoke.

As always, context is key. Paul doesn’t actually explain the meaning of malakos but it’s position in a list of actions which will exclude one from the kingdom of God show that it must be something he considered serious and sinful. Also, the terms in the list either side of malakos both refer to sexual activity: it is preceded by ‘adulterers’ and followed by arsenokoitēs, which would seem to refer to men who engaged in same-sex sexual activity. There is therefore a good case to be made that Paul’s use of malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is designed to denote males who take the passive role in same-sex sexual activity, with arsenokoitēs then denoting the active partner.5 So translations such as ‘men who have sex with men’ (NIV 2011) are probably best (and ‘effeminate’ (NASB) is unhelpful).  Once again, we find that Paul uses language from the gender conversation, but without the gendered overtones.6

The Themes of Masculinity

It is also striking that when the New Testament discusses themes which would usually be gendered in Greco-Roman literature, its discussion does not talk about them in gendered terms. For example, self-control is clearly a significant theme in the New Testament, but it is not linked solely with men. It is a Christian characteristic, not a male one. Sexual ethics are discussed, but not in gendered terms. The gender of those involved matters, but it is not affected by the activity. This is particularly striking when we note that Jewish authors, whose sexual ethics were closer to those of the New Testament than to other Greco-Roman authors, speak of sexuality in highly gendered terms. Philo talks of males who play the passive role in same-sex sexual activity as experiencing ‘the disease of effeminacy’ and as experiencing ‘the transformation of the male nature to the female’ (Spec. 3.37).

One exception where there does seem to be some overlap with Greco-Roman ideas is in the fact that husbands are called to be in authority over their wives, with wives instructed to be in submission to their husbands. This would seem to be masculine mastery much like we would find in Aristotle or Seneca. But even here there is a surprising anomaly: the New Testament does not use the usual masculine language of mastery, even though wives are commanded to be in submission to their husbands. Rather husbands are told to love (Eph. 5:25, 28; Col. 3:19), to honour, and to show respect to their wives (1 Pet. 3:7). This is a form of male mastery, but it is radically different from that usually found in the Greco-Roman world. A second difference is that this is an outworking of their identity, not a performance to attain it.

The Performance of Masculinity

Perhaps the most important evidence supporting the idea that the New Testament authors understood the freedom of the gender binary is that, unlike the non-Christian Greco-Roman sources, they never suggest that masculinity is something to be attained through performance. As we’ve seen, for Greeks, Romans, and Jews, masculinity was a performance, and the status of ‘real man’ was attained through actions. Gender was understood on a scale, not as a two-part binary, and you had to act to determine your position on the scale. There was thus no security in one’s gender identity.

But the New Testament authors see male and female identity as static, and when they give gendered instructions they are an outworking of that static identity, not a way of attaining the identity. So, for example, when husbands and church elders are told to exercise masculine mastery – in the radically different, Christian form discussed above – they do this as an outworking of their identity. They master because they are men, not so that they can really be men. The husband is already the head of the wife, he doesn’t need to become the head (Eph. 5:23).

This is an outworking of the freedom of the gender binary. Men are already men and so they don’t have to do anything to become real men. Women are already women and so they don’t have to do anything to become real women. They do have different roles to play (as I’ll explore in the next post), but roles flow from, rather than create, their gendered identities.

All of this suggests that the New Testament authors take a radically different view on masculinity and gender to their non-Christian contemporaries. They don’t see gender on a spectrum where men have to perform to be masculine; they don’t even bother taking part in the conversation about such performance. Rather it seems they have understood the freedom of the gender binary. The reason they don’t call men to live in certain ways in order to be men is because they know that God creates us male or female and so whatever we do and don’t do, we are a man or a woman based on how God has created us. And when they do talk about what men and women should do, it’s always as an outworking of that God-given identity, and never a condition to be met in order to create the identity. Biblically speaking, gender is given to us by God; it is not created through performance.

This leaves unanswered the question of whether there should be any discernible difference between men and women or whether we can live out a functional one-gender system. I will tackle this question in the next post in the series.

Footnotes

  • 1 Maud Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton, 1995), p.59.
  • 2 I should note that the focus on masculinity in this post is because it is the topic which I have studied; my master’s research explored masculinity in the New Testament. While I imagine the same conclusions could be drawn from a consideration of femininity in the ancient world and the New Testament, I have not yet studied this. I hope, however, that the example of masculinity achieves the aim of this post and demonstrates that the New Testament authors approached gender as a God-given identity.
  • 3 This was certainly true, although how exactly the sexed nature of the body was understood has been debated. For several decades it was widely believed that the ancients subscribed to a one-sex understanding of the body, in which the bodily differences between men and women were just an inversion of one biological sex. (This view was mostly strongly put forward by Thomas Laqueur in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.) However, more recently this view has been challenged and it has been argued that the one-sex model and two-sex model sat alongside each other. (This has been argued by Helen King in The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence.)
  • 4 One of the best introductions to Greco-Roman views on masculinity is Craig Williams, ‘Effeminacy and Masculinity’ in Roman Homosexuality (2nd edn; Oxford, 2010), pp.137-176.
  • 5 See, for example, the discussion of this verse in Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved (Zondervan, 2015), pp.105-117. Also Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon, 2001), pp.306-312, although note the comments below.
  • 6 This is the point where I feel Robert Gagnon (The Bible and Homosexual Practice) makes a misstep. Though he rightly concludes that Paul is using malakoi to refer to ‘passive partners in homosexual intercourse’, he sees a gendered element in this which is not warranted by anything Paul says: ‘For them [Philo and Paul], an attempt by the passive partner to feminize his appearance is simply the logical corollary or symptom of the root problem: namely, playing the receptive female role in homosexual intercourse’. This is almost certainly true of Philo, who uses explicitly gendered language in his discussion of same-sex sexual activity, but Paul never hints that the masculine identity of the passive partner is actually affected. He knows that the freedom of the gender binary means that a man’s position as a man cannot be affected by what he does.

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Three Features of Christian Prophecy

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Richard Bauckham identifies three features of Christian prophecy, which I find very helpful in thinking on the subject: discernment, prediction and response.

First, there is discernment of the contemporary situation by prophetic insight into God’s nature and purpose. We have noticed Revelation’s dominant prophetic concern for exposing the truth of things - both in the churches and in the world - and for revealing how things look from the perspective of God’s heavenly rule …

Secondly, there is prediction … What must take place is the coming of God’s kingdom - or God would not be God. Prophecy as prediction reveals how the contemporary situation must change if God’s kingdom is to come.

Thirdly, prophecy demands of its hearers an appropriate response to its perception of the truth of the contemporary world and its prediction of what the working-out of God’s purpose must mean for the contemporary world. It is this third element that ensures that the predictive element in biblical prophecy is not fatalistic. It leaves room for human freedom, for human response to God’s will and human participation in his purpose for the world … God’s kingdom must come - or God would not be God - but the predicted manner of its coming is conditional on human response and on God’s freedom to embrace human freedom in his purpose.

- Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 148-149.

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The Freedom of the Gender Binary

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There was a time in my childhood when I thought I was a girl. Though externally I looked like a boy, and everyone thought I was a boy, I believed that internally I was a girl. I remember being afraid that one day I would get pregnant (obviously before I understood how these things work!) and that then my big secret would be found out. I resolved that I wouldn’t ever be able to get married, and so I would just stay living with my parents forever.

Over time these feelings abated, as they do for the vast majority of children who experience discomfort over their gender identity,1 but the feeling that I wasn’t quite a real man remained with me. I carried a sense of not really fitting in and not really making the cut. I always felt more comfortable around girls and would feel actively uncomfortable in all-male environments. Stag dos were my worst nightmare; I would usually find a way to get out of them or to only attend part of them. Even men-only Church meetings were an uncomfortable place to be. I actively wanted to like things deemed more traditionally feminine and was uncomfortable if I liked something traditionally deemed masculine, and I tried to make myself ‘one of the girls’ by distancing myself from men, saying things like, ‘Well he would do that, he’s a guy’, or ‘Guys just don’t get that type of thing’. This was all more subtle than the belief that I was actually a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and for many years I was unaware of it, but it was all part of an ongoing discomfort with my identity as a man.

Over the last year, I’ve been working through these issues, gradually becoming more comfortable with who God has made me to be, and one day I had a moment of revelation. I suddenly realised that if my identity as a man comes from who God has made me to be and what he says about me, it doesn’t come from how I am. I saw that God’s creation of us in his image as either male or female (Gen. 1:27) means that my male identity is received, not achieved. The image of God is an identity given to us, which is static and stable. Every human being bears the image of God in a way which can never be changed (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9), and in the same way, every human being is given the identity of male or female in a way that can never be changed. It is an identity spoken over us, written into our physical bodies, and is not something created by us through performance. This isn’t to say that men and women should live their lives in exactly the same way (I’ll explore that in a later blog), but it means that this God-given identity gives us the freedom to be how we are, without changing or challenging who we are.2

So, this means that my love for musicals, Downton Abbey and afternoon tea don’t bring my identity as a man into question. In fact, they can’t. It means that the fact I’m quite sensitive, I hate violence and aggression, and can’t stand beer doesn’t change my identity. God has made me as a man, and so I am a man. End of story. And at this point I realised that this truth - the fact that God has dictated who I am - gives me the freedom to be how I am. I can embrace and express my likes and dislikes and my personality, without fear that they might render me less of a man. God’s gift to me, my male identity, gives me the freedom to be me.

And this is a radically different view to that held by the world around us. Western culture tells us that the male-female gender binary is oppressive and harmful and that people like me should just accept that we’re somewhere on a spectrum between male and female or even that we are women with male bodies. Culture’s answer brings complexity and confusion. But the God-ordained gender binary is liberating and life-giving. It tells me that regardless of how I am and regardless of what I feel, regardless of what other people think or me or how I do or don’t measure up to their expectations, I am a man. I don’t have to try and reach the status of manhood; I don’t have to try and fit in, and I don’t have to perform an act to convince people of my masculinity. God has said, through my body, that I am a man, and so I am. God’s answer brings peace and freedom; it’s the freedom of the gender binary.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting a number of articles exploring how the freedom of the gender binary can be seen in action in the New Testament, how we should live it out, and how it might help us as we seek to bring God’s love and his truth to those who experience gender dysphoria and to those who are intersex.   

Footnotes

  • 1 A written brief prepared by three prominent academics and medical professionals and presented to the US Supreme court for a case in 2017 stated, ‘All competent authorities agree that between 80 and 95 percent of children who say that they are transgender naturally come to accept their sex and to enjoy emotional health by late adolescence. The American College of Pediatricians, for example, recently concluded that approximately 98 percent of gender-confused boys, and 99 percent of gender-confused girls, naturally resolve’ (pp.12-13). See also Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (Encounter Books, 2018), pp.123-26.
  • 2 I am acutely aware that the experience of intersex people and those who experience gender dysphoria or identify as transgender complicates this perspective, and that, more importantly, such blanket statements could be painful for intersex and transgender people to read. In order to handle these topics well, I will consider both in later posts in this series, considering how intersex and transgender sit alongside the freedom of the gender binary and how Christians should seek to best love intersex and transgender people.

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Baptism and Church Membership: An Expatriate Perspective (Guest Post by David Shaw)

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This piece is a response of sorts to the conversation over at Mere Orthodoxy between Gavin Ortlund and Jonathan Leeman (both Baptists) who discuss the theological conundrum of church membership and the Lord’s Supper in relation to differing views of baptism (all links can be found here). Should a person of paedobaptist persuasion, or who was baptized as an infant, be welcomed into full membership of a Baptist church without being fully immersed?

Ortlund argues that, yes, one should be welcomed into fellowship with all its attendant benefits, suggesting that while the paedobaptist view may be improper, it ought not be considered invalid. Leeman, on the other hand, argues to the contrary from the position that faith is essential to the nature of baptism, and as such, if such a person has not been baptized subsequent to their confession of faith, then they have not been baptized at all.

(Spoiler alert: I side with Ortlund on this issue. Below I outline why that is the case from my former expatriate ministry setting).

My own response is borne out my experience as a pastor in an expatriate setting. After finishing my MDiv in Seoul, South Korea, I was fortunate enough to be brought on to the pastoral staff at an international Baptist church in one of Seoul’s most internationally diverse neighbourhoods. As associate pastor, one of my early tasks was to develop a formal membership curriculum. At the time, the church had a membership process that was relatively vague and unknown to the congregation.

This was due in part, I believe, because of the inherent diversity and transience of expatriate ministry. How, for example, does an expatriate church offer meaningful membership or develop a leadership framework when the congregation in question experiences up to 80–90% turnover every two or three years? How much more so when those who hope to make your church their home for the next few years come from both credo- and paedobaptist traditions? As I worked on this issue with the input of our senior and executive pastors and the rest of our leadership team, we came up with something called ‘WatchCare membership’. Here is an excerpt from the most recent membership document that broadly articulates what this looks like:

Because of our unique ministry as an expatriate church, we sometimes find ourselves presented with unique challenges and one of those is membership. The challenge arises out of having many people from various Christian denominations and traditions who call [name of church] home. It is out of a desire to honor such people that we offer Associate Membership. [This] is available for those who (1) desire to maintain membership at their church back in their home country and/or, (2) for those whom acknowledge Christ as their Lord and Savior but have not been baptized by immersion. Associate Members are afforded all the rights of full [name of church] membership including pastoral care, communion, access to all of our ministries, mission opportunities, and the like, but cannot vote on the annual budget or other called church votes.
We do realize that for some this may be a sensitive issue. Our hope in all of this is to honor our centuries of Baptist tradition as well as the traditions of those who would fellowship with us for the period of their duration in Seoul. If you have further questions concerning [name of church’s] position on this matter or would like to be baptized, our pastors and deacons are more than happy to meet with you.

According to Ortlund’s second piece on the matter, our stance would be close to position (3) ‘Modified Closed’ where “a believer who is unbaptized, or was baptized as an infant, is given ‘associate’ status, and may vote on secondary matters in church meetings, and generally will not be eligible for the office of deacon or elder.” The only immediate difference is that we would have refused the right to vote. As I hope can be seen clearly, the goal of our policy was to honour a person’s faith whilst also honouring the Baptist heritage in which we stood. We wanted to welcome godly people into a form of membership for the duration of their time in Seoul so that we might care well for them without disdaining their theological convictions.

To provide an example of how this played out ‘on the ground’, we had a number of congregants who came from paedobaptist backgrounds who wanted to be members of our church. Pastorally, we spoke with such people and asked them to prayerfully consider where their conscience stood with regards to their paedobaptism. If their conscience considered their paedobaptism as valid, they were welcomed into associate membership upon a public declaration of faith and commitment to the church. Others, upon considering their past, determined that they should be immersed, and we would work with them through that process and welcome them into full membership.

In the years since I worked on that membership document, I have probably transitioned from a ‘Modified Closed’ position to a more ‘Modified Open’ position: that is, I would welcome into full membership ‘those who are baptized can be members, provided the individual regards their baptism—of whatever kind—as valid for them’. I say this on the grounds that we ultimately belong to one kingdom; God’s kingdom. We may inhabit different ‘states’, ‘counties’, or ‘shires’ within that kingdom, but there is only ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Eph 4:5–6). And while I imagine Leeman might oppose such a view/practice, I have a hard time imagining how my church in Seoul could ever sustain a feasible form of leadership and membership in such a transient context (80–90% turnover every 2–3 years), without having some level of flexibility and inter-denominational mutual respect. In an international context, this is especially so where expat’s may not even have the choice of which church denomination they might attend while living overseas.

Moreover, like Andrew Wilson, I find incongruous that Leeman would welcome a paedobaptist (e.g. Tim Keller) to preach in his church, and yet not welcome them into membership or to the communion table. I think Ortlund summarizes the tension well when he asks, “are we strict with respect to the proper expression of baptism, or are we strict with respect to a proper recognition of the unity of the church?” In matters such as these, I would argue that the unity of the church should be the priority. And to extend the state/county analogy described earlier, though our denominational boundaries within God’s kingdom may be important to us, perhaps they should not always be the defining measure for membership within a local church.

David M. Shaw lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his wife, Becky and three children, Owen, Gianna, and Hugh. Together they attend Providence City Church in Perth’s inner-northern suburbs. David spent over eight years in South Korea where he earned an MDiv from Torch Trinity Graduate University and pastored among Seoul’s English-speaking expatriate community. He now lectures in New Testament at Perth Bible College, having completed his PhD at the University of Exeter, UK in 2017. His thesis investigated 1 Peter’s use of the Old Testament in the formation of the early church’s Christian identity and missional posture. You can follow David on Twitter @shaw_davidm

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Is having a child a right?

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Is having a baby that results from a loving relationship the same as having a baby being created via a business transaction?

That is a question posed by Mirah Riben. Surrogacy is becoming an increasingly important ethical issue, with governments around the world, including the UK, indicating that they are going to loosen the rules surrounding it. Riben’s post is worth reading in full: she raises important questions. Here is an excerpt.

Are a husband and wife with two kids a house and a dog, a single career woman who decides to be inseminated because time is running out for her to be a mother, a family who decides to foster one or more special needs children, and a gay couple who have a child via surrogacy all equal? Do all of these ways of family building put the needs of the child(ren) before the desires of the adults and are primarily in the child’s best interest? Are all equally accessible to people of all income levels? Is financial means, which allows for multiple options in both controlling reproduction and family building, a good litmus test for parenthood? Most importantly, do all “family building” options protect the rights of children?

Andy Cohen is the executive producer and host of the Bravo nightly series Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, Bravo’s late night, interactive talk show, and hosts a two-hour live show with co-host John Hill twice a week. He is executive producer of the Real Housewives franchise, host of the television dating show, Love Connection, and a New York Times best-selling author.

When Cohen, fifty, single, and worth an estimated $15 million dollars, recently publicly announced that he was about to become the father of a child being born to a surrogate, the announcement was met with cheers of joy and accolades in the Hollywood community and the public.

Why? Why is his renting of woman’s body, buying the reproductive services, cheered? Why does anyone celebrate hiring a woman to act as a human incubator? Utilizing the services of prostitutes, even where legal, is not publicly announced, cheered, or celebrated. If one can afford it and enjoys it, why do we not share their pleasure in paying to have a brief intimate relationship and be happy for them? Why does society condemn one and applaud the other? Yes, it is the impending fatherhood that is being celebrated, but does becoming a father make it so very different and justify the means? Where is the concern of those cheering him on for a child brought into the world to be raised by a man old enough to be his or her grandfather? Does his wealth make that OK, too?

Why has having a baby by any means become socially acceptable and a source of pride and joy? Please stop and think about this before having a knee jerk reaction. Andy Cohen is not adopting a child languishing in an orphanage in order to fulfill his desire to be a single dad. He is creating a human being from purchased gametes and having it gestated in a rented womb. The child will be motherless and live out his or her life knowing only half of its genetic medical history. Why celebrate that? Because it is his choice?

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When Did Britain Become Post-Victorian?

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David Cannadine's Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 strikes me as a fairly old-school sort of history book: a careful account of politicians and laws, men in suits and the Acts they passed. It is top-down history, and the contrast with bottom-up accounts of similar periods, like those of Tim Blanning, Eric Hobsbawm or Niall Ferguson, is very striking; instead of a chapter on roads or harvests or trade, we get a chapter on Lord Liverpool's government or the 1906 election. It is clear, solid, illuminating and often lucid stuff, but you don't—at least I didn't—get a feel for the century in the way that you do in many other accounts, and the effect is a little textbookish: worthy, but hardly (as the Guardian claims on the cover) "sparkling."

Until, that is, the final chapter, when the book suddenly springs into life by imagining what time-travellers from 1800 would make of 1906. This is the bit of the book that anyone interested in the period should read, and the part in which all the trees we have seen in the previous five hundred pages start to coalesce into a wood. We read about what was like in cities and on farms, for men and women, labourers and artisans, parents and children. Literature finds its place in the story, and so do music, theology, science and art. As readers, we start to imagine what life was like for the 99.9% of nineteenth century Brits of whom we have not heard, and it is like a breath of fresh air.

Then, in the epilogue, comes a fascinating (and unexpected) payoff when it comes to the way the Victorian legacy is handled in our own day. Britain, Cannadine argues, only became truly post-Victorian in the 1960s, and that sheds a great deal of light on much that has happened—and much that has been said about what has happened—in the last fifty years (emphasis added):

Just as nineteenth-century Britain had been ruled by eighteenth-century men until 1868, when Derby was replaced by Disraeli, so twentieth-century Britain was ruled by nineteenth-century men until 1963, when Macmillan was superseded by Douglas-Home, who in turn would be followed by Harold Wilson. Indeed, there were many ways in which the late-Victorian United Kingdom lasted and lingered until the mid-1960s: in its great-power pretensions, global empire and imperial monarchy, in its heavy-industrial economy, moral code and gender relations, and in its outward conformity to Christian ethics. The nineteenth century cast a long shadow. Only since the 1960s has Britain significantly de-Victorianised, de-imperalised and downsized, and begun to come to terms with that ‘recessional’ that Kipling so prophetically foretold in 1897.

This, Cannadine suggests, “may explain why in recent decades it has become fashionable to denounce Victorian Britain more energetically and systematically than Lytton Strachey ever did, for espousing a set of assumptions that seem at best alien, at worst deplorable, and for being (among other things) sexist, misogynist, homophobic, racist, classist and imperialist.” (This is not to say that it did not espouse those things, merely that there are good cultural reasons for our constant, superior and sometimes shrill insistences that it did—and for downplaying those aspects of it which would lead to a more nuanced, balanced and historically credible portrait). The Victorians are still, perhaps, closer than we think.

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When the tricks of the trade don’t work

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On Tuesday, Andrew Bunt posted some of his ‘tricks of the trade’ in wrestling with knotty ethical issues. The first was to focus on what the Bible says before working out how to apply it.

To many of our readers, I imagine that seemed obvious. Yes, we might forget it sometimes, and accidentally start working backwards from the problem, but it’s no news that we think Scripture is (the revelation given to us by) our supreme authority.

So how do you debate with a believer for whom that is not a given?

Phil Moore recently faced just such a challenge on the Premier Radio programme Unbelievable, when he debated Natalie Collins on issues surrounding #MeToo and gender theology.

Phil had come across Natalie through last year’s THINK conference, and had seen from an article she wrote about it afterwards that she was coming from a very different perspective than him. So step one was to find some common ground. They could both agree that women often suffer abuse at the hands of men. Beyond identifying the manifestation of the problem (abuse), however, they seemed unable to progress.

I say that is the manifestation of the problem because in order to abuse someone you have to hold a whole set of assumptions about who you are, who they are, how the world is, what is right and what is wrong. To Natalie, as far as I can understand it from the interview, it seems that she believes that anyone who abuses women must believe in male headship as defined by [Phil’s/the complementarian interpretation of] scripture. And that anyone who doesn’t abuse women is not exercising this headship. (I’m getting this from the part where she talks about her husband – “the good one” – calling to ask if it’s OK for him to go out for drinks after work with his friends one night. To her, that was clear evidence that he does not consider himself the head of the household, because why would the head be considerate of the rest of the body?)

So Natalie’s diagnosis of the problem behind the negative outcome is wildly different from Phil’s, and for her, scripture is part of the problem, at least to the extent that scripture is always interpreted by humans, and humans are the problem, therefore we can’t trust their appeals to scripture. So how do you debate with someone to whom the bath itself is a problem, let alone the baby and the bathwater?

Phil made a valiant effort and was, of course, gracious, kind and generous throughout. Yet in the end it was a ‘debate’ between two people on opposite sides of a vast brick wall, built in a canyon, surrounded by a raging river, trying their best to communicate via the Bing translation tool. As an exercise in disagreeing well, it was a masterclass, and it served well to advertise Natalie’s forthcoming conference. Beyond that, it’s perhaps a useful training tool in helping you think through how you would answer objections when ‘What does the text say?’ is a complete non-starter.

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Would You Excommunicate Tim Keller?

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There has been a fascinating discussion recently over whether, and in what circumstances, Baptist churches should welcome paedobaptists into membership and/or to the Lord's Supper. (That "and/or" is crucial to the discussion, as we shall see.) Gavin Ortlund says yes and yes, on the basis that although infant baptism is (from a Baptist perspective) improper, it is not invalid. Jonathan Leeman says no and no, on the basis that if faith is essential to the nature of baptism, then anyone who has not been baptised as a believer is (from a Baptist perspective) not baptised at all. The exchange is full of interesting theological, pastoral and historical reflections, and if you're considering the subject seriously it is well worth a read.

The stickiest question raised in the discussion, and the one which (for me) puts the problem in its starkest form, is: Would you excommunicate Tim Keller? If you found out that you had admitted someone into membership of your church who, it subsequently turns out, had only been “baptised” as a baby, would you remove them from membership, and/or from access to communion? (Let’s assume that this hypothetical situation was not generated by deceit or anything, but by misunderstanding or an oversight on your part.) If you would say no, admitting that you would not exclude them from membership and/or communion on the way out, then on what basis would you exclude them from membership and/or communion on the way in?

In the conversations I have had within Newfrontiers, the family of churches I belong to, it is intriguing how many people agree that the different sides of the “and/or” should be answered in different ways. Each Newfrontiers pastor I have spoken to—and the sample size is small, but probably representative nonetheless—agrees that we should not exclude paedobaptists from communion, but that we should exclude paedobaptists from membership. To which I expect both Gavin and Jonathan would respond, from opposite sides: what?

Crucial to the discussion is the question of what membership actually is.

For some Baptists, to accept someone into membership of a local church is to affirm that they are a member of the universal Church (and, conversely, to exclude someone from membership is effectively to say to them that they are not a Christian, as far as you are concerned). This is the basis of John Piper’s argument on the subject, as expressed in his response to Wayne Grudem: “excluding a true brother in Christ from membership in the local church is far more serious than most of us think it is.” Practically, to hold this view is to welcome paedobaptists into both membership and communion.

Some other Baptists would agree with this, but add (crucially) that there is a difference between the way an individual recognises someone as a Christian (which does not necessarily require baptism as a believer), and the way a gathered church recognises someone as a Christian (which does). This, if I understand them right, is how Jonathan, and Bobby Jamieson and the 9Marks guys more generally, approach the question. As such, although a Baptist individual might agree that Tim Keller is a Christian, a local church is not authorised to do that without him having been baptised as a believer, and therefore he should not be admitted either to membership or to communion.

In other Baptist churches, including my own, membership is an affirmation that a person is not only a Christian, but that they are committed to your vision and values, in submission to your elders, and qualified (in principle) to serve and lead among you. To admit someone into membership, then, requires that a much higher bar be cleared than is needed for them to be welcomed to the Table; you would welcome Tim Keller to share the Eucharist with you, because you recognise him as someone who has repented and trusted Christ, but because he disagrees with the church on a crucial point of doctrine, he would not be welcomed into membership.

As far as I can see, the grounds for excommunicating someone—excluding someone from communion—are the same as the grounds for excluding someone from baptism: either they are unrepentant, or they are unbelieving. As much as I can see the logic of Jonathan and Bobby’s position, some of their practical conclusions (for instance, that someone could preach at their church without being able to share the Lord’s Supper with them afterwards) serve as a reductio ad absurdum of their argument, indicating that there must be some mistake somewhere. So no, I would not excommunicate Tim Keller. There is, however, a very real possibility that if he comes across the way I’ve used his name in this article, he might look favourably upon the possibility of excommunicating me.

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Some Tricks of the Trade

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I recently spent a few sessions helping a group of pastors to think through their position on a complex ethical issue. At the end of one of these sessions, one of the group came up to me and asked if something I had kept doing in the discussion was one my tricks. (He then realised what he had said and was very apologetic for using language which suggested I was engaging in some sort of trickery, which I thought was rather amusing.) His comment and the experience of wrestling with this topic over a number of weeks got me thinking about some tricks of the trade we should employ when doing such thinking. Two have stood out to me.

Understanding the ‘What?’ Before the ‘So What?’

I often find I am the awkward person in a discussion about the Bible’s teaching who is constantly asking the question, ‘But what does the text say?’ If the Bible really is our supreme authority (or better, if it’s the revelation given to us by our supreme authority), then the first and most important thing is to understand what it actually says.

This was the point which one of the group asked me about after our discussions. ‘Is one of your tricks that you focus on what the Bible says on its own before working out how to apply it?’, he asked. And he’d got it exactly! Before we ask how we apply a passage, we’ve got to first understand what it actually says. Bad Bible reading often results from a failure to separate out these two steps. We want to jump to the ‘So what?’ questions, before we’ve actually answered the ‘What?’ question. This is particularly easy to do when wrestling with biblical texts which are directly relevant to ethical issues. We are so aware of various situations in the lives of those around us and of the implications that a particular conclusion might have for people, that we skip over the meaning (the ‘What?’) to get to the application (the ‘So what?’). In the process we often end up giving our own spin to the text’s meaning or ignoring it completely.

In reality the separation between ‘What?’ and ‘So what?’ is overly simplistic. The two can’t be so completely separated all the way through the process. There has to come a point where you start asking about the application, and that may cause you to rethink your understanding of the meaning. But we should always start by working on the meaning alone for a while before jumping to the application. (In this particular case, I found that I sometimes had to apply my working thesis of the meaning of a passage to a hypothetical situation to be able to really think through whether my understanding of the text made sense of all of its details. But this ‘So what?’ came after I had done a lot of work on the ‘What?’)

Acknowledging Your Presuppositions and Preferences

As I continued to wrestle with the topic over a period of time, I noticed that the conclusions I was heading towards were different to those of several others in the group, and I also found that my preference for what the end conclusion would be was different to others in the group. I noticed that as I was wrestling with the Bible I was hoping to find evidence to support my view. At this point I realised that I needed to bring my presuppositions and my preferences into the light; I needed to bring my subconscious influences, as much as was in my power, into my conscious thinking.

Presuppositions are those things we already believe which have an effect on how we interpret a passage of Scripture, and preferences are simply what we want the text to say. Both are unavoidable, and both can be good or bad. It’s common to think that we want to interpret the Bible on its own terms, without the influence of our presuppositions and preferences, but this is impossible. Any reading of the biblical text will be affected by our presuppositions; the important question is whether they are the right presuppositions. Our preferences can also be a good thing, not necessarily because they help us find the meaning of the text, but because if we find the meaning of the text doesn’t match our preference, it can be revealing to consider why; perhaps there is some wrong thinking lying behind our preference.

If it’s impossible to interpret the Bible without presuppositions and preferences, then the way to ensure they have a good influence rather than a bad influence on our reading is to acknowledge them. We need to ask ourselves, ‘What am I already believing about this?’, and ‘What do I want this text to mean?’ It might be that our presuppositions are biblical and helpful, and it might be that our preference does line up with what the text says, but we won’t be able to test that until we bring them into the light.

As I thought about my presuppositions and preferences while wrestling with various biblical texts during this process, it didn’t cause me to change my mind, but it did challenge me to make sure that the text really was saying what I wanted it to, rather than just assuming it was. It challenged me to be able to make a good argument to support my view and to make sure I gave serious consideration to arguments for other views.

Interpreting the Bible can be a tricky process, especially when wrestling with a big ethical issue which could have huge real-life implications for people we know and love. But that tricky process can be helped by knowing and applying some of the tricks of the trade.