From ‘World in Union’ to ‘Every Man for Himself’
This has been writ epically large with the death of George Floyd.
On a far less consequential, but nonetheless revealing scale I’ve witnessed it in my town as the extraordinary weather the UK has enjoyed brought tens of thousands of people to our beaches – thousands of whom left mounds of rubbish on the sand, while obnoxious jet-skiers made life misery (and dangerous) for other water users, and fishermen cast lines where they would inevitably become entangled in swimmers and paddle boarders. It was dog eat dog for a parking space and social distancing a fanciful memory. Not so much #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter as #MeFirst and #ImTheOnlyOneWhoMatters.
This perhaps gives us an insight into the longer term post-corona impact and the challenges it will bring. My sense is that we are going to see a classic Gaussian curve: around twenty percent of people will be too locked in anxiety to emerge from their homes, even when any risk from the virus has been demonstrated to be essentially nil. But a corresponding twenty percent will respond to increased freedom by behaving in reckless and selfish ways and pursuing as many experiences as they possibly can. The sixty percent in the middle will have to learn how to live with the outliers, and it won’t be comfortable.
This will operate at a societal level with, on the one hand, demands upon mental health services ratcheting ever up while on the other crime and antisocial behaviour spirals. It will affect the church, too.
Those of us who are in pastoral ministry will need to learn to handle this divide. It will be demanding pastoral work to care for and encourage those who are fearful of emerging from lockdown. And it will be demanding pastoral work to challenge and win those who bail out of church life because they want to spend every weekend doing something ‘more fun’.
Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonian church are incredibly apt:
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15 )
Once more, as throughout this crisis, it is time for the church to show her mettle – and to demonstrate to the world what following a Saviour who went to the cross really means. Courage and forgiveness. We’re going to need both of those.
Hard To Believe Anyone Would Be So Stupid
Twelve miles or so later, they saw the same car, hood up, stranded at the side of the road. The same driver, no less bemused than the first time, and even more agitated, was pathetically grateful when they pulled over again. You guessed it: he was in such a hurry for his business meeting that he had decided to skip the service station and press on in the dim hope that the gallon he had received would take him to his destination.
It is hard to believe anyone would be so stupid, until we remember that that is exactly how many of us go about the business of Christian living. We are so busy pressing on to the next item on the agenda that we choose not to pause for fuel. Sadly, Christian leaders may be among the worst offenders. Faced with constant and urgent demands, they find it easy to neglect their calling to the ministry of the Word and prayer because they are so busy. Indeed, they are tempted to invest all of their activity with transcendental significance, so that although their relative prayerlessness quietly gnaws away at the back of their awareness, the noise and pain can be swamped by the sheer importance of all the things they are busily doing.
- D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 111-112
But I don’t think we give Martha enough credit. I don’t think we see her the same way Jesus does.
First of all, I’d never noticed that the story above begins:
“...Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.” - Luke 10:38
It is described as Martha’s house, even though I’ve always assumed the sisters lived with Lazarus. That would seem to be more normal for the culture. Yet the home is considered Martha’s, and she seems to have taken the initiative of inviting Jesus into their home.
In that culture, it would have conveyed great honour on Martha to have this great teacher choose to accept her invitation. (As it would today if, say, the Queen chose to visit your home.) Jesus honoured Martha from the start, and Luke, scrupulous with the facts, made sure that was clear.
Then, Martha took her complaint not to her sister, but to Jesus himself. What a lesson that is! She may have grumbled and griped for a while - I’ve always pictured her huffing and sighing and clattering dishes in the kitchen, just as I would have done - but when push came to shove, she wasn’t afraid to go and talk to the Lord about what was bothering her. She didn’t bottle it up and give Mary an earful when all the guests had gone. She didn’t moan about her to the other women in the kitchen. She took it to the source of help.
We don’t know whether this was Jesus’ first encounter with the family or if they knew him well already. Either way, in this patriarchal society where women were expected to quietly serve the menfolk then fade into the background, Martha felt able to speak up directly to the Lord.
And she very perceptively identified what was really bothering her - it seemed like Jesus hadn’t noticed how wonderful she was being. It seemed like he didn’t care.
“Don’t you care?” she asked. But then immediately realised that couldn’t be it. “Since I know you do care, tell her to help me.”
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus replied, his very public correction softened, I imagine, by this double use of her name. He pointed her to her error, saying, “Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her.”
And Martha went away chastened.
But Martha was a thinker, as we shall see. Yes, she was a doer, she is very active in everything we read about her, but there were deep waters there, too. As we see when we next meet her, in John 11.
The death of Lazarus
First of all, look at verse 5:
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Mary doesn’t even get named. She was named earlier in the passage, and identified as the Mary who was to break the jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet, but here we see Martha once again taking precedence. It’s like God didn’t want us to miss that Martha was loved. She hadn’t been put aside at that earlier mealtime. She hadn’t blown her chance when she chose service over sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus loved Martha.
Then we see one of the oddest uses of ‘so’ in the whole Bible:
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
He loved them so he waited when they wrote to him in distress?! That doesn’t sound very loving. Until you see what happened next.
“When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him [up and doing, again, while Mary sits!], but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’”
Then look at this:
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’”
I’m picturing this like a film scene, the pivotal moment, where whatever the person says next, will determine the outcome of the whole story. There’s a pregnant pause. Jesus looks into Martha’s eyes, and all the angels in heaven crane forward, brimming with anticipation as to what will happen next.
Jesus never asked a question to which he didn’t know the answer. If he asked, it was to teach something, to draw out of his interlocutor some truth that they had not recognised, or given voice to. So he asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” and as she looked at him, and felt him waiting for her answer, she found, miraculously, that she did:
“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
There were very few people in Jesus’ adult life who had grasped that. John the Baptist had, Peter had, Legion had. But it wasn’t something everyone who knew him was sure about. But Martha the thinker had obviously been paying attention, even while she was cooking and cleaning. She had heard his teachings, and had no doubt heard about all his signs and wonders, and she’d thought about it all. And now it was time to pull all the threads together and come to a conclusion.
In that moment of deep grief, face to face with the one who she thought had let her down, everything clicked, and she knew the truth, and put her trust in it.
I imagine Jesus smiled, pleased with her, proud of her for thinking through what so many learned men had missed, and coming to the right conclusion. Was this why he had waited for two days before going to Bethany, because he loved Martha and he wanted to give her this revelation of himself?
What a precious, wonderful moment.
And there was nothing more to be said. So she went to fetch her sister.
When Mary got to Jesus, she opened with exactly the same words, but she uttered them from her typical, Mary-ish, emotional position in a sobbing heap at his feet. And Jesus also wept.
With Mary he engaged emotionally, meeting her at her point of need. But with Martha, the one who most of us write off as ‘just a cook’, he engaged intellectually, theologically. How many men at that time took the effort to engage with women’s brains? I just love the way he treated her as someone worth talking to, someone who had depths that had rarely had an outlet. Depths few others, probably, had seen.
The anointing at Bethany
Martha is only mentioned by name on one other occasion, and it is a tiny, fascinating detail.
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.” - John 12:1-2
We know from the parallel passages that this meal was given at the house of Simon the Leper. Lazarus was clearly a guest, and here was Martha, serving again (and Mary, in the next verse, at Jesus’ feet once again, making a big, dramatic, emotional display).
But why was Martha serving? Had she not learned her lesson?
What do you think?
I think it’s a hugely encouraging detail. This time we don’t see her rushing around, frazzled and annoyed with Mary. Nor does Jesus rebuke or correct her. As a woman, this was probably the only legitimate way she could be near Jesus at a meal time [though a friend informs me that to have women serving at a big important meal like this would be very counter-cultural]. I suspect too, that for big, special meals like this, the neighbours would often come in to help with the cooking and serving. But what I find most helpful is that Martha didn’t take Jesus’ earlier correction as a blanket statement that she should never serve, but spend all her time in studying the scriptures and pondering Jesus’ every word. It’s not so much about what you’re doing, as the heart and attitude you’re doing it with.
The lesson we can often take away from the first story is that serving is wrong, that doing things is at best a distraction from the ‘best’ thing, and at worst trying to justify yourself by works instead of faith.
But tasks do still have to be completed. Serving teams need volunteers (at least, when the churches are open they do!). Families need to be fed. Homes need to be cleaned. It is not more godly to sit around hoping someone else will do the work while you sit and meditate on God’s word.
I think Martha was able to serve without resentment by the time of the third story, because she no longer had anything to prove. She didn’t have to make sure Jesus (and everyone else) knew how hard she was working. She didn’t need to vie for Jesus’ attention, or to be afraid that Mary was worming her way into Jesus’ good books and leaving her out. There was no competition left for her to lose.
She knew Jesus was the Messiah, and she felt seen, known and respected by him. And that knowledge gave her the freedom not to worry about the opinions of man any more. She was free to be herself, to serve as she loved to serve, to think as she loved to think, and to rejoice in the honour Jesus received from Mary without a twinge of jealousy.
Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.
This post originally appeared on my blog under the title ‘Seeing Martha’ (the new title was provided by Cristiano SIlva on twitter, who found the word I’d been looking for).
Responding to a Traumatic Week
I have spent much of the week wondering, with every new story making it harder to put into words what is happening. But even when we don’t know what to say - and I certainly don’t, even now - I think there are several things we can do, so that our confused sorrow not become an indifferent silence. Four in particular occur to me.
1. Grieve. We call injustices “grievous” for a reason: they are supposed to be grieved. We are meant to lament, to express sorrow about tragedies like these, without instantly turning them into a solution (we just need to do X) or a debate (let’s wait and see the facts about Y). There is a time to mourn, whether privately, publicly or both. This is one of those times.
2. Learn. White pastors like me, by and large, will be watching these events from the outside, trying to empathise, rather than experiencing them as something happening to our community, as many in our congregations are. One thing we can do is educate ourselves. We need to understand why things are like this, not just in America but in the UK and elsewhere as well. A couple of years ago I pulled together a bunch of resources I’ve found helpful, to which we can add Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise and Ben Lindsay’s We Need To Talk About Race, among others. This thread from Thabiti Anyabwile, posted just a few hours ago, is another excellent example. Learning helps.
3. Speak. You might think that it goes without saying that murder is wrong, that police brutality is a problem, that racism is evil, and that the combination is an abomination. It might feel so obvious that it is not worth verbalising. But there are two reasons you should anyway. The first is that there are plenty of Christians, especially in the West, for whom the events of the last week represent isolated incidents with no underlying pattern of racism in society as a whole, and who are already responding to the situation with what-aboutery and yeah-buttery. The second is that silence, especially from those in the majority, is one of the weapons the enemy has historically used to keep white supremacy in place. Articulating your outrage, grief or prayers can challenge the first and directly confront the second.
4. Pray. I hope this is too obvious to need mentioning, but it might not be. We need to pray, publicly and privately: that God would find a way of bringing comfort to the victims’ families, righteousness into the public square, wisdom to those with civic responsibilities, peace to the cities that are threatened, and justice at both individual and structural levels. If you run out of words, pray in languages. Use the psalms. Try to articulate what you would pray if it had happened within your family - and then remember that, in a very powerful sense, it actually has.
There are many other steps that it may be appropriate to take as well. Giving. Protesting. Campaigning. Voting. But for now, grieve, learn and pray. And don’t lose hope.
This is being played out at a global and national level in arguments between politicians, journalists and academics. (Jennie posted so helpfully yesterday on this subject.) I’ve witnessed it in my own town too, as the beach has been crowded and social distancing widely ignored, while others stay at home and lament those who are behaving as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. It’s a tension we will also be discovering in our churches. And like arguments in the UK over Brexit and in the US between Republicans and Democrats, this is one that has the potential to get ugly.
The most read post the past couple of weeks over on The Gospel Coalition site has been Brett McCracken’s outstanding, ‘Church, Don’t Let Coronavirus Divide You.’ This is the most helpful article I have read on how Christians should act towards one another at this time.
Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 4)
Wesley confessed that “Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason” – but he pointed out equally that “Others have utterly disregarded it.” He argued that the Devil doesn’t mind either extreme, just so long as we fail to grasp why God calls his people to fast before him. The Devil fears fasting because he knows, perhaps better than we do, that fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven.
I have left this fourth motive till last in this four-part mini-series of blogs on fasting, because it flows out of the other three great motives that the Bible gives us for fasting. We have a tendency to assume that all of our prayers are heard equally in heaven, and that fasting is therefore unnecessary. However, Scripture tells us that this simply isn’t true. God’s call for Christians to fast flows out of the thinking behind the many Bible verses which inform us that all prayers are not heard equally in heaven.
“When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen” (Isaiah 1:15).
“The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him … If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable” (Proverbs 15:8 & 28:9).
“Confess your sins to each other … The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:18).
“Husbands … be considerate as you live with your wives … so that nothing will hinder your prayers … For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:7&12).
That’s where fasting comes in. It does not win us any ‘merit’ with God. That’s the satanic counterfeit of true fasting, where people try to turn a means of living grace into a dead work. Fasting is not a Christian form of hunger-strike, in which we twist the arm of an unwilling God. It is a God-given aid through which we change our hearts towards him, not his heart towards us. Fasting helps us to come before God and to receive the finished work of Jesus with a pure heart. When the Lord warns us in Isaiah 58:4 that “Fasting like yours will not make your voice heard on high”, he is encouraging us that true fasting will make our voices heard on high! He is calling us to embrace the first three motives that I have already outlined, so that, through fasting, “You will call, and the Lord will answer” (Isaiah 58:9).
Biblical fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven because fasting expresses our delight in the Lord. For all the reasons that I outlined in the first blog in this mini-series, it communicates to God that we love him more than the fleeting pleasures of this world. We love him even more than we love our own bodies. We long for his glory to be revealed in us and in the world around us. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting,” the Lord urges us in Joel 2:12, because it is one of the tools that he has given us to concentrate our full attention on him. Fasting enables us to do what God calls us to do in Jeremiah 29:13-14. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.”
Biblical fasting also helps our prayers to be heard in heaven because fasting helps to activate humility and repentance. The Lord detests pretend obedience and every other form of hypocrisy. He explains in Zechariah 7:13 that “When I called, they did not listen; so when they called I would not listen.” For all the reasons that I outlined in the second blog in this mini-series, fasting therefore is a powerful aid towards integrity. It is a God-given corrective to the pride that makes believers say one thing and do another. It humbles us before the Lord (Psalm 69:10, Ezra 8:21). It helps us to feel deep grief over our sins (Matthew 9:15, Joel 2:12). It enables us to embrace the truth of James 4:6-8. “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble … Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
Biblical fasting also helps our prayers to be heard in heaven because fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons. Prayer is warfare. It involves wrestling with principalities and powers which are quite unwilling to vacate the areas of the world that have fallen into their clutches. If it took Daniel twenty-one days of fasting to achieve breakthrough in his prayers for the Jewish nation (Daniel 10:1-3&11-13), then why would we imagine that similar struggles are unnecessary for us to see breakthrough in our own? We must never forget that when we cry out to the Lord against our Enemy (Luke 18:3), that Enemy is standing in his courtroom in opposition to us (Job 1:6, Zechariah 3:1). For all the reasons that I outlined in the third blog in this mini-series, fasting helps us to confront the forces of darkness that stand against us. It enables us to plead the blood of Jesus in heaven’s courtroom so that our Enemy loses his grip on the world around us. That’s why it’s so vital that we rediscover what fasting is for.
Andrew Murray likens fasting to firing our very selves at the Enemy in prayer. “Fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.” Arthur Wallis adds that “In giving us the privilege of fasting as well as praying, God has added a powerful weapon to our spiritual armoury. In her folly and ignorance the Church has largely looked upon it as obsolete. She has thrown it down in some dark corner to rust, and there is has lain forgotten for centuries.” If we are willing to pick up this weapon, the Lord promises us that it has lost none of its former power. It is still mighty to demolish strongholds.
If the evil King Ahab fasted and found that even his prayers were heard in heaven, then shouldn’t we consider fasting too? (1 Kings 21:25-29) If the bloodthirsty pagan citizens of Nineveh fasted and found that even their prayers were heard in heaven, then shouldn’t we consider fasting too? (Jonah 3:4-10)
In the face of the coronavirus crisis; in the face of the unprecedented economic and social traumas that are yet to be felt fully; and in light of the many Gospel breakthroughs that could be ours in the midst of this shaking of nations, shouldn’t we consider fasting? If not now, then when?
“Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord … ‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning’” (Joel 1:14 and 2:12-13).
“So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:23).
The quote from John Wesley comes from his ‘Sermon 27’, on Matthew 6:16-18.
The quote from Andrew Murray comes from ‘With Christ In The School of Prayer’ (1895).
The quote from Arthur Wallis comes from ‘God’s Chosen Fast’ (1968).
How Should We Respond to Injustice and Incompetence?
As the restrictions began to lift, though, the stresses and tensions began to boil, and the criticisms to flow. Finding out that while we were making distressing, burdensome, life-changing sacrifices, one of the Prime Minister’s key advisers was violating his own rules was the last straw, and the social media vitriol bubbled over.
Meanwhile in the US, yet more stories of brutality and injustice against black men hit the news cycles.
How should Christians respond when authority figures – be it someone at work, a national leader or an official body like the police – act unjustly or unwisely? In particular, how should we speak, write or tweet about them?
Here are some questions to consider:
1) Will it help?
What are you hoping your words, written or spoken, will achieve? Do you want to change the situation or merely to express your feelings about it (or to show that you think ‘correctly’ about it)?
Venting your anger on social media or to family/friends/colleagues may help you feel slightly better temporarily [Narrator: It won’t], but will it change the situation at all? Will it move a step towards bringing justice or preventing the injustice from happening again? Will it change anyone’s heart, mind or actions?
Expressing yourself in anger will not excise the anger from within you, but simply fan its flame. And if it is met with agreement, that will inflame you further, while if it is met with disagreement, that too will stoke the flames and make them blaze more strongly. But if all that is produced is an interior furnace, it will just increase your feeling of impotence and injustice. What’s more, you will have spread that fired-up frustration to those around you, robbing them of peace and denying them the opportunity to douse the flames and channel their energies into something more productive.
Consider what outcome you are looking for and whether this method is likely to be at least a stepping stone towards achieving it. Many of the tweets I’ve seen about the killing of George Floyd do pass this test. They are expressions of grief, and calls for eyes to be opened and racism – institutional, personal and casual – to be ended.
If you do need to ‘get it off your chest’ before you are able to engage more calmly, write it in a letter you will never send or, better still, in your journal, with God as your acknowledged audience. Then put it aside and walk away (from both the letter and the anger).
2) Will it point people to Jesus?
Yes, I know God gets angry and Jesus got angry. Is yours the righteous anger of a holy God against those who profess to love him? Jesus only directed his anger at religious authorities who were making it harder for his people to worship him, or people who were desecrating his temple.
To see how we should respond to secular authorities we need to look rather to Paul, who never sounded off about the injustices of Rome in his letters or speeches, but who constantly, kindly, passionately pointed his opponents to the God who loved them and sent his son to save them. It wasn’t that he wasn’t bothered by injustice or persecution, but he saw the bigger picture. He knew that the way to bring justice and peace on earth was not to write letters and drum up support and petition the leaders to be nicer. Rather, his goal was to point the unjust to Christ and given them the opportunity to be transformed.
3) Is it loving?
Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. Paul told us to respect those in authority. Yes, it is important that we act justly, and seek justice for the oppressed, but think back to point 1 – is what you’re planning to say/tweet/post going to help? Will it make any progress towards bringing justice in the situation you are seeing? If the person it is about read it, would they know you love them? Do you love them?
1 John 4 tells us, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” “But,” you may be thinking, “how could I love someone like that, someone who did something like that? They don’t deserve it.” Neither did we. But God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were still sinners – while we ignored him, rejected him, mocked him and denied him – Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
Here’s an interesting Bible study to do sometime: find out what Jesus and his followers (and the biblical writers) thought of rulers like Herod, Caesar, Nero or Pilate. What adjectives did they use about them? How does that compare with how we speak about our leaders?
4) Does it show faith in God?
Romans 13 tells us: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” This is one of the hardest verses for us to get our heads around. I can’t begin to grasp how it could be true that God institutes wicked leaders. I can’t fathom how he can be sovereign AND good AND allow – let alone cause – this to happen.
But I choose to believe that God is in control. I can see his hand at work in the midst of terrible situations throughout the Bible, and have experienced his sovereignty over the details of my own life. I know that this world is not the full picture, and that the primary goal of a believer is not to bring peace on earth, but to give glory to God. That is why the ‘great cloud of witnesses’, whose example Hebrews points us to, were able willingly to submit to the persecutions and tortures meted out on them – they knew that this world was not their home, that the goal was not to live a quiet, easy, prosperous life on earth, but to see God glorified, whatever it took.
If we believe that God is in control, and that he sees and cares about the tiniest of sparrows, how much more does he care about this situation? Why not ask him to show you his perspective on the injustice you are seeing? Look for where he is in the picture. What is he doing, and what is he asking you to say or do? How will his name be honoured, exalted and worshipped in this situation? Is that your greatest concern?
We need to remember that people are watching us. Friends, family, colleagues, strangers. In real life and online we are witnessing to them about who God is, what he is like, and how he has transformed our lives. If they read your twitter feed, listened to your conversations in the staff kitchen, saw what you had posted on Facebook, would they see the difference that faith in a sovereign, loving, powerful, just God brings, or would you look just like everyone else?
Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 3)
That’s why I’m writing this mini-series of blogs to help us reflect on what the Bible teaches about fasting and on its crucial importance during crisis periods in Church history. In the midst of perhaps the greatest crisis of our own lifetimes, I want to help you rediscover the role that fasting plays in rolling back the oppression of the Devil and in ringing the Gospel bell of freedom over our troubled world. In these four blogs, I am outlining the four great biblical motives for our fasting before God:
Motive 1: Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
Motive 4: Fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
In one of the most famous Old Testament chapters about fasting, God explains that the purpose of our fasting is to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). Jesus echoed this when he returned from forty days and nights of fasting in the wilderness to declare in the synagogues that now “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:14-19).
What happened next was remarkable. Jesus made good on his promise by delivering people from demonic sickness and oppression with a simple word of command (Matthew 8:16, Luke 13:10-17). The evil spirits cowered before him and snivelled their abject confession that they were powerless to resist him (Matthew 8:29-31). Deliverance became such a major feature of his public ministry that when Peter sought to summarise what he had witnessed, he told people “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
Not everyone who witnessed this spotted the link between the ease with which Jesus pushed back the Devil and his demons, and the forty days and nights of fasting that he had spent preparing himself for public ministry. On one occasion, even his closest disciples had to ask him to explain the obvious difference between his successful encounters with demons and their own frequent failures. His reply was disarmingly simple: “This kind [of demon] can only come out by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21 and 9:21).
The Apostles evidently took this teaching to heart. They recognised that Jesus had called them to be with him so that they, too, could push back the work of the Devil in the world (Mark 3:13-15). They could achieve this by basking in his own anointing before the Day of Pentecost (Luke 9:1-2 and 10:17), but when he ascended back to heaven their own fasting began. Jesus had predicted this for them – and for us – when he asked in Matthew 9:15, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” As a result, we discover, especially from the life of the Apostle Paul, that fasting became a frequent feature of apostolic ministry (Acts 9:9, 13:1-3, 14:23, 27:9). We mustn’t miss the link between the amazing ways in which they healed the sick, delivered people from demons and planted churches in pagan cities, and the way in which they fasted before the Lord.
It’s all about spiritual authority. We have been given complete authority by Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20), but the truth is, the way we live our lives is a bit like the story of the two men struggling with a massive sofa on the staircase of an apartment building. After sweating and struggling for a long time, one of the men exclaims: ‘It’s useless – we’re never going to manage to get this sofa down the stairs’, to which the other man replies, ‘Up the stairs? I thought we were trying to take it down the stairs!’ When we fast, we confront the civil war that rages within our hearts. Although we speak commands in the name of Jesus, there are aspects of our own lives which still refuse to submit to that name. When we fast, we declare war on our own sinful nature in the name of Jesus. We demonstrate that we have switched sides completely. We are ‘all in’ for Jesus, even if it means resisting our flesh, and as a result we find that we are much more able to operate with his authority. The Devil and his demons can smell hypocrisy a mile off, but they cannot resist the type of integrity that is expressed through fasting.
This is not dualism (the false belief that our soul is good and our flesh is bad). Nor is it asceticism (the flawed idea that we can bear spiritual fruit through the harsh treatment of our bodies). Those are two counterfeits of biblical fasting that the Devil has invented because he is so scared of the real thing. It is simply to recognise that our body wants to dominate our spirits, whereas Scripture commands us to bring our body into glad submission to the Holy Spirit in our spirits. The Puritans put it this way in The Church of England Book of Homilies in 1562: “[Fasting is] to chastise the flesh, that it be not too wanton, but tamed and brought in subjection to the spirit.”
The Bible warns repeatedly that our fleshly appetites seek to dominate us and to lead us into sin. We can see this very clearly in verses such as Genesis 3:6 and 9:20-21, Exodus 16:3, Numbers 11:4-5 and 21:5, 1 Samuel 2:29. Psalm 78:29-31 and 106:15 – the list goes on and on. The New Testament explains that the Holy Spirit wants to empower our spirits to bring our bodies to full submission to Jesus as their new Master (Romans 13:14, 1 Corinthians 6:12-13 and 9:27, 2 Peter 2:19). When we grow lazy in subduing our body’s constant desire for food and drink, we become weak in fighting off all other temptations too. When we learn to bring our most basic appetites into submission to the Lord Jesus, we find ourselves strengthened to resist all other forms of temptation too. When we submit the whole of our lives to Jesus as our new Master, we suddenly find that the Devil and his demons lose their power to resist our commands, which are now spoken with real integrity. We discover the link that is made in James 4:7 – “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
I believe that we are living through a crisis period in Church history in which believers need to be able to pray with greater authority than they have experienced before. I believe that the forces of darkness – so evident at work behind the coronavirus – need to be pushed back by an army of believers who have learned to speak the commands of God with absolute integrity. I believe that we need to do more than admire Rees Howells and the small group of intercessors, whose powerful prayers famously helped turn the tide of the Second World War. We need to walk the same path that they did.
When Rees Howells started to fast, he was surprised by the civil war raging in his own soul. “I didn’t know such a lust was in me. My agitation was the proof of the grip it had on me.” But after defeating the enemy on the inside through the name of Jesus, Rees Howells found himself able to rout the enemy on the outside through his prayers in Jesus’ name. Our own generation stands in need of such believers, who, through fasting, have learned to push back the Devil and his demons.
1) Not all Greek manuscripts of Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29 contain the words ‘and fasting’. Debate still rages over whether ancient ascetics added those two words to bolster their own practices, or whether pleasure-seekers removed those two words for the same reason! Thankfully, there are enough other Bible verses about the link between fasting and spiritual warfare for our understanding not to rest on these two verses alone.
2) Quote taken from Norman Grubb’s short biography “Rees Howells: Intercessor” (1952).
A Thousand Generations
And now it continues down the line, through me and my brother to his children, and hopefully, in time their children, and their children…
But what about me? Does the line stop with me, simply because I never had children? It could, if I let it. I could receive all the wonderful blessings of this heritage and of the faith and let them fill my cup and stay there. That would be tragic indeed.
But it needn’t.
Mum wasn’t the beginning of my Christian heritage on her side, it stretches back through the teacher who was bold enough to organise a trip to hear an evangelist, and further, to whoever introduced that teacher to Christ, and whoever introduced them and so on and so on, back to Abraham (Galatians 3).
The Bible teaches that we – all believers everywhere – are members of one family. We are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, all because of our faith in Christ. We didn’t just receive an individualistic salvation, but were adopted into a new family, and given the name of that family. The blood relationships we have are still real, but they are secondary to the covenant relationship we have in Christ.
I may not have physical children, either by blood or by legal adoption, but I am richly blessed with spiritual children – the people I witnessed to at school, at least one of whom is still going on in the faith; the people who have come to faith through missionaries I support; the people in my sphere of influence who maybe didn’t come to faith through my witness, but have been helped to stay on the path and to grow into the next phase of spiritual maturity.
When I listen to the UK Blessing (or this Makaton version), I am not excluded from that wonderful section about God’s favour being upon me and my family and my children and their children…for a thousand generations. I don’t have to put on a brave face, and try to be happy for those to whom it applies. No, I can sing it with joy, receiving it as God’s faithful promise to me.
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.” (Isaiah 54:1-3)
God’s favour is not only upon those who are already favoured in the world’s eyes, or who conform to the culture’s expectations, or who have already received the desires of our hearts. His eye is on the widow, the orphan and the outsider. He sets the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6). His blessings are abundant and his promises are good. He is for me. He is for you.
How are you online?
In the case of my own church, it feels that eight weeks into lockdown we have got a reasonable grasp of how to do online services. What we do is getting better week by week as we learn new skills and means of communication. It’s certainly not perfect, but it seems to be serving church members well and is well enough done to be able to invite the non-churched to watch without worrying they will be immediately put off. It looks, though, as if we are going to have to keep doing this for quite some time – so there’s plenty of room for improvement.
How about your church? How are your Sundays? How are you most effectively utilising Zoom? What online initiatives have worked well? What do you need to change?
Don’t just keep doing what you are doing. Keep asking the question.
How are you planning?
In the UK it looks as though we will be allowed to have some kinds of physical gatherings after July 4th – but those gatherings will be severely restricted, and July 4th is still six weeks away. That means we still have six weeks of doing what we’re doing and it means we have six weeks to get ready for what comes next: how far have you got in planning for what that might look like?
Life will be far from back to normal and churches will be having to navigate doing some things physically, at a distance of 2 meters from one another, with other things staying online. Even as so much remains uncertain we need to be intentional in preparing ourselves for all this.
How are you resting?
For many of us, the first phase of lockdown has been incredibly busy. Learning those new online skills and working hard at creating new patterns of pastoral care and connection has been all-consuming. My hunch is that when we come through the tight lockdown restrictions things will get busier again, not easier: doing life with some physical proximity but social distancing measures in place, having to maintain online provision, pastoring people through corona-PTSD, remaining alert and ready to respond if a second wave of the virus necessitates another lockdown, and so on, will give us even more to do.
So while we need to be busy these next six weeks planning and preparing for the next phase we also need to be busy resting in order to build reserves of energy for what comes next.
That applies to us personally but this experience has also created opportunities to think about how society as a whole might get better at resting. I’d love to see a return to a restriction on Sunday trading hours: wouldn’t we all be better off with one day of the week which is not consumed with consumerism? (There is a UK petition to Parliament to this effect here – though hardly anyone has signed it yet.)
Of course, there are many other corona-questions but those three seem essential ones to me. What are your answers?
Post-Christianity and Cold Feet
Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 2)
So here’s the question that I’m asking in this moment of coronavirus crisis. Now that even our most brazen politicians have begun confessing that the problems that are facing us are too difficult for governments to solve, is God calling his people to respond with a fresh season of fasting together before him? How big do the challenges to our healthcare, to our economy, to our children’s education, and to our churches need to become before we rediscover fasting as a mighty weapon in the Christian arsenal?
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why talk of fasting is unpopular these days. Like you, I’ve read all about the ancient ascetics and the medieval monks who turned the life-giving practice of fasting into a dead work, attempting to curry favour with the Lord through the harsh treatment of their bodies. I get why many believers today have filed fasting away in their minds as something unknown, unnecessary and undesirable. That’s why I am writing this mini-series of four blogs to invite you to blow away the cobwebs from the Scriptures that encourage us to fast in times of crisis. I believe that God is calling you and me to a fresh season of fasting, amidst of the greatest crisis of our generation.
In the first blog in this mini-series, I took you to some Bible verses which teach us that the primary motive for our fasting ought to be its benefits to God, rather than its benefits to ourselves. Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord, our desire to reconsecrate our lives to him and our deep longing for a greater revelation of him. In the remaining three blogs, we will look at the other three great motives:
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
Motive 4: Fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Fasting often accompanies prayer, but it is itself distinct from prayer. It is more than merely ‘prayer plus’. It serves a mighty purpose of its own. It is a powerful aid to our humility.
The Bible warns us that a full stomach physically invariably leads to pride spiritually. The root of Sodom’s sin was not sexual perversion, but an excess of food. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” (Ezekiel 16:49). The sins of the Israelites were also rooted in their full bellies. “He humbled you, causing you to hunger … to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes out of the mouth of the Lord … Be careful … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied … your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3&11-14). Those of us who live in prosperous, well-fed and spiritually lukewarm nations need to take this lesson from Israel’s history particularly seriously. “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me” (Hosea 13:6).
It isn’t hard for Christians in the West to trace their nation’s rejection of God’s Word back to its relative prosperity. Nor is it hard for us to trace the rapid growth of the Church in many nations of the Global South back to the poverty of those nations. But when we fast, we go further than mere commentary on the effect of full and empty stomachs on other people. We make an active decision to empty our own earthly bellies for a season in order to increase our hunger for the things of heaven. We voluntarily embrace the path of poverty and lack in order to feast, instead, on the promise of Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
King David understood this. He tells us that “I wept and humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10). Ezra understood this too, proclaiming “a fast … that we might humble ourselves before our God” (Ezra 8:21). Fasting is a God-given corrective to the pride that so easily infects the heart of any well-fed human. It is a powerful accompaniment to prayer, but it is also powerful on its own. “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble. Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:6-8).
The Bible also explains that fasting has a second, similar significance for the believer today. It was a major element of the elaborate mourning rituals of Israel (1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:12 & 3:35). As a result, the Israelites would often fast as an expression of their grief-stricken repentance, demonstrating to God the profound sorrow that they felt about their nation’s sin against him. Samuel led the Israelites in one such fast of repentance in 1 Samuel 7:6. Ezra fasted in this way personally (Ezra 9:3-6 & 10:6) and he went on to lead the returning Jewish exiles in a similar national fast of repentance (Nehemiah 9:1-2). Even the wicked King Ahab and the pagan citizens of Nineveh fasted to humble themselves in repentance when warned about the judgment of the Lord (1 Kings 21:25-29 and Jonah 3:4-10). On each of these occasions, the threatened crisis was averted. If even out-and-out idolaters enjoyed the benefits of fasting, why wouldn’t we do the same during our own coronavirus crisis today?
I know that Christians in the past have treated fasting in the same way that Muslims treat Ramadan – as the accrual of ‘good deeds’ to tip the scales of divine judgment in their favour. I know that fasting has frequently become a source of pride to its practitioners (Luke 18:11-12). I know that medieval priests taught that fasting is a ‘penance’ that can top up what is lacking in the work of Jesus on the cross for us. I despise that false teaching every bit as much as you do, but the remedy for abuse is never disuse, but rather proper use. We mustn’t allow the mistakes of others to rob us of the powerful tool that God has given us to activate deep humility in our hearts and to express sincere repentance for our sin.
We mustn’t miss the way that Jesus, shortly after teaching his followers about “when you fast” (not if you fast), uses “fasting” and “mourning” as interchangeable and equivalent terms (Matthew 6:16-17 and 9:15). Nor must we miss the link between this teaching about fasting and his earlier promise that “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). We cannot afford to allow the misguided legalism of others to blind our own eyes to that fact that fasting remains a mighty channel of God’s grace towards those who believe the Gospel.
John Wesley encourages us fast primarily for the Lord’s sake and secondarily as an expression of our humility and repentance towards him: “Let it be done unto the Lord, with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven; to express our sorrow and shame for our manifold transgressions of His holy law … Let us beware of fancying we merit anything of God by our fasting. We cannot be too often warned of this; inasmuch as a desire to ‘establish our own righteousness’, to procure salvation of debt and not of grace, is so deeply rooted in all our hearts. Fasting only a way which God hath ordained, wherein we wait for His unmerited mercy; and wherein, without any desert of ours, He hath promised freely to give us His blessing.”
I believe that God is calling us to rediscover the forgotten blessings of fasting as part of our response to the present coronavirus crisis. In the final two blogs in this mini-series, we will look at Scriptures which teach us that our fasting pushes back the gates of hell and makes our prayers heard in heaven. But you don’t have to wait for those blogs to start doing what the Lord commands in Joel 1:14 and 2:12:
“Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord … ‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’”
The John Wesley quote comes from his ‘Sermon 27’, on Matthew 6:6-18.
In Praise of Brainwashing
I’ve been thinking about brainwashing recently. Many people would look at my life and say I’ve been brainwashed. I was brought up in a home where a certain set of minority beliefs were presented as true. I have adhered to the core of these beliefs for as long as I can remember and have never really had a time when I’ve rejected them for an alternative way of viewing and living in the world. These beliefs cause me to live my life in a way that is not only different from but seems outright weird to a majority of my peers. And to top it off, I’m so committed to these beliefs that I spend my life thinking about them and teaching them to others. On a popular definition of brainwashing, I think I probably qualify.
I began to realise this as I reflected on the concept of formation outlined by James K.A. Smith in You Are What You Love. As I thought through his suggestion that we should shape our corporate worship and our home life in such a way that it forms us into people whose loves are directed in a certain direction, I was struck that many people would see this as brainwashing, particularly when the idea is applied to parenting.
But then I realised that if Smith is right that all of us are constantly being formed by unexamined cultural liturgies – and I think he probably is – then all of us are constantly being brainwashed. My situation is no different; it’s just that fewer people have been brainwashed into the beliefs I have. Those who hold to majority beliefs are no less brainwashed than the rest of us.
The key question, then, is not whether we should allow ourselves to be brainwashed (or whether we should brainwash our children) but who or what we should allow to brainwash us and into what loves and beliefs. There is good brainwashing and bad brainwashing. The key is distinguishing between the two.
So why am I happy to have been brainwashed into Christian belief and why do I continue to actively pursue that brainwashing (or formation, as Smith would more gently put it)? I think there are three cumulative reasons, in the form of three questions that should be asked of any belief system.
Is it coherent?
To be worth adopting a belief system needs to be coherent. The issue here isn’t whether it is true or whether we want it to be true, but whether it could work if it were true.
Is it good, beautiful, and life-giving?
This question helps us think about whether we want the belief system to be true. It might be coherent but unattractive and damaging. We want to be shaped by beliefs that will do us and others good.
Is it true?
This is obviously the most important question. Does this belief system align with reality? Does it make good sense of what we already know to be true and of how we experience the world?
I’m happy to have been brainwashed into Christianity because I have examined it and found it to be coherent; I have experienced it to be beautiful and life-giving, and I think there are very good reasons to believe it’s true.
In reality, of course, I’m not a Christian just because I have received the right sort of brainwashing. No amount of brainwashing can bring life to one who is dead. Ultimately, I’m a Christian because of what the Father has done in me through his Son and the Spirit. The brainwashing is just part of how he has worked and is working in me. But I now realise that when someone suggests I’ve been brainwashed, I’ll be able to confidently say, ‘Yes I have, and I am so grateful for that.’ I’m sure it will prove to be a great conversation starter.
Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 1)
A few years later, when the American colonists began their revolution against British rule, one of the first rulings of the Continental Congress was that the revolutionists ought to do the same. A national “day of public humiliation, fasting and prayer” on 20th July 1775 helped the ramshackle Continental Army to defeat a global superpower. Another similar day of prayer and fasting, called by Abraham Lincoln on 30th April 1863, helped to preserve the Union and to sound the death-knell for slavery.
So here’s my question. In our own moment of coronavirus crisis, is God calling us to fast? Few of us would doubt that God is calling us to pray, but is he also calling us to salt those prayers with fasting? I am not expecting Queen Elizabeth or Boris Johnson or Donald Trump to call a national day of prayer and fasting any time soon, but should we be taking the initiative ourselves? What is the biblical practice of fasting all about anyway, and what role ought it to play in our response to what is perhaps the greatest global crisis of our generation?
I know that talk of fasting is unfashionable these days. I know that it tends to be viewed among evangelicals as archaic, ascetic, outdated and unnecessary. But I also know that Jesus fasted, that the Apostles fasted, and that many of the people who have seen the greatest Gospel breakthroughs throughout Church history have been men and women who fasted too. I therefore want to reflect on this challenge seriously and over the next few days I want to help you to do the same. In this mini-series of four blogs, I am going to summarise what the Bible teaches about fasting and about its crucial importance for the reversal of disaster and for the revival of nations.
In these four blogs, I will outline the four great biblical motives for our fasting before God:
Motive 1: Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
Motive 4: Fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven
Motive 1: Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord
This has been the biggest eye-opener to me as I have studied what the Scriptures say about fasting before the Lord in times of crisis. If I am honest, I have tended to approach the subject with an attitude of self-centredness. I have tended to ask, ‘What good would fasting do to me?’, and I wonder if that’s the very reason why I need to fast. When the Bible talks about fasting, it confronts the Christian consumerism that leaves many Christians consumed with themselves. It warns us not to fast primarily for our own benefit and pleasure (Isaiah 58:3). It calls us, instead, to fast with the kind of fasting God has chosen – as an act of worship and of ministry to God (Isaiah 58:5-6). Motives matter massively, so the personal benefits of fasting need to take a firm second place to the benefits to God. He will ask us, as he asked in Zechariah 7:5: “When you fasted … was it really for me that you fasted?”
Luke 2:37 tells us literally that Anna “worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer.” Acts 13:2 echoes this when it tells us literally that the leaders of the church in Antioch “ministered to the Lord, and fasted.” Fasting is therefore first and foremost an act of worship, the forgoing of food for a season as an expression of our delight in the Lord’s presence and a proclamation that we prize his love more than bread, wine and the other tasty comforts of our tables (Psalm 63:3, Song of Songs 1:2, John 4:32).
Fasting is an expression of our renewed consecration to the Lord. It echoes the fasting of the ancient Nazirites (Numbers 6:2-3) and it responds to God’s call in Joel 1:14 and 2:15 for us to “Sanctify a fast” or “Set apart a fast” as a crossroads moment in our well-fed lives during which we can turn our backs on the path of living for self and set our feet firmly on the path of living for him alone. I understand the dangers of asceticism, and we will examine them in the other blogs in this mini-series, but I wonder if the reason for our neglect of fasting is rather more basic. We are more attached to the things of this earth than we like to admit. We are too wedded to this world to deny ourselves the things of earth as a way of expressing our devotion to the things of heaven.
Jesus began his three years of public ministry with forty days of prayer and fasting (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). During those forty days, he overcame the temptation to fuel his soul with this world’s food, to fuel his ego with this world’s praise and to fuel his ministry with this world’s strategies. As a result, he returned from his days of fasting “in the power of the Spirit”, equipped to partner with his Father against the world for its redemption (Luke 4:14).
Paul and Barnabas also began their missionary journeys with a season of fasting (Acts 13:3). They renounced their attachment to the things of this world in order that they might prove worthy servants of God as they went on mission to the world. After seeing phenomenal fruit on their first journey, they appointed elders for each of their church plants by leading those new leaders in similar seasons of fasting (Acts 14:23). You might have read those Scriptures many times without noticing the importance that they place on fasting, so go back and read them a bit more slowly. Jesus taught his followers about “when you fast” – not if you fast – and he clearly expected it to be something that they would do often as they partnered with his Spirit during the period between his ascension to heaven and his triumphant return (Matthew 6:16-17 & 9:15).
Fasting has often been associated with receiving renewed revelation from the Lord. Scripture tells us that when “I, Daniel … turned my face to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting”, the angel Gabriel appeared and told the prophet, “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding” (Daniel 9:2-3&21-22). In the same way, the Apostle Paul talks about his frequent periods of fasting just a few verses before recounting his “visions and revelations from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 11:27 & 12:1). In this present global crisis, we dare not reduce the gift of prophecy to mere personal encouragement. We need to rediscover it as the unveiling of what God is doing through world events all around us. We must press against the doors of heaven, through fasting, until the Holy Spirit ushers us inside and reveals to us what is happening in the control-room of history.
In the next blog in this mini-series, we will examine some of the personal benefits of fasting. But let’s linger for a moment on the primary benefits of our fasting to the Lord. Let’s acknowledge that one of the biggest reasons why we need to rediscover the biblical practice of fasting is to help us surrender to God, to help us worship God, to help us reconsecrate our lives to God, and to help us seek fresh revelation of God and of God’s work in the world.
Let’s rediscover what previous generations of believers have understood about fasting: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen … Then you will call, and the Lord will answer … Then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land … Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins.” (Isaiah 58:6-12)
On Being “Yoked With Unbelievers”
The short answer is: I don’t think Paul was thinking about business partnerships, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Paul didn’t live in an entrepreneurial, capitalist society, and the distinction we have between being a business partner, an employee, a supplier, a customer (or even a slave!) simply didn’t exist in the ancient world. His main point of application was the withdrawal from idolatrous practices (6:14-16), as we also see at length in 1 Corinthians 8-10, but we know he was also concerned with marriage (1 Cor 7), the infiltration of sexual and financial norms into the church (1 Cor 5-6), and various other things that he writes about in both letters. If we want a real world case study of how the “yoked with unbelievers” principle works in a tangible situation, the best one might be the example of buying food in the meat market and eating in a private home (1 Cor 10:23-11:1): feel free to participate as long as nobody’s conscience is violated, it doesn’t lead anyone into idolatry or sin, and it can be done to the glory of God.
Applying this text to business partnerships is more a question of wisdom than law, I think. If my Dad had started his business with two unbelievers instead of two Christians, it probably would have made the Christian ethics of his company far harder to instil, and it would almost certainly have been an unwise decision. Investing in a large multinational company alongside many non-Christian owners—which technically is the same thing, on a far smaller scale—is something we all do, directly or indirectly, and I think that’s fine. Exactly where the line is takes wisdom, and should be triple-filtered through Paul’s principles: conscience, idolatry and the glory of God. That’s a starter for ten, anyway.
Lockdown & Singleness
Livestreaming in Lockdown
“There MUST be a way” for churches to help care homes
I love a challenge.
I have these nagging and insatiable “can I make it happen?” thoughts, and quite frankly, lockdown has been a hotbed for them. I’m pleased to say that only one has been sofa-related. So far.
One evening after a late supper, my husband and I thought it would be an ideal time to embark upon a room redesign. By 1am, the all important sofa swap was the final piece of the puzzle left. Now. We’ve done this before. Many times and we know that you can measure a sofa, a doorway, take into account it’s legs and the height of it’s back but really, there is no way of knowing if it will fit unless you give it a go. My husband swears by talking to it when we hit the peak of the challenge. Encourage it. Cheer it on. Whisper sweet nothings if all else fails.
In our 17 year marriage, this was to be our biggest sofa debacle yet. Possibly enhanced by the time of night and the shear lunacy of moving something quite this big through something quite that small. It started promisingly and we managed to get it out of room one and into the hall. But then quickly came the wedge. The dreaded wedge. Because as anyone who’s ever moved a sofa knows, it’s all about angles. There were obstacles on all sides, including the two of us. But my favourite phrase at this point, the one that cannot be silenced in a situation like this is “there MUST be a way.”
In normal times, the Truth Be Told project visits care homes with 0-4’s and their parents and along with residents, we tell stories, sing songs and are family together. When they started to close their doors to lock down long before the rest of us, I had hoped that we’d be back visiting those care homes again in no time at all. I don’t think I fully grasped the enormity of the situation and how my intergenerational, church-led project for the most vulnerable in our communities would possibly be one of the last puzzle pieces of normal life to be slotted back into place.
Unlike the rest of us, care home residents are familiar with the kind of social isolation that we’re getting just a tiny taste of now. In fact, studies have shown that they are twice as likely to be severely lonely as older adults living in their community. This generation are also well accustomed to being separated from loved ones. They may have said goodbye to their children being evacuated or they may have been that child themselves. Times of unprecedented upheaval are no stranger to them either. Simple weddings, lack of supplies and government imposed restrictions are all too memorable.
With my favourite phrase always resonating, I have been sure that with enough lateral thinking (or “to-me-to-you” in sofa language) “there MUST be a way” to continue to bring joy, hope and life to this precious generation, even now in their darkest times. After all, there was no stopping Jesus was there? No temptation too great, no authority too powerful, no stone too heavy.
The good news is, there are many ways. I’ve been talking with a number of care home chaplains, activities coordinators and carers about the needs of residents and staff at this time and beyond. Despite the physical restrictions, churches, their families and communities can do much to help. Our website and this free resource for churches gives you specific guidance and suggestions so please do take a look and do what you can.
I still don’t know how long it might be before we are able to physically be with our older friends again. And there will be residents who are never reunited with us as their days aren’t numerous enough. But what I do know is that “There MUST be a way” to continually pursue the purpose of Truth Be Told. To remind everyone that they are invited to belong through His church, God’s beautiful display of family, of intergenerational love and devotion.
No matter how incompatible the measurements, there really is no sofa too big and no doorway too small.
Should we theologize about Covid-19?
In the early days of the pandemic, pragmatism was king. Many of us who are church leaders immediately switched into reactive mode. The times necessitated tearing up the old playbook and developing a host of new practices to care for our people. Carving out time to step back and reflect on the meaning of events was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
But now things have moved on. Many of us have systems and processes in place that are working reasonably well, subject to the vagaries of the internet. As innately curious creatures with a high view of the sovereignty of God it’s natural that our interest should wander to trying to make sense of what’s going on. Like the sons of Issachar in 1 Chronicles 12:32, we don’t want simply to survive in these times; we want to understand them. We yearn to know what the pandemic means.
The result is that theologizing is going on everywhere. I recently attended a meeting with other pastors (on Zoom, of course) in which a seasoned and much respected Christian leader spent some time developing his thesis that the pandemic is a clear instance of divine judgment. At the other end of the spectrum, Ruth Valerio and Gideon Heugh for Tearfund assert that Covid-19 is all our fault, and “any suggestion that coronavirus is some kind of divine judgement is fundamentally at odds with God’s character.”
Others speculate that the pandemic is the harbinger of revival, or preparation for a wave of persecution that’s coming to the western Church. Believers who were previously circumspect about pinning theological significance on world events have no such qualms about sharing their insights into
Covid-19. In recent years, notwithstanding a handful of notable exceptions, church leaders on these shores have held back from theologizing about events happening on the world stage, but this feels different. This feels epochal. Biblical, even.
Each time I hear someone make a definitive pronouncement on the meaning of coronavirus it prompts an obvious question in my mind: “How do you know?” Who of us can claim to be on the inside track of the divine mind? The fact that Bible believing Christians are coming up with opposing interpretations of the pandemic only exacerbates the problem. Does anyone out there really know what’s going on?
In his Genesis commentary , Walter Brueggemann notes that the first to practise theology in the Bible is the serpent. Adam and Eve were called to live lives of loving obedience before God, but the serpent engaged the woman in theologizing about God. Previously God was a Person to be obeyed and trusted; now he became an object to be analysed and interpreted. The narrative of Genesis 3 teaches us many things, but here’s a lesson we can all too easily miss: the danger of being so theologically minded that we’re of no heavenly (or earthly) use.
One of the most significant texts on the dangers of speculative theologizing is the Book of Job. Here Job’s comforters thought they understood perfectly what was going on but their theological pronouncements served only to rouse Job’s frustration and, ultimately, God’s anger (Job 42:7-9). The mistake made by Job’s friends was not to think that an explanation for this specific instance of suffering didn’t exist; it was to apply, in simplistic fashion, a theological framework that was inadequate to the complexities of the situation. All those inclined to theologize about our present-day pandemic-caused suffering, take note!
Where does this leave us? Are we really to accept the notion, following N.T. Wright, that “it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain”? Is there no way we can ever ascribe divine intention to events happening on the world stage? But is not this precisely the kind of “theologizing” that we find in the scriptures? The authors of the Bible apparently had no misgivings about calling out those instances where they perceived God’s hand at work in the world, in mobilising armies, raising leaders to power and sending plagues on the earth.
Putting aside the issue of whether any of us can claim to receive revelation at the same level as the authors of scripture, there is an important point raised here. We need to be on our guard against two extremes: overzealous interpretation of historical events on one hand, and excessive circumspection on the other. The problem, as I see it, is not with the practice of extrapolating from current events to arrive at a theological interpretation per se. It’s with moving from one to the other in a way that is definitive and simplistic. When we yearn for meaning, it’s alarmingly easy to try and explain everything in a single stroke. The result is that we place an excessive degree of confidence in our way of seeing things and closed to the existence of real complexities in the world. It’s not that we’re wrong; we’re simply holding to a framework that’s inadequate to the situation.
So, beware the dangers of theologizing. In the final analysis, it’s more important to deal with our current situation than to understand it. One old pragmatist put it well:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
- This is a guest post from Andrew Sampson, pastor of Grace Church Truro.
What is The Gospel™?
The Wisdom of Cleanliness
A few weeks ago I reflected on the possibility that our experience of the coronavirus pandemic might help us to better understand the Levitical laws on ritual purity and to apply to our own lives the lessons they are designed to teach. Interestingly, it seems that the findings of moral psychology might support the wisdom behind the ritual purity laws.
The ritual purity laws were most likely given to the Israelites to teach them about the holiness of God and their need to be holy in order to maintain relationship with him. Though the laws were not about moral issues, they were designed to be a constant reminder to the Israelites of the importance of moral purity for those who live in relationship with God. Seeking to remain ritually pure would have encouraged Israelites to seek to be morally pure.
It seems that, unsurprisingly, there was great wisdom behind these laws. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt discusses the way that our embodied nature can influence our moral intuitions (our preconscious moral responses). One aspect of this influence is seen in a correlation between cleanliness and moral purity. Haidt offers three examples of studies which have demonstrated this correlation (pp.71-72):
[S]ubjects who are asked to wash their hands with soap before filling out questionnaires become more moralistic about issues related to moral purity (such as pornography or drug use).
People who were asked to recall their own moral transgressions, or merely to copy by hand an account of someone else’s moral transgression, find themselves thinking about cleanliness more often and wanting more strongly to cleanse themselves. They are more likely to select hand wipes and other cleaning products when given a choice of consumer products to take home with them after the experiment.
[S]tudents at Cornell University [were asked] to fill out surveys about their political attitudes while standing near (or far from) a hand sanitizer dispenser. Those told to stand near the sanitizer became temporarily more conservative.
There is a correlation between physical and moral cleanliness. When we are physically clean, we are more conscious of the importance of morality and more eager to be morally clean.
In ancient Israel, ritual impurity didn’t always correspond directly with physical uncleanness (which is why the language of purity is better than cleanness) but no doubt for those living under the laws, to be in a state of impurity would have felt somewhat comparable to being physically unclean. This would be particularly so for those forms of impurity which were linked to things which are physically unclean. This point would also have been stressed in those forms of impurity which required ritual washing as part of the process for returning to a state of purity. If the research Haidt cites is correct, this ritual washing would not only have been teaching the Israelites about the need for moral purity but would also have been shaping their intuitions to incline them toward moral purity.
Thinking about our situation, it is interesting to consider whether the increased emphasis on hand hygiene will also be having an effect on our own moral intuitions!
A Puzzling Pauline Paragraph
Paul’s goal in this paragraph is simple: he wants the Corinthians to grow up. Having a childlike innocence with respect to evil is a good thing, but in their thinking they need to stop being children and start being adults (20). The child/adult comparison has already appeared twice in this letter (4:14; 13:11), and in the second of these it contrasted maturity with immaturity, which is what it does here. By running after the gift of languages without regard for the edification or understanding of anyone else, the Corinthians are being childish, like a toddler so obsessed with enjoying their toys that they never think about anyone else.
Then comes the quotation from the Old Testament (Paul sometimes says “the Law” to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole), which makes sense of what Paul is doing (21). It comes from Isaiah 28:11-12, which is a passage pronouncing judgment over unbelieving Israel, seven centuries before. Because of Israel’s sin, Isaiah says, God will judge them by speaking to them through foreigners who will rule over them—Assyrians, then Babylonians, Persians, and eventually Greeks and Romans—in languages that they do not understand. Prophecy, meanwhile, will reassure them of God’s continued presence among them, not least through Isaiah’s own words.
So when Paul says that “tongues are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers” (21), he is talking about a sign of judgment. He is saying that the experience of being spoken to in languages you do not understand serves to emphasise your distance from God, like it did for Israel. It creates a sense of alienation in the hearer—in contrast to prophecy, which emphasises how present God is. So by speaking in uninterpreted tongues in the church, the Corinthians are (unintentionally) pronouncing judgment over one another. They are making people feel further away from God, and from each other, rather than closer. If you have ever been in a meeting where everyone is speaking in tongues and you don’t, you may know what that feels like.
A clue that we are on the right lines here is the word “so” (oun) at the start of verse 23. If we take the phrase “a sign for unbelievers” as a good thing, which we should embrace, then that little word “so” makes no sense: Paul is saying completely different things in the two sentences. But if we take “a sign for unbelievers” as a sign of judgment, which we should avoid if at all possible, it makes perfect sense. Both verses are trying to prevent the Corinthians babbling away in languages that nobody understands, because it will make Christians feel judged by God and alienated from one another (22), and because it will make unbelievers think they are all crazy (23). Prophecy, on the other hand, is edifying to believers (3, 5), and has the capacity to convince unbelievers of their sin, expose the secrets of their hearts, reveal the presence of God, and cause them to fall face down in worship (24-25).
8 tips on working from home
Many will attest that I’ve been self-isolating for more than a decade. So, while this is perhaps a little too late to be of much use to anybody, I thought I’d share a few tips on working from home that are especially relevant to those living with noisy little people...
1. If you have kids, control the noise. Buy some earplugs. And maybe some noise cancelling headphones. I use both and play white noise through the headphones that are placed over my earplugs. That’s what it takes to block out three kids and an extroverted spouse.
2. Agree expectations with your spouse (or whoever you live with). There are hours in the day when I need to be left undisturbed, even if I’m with everyone else (we live in a flat). Agree this up front. Otherwise, even if you can’t hear the grumbling, you’ll sense the death stare.
3. Keep office hours. I once heard Don Carson pass on a maxim he learned from his mother: ‘Work hard, play hard, and never confuse the two.’ I often remind myself of that when I’m tempted to procrastinate in the day, or work at night.
4. Build a routine. There’s something very liberating about structure. I love routines, and though I change them quite often, I have found a routine helps me to get on with stuff I might otherwise neglect.
5. Go for walks. Apparently, it’s good for you! Walking will help you be more creative as well as just feeling happier. You need the sunlight. You need the blood flow. And, if you’re doing creative work and you get stuck, stepping away will actually get thoughts flowing again.
6. Block the internet (if you can work without it at all). I have used internet blocking apps (like Freedom) for a long time now. I set aside portions of the day to be disconnected and it helps a lot. In terms of your phone, you can turn off wifi and mobile data (you’ll still receive calls), or put it in another room.
7. Take regular, scheduled breaks. It’s super-helpful, especially when you’re tackling something quite daunting (in my case, sermon preparation) to know when you’re next going to pause. When I fail to do this – imagining I’ll be more productive by powering through – I find the hours slip by and I feel more and more groggy, and get less done.
8. Cut yourself some slack. If you get into a guilt cycle, things will go from bad to worse. If you love Jesus, then remember that he is your justification. He wants you to live a fruitful life, but that’s not necessarily the same as being busy. Ask for his help. Repent. Repeat.
For Pastors: The Importance of Being Absent
There is a spectrum of how people treat church leaders, ranging from dismissive to dependent. Neither of these extremes is healthy. We should be bang in the middle. Philippians 2:12-18 gives us a great portrait of Paul helping the Philippians be neither dependent or dismissive of him. From this passage, here are four things I do to help our people stay in the middle of the spectrum:
1. Think “drink” and “food”
Paul borrows an Old Testament image of sacrifice in which the major offering was the food offering, accompanied by a lesser drink offering. Paul says they are the food offering, and he is the drink offering. This is vital: I think of myself as less than our people and our church. I think of myself as a bridesmaid, not the Bride. Isn’t it terrible when bridesmaids try to make the day about them rather than the Bride?!
2. Team preaching
Although I do the majority of the preaching, I deliberately do not do all of it. This is not primarily because I need a break, but because our congregation need a break from hearing me, whether they think they do or not. They need to learn to drink of God’s word through different straws, not just the PJ-straw. They need to have God’s Word as the constant, not God’s-Word-and-PJ as the constant.
3. Team pastoring
Paul stresses that God himself is at work within them (v.13). The captain of our pastoring team is Jesus. He does the bulk of the pastoring. I will often say to someone needing care, “I am happy to add my faith to your faith in Jesus” or, “I am happy to stand with you as you look to Jesus for strength” or, “Here is what I think you should do, but you digging into Jesus is the critical success factor.” I want the after-taste of every pastoral encounter to be Jesus.
Paul also stresses their role in pastoring themselves: “work out your own salvation” (v.12) and “do all things…” (v.14). I try to teach people to speak to their souls like the psalmist did (Ps. 42:5); to fan their God-given gift to flame (2 Tim. 1:6); and to rouse themselves to worship, prayer, Bible-reading, and other spiritual disciplines. The virgins at the wedding in Matthew 25 needed their own oil. Each of us needs to bear our own load (Gal. 6:5).
Paul is equally clear in the importance of his (the leader’s) role in pastoring them. Crucially, he loves them (v.12 “beloved”)! And he works hard for them, running, laboring and being poured out for them (v.16-17). And he is not scared to tell them the tough stuff. He unequivocally calls them to obedience, holy living and holding fast to God’s Word (v.12-16). Therefore, I try to be confident and faithful in discharging my pastoral responsibilities.
Elsewhere Paul calls for us to pastor one another. (Gal. 6:2, Col. 3:16). In a healthy family, not only the father’s voice is heard, nor is fatherly care the only type of care that is given. Mothers, brothers, and sisters need to join in. When people come to me for help, I regularly connect them to others to receive advice and care. I never say, “I am too busy so…” Rather I say, “So and so is going to help you better than I could, so I am going to connect you with them.”
I think my Texan friend, Bob Roberts, coined this phrase, meaning a blend of local and global. In addition to local voices, I deliberately keep our church aerated with voices from outside our church, and keep our church aware of the outstanding things other churches and leaders are doing in other places. This keeps anyone from thinking that our church (or me) are a “big deal.” Jesus is the big deal, and his worldwide church is magnificent!
Bearing God’s Name
‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’ (Exod. 20:7). It’s a commandment we know well, but what does it actually mean? Most assume that the command prohibits the use of God’s name as a swear word, but in her book, Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Carmen Joy Imes offers a different reading which might also help us to better understand the whole of the Ten Commandments.
Drawing on her doctorate research, Imes suggests that the answer to understanding the name command starts with a new translation of Exodus 20:7: ‘You must not bear (or carry) the name of Yahweh, your God, in vain, for Yahweh will not hold guiltless one who bears (or carries) his name in vain.’ The language of bearing or carrying is a good literal translation of the verb nāsāʾ (elsewhere in Exodus, for example, is it used of the people lifting bread dough (Exod. 12:34), the chiefs bearing the burden of judging the people alongside Moses (Exod. 18:22), the carrying of the Ark (Exod. 25:14), and the bearing of guilt (Exod. 28:38)). But the meaning of bearing God’s name has been deemed unclear. To solve the problem, some concept of speaking is usually assumed, hence the common translation ‘take the name of the Lord’.
However, Imes observes that the bearing of names reappears in Exodus, not much later, when Aaron ‘bears the names of the sons of Israel’ on his breastpiece ‘to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord’ (Exod. 28:29). Here, to bear the name of someone means to represent them before another. Applied to the name command, this insight suggests that the command is a call to faithfully represent God to others. This fits nicely with Israel’s calling to be ‘a kingdom of priests’ (Exod. 19:6), representing God to the nations, itself an outworking of God’s promise that the election of Abraham and his descendants was ultimately for the good of the nations (Gen. 12:3).
Imes suggests that this understanding may help us to better understand the Ten Commandments as a whole. Viewing the name command as the second (with Exod. 20:2-6 all understood as the first command), she proposes that the remaining eight commands all flow from the first two. The first two commands – (1) worship only Yahweh, and (2) represent him well – are comparable to the classic covenant formula ‘I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God’ (Exod. 6:7). The remaining commandments are an explanation of what this looks like in various areas of life.
None of this means that it’s wise to use God’s name as a swear word, but it does seem a good way to read and understand a tricky text. To see how the theme of bearing God’s name then continues through the rest of the Old Testament and into the New, you’ll have to read Bearing God’s Name yourself.
Pastoral work is not unique in the challenges we face at this time. Every worker is having to learn new patterns and skills, and not all of that is fun. But for pastors who are used to being with people so much of the time, and whose leadership and reason for being is so people focussed, lockdown is an especially trying experience.
Rather than being a restful break from the normal round of meetings and commitments this time has felt pressured and fretful. How can shepherds really know what is happening amongst the flock when we are physically separated from them? It’s no wonder that emotions have fluctuated.
So as a pastor speaking to other pastors, my advice is to be patient: with others, with yourself, with the circumstances. Cut yourself some slack and give yourself some grace. Don’t be surprised when you have down days – those don’t disqualify you from your calling. Remember, we can trust the Chief Shepherd to care for his sheep. When you want to throw the video camera through a window or stamp on your laptop don’t worry about it too much – we’re all there with you! When one day blurs into the next and you’re not sure anything you have done has been effective (and are unsure even about what you have done) trust that the Lord is able to take your feeble efforts and by his mighty power produce good fruit from them.
As well as dealing with our own emotions and frustrations we are now at the stage where church leaders need to be giving serious thought to life after corona. We’ve all been sprinting like mad to adjust to the new reality but now need to turn our thoughts to how we emerge from this time.
For what it’s worth, here is an outline of how I’m working this through with my team.
We’re thinking about three phases:
The Response phase. This is from the start of lockdown through to mid-June by when (in the UK at least) we are likely to see some lifting of current restrictions.
The Recovery phase. This is the six months from June through to the end of this year.
The Reconstruction phase. This is the twelve to twenty-four months from January 2021 to December 2022.
(This short video helpfully explains more about these three phases.)
For each of these phases I’m looking at what we can expect and plan for in five areas:
1. Physical meetings. What gatherings will we be able to have in this phase? How will they be organised? How will they be different from what we were previously doing?
2. Congregational psychology. What are the likely emotions of the church going to be in this phase? What impact might economic changes make? In what ways are work and leisure patterns likely to change? What will be the attitude towards authority?
3. Technology use. How can we use tech most effectively in this phase? What new tech uses we’ve initiated in the first phase should we develop and carry forward into the later phases? What tech use should we draw back from? How can we help church members use technology in a healthy way?
4. Team dynamic & focus. What ‘philosophy of ministry’ conversations do we need to have? How are we doing team meetings in this phase? What new thinking do we need to bring to the table for this phase?
5. Community engagement. How can we most effectively serve our city in this phase? What ambitions should we have for community influence and service? What partnerships do we want to strengthen? What are we dreaming for?
Pastor, it’s a trying time, but you have work to do! We will come through this. We can come through it stronger.
Corona & Creativity
We are also having to think creatively about how we ‘do church’ at this time. Two of my daughters have taken over the kids ministry at our church and got very creative, producing a 25 minute video each week to run alongside the other things we are putting online. Obviously, I’m extremely biased, but I think they’ve done an awesome job. It’s amazing how creative you can get with some basic equipment, a few props, vivid imaginations, and the stimulus of the gospel story.
Take a look.
Read this outstanding book
Born Again This Way, by Rachel Gilson, may be the best yet.
Subtitled ‘Coming out, coming to faith, and what comes next’, the book is described on the Good Book Company website as “A rich portrayal of living faithfully and happily as a Christian with same-sex attraction, that paints a compelling picture of discipleship for every believer.”
I loved Rachel’s critique of our culture’s insistence that your sexuality is the most important thing about you, that if you’re not having sex - with whatever consenting adult you are interested in - then you can’t be happy or free, or even really alive.
I loved her careful searching of the scriptures - and not just the ones that explicitly mention romantic relationship, but the full sweep of the scriptures - to put sex, romance and other earthly desires in their rightful place, and to put God in his - seated on the throne, high and lifted up, worthy of all our praise.
I particularly loved her insights into what the image of the church as the family of God means for those who are single (whether same-sex attracted or not). It means safety. It means intimacy. It means close relationships with people of both sexes and of all ages that are “chaste by default”. (Page 76 alone is worth the price of the book. So, so good.)
I loved the way she sought to reclaim the word ‘intimacy’ from the romantic and sexual connotations we have been brainwashed into understanding it as.
And I loved that all this richness, depth and truth was told in a very easy, readable manner, incorporating her (slightly unusual) story and the different experiences of some of her friends. And all in 144 pages.
If you know anyone who is same-sex attracted and want to gain some insights into the sorts of things they might be wrestling with (though Rachel takes pains to point out that everyone’s experience is different, and for the most part sexuality issues aren’t the only, or even the biggest, things they are thinking about on any given day), this book will be a huge help. I’m assuming that if you are same-sex attracted and want to know what the Bible, God and his people really have to offer, it will be hugely helpful to you, too. And if you are or know someone who is single, married, widowed, divorced or separated, it will be hugely helpful to you, too.
In other words: buy this book. Now.
I received a free review copy of this book from the publishers. A positive review was in no way required.
This review first appeared on jenniepollock.com
Elders are Bridesmaids
I once took a wedding where it was pouring with rain and muddy outside the church. I was moved watching how the bridesmaids selflessly got wet and muddy to ensure that the Bride didn’t. They were clear in their minds that the day was about the Bride, not them. They were resolute in their endeavour to present a clean, dry beautiful Bride to the Groom, even if they got grubby in the process.
About a week later I preached a message entitled “Elders are Bridesmaids.”
The Bride we serve belongs to Him. We are stewards of the Son of Man’s wife. And, one day we will give an account to God for how we stewarded our responsibility as maids to his Bride (Heb. 13.7).
Learning to Bear Loss
Is your heart more like a cup or a set of balance scales? According to this brilliant Twitter thread by Scott Swain, it’s more like the scales, and that fact has some very important implications.
You should really go and read the thread, but in summary, Swain argues that we often apply biblical exhortations to situations of sorrow in an unhelpfully because we fail to reckon with the way the human heart works and the reality of life in this age of redemptive history.
If we view the heart as being like a cup, then we’ll think that negative emotions need to be displaced by good emotions and we’ll use biblical exhortations to encourage each other to enact this displacement. However, this approach overlooks the fact that some negative emotions are completely appropriate responses to situations we’re experiencing. It also overlooks the fact that life in this age of redemptive history will always include sorrow.
Balance scales provide a better metaphor. Biblical exhortations are counterweights to bring balance to the legitimate experience of negative emotions. The exhortations help us to bear the negative emotions, rather than to displace them.
A Needed Message
This strikes me as such a helpful and needed clarification. Over the last few years, with the help of a Christian counsellor, I’ve worked through some deep-seated pain which often led to seasons of depression. One of the things this has most made me realise is how badly Christians often handle emotions. We are quick to assume that all negative emotions are inappropriate and should be overcome by just accepting what the Bible says and trying harder. As Swain notes, this completely overlooks how emotions work and indeed how they are given by God as a gift to help us. Emotions are warning signs. I was aware of my frequent seasons of depression long before I was aware of the pain I was carrying around with me.
This faulty understanding can often come out in our preaching and our pastoring. At one point in the midst of my journey, a well-meaning encourager told that as hard as it might be, I just needed to listen to the truth of God’s word and not anything else. I might feel like the product of my circumstance, I was told, but I’m actually not. For me though, the painful reality was that I really was the product of my circumstances, and I was experiencing completely legitimate pain and sorrow over those circumstances. Telling me to ignore what I was feeling and to just listen to God’s word wasn’t what I needed. I needed to engage with those feelings to be helped to find healing and I needed to experience the word of God bringing some balance to the emotions I was experiencing as I journeyed through them.
A Message Needed Now
Swain’s thread is applied specifically to our current experience of the coronavirus pandemic. And he’s completely right that this is a lesson particularly relevant to the current moment. However we look at it, this is a season of loss. Loss of freedom, loss of physical gatherings, loss of health, for some even loss of loved ones.
The reality of lockdown brings real loss for all Christians. The fact that we can’t currently gather in person is a real loss and it’s one which we should feel. As pastors and church leaders, it’s right that we seek to do everything we can to continue church life in some form, and it’s right that we try to bring some peace and reassurance to people by showing that we are still able to be the church at this time. But we shouldn’t downplay the reality of the loss we are experiencing. If we ignore that loss and send the message that the sort of gatherings we can have at the moment are a perfectly suitable substitute for gathering in person, we’re downplaying the importance of any future physical gatherings we will have (and running the risk that no one will bother coming to them!)
For everyone the reality of lockdown brings loss as our freedom to meet and interact with other humans is limited. As one friend recently commented, this situation is inherently dehumanising. It’s cutting us off from something which is vital to human flourishing – embodied community. It’s understandable that we should find this time difficult. In fact, it’s more than understandable, it’s right. It’s the fitting response. I’ve found that realisation oddly comforting. When I’m struggling with lockdown, I’m not failing, I’m being human.
These experiences of loss also provide us with an opportunity. Perhaps one of the greatest opportunities we have right now is to learn how to handle loss well. For many in the prosperous, privileged, protected West, that will be a new experience, but it’s one which will make us more human. Here’s an opportunity to learn to grieve, learn to lament, and to place the word of God on the scales of our hearts to help us bear the loss.
Image credit: castinstyle.co.uk
More Cameras (perhaps), More Lights (probably), More Action (definitely!)
The first video gives advice on how to prepare your heart and message for preaching to camera, and then how to deliver it. The second is an incredibly helpful walk through of the kinds of equipment available and how to use it: from filming with a smartphone to setting up a basic home studio. If you’re trying to preach to camera but feeling a bit stuck or overwhelmed, or just need some more advice to help sharpen things up, I can’t recommend these two videos highly enough.
If you want to invest in some kit here is what PJ recommends.
FOR SMARTPHONE ADVANCED VIDEO
FOR A BASIC HOME STUDIO
Does Life Have Meaning? Four Possibilities
1. It might be that neither individual lives nor human activity and history as a whole have meaning in the narrative sense.
2. It might be that human history as a whole has no meaning, but individual lives do.
3. History as a whole might possess some kind of narrative sense, but individual lives might not.
4. It might be that both individual lives and human activity as a whole have some sort of narrative meaning.
Answer (1) is the bleakest answer, but probably “the safest and most familiar answer today, at least in elite circles.” It is the answer of naturalism, atheism, scientism and materialism, as articulated by men (and they are usually men) like Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, and perhaps most starkly Bertrand Russell: “The whole temple of man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”
Answer (2) is the answer of what Smith calls modern paganism: the conviction that an individual’s life has objective meaning, even if the overall shape of global history does not. This is where the “spiritual but not religious” and “religion without God” views fit in, alongside sophisticated advocates like Ronald Dworkin, Anthony Kronman and Luc Ferry (although the latter admits that his search for “transcendence without immanence” is given a major problem by the fact of death).
Answer (3) is the response of Hegelianism and Marxism: “history in its vast sweep is like a grand master’s chess game that will culminate in some splendid victory - the classless society perhaps, or the final triumph of reason; individual human beings are merely the pawns who are pushed about.” Taken on its own, my life does not have meaning, but when seen within the context of the whole picture of universal progress, it does.
Answer (4) is the answer of Christianity, an answer which it provides by grounding objective meaning in a transcendent reality and a world to come. In a sense, Christians agree with the absurdists that this world does not make sense in and of itself; Wittgenstein’s remark that “the sense of this world must lie outside the world” sounds theistic, if not explicitly Christian. As Chesterton’s Father Brown quips, “We are here on the wrong side of the tapestry … The things that happen here do not seem to mean anything; they mean something somewhere else.”
The two answers that are obviously consistent here are (1) and (4), with the most apparently implausible being (2). But (2), “modern paganism”, is also the default approach in the contemporary West, and Smith’s book is an attempt to understand it, explain its roots, and account for the protracted “culture wars” between paganism and Christianity which have lasted since the days of the Caesars.
His explanation, in short, is that paganisms ancient and modern locate the transcendent within this world, and therefore can tolerate or accommodate any belief system that broadly agrees, no matter what its specific details. But Christianity (like Judaism and Islam) locates the transcendent outside this world, appealing to a source of meaning and authority beyond it, and thus defies and subverts certain pagan norms, including those around sex, commerce and public symbols; it cannot therefore be assimilated into a fundamentally pagan system. The last century in America, for Smith, has marked a gradual transition from (in T. S. Eliot’s terms) a Christian society to a pagan one - from a society in which the ground of transcendence is beyond this world into one in which it is framed within it - and this accounts for the increasingly shrill state of the public square.
Anyway: it’s a superb book.
Does God Want to be Known? Does Experience Matter?
The blurb says the book is for people asking the following questions: “Does God want to be known?”, “Does experience matter?” and “Does theology matter?” These questions are certainly addressed, and each receives a “yes” answer. But more than that, I offer a testimony: a testimony of the continuing desire to be a charismatic evangelical - to be that now - today. It is an account of theological and personal searching.
For me, the desire to be Christian gets stirred when I talk and read about theology and when I experience the love and power of God. It is Word and Spirit. Along these lines, the substance of the book is an account of three reasons for being Christian today. So from the introduction:
First, Jesus captivates me, particularly as portrayed in the gospels. I desire him as the living and breathing reality of God become flesh. Second, I have experienced what I take to be the love of God through encounters with the Holy Spirit. These encounters have arrested my attention and reconfigured my imagination. They have led to a fresh understanding of who God is: a present and living reality. Third, I believe God knows us and wants to be known today.
I explore these areas through interaction with a diverse range of theologians. These theologians lead us into wrestling with ideas that will provoke, inspire, challenge, and occasionally unsettle. In all this, I’m sure people will find something valuable. Sometimes things get heavy, but the focus remains firmly on God and Christian experience. Again, from the introduction:
...This book is really about God. Reasons for being and remaining Christian are given, but what I am getting at, in all hopefulness, is God. This is theology. I want to know God now. By, “now”, I mean in present experience. The knowing of God relates to things experienced, to questions we have.
Although at times I consider both evangelicalism and “charismaticism” critically, the conclusion of the book is deeply hopeful. Here’s a snippet:
The tradition still holds so much: A relentless focus on the chief character—Jesus; a fitting acknowledgement of his companion—the Holy Spirit; an openness to intimacy; to passion; to feeling; a trust in scripture that says we need not go beyond if we want God. Added to these things, is a vibrancy that says that God is doing something in us today, and wants us to do something.
What does a book like this offer? It merely serves as a reminder that we can trust in a God who is at work and wants to be known, even in these complex and uncertain days.
Leviticus Lessons From Lockdown
I’m currently reading through Leviticus. As I’ve worked through the laws on ritual purity (Lev. 11-14), I’ve been struck by some parallels with our current situation: a dangerous and contagious threat to the community, the requirement of periods of quarantine, the delineation of which places are and which are not safe, and even an affirmation of the importance of handwashing (Lev. 15:11)! These parallels got me thinking; perhaps our experience of the coronavirus pandemic can help us to better understand the laws for ritual purity.
In ancient Israel, there was a scale of three ritual states: the default state was purity (often referred to as ‘clean’), but in certain circumstances one could move down the scale into impurity (‘unclean’) or up the scale to holiness (‘holy’). Going down a step on the scale would happen through various circumstances (e.g. bleeding, some diseases, or contact with someone or something already in a state of impurity); while moving up the scale usually required ritual actions (e.g. bathing, changing clothes, offering a sacrifice, but sometimes just the passing of time).
Importantly, ritual impurity wasn’t about one’s legal status before God, so it wasn’t necessarily wrong to become impure. Being ritually impure didn’t necessarily mean you weren’t righteous, but it did mean you couldn’t come into contact with holy things or holy places. The reason that avoiding impurity and being cleansed of impurity was so important was because of the risk that uncleansed impurity might defile the tabernacle (Lev. 15:31).
It’s not clear and not stated why some things were considered impure and others weren’t, but the purpose of the laws is clear. The concept of ritual purity would have taught the Israelites about the utter purity and holiness of God and their need to be pure and holy to draw near to him (Lev. 11:44-45). Coming to the tabernacle required one to be in a state of purity, but even that wasn’t enough to enter the tent of meeting. Only those who were holy, the priests, could enter the tent, and only one who was most holy, the high priest, could enter the holy of holies. The fact that the purity laws affected many different areas of life taught the Israelites that their whole life needed to reflect the purity and holiness of God.
Ultimately, ritual purity was meant to teach the Israelites about the vital importance of moral purity: just as ritual purity in all areas of life was necessary to draw near to God, so moral purity in all areas of life was necessary to draw near to God.
What does all of this have to do with our present experience? Well, I’m not sure that’s actually the right question. The question is not what Leviticus can teach us about coronavirus, but what can coronavirus teach us about Leviticus? Often, one of the best ways to understand Old Testament law and history is to try and think our way into the experience of the Israelites. In doing so, we begin to get a sense of how the things they went through and the laws they lived under would have impacted them.
We no longer live with potentially dangerous and contagious ritual impurity all around us, but we are currently living with a potentially dangerous and contagious virus all around us. We now know what it is like to be placed into quarantine. We know what it is like to live with the constant risk that we might come into contact with, as it were, ‘impurity’ or that this ‘impurity’ might infiltrate our house and render it ‘impure’. We’ve had the experience of being unable to go to certain places and to see certain people because of the risk that we might carry ‘impurity’ with us. Some of us will learn what it’s like to contract such ‘impurity’ and to have those who interact with us need to protect themselves from it. Perhaps these experiences can begin to help us understand a little bit of what it would have been like to live under the laws of ritual purity and to learn the lesson they were designed to teach.
As new covenant believers, we are no longer under these laws. The sacrifice of Jesus’ blood for us was so effective that we have been brought into a constant state of purity and holiness. We are now ‘saints’, ‘holy ones’ (Rom. 1:7; Eph. 1:1; Phil 1:1). But while that is our legal position, we are still called to live out that holiness in every area of our lives. The lesson which the laws of ritual purity were designed to teach is still just as relevant to us: ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:15-16; cf. Matt. 5:48).
Is The Church Half-Dead Today?
I am convinced that he is, so I have been working through the book of Jeremiah as I reflect on what the Lord is trying to teach us about the Church in these trying times. I have been asking myself whether we have used the past two decades wisely, and whether the Church in the West is in better or worse shape than it was when The Independent issued its dire prediction on 16th April 2000.
I have been reflecting on how we handle the Word of God in our churches. Are we more diligent in our Bible teaching than we were twenty years ago? Are we bolder in our proclamation of the Gospel than we were when a secular newspaper called out the problem of Church decline? Are those of us who are preachers spending more time on our knees giving God time speak his Word deep into our hearts, or are we even more busy with other things than we were in 2000? Jeremiah 23:21-22 issues preachers with a solemn warning and a glorious promise: “I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their own message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds.”
I have also been reflecting on how we partner with the Spirit of God in our churches. Are we thirstier for the Holy Spirit than we were twenty years ago? Do we make more room for him to move in our church gatherings, and do we place more emphasis on the paramount importance of every Christian being a carrier of the presence of God? Are we less transfixed by church-growth tactics and by the ministry hacks that are offered by the latest paperbacks than we were back on 16th April 2000? Jeremiah 2:13 issues us with another solemn warning and glorious promise: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”
I have been reflecting on how much we grasp the Mercy of God in our churches. Are we more aware or less aware of God’s promises to restore the fortunes of his people than we were two decades ago when The Independent predicted the death of the Church two decades from now? Do we talk more or less about repentance? Do we believe more or less in the possibility of revival? How much, in this coronavirus season, are we meditating on the Lord’s promise to his people in 2 Chronicles 7:13-14? “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send an epidemic among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgiven their sin and will heal their land.”
Like everybody else, I want the COVID-19 crisis to pass as quickly as possible, with a minimum of loss of life. At the same time, I believe that God still has things to teach us through the biggest disruption to the Church in any of our lifetimes. I don’t believe that The Independent newspaper was right. I am aware that the English writer Thomas Woolston predicted the demise of Western Christianity in 1710 - shortly before the great revival that came through George Whitefield and John Wesley! I am aware that the French philosopher Voltaire predicted the death of Western Christianity towards the end of the eighteenth century - shortly before the missionary movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced more converts to Christ than the previous eighteen centuries combined!
But I do not believe that such turnarounds are inevitable. As we arrive at the halfway mark in the final forty years that The Independent gave to British Christianity, I am convinced that God has given Christians all around the world a moment for reflection through this strange season that we are in. I believe that he wants to give us a half-time team talk about how we handle the Word of God, how we partner with the Spirit of God and how we lay hold of the Mercy of God.
How are you making the most of this half-time moment for reflection? What do you sense that God is saying to the Church in your nation?
Are We Standing on the Precipice?
The Precipice is unusual in its format, and the author is unusual in his actions. It is 468 pages long but the appendices and notes begin at page 243; so there is almost as much information in the half of the book most people won’t read as in the half that hopefully they will. And the author is an Oxford philosopher who is not only an ivory tower thinker, but who has spearheaded truly significant philanthropic initiatives, such as this and this.
The Precipice is profoundly troubling. Ord dissects the different existential risks we face and puts a probability on them killing us. It’s a relief to know the likelihood of being taken out by an asteroid is extremely low but Ord’s estimate of what an engineered pandemic or uncontrolled artificial intelligence might do is pretty scary. Overall, he calculates we have a one in six chance of rendering ourselves extinct in the next century. Read his reasoning and the case doesn’t seem overstated at all.
I hope Boris Johnson might be reading this book – or that at least some advisors close to him are. Ord makes a strong case that governments should be spending far more on ‘targeted existential risk interventions.’ At present we ‘spend less than a thousandth of a percent of gross world product on them.’ Ord argues that this should increase, ‘by at least a factor of 100, to reach a point where the world is spending more on securing its potential than on ice-cream.’ He suggests a global catastrophe might be the warning shot that causes us to adjust the attention we give to existential risk – perhaps Covid-19 will be that shot?
It’s certainly not all gloom and doom though, as The Precipice is extraordinarily optimistic. Swerve the Russian roulette bullet we’re facing and humanity could progress to unimagined – and unimaginable – achievements. This is where Ord gets into territory that will be familiar to readers of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels: galactic expansion and dominance by a human species optimised for long life and pleasure.
With spellbinding imagery and mind-bending cosmology Ord describes how early in its history the human story could be: we are, in his estimation, in the adolescent phase of our potential lifespan, which is exactly why we are such a danger to ourselves at this point. Get through our teens (don’t cause a nuclear winter, engineer an unstoppable pathogen, or release artificial intelligence that replaces us) and we could have billions of years of development and joy ahead of us.
Because, in expectation, almost all of humanity’s life lies in the future, almost everything of value lies in the future as well: almost all the flourishing; almost all the beauty; our greatest achievements; our most just societies; our most profound discoveries. We can continue our progress on prosperity, health, justice, freedom and moral thought. We can create a world of wellbeing and flourishing that challenges our capacity to imagine.
Ord’s analysis is powerful and deserves the most careful attention – and action. But the picture he paints of what humanity might be capable left me feeling that in some ways The Precipice is a theology book in search of God.
I finished the book on Easter Sunday. The Christian hope is not that humanity might somehow save itself, and finally escape the confines of the earth to ‘fill with life’ the furthest reaches of the galaxy. Rather, we believe that because of the cross of Christ, ‘a world of wellbeing and flourishing that challenges our capacity to imagine’ is already guaranteed. The apostle Paul expressed this long before the existential risks we now face were dreamed of:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).
I don’t think Ord has seen that most vital part of the picture – but The Precipice has helped me to dream all the more of what it might look like. If there were anyone I could meet for a coffee right now (remember when we used to do that?) Toby Ord would be top of the list.
“We had hoped…”
So many hopes put on hold or crushed completely.
I love the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. You can really feel their utter dejection when they tell their mysterious companion, “We had hoped that [Jesus] was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). What depth of sadness is bound up in those few words.
But then, oh then, when he took the bread and broke it before them. When he handed it to them with hands bearing fresh, raw scars. When they understood, at last, what it had all been about.
‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ (v. 32).
How their feet must have flown as they hurried back to Jerusalem. How their hearts must have sung.
How they must have rejoiced together with the other disciples as they told them, “It is true! The Lord has risen!” (v. 34).
The pain, sorrow and disappointment had been real. Jesus really had died that agonising death. But his plan had not been defeated. It had been wonderfully, miraculously, triumphantly fulfilled.
He was the one who was going to redeem Israel – and not only Israel, but all the nations of the world. And he had done it. The price was paid. Our redemption was secured.
At times like this it is easy to think that God has somehow been caught unawares. That events have spiralled out of his control. Or maybe that our hopes, dreams, plans and loved ones are somehow collateral damage, unfortunate casualties of his wider purpose.
And so he gave us a sign to remind us – his body, broken, symbolised by the bread of communion. His blood, poured out, symbolised by the ruby red wine. Only by being broken was he able to be the bread of life. Only by being poured out was he able to reconcile us to the Father.
Sometimes tragedy and brokenness and pain are the only way to bring wholeness and healing and life. One day he will explain it to us, gently, tenderly. And our eyes will be opened and our hearts will burn within us as we see at last the glorious richness of his good and perfect plan.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The Things We Are Learning
Distraction vs Rest
Things that we often do for relaxation are, in truth, not very relaxing – they are much more in the category of ‘distracting’. Life is often busy and painful and humans look for what will distract us from that reality, whether that’s Facebook, Netflix or cocaine. But these things are not restful. In lockdown we’re finding that too much internet, too much screen time, too much social media is leaving us more frazzled. I’m re-imposing some digital disciplines on myself: walk away from the screen; drink coffee slowly; sit in the sun; pray; rest.
Patience vs Hurry
We’re not used to having to wait in long lines outside supermarkets – it’s reminiscent of 1970s Russia. We’re not used to Amazon slowing it’s delivery of non-essential items. We’re having to learn patience – and not only when shopping. We’re having to learn patience with the members of our households, and with ourselves. For those with a high sense of responsibility and need to achieve this is a challenging time. I’m trying to lean into it: slow down; don’t stress; be at peace.
Zoom vs Meeting
Thank God for Zoom. From large online church services, to intimate small groups, it’s an absolute boon. But it is also exhausting. As Abby Ohlheiser writes,
People are coping with the coronavirus pandemic by upending their lives and attempting to virtually re-create what they lost. The new version, however, only vaguely resembles what we left behind. Everything is flattened and pressed to fit into the confines of chats and video-conference apps like Zoom, which was never designed to host our work and social lives all at once. The result, for introverts, extroverts, and everyone in between, is the bizarre feeling of being socially overwhelmed despite the fact that we’re staying as far away from each other as we can.
It’s Toughest for the 20s
When lockdown started one of the first things we did at a church leadership level was put together a list of all those in the congregation over the age of 70 and ensure they were receiving regular contact. What we’re now learning is that many of the older generation are already well equipped to handle this time. Many of them are all too used to living alone and not going out much. They already have well established relationship networks – they are used to making daily phone calls to check in on each other.
By contrast, it is the singles in their 20s who are struggling the most. This is the demographic who would normally be the most social and spend the least amount of time at home. They also often live in small flats rather than family homes with gardens. This time is agony for them.
The Pros & Cons of Being Telegenic
As we’re putting more things online we’re learning what has always been obvious: on a 2D screen the people who connect most effectively are the extrovert, young and beautiful. It might make sense for TV producers to favour these kind of people to present shows but it is a slippery slope when it comes to ministry. Even as we seek to make our church online presence as good as possible we need to remember that being telegenic doesn’t feature anywhere in the Bible’s qualifications for spiritual leadership.
Birdsong is Beautiful
One of the things I’m most enjoying about this new rhythm is sitting outside the front of my house in the morning, praying, drinking a coffee, and watching the sun rise over my neighbour’s roof. And hearing the birds sing. Normally the morning traffic would make this a very different experience, and the birds hard to hear. But birdsong is beautiful.
The Baptism Debate
What I found most interesting was the fact that both Derek and I defend our positions in ways that many would not, even when they share our conclusions. Paedobaptists have long taken different views on how to understand the role of faith in baptising infants, given that baptism occurs “through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12). Is that faith present in the church? The parents, a la Abraham/Isaac? The infant at some point in the future? The infant in the present (perhaps, as some would argue, as the purest form of faith there is)? Derek takes one view here, but plenty of paedobaptists would approach the subject differently.
Similarly, my defence of believers’ baptism differs from many Baptists’. Towards the end of this conversation I appeal to the simplicity of credobaptism: that repentance, faith, baptism in water, the gift of the Spirit and the gifts of bread and wine all apply to the same people at the same time, rather than (as paedobaptists believe) being separated by many years. But many of my fellow credobaptists would not agree with me here. Some Baptists give the Eucharist to children before they are baptised. Some think the gift of the Spirit is given months or even years after repentance, faith and baptism. Some think children can repent and believe at a relatively young age, but should not be baptised until they are adults. Some would baptise an adult whose cognition meant they could not understand the sacrament, but not an infant of an equivalent level of ability. Each of these positions seems strange to me - some of them appear less consistent than paedobaptism, in my view! - but I might as well admit that there is as much diversity amongst credobaptists as there is amongst paedobaptists, if not more so.
Anyway: see what you think.
Supporting Singles in Lockdown
I’m sure that all church leaders are currently very aware of those among their congregations who are most vulnerable, whether that vulnerability be from age, underlying health conditions, or mental health concerns. But I wonder whether there might be another vulnerable group which can be overlooked: singles, and in particular, single-person households.
The current lockdown presents some specific challenges to those of us who are single. For many of us, our relational needs are primarily met through our experience of family in the church community. This means that while many people will find that lockdown increases their opportunities for family time, for some of us it will have almost completely removed those opportunities. The situation is even more difficult for those who also live on their own. If they are not required to go into a workplace where they will see others, lockdown could mean almost no in-person contact with others.
So, in this context, how can church leaders look out for singles and those in single-person households? Here are a few quick thoughts.
Ask Your Singles
The first thing is simple but somehow not always obvious. To know how to best serve your singles and single-person households, pick up the phone and ask them how the church can serve them at this time. This is a good question for church leaders (and especially those who are married) to ask at any time but could be particularly needed at the moment.
Consider Single-Person Households in Your Online Activities
For most of us, church gatherings have now gone online. Give some time to thinking about how you can best include and serve single-person households through these gatherings. Two quick examples:
It’s good to acknowledge the different situations of those engaging with your online church activities but avoid talking about people being on their own. Rather than saying, ‘You can take part in this with your family or on your own’, try something like ‘You can take part in this in your household whether big or small’. The former suggests that those in single-person households don’t have family, which is exactly the opposite of the message we should be seeking to convey. We want our singles to know and experience that even if they are physically isolated at the moment, they are part of family.
When it comes to engaging with live streams, especially those which could involve group participation (e.g. prayer meetings), encourage people to invite those they know will be on their own to join them in their household via video call. Virtual presence will never be the same as physical, but this is a simple way we can invite people to experience being part of church family at this time.
Think About Practical Support
Those living in single-person households will often be more vulnerable because they don’t have people to look after them if they become unwell or to get supplies for them if they have to self-isolate. Make sure that single people know how they can easily reach out for help if they need it.
Also, help the whole church to know that it’s ok to reach out for help whoever they are. Those who are young and healthy shouldn’t feel they can’t reach out for help because they not recognised as a vulnerable group. Keep affirming that church is family, a family who are meant to help each , and who want to help each other. Do everything you can to make it easy for people to reach out for help.
Think About Relational Support
To help singles and those living on their own to feel relationally connected, think outside of the box. One single friend made the observation that on calls people tend to gravitate to talking at depth, but friendship is about so much more than talking. Think creatively about ways to spend time together making use of modern technology.
I’ve been enjoying a weekly online pub quiz with a group of friends via a group chat on WhatsApp. A friend has been using FaceTime to take people with her on her daily walks. Two single friends who were due to spend a Saturday together in London decided to still spend the day together via video call; they talked, ate, and went for a walk together. I’ve even heard of people offering to loan their pets to single people for a few days. (Obviously observing social distancing at the drop off!)
I’m struck that in so many areas of life, our current situation offers both challenges and opportunities. Perhaps the case of singles and single-person households is another example. Lockdown presents huge challenges for singles and those seeking to love them, but perhaps it also presents churches with an unprecedented opportunity to step up and be family for everyone.
Virtual Church, Football Matches and Marriage
I have actually been very encouraged by the conversation. In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting to be. I had assumed that a combination of pragmatism, a low view of the sacraments, squishy ecclesiology and a desire to put a positive spin on things would lead people to insist that virtual church was just as good as the real thing. But almost nobody is saying that. Partly that’s because we are all experiencing it now, and finding that physicality matters in all sorts of ways we might not have noticed: the hug on the way in, the sound of other people’s singing voices, the sight of hundreds of hands raised, the tearing of the loaf, the taste of wine, the laying on of hands in prayer, even the smells of the venue and the congregation and the coffee all mingled together. But partly it’s because, for all our desire to use technology to reach as many people as possible, we have deep convictions about the church. So I can disagree with people over whether (say) we should have an online celebration of the Lord’s Supper this Sunday, but I can also rejoice in the candour with which they admit its limitations, and explain that this is exceptional, and clarify that it should never replace the real thing.
The local church, it seems, is more like a marriage than a football match.
A true football fan will always prefer watching their team live to watching them on TV. It costs more, and is colder and often wetter, and takes far more time, but there is no substitute for the atmosphere, the live experience, the shouting and singing and ooohing and aaahing. Having said that, there are plenty of people—dismissed by true fans as “armchair supporters”, but a large group nonetheless—who actually prefer the virtual experience. They like the comfort of their own home, or the pub; they like having the commentary, and the analysis at half time; they like the instant replays and varied angles, and being able to see things on the far side of the pitch. So far as they are concerned, it is just a different means of watching the same game. The first group might think that the second group are missing out on all sorts of important things, but they would be hard-pressed to deny that they are still watching the match.
No doubt there are some advocates of virtual church who see it in a similar way. The live service has its advantages, but given that some people will never set foot in a live service, we might as well advertise the possibility of experiencing the exact same thing from the comfort of your home. This, in my apprehension, is what I thought I would hear lots of people saying in the age of Corona. But by and large, they haven’t. People don’t think about the church like a football match, and they’re right.
They think about it more like a marriage. Here’s Tim Challies:
I spend a fair bit of time travelling … Through the marvels of modern technologies, I usually have the ability to not only hear [my wife’s] voice, but even to see her face. I’ve been to many spots in the world where there is no access to clean water, but full access to 4G internet—access plenty strong enough to allow us to FaceTime. Yet Aileen never worries that I won’t come home. She is never concerned that I’ll conclude FaceTime is good enough and decide to only ever stay in touch virtually. She knows that while FaceTime may be a blessing, it’s not a substitute for face-to-face time … Why is this? It’s because physical presence matters. There are certain things we can only do as a husband and wife, certain things we can only be as spouses, when we share the same space …
I am not concerned. I am not concerned that committed Christians will reject actual church for cyber-church anymore than I’m concerned that committed spouses will reject face-to-face time in favour of FaceTime. Just as healthy marriage calls for physical proximity, so does healthy church membership. Just as a husband and wife need to be together to carry out the purpose and meaning of marriage, Christians need to be together to carry out the purpose and meaning of church membership. Just as a husband and wife long to share space, church members long to share space. A camera and screen will do when necessary, but they are at best a shadow of the real thing. They may provoke gratitude in those times they are the only option, but they will also provoke longing.
I find that such a helpful analogy. Couples are still married when they are on FaceTime, but an entirely virtual marriage is not a thing. I actually think the metaphor could be extended, since both marriage and the local church involve physical expressions of union (although I’ve generally avoided making this point out of fear that someone will mischievously refer to it as Sex and Sacrament). And it is borne out in the way that churches I know are talking about virtual church in this moment. When the lockdowns are lifted, and we are finally able to gather again—whether in groups of ten or twelve, or in groups of hundreds—our first Sunday together will be quite something. I can’t wait.
Face to Face
That, on my early morning dog walk, I pass other dog walkers at a safe distance is appropriate but it is getting weird how guilty and furtive many people look. One of the unwritten rules of British social etiquette is that dog walkers greet one another. Now they scurry by, faces to the floor, avoiding any kind of engagement: as if even looking at another human being might cause them to catch or spread the virus.
I worry that once things are ‘back to normal’ (and how hollow that phrase is beginning to sound) we will have developed habits of social distancing that are hard to break.
The ruined city lies desolate; the entrance to every house is barred. In the streets they cry out for wine; all joy turns to gloom, all joyful sounds are banished from the earth (Isaiah 24:10-11).
Other than being in the streets crying for wine – though I suspect that is happening inside many houses – Isaiah gives an accurate description of our current state.
I keep having Zoom conversations with people in which we describe how exhausted we are feeling from too many Zoom conversations. Being online is tiring. I’m grateful for the technology, and already weary of it.
In our online service last Sunday I was speaking from 1 Peter 5. “Greet one another,” says Peter, “with a kiss of love.” That is a biblical command we cannot obey at present. I can’t kiss, hug, or handshake my friends and family via Zoom. Online we can have a simulacrum of reality but it is far from being the real thing.
This is why how we approach things like online services and online sacraments really does matter. I know some of my friends are taking communion online and it’s not an issue that I’m going to die for (though the fact that I have brothers and sisters who have died over the correct administration of the sacraments is enough to make me approach the matter with real seriousness and caution); but I want to develop good habits now, not embrace ones that train us to be socially distant.
Today is my twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. I’m glad I can see Grace face to face today. I’m glad we’re not reduced to Zoom. I want to experience social intimacy, not distance. I don’t want a simulacrum – I want the real thing.
So I’m calling my fellow dog walkers out! I’m not letting them scurry by but calling out ‘Hello’. I’m seizing opportunities to pause and share a few words. I’m trying to cultivate habits that will be healthy in the long run – for me, and my neighbourhood.
I’m committing to face to face.
John Wesley and Online Church
Cards on the table. I lead a church that has held online services for the past five years. During that time, there is barely a theological objection to online church that I have not had thrust in my face by its critics, so I have become rather used to ignoring them. However, there really
some serious questions raised by online church which I believe we need to grapple with together in this coronavirus season. My friend Matt Hosier argues that “To claim that online church is really church is as silly as claiming that watching Bake Off is the same as making and eating a cake.” So do we believe that, or do we not? If we believe it, then we need to be very careful over what terminology we use during this strange season for fear of changing our theology of church on the fly. The triumph of pragmatism over inner doubt has rarely been good news throughout Church History, which is one of the reasons why the Apostle Paul warns us in Romans 14:23 that “The person who doubts is condemned by his actions, because … everything that does not come from faith is sin.” On the other hand, if we truly believe that online church can be genuine church, then we can see this as one of the most important lessons that God is wanting to teach us about the nature of church during this coronavirus crisis.
In the early days of leading online church services, I was like a travelling salesman for Online Church, quick to trumpet its advantages and slow to admit any of its flaws. But its flaws are real.
Flaw #1 is that we are embodied people. Genuine relationships require genuine physical interaction. That’s why we find ourselves missing our loved ones, even at the very moment that we are Skyping and FaceTiming with them! It doesn’t matter how much we remind ourselves that our technology is wonderful – we still know that a certain something is lacking in our interactions with one another!
Flaw #2 is that the Christian sacraments are physical. When the Reformers broke away from the mainstream Church during the Reformation, they agreed on a definition of what Church is, and what it isn’t. The seventh article of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 defined the true Church as any place where “the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.” But how can we baptise people online? How can we share bread and wine with one another online? These are the kinds of questions that church leaders need to ask urgently right now, because if we haven’t got an answer to those questions then we haven’t got church at all.
Flaw #3 is that Online Church can foster inauthenticity and a lack of accountability. Christian fellowship, by definition, requires transparency. We are told in 1 John 1:7 that it is all about walking in the light with one another. It’s far too easy to attend Online Church as a Christian Catfish, pretending that you are a follower of Jesus while keeping the reality of your lifestyle far from view. The past five years of Online Church have really brought home to me why the twenty-ninth article of the Belgic Confession of 1561 added an extra stipulation to the Augsburg Confession. “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instated by Christ; and if church discipline is exercised in the punishing of sin … then the true Church may certainly be recognised.”
If you are one of the many people who have challenged me over the years that Everyday Church Online isn’t really church, then it might come as a bit of a surprise to you that I’m admitting its three biggest flaws at the very moment when the worldwide Church is experiencing its online revolution. But let me continue, because I believe that Online Church really can be Church. I’m convinced that church leaders who think carefully can lead the kind of Online Church that truly pleases God.
1) Online Church can be real Church because we are spiritual people. Let me put it this way: If a person in your small group told you that they went online and engaged in a pagan worship service during which they bowed down to an idol, wouldn’t you want to challenge them in the strongest terms never to do so again? Of course you would. Then why should you doubt that worshipping God online is any less real? Idolatry online is as real as idolatry in person, flirting online is as real as flirting in person, and worshipping God online is as real as worshipping God in a church building. Jesus taught that true worship is much more about our spirits than about our geography: “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem … A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).
Ah, but some people respond, it’s all very well connecting up with God through an online worship service but what about connecting in with one another? How can we worship God together when we are merely meeting online? Well, let me ask you: what does Paul means when he tells the church at Colossae: “Though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit” (Colossians 2:5)? What does he mean when he assures the church at Corinth that “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit … when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3-5)? If Paul insists that his absence from a church building does not prevent him from participating in a worship service through the Holy Spirit – even without the aid of the internet! – then why should we? Besides, those who argue most strongly that Online Church lacks community seem to me to have a rose-tinted view of what happens each Sunday at our bricks-and-mortar venues. It is definitely possible to attend Online Church without embracing community, but so is it possible to attend a bricks-and-mortar building without embracing community by arriving late and scuttling off during the final song.
2) Online Church can be real Church because the sacraments can still be rightly administered. It may require a little bit of thinking to navigate this new world order, just as it did for the writers of the Augsburg and Belgic Confessions during the Reformation, but it’s not actually too hard to be creative. When a lady gave her life to Jesus through one of our services at Everyday Church Online, we flew her over to London from Germany so that we could baptise her in water and broadcast the event online. Last Sunday, I preached on the meaning of communion and invited people to eat bread and drink together at all of our online services. Communion can become routine and functional at our physical church services, so I found the online experience quite refreshing. I believe that the experience of Online Church is actually helping us to appreciate the physicality of communion in fresh ways.
We are discovering something that previous generations have known instinctively – that some people either cannot or simply will not step across the threshold of a church building. For centuries, church leaders have visited the infirm and the housebound to administer the bread and wine to them in their own homes. Online Church goes a step further. It reaches people who might not even receive a visit. When I think of the men from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia who have messaged the team at Everyday Church Online to tell us that they have given their lives to Jesus and to ask for advice on how to follow him, I am grateful for Online Church. When I think of all the Muslims and atheists and spiritual wanderers who have surfed their way into one of our services, I am grateful for Online Church – and I believe that Jesus is too. After all, he gets excited in Matthew 8:5-13 when he finds a Roman centurion who has faith that his prayers will heal a servant several miles away without his needing to travel there in person. I believe that Jesus is excited about this present revolutionary moment in Church History too!
3) Online Church is real Church because it can foster greater openness with one another. Although it is easy to pretend online, we all know how easy it is to pretend in our face-to-face interactions with one another on a Sunday. One of the great surprises of the internet era has been people’s willingness to start up conversations with strangers and to reveal their deepest thoughts to one another online. People who walk the other way when they see their neighbour in the supermarket feel no such social hangs-ups when they are online. People who refuse to engage with the prayer team at a bricks-and-mortar church service are willing to open up without inhibition to the prayer team at Online Church. If you don’t think the truth about people comes out on the internet, then you haven’t been reading enough blog comments. There is a reason why they were eventually switched off on Think Theology!
This is not the time for pragmatism, but nor is it the time to be purists, patting ourselves on the back for spotting the flaws of Online Church without spotting its amazing opportunity. I believe that this is one of the things that God wants to teach his Church throughout this strange and disorientating coronavirus crisis. I believe that we are living through a moment that is akin to one when George Whitefield and John Wesley discovered the enormous power of open-air preaching to take the Church into the streets and fields of eighteenth-century Britain. John Wesley confessed later that “I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church”, but he soon came to the same conclusion as George Whitefield: “Blessed be God! I have now broken the ice! I believe I was never more acceptable to my Master than when I was standing to teach those hearers in the open fields. Some may censure me, but if I thus pleased men I should not be the servant of Christ.”
Blessed be God. He has broken the ice for us too. I believe that we will look back on these weeks as the revolutionary moment in which the Western Church became Online Church. People who were used to gathering together freely in person were prevented from doing so, and in that moment they discovered a whole world outside their walls that was waiting for them to step outside.
I believe that the Saviour who told his followers to “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel” (Mark 16:15) is overjoyed with what is happening with his Church around the world today. Because the internet is no longer a den of robbers, a safe haven for gamblers and porn addicts and binge-watchers of boxsets. Instead, it has become a house of prayer for all nations.
The John Wesley and George Whitefield quotes in this blog can be found in John Wesley’s Journal (31st March, 1739) and in George Whitefield’s Journal (17th February, 1739).
Camera, Lights, Action
Still Homo Sapiens
As the current pandemic progresses, one of the things which is becoming more and more unavoidable is the reality of death. Each day the death toll rises, both in our own country and globally. While most of these deaths are hidden – sadly sometimes even to family unable visit those quarantined in hospital – the growing presence of temporary morgues (in ice rinks, aircraft hangars, and refrigerated vans) is making the reality more visible.
With each daily reminder, I’ve found myself thinking about what this reality can teach us about ourselves. In his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari puts forward the thesis that with the dawn of the twenty first century humanity is entering a new stage in its existence: having largely dealt with the three problems which have always preoccupied us – famine, plague, and war – we are now free to explore higher aims – the slowing or even eradication of aging and death, and the maximisation of pleasure and happiness. It is a journey, he suggests, from Homo sapiens (‘wise man’) to Homo deus (‘god man’).
The current pandemic probably doesn’t actually disprove Harari’s claim about plagues. Though the figures are high and rising, the global response made possible by our information and technology resources probably will ensure the overall outcome is less devastating than it could have been. Harari himself has offered some interesting reflections on coronavirus and how we might best tackle it as a globalised world.
Nevertheless, for most people, the current situation will be shaking our very modern confidence in humanity’s power to be in control and our belief that (at least until old age, cancer, or heart disease gets involved) we have the power over life and death. This will be unsettling for many, but perhaps it brings with it some opportunities.
Learning to Grieve Well
Many of us in the modern West don’t handle death well. In some ways this is understandable. Death is not something we are forced to confront very often. Many of us will be fortunate enough to live several decades of our lives before we experience the pain of someone close to us dying. Likewise, many will live many decades – perhaps even sometimes the entirety – of our lives without ever seeing a dead body. And with the ever-rising age of average life expectancy, our own death always feels far away. The result is that when death breaks into our world, we often don’t know how to handle it well – we don’t know how to grieve – and we don’t know how to face the reality of our own mortality.
Some of these factors will become increasingly less common as the weeks and months go on. The sad reality is that many of us may lose someone we love and a number of us will be forced to come face to face with the reality of our own mortality. But herein lies an opportunity, and an opportunity which, as followers of Jesus, we are uniquely placed to take up both for ourselves and for others.
We, of all people, should be able to grieve well and to help others to grieve well. In some ways, against the background of an atheistic worldview, grief doesn’t make a lot of sense. Death is the one thing we can all agree is utterly universal; it is the most expected of events. If human life is just the result of a long chain of random genetic mutations and natural selection, death is just the expected continuation of that process. If consciousness is simply a complex set of algorithms and the firing of neurons, not a lot is actually lost when someone dies.
And yet the reality is, we all know that grief is real and natural, involuntary even. The death of someone who was close to us can be one of the most painful experiences in life and is often accompanied by the sense that, ‘It shouldn’t be like this’.
And of course we know that that’s right. It shouldn’t be like this. There shouldn’t be pandemics, there shouldn’t be coronavirus, and there shouldn’t be death. But we know why some things are as they shouldn’t be, and we know that one day all things will again be as they should be, and we are invited to be a part of that. All of this means that we can grieve well and help others to do the same, knowing that the expression of the pain we feel is right and fitting, but also knowing where we can find hope to bring comfort and strength as we grieve.
Learning to Handle Mortality Well
This season will also give us an opportunity to learn to freshly recognise our own mortality and to handle it well. For some – those most vulnerable - this realisation will feel very acute. For others – those deemed less high-risk – it may be less acute, but the increasing prominence of death around us will still have the same effect.
Again though, we are uniquely positioned to handle this reality well and to help others to do so. This is an opportunity for us to think on death and the hope we have in the gospel. It’s an opportunity for us to examine our fears and to seek peace from them through the application of the word and through the work of the Spirit. And it’s an opportunity for us to hold out the truth that death is a disarmed and soon to be defeated enemy (1 Cor. 15:54-57; Rev.20:14; 21:4), that there is one who can deliver us from the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15), and that through him, it’s possible to die and yet live (John 11:25).
Learning That We Are Still Homo Sapiens
The prominence of death is also an opportunity to be reminded and to remind others that we are still Homo sapiens and not Homo deus. Though we have been endued with reason, intellect and even wisdom, wonderful gifts which help us to tackle something like coronavirus, we are not God. We are the creatures, not the creator. All our problems started with the desire to deny this truth (Gen. 3:5), and to this day it continues to be our core problem (Rom. 1:18-25). Here, then, is a lesson whose importance can hardly be overemphasised. And here we are with an opportunity to learn it and teach it again.
Does Corona Mean Communion on Your Owna?
Bobby Jamieson (who is one of the smartest guys I know) says a simple no.
That’s because the physical act of gathering is essential, not incidental, to the ordinance. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers five times to the fact that they celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they all come together as a church, as one assembly meeting in one place at one time (e.g., “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you,” 1 Cor. 11:18; cf. vv. 17, 20, 33, 34).
But is this just what they happened to do, or what we must do? Is the church’s physical presence with each other essential to the ordinance? Paul would say yes. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The Lord’s Supper enacts the church’s unity. It consummates the church’s oneness. It gathers up the many who partake of the same elements together, in the same place, and makes them one. (So if baptism binds the one to the many, the Lord’s Supper makes the many one.) So to make the Lord’s Supper into something other than a meal of the whole church, sitting down together in the same room, is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper.
So, it’s not the case that a virtually mediated, physically dispersed Lord’s Supper is less than optimal: it’s simply not the Lord’s Supper.
Physical presence is not an optional extra in the Eucharist. It’s not a “nice to have.” It is an integral part of what the Lord’s Supper is. I can remain married to my wife when I am abroad, and we can still do many of the things that marriage involves remotely, but there are some things we cannot do without being physically present, and they matter. The sacraments—visible signs and seals of the covenant—are like this, for the reasons Bobby has just given. (It seems to me that the recent CT article defending “online communion” does not address these arguments at all.)
In a more detailed article from an Anglican perspective, Ian Paul (also no fool) says similarly: “What does all this mean for ‘online church’? That the whole event of celebrating the Lord’s Supper is something that can only be done at the gathering of the whole people of God, since the reception by them of the elements is integral to the meaning of the whole event.” Again, I agree.
The question, then, is what we should do in the meantime. Bobby’s answer is simply to wait: “Let the absence of this meal make you hunger even more for that future meal.” Ian’s answer is that we may be able to share bread and wine as Christian households, while recognising that what we are doing “falls short of the full sharing of Communion together in a church building.” This latter idea raises all sorts of questions (what about people who live on their own? what about people whose families do not believe? should we include unbaptised children? etc), but it does have the advantage of being what the Jerusalem church did in “breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46, though admittedly in larger households).
Notice, though, that this is not an argument for taking the Eucharist while looking at a screen because physical presence doesn’t matter. It is the argument that physical presence is so important that the context of the Eucharist can change, from a whole congregation to a household, based on who else is in the room. This is where I differ from Bobby, I think; he maintains that the whole church must be gathered for it to be the Lord’s Supper at all, whereas I think (based on the Jerusalem church alone) that this is overstating it, and that smaller gatherings of believers can share Communion as long as they share a common loaf and drink a common cup, in faith, with thanksgiving. This is the main context in which house churches have shared the Lord’s Supper for decades.
Having said that, those smaller gatherings draw their meaning (as Ian points out) from their association with the gathered, church-wide sacramental meal, and should not become substitutes for it when we are once again able to gather. If that means that some of us cannot celebrate it for a few weeks or months, because we don’t live with any other believers, then we should look forward with eagerness to the day when we can—like a married couple separated by work, or war—and enjoy that experience all the more when the time comes. And while we’re at it, we should spare a thought for the old Scottish churches that only celebrate the Eucharist once a year. Literally: Crumbs.
Wendell Was Right
Probably they have been far less affected than most of us. The Amish policy of self-sufficiency with large families farming their own land must give them unusual resilience. Most of us are urban, and even if we wanted to (and I really would quite like to!) adopt a more Amish way of life we lack the skills, opportunity and land to do so. But there are surely things we can learn from their model of household resilience.
For decades Wendell Berry, the American essayist, poet, farmer and campaigner, has been warning us of the dangers of selling ourselves to big farming, big business and big politics. In his essays and novels Berry paints a picture of what could be – self-sufficient households living simply, without debt, and in cooperation with their neighbours: communities where there is a real ‘membership’, with every citizen known and looked out for, and a mutual sense of shared responsibility for the health – political, economic and familial – of the whole community. He has also painted the flipside: land degraded by careless agriculture; relentless ‘growth’ fuelled by ever-expanding debt; the weakening of social cohesion; and an enslavement to the consumer society which masquerades as freedom.
As Andrew pointed out the other day, “households are becoming the basic social unit of the church. Social, and often legal, limitations on contact mean that we now think of ourselves fundamentally as members of a household rather than as individuals, for probably the first time in living memory.”
There are plenty of memes flying around about the pressures this is bringing. I especially enjoyed the one of a mother who had gaffer-taped her child to the floor as she tried to get on with some work. But these pressures (and jokes) aside, the recovery of the household presents a real opportunity for society as a whole and the church in particular. Resilience to plague and disaster is greatest in households who are best able to look after themselves, in cooperation with other such households.
I’m trying to work out what this might look like in the urban environments where we live: digging up our lawns and growing vegetables instead might be part of the answer but certainly isn’t sufficient for true resilience. Here are some ideas I’m mulling over.
We need local political resilience. For years, in the free West, we have asked the question, ‘What would it be like to live in a society where the authorities prevent believers from meeting together?’ Now we know. A few weeks back it would have been inconceivable that we would soon be living under martial law, but that is essentially what has happened. I believe the government is acting with the best intentions, with the best knowledge available to it, but the staggering power of the state is still alarming: that schools and businesses can be shut, church services closed, and movement outside the home curtailed is extraordinary. What if a government decided to take such steps for less benign reasons than the current ones? Having discovered its own power, can we really be confident that government might not want to flex the same muscles again?
The best way to protect against the tyranny of an over-powerful central state is by the existence of robust local politics. By ‘politics’ here I mean polities – not just local mayors or councils that have real clout, but communities who are able to organise and stand together. The irony of the Amish is that they stand outside mainstream politics, and yet their polity is strong. The church should not be political but she is a polity. We need to find ways in which churches exercise their political resilience – and that will need to be worked out by resilient households that compromise resilient local churches.
We need local economic resilience. In this time of crisis many of us have suddenly found ourselves dependent on small, local, businesses in a new way. The corner shop has assumed a new importance. The local butcher we haven’t used because he is more expensive than the supermarket has started to attract more custom. In the UK local highstreets have been dying – don’t we feel the need of them now? Perhaps coronavirus is a wakeup call to us that we need to develop resilient local economies rather than relying so heavily on the global one. What part might churches play in encouraging this?
We need technological resilience. Tech is our tool and a very useful one at this time. But as I posted on Monday, there is a real danger that our increasing dependence on tech at this time will lead to our greater enslavement by Big-Tech: something that will weaken rather than strengthen our resilience. Even as we are all using tech more we should be making plans to reduce our dependence upon it. Once this crisis is over what platforms, programs and practices will we ditch? To be truly resilient we might better use our time learning how to service a car ourselves, or keep chickens, or build a wall. Churches have a part to play in this as even while we move so much online we should be pastoring people in how to live without being permanently connected. This is essential for our own health and wellbeing, but it is also a good strategy for developing resilience – what if next time around it is not a virus that gets us but a global internet glitch?
I think Wendell has been right all along. Certainly not on everything, no, but on the big picture, yes. We’re not all going to replicate the Amish but we should all learn some resilience. That will need to begin in households. It should be demonstrated in local churches. It could be what keeps us alive.
When Corona Makes Us More Like the New Testament
Households are becoming the basic social unit of the church. Social, and often legal, limitations on contact mean that we now think of ourselves fundamentally as members of a household rather than as individuals, for probably the first time in living memory. We take exercise as households. We identify as households for the purposes of meals, socialising, leaving the home (if applicable) and healthcare. We even (gasp) worship as households. No doubt they are almost always much smaller than their first century equivalents, but that’s an interesting development.
There is a renewed focus on caring for the poor and the elderly. In the New Testament, we continually run into churches and apostles obsessing about serving the poor and caring for widows. The plight of the most vulnerable is not just something people think about sometimes; it is uppermost in their thinking. And today, thanks to the grim disparity in survival rates between the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, we are facing a nationwide (even worldwide) return to that position. Ordinary people make daily life choices on the basis of what will help, or harm, the poorest and most vulnerable in society; churches circulate the practical needs and prayer requests of people who, in normal times, might not always receive such attention.
The role of the pastor is changing. In many churches, pastors spend a good deal of their time running things: Sunday services, rotas, programmes and initiatives, volunteer teams, and so forth. (I often think of Eugene Peterson when he first heard his pastor friend utter the phrase, “I run a church.” Peterson writes that although it was decades ago, “I can still distinctly remember the unpleasant impression it made.”) Now, however, after the initial flurry of confusion and activity—how exactly are we going to do Sundays when nobody can leave the house?—the role of the pastor has become much more traditional. Find out how people are doing. Care for them. Connect people together. Pray for them. Rinse, wash, repeat.
There is a renewed focus on prayer, for the simple reason that there really isn’t very much else we can do. When we feel invincible, we don’t pray so much. When we feel helpless—how else are we going to get out of this without masses of people dying?—we realise our intense need of God’s deliverance. When you couple that with the previous point, you get both the incentive and the opportunity to pray, as Phil wrote so beautifully last week based on the life of James Fraser.
We are experiencing the suspension of plenty. Perhaps the largest cause of social distance between the New Testament church and me is abundance. When I am hungry, I eat. When I am thirsty, I drink. For many (although not all) people in the West today, including most readers of this blog, there is a breezy assumption that we will always be able to access enough to eat; Tesco is our cornucopia. Yet in the last two weeks, thanks to panic buying and self-isolation, I have been praying the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer for myself, for real, for the first time in my life. Rachel and I have been looking in the fridge and the cupboards carefully, knowing that we won’t be able to restock them for five days, and rationing our staples accordingly. People are giving items that are hard to find, whether toilet roll or eggs or something else, to people whom they know will struggle to buy them. We are all thinking more carefully about how we use our money, our time and our space than we usually do. The temporary suspension of plenty is reminding us of the constraints that have applied to almost everyone in history. (It is also showing us how sinful and selfish we quickly become if we don’t think our family will have enough, and that might prompt us to be a bit less condescending towards our ancestors’ failings, but that is another story.)
Don’t let a good crisis go to waste, as they say. There are things to learn here, if we have eyes to see, and they can help us when (God willing) this crisis is over.
Dark Clouds & Silver Linings
Here are six areas where I’m reading the weather.
The pros and cons of technology
That we can phone, message, email, Facebook, Tweet, Hangout, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and Insta each other is terrific. I’m incredibly grateful for the way technology is enabling us to fill some of the gaps, stay in contact, and stream church services. At the same time a cloud to this silver lining is that we become increasingly tech dependent. We’ve all been glued to our screens the past ten days and that isn’t healthy. When we are through this the big tech companies are still going to want to mine our data, track our movements, nudge our spending, commoditise us and sell to us. During a time of famine Joseph reduced the Egyptians to slavery (Genesis 47:21). We need to be careful that we are not made slaves of Big-Tech.
We also need to be alert to the reality that ‘online church’ is not church! I’m very thankful that we can put sermons, songs, and other resources online to help people at this time. I know there are real evangelistic opportunities on the internet. But true church is about the people of God physically gathering together, ‘greeting one another with a holy kiss’, taking the bread and wine, looking each other in the eye, and loving others despite their – and our – strange or irritating habits. We must beware falling into the trap of thinking that gathering together is one option among many for ‘doing church’ – that you can just as well do it sitting on your sofa with a phone in one hand and a coffee in the other. That approach will produce consumers, not disciples.
It is already becoming apparent that those who are doing ‘online church’ best are those who are most used to physically being together. Our student group had a successful virtual lunch on Sunday – but that was a fruit of them doing actual lunch together every Sunday. To claim that online church is really church is as silly as claiming that watching Bake Off is the same as making and eating a cake.
Another danger is that as we put things online we develop an unhealthy obsession with how many clicks and views we get. It would be wise to remember how in recent political campaigns those whose worldview was dominated by Twitter and Facebook have been mystified when come election night their side lost. It is not necessarily those with the loudest voice who make the biggest impact.
When this is over we are going to have to re-learn how to connect in more human ways. This, again, will be an opportunity for the church. We will have a responsibility and opportunity to show people that real community is bigger than a screen and more meaningful than an emoji.
A new neighbourliness
One of the most remarkable developments of the last few days has been community groups springing up in street after street. We now have nearly 40 of our neighbours in ours and there is a level of communication which would have been unimaginable two weeks ago. In many places Christians are taking the lead in this – as we should, because we understand community. This is a great opportunity for us! The challenge will be to maintain and build on what is now happening once the immediate crisis is past. We will need to move beyond the superficiality of a WhatsApp message and into the reality of people’s lives.
As neighbourhood support groups are being formed we’re seeing ways in which local communities can support one another in the way more distant government cannot. One of my neighbours has organised a local fishmonger to deliver to our street. I’ve put in a bulk order for flour with a miller I know. Teachers in the group are giving help and advice to parents with kids at home. I heard of another group where chicken eggs were being bartered for loo roll. Even as the global economy takes a battering perhaps we will find ways to strengthen local neighbourhoods and economies.
My brother-in-law in Buenos Aires told us that for the first time in a long time the skies above the city are blue as pollution levels have dropped. When the crisis is over are we really going to go back to how things were before or will we have learnt how to treat the planet more kindly? And might it be that the emergence of Covid-19 finally compels the Chinese authorities to close down the live animal markets that were the origin of the virus – as they were of SARS previously. As well as reducing the likelihood of future viral epidemics this could greatly reduce the global trade in endangered species. Ironically, a zoonotic disease could be great news for global ecology.
When our kids were small we would read the Bible and pray together at breakfast. As they grew older and schedules more complex this pattern of family devotions began to slip until we weren’t doing it at all. Now we are back – praying and worshipping together daily in a way we never have before. If you’ve never had a pattern of family piety it might not be easy to start, but if you can’t start now, you never will. My hope is that in my church (and around the globe) there is a recovery and renewal of families coming together in the word and in prayer.
A purified church
One of the downsides of a time like this is that it brings out the charismatic crazies. There are some truly weird and wonderful things being promoted from certain corners of the church. Peter tells us that “it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). My prayer is that what we are going through will cause some of the dross in the church to be burned off. As the falsity of what some are preaching is exposed a refined and purified church can emerge that is ready to witness the truth of the gospel and welcome people into God’s house. Who knows? Perhaps God is using this time to prepare us for revival.
Keep reading the weather!
Fear and the Power of Why
We’re living in a time when fear is prominent and prevalent, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been reflecting on the reality of fear and how we should handle it. As I’ve done so I’ve been struck by the power of one simple question, ‘Why?’
Why Am I Afraid?
Fear is an emotion, and emotions should always lead us to ask questions.
It’s easy to dismiss our emotions. Many of us are trained to view them as annoying distractions, part of the reality of life post-Fall. Emotions suddenly appear out of nowhere, getting in the way and pulling us off course. With this view, our response will usually be to ignore or suppress them. In Christian circles, such a perspective can lead to statements like, ‘Don’t listen to your emotions. Just listen to God’s word.’ What such a statement overlooks is that our emotions are there to help us know how to best listen to God’s word.
The truth is, our emotions are signposts, signposts to our thinking and to our loves. Our emotional reactions flow from the things we believe deep down and the things we love deep down. They are not random, spontaneous occurrences that appear out of nowhere, they are a window into what’s really going on inside us. It’s for this reason that we should respond to our emotions with questions, and in particular the key question, ‘Why?’.
This is all true of fear. Asking the why question of our fear helps us to truly understand what’s going on, and then we can know how best to handle it.
In this way, fear is a gift to us. Sometimes asking questions of our fear will show that it is well placed and should motivate us to action. I’m crossing the road and I realise that a car has just turned onto the road and is hurtling towards me. I feel afraid. I’m afraid it will hit me. I’m afraid it will hurt. I’m afraid it might kill me. This is good fear, fear which will motivate me to action: I’m going to run across that road!
But sometimes fear isn’t good. Even this week I’ve been examining my own fear. I’m low risk for being seriously affected by coronavirus, and yet I realised I was feeling fearful about the idea of becoming seriously ill and even dying. I began to ask myself ‘Why?’. I know that death isn’t the end; I know that for the believer death is gain, so why? As I questioned myself I realised my fear was not of dying, my fear was of missing out on the coming years of my life. So again, I asked myself ‘Why?’. I was sobered by the answer: Doing the things I enjoy in this life for a few more decades seemed more appealing than being with Christ. Now, the things I enjoy doing are good things, but they’re not as good as being with Christ. I don’t want to desire my earthly activities more than Christ, so my fear highlighted to me an area of my heart I need to work on. My fear wasn’t good, but by examining it, I found an area for growth.
So, if you find yourself feeling fearful at this time or you’re interacting with someone who is, ask a gentle question: ‘Why?’ The feeling of fear is a gift which can help us.
Why Should I Not Be Afraid?
The why question is also helpful when we’re considering what the Bible says about fear. It’s true that time and time again, God says to his people ‘Don’t be afraid’. But when he says this, he’s not just saying, ‘Ignore that pesky, distracting emotion’. He’s saying, ‘You don’t need to fear, because the thinking or loving behind your fear is faulty’.
And we can know this by asking the question, ‘Why?’. Most of the time the command to not fear is accompanied by an explanation. This explanation isn’t designed to make the command even stronger (‘You should do this because of this!’); the explanation is designed to explain the power which allows the command to be fulfilled (‘You can do this because of this!’) The biblical commands about fear encourage us to apply truth to the realities that are underlying our fear. They are deeply pastoral gifts to help us. When we read them, we should always ask ‘Why?’ and look for the accompanying reason. In the reason, we find the power.
These two why questions actually work together: by asking why we’re fearful, we can find the root of our fear, and then by asking why God commands us not to be afraid, we can find the promise or reality which will help us to reshape our thinking or our loving which will, in turn, cut off our fear at the root.
So as we face the fear of the current crisis, one way we can equip ourselves is with a simple but powerful question: ‘Why?’
Sabia-Tanis: Holy Creation, Wholly Creative - A Response
To complete this series interacting with the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities, here I offer a response to the final chapter, 'Holy Creation, Wholly Creative: God's Intention for Gender Diversity' by Justin Sabia-Tanis.
Justin Sabia-Tanis makes a helpful contribution to this conversation by drawing from his own experience of living with gender dysphoria and undergoing gender transition. Particularly valuable is his attempt to help readers think their way into what it might be like to live with gender dysphoria through an imaginative exercise (pp.209-210).
I agree with his focus on working towards the wellbeing of transgender people and his call for Christians to recognise the need to respect the full personhood of transgender people as those created in God’s image (p.216). I also appreciate the way he highlights the disproportionately high rates of poverty among the transgender population and condemns Christian organisations who have refused help to transgender people who find themselves in difficult situations (pp.220-221).
While Sabia-Tanis expresses an admirable concern for the wellbeing of transgender people and rightly calls on Christians to treat trans people with compassion, I would question the form that Sabia-Tanis seems to believe this compassion should take. While it is generally true that ‘[c]ompassion argues that we allow people to receive medical treatments that will alleviate their suffering’ (p.217), we do first have to consider the morality of any such treatments. This is something Sabia-Tanis fails to do. In fact, he bemoans the shift from treating transgender as an issue for medical and pastoral care to an issue of morality but offers no argument as to why this shift is wrong. I would argue that all three perspectives are important.
In arguing for the acceptability of gender transition, Sabia-Tanis cites his own experience as evidence, both his sense of God’s calling ‘to set out on a journey between and among genders’ (p.204) and his experience of transitioning as ‘absolutely life-affirming and life-giving’ (p.205). Later, he notes that many who have transitioned ‘testify that we feel that God has affirmed our decisions’ (p.216). Nowhere, however, does the chapter engage with biblical texts (such a Deut. 22:5 and 1 Cor. 11:2-16) or theological perspectives that argue against the acceptability of transitioning. His perspective seems to be shaped only by a subjective experience with no evidence that this has been measured against Scripture.
Sabia-Tanis also argues in favour of gender transition by rejecting suggestions that there can be any positive aspects to suffering. This being the case, he suggests that any possible means of alleviating suffering should be allowed (pp.218-219). However, this is a distinctly unchristian position on suffering. Though we often don’t ultimately know why God allows suffering and might not be able to directly trace the good it does, the biblical witness consistently sees suffering as able to do good to us (e.g. Mark 8:34-36; Rom. 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7).
In challenging the idea that transitioning should be considered as a moral issue which could be sinful, Sabia-Tanis suggests that we should ‘reorient the question from one of sinfulness to a focus on a person’s relationship with God’ (p.208). However, this is a false dichotomy. It is precisely because of the desire to have a good relationship with God in which we are honouring him with our bodies that we should consider whether transitioning is moral. Having a good relationship with God, however that might be defined, cannot be used as a justification for any and every action we desire to take. Elsewhere, Sabia-Tanis talks of God accepting those who keep his word (p.204). What does it mean to keep God’s word in relation to our gendered identity? This question is never really explored.
The starting point for Sabia-Tanis’ chapter is his argument that gender falls on a continuum. He offers arguments from the natural world and from the Bible, but both sets of arguments face serious problems.
When considering the natural world, Sabia-Tanis notes that there are some plants and animals which are hermaphroditic and some which change sex. However, neither of these phenomena are comparable to gender dysphoria or gender transition. Hermaphroditic organisms could offer a parallel to some intersex conditions, but they cannot prove that hermaphroditic biology in humans reflects a good and deliberate diversity. It is noteworthy that Sabia-Tanis says there are some ‘species’ of plants and some ‘categories’ of fish of whom this is true (p.199). In these cases, hermaphroditism is not a rare occurrence as it is in humans but is a standard characteristic of the species. Organisms which change sex cannot be claimed as evidence that gender transition is part of creational intent since the form of change is very different: in plants and fish it is through natural means and for the sake of reproduction, in human gender transition it is through invasive medical intervention and, if anything, harms rather than assists reproduction.
The biblical arguments for gender as a continuum are also unconvincing. The argument that the binaries in Genesis 1 are not absolute (e.g. dusk occurs between day and night) cannot be successfully applied to humans for several reasons. Perhaps most important among these is Jesus’s affirmation that God created humans as male or female so that one-man, one-woman marriages might take place (Mark 10:6-7; Matt. 19:4-5). Thus biological sex is a binary structured around the procreative sexual union of a man and a woman. Looking to Genesis 2, Sabia-Tanis suggests that v.18 shows the creation of woman was to solve the problem of loneliness rather than to create separate genders. However, there must be more to the narrative than this or God could have created a human who was identically sexed to Adam. The fact that he doesn’t, thus facilitating the reunion of man and woman in the one-flesh union of marriage (Gen. 2:24), is significant in the Bible’s theology of sex. Finally, arguments from the positive acceptance of eunuchs in Isaiah 56, Matthew 19 and Acts 8 are not directly relevant to the question of transgender as eunuchs were considered to be biologically male, though unable to father children, and so are, if anything, a parallel to intersex conditions, not to the experience of gender dysphoria or gender transition.
Taking a step back, there seems to be something of a tension between the two main points of Sabia-Tanis’ chapter. He starts by making the case that God has created gender to be a continuum and thus gender variations are good and should be embraced. However, his second point - that transgender people should be allowed to transition as an expression of compassion and love for neighbour in the face of suffering – seems to undermine the idea that the continuum is good, both in its focus on suffering and on the affirmation of transition approaches which move one closer to a certain end of the continuum. It might fairly be asked, if gender is a God-given continuum, why do some seem to suffer because of their position on the continuum and why should there be a need to move oneself to somewhere else on the continuum?
Sabia-Tanis’ aim in this chapter is admirable: to wrestle with the reality of gender dysphoria and offer a truly compassionate Christian response. I fear he fails in this aim, however, because of an overreliance on subjective experience, some flawed logic in the arguments employed, and weak readings of the biblical text.
To The Elders
I’ve just been praying with my flesh & blood family and feel prompted to write to you - my brothers in Christ. This is such an extraordinary time and I’m sure you are all feeling pressure and strain. I’m very conscious of the pressures on each of you and know we will all be feeling the demands of the day in different ways. Certainly, I have been feeling quite overwhelmed and all kinds of questions about how we are going to deal with the known and unknown consequences of this crisis are weighing heavily on me.
But, it is exactly at a time like this that we need to remember who we are: we need to remember our calling. We are the elders of Gateway Church. This is a huge privilege - and a real responsibility. We are on a war footing and we need to remember we are called to be men of war. The civilised veneer our society normally lives under means we can forget this in normal times, but we are called to a fight, and we must be fighters (Eph.6:10-12).
Here are three areas in which we must commit ourselves to the fight:
We should always be prayerful and labour in prayer for the flock, but we don’t always feel the urgency of this. Now we must! We need to fight for our people - we need to fight for their spiritual as well as physical protection. We need to fight for their survival - when we come out of this we want there to still be a church to lead. (Phil Moore did a brilliant post on this.) We need to fight for them to remain faithful. We need to fight in prayer for them to not give into fear but to be good witnesses at this time. How and when we pray will vary according to our temperaments and timetable but we need to be seen to lead the church in the charge of prayer. How can we ask others to commit to prayer if it is not seen that we are so committed? Of anyone in the church we should be the last to say we were too busy to pray.
Sometimes we can forget that we are called to be pastors. In normal times we tend to spend a lot of time organising programs and events and can end up managing systems more than we care for people. Now is not that time! Let’s fight as pastors - working hard to engage with and encourage our people. Let’s care for the flock Jesus has entrusted to us.
This is a fight! Our prayers and our pastoring are to have a protective effect for the church. We are called to be a shield to others. We’re called to take the bullet for others. We need to fight for God’s protection to be over God’s people. People are anxious, confused, irritable - we must fight for their hearts and for them to live in God’s grace at this time. This is where it gets real: all the things we have taught, sung, prayed - now ‘the tested genuineness of your faith’ (1 Pet.1:7) needs to prove its mettle.
This quote from Mark Sayers should set the tone for us at this time: “An era is over. Of hot takes, and distractions, of self-focused leadership and endless naval gazing. War time leadership is here. Let’s step into the new phase with holy fire to lead like lions of the Lord. Revival comes wrapped in strange paper. Let’s not miss the gift. We will look back on these months to come as utterly defining of our lives, of our churches, of our nations.”
Yes! Let’s be lions of the Lord!
And we need to dwell on how Paul & Peter charge elders to fight for their churches:
1 Peter 5:1-4 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
Acts 20:28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
Finally, practically, we need to find ways to stay connected together. Our phones have all been red-hot with messages the past few days - the last thing we need is more information overload. But we do need to stay connected, and to talk and pray together.
I’m grateful for you men. We have done well together in a time of peace. Now is a time of war. Let’s stand together, in Christ, and prove we are the men we would hope to be.
The Corona Virus Experiment
As I write this blog, Christian leaders all around the world are facing up to two great challenges that are unprecedented within their lifetimes.
First, due to government restrictions aimed at slowing down the spread of COVID-19, most church leaders find themselves unable to gather those they lead into church services for the next few Sundays. Second, for the same reason, most church leaders are looking at diaries that are full of cancelled meetings. For decades - even for centuries - the predictable answer from any Christian leader to the question “How are you doing?” has always been “I’m busy.” Now, for the first time, Christian leaders actually have time on their hands. Stressed? Of course they are, for these are definitely troubling times. But busy? Not so much, to which I say wow - just wow! Take a moment to sit back and to savour this rarest of smells in Church History. A Church whose leaders have time on their hands. Enough time on their hands, in fact, for us to be able to run a little experiment together with the Lord.
The challenges that church leaders are facing for the next few weeks may be unprecedented for the Western Church, but it is not unprecedented in Church History. The great missionary James Fraser found himself in a very similar position when he began to preach the Gospel to the pagan Chinese villagers of Lisuland in the first half of the twentieth century. Lisuland lies several hundred miles west of Wuhan, in the foothills of the Himalayas, so James Fraser very often found himself unable to reach his converts in the most mountainous areas. Winter snowfalls made it too dangerous for him to gather them together in church services. At first he was frustrated and even angry with God, who could easily have held back the snowfall to enable his church services to go ahead. But as he prayed, James Fraser became convicted that God was in the problem - it was a challenge of the Lord’s own making. The Lord wanted him to conduct an experiment on behalf of the Body of Christ. I believe that God wants to turn us back to James Fraser’s experiment right now.
James Fraser worked out that it would take him three to five days to conduct church services in the highland villages of Lisuland - one or two days of travel up into the mountains, a day of gathering together, and then one or two days of travel back down again. He therefore decided to find out: What would happen if I decided to spend the time that I would have spent gathering with these Lisu people praying for them instead?
For James Fraser, this was more than just a throwaway tweet on social media. It wasn’t an oh-so-radical piece of church-leader virtue-signalling. Nobody knew, or much even cared, how a missionary chose to spend his time in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was between James Fraser and God alone, but he gave himself to his experiment completely. He prayed for three to five days for each of the highland villages instead of visiting them. Then, once the spring sun had melted the snow, he climbed the mountains to discover what had happened. No scientist can ever have been so eager to examine the petri dishes in his laboratory.
James Fraser discovered that his converts in the highland villages had prospered during the winter months in which he had found himself unable to gather them together. In fact, as he met with them to hear about their winter Bible reading and their isolated prayer times, he came to the remarkable conclusion that his converts in the highlands of Lisuland had grown far more during the winter than his converts in the lowlands - the converts that he had been busy visiting and gathering all winter long. He recorded his conclusion: “If two things stand out clearly in my mind, they are firstly how ‘foolish’ and ‘weak’ our new converts are, and secondly that God has really chosen them.” Thereafter, he was determined never to fret when he could not gather people, but always to seize it as a God-given invitation to pray for people instead. “If I were to think after the manner of men, I should be anxious about my Lisu converts - afraid for their falling back into demon worship. But God is enabling me to cast all my care upon Him. I am not anxious, not nervous. If I hugged my care to myself instead of casting it upon Him, I should never have persevered in the work so long - perhaps never even have started it. But if it has been begun in Him, it must be continued in Him.”
James Fraser never knew the full results of his prayer experiment. Many missiologists trace back the enormous revival that has swept through China in the past fifty years to the revival that began amongst the highlanders of Lisuland during the winters when he stayed at home and prayed.
As a Christian leader, I feel a little stressed right now that I am not going to be able to gather together in person with the people that I lead for the next few Sundays. I’m busy pastoring many of them via email and social media, and I’m busy preparing online services so that I can serve them well over the next few Sundays. But I’m challenged that I can do far more to serve them than to take my pastoral overbusyness online. God isn’t just encouraging me to transfer my face-to-face meetings into Skype and Zoom conference calls for a season instead. He is inviting Christian leaders all across the Western world right now to rethink the whole of their ministry and to trust him that their inability to gather people to them for a season is an opportunity for them to gather themselves to God on behalf of the people.
Charles Spurgeon preached that “Prayer is the slender nerve which moves the muscle of omnipotence.” By God’s grace, let’s therefore embrace the next few weeks as an opportunity to experiment together and discover how much this is true. Let’s not fritter away these precious days of pastoral isolation. Let’s use them in such a way that we can look back in days to come and recall the lessons of the Western Church’s great Corona Virus Experiment in Prayer.
Quotes in this blog are taken from Eileen Crossman’s biography of James Fraser, which is entitled “Mountain Rain” (1982) - pages 133 and 198.
Kissing the Wave
Living in an Uncertain World
Covid-19 and Being a Community Initiator
Just how thin civilised life may be has been exposed by scenes of shoppers fighting over toilet rolls: that life can so quickly descend into chaos over something so insignificant is truly worrying. Yet alongside those signs of concern we are also seeing an upwelling of community kindness. Covid-19 is both driving people apart and causing them to come together.
We – the church – have an incredible opportunity to be community nurturers at this time. Part of the way we can ‘run towards the plague’ is by taking the initiative in our neighbourhoods to demonstrate care and kindness to others.
On Sunday afternoon Grace & I did what many others are doing and went round to our neighbours with a flyer suggesting we form a community support group. As with many British streets, most people in my road don’t have much interaction with the people they live close to and are unsure about how to form connections with neighbours. Our flyer simply said who we were and explained,
At this time of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus it would be good to keep an eye out for one another in our neighbourhood. If you would like to join a WhatsApp group for our street please message us. If you are having to self-isolate let us know. We can try to help with picking up shopping or if you just need a friendly phone call!
We delivered this flyer to about fifty addresses in our immediate neighbourhood and most people responded immediately and with considerable enthusiasm.
There is a real desire to help one another at this time. As well as helping us through the immediate crisis, my hope is that this will lead to a stronger neighbourhood and more opportunities for witness once the coronavirus threat has passed. At the least, having a WhatsApp group which includes most of our neighbours will make it so much more easy to organise drinks at Christmas or a summer barbeque.
These strange times are making it so easy for us to connect with people in new ways. Let’s make the most of that opportunity.
Parables of Patronage
Keith led a Christian ministry in Asia. He employed Donghai, a national believer, to manage local projects for the ministry organisation. Keith began to hear rumours about Donghai misusing funds. So Keith summoned him, and asked, “What is this I hear about you? Tell me how you are spending the money, because you can no longer work here.”
Then Donghai said to himself, “What will I do, now that I am no longer employed by this international organization? I’ve worked there twenty-five years, so I have limited prospects for another job at my age. I am too ashamed to ask relatives for money, since I was always the person who helped them. I know what I will do, so that when I am dismissed in two weeks, people will welcome me into their homes!”
Donghai secretly took 3,000 dollars from the organization’s bank account and shared it with friends and family in the community. He told all of them that the money was from Keith to bless local families. Keith arrived at work the following day, completely unaware of what Donghai had done. Everyone gathered at his office to thank Keith with words of praise for his generosity.
When Keith realized what Donghai had done, he commended Donghai for acting so wisely and sensibly, “Usually unbelievers understand how to deal with these situations better than Christians. I tell you, it is good to build a relational network with unauthorized funds, so that you can depend on those relationships when the money runs out.”
- Jayson Georges, Ministering in Patronage Cultures, p53
The Best Laid Plans
In our technological age we have grown so used to simply assuming that what we plan will happen. Trains run – more or less – on time. Flick a switch and the lights always come on. Turn a tap and there is always water. Modern cars rarely breakdown. Schools stay open. Businesses can make long term plans expecting the general economic shape of our society to remain constant. We haven’t experienced war on the shores of the UK since the days of the Blitz.
Things work. Things are predictable. It has been easy (and reasonable) to say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money’ (James 4:13).
That has now all changed with chaos in the financial markets, the closure of public events, and the total impossibility of making any plans for travel. All we do know is that life is likely to be much more disrupted and restricted over the coming weeks. We can make plans for this (we’re war gaming various scenarios at my church, as I expect is also happening at your church) but we know any plans we make will be subject to rapid change.
James’ warning, ‘What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes’ (James 4:14), has often rung hollow in a world where we are able to plan with confidence. Now it rings clear. That is a good thing. If CV19 teaches us to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’ (James 4:15), we will actually be in a healthier place.
The world we have created tends to make us very arrogant. We feel we are in control because of the general predictability of our systems and services. But really we are not. CV19 is humbling us. It is teaching us not to ‘boast in your arrogant schemes’ (James 4:16). For that we should be thankful – and seize the opportunity it affords us to proclaim the good news of an unshakeable heavenly Father ‘who does not change like shifting shadows’ (James 1:17).
Like James, this is a time to proclaim: ‘Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded’ (James 4:8). Our plans are flimsy: His are immovable.
DeFranza: Good News for Gender Minorities - A Response
Next up in my series interacting with the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities is a response to Megan K. DeFranza's chapter, 'Good News for Gender Minorities'.
DeFranza exhibits a deep concern that we recognise transgender as a topic about real people. This is a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. I also agree that any feelings of disgust or fear towards transgender people are utterly misplaced.
However, I would challenge the unquestioned assumption that the only way to truly care for transgender people is to affirm them in an identification with their gender identity. This assumption goes hand in hand with another undefended perspective in the chapter: that someone’s gender identity is their ‘authentic self’ (p.176) and so to transition is to tell the real truth (p.150). This is a position that needs to be argued for not simply assumed, but DeFranza fails to do this. When there is a conflict, on what basis do we affirm gender identity as the true self rather than biological sex?
Much of DeFranza’s chapter draws on the reality of differences of sex development (DSDs) or intersex conditions and unhelpfully confuses them with transgender. Despite explicit acknowledgment that most intersex people don’t identify as transgender (p.150), she often collapses the two into one. This is seen in the logic of her response to the Nashville Statement. Putting forward evidence that sex differences are not a pure binary, she argues that the Nashville Statement should therefore view transgender in much the same way as it does intersex conditions: ‘As the Nashville Statement illustrates, it seems that if scientists could pinpoint physical causes for transgender identity, then transgender people would fall under the umbrella of those with “differences of sex development” and thus be included (at least by adherents of the statement) as those who “are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers”’ (p.156).
There are two issues with this perspective. One is that there is not yet firm evidence to support the idea that gender incongruence is always or even usually caused by a biological variation.1 Transgender and intersex are different phenomena.
Second, the claim that sex differences are not binary is not true. DeFranza states ‘Human sex is dimorphic, meaning there are two basic bodily patterns, but not strictly so; it also falls on a continuum’ (p.152). In scientific terms, sex difference is determined through reproductive roles. This is the only recognised and stable way of determining maleness or femaleness and it delineates a clear binary, not a continuum.2 It is true that in the case of DSDs there can be variations from what is usually expected in reproductive structures, but these differences are clearly variations from the expected structure, not alternatives on a continuum. This is why many intersex conditions will leave a person infertile rather than offering alternative functional reproductive structures.
In the case of the vast majority of transgender people, the reproductive structure fits what is expected for a male or a female. Even if secondary sex characteristics, brain structure, personality, or preferences can be plotted on a male-female continuum, these do not undermine the stable identification as male or female based on reproductive structures. DeFranza is therefore wrong to suggest that transgender should be thought of as akin to intersex. They are very different phenomena.
Two further points can be noted on the critique of article 6 of the Nashville Statement. The first is a point of agreement. It is sad if accidental, and wrong if deliberate, that while affirming those born with DSDs as being created in the image of God and having equal dignity and worth to other image-bearers, no such affirmation is made in the Nashville Statement about those who experience gender incongruence (or same-sex attraction). The statement speaks of those who are intersex with a level of care and respect lacking in its response to gender incongruence.
I feel DeFranza is unfair, however, in her accusation that the statement’s language of ‘adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception’ suggests people choose their sexual orientation or gender identity (p.154). Though the statement’s language is clunky, it is clearly trying to speak of the choice to conceive of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a core identity which must be expressed. Nothing is said of the general experience of gender incongruence or same-sex attraction. It is probably DeFranza’s assumption that gender identity is one’s true self which leads to this misunderstanding.
In the second half of her chapter, DeFranza offers her perspective on the biblical material. Here I will raise only the most serious problems I observed in her readings.
There are many problems with DeFranza’s treatment of Matthew 19:1-12. First, she claims that ‘Jesus names eunuchs as those who do not fit the pattern of male and female’ (p.160). However, the topic of debate in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees in Matthew 19 is marriage, not sex difference. Eunuchs are used as examples of those who might not marry and who couldn’t father children, activities which were pretty much expected for everyone in Jesus’ context. Like other biblical authors, Jesus most probably thought of eunuchs as males who are unable to procreate (as argued here).
DeFranza rejects the common reading that Jesus uses the eunuch as an example of celibate singleness suggesting that there is no explanation ‘why he would employ the enigmatic figure of the eunuch to make this point’ (p.160). However, there is are very good reasons why Jesus would do this. First, because eunuchs were unable to produce children. Marriage and childbearing were seen almost as religious duties in the time of Jesus. Eunuchs were unable to father children and were therefore the perfect illustration for Jesus to make the radical point that in his kingdom some people would voluntarily forego marriage and childbearing. Second, eunuchs often served as high-ranking officials in royal courts (as DeFranza states on p.162) and so Jesus could use them as a picture of the kind of service that celibate single people can render to God. It is these points about marriage and singleness which Jesus is seeking to make by employing the figure of the eunuch, not any point about biological sex.
To support her view, DeFranza claims that some in the early church interpreted Matthew 19:12 as a call to reject gender privileges, but these voices, she notes, were silenced when the views of Augustine and others on the importance of gender distinctions became the dominant view. The suggestion seems to be that Augustine was wrong – although this view isn’t defended – and that other early Christians understood Jesus correctly. This being so, she suggests that many early Christians wouldn’t have shared the outrage of some modern Christians about the voluntary surgical alteration of genitals among those who experience gender incongruence.
There are two problems here. One is that DeFranza offers no scriptural evaluation of the early church’s differing views. Augustine may have been right; we won’t know until we evaluate his view against Scripture. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Ephesians 5:22-33, and 1 Peter 3:1-7, which suggest a level of importance to gender distinctions in at least some settings, are not considered. The second problem is that the parallel between modern surgery for transgender people and voluntary castration in the early church is inexact. The view in the early church was that gender distinctions are unimportant and perhaps even unhelpful; therefore, some chose to castrate themselves to renounce gender. By contrast, the view behind supporting surgery for transgender people says that gender is so important it can justify surgery to give it bodily support. If anything, the early church’s alternative view argues against modern affirming perspectives on transgender.
Much of the rest of DeFranza’s treatment of Scripture suffers from the fact that she employs texts about eunuchs (e.g. Isaiah 56 and Acts 8) without sufficiently taking into consideration the difference between ancient eunuchs and transgender people. Her arguments are better applied to those with intersex conditions than to those identifying as transgender.
On Genesis 1, DeFranza suggests that the binaries in creation are not absolute. I have responded to this argument before when considering intersex. Going to the other end of the Bible story, she argues that the presence of great diversity in the multitude before the throne in Revelation 7, diversity which wasn’t present in the garden, shows that God’s intention is to welcome people ‘as they are, not after some kind of restoration to an Edenic pattern’ (p.174, emphasis original). However, the diversity in Revelation 7 is of people groups and languages, diversity which naturally results from human reproduction. Scripture never suggests that these forms of diversity are a distortion of God’s plan in creation or that they are in conflict with it.3 The same cannot be said of gender incongruence, given that Scripture consistently speaks only of males and females and expects individuals to live out the sexed identity given to them in their body. Revelation 7 therefore does not speak to whether there will be ‘restoration to an Edenic pattern’ at the end of the story.
DeFranza’s chapter is a strong attempt to present a thought-through and biblically reasoned affirming position in response to transgender, but ultimately I find that at many key points her arguments fail and so her case is unpersuasive. While I want to reflect DeFranza’s heart attitude of care and love towards transgender people, I believe that her perspective on how this love and care should be expressed is fundamentally flawed.
- 1 See the critique of the claim that brain sex theory may provide such evidence in my response to Yarhouse and Sadusky.
- 2 See Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (Encounter Books, 2018), pp.79-81.
- 3 The story of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) doesn’t undermine this. Though the confusion of languages and dispersion are presented as an act of judgement, this is only because this dispersion was the very thing the people had been trying to avoid in building the city and tower (Gen. 11:4). The original mandate to humanity was to fill the earth (Gen. 1:28) and so the dispersion of humans across the earth and the emergence of different peoples and languages was part of God’s creational intent. The same cannot be said of gender: no diversity beyond the male and female binary is expected in the original creation (Gen. 1:27).
Running Towards the Plague
When preaching on Romans 5 last year I referenced the Spanish flu. In 1918 this virus infected 500 million people (at a time when the global population was below two billion) and killed between 50 and 100 million. Imagine, I said, a similar virus appearing somewhere in China today, and then spreading out and impacting the whole world.
The current global crisis caused by the coronavirus is a helpful illustration of what Paul is describing in Romans 5. We can read Paul’s description of sin entering the world through one man, and death through sin, bringing death to all, and wonder, ‘What’s Adam got to do with me? Why am I guilty too?’ As we see the spread of the virus and its impact on everyone we get an insight into what Paul means. You can have the virus without realising it. You can be free of the virus but still impacted by travel restrictions, or the economic impact, or a shortage of toilet paper. In that sense, everyone has the coronavirus – it has spread to us all, even if we always wash our hands, cough into our elbows and have never eaten a bat or a pangolin. It’s the same with sin.
The outbreak of Covid-19 might be helpful to us Christians in reminding us of the reality of death. It’s easy to live as if death is something imagined: something that doesn’t really happen, or only to other people. But death comes to us all, and our mandate is to call people into a relationship with Christ that saves them – our ‘duty of care’ is to see people saved from an eternal death by stepping into ‘eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom.5:21).
We should also recognise just how bad we are at accurately measuring risk. We tend to worry too much about things we shouldn’t and not enough about things we should. If we were truly rational we would pay close attention to aircraft safety briefings and carefully study the emergency information card in the seat pocket – but barely any of us do. When it comes to the coronavirus it is unlikely to be as deadly as some of the other things we are dying of. This year in the UK we can expect around 20,000 to die from mental and behavioural disorders; 25,000 from digestive diseases; 70,000 from respiratory diseases; 140,000 from cancer; and 160,000 from heart disease. Death really is very deadly.
Covid-19 is as yet a long way from being the killer that some of the other things that kill us are, but even if it became as serious as the influenza of 1918 Christians would be called to not give into fear but to be good witnesses to our faith in Jesus Christ.
I was helped in this by an article by Eric Metaxas:
Between 250 and 270 A.D. a terrible plague, believed to be measles or smallpox, devastated the Roman Empire. At the height of what came to be known as the Plague of Cyprian, after the bishop St. Cyprian who chronicled what was happening, 5,000 people died every day in Rome alone.
The plague coincided with the first empire-wide persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius. Not surprisingly, Decius and other enemies of the Church blamed Christians for the plague. That claim was, however, undermined by two inconvenient facts: Christians died from the plague like everybody else and, unlike everybody else, they cared for the victims of the plague, including their pagan neighbours.
This wasn’t new—Christians had done the same thing during the Antonine Plague a century earlier. As Rodney Stark wrote in “The Rise of Christianity,” Christians stayed in the afflicted cities when pagan leaders, including physicians, fled.
Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, notes that an “epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity.” By their actions in the face of possible death, Christians showed their neighbours that “Christianity is worth dying for.”
Rather than, on the one hand, panic buying loo rolls and pasta, or on the other, unconcerned indifference, we need to be people who ‘run towards the plague’. The present crisis will give us many opportunities to display ‘the abundant provision of grace’ that is ours in Christ. We have a solid hope and good news to tell. Death is deadly, but we are in the life-saving business.
Missing the Heart of the Story
There’s a new show on in London’s West End: The Prince of Egypt. Based on the 1998 DreamWorks animated film of the same title, the musical is a dramatic retelling of the story of Exodus from the birth and rescue of Moses to the crossing of the Red Sea.
After a few weeks of previews, the show officially opened with its press night on February 25th and received less than desirable reviews. I saw the show during previews. While there are some good moments, especially in the original songs, I would agree with much said in the reviews.
What struck me most though is something which – unsurprisingly - none of the reviews mention; it’s what the creators have done to the story. Now, it’s easy to watch adaptations of biblical stories and to complain about inaccuracies in their retelling. I’m not sure such complaints are always wholly justified. The nature of adaptations is that some level of artistic license is inevitable, and the brevity of biblical narrative means that expansion is usually necessary to meet modern expectations for films and shows.
But it wasn’t these changes that struck me. The changes I noticed are more fundamental. They’re about what’s at the very heart of the story, and they illustrate a somewhat skewed reading of the biblical text. Three aspects struck me in particular. (I’ll avoid revealing any significant spoilers in what follows, but those who want to see the show with fresh eyes may not want to read on!)
The Prince of Egypt puts a strong focus on the internal struggles and journeys of the key characters. The first act highlights the relationships of the two brothers – Moses and Pharaoh (identified as Rameses in the show) – and their respective wives, as each pair meet and journey towards marriage. The internal dynamics are explored as Rameses wrestles with whether he wants to marry the woman picked for him by his parents and Moses struggles with his growing affection for a Midianite woman. Other highlighted internal struggles are Moses’ questioning of his identity when he finds out he is a Hebrew by birth, his feelings of guilt when the plagues hit Egypt, and the anguish of Rameses’ wife after the death of their firstborn.
There is also a subtle message about the human heart. The show ends with an ambiguous and surprising turn of events. (I’ll try not to give too much away.) The underlying idea seems to be that the human heart is inherently good, so even if there have been disagreements and conflict there is always hope for resolution and reconciliation.
The third thing I noticed was about what isn’t there, rather than what is. The show retains many mentions of the gods of the Egyptians, and so it is striking that Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, is rarely mentioned and his role is downplayed. For example, the burning bush incident is a very short scene near the end of the first act; Moses, if anyone, is presented as the force behind the plagues, and even in the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea, Yahweh isn’t given a prominent part.
These three emphases in the story of The Prince of Egypt strike me as a very modern take on the story which stands in tension with the biblical account. Biblical narrative usually has little interest in the internal life of the characters; rarely are we told what characters think or feel, and so, when we are, we can be sure that those details are significant. In Exodus, there is little about the internal life of Moses, apart from his repeated discomfort with Yahweh’s plan to use him as messenger and leader. The revelation of this discomfort should help us to recognise that it is important; it contributes to a key theme.
This key theme is that Yahweh is the sovereign God of all and he is therefore able to triumph over the so-called gods of the Egyptians, to rescue his people, and to keep his promises. The first part of Exodus is a showdown between Yahweh and the gods of the Egyptians, represented by Pharaoh. The partial erasure of Yahweh from The Prince of Egypt sidelines this element of the story, a fact which reveals a lack of understanding about Old Testament narrative: it’s almost always primarily about God! It is this theme in Exodus that explains Moses’ protests about his suitability for the task. It is exactly his weaknesses which make him the perfect candidate for Yahweh to use because they will allow Yahweh to show that he and he alone is responsible for the victory.
The idea that the human heart is inherently good is also in conflict with the biblical account. The recurring motif of Pharaoh’s hard heart – and the complex interplay between God and Pharaoh in terms of the cause of this hardness – is meant to speak of the fact that the human heart is not inherently good. The account of Exodus beyond the crossing of the Red Sea will show that the problem of hard hearts was just as prominent among the Israelites, and so as the biblical narrative continues through the rest of the Pentateuch and beyond it is looking for the answer to this problem. The answer will be briefly mentioned later in the Pentateuch (Deut. 30:6), promised in the prophets (e.g. Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; Jer. 31:33), and then, ultimately, enacted by the Messiah (e.g. Rom. 2:29; Heb. 8:10).
Does all this mean that The Prince of Egypt is a bad show? Not necessarily. In terms of these elements, perhaps only if it’s claiming to be a faithful retelling of the biblical account. Should we go to see it? Sure, but don’t go seeking to learn how to read the Old Testament! In Scripture, God has spoken to us in words, and each of these words and the nuance and emphases they communicate are important. We need to read them well. Would I go again? I still can’t decide!
Yarhouse & Sadusky: The Complexities of Gender Identity - A Response
Continuing my series engaging with Understanding Transgender Identities, in this post I respond to Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky’s chapter, ‘The Complexities of Gender Identity: Toward a More Nuanced Response to the Transgender Experience’.
When talking about a personal and emotive subject like transgender, tone and posture are important. Yarhouse and Sadusky’s chapter provides a good example of the tone and posture that I believe we should seek to adopt when engaging in this conversation. They write with a deep understanding of the reality of gender incongruence and the distress which it can cause, expressing compassion and concern for those experiencing this distress. In addition, they exhibit a desire to submit to the Bible’s teaching even when it might not fit with our natural instincts in a situation; they offer a balanced evaluation of scientific research into the effectiveness of medical transitioning and put a strong focus on thinking through how Christians can best support those experiencing gender dysphoria. All of these are strengths in this chapter.
The three interpretive lenses offered in the chapter, and previously explained in Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria, provide a useful way of understanding different perspectives on gender identity. (So much so that other contributors make use of them in their responses elsewhere in the book, see DeFranza’s response to Sabia-Tanis.) I particularly value the way that Yarhouse and Sadusky highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each lens and seek to bring each under the authority of the Bible as they attempt to integrate them together. The imaginative exercise of applying each lens to the pastoral response of a local church in the last section is particularly helpful (pp.125-128).
Yarhouse and Sadusky do well in acknowledging the diversity of experiences and expressions of gender which now fall under the terminology of transgender. This is important to note as it is a complicating factor in the conversation which is not always acknowledged. Their discussion of emerging gender identities is helpful (pp.108-111). They explain how the early 20th century saw the separation of observable biological traits, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and how this has made the way for the multiplication of different gender identities.
In their application of the interpretive lenses to the possibility of gender transition, Yarhouse and Sadusky give a useful discussion of the nature of healing in this life (pp.113-115). I agree with their observation that, while able, God often does not act to remove sources of suffering from our life in this age and that a ‘robust theodicy’ (p.114) is therefore necessary. This is akin to my suggestion that we should respond to gender dysphoria as an experience of suffering rather than identity. I agree with Yarhouse and Sadusky that gender dysphoria can be an opportunity to glorify God in suffering while eagerly awaiting the redemption to be experienced in the resurrection.
While I find many areas of agreement with Yarhouse and Sadusky’s chapter, I believe there are also several weaknesses in their contribution to this conversation. One which struck me most was their suggestion that gender dysphoria may be caused by an intersex brain, that is, that a biological male might have a female brain or vice versa. Citing a review of studies into the brain structures of transgender people, they conclude that in light of recent research ‘the intersex [brain] hypothesis seems more plausible’ (p.107). This conclusion is slightly surprising coming immediately after an acknowledgment of the limitations in the methodologies applied in these studies. It is also a misleading way of talking about brain differences.
Brains are not distinctly male or female in the same way chromosomes, gonads and genitals are in non-intersex people. There are parts of the brain which differ between males and females, but they differ on a continuum and so the identification of a brain structure as male or female is based on what is commonly found for males and females, not on what is always found. In this way, the sexed differences in the brain are fundamentally different from the sexed differences elsewhere in the body which are used to determine biological sex. In non-intersex people (i.e. the vast majority of people), there are two distinct forms that chromosomes, gonads, and genitals can take. There are not two comparable distinct forms of brain. Thus, while some males may have brains which in some ways more closely reflect what is more commonly found in a female brain, and these differences could potentially be the cause of gender incongruence, this is not comparable to an intersex condition where there is a clear variation upon the two standard patterns. The brain, therefore, cannot be a clear indication of sexed identity. In light of this, it is surprising that Yarhouse and Sadusky use the language of an ‘intersex brain’ approvingly and even suggest that if further evidence supports the idea, Christians may need to consider whether gender identity could in some cases be indicative of creational intent (p.112). Brain differences are not sufficiently dimorphic to carry this weight.1
Another weakness of the chapter is the paucity of references to Scripture. Yarhouse and Sadusky mention Genesis 1-2 in relation to the integrity lens and Genesis 3 when explaining the disability lens but otherwise make little use of Scripture. In part, this may be because they write more as psychologists than theologians, and indeed it is this specialism which makes their contribution to the Christian conversation, including outside of this book, particularly useful. However, I’m not sure their perspective fully wrestles with Scripture as much as is necessary. This most concerns me where they seem to take the position that transitioning is not God’s intention for us but may sometimes be permissible in exceptional cases. This is a view for which they do not give a biblical defense and is one, I think, for which they would struggle to do so.
The complex topic of the morality of gender incongruence comes to the fore in discussions of the disability lens. These discussions suffer from the same sort of lack of nuance I have identified in Strachan’s chapter, although with rather different conclusions. Yarhouse and Sadusky note that the disability lens sees gender incongruence as an involuntary result of the Fall and therefore a non-moral issue comparable to other conditions such as depression or anxiety (pp.104, 126). This is probably a fair presentation of the perspective of many who would view transgender through the disability lens, but it suffers from a lack of nuance in distinguishing between the involuntary experience of incongruence and the desires and actions which can flow from that experience. To take up the comparison made in the chapter in relation to depression, the experience of depression is a non-moral issue, but how that depression is then handled is a moral issue. For any of us who experience or have experienced depression, there are choices to be made about what we do – and what we desire to do – in response. Some of these desires and actions could be holy and wise, others sinful and unwise. So while it is true that the involuntary experience is non-moral, the voluntary response in cherished desire and in action is moral. This nuance would, I feel, give the disability lens a more thoroughly biblical perspective.
I found Yarhouse and Sadusky’s chapter a particularly helpful contribution to this discussion. While there are some areas I feel could be improved, in general, their approach to transgender and their analysis of Christian responses to the topic is one which I think can help Christians to think and act carefully, compassionately, and wisely towards those for whom transgender is a real-life experience.
- 1 Preston Sprinkle has written a useful evaluation of the use of brain sex theory in relation to transgender: ‘Sex, Gender, and Transgender Experiences: Part 4—Brain Sex Theory’.
Why Read the Old Testament?
I LOVE the Old Testament – but you probably want a better reason than that to read it, so here are five:
1) The New Testament tells us to.
In 2 Timothy 3, Paul tells Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
At the time he wrote that, ‘all scripture’ was only the OT. Paul didn’t yet know that his letter would be seen as scripture. He didn’t have the Gospels. He and his friends were still writing scripture with their lives.
We should read the OT because it is the word of God to us and for us.
2) It tells us about Jesus.
I think we often lean towards the NT because it is the bit about Jesus, and we like him. But the whole Bible points to him.
After Jesus’ death, two of his disciples, not knowing he had already risen, were walking to Emmaus, feeling sad and bewildered. Jesus appeared beside them and said, effectively, ‘didn’t you see this coming?’
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
(When it says ‘Moses’, it doesn’t mean the burning bush, or even the baby in the bulrushes, but ‘the books of Moses’ which is another name for the first five books of the Bible – so starting with all creation he interpreted the things about himself. It’s all about Jesus.)
3) The New Testament quotes it all the time.
Jesus and his disciples, and the early church, thought the OT was still relevant. So many times when apostles were brought before the courts and asked to defend themselves and the Christian faith, they did so by telling the story of the Old Testament. Jesus said he had come not to abolish it, but to fulfil it. If they thought it was important, we should too.
4) Plus, it really is SOOO GOOD!
I’ve always loved it – there are so many great stories – adventures, battles, highs and lows, disasters and rescues.
Yes, there’s lots that is hard to understand, but the more you dig in, the more beautiful and rich and powerful it is.
And as I come to understand it more, I am more and more amazed at the elegant craftsmanship of it. It is really increasing my confidence in the fact that the Bible isn’t just a collection of random texts written on the whims of different men over hundreds of years, but that there was an absolute master craftsman guiding every hand, and indeed, guiding the events they wrote about.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
A couple of weeks ago, Matt Smethurst tweeted (with an HT to Andrew Wilson):
“In Genesis 40, Joseph has criminals on both sides. He promises death to one and life to another. Then he’s lifted up and given all authority.”
Then Andrew Wilson replied,
“My favourite thing about this is that Joseph is in the pit between a baker (= bread) and a cupbearer (= wine).
A cup becomes the means of reconciliation with his brothers. Bread becomes the gift of life with which he feeds the nations.”
(There was an ‘ooh’ of recognition as I read that tweet out the other weekend, proving the point - this stuff is exciting!)
Those servants could easily have been Pharaoh’s chariot-driver and chamber-pot-emptier, but God orchestrated them to be the symbols that represented Christ’s body and blood, through which we are reconciled to him, and are given life. (Interestingly, the bread in the dream was eaten by birds, which often represent the nations, biblically.)
If you’re feeling very brave or geeky, look up @JamesBejon and @DrPJWilliams on twitter. They write extremely long, detailed, technical, geeky threads about themes in the Bible, which are absolutely fascinating. James turns some of his into papers. This, on Ruth and Boaz, is a particularly wonderful example.
5) And finally, we should read the OT because you can’t fully understand the NT – or the gospel, or the Christian life – without it.
I’m currently studying for a Diploma in Bioethics and Medical Law. I’m on the Medical Law module at the moment, and one thing I’ve learned already is that judges always lean on the laws, and interpretations of those laws, that have gone before. They never assess a case simply on its merits, but look at how other judges have handled similar cases, how Human Rights law has been interpreted in similar situations, what explanatory comments other judges have made when making or interpreting rulings.
Nothing sits on its own; everything rests on what has gone before. And that is the same with our faith – that’s why the NT writers spent so much time quoting the OT – they were showing how what had gone before formed and informed what God was doing now.
It’s how we make sense of difficult teachings of Paul – we go back and look at creation, at the Law given to Moses, at the different commands God gave his people, at who he chose for different tasks, at how he taught people to treat one another, and we interpret the new teachings in light of the old.
Jesus said he had not come to abolish the Law – by which he meant all the teachings of the OT – but to fulfil it (Matt 5:17). He showed what it really meant, and how we should live it.
Or if you’re more artistically minded, think of the OT as the underpainting.
When an artist is starting a painting, he or she begins by doing an underpainting. In this example, the artist is trying to create realistic skin tones. He can’t just mix paint to the right shade of pinky-peach, or the picture will look like a Barbie doll. First he blocks in a darker colour and some rough shadows.
The painting now is like the OT – you can sort of see what it’s going to be, but it’s very rough, and the colours are all wrong.
Then the artist adds the next layers, and the picture comes to life.
Without the NT, the picture is very vague and unclear. Without the OT, the NT picture is fine, it kind of works, it’s much clearer what it is supposed to be, but somehow it is a bit lacking in depth.
With both together, you get a much more accurate picture.
It’s still not perfect – it’s still just a picture, not the real thing – we’ll only truly see that when we get to heaven, but it’s a much closer, richer, more satisfying picture.
So, read your Bible, all of it. It is a precious gift, given to help us grow into the people God created us to be.
Painting images source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7xbMGqLS30
Barbie image source: https://morguefile.com/p/66818
Communion and Corona
My experience of celebrating the Lord’s Supper has changed significantly over the years. Like many from a low, free church background, my experience of the Lord’s Supper was of a monthly-observed, painfully introspective, somewhat off-putting communion service. Then into a more charismatic and ‘grace-filled’ expression of church, communion became less regularly celebrated and when it was often painfully informal. Over the past ten years a recovery of a more Calvinistic emphasis on the real, spiritual, presence of Jesus in the supper has led to communion being celebrated more regularly, and more meaningfully.
In the church where I pastor our normal practice is to celebrate the supper every Sunday. There is theological conviction about this, as the instructions of the New Testament seem to necessitate regular participation in the supper. There is ecclesiological conviction as we recognise the manner in which our partaking in the bread and wine speak of our ‘one bodied-ness’ with the church universal. And there is hermeneutical conviction as communion brings into physical, visual, focus what has been expressed in words during singing, praying and preaching.
Yet the concerns of (and for) those with allergies and intolerances (did such things exist in the first century?!) mean that at times we have ended up with three different types of ‘bread’ available; so we have now taken the line of least resistance and use only gluten free bread – though at least one person has claimed to be allergic to this and others protest its consistency and texture. Concerns of (and for) those with alcohol problems mean that we were offering both real wine and grape juice but have now adopted alcohol free wine – though it tastes nothing like wine. At least now we do not cycle through a menu (literally) of options for those participating in the supper, though bread without any wheat in it and wine without any alcohol in it don’t feel quite in line with the habits of the first church.
We dislike using those little ‘shot’ glasses for communion; or pre-chopping the bread into tiny squares. Both these practices seem to undermine the very physicality that the supper represents, and certainly the oneness of the loaf and of the cup. But when swine flu came through a few years back people started getting very nervous about hygiene, so we adopted the practice of intinction (dipping the bread into the wine). This is a help to those who feel squeamish about drinking from the same cup as their neighbour – though if that neighbour has dirty fingers that get dipped in the cup the comfort is scant. (This risk is exacerbated by the use of gluten free bread that has a tendency to fall into crumbs rather than hold together.)
And then someone new to our church told me she could not participate in the supper with us because intinction is unbiblical, and that got me thinking again. (The most helpful analysis I have found of the validity or otherwise of intinction is here.)
So I’m feeling increasingly uneasy about intinction, but last Sunday was at a church where we shared cups, and that felt quite odd from a hygiene perspective (I was conscious of the fact that I had been unwell and was possibly passing something nasty on) and the week before that I was at another church where we used plastic shot glasses, and that felt too antiseptic. (And what about the turtles if we’re using more plastic?!) While the real risk from COVID-19 seems minimal there is no doubt lots of people are feeling very fearful about it and are likely to be fearful about communion hygiene – even if you are more likely to contract a virus by talking with someone over coffee after the service than during communion, no matter how it is administered.
I want us to go on celebrating the supper regularly – I’m theologically, ecclesiologically and hermeneutically committed to that. I’d much rather use real wine and real bread, but don’t want to exclude those for whom this is difficult. I don’t want a range of ‘offers’ in the elements as that is so damaging to the enacted sermon of partaking in one loaf, and one cup. I don’t want to be hygiene obsessed, but recognise the cultural significance of hygiene in our context. My natural tendency would be to tell people to stop missing the wood for the trees, take the supper in faith, and not worry about allergies or viruses - but pastorally I probably need to be more flexible than that.
It’s a communion conundrum!
We’re currently having an eldership discussion to work our way through this conundrum but it seems something will have to be sacrificed in order to achieve an acceptable compromise. I don’t want our experience of the supper to be compromised - but perhaps sacrificing something isn’t such a bad principle when it comes to how we approach communion.
Strachan: Transition or Transformation? - A Response
In this series I'm offering my own responses to each of the chapters in the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities. In this post, I respond to Owen Strachan's chapter, 'Transition or Transformation? A Moral-Theological Exploration of Christianity and Gender Dysphoria'.
Strachan starts where I think any Christian response to transgender should start: by reminding us of the full humanity and the consequent right to dignity and respect of every person who experiences gender dysphoria. It is sad that this is where Christian teaching must begin, but it is necessary. I am glad this foundation is the first laid in Strachan’s chapter.
I am also grateful for Strachan’s commitment to biblical authority. In some ways, I agree with his statement that the conversation contained in the book is ultimately about the Bible (p.58), although where Strachan sees it as a debate about biblical authority, in reality, I think it’s a debate about how best to understand and apply the Bible. All four authors claim to be committed to the authority of the Bible and all four make use of scriptural arguments. The disagreements are on what the Bible means and how that should be lived out. This is where the conversation needs to be had. Strachan seems to see his reading of Scripture as the only possible reading and therefore concludes that anyone who does not share his perspective is not accepting biblical authority. In so doing, he sidesteps the real reasons for disagreement which in turn hinders the potential for constructive dialogue among Christians.
I fully agree with Strachan that the matter of anthropology – and specifically identity – is vital in this conversation and that at the core of different views on transgender are different understandings of what it means to be human and how we find or make our identity. This, I think, is one of the most fruitful places to explore as I have sought to do in my own engagement with the topic.
While I find these several points of agreement, there are many places where I found myself disagreeing with Strachan or at least wishing things were said more carefully. While I am grateful for his affirmation of the humanity and worth of every person who experiences gender dysphoria, I felt there was a lack of compassion and feeling in his writing. There is no evidence of a real appreciation of the intense, sometimes even debilitating, pain that gender dysphoria can cause. It is striking to me that in his opening section affirming the humanity and dignity of those with gender dysphoria there is no mention of love or compassion. There is something quite clinical and abstract about the way Strachan handles an incredibly personal and emotive topic. I’m not sure this suits an attempt to put forward the perspective of a God who feels deeply and who, far from approaching human experience in the abstract, stepped into it and experienced it from within.
I find some of Strachan’s analysis of the biblical text helpful, especially as he makes the case that the Bible conceives of humans as existing in a binary of male or female. However, I feel his outline of manhood and womanhood goes beyond what can actually be affirmed from the biblical text. He also fails to make clear whether the male and female roles determined from texts about married couples, such as Adam and Eve, apply only within marriage relationships or to all men and women.
Strachan rightly affirms the reality of intersex and the involuntary nature of these conditions. (Interestingly this is the one place where a sense of compassion appears in Strachan’s writing. Presumably gender dysphoria is not similarly seen as involuntary.) However, his suggestions for a pastoral response to intersex are disappointing. His affirmation that the presence of a Y chromosome means an individual should be treated as a man shows a failure to appreciate the complexity of intersex conditions and roots biological sex in chromosomes rather than hormones, gonads, or genitalia. On what authority is the decision made that chromosomes should be the defining feature when there is genuine ambiguity across the various sexed elements of the body? I fear this view is rooted in a desire for ease rather than any clear authority. The same lack of understanding is shown in the explanation of intersex as the possession of ‘genitalia of both sexes’. Very rarely is such mixed genitalia the form intersex conditions take; the term can cover a huge range of conditions where the body exhibits some level of variation from what is usually expected for a male or a female.
Another point where I have concerns is in the way Strachan talks about the sinfulness of desire in relation to gender identity. As with the parallel discussion about whether same-sex attraction is sinful, this is a complicated topic which has to be handled with great nuance. It is this nuance which I think is lacking in Strachan’s discussion.
Strachan refers to ‘the sinfulness of gender bending and cross-dressing, whether at the impulse level – the level of desire – or at the level of physical practices’ (p.75). When read and understood carefully, I think this is largely correct. To have and foster a desire to cross-dress for the sake of taking on an identity other than one’s biological sex is, I think, sinful as it is a desire to go against creational intent.
However, this is not what is usually meant by gender incongruence or gender dysphoria. The ICD-11 defines gender incongruence as ‘a marked and persistent incongruence between an individual’s experienced gender and the assigned sex’, and the APA explain that gender dysphoria ‘involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify’. The APA’s use of ‘identify’ here is unhelpful (couldn’t someone experience this conflict without embracing their internal sense of gender as their identity?), but both definitions focus on an internal experience of tension and discomfort not a desire for cross-dressing or a change of gender. No doubt the former often leads to the latter, but the internal experience could be present without the accompanying desire. The desire is sinful as it is a desire to go against creational intent, but the internal experience which precedes it is not sinful, it is simply the acknowledgment of an involuntary feeling. This is why I think someone can experience deep discomfort with their biological sex without that being a sin for which repentance must take place. Strachan’s failure to observe this distinction leads to a perspective and response which is both unfair towards and impractical for those experiencing gender incongruence.1
My final concern with Strachan’s chapter is that he doesn’t offer practical alternative approaches for the management of gender dysphoria and the pain and distress it causes. This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of Strachan’s perspective that the discussion is just about sinful desire. This perspective means all he offers is quite generic guidance on repentance and sanctification, and he fails to engage sufficiently with the complex questions about how Christians with gender dysphoria should navigate the pain and distress of this experience.
Overall, I fear that Strachan’s chapter suffers from a failure to fully appreciate what the experience of gender dysphoria is like and a belief that the discussion is purely about a desire to identify with a gender different to one’s biological sex.
- 1 Strachan’s position is parallel to the position of Denny Burk on same-sex attraction (as noted in n.45 p.75) where a similar lack of nuance is present. The most helpful brief critique of Burk, which has influenced my critique here, is in Preston Sprinkle, People to be Loved, pp.144-149.
Fund Managers and Fancy Pants
Two Sets of Search Criteria
Here’s the Western one. “The Senior Pastor will:
1) Be able to wear the dual hats of pastor (able to discern God’s direction for the congregation) ...
2) ... as well as CEO (with organizational leadership skills to lead a complex organization with more than 350 employees).
3) This leader will bring the right balance of preserving what is ...
4) ... but also will fan the flames of the church’s DNA of boldness, innovation, and creativity.
5) The Senior Pastor will lead and serve the Church at all its locations to become a thriving, healthy family of local churches.
6) This man or woman will provide overall leadership and vision for the entire network of regional campuses.
7) They will ensure the Church’s vision and strategy is clear and understood across all locations, that the right leaders are leading and serving the campuses, and that the Church is positioned for strength well into the future.
8) The Senior Pastor will have the ability to dream and cast vision for the next season of congregational life and community impact.
9) The ideal candidate will demonstrate spiritual leadership ...
10) ... an authentic walk with Jesus ...
11) ... and a proven commitment to balancing the rhythms of work and life.
12) He or she will be a proven “leader of leaders” who can motivate and inspire high-capacity men and women to use their gifts to further the vision.”
And here’s Gregory the Great (540-604). “That man, therefore, ought by all means to be drawn with cords to be an example of good living who:
1) already lives spiritually, dying to all passions of the flesh;
2) who disregards worldly prosperity;
3) who is afraid of no adversity;
4) who desires only inward wealth;
5) whose intention the body, in good accord with it, thwarts not at all by its frailness, nor the spirit greatly by its disdain:
6) one who is not led to covet the things of others, but gives freely of his own;
7) who through the bowels of compassion is quickly moved to pardon, yet is never bent down from the fortress of rectitude by pardoning more than is meet;
8) who perpetrates no unlawful deeds, yet deplores those perpetrated by others as though they were his own;
9) who out of affection of heart sympathizes with another’s infirmity, and so rejoices in the good of his neighbour as though it were his own advantage;
10) who so insinuates himself as an example to others in all he does that among them he has nothing, at any rate of his own past deeds, to blush for;
11) who studies so to live that he may be able to water even dry hearts with the streams of doctrine;
12) who has already learned by the use and trial of prayer that he can obtain what he has requested from the Lord, having had already said to him, as it were, through the voice of experience, “While you are yet speaking, I will say, Here am I” (Isaiah 58:9).”
Understanding Transgender Identities
Understanding Transgender Identities is a significant new release in the field of Christian discussions on transgender. It is a multi-view book in which four contributors share their reflections on transgender and each is invited to respond to the others’ chapters. The book is an incredibly helpful resource for anyone wanting to think deeply about the topic and to wrestle with different points of view.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be engaging with Understanding Transgender Identities. In this post, I’ll offer a brief summary of each of the contributors’ perspectives, and in subsequent posts I’ll offer my own responses to each of the chapters. Hopefully the series will give a bit of a flavour of the book and encourage some to get hold of it themselves.
The book opens with a substantial introduction outlining some of the relevant history, the current points of debate and controversy, and the Christian conversation so far. The introduction is full of useful information but is much more technical than the rest of the book. If you decide to give Understanding Transgender Identities a go and you struggle with the intro, don’t let it put you off!
Owen Strachan: ‘Transition or Transformation? A Moral-Theological Exploration of Christianity and Gender Dysphoria’
Strachan believes that a right understanding of conversion is the most important starting point for engaging the topic of transgender. After an opening call to affirm the full humanity of those who experience gender dysphoria and to recognise that they are worthy of respect and dignity, his first section gives biblical arguments for binary sex and for the importance of different roles for men and women (looking primarily at Gen. 2, Deut. 22:5, Judg. 4, Matt. 19:1-12, 1 Cor. 11, and Eph. 5:22-33). His view on transitioning is captured in this early statement: ‘[M]en and women who experience gender dysphoria should not undergo bodily changes but instead, with vivified awareness of the witness of Scripture and a moral imagination ignited for God, should pursue something greater and more effectual than any transition: transformation’ (pp.57-58).
In his second main section, ‘Engaging Social Science from a Christian Worldview’, Strachan argues for the importance of calling those with gender dysphoria to continue to live in line with their bodily identity, partly by citing evidence that transitioning does not prove helpful. He also makes explicit his understanding of the ‘sinfulness of gender bending and cross-dressing, whether at the impulse level – the level of desire – or at the level of physical practices’ (p.75). He calls pastors to lead those with gender dysphoria to live in line with their bodily identity through repentance and sanctification (acknowledging that this is a long process) and says that the church should speak out against ‘the mainstreaming of LGBT identity’ (p.78), while also acknowledging that supporting individuals requires a different approach to challenging the cultural narrative.
Mark A. Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky: ‘The Complexities of Gender Identity: Toward a More Nuanced Response to the Transgender Experience’
Yarhouse and Sadusky’s chapter falls into three main sections. Their first section explores whether gender is a binary or a continuum. Here they outline three interpretive lenses - integrity, disability, and diversity - which can be used to understand differing perspectives on gender identity. These will be familiar to some from Yarhouse’s earlier work. They then look at biological and physiological perspectives, placing some weight on the idea that gender incongruence could be caused by an intersex brain. This opening section ends with a discussion of emerging gender identities in which dysphoria is not always present and also offers a potential explanation for why these alternative identities are becoming more common.
The second section explores gender transitioning, first explaining how each interpretive lens might evaluate the possibility of transitioning and then looking at medical approaches to transitioning. They offer a helpful and balanced assessment of scientific research on the effectiveness of transitioning.
The final section turns to the question of how Christians should respond to the transgender community, opening with the helpful reminder that we must avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Yarhouse and Sadusky explore what ministry to transgender people might look like through each lens, and the chapter closes with a call to continue working towards an integrated lens combining the strength of all three.
Broadly speaking, Yarhouse and Sadusky see gender as a binary, though they recognise the reality of gender incongruence and the impact it has on people. Theologically, they seem to understand this incongruence as a result of the Fall. They are very cautious about transitioning but suggest it may occasionally be acceptable in ‘cases of life-threatening gender dysphoria’ (p.113). Rather than expecting to see healing from gender dysphoria in this life, they treat it as a form of suffering to be navigated alongside a relationship with Jesus.
Megan K. DeFranza: ‘Good News for Gender Minorities’
DeFranza opens by noting how her views on transgender have changed over time. These changes have come about through meeting transgender people and through learning about ‘the complexity of human biology’ (p.150), which, she believes, reveals that ‘sex difference falls on a continuum’ (p.152).
DeFranza’s chapter critiques article 6 of the Nashville Statement. She first challenges the idea that gender identity is chosen, arguing that this view is disproven by the evidence for biological influences, the possibility of brain sex differences, and the complexities introduced by intersex. This being so, she argues that the Nashville Statement should not treat transgender as so sharply distinct from intersex. She accuses the sort of teaching found in the Nashville Statement of causing harm and trauma for transgender people.
The second half of DrFranza’s chapter explores biblical teaching, mostly looking at references to eunuchs. She makes much of Matthew 19:12 noting that Jesus acknowledges that eunuchs don’t fit within the male-female binary and uses them as a picture for radical discipleship. She draws on research into understandings of Matthew 19:12 in early Christianity to argue that some Christians (rightly) concluded that ‘giving up gender privileges inaugurated the freedom of the future kingdom of God’ (p.163). DeFranza also looks at eunuchs in the Torah, Isaiah 56, and Acts 8, arguing that there is a trajectory towards welcoming those who were previously excluded. It is also argued that Genesis 1 leaves room for continuums between its binary categories and that the vision of the redeemed in Revelation 7 shows the acceptance of diversity that wasn’t present in Eden.
In closing her chapter, DeFranza makes the case that identity in Christ is more important than gender identity and that this greater identity can successfully challenge cultural ideas about gender.
Justin Sabia-Tanis: ‘Holy Creation, Wholly Creative: God’s Intention for Gender Diversity’
Sabia-Tanis believes that ‘gender falls on a continuum of identities, reflecting a range of healthy human possibilities’ and that ‘these differences are naturally occurring and thus can be seen theologically as part of God’s plan for a diverse and wondrous creation’ (p.195). He notes the reality of liminal spaces between the binaries presented in Genesis 1, suggesting the same is true for humans, and gives examples of the gender continuum found among plants and animals including hermaphroditic organisms and those that change sex during their lifespan. Humans, he notes, can also exhibit such natural variations (intersex conditions) and evidence is growing for a biological basis to gender dysphoria. Turning to the Bible, he considers the positive approval of eunuchs in Isaiah 56, Matthew 19 and Acts 8 to be evidence of ‘God’s recognition and acceptance of an array of genders’ (p.203).
Speaking from his own experience as a trans man, Sabia-Tanis affirms the acceptability of gender transition for those who could be helped by it. He argues both from the sense of personal calling he and others have felt and from the right of transgender people to receive whatever treatment is best for their well-being, stressing that gender dysphoria should be viewed through the lenses of medicine and pastoral care and not as a sin issue. The application of counselling as a treatment for gender dysphoria is rejected on the basis that it is ineffective, and arguments are given for the safety and effectiveness of gender transition.
In his final section, ‘Considerations for Christians’, Sabia-Tanis calls for the application of a ‘uniquely Christian lens’ (p.214) to the topic. This lens should be shaped by key values of respect (for the body and self, for differing views, and for the complexity of the topic), compassion (which rejects any goodness in suffering and seeks to alleviate it), and justice (in view of discrimination and high levels of need among transgender people).
In subsequent posts in this series, I will offer my own response to each of the four chapters.
A Chromatogram, Not A Ladder
This is a hard saying. It’s just so completely foreign to the way we view the world that it is almost impossible to get our heads around (let alone to live like it is true). And for younger Christians, or those who particularly struggle with people-pleasing or performance-related issues, it can be one of the chinks in the armour through which the enemy wheedles his sharpest spears.
I’ve been speaking to several people at my church recently who are deeply discouraged because they don’t feel like they’re ‘making it’. Their friends are being invited to step up into leadership positions - of ministry teams, or Bible study groups or whatever - and they are being overlooked. It hurts. And it can be confusing. They might try to tell themselves it’s not a scale; it’s not about promotion, but when everything else in life is measured by achievement, it’s incredibly hard to imagine how it could be otherwise.
As I spoke with one person this week, I had a sudden revelation of how she could replace the ladder image with a more helpful picture. A chromatogram.
Chromatography is something you probably did in science at school. You put a dot of ink or food colouring near one end of a strip of paper, dip the end of the paper in water, and watch the component colours of the ink travel up the paper and separate from one another. The image above shows where some guy on the internet tried this with various different inks.
Look at the red one, 6th from the left.
The orange colour in that is no ‘better’ than the pinks beneath it. Nor is the Oxblood ink beside it better because it shot further up the paper, or has all its colours gathered at the top. The dark blue at the end isn’t a failure for having only spread a short way up the paper.
Each dye has a different chemical make up, a different density and a different manifestation. They respond differently to a stimulus, and are visible at different points along the paper, but neither is better or worse than the other. Neither has achieved more, or is more worthy of glory and praise.
In fact, every single one of those chemical compounds was necessary to make up the one colour of ink that the writer wanted. Many of them are unexpected - why would you need yellow to make up that Oxblood?
But let not the yellow say ‘because I am not a pink, you have no need of me’. And let not the orange say ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a magenta like that colour down there’. For we are all one body with many parts. Each is essential, and those parts which are often dishonoured are to receive greater honour.
Yes, we are to grow in maturity and faithfulness. Yes, we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness. But it is for the purpose of glorifying God, not receiving praise and honour from man.
It’s a chromatogram, not a ladder.
Mouthfuls of Death
I’ll say it again. The fact that false ideas have found places in our lives is not because they were so good and irresistible that we just didn’t see they weren’t accurate. Sartre did not deceive so many people because he was an attractive wall-eyed, five-foot-tall pervert who thought he was being chased by crabs. He deceived people who already wanted to be deceived. When we want to be spoon-fed lies, we are asking to be a child of the devil, nurtured at his knee. Give me more mouthfuls of death, tenderly delivered.
—Rachel Jankovic, You Who: Why You Matter and How to Deal With It
Seen to be Unseen
What, then, does it mean that we are to do our good works so that they are not seen and, at the same time, do them so that they might be seen if not that we should hide the things that we do so that we will not be praised for them, but we should show the things that we do so that we may increase the praise of our Father in heaven? For when the Lord prohibited us from “doing our just works before men,” the same added: “so that you will not be seen by them.” And again, when he ordered that we should allow the good works that we do to be seen by men, he added: “that they may glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Therefore, the extent to which they are to be seen and not seen he demonstrated at the conclusion of each statement, saying, in effect, that the mind of the one doing the good should not seek to be seen himself, but, at the same time, he should not conceal the glory of the Father who is in heaven. Thus, it often happens, that a good work can be done secretly even though it is performed publicly, and again, it can be done publicly even it is secretive. For when someone who performs his good work in public but seeks not his own glory, but only that of the Father, such a one hides what he does, since he only had him as a witness and cared only about pleasing him. And the one who performed his good work in private but lusted for praise has, in effect, done his work before everyone, since he has made many people the witness of his efforts because he craved in his heart the praise of men.
- The Book of Pastoral Rule, Trans. George E. Demacopoulos, p.201
Though, I believe, well intentioned, I was taught that,
a. racism is evil.
b. God made all humanity of one blood and nature, so differences are only skin deep.
c. racism was primarily a blight of the past with only a handful of racists here and there.
d. Christians and the civil rights movement fixed the problem and now America is fair for everyone, we live in a true meritocracy, no existing laws or customs favor one race over another, and discrimination is illegal.
e. anyone who goes to school, lives a moral life, and works hard can become Bill Gates in America.
f. the best way to end racism is to ignore race.
g. seeing race or allowing it to figure into social, church, economic, or political calculations is itself racist.
This was all well and good as a child, especially attending an all White church, going to an all White school, and living in an all White community. But as I grew, observed the world, and learned more, it was clear that the predominantly minority city next to ours was much poorer with much more crime. I learned that inner city, predominantly Black and Latinx schools performed much worse than did mine. I learned that Black Americans were disproportionately represented in the prison population. I learned that the unemployment rate was much higher among Black Americans, that wealth was wildly disproportionate, etc. I saw Reagan’s depictions of “welfare queens,” then Clinton’s “super predators,” and that Black Americans were always shown in the media as hard, unmarried, philandering, dangerous “gang-bangers.”
Having believed in items (a) through (g) above, what was I to do with this information (much of which was actually false)? How is possible that, by and large, one or two people-groups just couldn’t figure out how to be successful and get along, despite living in a nation and culture greater, more equal, and more free than anywhere in the world (I’d supposed)? It couldn’t be because of biology, given my Christian commitment, and as per (b) above.
Conservatives offered another answer: culture. I rolled with that idea for a while; “What’s wrong with Black people is not that they’re Black, it’s their culture.” But it became increasingly clear that this was no less racist than the biology claim. It was, in many ways, literally identical! (Especially once one learns what “race” and “culture” actually mean.) That is, I loved all races and wished no ill will on anyone AND was at precisely the same time also a stone-cold racist! (But if you’d told me that, I’d probably have said that YOU were the real racist, hahaha.)
Finally, through the course of many events, including the writing at RAAN and some fantastic brothers and sisters here on the internets, I was called out and shown that my fabricated view of the world was not as accurate as I thought it was, especially my historical ineptitude. I began to truly listen, step down off my intellectual throne, and submit to those who suffered under everything I had earlier claimed was their own fault. I began to study, with new eyes, the history of America and beyond. The more I learned and the more I conversed, I realized how lied to I had been for so much of my life and how deeply complicit and active I was in perpetuating these lies.
In short, I was forced by overwhelming evidence, by a true understanding of Jesus and His gospel, and by the love I ought to have always had for His people and creation, to jettison and condemn as an absolute lie teachings (d) through (g) above. These ideas, of my own well-meaning parents and culture, were a fruit of the World, not of God; a fruit of an extra-Biblical social theory that was born in social history, not inscribed in nature, written in the hearts of men, or exegeted from the Scripture. And to be 100 % clear, the root of these ideas, particularly (d) – (g), was and is as sinister as those which justified slavery, Jim Crow, and the racial exploitation that has existed ever since “race” itself was invented for those very purposes.
Anyhow, I could’ve probably stated this all better, and I apologize it’s rough & anemic. I just really hope & pray that my own experience might help others, anyone would be great, to see how supposedly well meaning ideas can lead right down the well-trodden path to racism.
Victims of the Narrative
Last Friday, popular TV presenter Phillip Schofield came out as gay. Schofield released a statement on social media and was then interviewed by his This Morning co-host and friend, Holly Willoughby. In response, many celebrities posted their support for Schofield on social media.
The journey to this point has clearly been a difficult one for Schofield. He shared about some of the difficulties he has experienced personally and the hurt that it has caused to his wife and daughters. At the close of his statement, he asked people to be kind, especially to his family.
It is right that we respond with compassion towards Schofield and his family because of the pain they have experienced. There is also likely much we don’t know about Schofield’s story. Some people enter into opposite-sex marriages in the hope they will experience a change in their attractions and then struggle when this doesn’t happen. Others hold out great hope for their marriages but find that their attraction to those of the same sex proves more problematic to the relationship than expected. We don’t know if these or other experiences are true of Schofield, but they are reasons to be cautious in what we say and compassionate in our response.
But I think there’s also another reason to be compassionate: both Schofield and his family seem to be victims of the cultural narrative of internal identity applied to sexuality. Many people look at the secular approach to sexuality and think there are only winners and no victims. Schofield’s experience shows a different story.
Coming Out and Internal Identity
The narrative of internal identity is one of the most prominent cultural narratives shaping secular views of sexuality in our day. The narrative says that our internal desires – including our romantic and sexual attractions – are our identity, and therefore we must embrace, express, and act upon these desires to experience fullness of life.
In Schofield’s story, this narrative is most clearly visible in Willoughby’s words in the interview. In response to Schofield’s feelings of guilt about the hurt he is causing his family, Willoughby reassures him, ‘You can’t change who you are though.’ For Willoughby, this is an identity issue – ‘who you are’. The same narrative can be seen in many of the online responses. Like Willoughby, David Walliams used the language of identity: ‘Let’s hope we are moving towards a world where no-one has to come out anymore, they can just be who they are and celebrate that’, and Ian H Watkins referred to coming out as ‘being your authentic self’.
It’s worth noting here that coming out doesn’t have to involve accepting this narrative. The assumption that it does is often why people feel nervous about Christians coming out as gay. Coming out can mean simply being open about the reality of experiencing romantic and sexual desires for those of the same sex. But often in coming out stories, you can hear this narrative at work.
For Schofield, coming out seems to be not just openness about part of his life experience, but an embracing of this part of his experience as identity with the assumption that it needs to be embraced and expressed in order to find fullness of life. This point seems to be confirmed at the end of the interview with Willoughby. Although Schofield’s intentions in terms of his marriage and potential future relationships haven’t been explicitly stated, when the final question of the interview implied he could now be free to pursue relationships with men, Schofield made no objection to the implication. For Schofield, ‘I’m gay’ seems to be a statement about identity which would naturally flow into action.
Victims of the Narrative
While Schofield’s coming out and the popular response could be seen as a triumph for the internal identity narrative, a closer look reveals some of the ways it can cause pain and do damage.
First, it can do damage to the individual themselves. Building identity on the internal puts pressure on people to embrace and express their desires whatever the cost, and it causes people to believe that they can never truly be satisfied until they do so. This is part of the reason why so many single people feel unsatisfied – since most of us experience romantic and sexual attractions, if we believe this narrative we can’t also believe that we can experience fullness of life if we don’t get an opportunity to express these desires.
It looks like this negative impact is at work in Schofield’s story. He talks about experiencing pain and confusion because of the hurt he is causing his family, and yet there seems to be more going on. The fact that he has felt the need to embrace his internal desires as an identity that needs to be acted upon, despite the hurt it will cause to others, suggests that the lack of freedom to do this was also part of his inner turmoil. It seems that for many years, the narrative of internal identity has not been freeing for Schofield, it’s been suffocating.
The cultural narrative of internal identity also does damage to those around the individual who embraces it. If our identity, and so the route to fulfillment, is built on our internal desires, then our desires are given permission to trump anything else that gets in their way, including existing relationship commitments. One person’s step into freedom can become another person’s doorway to pain.
In Schofield’s story, the person who suffers most is his wife. An identity based on internal desires is being allowed to trump the covenant commitment of marriage. To Schofield’s credit, he has exhibited an acute awareness of the hurt his wife and daughters are experiencing and expresses feelings of pain and guilt about this. And yet immediately after mentioning this guilt, he also acknowledges the pride he feels in himself for taking this step. He sees the pain being caused, but the internal identity narrative trumps even that.
When we think about sexuality, it’s easy to think that the secular approach doesn’t have any victims. The portrayal we often see in the media is that throwing off the shackles of the historic Christian sexual ethic is universally life-giving, and yet, when we look closer, we find the damage it is leaving in its wake. The Christian vision of identity received from God, desires submitted to Christ, fullness of life flowing from relationship with our creator, and celibate singleness or a covenant commitment to self-sacrificial love in opposite-sex marriage is far more life-giving. Culture thinks it has a good narrative, but we have the best narrative.
Philosophers and Fashion Designers
In the same way, regular honest people buy unbelievably foolish philosophy, but they buy it toned down and in the clearance bins. That is why we don’t recognize it right away for the monstrosity it is. We buy into it through movies and shows and emotional stories about people who want to die now rather than struggle with a long illness. Isn’t it the compassionate thing to support their suicide? Shouldn’t we want a family to be able to put someone out of their misery? Isn’t it really hateful to disagree with someone, to suggest that they are on the wrong path? We are told over and over that we should simply follow our own hearts and let others do the same. We keep bringing these things home with us and letting them grow on us. We see other professing Christians wearing them and assume that makes it okay. But if these beliefs are founded on the assumption that there is no God, what business should we have with them?
—Rachel Jankovic, You Who? Why You Matter and How to Deal With It
Crouching Demon, Hidden Lamb
‘If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ Genesis 4:7 raises a lot of questions. What does it mean for Cain to do well? Who or what is the ḥattāt (usually translated ‘sin’) crouching at the door? And where is this door? The grammar also raises some questions. Since ḥattāt is feminine, why is the participle ‘crouching’ masculine? And why are the pronouns in the final sentence masculine (lit. ‘his desire’ and ‘over him’) if they are referring to the feminine ḥattāt?
I’ve read various answers to these questions, but recently I stumbled across an approach I hadn’t seen before. In a 2012 article titled ‘Crouching Demon, Hidden Lamb: Resurrecting An Exegetical Fossil in Genesis 4.7’, L. Michael Morales argues in favour of an alternative translation which had some proponents in the 17th-19th centuries.
Noting the now widely accepted cultic elements of the early chapters of Genesis and especially the parallels between the garden in Eden and the tabernacle/temple, Morales proposes that ḥattāt should be translated as ‘sin offering’, a common meaning for the word, rather than ‘sin’. The door (petaḥ) would then be the most recently mentioned entranceway in Genesis, the now guarded entrance to the garden (Gen. 3:23-24). This, he suggests, seems plausible in light of later legislation which commands that the people of Israel bring their offerings to the door (petaḥ) of the tabernacle (Lev. 1:3, 3:2, 4:4). On this reading, the use of the masculine participle (‘crouching’) with the feminine noun (‘sin offering’) could potentially be justified if the sin offering was a male animal (Exodus 29:14 may offer a parallel). The idea, then, is that there is an animal crouching at the entrance to the garden ready to be sacrificed. The first half of the verse could therefore be rendered: ‘If you do not do well, at the door a sin offering is lying down’ (p.188).
The alternative reading of the second half of the verse is, I think, less convincing. (Morales does almost admit this: ‘[T]his translation is not entirely free from difficulty’, p.188.) Retaining the masculine gender of the pronouns, Morales proposes ‘and to you will be his desire, but you must rule over him’. This is a pretty literal rendering of the Hebrew but leaves the identity of the ‘his’ and ‘him’ unspecified. Morales argues that the constant contrast between Cain and Abel throughout the narrative and the fact that no other character has been introduced implies that God is talking about Abel and that this is part of the frequent Genesis theme of competition for the rights of the firstborn. Abel will desire the rights, but Cain is to retain them and exert them over Abel. The parallel phrase in Genesis 3:16 is seen to support this reading as both are understood to be talking about the impact that a sinful act has on a human relationship.
Putting the pieces together, Morales proposes the understanding: ‘If you do well will not [your countenance] be lifted? If you do not do well, at the door a sin offering is lying down. Now to you will be his desire, but you must rule over him’ (p.186).
It’s an interesting reading and a good way of solving some of the difficulties produced by the grammar and the traditional translation, but I think there are some problems. Perhaps the biggest problem is that God’s words to Cain become not a warning to take control over the sinful desire facing him, but a reassurance that if he can’t overcome this temptation he can subsequently gain forgiveness. While it’s certainly true that God is gracious and merciful, and that this can be seen in Genesis, this portrays God as having a rather low view of the severity of sin. ‘Try not to do it, but there’s always the opportunity for forgiveness if you do.’ This doesn’t sit easily with the perspective of God on sin elsewhere in the book (Gen. 2:17; 4:10-12; 6:5-7 et al).
It is also hard to understand why, if God had given a clear offer of forgiveness, Cain doesn’t take him up on this offer and make this sacrifice after killing Abel. The absence of such a sacrifice is particularly striking in light of the fact that Cain doesn’t ignore God after his offence against Abel. When challenged by God, Cain first tries to cover up what he has done (4:9) but then appeals to God’s gracious nature by claiming his punishment is more than he can bear (4:13). If God had told him there would be the opportunity to make a sin offering if he did the wrong thing, why did he not do that?
Morales’ reading does a good job of dealing with the grammatical difficulties in Genesis 4:7 and answers some of the questions raised by the more common rendering, but ultimately it fails to make sense in the broader context of the narrative. The complexity of the crouching demon remains.
The motto – ‘Who’s afear’d’ – seems a strange one. It could easily be read as an expression of anxiety: Are you feeling as nervous as I am? Clearly, its intended meaning is the opposite of that: Who’s afraid? Not us! Bring it on!
We live (as in the title of Matt Haig’s insightful book) on a nervous planet. Climate change, the coronavirus, Brexit, Trump, terrorism…there are a lot of things that are making lots of people very worried. A few weeks back my local university went into lockdown when reports came in that someone wearing a suicide vest was on campus. In the end it turned out to be just a runner with an exercise vest. This caused general hilarity – at least at my gym, where we have a row of such vests hanging up. But a friend of mine who works at the university described how for a few minutes he really thought people were about to die. Fear spreads fast and rumours quickly multiply, especially in our social media age.
One of my colleagues described how watching the news last night made it easy to believe everything is a conspiracy – China covering up the true scale of a pandemic; big business covering up the true impact of their pollution; politicians covering up the truth of their corruption. He then turned to Isaiah 8:12-15:
‘Do not call conspiracy
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it.
The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread.
He will be a holy place;
for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.
Many of them will stumble;
they will fall and be broken,
they will be snared and captured.’
This is a challenge: the people of God are not to see conspiracy where everyone else sees conspiracy nor to fear the same things everyone else fears. Yet we are to fear – we are to fear the Lord. The prophet says that those who don’t get this right end up stumbled and broken. It’s a real ‘who’s afear’d’ passage: don’t fear what you shouldn’t fear, even if it appears frightening – but make sure you fear the one who is to be feared.
The apostle Peter applies this prophecy in his instructions to the scattered churches in what we today think of as Turkey. First Peter is a remarkable letter that teaches ‘the chosen exiles’ how not to give in to fear even as they face hostility from many quarters. Key to this not fearing is a right fearing of God. Commenting on this in his brilliant book, Evangelism as Exiles, Elliot Clark writes,
But here’s where we encounter some of the strangeness of Peter’s first epistle. Because as he wrote to exiled Christians encompassed by fears small and great, Peter repeatedly encouraged them to fear. Such an approach, at least to our…mindset, seems counter-intuitive if not counter-productive. If we writing a letter to instill hope in struggling Christians, we wouldn’t think to encourage them to fear.
We need to redirect our fears. Rather than fearing the conspiracies of this world (real or imagined) fear of the Lord can bring us into freedom. The Lord is either a holy place, our refuge, or the rock on which we stumble.
‘Who’s afear’d’ – too many people are, but those whose lives are founded on the rock can say, Who’s afraid? Not us! Bring it on!
Why Do We Read Scripture?
We do not read it to earn. It is so easy to be tricked into thinking like this, but the purpose of reading the Bible is never to present God with a good work that entitles you to a reward. You are no more justified after reading a Bible for an hour than you are after playing Playstation or having breakfast or going for a walk.
Instead, we read it to learn: about God, about his world, about ourselves, and about how they fit together in his purposes. Despite the popularity of phrases like “we need transformation, not information,” careful reading is always going to involve learning things we didn’t know, so that we might be changed by them: “give me understanding to learn your commands!” (Psalm 119:73). A disciple is a learner. Reading Scripture is more than learning, but it is not less.
We read it to discern. “Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14). Maturity is not just knowing what to think, but how to think; it is not just knowledge, but wisdom. And regular Bible reading (“constant use”) shapes the way we think about everything, whether the subject is directly addressed in its pages or not. Diligence produces discernment.
We read it to turn: to turn from our sin, and to turn to Christ. Reading Scripture shapes our thinking, but it also shapes our behaviour: “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). It aims at repentance. And this happens not just negatively (turning away from sin) but positively (turning towards Jesus and following him once more). For all the emphasis we place on the first time that happens, it is actually a daily habit, as Martin Luther famously pointed out at the start of the 95 theses: “the entire Christian life is one of repentance.”
We read it to burn. When I open Scripture in the morning, I am looking for fire. I want passion to rise within me, for God and his kingdom. I want heat as well as light. I want joy fuel. I want to experience the God about whom I am reading, as if Jesus was personally explaining it to me in the room. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
We read it to yearn. Reading the Bible stirs our hearts with desire for another world. As we read, the seed of the kingdom is awakened in us. We long for the realities of heaven to become the realities of earth. We long for more of God’s presence. We pine for the day when our faith will be sight, and justice will roll down like rivers, and “holy to the LORD” will be inscribed on the bells and the cooking pots (Zechariah 14:20), and death will be swallowed up in victory. Out of that longing comes hope, and out of that hope comes prayer.
Responding to Detransitioners
The words ‘detransition’ and ‘detransitioner’ are not yet in the OED, but I predict they soon will be. Detransitioners are individuals who have at an earlier time transitioned to live in the gender the felt themselves to be but have since returned to live in their original gender. The existence of those who chose to reverse gender transition is not new, but the number of people currently going public with their own stories is.
The past year in particular has seen a steady increase in the number of people going public with their stories of detransitioning, and the subject has gained increasing prominence in the media (such as here and here), though not without controversy (such as here). In the UK, last year saw the launch of the Detransition Advocacy Network, a group that aims to offer support to detransitioners, and last week the story of Keira Bell came to public attention as she became a witness in the High Court case against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.
With the increasing prominence of detransitioners and the growing concerns about the treatment of children in relation to gender identity, it feels like we may be entering a new chapter in the story of transgender in the modern West. For Christians this new chapter raises a number of new questions. Key among these is, ‘How should we respond to the increasing number of detransitioners?’ Here are some initial reflections.
Remember the Humanity of each Person
Christians must resist the urge to utilise the stories of detransitioners to win arguments.
For some, the temptation may be to point to these stories and say - even if not in such stark terms - ‘told you so!’ This is an inappropriate response to these stories. It’s inappropriate because the existence of detransitioners, even if increasing in number, is not conclusive proof that transitioning is always unwise. The evidence can and should lead to the conclusion that transitioning should be approached with great caution, but it cannot, on its own, provide a logical argument that transitioning is always wrong. What if the problem was actually that some who have transitioned were never good candidates for the process? Isn’t it plausible that there could be others for whom it is helpful? I am not saying that this is my view – I think there are other logical and ethical objections to be raised against transitioning – but my point is that the stories of detransitioners alone cannot prove that transitioning is always unwise. If we use the stories to make that point, our argument will easily be shot down.
More importantly, however, we mustn’t use the stories of detransitioners to win arguments because they are stories of real people who have been through and often are still going through intense suffering. We should not see detransitioners primarily as a weapon in our arsenal for cultural debates, but as those deserving of our compassion and care.
Offer Care and Support
One of the important issues which is being raised as more detransitioners go public is the lack of support offered to help people navigate the difficult journey of returning to live in line with their biological sex. Many have reported that while it was comparatively easy to get the support of medical professionals for their original transition, it has been very hard to gain support for some of the medical complications that can arise from detransitioning. Campaigns for this area of support to be improved are something which Christians should champion as an expression of love and compassion.
Our church families too should be places where detransitioners can feel welcomed, loved, and cared for. Of all people, Christians should be those who are able to accept others regardless of their background and what choices, good and bad, they have made, because that is how God has accepted us. As communities of people called to love each other and to live as family for each other, we are uniquely positioned to care for those who are feeling bruised and broken by things they have been through. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it became known that the best place for detransitioners to go for love, acceptance, and support was a local church? (Just as it would be wonderful if the same were true for those who are experiencing the pain of gender dysphoria whether they have transitioned or not.)
Avoid the Urge to Generalise
Many who detransition do so not simply because transitioning failed to bring the peace they desired but because they came to recognise the original root of their gender dysphoria and the initial desire to transition. Detransitioning is often made possible because this root cause can be better addressed in other ways. This is a useful observation, but there is always the risk that the experience of one person is generalised and assumed to apply to everyone with gender dysphoria when this is in fact not the case.
In reality there seem to be many different root causes of gender dysphoria, including trauma, internalised homophobia, gender-atypical preferences and personality, and autogynephilia. In some cases, there is no obvious cause. This diversity of experiences should caution us against assuming that every case of gender dysphoria is the same and that therefore the same helps can always be applied.
The stories of detransitioners can be helpful in alerting us to the various factors that can be at play in an experience of gender dysphoria, but we mustn’t think they give us the answer for everyone.
Encourage Caution When Transitioning Is Considered
With all the important caveats given above in mind, the increasing number of stories emerging from detransitioners should be received as a caution against quick transitioning. Many people have been told that their internal feelings are a good and safe guide to their true identity, and that going through a long, complex and often invasive process to live in line with this sense of self will relieve their distress, only to find that transitioning doesn’t help them and that the narrative they were told actually masked a deeper problem which needed to be addressed.
Many of the detransition stories are also raising questions about the role of medical and psychiatric professionals in the support offered to those experiencing gender dysphoria. A common theme in the stories is that there was little serious assessment before a medical transition was approved and that the full effects of the various treatments offered were not openly explained. This theme is particularly prominent in the stories of those who began their transition during their teenage years and is the reason why there is growing pressure for a more thorough assessment of treatment options and processes being offered to children and teenagers. The current High Court case against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust is part of this movement. Used carefully and sensitively, the experiences of detransitioners are an important element in this ongoing conversation. We should pray that the courage of those currently sharing their stories means that in the future others will be spared the suffering they have experienced.
I believe there is a place for the stories of detransitioners in the cultural conversation about trans. Used carefully and sensitively, there may even be a place for them in the pastoring of people who are seriously considering transitioning. But we have a responsibility to handle these stories well and to use them fairly, motivated by a love for others and aimed at helping every person to find and experience the fullness of life offered to us by our creator.
Image credit: ‘The Detrans Flag’
Bart Ehrman Has a Change of Heart
So here is my “duh” moment. A rock has no way of recognizing that an animate object such as a dandelion exists. A dandelion has no way of recognizing that a panther exists. Now it gets a bit tricky. A panther has no way of recognizing that a superior intelligence exists. Yes, a panther does recognize in some instinctual sense that there are things out there to look out for. But it has no way of realizing that there are people who can engineer sky scrapers, or split atoms, or reconstruct the history of Rome. It simply is not in its purview ...
The PROBLEM is that we humans always imagine we are the pinnacle of existence. We’ve always thought that. That’s why we have no trouble killing other things to satisfy our needs. I’m not opposed to that in every instance: every time I eat a meal or scratch my arm (killing who knows how many microbes) I do that. But it has always led to some rather enormous problems, from massive destruction of others in war to, now, our rather determined efforts to destroy our planet ...
This idea that we ourselves are all-important has ironically crept out of our religion into our secular epistemology. If we are the top of all existence, then there must be nothing above us. And so we can use our brains to figure out everything else that exists. In principle, our brains can figure out *everything*.
My revelatory moment showed me with graphic clarity that that just isn’t true, on epistemological grounds. Who says we’re the pinnacle? If quartz stone and maple trees and slugs could think, they would think *they* were the pinnacle – they wouldn’t have the capacity to imagine a Stephen Hawking or a Steve Jobs or a Frank Lloyd Wright. But they can’t imagine something higher than them. So what make us think we would have the capacity to imagine whatever it is that is above *us* in the pecking order? Frankly, it’s just human arrogance. Pure hubris. And I must say, looking at the world today, I’m not a huge fan of human arrogance and hubris. It’s not doing too well for us ...
I’m not at all advocating we return to the religious constructions of previous centuries and millennia. I’m just saying that the possibility that there really *might* be orders of existence higher than I can imagine strikes me just now as completely plausible. Why not? Who says *I* can figure it all out. If superior forms of intelligence and will do exist, I would literally have no way of knowing. And how many different forms/levels could there be? God knows. So to speak.
Responding to Trans Questions
At a pastors’ breakfast this morning the hot topic issue of transgender came up in conversation. This wasn’t a subject that would have been raised a few years ago but is now something we are all having to think about and deal with. Trans is a difficult subject: it is such a complicated mix of biology, psychology, culture and politics. There are so many potential landmines to stand on – who wants to be subject to a social media firestorm for stepping on the wrong side of the politically correct line? Or to say something to a trans person that might cause hurt? Or to face penalties in the workplace (or courts) for using the ‘wrong’ pronouns?
Yet at the same time it is essential that those who have questions about the current narrative (and I think most people have questions) don’t just clam up and refuse to engage for fear of what that might mean. Thankfully there is an ever growing number of helpful resources and information on trans which can help us raise the right questions and engage in a positive way.
Here’s a quick summary:
From a clinical perspective
The Pediatric and Adolescent Gender Dysphoria Working Group is ‘an international group of psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, researchers, and psychoanalysts that have a special interest in the treatment of GD in children, adolescents, and young people.’ Their website carries in-depth, evidence based, articles on current trends and research. It is well worth looking at.
On the issue of whether sex is binary and essential or fluid and assigned there is very a helpful overview available from Psychology Today. And this post from NHS psychiatrist Dave Curtis is authoritative. Curtis says this,
For all useful intents and purposes sex can be regarded as binary. Scientists understand that the term “spectrum” refers to something which changes quantitatively and smoothly in one dimension so that any value on the range is equally possible. With sex, there are only two categories, male and female, and even if we want to take account of disorders of sexual development we cannot say that this produces anything like a spectrum. It would be a bit like saying that because some people can have nine fingers and others eleven, the number of fingers is a spectrum. Except that at least with number of fingers we are talking about a quantitative measure whereas with sex we are talking about two different categories.
From a child welfare perspective
The incredible increase in the numbers of young people being referred for treatment at the Gender Identity Development Services (GIDS) at the Tavistock Clinic is raising many concerns. Susan Evans, who previously worked at the Tavistock, has been pursuing a legal case ‘to protect children from experimental medical treatment.’ Details of this can be found here. Evans’ concern is that children are being given treatments that will have lifechanging impact at an age when they are incapable of understanding the implications and consequences. As reported in the media this week, Evans’ place in this case has now been taken by Keira Bell. Bell transitioned as a teenager but now regrets this, saying,
‘I do not believe that children and young people can consent to the use of powerful and experimental hormone drugs like I did.’ Labelling the current system ‘inadequate’, she continued: ‘Hormone-changing drugs and surgery does not work for everyone and it certainly should not be offered to someone under 18 when they are emotionally and mentally vulnerable. The treatment urgently needs to change so that it does not put young people, like me, on a torturous and unnecessary path that is permanent and life-changing.’
A very practical issue that many parents will be dealing with is the trend for schools to remove single-sex toilets, replacing them with ‘gender neutral’ ones. This can have a distressing impact on pupils, especially girls. Transgender Trend (‘an organisation of parents, professionals and academics based in the UK who are concerned about the current trend to diagnose children as transgender’) have put together a fascinating survey of newspaper reports from the past six years ‘to see how this change has gone down with pupils and parents in schools where it has been implemented across the country.’ Their conclusion is clear: ‘gender neutral toilets aren’t working in schools.’
From a political perspective
The Scottish government recently announced plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act. The proposed changes would codify self-declaration of ‘gender identity’ as the legal basis for a person’s sex. Transgender Trend comments on this,
Codifying this ideological belief into law would undermine freedom of thought and speech for all people who do not believe that being a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, is defined by subjective inner feelings and not the objective reality of biological sex. This is already happening. A UK employment tribunal judge this week ruled that the belief that biological sex is immutable is “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”… Essentially the law would validate the ‘affirmation’ approach towards children and young people: a teenager would be able to gain legal affirmation as the opposite sex. The law would consolidate an adolescent’s belief that their gender identity is their true sex, an idea which teenagers are learning online and through teaching materials in the classroom produced or promoted by transgender lobby groups.
If this change goes ahead in Scotland it becomes more likely the rest of the UK will follow suit, so it is an important issue to engage MPs on.
This moving and informative response to the Scottish Government proposal by a Scottish detransitioner presents a strong case as to why the proposals are ill-founded and need to be reconsidered.
It is worth pointing out that I am not aware of any of the individuals referenced above having Christian faith, and the groups quoted are clearly non-religious. There are very significant theological questions surrounding trans – questions with which we need to wrestle – but you don’t have to have Christian faith to question the trajectory we are currently on. Concerned parents, teachers and clinicians are all rightly questioning what is happening. Those questions need to be aired more and more loudly.
The Chariturgical Guide to Loitering
As my many faithful readers will know, I have in recent years been urging the more shallow waters of the church towards a deeper experience of spirituality: this is the liturgical aspect of my labours. At the same time I have been encouraging my more sluggish brethren towards a more free-flowing, charismatic, expression of worship: my bestselling book, The Chari-Current, explored this magnificently.
Now, with my latest publication, I am bringing these streams together with a fresh exploration of the spiritual discipline of chariturgical loitering. To whet (and wet) your appetite, here are examples of some of the chapters (or eddies) contained therein.
Hanging about for the blessing. This chapter gives practical and failsafe tips on how the busy pastor can ensure he never leaves a pastoral appointment without receiving that extra slice of cake.
Lurking for love. Especially with single members of the congregation in mind, this chapter offers top tips on how pastors can act as heavenly match-makers; bringing lonely hearts together in a slow blossoming of romance.
Vagrant in vain. In this crucial chapter I describe (with painful personal testimony) the pitfalls of pursuing loitering a step too far: “In all things moderation.”
Idling for inspiration. Many of my finest sermons – and best books – have been produced essentially with no work at all. This, brief, chapter describes how I do it.
Ladies of leisure. In this chapter I focus on the important role of the pastor’s wife.
As I’m sure you can see, this is going to be essential reading for all busy pastors. It could literally change your life: get chariturgical, move less, loiter more.
Available in all good bookshops soon.
The Ministry of Loitering
I asked him how we do that in practice. He immediately started talking about the importance of personal accessibility among pastors: the importance of even the most senior leaders in the church being directly involved in people’s lives, helping and serving and praying for people, rather than delegating all of that to junior minions while they focus exclusively on purportedly high-level stuff. In very large churches, or environments where pastors have very little available time (because they are working three jobs, for instance), it can be difficult.
For some of us, a key part of it is simply the ministry of loitering. We turn up before the Sunday meeting, or the prayer meeting, or whatever, and we hang around. We don’t hide; we are present, visible, available. We hover. We chat to whomever happens to be there (in my experience this often involves older and quieter people, who are the very people I might not otherwise talk to). We stick around after the meeting, wherever possible, to be available to pray. It may not take a huge amount of time - it could involve a mere fifteen minutes before and afterwards - and sometimes there won’t even be anyone there. But it can make a huge difference to your accessibility: the perception you (and the church) have of how easy it is to get hold of you, talk to you, and build relationship with you.
Loitering can help. There won’t be any books coming out on it this year, but in a number of contexts it’s a powerful practice.
The Warning-Assurance Tension in 1 Corinthians Reviewed in RBL
The aim of this study, which originated as Wilson’s doctoral thesis at King’s College, London, is to determine whether Paul’s assurances of ultimate salvation stand in tension with his warnings to persevere in faith lest that salvation be forfeited. Because Wilson ends up affirming that such a tension does exist, he also briefly addresses the question whether it makes any kind of sense. Attention is focused on 1 Corinthians because in this letter assurances and warnings are especially frequent and their relationship is often complicated. Accordingly, the approach is “almost entirely exegetical” (14). Two introductory chapters are followed by seven chapters devoted to exegetical studies of specific passages, and two closing chapters present, respectively, the author’s conclusions and his thoughts about implications and further research.
In chapter 1, “The Scholarly Context of this Study,” Wilson identifies four different and, in his judgment, unsatisfactory attempts to explain how Paul could have issued both assurances and warnings about ultimate (eschatological) salvation: (1) the “Wesleyan” view that the assurances are in fact conditional upon obedience, perseverance, or repentance; (2) the conclusion of B. J. Oropeza (with whose work Wilson is frequently in dialogue) that the assurances are rhetorical and not to be taken literally; (3) the argument of Judith Gundry Volf (whose work is also frequently engaged) that the warnings are directed not to believers but only to those who appear to be; and (4) a proposal by Craig Blomberg that the warnings are about the possibility of punishments or loss of rewards during one’s present life, not about the possible forfeiture of ultimate salvation.
In chapter 2, “Selected Introductory Issues in 1 Corinthians,” Wilson indicates why he accepts the literary integrity of the letter, argues that the problems in the Corinthian congregation stemmed not from an “over-realized eschatology” but from values and conduct carried over from the converts’ past lives as unbelievers, and identifies the issues that influenced the structure of the letter: divisions within the congregation, immorality, idolatry, and the resurrection.
The first two exegetical studies (in chs. 3 and 4) are of 1 Cor 1:1–9 and 3:5–17. These passages offer examples, respectively, of Paul’s assurances and warnings, and taken together they exhibit the tension that is the object of this study. With most interpreters, Wilson views the assurances in the thanksgiving paragraph as reflecting confidence that God’s faithfulness (1:9) will overcome human faithlessness and enable one to stand blameless “on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8). On his reading, because these assurances are neither “entirely conditional” nor “entirely rhetorical” (39), they do in fact stand in tension with the warning in 3:16–17, that “if anyone … destroys God’s church, they will forfeit final salvation” (56).
In a brief chapter on Paul’s directive that the Corinthians expel a certain immoral man from their assemblies (ch. 5: “1 Corinthians 5:1–13”), Wilson offers two reasons why he considers this passage of little importance for his topic. First, Paul’s directive is issued primarily to save the congregation from moral indifference and arrogance, not to warn the offender that he may be excluded from salvation. Second, in rare agreement with Gundry Volf, Wilson holds that “Paul almost certainly does not regard the man as a genuine believer” (62) but as one of the so-called brothers and sisters (v. 11) whom believers should avoid (63–64). Subsequently, however (ch. 6: “1 Corinthians 6:1–20”), Wilson effectively challenges Gundry Volf’s conclusion that the warnings conveyed in 6:9–10 are also addressed only to so-called believers. He concludes that here, as at other points in the letter, Paul is warning actual believers that engaging in (or reverting to) certain types of conduct could jeopardize their final salvation.
The apostle’s response to the controversy in Corinth about eating food that has been sacrificed to idols is particularly important for Wilson’s topic and is examined in considerable detail (ch. 7: “1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1”). He deals, in turn, with 8:1–13, agreeing with most interpreters that Paul is concerned that the “weak” who follow those with so-called knowledge in partaking of idol food may risk “eternal destruction” (89); 9:1–27, arguing that Paul’s image of believers as athletes who must train for a race in order to win the prize “suggests that he did not view eschatological salvation as such an automatic result of being in Christ that it required no response of human effort” (96); 10:1–13, which he finds to be a “deliberate paradox”—believers must heed Israel’s experience, “avoiding idolatry and being careful lest they fall…, while God, ultimately, will assure that the trials they face are never too great for them to endure” (117); and 10:14–11:1, in which, because the admonitions are clearly addressed to actual believers, he sees confirmation of his conclusion that believers were also the subjects of the warning in 10:1–13.
Following comments about Paul’s warning that one must not partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (ch. 8: “1 Corinthians 11:17–34”), Wilson closely examines the apostle’s more complex and, for this study, substantially more consequential assurances in 1 Cor 15 about resurrection (ch. 9). He concludes that these are “categorical” assurances, neither conditional nor merely rhetorical. Further, “as paradoxical as it may seem to us, they aim to secure the very conviction that Paul warns the Corinthians about losing,” which is “belief in [their] future resurrection” (158). Additionally, in an important excursus on “The Question of Universalism in 15:20–28” embedded within this chapter (143–50), Wilson maintains that for Paul only those who actually believe in Christ “can be certain of their eschatological resurrection” (i.e., final salvation).
The result to which these exegetical studies have been leading is stated plainly in the title of chapter 10, “Conclusion—The Warnings and Assurances Stand in Tension.” Following a brief summary of this conclusion, Wilson reinforces it with comments on passages in Romans, Philippians, and Galatians where he discerns a similar tension between assurances and warnings. Most of this chapter, however, deals with the question, “Is the Tension Incoherent?” (167–84). He believes that the key to answering this is “how Paul conceived of divine and human agency working together, both in his own life and in the lives of his converts” (167). For Paul’s sense of this dialectic operating in his own life, Wilson points especially to 1 Cor 15:10, where the apostle views his human efforts as “the means by which [God’s] grace took effect” (169); for Paul’s belief that the same dialectic operates in the lives of his converts, Wilson points especially to 1 Cor 10:12–13, where the apostle “stresses divine activity as the means of empowering the human response” (175; cf. 114–17). For
Wilson, therefore, the tension between Paul’s assurances and warnings “is not in fact incoherent,” because the apostle “sees his warnings as the divinely appointed means by which God, who is at work in the Corinthians by his Spirit, will ensure that they continue in faith and holiness” (184). Wilson makes a strong case for his conclusion that, at least in 1 Corinthians, assurances of final salvation do not just appear to be but actually are in tension with warnings that salvation can be forfeited. Although this conclusion may seem unremarkable and the supporting exegetical studies therefore unneeded, his study effectively challenges those who have concluded otherwise (especially Gundry Volf and Oropeza). Wilson’s own exegetical judgments are informed by critical use of a broad range of previous scholarship, especially commentaries, and are in general carefully reasoned and framed. This is true even when his conclusions about specific issues are less than fully convincing (e.g., for me, those concerning 1 Cor 5 and, more consequentially, 1 Cor 15). The decision to confine the exegetical studies to the assurances and warnings in 1 Corinthians is reasonable, in that it allows one, theoretically, to take account of how they function within the overall argument of a particular letter. There are, however, important questions that Wilson leaves unexplored, including: Are the assurances and warnings about salvation equally important within the argument of 1 Corinthians? Are some more than others expressions of what is definitive of the apostle’s own thinking? Should some be accorded less weight because they reflect his indebtedness to one or another kind of tradition?
Finally, it is disappointing that Wilson has dealt so briefly with the arguably more consequential and demonstrably more difficult issue of why the “genuine tension” he finds between the assurances and warnings is nevertheless “coherent.” Quite plausibly, he bases his argument for coherence on passages where Paul’s comments reflect belief in a close and significant relationship between divine and human agency. But, to offer just one example, the conception of God’s grace that underlies these passages (e.g., 1 Cor 15:10) deserves more attention than it receives, not least because of the bearing it has on the apostle’s view of both the nature and the scope of the “salvation” that he proclaims.
—Victor Paul Furnish, Southern Methodist University
Praying the Cursing Psalms
In summary, Trevor highlights five contexts in which you need to read the cursing psalms:
1) Social-historical, whereby the ancient world is less governed by individualism and freedom, and more governed by communitarian justice, than our culture.
2) Biblical-theological, framed by the narrative of crushing the snake and protecting God’s people (and space) from pollution and destruction.
3) Christological, in which Jesus is by turns the psalmist who is praying, the judge to whom the prayer is addressed, and the “enemy” who is judged, all in different ways.
4) Eschatological, such that the world is ultimately cleansed from evil altogether, and every prayer for the kingdom to come is a cry for that day to be brought about.
5) Hamartiological, whereby we ask the question of where evil is truly to be found—not just “out there” but “in here”—and are led to confession and repentance.
Check it out.
Seeing Both Sides
‘How can we best love and support gay/same-sex attracted Christians?’ I love being asked this question. There’s so much that can be said in response, but there’s one particular area I’ve been reflecting on recently.
One of the things I find most difficult about being a celibate gay/same-sex attracted Christian is when I feel a strong attraction to a specific guy. (I’d probably describe these attractions as a crush if the word didn’t make it sound like we’re back in the school playground!) I don’t find that this happens all that often for me, but it does happen, and I don’t think that should be a surprise.
When it does happen, I have close friends whom I will tell. I do this because I know openness and authenticity are important for my own well-being. I need the support of other people to help me keep faithfully following Jesus, and sharing what I’m feeling can lessen the sense of aloneness that can come from the experience. Over the years, I’ve observed that people tend to respond in one of two ways.
Some people immediately think it’s an issue of temptation, which it is. There may be the temptation to pursue something with the person if they are single and also gay/same-sex attracted, and whoever they are there may be the temptation to engage in sinful thoughts and fantasies about them. Some friends therefore jump in with reminders to take every thought captive and to put on the armour of God; some offer practical pointers to avoid giving in to temptation. This is all good. When I share with a friend that I’m feeling attracted to a guy, I’m asking them to help me stay faithful to Christ, to help me in the temptation which that attraction will bring.
Other people immediately think it’s an issue of suffering, which it is. For a celibate gay/same-sex attracted Christian, becoming attracted to someone can be one of the strongest and starkest reminders that we experience unchosen desires which will never be met in the way that they seem to long to be met. Put simply, the longing for a relationship with a specific guy becomes a reminder that I won’t ever have that sort of relationship with any guy. There is a pain that comes from this experience, a pain which is perhaps largely unique to the experience of gay/same-sex attracted Christians, and which I think always remains to some extent, regardless of the health of someone’s relationship with God and with friends. When I share with a friend that I’m feeling attracted to a guy, I’m asking them to acknowledge the pain I’m feeling and to love and comfort me as I walk through that pain.
Both temptation and suffering are present, and help is needed for both. Focussing on only one can be unhelpful. A response that focusses only on temptation can aggravate the pain already being experienced. A response that focusses only on suffering can leave the way clear for temptation. It’s true that one or the other will often be more prominent in the experience of the individual at any one time, and so a good response and offer of support might likewise be weighted in one direction, but both will always be present.
If we want to love and support gay/same-sex attracted Christians well, we need to think about the complexities of their (our) life experience. The best way to understand these complexities is to listen. In some ways the answer to the question of how we best love and support will always start with listening. If a gay/same-sex attracted Christian friend shares with you about attractions they’re experiencing, slow down, ask some gentle questions, listen well, and then you’ll be well equipped to respond.
1. The wedding at Cana (2:1-12)
2. The healing of the centurion’s son (4:43-54)
3. The healing of the paralysed man (5:1-15)
4. The feeding of the five thousand (6:1-15)
5. The healing of the man born blind (9:1-41)
6. The raising of Lazarus (11:1-44)
7. The resurrection (20:1-31)
Four of the signs are healings of increasing magnitude (from ill, to paralysed for thirty-eight years, to blind since birth, to dead), narrated with increasing depth and complexity (the first story takes eleven verses, the fourth forty-four). They come in two pairs (2 and 3, 5 and 6).
The seventh is the last, climactic sign which makes rest possible for all of us. It comes after eight chapters in which there are no healings mentioned at all, even where we know from the other Gospels that a healing did actually occur (e.g. John 18:10-11). It is as if John has been preparing us for the grandeur of the final sign.
So what does Jesus do in the other two signs (1, 4)? He makes an excessive abundance of wine, and an excessive abundance of bread.
The resurrection, four miraculous healings, and two sacramental miracles. Eucharismatics will doubt that is a coincidence.
Sex and the Sacred
What’s the connection between sex and the sacred? They are two elements of life that many people think are far apart, or even in tension, but perhaps the reality is somewhat different.
Sex Replacing the Sacred
In his fascinating analysis of the sexual behaviour of Americans, Cheap Sex, sociologist Mark Regnerus observes that among women there is a clear correlation between being politically liberal and having a greater desire for sex, even when other factors (such as age and recent sexual activity) are taken into consideration.1 From this observation, Regnerus proposes a hypothesis:
More liberal women … desire more frequent sex because they feel poignantly the lack of sufficient transcendence in life. If sex is one of the few pathways to it, then it is sensible for them to desire more of it. (p.79)
In simple terms, Regnerus’ suggestion is that for these women, sex is a replacement for God.
To test this idea, Regnerus went back to his data set, the Relationships in America survey, to see whether the results would be different if they took involvement in religion (e.g. attendance at religious services, reported importance of religion etc.) into consideration. In doing so, he found that involvement in the religious has a far more significant influence on the desire for sex. Those who are more religious report less of a desire for more sex even if they are politically liberal.2 The evidence supports Regnerus’ suggestion: sex is often pursued as a replacement for the sacred. ‘In a world increasingly bereft of transcendence, sexual expression is emerging as an intrinsic value. Sex is the new opium of the masses’ (p.79).
It’s not hard to hear Augustinian overtones in Regnerus’ finding, and so I wasn’t overly surprised to find a similar idea when reading the chapter on sex in James K.A. Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine.
Reflecting on Augustine’s time at university in Carthage (about which Augustine himself observed ‘I was in love with love’) Smith writes: ‘Retroactively, he recognizes a hunger behind this, a hunger that stemmed from a certain kind of starvation. The soul’s built-in hunger for the transcendent, the resplendent, the mysterious was deflected to the sensual, the bodily, the reverberating shudders of climax. The inherent desire to give himself away settled for giving up his body. Ignoring infinite Beauty, he pursued finite beauties all the more. He traded the cosmic for the orgasmic’ (p.96).
Augustine reflects on his own desire for more sex and sees in it evidence of a greater desire, a desire for the divine.
Sex, Mission, and Discipleship
Sex and the sacred go together, and it strikes me that there are both missional and discipleship lessons to be drawn from this observation.
When it comes to mission, it’s easy for us to see the stark clash between the secular sexual ethic and the biblical sexual ethic as a barrier. Many of us, if we’re honest, feel ashamed of what the Bible says about sex and almost wish it said something different. We think that the Bible’s view of sex is something which makes the gospel sound unappealing to those who aren’t following Jesus.
But ultimately, the secular sexual ethic can never deliver on what it promises. In Walking with Saint Augustine, Smith quotes Russel Brand as an evidence of this fact. Reflecting on his experience of promiscuity, Brand acknowledged the experience of ‘this kind of ongoing seam of loneliness’ (p.97). What this candid admission reveals is that many people feel the fact that sex can never deliver what culture tells them it will; they experience this truth, and yet many don’t understand what they are feeling. Interestingly, Brand notes that it was his experience of addictions which helped him to spot the futility of looking to sex as a source of fulfilment.
In mission, we can help people understand why the things in which they are looking to find fullness of life don’t deliver, and we can point them to the only relationship which really can satisfy. As the god of sex fails to deliver what it promises, we can point to the God who created sex, the one who always delivers what he promises.
This link between sex and the sacred is also helpful when thinking about discipleship. The battle with sexual sin and sexual temptation doesn’t, for most of us at least, end when we respond to the gospel. As Christians, we are often slow to admit this and to talk about it, and when we do our focus tends to fall primarily on surface level behaviour management strategies (such as (guilt trip) accountability and digital restrictions and filters), rather than the roots of misdirected desire for the divine. For many of us, until we realise that sexual desire is something more than just the physical we will never learn to handle it well. If sex is often sought as a replacement for the divine, then deepening our connection with the divine will help us to manage our sexual desires.
So, sex and the sacred go together. Rather than replacing the sacred with sex, sex is designed to draw us to the sacred. Sex is about the sacred. Desire is about the divine.
- 1. The same correlation between political persuasion and desire for more sex is not seen among men, probably because, generally speaking, men have a greater desire for sex anyway. Regnerus notes that while some claim women’s sex drives are as strong as men’s, no population-based data has yet been produced which supports this idea (p.77).
- 2. Regnerus doesn’t state whether his data was restricted to women at this point. Given the observation that politics doesn’t have the same impact on men’s desire for sex as it does for women, it would be interesting to know how involvement in religion affects men’s desire for sex.
Don’t Skip the Genealogies
If it were left to me, I think I’d be torn between Luke and John. John’s wonderful echoes of Genesis 1 would be fantastic stylistically. But then Luke’s picking up on the prophecies at the end of the OT and showing their fulfillment in John and Jesus would make a clearer continuation of the story. Mark wouldn’t make my (very) shortlist – sorry, Mark – just leaping into the narrative like that. And to be honest, I’m not sure I’d have chosen Matthew. Yes, the birth narrative is there, but you have to wade through that long genealogy to get to it. Not the most thrilling start.
God, apparently, disagrees.
A few people – including my pastor – seem to be reflecting on Matthew’s genealogy this Christmas, so here’s my two-penn’orth.
Why on earth would God want to start the New Testament, the story of the new covenant, the bit that most people nowadays are likely to start with, if they’re going to read a Bible at all, with a genealogy? Who wants to read a long stream of unpronounceable names of total strangers before the story starts? Is it like the title cards at the beginning of old movies? Important information to those concerned, but just an opportunity to make yourself comfortable and arrange your snacks for the rest of us?
I’m guessing not. God usually has a plan, even if it’s not immediately obvious to the casual viewer. So what could it have been?
David Suchet was once asked how he had overcome the challenge of all the genealogies, censuses and lists when he was recording the NIV audio Bible. He said the breakthrough came when he realised that each name wasn’t just a tricky pronunciation exercise, but represented a real person, with a personality, a history and a family. When those scriptures were read out, for hundreds of years, the descendants of those individuals would have been listening eagerly for their family names, feeling an intimate connection to the story.
So that’s what the genealogy in Matthew would have done for the early Jewish converts – it would have helped them to place Jesus as really one of them, connected to their family and their history. (As well, of course, as establishing his royal pedigree and showing how he was the promised messiah.)
Could it be that it is supposed to do the same for us? God started the NT not with declarations of his glory and majesty, not with indications of his power, but with humans. Very fallen, very broken humans – some considerably worse than others. It includes heroes and villains, winners and losers, perpetrators and victims. It includes five women, which was unheard of at the time. It includes “the outcast, the scandalous, and the foreigner”, as Sam Allberry put it in a recent tweet. It includes the world-famous and the otherwise-unknown. It sets Jesus right in the middle of the story of us.
Some friends were talking the other day about a trip they had taken to the village their family had come from generations back. Seeing their family names on the gravestones and war memorials had given them a buzz of connection, a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves, a rootedness to times and places in history.
I wonder if that’s at least part of what we 21st century Western Gentile individualists are meant to take away from both the fact of the genealogy’s existence and its position right at the beginning of the part of the story where we begin to find ourselves. Our faith is not just about our ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, but it is much bigger than that – it’s about being part of a huge, interconnected, multi-generational family. And not even just our immediate church family (though I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about that at the moment), but a family dating right back to Abraham (Gal 3:29). Once we are in Christ, we are rooted not only in his heavenly family, but also in his earthly one. We’re related to Elihuz and Zerubbabel, Jotham and Jehoram, Amminadab and Abijah. We’re related to David and Bathsheba, to Ruth and Boaz, and to Judah and Tamar. We’re related to Hezekiah. When I visited Jerusalem a few years back, the thing that excited me most was walking through Hezekiah’s tunnel (2 Kings 20:20) – I wish I’d grasped at the time that he was one of my ancestors.
For Christians then, the New Testament starts not with echoes of Genesis, not with the breaking of a 400 year silence, not with the fulfillment of prophecies, but with us. It sets us right in the narrative, reminding us of who we are and where we fit, rooting us in the story, and the story in us.
So when you’re thinking about what the New Testament teaches us, whether at Christmas or beyond, don’t skip the genealogies!
The Relevance of Romans 7
Romans 7 is famous for its egō. Who is the egō (the ‘I’) who speaks in verses 7-24? Is it Paul or someone else or just a rhetorical device? Is the one who died with the arrival of the law Paul or Adam or Israel? Is it a regenerate or unregenerate person who speaks from the depths of despair about their inability to do what they know to be good?
These are the questions we often ask when we come to Romans 7. And they’re good questions. Important questions, I think. Our answers to them will have a significant impact on our expectations for the Christian life. Getting them right is important.
But this isn’t the only way that Romans 7 is relevant to us. It isn’t hard to see that Paul’s primary focus in verses 7-24 isn’t actually on the figure who speaks but on two key questions: Is the law sin? (Rom. 7:7) And did the good law bring death? (Rom. 7:13)
We can easily overlook these questions thinking they’re not as relevant to a primarily non-Jewish audience. We aren’t as scandalised by Paul’s declaration that death with Christ includes death to the law (7:1-6), and so we don’t need the clarifications which follow.
But perhaps we do. Perhaps we’re not scandalised by the possible implications of what Paul says because we already have a negative view of the law. We give thanks that we no longer have to bring countless sacrifices in order to draw near to God. We’re grateful that our Sunday gatherings are somewhat less messy, less smelly, and more veggie-friendly than things would have been in the tabernacle and the temple. Our prayers, at least, can reveal that we see the law as a burden from which we’re glad to have been released. Perhaps we do believe the law is a bad thing.
But that’s exactly the kind of view that Paul is trying to protect against in Romans 7:7-24. The law wasn’t the problem. The law is holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7:12). In keeping with the Old Testament perspective, Paul sees the law as a gracious gift to Israel, a guide on how to experience fullness of life by following the creator’s design, and the gracious provision of ways to make up for the times when they failed to follow this design. The sacrificial system was not a burden, it was an incredible blessing. The problem was not the law God had given. The problem was the sin that dwelt within us.
I fear that when we give thanks that we are no longer under the burden of the law – with the effort and the mess required to follow it – we are not recognising the true nature of the freedom we’ve been given; we’re recognising our own laziness and our desire to be comfortable.
Freedom from the law is a wonderful thing. But it’s not wonderful because it makes life easier. And it’s not wonderful because it makes our gatherings cleaner and less smelly. It’s wonderful because sin dwelling in us misused the law and the law was powerless to deal with this problem, powerless to set us free from sin, and powerless to help us live God’s way. But when we recognise the true goodness of being freed from the law, we can join with Paul in his exclamation, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Rom. 7:25).
The Lodestar of Western Morality
Cultural conservatives sometimes worry that modern Western societies lack shared sacred narratives, but this is not exactly true. In the same way that Victorian publishers endlessly retold the life of Jesus, post-war films, novels and other media endlessly retold and retell the Second World War. It is the story to which we endlessly return. Its history retains an unparalleled grip on our imagination because it is our Paradise Lost: our age’s defining battle with evil.
Once the most potent moral figure in Western culture was Jesus Christ. Believer or unbeliever, you took your ethical bearings from him, or professed to. To question his morals was to expose yourself as a monster.
Now, the most potent moral figure in Western culture is Adolf Hitler. It is as monstrous to praise him as it would once have been to disparage Jesus. He has become the fixed reference point by which we define evil ...
In the seventeenth century, arguments tended to end with someone calling someone else ‘atheist’, marking the point at which the discussion hit a brick wall. In our own times, as Godwin’s Law notes, the final, absolute and conversation-ending insult is to call someone a Nazi. This is neither an accident nor a marker of mental laziness. It reflects that fact that Nazism, almost alone in our relativistic culture, is an absolute standard: a point where argument ends, because whether it is good or evil is not up for debate. Or again, while Christian imagery, crosses and crucifixes have lost much of their potency in our culture, there is no visual image which now packs as visceral an emotional punch as a swastika.
The Mythology of the Populist Left (and Perhaps Also the Church)
The three myths are called the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Age. (Having good, pithy names helps.) Here is Aaronovitch’s summary of each (emphasis added):
The Dark Knight is the underlying belief that the struggle for the future is between light and dark, that all virtue is on one side and all vice on another. So those who oppose you are not wrong, they are immoral. The day after the election, on camera, a young woman Labour supporter wished the prime minister “a horrible death” before disconcertingly revealing that she planned to work in the NHS. As to those ordinary working-class people who had voted for the Tories, what they had done was “disgusting”. The problem here, suggests Clarke, is that if this is what you believe, then a dialogue with others is next to impossible.
This is often claimed to be a bigger problem on the left than the right (hence the cliche that the left thinks the right is evil, while the right thinks the left is mistaken). In our generation it probably is, for the reasons highlighted by Haidt and Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind, although I wonder if it is as much to do with age than with political alignment. But a moment’s thought reveals that it is a tempting consolation for any group that finds itself embattled in a hostile culture, including the church. “It’s dark out there, but light in here” may be reassuring and comforting, but it doesn’t help win people over, whether they are people who don’t go to church, or working class people in Bishop Auckland.
The second myth is the Puppet Master. If what you want to do is noble and in the People’s Interest, how can you explain why the People may fail to support you? The answer is that powerful forces are “rigging” the game against you. The Puppet Masters may be the “MSM” (the mainstream media, including, according to the shadow transport minister, Andy McDonald, the BBC), may be Zionists “weaponising” antisemitism against Corbyn, or may just be infernally clever advisers who, in the words of The Guardian’s George Monbiot “instinctively or explicitly understand the irrational ways in which we react to threat, and know that, to win, they must stop us from thinking.”
Again, though I am sure this is an issue on the left, it is equally an issue in the church. Often the same actors are invoked: the mainstream media, the Biased Broadcasting Corporation, the Jews (our history of antisemitism is far worse than the Labour Party’s). It should give us pause, or in the political vernacular, prompt “a period of reflection.” I often think of Kevin DeYoung’s wise counsel here: “It is probably true that every group needs a devil. In which case, ours might as well be the Devil.”
The third myth is the Golden Age. This is the belief that there was once a better place from which we have been expelled. The Corbynite Left believes the current lapsarian disaster to have been the fault of “neoliberalism”, an ideology binding Margaret Thatcher with Tony Blair and which is leading to people on trolleys in A&E and wars in the Middle East.
The analogy draws itself. Our Golden Age will depend on our church tradition—ancient Constantinople, medieval Rome, Calvinist Geneva, Puritan New England, the Welsh revival, Azusa Street, the early days of the Charismatic Movement, or whatever—but most of us will have one. False nostalgia for a bygone age is a powerful force in politics, as Yuval Levin showed beautifully in The Fractured Republic, as well as in church history. It also, like most errors, contains a fair bit of truth; some periods in history have indeed been more conducive to people who believe X than others. But we should not forget that the story of God’s people points forward rather than backward. Our Golden Age is in the future, not the past, and we look for a city that is to come.
Review of the Year 2019
Post of the year: Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine on America’s New Religions. “Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning ... The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults. These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They haven’t been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.”
Hashtag of the year: #WagathaChristie. If you were online when Coleen Rooney posted “It’s ……… Rebekah Vardy’s account,” you won’t need any more explanation than that.
Podcast of the year: This Cultural Moment. Some of you were onto this well before me, and in my view some episodes are a lot better than others, but the ones where Mark Sayers explains how and why the secular West really works are fantastic.
Tweet of the year (from Dayne McAlpine): “a girl in the coffee shop i’m working from has just said to her friend ‘imagine a hot veg smoothie’ and i’m wondering how to break it to her that soup exists.” I’m still laughing months later.
Clip of the year: the whole thing only takes twelve seconds, but Adam Boulton’s punchline here is exquisite.
Sporting moment of the year: arise, Sir Ben Stokes.
New song of the year: either King of Kings, which is theologically rich and melodically powerful, or Goodness of God, a simple and beautiful affirmation of a simple and beautiful truth (and the only country-ish worship song I’ve ever heard that works).
TV series of the year: Chernobyl. Not a barrel of laughs, but what an extraordinarily gripping, well-written, satisfying and beautifully acted drama.
Book review of the year: Katelyn Beaty on Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Stop Apologizing. This also has the best title of any book review I read this year: “Girl, Get Some Footnotes.”
Cartoon of the year:
Debate of the year: Justin Brierley hosts A. C. Grayling and Tom Holland on his Unbelievable show:
Documentary of the year: Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (caveat spectator). A remarkable and in places near-unbelievable cautionary tale of what happens when you get all style and no substance.
Sermon of the year: I may not be the best person to judge this, because I spend a lot of Sundays preaching myself rather than listening to other people. But since I’ve done it before, and because I found it so helpful at the time (and such a good example of public communication), here’s Matt Chandler at Convergence in Oklahoma City.
Personal highlight of the year: watching my son as the mascot for Brighton and Hove Albion against Everton (they won 3-2 with a last minute own goal).
Have a very happy Christmas, and I’ll see you in 2020!
The Courage To Say “Help”
“Help,” said the horse.
These simple, profound words, and the pen-and-ink drawing that accompanies them, have turned artist Charlie Mackesy into the author of Waterstones’ book of the year. The book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, follows these four unlikely friends on a journey through snow and storm, across fields and rivers, and listens in on their wisdom along the way.
I haven’t read it yet (feel free to buy me it for Christmas), but one of my highlights of 2019 was visiting an exhibition of Charlie’s work, which featured many of the drawings. They are beautiful in their simplicity and depth, and carry some very valuable lessons about life, love, hope, and sometimes cake.
But this is the one that has stuck with me. It breaks my heart that it is true, especially among Christians, but I know that it is.
It is hard to ask for help. Hard to admit our brokenness. Hard to accept, in our individualistic society, that we can’t manage alone. Hard to open ourselves up to potential rejection or ridicule. And hard to accept the help even when it is gladly, openly, freely given.
It is humbling. Our pride is dented. The façade we have so carefully constructed is cracked, and sometimes even shattered irreparably. And yet it is a beautiful thing. It is what we are designed for. I firmly believe that part of growing in maturity as a human being and as a believer is being willing to say, “Help”. Because it is part of being in a flourishing community.
People – in general – love to help. We love to feel useful, to be able to contribute. I’ve had real breakthroughs in a couple of friendships when one or other of us has debased ourself sufficiently to ask for help. All of a sudden an invisible barrier of ‘coping’ has been stripped away and the real person has been revealed. Think about someone you know who is better than you at just about everything – doesn’t it feel great when you can provide a skill or resource that they simply didn’t have? Why are we denying one another the chance to feel so useful, so worthwhile?
Of course, this can be abused, and the helper can feel taken advantage of, but usually the problem there is that the helper doesn’t have the humility to say, “I can’t, sorry”. That, too, takes courage, especially when the person seeking help is fragile and needy, but as long as we do it kindly, and offer to help find a solution if we can, it is actually helpful in itself. It’s helpful for our – the helper’s – physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. But it is also helpful for the body of Christ as a whole: it offers others who may not be feeling very useful the opportunity to get involved; and it also means that those seeking help don’t need to worry that they’re being a burden, or that the helpers are secretly sick of it. If they trust you to be honest and say no when you’re not available, don’t have the right skills, or simply need a break that day, they don’t need to anxiously second-guess whether it’s safe to ask you or not.
As Christians we are supposed to be family – a good, loving, functional family. The sort of family that assumes they’re going to help paint your new flat, move in for a while after your hip replacement, or look after the kids while you go to your grandfather’s funeral. When we don’t ask for help, we’re denying one another the opportunity to be the family God has commanded us to be. We’re actually causing one another to miss out on the richness of what he designed for us.
This post has been boiling around in me for a few weeks now. It all started at a conference I attended at City Church, Cambridge. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know it is situated opposite a large supermarket with corresponding car park. During our lunch break, a message went out that a “distressed member of the public” couldn’t start his car, and had come in to see if anyone had any jump leads (and a working engine) he could use. Someone did, and before long his engine was once again turning over and he was able to get on his way.
I was struck by the mental image I had of this man, standing in a car park surrounded by power and unable to access any of it until, of course, he plucked up his courage, humbled himself, and came into a church building to ask a bunch of strangers for help. Can you imagine how helpless he felt, standing alone in that crowded car park? And how embarrassing it was to have to admit to his failure to be able to start his car. He must have felt so small, so ashamed, and yet in his act of courage he showed great strength.
If you’re struggling at the moment, either physically, emotionally or spiritually, the power you need is close at hand, if you can find the courage to ask for it.
One final thought – to ask for help is to be Christlike.
At this time of year in particular, we remember our Lord’s ultimate act of humility – entering into the womb of one he had created, dependent on her for his very life. Being born helpless and incontinent, reliant on a whole community of others for food, warmth, cleanliness, and protection. Growing into manhood and choosing, once again, to make himself reliant on our help to spread his word throughout the world. He knew we would mess it up, many, many times, in disastrous and devastating ways and yet he, the creator of the universe had the courage to ask for help.
Manhood and Womanhood: What’s the Problem?
The first is from Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks, and is an attempt to tease out the different pastoral intuitions we feel when we approach the subject of men and women. Our instincts, he argues, derive from what we think the biggest problem is in the church and/or the culture, which in turn derive from our experiences.
Ask two complementarians, “What’s the biggest problem facing the church’s understanding of manhood and womanhood today?”
One answers by pointing to Western culture’s fifty-year assault on what the Bible teaches about men and women. He talks about things like second-wave feminism, the LGBT movement, and how more and more churches treat men and women as interchangeable. He’s concerned, in other words, with Satan’s challenges to difference and authority.
The other answers by pointing to the threat that abusive male authority has long posed to women and families. She talks about how evangelicals have given a pass to Donald Trump’s sexist language, how pastors have encouraged women to remain in abusive homes, or how church leaders have refused to believe women who report sexual assault. She’s concerned, in other words, with Satan’s challenges to equality.
Hopefully all evangelical readers can agree that Scripture addresses both his and her burdens. Yet once again, different experiences and intuitions will lead these two complementarians to emphasize different pastoral burdens. If she has spent years counseling abused women and avoiding leering “Christian” men, she will more likely put challenges to equality on the front burner. If he has spent years counseling marriages that grow distant and dissolve because the husbands were quick to say, “She sinned, too,” and refused to recognize their greater responsibilities of leadership, of course he will put challenges to difference and authority on the front burner.
In short, I don’t think it’s overly simplistic to say that narrow complementarians generally feel burdened pastorally by challenges to equality, while broad complementarians generally feel burdened by challenges to authority and difference.
There’s a lot of wisdom there, I think, and it helps a great deal when it comes to living peaceably with one another on this subject. In this cultural moment there is fierce pressure in both directions simultaneously, so it is important for all of us to see the whole board as best we can, even if our experience and context lead us to believe that one danger is more pressing than another.
The second is from Alastair Roberts, who is answering a much more specific question: “How would you summarise the argument against the ordination of women?” As you’ll know if you’ve read Alastair before, or attended THINK, there is a big picture way of answering this question which, while not ignoring the exegesis of particular passages in Paul and Peter, generally focuses elsewhere. Here’s how he answers (unbelievably, at least to me, this is a transcript of a verbal answer he previously gave on video, pretty much off the top of his head):
First of all, we have the very basic biblical commands and restrictions within the New Testament, in places like 1 Timothy 2 and elsewhere, where there are limitations placed upon women’s teaching, exercising authority, and speech within the context of the church. And these teachings themselves provide an initial basis for the restriction.
Then we have the circumstantial evidence—the fact that Jesus chooses twelve apostles who are all men; he surrounds himself with men; he establishes the leadership of the early church with men. And throughout, we have this pattern of male leadership within the church. And so that’s a significant thing to notice too.
In the Old Testament we also see an all-male priesthood. We see the kings are all male, with the exception of one who is the usurper, Athaliah. And so apart from that, there are entirely male monarchs, entirely male priests, and there are also male apostles. Now people will talk about the character of Junia—much more could be said about her; that can be in another video if someone wants me to answer that. But looking at these cases there seems to be clear evidence that men and women are not regarded as interchangeable when it comes to positions of leadership within these positions, whether it be priest or king.
Another thing to notice is that throughout Scripture there is a lot of emphasis given to the symbolic importance of male and female: that male and female—no matter what the skills or gifts and abilities of a particular man or woman—are not interchangeable, because fundamentally they are either a man or a woman with all the symbolic significance that comes with that. So for instance, when you look at the sacrificial system in Leviticus you see a distinction made between sacrifices. Now why would it be necessary to sacrifice a male goat for the leader of the people or a bull for the priest? These are questions that we should be asking.
There is a symbolism and a symbolic weight given to gender and to sex that we find very hard to understand in our society because our society is built around detached organisations with people who are fairly interchangeable. We see people as functions rather than as representing a deeper symbolic order. And yet this symbolic order is prominent throughout the whole of Scripture; we see the whole of Scripture teaching concerning men and women and the symbolic weight that they both have.
And so men have a symbolic importance that we see coming to the foreground in figures like Adam or in the figure of Christ as well. That Christ is incarnated as a man—that’s significant. Christ also takes a bride, the Church. Likewise, the creation of Eve—Eve is distinct from Adam. Adam is created with a particular orientation in the world and Eve is created with a particular orientation in the world. Eve is created from the side of Adam to bring unity and communion through joining with Adam; and Adam is created from the earth primarily in order to form and till and guard and establish God’s order within the world and upon the earth. We see that within the curses as well.
When we look more deeply, we see deeper connections between men and women and larger symbolic realities. So, for instance, the man is associated more closely with heaven; the woman is associated with the earth. If we look, for instance, in the curse, the woman is associated with the earth; she brings forth fruit from her body, just as the earth brings forth fruit from its body. The earth is the adamah and the man is the adam: the woman is the one from whom all future men come; men come from the womb of the woman. And the womb of the woman is associated with the earth: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there,” “Knit together in the lowest parts of the earth.” Such images are very significant for understanding the symbolic world of Scripture.
And so when God talks about himself as Father, this is significant. The earth is our mother; God is our Father. And as Father, God is in a different relationship to us: we do not arise from God’s womb; rather God creates us through his word, and he is bound to us by his word and his commitment and love for us. But there is a gap, a distance, a break, a fundamental distinction between creature and Creator which is conceptually maintained in part by calling God ‘Father’.
Now what is the office of the pastor to do? The office of the pastor in large part is designed to represent the fatherly and husbandly form of authority in relationship to the Church. And so it is proper that it is performed exclusively by men. That’s one of the reasons why we have exclusively male priesthood within the Old Testament. God is not a mother, God is a Father; and so God’s transcendence is symbolically masculine.
And we see all these symbolic connections within Scripture that are quite alien to us within our society. Because we tend to think about the pastor as just performing certain functions—certain therapeutic functions, certain teaching functions—they need to know their theology, they need to know how to work with people, and they need to know how to speak publicly and these sorts of things. That, we suppose, is what a pastor is. But yet within Scripture a pastor stands for something as well: the pastor represents and symbolises God’s authority within the congregation. And we respond to motherly and fatherly authority differently—not primarily because of distinct behaviours, but because of where that behaviour comes from. The behaviour coming from a mother has a different salience and a different resonance than the behaviour coming from a father. And even if they did exactly the same thing it would be very different, because one would be a father’s action and the other would be a mother’s action. And this is one of the reasons why priests and pastors are to be exclusively male: because it is a fatherly form of authority that is being represented …
And it is one of the things that we see throughout Scripture: that forces that want to control a society do it generally by breaking down the power of their men by killing the baby boys or doing something along those lines that hits the men that give strength and particular backbone to the society—in its maintaining of its borders and establishing of its foundations. Now, the filling and the glorifying and the heart of the society, the life—the inner reality—of the society is primarily ordered around women. Women are the ones who establish that—who give men something to fight for, something that is a meaning for them to lay down their lives for. I might get into some of the problems that arise when we mix up these things later. And so the significance of these traits—the traits of male strength being used in service and protection of the larger community—those are things that are required in the leadership of the people of God.
If you’re wanting a distraction from the UK election today, the full versions of both these articles are well worth your time.
The Heart of the Jungle
Last night saw the final of this year’s I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! I have to confess that I’m a fan. I like people watching; I like the contestants’ amusing reactions to the trials (not that I’m claiming I would do any better!), and I even like some of Ant and Dec’s terrible jokes. But I also find it a fascinating opportunity to gain an insight into how people think. Since the celebrities have little to do other than sit, contemplate, and converse, many find themselves doing some deep soul-searching over their time in the jungle, and as viewers, we get to overhear some of these thoughts.
One contestant from this series who went on a significant journey of self-discovery during his time in camp was Ian Wright, retired footballer and current TV presenter. Wright exhibited a tendency towards strong emotional reactions and outbursts of anger and frustration at several points in the series, sometimes in the trials, sometimes in camp as the celebrities interacted. His anger and extreme reactions became something of a talking point among the other contestants and the show’s presenters.
Reflecting on this part of his experience when interviewed just after leaving the camp, Wright revealed a tension that stands at the heart of secular thought. On the one hand, Wright spoke about the way his time in the jungle had caused him to think soberly about himself: ‘The mental side of me, I’ve got a lot of work to do on it’, he said. ‘I’ve got to be a little bit calmer … I lose it too quickly.’ And yet Wright also qualified this observation by stating that friends and family had encouraged him to be himself in the jungle, which, he said, he obviously had to do. So while he was prepared to acknowledge his flaws, he was also eager to stress that being himself and not holding anything back was still of the utmost importance. ‘I’m not going to try and hide and suppress those feelings.’ ‘Of course, you’ve got to be yourself’.
Here, embodied in one person, is a tension that can be observed in the culture around us. On the one hand, there is a core value of modern society: authenticity to oneself. We must embrace who we are (as defined by our emotions and desires) and be true to ourselves, regardless of what other people think about us. This is why challenging someone about part of who they believe themselves to be (as based on their emotions and desires) is deemed utterly unacceptable. But at the same time there is a recognition that many of us have emotions and desires that are at best unhealthy and at worst just outright wrong and harmful both to ourselves and to others. The Me Too movement and recognition of a growing problem with racism in the UK are just two examples which show that ‘just being ourselves’ often proves not to be a good thing.
If we’re honest, we all know that left to our own devices, there are parts of ourselves that are not good and that we wouldn’t want to embrace as who we really are. And yet being true to ourselves has become such a core value of our society that we can’t really admit the problem. We know that the human heart is a problem, and yet it’s also where we look to find ourselves and build our identity.
Wright expressed an admirable humility about his flaws. He noted that this was not the first time that he has become aware of them and shared that he has been proactive in the past about seeking to change in those areas through the support of a counsellor and through taking up golf as an outlet for his emotions. He sounds like a man who genuinely wants to change, and I have huge respect for that.
But on its own counselling can’t change a human heart, and golf can’t change a human heart. Only God can. The wonderful promise of the gospel is that our hearts of stone can be turned into hearts of flesh (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26) and hearts opposed to God’s law can have God’s law inscribed upon then (Jer. 31:33). Only then can we really have the freedom to be true to ourselves, to embrace and enjoy our true identity. And this identity comes, not by embracing our emotions and desires as the real us, but by embracing a God-given identity as a child of God.
Where is Your Affection?
As the sexual revolution continues to gather pace there is a corresponding increase in books written by those who have left a gay lifestyle behind following an encounter with Jesus. Cook’s book is one such and interesting simply for that. But it is made more interesting by his backstory: a gay man living in West Hollywood, working in the fashion industry, and present at all the coolest parties with some of the biggest names. An extraordinary encounter with Jesus one Sunday through an unexpected encounter with a Christian in a coffee shop caused Cook to totally reorient his life, join a church, attend a seminary, and pursue a ministry of teaching the gospel. His affections were utterly changed.
This story is compellingly told – it feels like a 2010s version of the 1960s classic The Cross and the Switchblade. Different issues, but equally gripping and surprising.
That’s just the first half of the book though; the second explores the kinds of questions people ask of someone like Cook and gives some practical suggestions about how pastors and parents can interact with gay parishioners or children who come out as gay. The tone is full of grace, but Cook doesn’t pull any punches:
Being true to yourself is nothing short of idolatry. Oh, and isn’t a child molester just being true to himself? A rapist? A thief? A greedy person? And on it goes. So no thank you. I don’t want to be true to myself. I want to be true to God and his Word…I would never call myself a gay Christian, because the label “gay” is part of my old self, which the apostle Paul told us to get rid of.
I’d recommend this book to a gay friend struggling with the claims and demands of Christianity. I’d recommend it if you are beginning to go a bit ‘wobbly’ on the church’s historically held, biblically faithful, understanding of sexuality. I’d recommend it if simply you are trying to work out how to think and respond to the current sexual tides. It’s a really helpful book. I expect it will be on Andrew’s 2020 list – he’s just been a bit slow in 2019!
Books of the Year 2019
But for all that competition, calling the book of the year was actually quite easy. People will be reading, rereading, quoting and arguing about Tom Holland's Dominion for years to come.
Top Ten Recent Books
David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics. If you read this remarkable analysis of the political landscape in Britain today, you’ll be seeing Somewheres and Anywheres everywhere.
Amanda Ripley, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why. What makes some people cope so much better in disasters than others? A fascinating survey of the various explanations.
Ben Macintyre, The Spy and the Traitor. This Cold War (true) spy story is the most gripping thriller I have read in years. Unputdownable.
Sam Allberry, Seven Myths About Singleness. A wonderfully pastoral, theological, wise and winsome discussion of singleness, and what all single (and especially married!) people should know about it.
Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew (two volumes). I spent six months in my devotional times in Bruner’s marvellous theological commentary, and on finishing it immediately bought his commentary on John. Fantastic.
Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. The pitch here is simple: it’s the best new apologetics book since The Reason for God.
John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise & Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000. I read several great books of global history this year (honourable mention to Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power), but this was the best. A brightly written and sweeping survey.
Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I’m a couple of years late to the party on this, but this is a wonderful novel: quirky, moving, funny and charming.
William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. A remarkable story, remarkably well told by a remarkable historian.
Top Ten Old Books
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
G. K. Chesterton, The Thing
John Frame, Nature’s Case for God: A Brief Biblical Argument
Daniel Darling, The Dignity Revolution
Flannery O’Connor, Parker’s Back
Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers
Aeschylus, The Eumenides
Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ
*Peter Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1&2 Samuel
Robert Alter, The David Story
David Cannadine, Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906
James Jordan, Judges: A Theological and Practical Commentary
Hesiod, Works and Days
*C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
James Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World
Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation
Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination
*C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement
Glenn Packiam, Blessed, Broken, Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus
*C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
Matt Smethurst, Before You Open Your Bible: Nine Heart Postures for Approaching God’s Word
Peter Thiel, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875-1914
Kathryn Tanner, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less
Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul
Umberto Eco, Chronicles of a Liquid Society
*C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy
Anthony Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America
Camille Paglia, Provocations
Jackie Hill Perry, Gay Girl Good God: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been
*Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr Fox
Richard Evans, The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914
Christian Smith, Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver
Wendell Berry, Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life
Matt Chandler and friends, Joy in the Sorrow: How a Thriving Church (and its Pastor) Learned to Suffer Well
Glen Scrivener, The Gift: What If Christmas Gave You What You’ve Always Wanted?
George Orwell, Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings
George Guthrie, 2 Corinthians
Stephen Nichols and Ned Bustard, Bible History ABCs: God’s Story from A to Z
R. O. Kwon, The Incendiaries
*C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
Daniel Strange, Plugged In: Connecting Your Faith With What You Watch, Read and Play
David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
William Venderbloemen and Warren Bird, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works
Tertullian, On the Shows
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect In Back Row America
Kevin Vanhoozer, Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine
David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History
Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order
Michelle Obama, Becoming
C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
George Yancey, One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches
Joshua Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior, Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues
Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Christian Seedbed of Western Christianity
Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life
Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism
Mark Sayers, Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence and Creating in a Cultural Storm
John Starke, The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World
Graham Greene, Stamboul Train
Wendy Alsup, Companions in Suffering
Katia Adams, Equal: What the Bible Says About Women, Men, and Authority
Jen Pollock Michel, Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World
Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, The Serial Killer
John Frame, We Are All Philosophers: A Christian Introduction to Seven Fundamental Questions
Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Living in a Fractured World
Sam Allberry, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?
John Parker and Richard Rathbone, African History: A Very Short Introduction
Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father
*C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Jonathan Gibson, The Moon is Always Round
Adam Sisman, The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking
Gavin Ortlund, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future
Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity
Peter Leithart, 1&2 Chronicles
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath
Evangelism as Exiles
In January we’re planning on teaching through 1 Peter at my church and I picked this book up because it is an exploration of that epistle. I was planning on some background reading to help my sermon preparation – I didn’t expect to be as stirred and challenged as was the case.
Clark explores 1 Peter through the lens of his own experience working in Muslim majority nations and because of that brings a sharpness and clarity to his interpretation and application of 1 Peter. Clark knows what it is like to feel an exile, both through living as a foreigner in another nation and from being a follower of Christ in contexts where very few people are. This experience allows him to read himself deeply into the kind of situation the apostle Peter was addressing when he wrote to the elect exiles in Asia Minor. But this is far from being a book solely for those interested in mission to Muslims – it is brilliantly applied to a western audience (the examples given are American but are equally valid for a British reader). Throughout the book Clark also helpfully weaves in examples from the experience of African-American slaves; how in the midst of their exile a deep and effective spirituality was formed, and what we might learn from that.
If you read through a collection of Negro spirituals, you’ll observe that those beleaguered slaves sang about judgment and damnation in ways that would cause most of us to blush. Their ability to harness the passions of the imprecatory psalms and simultaneously drive them toward an evangelistic appeal is astonishing, if not jarring. In one line they can revel in God’s retribution; in the next they can summon sinners to repent.
Living in exile is hugely challenging. Clark doesn’t shy away from the reality of what that can mean in terms of the hostility and suffering exiles can endure. Neither does he skip over the costly ‘turn the other cheek’ calling of our pilgrimage:
You’re called to show honor to every single person. Not just the people who deserve it. Not just those who earn our respect. Not just the ones who treat us agreeably. Not just the politicians we vote for or the immigrants who are legal. Not just the customers who pay their bills or the employees who do their work. Not just the neighborly neighbors. Not just kind pagans or honest Muslims. Not just the helpful wife or the good father…
…The time is coming, and is here now, when the world won’t listen to our gospel simply because they respect us.
However, they might listen if we respect them.
Actually, there are any number of ‘ouch’ moments in this book. I felt convicted about my lack of courage in evangelism, my ‘over-politeness’ about speaking of Jesus to those who don’t know him, my tendency to complacency and fondness for comfort. This isn’t a book to read if you are not prepared to be challenged – but it really is a book you should read!
Just before reading Evangelism as Exiles I had led a conference titled Living in Exile. I wish I’d read the book before leading the conference. The reality is we are called as exiles. Elliot Clark has written a book that is a terrific guide to that demanding and rewarding path.
Praying for the Election
This is true in Christian apologetics, where one of the biggest western ‘defeater beliefs’ is the problem of suffering – a problem that doesn’t seem to be nearly such an obstacle to faith in societies with a greater lived experience of suffering. It is also true in politics, with those societies that enjoy the greatest degree of personal liberty and economic prosperity being the most consumed with an existential sense of victimhood and hardship.
With a general election two weeks away these societal trends are not insignificant in how we pray. That we should pray for and into the election is clear. Not only 1 Timothy 2:1-4 but the scriptural story as a whole teaches us to pray for those in authority and to act as good citizens. But how do we pray? Soon we will be in the year 2020 and as this election approaches we need some 2020 vision because so often our prayers are myopic. So here are some suggestions for praying with clarity.
Be Thankful for Our Material Blessings
Inevitably elections are framed by appeals to dissatisfaction. Like advertisers, politicians succeed by making us aware of our lacks. The more dissatisfied they can make us the more they can sell themselves as the solution to our woes. The problem with this approach is it feeds an irrational dissatisfaction – just as it is irrational to feel dissatisfied if your phone is a couple of models out of date.
The reality is that from the standpoint of human security, liberty and comfort there has never been a better time to be alive than the western world in our era. All the statistics demonstrate this.
Yes, we have many social problems in the UK. Those who do the job I do live with the daily reality of brokenness in people’s lives: in physical health, mental health, relational health and spiritual health. But the degree of social care available to us is extraordinary by any historic measure. Whichever Party ends up in power after December 12 the resources being put into healthcare and education will be huge. (At present social protection, health and education are the three largest areas of government expenditure, consuming 63% of government spend.)
We should be thankful for this – as we can be thankful for the fact that the top 1% of earners in the UK contribute nearly 30% of income tax paid and thereby support the rest of us, and that we are not at war, that we do not experience famine, that women only very rarely die in labour, for central heating and anaesthetics and global supply chains, and on and on. So let’s spend at least as much time expressing gratitude for the blessings we enjoy as lamenting the wrongs we endure.
Be Broad in Lament
When it comes to lament we all tend to have our own personal areas of concern. Progressives fixate on climate change and social inequality; traditionalists about divorce rates. As Christians we should be able to see a broad range of issues and lament all that do not accord with the kingdom of God. This means we should be able to lament both antisemitism and the sexual brokenness of our society (that the leaders of both main parties are serial adulterers is merely a symptom of the latter); it means we should be concerned about economic justice and that 200,000 babies are aborted each year in the UK.
This breadth of concerns may well mean that there is no one Party which we feel entirely comfortable offering our vote to – but what else would we expect when we are called to live as exiles in the earth (1 Peter 1:1)?
Be Generous to Politicians
The depth of cynicism and opprobrium heaped on politicians is not a positive characteristic of our age. Yes, politicians can be venal, selfish and sinful – as is the case with all human beings. But it does not commend us when we join in the cultural norm of calling down a curse on all their houses. As forgiven-sinners who have experienced the generosity of God we should at least begin with the assumption that those who commit themselves to political life have some good and positive motivation for doing so. It is much easier to pray for people to whom we extend generosity than for those we despise. And if that seems an impossible thing to ask we should remember the instructions of Jesus to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).
Remember Who We Are
Christians sit in the remarkable space of having both a God-given concern for the world and a God-promised hope of a kingdom that will not be shaken. This means we can plunge headlong into political issues and rise above mere politics. What happens on December 12 is really important – but it is not ultimate. We can vote, and we can pray. Let’s do both.
Why, why, why, Delilah?
In his encounter with Delilah (told in Judges 16), Samson provides us with a picture and metaphor of the dangers of entanglement with the world. This is a strangely abusive and controlling relationship in which Samson declares his love for Delilah while she declares her determination to torment him. As is so often the way with abusive relationships Samson seems incapable of seeing what is really going on and escaping it. The irony in this case is that it is not the woman who is being controlled and abused but the strongest man in the world.
Samson submits himself to Delilah in a sequence of steps that inevitably lead to his downfall. At first she ties him with bowstrings. Then she ties him with ropes. Then she ties him into the fabric on a loom. Finally she shaves his head and – in what is perhaps the saddest verse in all scripture – “he did not know that the Lord had left him.”
As I’ve reflected on this sorry tale each of these stages has become axiomatic. ‘Bowstrings’ are things that are not good or helpful but easily snapped – a flex of the chest and they are broken off. This means ‘bowstrings’ can feel insignificant and that no harm is done by getting tied by them. But being tied by bowstrings leads to being tied by ropes which leads to being tied into the loom which leads to being shorn of power.
It is a metaphor for what has happened to the church in the West: a gradual surrender to the flow of culture until power is shorn, the buildings are emptied, and all is death. It’s also a metaphor for what can so easily happen to us individually: I let myself get tied in a few bowstrings – no problem – but then I get increasingly tangled until the Lord has left me and I don’t even realise it. If, by the grace of God, this isn’t your story, you’ve seen it in others. Tragic.
Samson, the mightiest man of them all, ends up grinding corn in a dungeon, his eyes gouged out and his dignity gone. That sounds a lot like so much of the church in the West today. If we are to see a reversal of this tragedy we need – personally and corporately – not only ‘the hair on our head to begin to grow again’ but to not get tied in bowstrings in the first place. Make that an axiom, and live by it.