The Plausibility Problem: Church, are you listening?

[This blog is a summary of the book in some detail, with some added comments]

Ed Shaw’s Plausibility Problem is a powerful indictment of the state of the church today, all the more so because it avoids any histrionics in its presentation, focusing on the flawed arguments that largely remain unchallenged in the church today. Although it is written by a same sex attracted writer to critique the church’s failure to address the gay issue properly or effectively, the issues it identifies are such that it ends up revealing that much of what is normal in the church today is badly flawed. Having introduced us to ‘Peter’ and ‘Jane’, two Christians whom the church is failing to enable to live as God requires, it then carries on identify nine missteps which the church has taken over the past few years that have made the church’s position on the issue of homosexuality difficult to maintain. It ends with a call for all church leaders to realise their need to address these issues, or be complicit in the probability that ‘Peter’ and ‘Jane’ will adopt gay lifestyles, and so reject God’s rule in their life. Most significantly he argues that the failure of church leaders to address the issue at all much of the time means that their claims to be ‘orthodox’ on this topic are meaningless, and leave the same sex attracted Christian in their congregation effectively unsupported. Yet the implications of the missteps extend far beyond just the gay issue; overall they are mistakes that make the gospel harder for all Christians to live, as well as implying many have joined the church without understanding what they’ve done; we’re preaching a fake gospel!

Peter and Jane

‘Peter’ is the stereotype of the teenager growing up in a sound church who from puberty finds himself drawn to boys not girls. At university, faced with the church’s expectation that he will live and lonely and miserable life unable to have a legitimate sexual relationship, he comes to identify himself as gay, drifting into the orbit of a gay-friendly church, and eventually returns home with a boyfriend in tow. His home church has no idea what to say, and many are heard to mutter: ‘I hope they’re very happy together’.

‘Jane’ is the middle aged single recent convert mother who, after an satisfactory marriage, finds herself drawn in lesbian relationship in which she finds the love, support and family life that she ‘needs’. Her involvement in the church of her conversion fades as the relationship causes problems, but ultimately many, once more, are heard to mutter: ‘I hope they’re very happy together’.

The author’s testimony

Shaw grew up at a time when the church’s traditional teaching was enough to convince him that he couldn’t have a gay relationship whilst remaining faithful to Jesus; however he feels that for many the church’s missteps mean that this simple teaching is ever more implausible, and so they find themselves struggling to declare it for others. His struggles with ‘Same Sex Attraction’ remain a source of grief: he has ‘kitchen floor’ moments when he finds himself crying in pain at the loneliness he is experiencing. Yet he chooses to be faithful to what he believes to be God’s will, and uses the term ‘Same Sex Attraction’ to differentiate himself from those who are gay and willing to endorse gay sex as a legitimate option for Christians. He is currently a church leader in Bristol in a church which seeks to live out a rejection of the missteps in its life, though his ‘kitchen floor’ moments show that it’s not made it entirely.

The Missteps

Misstep 1 is to self identify as gay primarily. This problematic feature of a person’s life comes to define them, rather than being a Christian. It’s the same issue as disabled rights campaigners identify when they want the disabled identified as people who are disabled. We are Christians first of all: saints saved by the grace of God.

Misstep 2 – a family is a mum and a dad and 2.4 children. The expectation that family life is lived out in nuclear families means that those who aren’t members of one of those units are left without family. Shaw argues that singles should be actively included, and offers his own experience of being a part of many ‘families’ during the average week, both such nuclear ones and others. Crucially he argues that including singles is of benefit to everyone and isn’t, in practice, a burden, although that’s an idea that many families have come to believe. Of course the church talks the talk on this: ‘we are the family of God’ is proclaimed, but the lived experience for many church goers is very different. We must do better to be plausible.

Misstep 3 – if you’re born to be gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay. Despite trench warfare on this topic in some circles, Shaw’s attitude is that it doesn’t matter: we are all sinners, so a propensity to one form of sin over another is irrelevant in a fallen world and we are always responsible for our sin. Therefore the church should be comfortable with people being SSA yet still asserting it’s wrong to live it out. And ultimately much sin feels ‘natural’, yet it gets us into trouble all the time, such as in the environment, economics and relationships. Although Shaw doesn’t argue this, for me the clearest demolition of this is to be seen in the problematic comparing of homosexuality with paedophilia. Because of the toxic history of the justification of homophobia by assuming this, it is a minefield, yet is one we need to cross. 

pursuit of happiness

Misstep 4 – if it makes you happy it must be right. Whilst often heard, once examined for more than a second it becomes clear that it’s false. And yet it is often trotted out without thought, and guides people’s intuitive reactions. There are at least two fallacies here: the first is that this raises your happiness to the status of an authority to be obeyed; the second is that this trumps actual experience. It has given permission to people to give up on ‘unhappy’ marriages, when longitudinal studies show that two thirds of such marriages become happy after five years, as well driving the legitimation of remarriage after divorce. And of course sexual promiscuity will make me happy – briefly… Yet the only hard line that most churches proclaim is against gay relationships – so it’s not a surprise if the dam on this is leaking. Shaw also comments that what makes the world happy tends to change over time – so the church merely endorsing today’s sins will make us looking like idiots in a few years’ time. The reality is that if we are wanting what God doesn’t want us to have, it won’t really make us happy. Choosing God’s way may make us unhappy in the short term – but the final outcome will be glorious.

Misstep 5 – Sex is where true intimacy is found. Somewhere in recent years this idea has emerged, and given the need that EVERYONE has for intimacy, to have a people with whom to share your life, this has come to legitimate sexual activity in a way wholly alien to the Christian tradition. Part of the problem is that marriages have come to be seen as the only place for intimacy, putting a serious strain of excess expectations on them and again leaving single people more isolated than they should be. The assumption that the relationship of David and Jonathan was sexualised is an instance of this – whereas historically all readers would have seen it as an example of an easy friendship in contrast to their polygamous and iffy marriages. We need to work at such relationships in our lives – and there should be other friendships, even if we are married. In the absence of adequate intimacy elsewhere, the drive towards other attractions, such as porn, is accentuated. We live in a ‘world of terminally casual relationships’; we need to do better, with a willingness to risk personal disclosure to deepen friendships beyond the casual.

Misstep 6 – Men and women are interchangeable. In reaction to the abuses of the past, the Christian ideal of equal status but different roles has been delegitimated and replaced with a demand for total equality. Yet the distinction is from creation, and Paul’s clear teaching in his household codes that men and women do have different roles makes it clear that this continues into the church. Shaw points beyond the traditional but pastorally inadequate issues of procreation and companionship to sexuality being to tell the story of His love for us; sex is the trailer for the world to come! The understanding of marriage as a model for God’s covenant with Israel is found in Hosea and Ezekiel 16, whilst Revelation 21 is the marriage of Jesus to the church. The clearest statement is Ephesians 5, where Paul teaches that marriage is the pattern of the relationship of Christ and his church. To reject these indications of complementarity for interchangeability is to equate creator and created and to suggest that any of us could be the bridegroom in Revelation 21.

Shaw also quotes a woman who had been been in lesbian relationship before marrying a man, who comments: ‘It is because of the differences marriage works; two men or two women understand each other too well and thus excuse rather than forgive.’ Overall the church needs to do better at affirming the equality of status as well as the importance of the differences. Only then will our message be plausible.

Misstep 7 – godliness is heterosexuality. Here the church is failing to address a residual disdain for the same sex attracted, seeing them as uniquely ungodly in their temptations, as well as failing to be honest at how problematic sexuality is for straight Christians. Sexual purity is an important element of godliness, but is by no means the only issue, and marriage does not resolve all the issues. Whilst Shaw reports that his being SSA did wonders for keeping his self-righteousness under control, the idea that same sex temptations are inherently more evil than straight is deeply flawed and SSA Christians must not be held to a higher standard than the rest of the church.

The issue of looking for changing in orientation is a fraught one; certainly it must NOT be seen as a measure of progress in Christlikeness. In the world honesty about sex – or at least talking about it – have made it less of a mystery; sadly the church hasn’t benefited from this. The largely ignored instruction to ‘confess your sins to one another’ is a gateway to more intimate relationships, reminding us that we are not unique in our struggles, and we all need to be honest, not just the SSAs.

Misstep 8 – celibacy is bad for you. There are almost no TV shows with contented bachelors, and the message there AND IN THE CHURCH is that celibacy is a bad thing and to be avoided; an encouragement to consider permanent singleness is never heard from Evangelical pulpits. Instead the tendency is to marry young as the best solution to a sex obsessed world, and celibacy is seen as promising lack of intimacy, repression and loneliness. Yet married people can be lonely… If celibacy is bad, then SSA Christians have a right to marry. Yet Jesus modelled celibacy, and Paul encouraged it to enable ministry. Christian history offers many single people at the forefront of ministry. Being childless is to affirm that the church is now the primary focus of your loyalty; your heirs will be your spiritual descendants. It’s not saying sex is bad, rather it is a bold declaration that heaven is real; to die a virgin is to have missed out on the brief foretaste that sex is meant to be of the eternal reality of the perfect union between Jesus and His church for ever. We need more celibates to benefit the whole church. Does your church celebrate singleness or only married people? Where are the parties equivalent to wedding anniversaries for the celibate?

Misstep 9 – suffering is to be avoided. Modern society – apart from where there is a clearly defined objective – is opposed to suffering. Yet Jesus embraced it on the cross, and we are called to do likewise. The crosses we bear should not be the niggles in life that we struggle with, but the chosen paths of denying ourselves. Yet it is to God’s glory and purpose – but it is seldom visible in our gospel presentations. Instead a struggle free Christianity is presented, and so it’s no surprise if SSA Christians, and others, don’t get that the struggle is normal. Although Shaw doesn’t mention it, the bible uses both the imagery of Christians as soldiers and athletes, and those are two groups for whom suffering in order to do their job is still understood in our culture.

Overall God uses suffering to accomplish his best, and if we could appreciate what it achieves, we’d be rejoicing and choosing it. And

‘any man who reaches heaven will find that what he has abandoned has not been lost; that the kernel of what he was seeking even in his most depraved moments will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in the High Countries’

(CS Lewis ‘The Great Divorce’)

Conclusion

Shaw’s book shows that the crisis over homosexual practice is a symptom of many years of failure by the church to preach true Christianity. The missteps occurred because the church absorbed the beliefs of the world without thought, and together they leave her unprepared for major challenges. The experience of my former church, where the 2014 suicide of a 14 year old girl because she assumed that the church and her family would not cope with her same sex attraction, led to its becoming an ‘inclusive’ church, abandoning its previous commitment to the traditional position. And yet its rapid transition once the suicide had occurred showed that the rot was already in place in what had a reputation as a Evangelical church. If your church isn’t talking about this issue regularly and visibly, then not only could such a suicide occur in your congregation, but your members’ response may well be as flawed. Yet too many churches prefer to avoid the issue as being ‘decisive’, and ‘endangering our commitment to evangelism’ because a label of ‘homophobic’ may come to be hung around their necks. Yet if we fail to address it – and the missteps that lead to the confusion over the issue – it is inevitable that more will be lost. We must do better.

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SCOTUS bans abortion – a liberal nightmare

In a radical development, the Supreme Court ruled that allowing the murder of children in the womb violated their right to life, and banned all abortions. Commentators summarised their ruling as: “It’s clear that fetuses are human persons, so why should they be discriminated against by allowing their mother to arrange for their murder” and “We don’t allow the police to shoot troublesome teenagers dead, so why should doctors get to rid the world of inconvenient babies?”

In a part of the ruling, the court made clear that any state that wished to allow abortion could, of course, do so if it was willing to repeal all legislation against murder on its books. However this applied only to premeditated murder; killing as a result of drunk driving or the reckless discharge of a weapon could still be outlawed. A flood of applications by mass murderers to be released was anticipated following the ruling.

Under deconstruction – a response

April’s Premier Christianity is an article, not available online, discussing ‘deconstructing your faith’, with extensive input from Dave Tomlinson, who has been propounding the same message under different labels – such as ‘Post Evangelicalism‘ – for many years. The fact that the outcome for many is an abandonment of significant elements of the Christian faith suggests to me that this is a fancy way to find an excuse to, like Eve, ignore what God has said in exchange for doing what you really want. Thus on the gay issue, the way of the world is to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ and not challenge the sin that is being endorsed; to the extent that people who’ve gone down this road end up adopting the world’s attitudes on an issue when it is in conflict with that of the faith, we can quickly conclude there’s something wrong.

However it’s helpful to identify three possible starting points from which people may have come to ‘deconstruction’ after a period in the church; in doing so I’m identifying three locations on what is, in practice, a spectrum, and it’s worth remembering that it’s only God who really knows what a person’s status before Him is.

  1. The unconverted. This is the person who’s ended up as a church attender despite never really having encountered God for themselves. Historically this would most likely be because they’ve grown up in the church, attended as a matter of duty but never really ‘got it’; today they’ve drifting into a social circle in which church attendance is normal, so they do it, and no doubt enjoy the show and the relationships it offers. For these people hard questions, where the world’s belief clash up hard against the church’s, are a problem; a reasoned excuse for picking the world’s way is very convenient

  2. The semi-converted. At some point there was a moment of engagement with God, and there was real spiritual life. Unfortunately the spiritual experience was not worked out in a full understanding of the ways of God and the ability to hear God for themselves on hard topics, or with the duty to go God’s way even when your friends in the world offer an alternative. So when push comes to shove, they’re easily persuaded by the ‘new’ idea.

  3. The genuinely converted who are looking for an excuse to apostatise. They’ve lived faithful lives of obedience to God for many years, but now an issue has come along, or finally has worn them down, that leaves them desperate to disobey what they know God is commanding them. So they grab at this as a way of pretending to themselves that they aren’t really disobeying King Jesus.

Of course this is an oversimplification, not least because none of us are ever fully converted! However it does provide guidance as to a pastoral response: if they’ve never been converted, then a very different conversation is necessary to the person who’s trying to talk themselves out of obedience. And the critical question is to know what the real issue is: the presenting excuse may well be a distraction from the temptation that is calling the person away from God.

The challenge is to help the person identify the real issue in their lives, and then enable them to engage with God on the topic honestly, bearing in mind the need, at times, to accept that we don’t understand, life is not always easy, and sometimes we, and others, are called to a hard path. Sometimes we have to choose to obey despite the desire to do otherwise: who are we, as God’s subjects, to do otherwise?

‘Offend’ – a serious KJV / NKJV fail

The KJV is a translation of the 17th century that uses language which does not mean the same today as it did then. A clear example of this is the word ‘offends’. Consider the KJV here:

“It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” Lk 17:2

The first verse demonstrates the KJV fail: we’re not talking about upsetting little Johnny because we are rude about him, it’s causing him to SIN. As the NIV makes clear:

“It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

The emphasis is in causing the new believer to sin, not doing something nasty to a child. And all modern translations follow this, except the NKJV which keeps the old, and misleading wording.

So why is this important? Consider this:

“Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.” Rom 14:19-22

To take a particular pastoral issue, and assuming teetotalism isn’t mandatory for Christians: if Mr and Mrs Pharisee, supposedly strong Christians, have decided that they shouldn’t drink alcohol, then fair enough. Not a problem. Yet if they quote this verse they can justify demanding that they shouldn’t be ‘offended’ by my drinking alcohol, and if we are to be ‘bible believing Christians’, we have to stop drinking alcohol. Yet if we understand that ‘offend’ here is about causing another to ‘stumble / be made weak’ as the other two parts of the verse is about, we realise that upsetting the Pharisees is not the issue, it’s about endangering another’s avoidance of sin. Modern translations tend to offer only a single word here (yes there are three in the Greek, and the multiplication of terms reflects the Hebrew psalms repetition).

‘it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble’ (RSV)

Yet once again the NKJV follows the KJV:

‘It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.’

Why is this important? Ultimately we should seek to avoid legalism (and licence) but rather seek to live as the Spirit guides us, as David Pawson argues clearly in his exposition of Galatians. Specifically such legalism and fear of being offended by being with non-Christians can lead us to appear to be ‘holier than thou’, in sharp contrast to Paul’s instruction that we should be in the world. Again the specific example is that of the unwillingness of some Christians to join their work colleagues down the pub because it’s where alcohol, which they rejected, is drunk. NOT good. Of course we have to be careful with people who do have an alcohol problem who might find it an issue for us to be drinking, but only if we know it’s an issue. The same applies to going to the cinema, dancing, and even TV watching, all of which have been condemned legalistically by some churches in the relatively recent past, yet surely cannot be condemned so simplistically.

The idea is that we have clear guidance from God for ourselves on any issue such as this – and then obey what He has commanded. Anything else falls short. Of course if the action IS sinful, then we’re in a different place. But otherwise: let’s be careful – and beware the snare of the KJV and the NKJV on this issue.

Cessationism – the belief that certain gifts seen in the New Testament aren’t around today.

For those of us bought up in charismatic circles, it comes as a surprise that there is a substantial group within the Evangelical church who believe that many of the gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in the New Testament aren’t to be expected today. This blog is an attempt to challenge the interpretation of the bible verses used to justify this belief, to offer some evidence from early church history, and give a possible reason why the view was adopted by some Protestants in the 16th century – although rejected by others. Note that I’m primarily interested in the gifts that reveal information – prophecy, wisdom and knowledge. And yes, there’s LOTS wrong with many of the churches that are open to these things; but that doesn’t prove the idea is flawed.

The Bible on this issue

There are two passages quoted on this topic:

Hebrews 1. This is quoted in the Westminster Confession to support its claim that ‘those former ways of Gods revealing his Will unto his people, being now ceased’. The verses say:

‘God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…’

There are two logical fallacies in claiming this as support of cessationism. The first is that the verse offers no statement that Jesus’ revelation of God replaces the other means of His ‘revealing his Will unto his people’. All the statement does is claim that this has occurred. Claiming that it does is pure eisgesis, and that’s bad. However the real incoherence is that the Letter to the Hebrews is written after Jesus has spoken to us, yet offers a word from God that is authoritative; so it’s claiming that this verse is revealing that God has stopped speaking by any means other than His Son yet is an example of God speaking by a means other than His Son.

1 Corinthians 13 is the favourite. This says:

‘Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.’

The contrast here is between three particular gifts that Paul has been discussing earlier: knowledge, prophecy and tongues, and the coming ‘perfect’ that will fulfil the role of those gifts. The claim is that the bible is the perfect, and will fulfil their role. This won’t work.

Firstly, it’s interesting to look at the word translated ‘perfect’. It’s mainly used in the New Testament of people, and is NEVER applied (unambiguously) to Jesus. On the whole it’s used of the state to which Christians should aspire: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (KJV) though the NKJV makes it a statement: ‘Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ Paul uses it earlier in I Corinthians (cpt 2) for people ‘However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature’. Similarly in Philippians 3: ‘Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind’. Similar usages can be found in James 1, and I John 4 uses it of ‘mature’ love. So we have perhaps three hypotheses as to what is meant by ‘the perfect coming’: Jesus’ return, the completion of the scriptures, or the arrival of the New Heavens and New Earth.

So let’s look at the three gifts that we are told are to disappear when the ‘perfect’ comes. The purpose of tongues is to edify; if done with interpretation, it will edify the whole church. If just on your own, it will edify yourself (1 Corinthians 14). Having a complete bible doesn’t negate that effect of having the gift of tongues. The purpose of prophecy is that ‘all may learn and all may be encouraged’ and that ‘if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.’ Does reading the scriptures achieve that in a way that wasn’t achieved by the Hebrew bible available to the Apostolic church. The other role of prophecy is to warn: in Acts 11 Agabus warns of an impending famine and this story of God warning the Armenians in the 19th century of their need to leave for the west coast of the USA is amazing. That’s not done by the bible. If we refuse to accept these gifts, we are missing out.

Church History

This is a little explored source in this debate. Here are three texts that offer some insight.

Firstly, the Didache. This is generally reckoned to be the earliest non canonical Christian writing, although it can be dated as late as 120AD. It gives instructions how a local church is to treat a wandering prophet who comes visiting (with scepticism but open to the possibility that he is for real). The implication is that prophets were still around – though you can date it so early as to be before the closure of the New Testament, so allowing the ‘it’s only till the bible is complete’ argument.

The second is an argument that Justin Martyr, who is well into the second century, offers in his debate with a Jew called Trypho. In this he asserts: ‘For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time’. Given this is long after the last New Testament book is written, it shows that the experience of the church was to still have prophets; there was no concept that they had ceased.

The third is a more problematic source, the Apostolic Constitutions, which is usually dated to the third or fourth century. The eighth part of this is a text on the Charismata, which may be a copy of an earlier text on the issue. This includes tongues and prophecy, which addresses specific pastoral issues raised by some people’s self exultation because they have the gift. However it offers the comment: ‘if it happens that there be no longer an unbeliever, all the power of signs will thenceforwards be superfluous‘. Again no hint that the completion of the bible renders the gifts unnecessary.

More broadly, the Montanist ‘revival’ / ‘heresy’ which occurred at the end of the 2nd century, saw the use of the prophetic gift on a significant scale – but in a way that bought its use into disrepute. What is of interest here is that a Pope did briefly endorse them, despite later withdrawing his support. The implication of that, and that no author sought to dismiss the ‘prophecies’ on the grounds that prophecy was no longer around, is that no one then believed in cessationism. IT’S A MODERN IDEA.

The Reformation

Calvin offers no support to cessationism; instead in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13 he opines:

‘Knowledge and prophecy, therefore, have place among us so long as that imperfection cleaves to us, to which they are helps…. “Perfection,” says he, “when it will arrive, will put an end to everything that aids imperfection.” But when will that perfection come? It begins, indeed, at death, for then we put off, along with the body, many infirmities; but it will not be completely manifested until the day of judgment, as we shall hear presently. Hence we infer, that the whole of this discussion is ignorantly applied to the time that is intermediate.’

Though to be fair he muddies the waters with his comments on Hebrews 1 where he argues:

‘And when he speaks of the last times, he intimates that there is no longer any reason to expect any new revelation; for it was not a word in part that Christ brought, but the final conclusion…. What else indeed is the whole system of Popery but the overleaping of the boundary which the Apostle has fixed?’ However in the Institutes he argues:

‘In this way, the renewal of the saints is accomplished, and the body of Christ is edified; in this way we grow up in all things unto Him who is the Head, and unite with one another; in this way we are all brought into the unity of Christ, provided prophecy flourishes among us, provided we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine which is administered to us. (Bk 4,cpt 3, paragraph 2).

However less than 100 years later the Westminster Confession trots out its unjustified claims about end of the gifts! No doubt they would want to interpret the above as being about ‘inspired preaching’ rather than a gift bringing additional information from God. But why do they argue as they do? I suspect, though I’ve not got proof, that it was an attempt to reject the claims of the Papacy that they were the true church. Although the focus is on prophecy, it’s probably miracles that were causing them the real problem: Rome was producing, and does to this day, offer a flow of well attested miracles and healings. ‘Where are your evidences that God is with you?’ is a question that STINGS. So the unwise response that they chose is to argue that all Rome’s miracles are deceptions of the demons, because we shouldn’t expect such miracles today. At all.

Conclusion

The belief that the ‘spectacular’ gifts of the Spirit are not for today is clearly flawed, and we need to be open to them. That seems clear. However Paul’s instruction is more than that: ‘earnestly desire the best gifts’ and ‘[t]herefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy’ (1 Cor 12, 14). It’s not good enough to merely ‘be open’ to them, we should be actively seeking God for them. Paul’s hope is that:

‘But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.’

For some reason this isn’t how we do evangelism today; I can’t imagine why…

Samuel was a Levite!

One of the irritating details about the story of Samuel is that he does the work of a priest despite not being of the line of Levi according to the NIV, which gives us for his father, Elkanah’s ancestry:

‘the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.’

However the ESV gives us:

‘the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite.’

Digging deeper produces this verse from 1 Chronicles 6 gives

‘These are the men David put in charge of the music in the house of the Lord after the ark came to rest there.… These are the men who served and their sons. Of the sons of the Kohathites: Heman the singer the son of Joel, son of Samuel, son of Elkanah, son of Jeroham, son of Eliel, son of Toah, son of Zuph, son of Elkanah, son of Mahath, son of Amasai, son of Elkanah, son of Joel, son of Azariah, son of Zephaniah, son of Tahath, son of Assir, son of Ebiasaph, son of Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, son of Israel.’

This makes perfect sense: the Levites were spread around the country rather than having their own territory. And it gives Samuel the right to serve in the temple, though not being a descendant of Aaron, he’s not a priest. Yet a major plot development of the story of Samuel is Saul’s presuming to do a sacrifice when he should have waited for Samuel at Gilgal (I Samuel 13). So whilst this moves the issue forward: Samuel is a Levite – it doesn’t crack it completely.

It does however raise a different issue. What is an Ephrathite? It’s a status which Elkanah shares with Elimelech and Naomi (Ruth 1). Digging around further shows that Ephrath is the name of Bethlehem is Genesis (cpt 35, 48); it turns up again in Micah 5 as an alternative name for Bethlehem:

‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.’

We can therefore assume that Elkanah’s family came from Bethlehem at some point to live up in Ephraim, though we don’t know why. The NIV use of Ephraimite seems flawed since elsewhere the term is purely used for members of the half-tribe of Ephraim, which Elkanah certainly wasn’t.

It’s also worth noting that David choose to appoint the grandson of Samuel to the role that his status as a Levite gave him despite the failure of the sons of Samuel in ‘not following in his ways’. 1 Samuel 8.

Homeopathy: of scientism fundamentalism, fake news, the placebo effect and the true care of the suffering.

Until November 2017 the NHS for some is that it continued to pay for homeopathic treatments. This was a running sore for some. Unpacking the whys of the story raises some very hard questions which show up how simplistic applications of ethical rules can get us into a conundrum.

Modern homeopathy emerges in the late 18th century, though can claim some similarity to ideas in Classical Greek medicine. The core concept was that ‘like cures like’ – a chemical that causes the same symptoms as the disease will enable healing, the concentration offered being very very low. Modern critics reject this idea, and also point out that the dilution of the chemicals being used in homeopathic remedies is so low that often there will be no molecule of the agent in the water being offered. Whilst homeopaths offer a response that the water has a memory, the real criticism of homeopathy is that the best clinical trials show that it is no more effective than a placebo. Which is where the fun begins.

The placebo effect is widely recognised – and largely mysterious. However it is real in the sense of resulting in people becoming cured, or at least experiencing reduced symptoms, of illnesses, as a result of receiving treatments that have no known therapeutic effect. In testing homeopathic remedies, modern clinical trials will have compared their effectiveness against a placebo, so their outcome is NOT that ‘homeopathy has no useful effect’. Instead the conclusion can be stated as ‘it offers a way for a placebo effect to be activated in patients’. So what do we do with this fact?

Scientism fundamentalism argues that because we don’t know how the placebo effect works, we need to resist the temptation to use it. Ultimately this falls apart; we didn’t know how penicillin worked for many years, but we still used it, in massive quantities, to cure many previously untreatable patients. So that won’t do.

The honest statement is perhaps: ‘This treatment I’m recommending seems to help some people with your condition, so I suggest you accept it’. What is striking here is that that is precisely the same statement as can be taken as underlying any treatment proposed by a doctor today. Whilst modern drugs are usually effective, in some cases they fail, and sometimes spectacularly. The record of drugs and depression is especially fraught. So it’s possible to conclude that homeopathy offers cures to some people, so where the harm? But now the issue of ‘fake news’ emerges.

What we do seem to know about placebos is that they work because the person, at some level, believes that they will help; they trust the source. In that context, the sceptic’s view is that all the rigmarole of the homeopathic consultation is a way to induce increased credulity, which will enable the person to heal themselves because they believe the medicine will. Yet if the person offering the treatment is a true believer despite the scientific evidence that it doesn’t ‘work’, then their belief constitutes ‘fake news’ in which the patient is being encouraged to trust a lie. A test of ‘truth’ that boils down to ‘because it will be good for you personally or for others’ is surely problematic, though probably more common than we should be comfortable with. And we are facing real suffering that may be relieved by the placebo effect.

Let’s look again at the implied statement underlying all doctoring: ‘This treatment I’m recommending seems to help some people with your condition, so I suggest you accept it’. It’s the sort of mealy mouthed statement usually associated with a politician who want to give a positive spin to their policy proposals, especially when they know that it’s the decision of their party that they’re not really comfortable with, but accept as the price of remaining part of the party. Of course sometimes the doctor will be clear about precisely why he believes the treatment should work, and sometimes a politician will be clear about why his policy proposal should work. It’s clear that politicians’ use of this sort of language is problematic. Should we be more willing to give doctors freedom to use their status in such a way as to achieve cures at the expense of strict ethics? Placebos work. People get better. Homeopathy as a system is a deception, yet people get better. And somewhere in the background is the provisional nature of all scientific claims; yes, your doctor may have been taught that medicine X works by mechanism Y to achieve a good outcome. Later research showed that it actually worked by mechanism Z – but does the job. Does that matter? Clearly not.

Overall I am disappointed that the NHS no longer offers homeopathic treatments; for some people they offered cures which weren’t happening otherwise. And yet to encourage belief in what you yourself believe to be false is problematic. And in an era of fake news, seeing doctors behaving like evil politicians is surely unhelpful. But then I’m not suffering from a disease which is otherwise incurable and for which homeopathy offers hope.

PS – to be clear: I’m not endorsing any alternative medicine, including homeopathy, instead of conventional medicine entirely. Instead I’m seeking to discuss how to cope when conventional medicine is going nowhere for a person.