Category Archives: theology

Enough already: you’ve had 40 years!

It is one of my fantasies to hear the following on an interview programme:

“Interviewer: Good morning bishop. I understand you want to talk to us about this report that you are calling a ‘prophetic call to the nation’ on this important issue. First however, I must ask you to clarify something. What is the view of the church on gay sexual relationships?

Bishop: I’m sorry, the church hasn’t got a united view, so I can’t really comment.

Interviewer: So you ask us to accept this report as prophetic, but you are unable to discern the will of God after 40 years on the gay issue. Clearly therefore the report has no credibility – so I won’t ask listeners to waste any of their time on it. You can go now, bishop.”

Whilst the quote: ‘The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed’ is Milton, not biblical, the thought reflects Zechariah and Ezekiel concern for the uncared people of Israel. And so it is now; the bishops of the Church of England are divided on this issue, so prefer to kick the can down the road than admit they have no ability to make a decision. For how would they decide? They have no agreed basis of authority: they have nothing to which they can appeal that they would admit is the basis on which to make the decision. So they duck and dive – and look ridiculous.

And the implication that a non-Christian can rightly draw is: ‘They don’t know what God says about this, so how can they be confident of ANYTHING?’

A biblical insight

In one passage Jesus commands:

‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.’ (Matthew 23)

In another Jesus appears to contradict his own teaching by refusing to do what they say:

‘Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?”

But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?”

And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.”

And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”’ Matthew 21

The conclusion that we can draw from this is that if our leaders are unwilling to answer a clear question about what they believe is of God, then they have resigned their authority over us, and we have every right to ignore those who fail this test.


The Cape Town drought and the primary lesson of Sodom

One of the arguments which the church has largely stopped even trying to defend is the claim that God actively judges nations today. This is a common-place of the Old Testament: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is the most blatant example of this, and it is a passing theme in all the major prophets. Amos (cpt 1) starts with a series of judgements of the nations surrounding before bringing his focus onto Israel; a softening up exercise, but one recording God’s condemnation, and plans to punish, gentile nations; it is ironic that many liberal Christians love to quote Amos about social injustice, but would be very twitchy at engaging with the idea that God actually does do judgement.

At first sight the New Testament is less clear on the issue; it’s worth remember though that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD is foretold as a punishment for the Jews’ rejection of Israel. The book of Revelation presents the judgements on the world as an attempt by God to get their attention; the refrain is ‘they did not repent despite these punishments.

On the whole modern Christianity is allergic to the suggestion. In part this derives from bad theology: ‘how can a God of love bring active destruction on those He loves?’ – a question which the Old Testament struggles with and yet ultimately has no doubts about (e.g. Hosea 11). And it is better for people to hurt now than to end up permanently separated from God. However the bigger problem is that naturalistic explanations of the events that the bible describes as the judgements of God make it problematic to ascribe them to God: the earthquake / drought / invasion happened because of processes that we now understand so it can’t have been God’s work. This is, of course, to miss the way that God works through natural effects, as well as dismissing the ‘butterfly effect’ that means that a minimal intervention by God may have caused these events without it being visible to the outside observer.

The effect however is clear: suggest that a specific event is God’s judgement and you will be laughed at. So we don’t try. Of course part of the problem is that when you turn up AFTER the event and announce that it was God saying something, you have minimal credibility and will be seen as merely trying to pursue your particular agenda; add in a propensity to try and interpret the event as part of an eschatology and you’ve totally lost it.

Biblically the perfect example of the opposite is Elijah’s announcing the drought beforehand, and ending it when the people had changed. Modern attempts are generally unsatisfactory: David Wilkerson’s ‘The Vision’ is a mixed bag, Clifford Hill’s ‘Towards the Dawn’ and ‘The Day comes’ lack specific statements, and what was specific is now painfully long in the tooth, whilst David Pawson’s prediction that the UK will become an Islamic state, whilst still on track, is hard to focus on. Perhaps the biggest problem for the pessimistic prophets is that on the whole things are getting significantly better; internationally poverty is falling rapidly, and in the UK crime levels have declined steeply and in general there have been few major disasters.

Which brings us to the present drought in Cape Town. Amos seems to be unambiguous:

If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?….

I also withheld rain from you,
When there were still three months to the harvest.
I made it rain on one city,
I withheld rain from another city.
One part was rained upon,
And where it did not rain the part withered.
So two or three cities wandered to another city to drink water,
But they were not satisfied;
Yet you have not returned to Me,”
Says the Lord.

Amos cpt 3, 4.

On the basis of that, are we justified in following the atheist assumption that the Cape Town situation is just coincidence, or is God trying to get their attention? Is it easier for us to avoid discussion of the truth that God CAN intervene in this way because it can make other arguments about God harder to sustain – or should we be willing to take the hit because people have a right to know? James 3 warns us: ‘let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.’ And note of course that the Cape Town situation DOESN’T imply that they are any worse sinners, given Luke 13’s warning on that.

So where do we go on this? It appears there is a substantial hole in the ministry of the church in warning the world of the judgements that God is proposing to bring:

‘Surely the Lord God does nothing,

Unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets.’

Amos 3

Of course we’ve had this hole so long that we don’t know what we are missing, but as the passage in Ezekiel about the watchman that is usually applied to evangelism reminds us: if we fail to warn people and they die in their sins, then God will require their blood of us. (Ezekiel 33).

Ultimately we need to hear from the Lord so that with Amos we can say:

A lion has roared!
Who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken!
Who can but prophesy?

Amos 3

May God provide us with the prophets that we need to see the church healthy and the world rightly warned.

Verses I’ve never seen before (4)

“Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” John 8:47

This is a call to listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit; if a person is not responding to the clear word of God, then that person is not ready to be evangelised, and we would do better to walk away than gain a reputation for ‘bible bashing’. Note the use of ‘words’; as a paid up charismatic who strongly believes that God does speak through means other than the bible, this refusal to use ‘Word of God’, allowing the verse to be interpreted as either referring purely to Jesus or to the scriptures, is helpful. Of course that doesn’t mean I don’t expect God to speak through the bible; anyone who gives up reading it regularly is unwise. And of course – since there is so much deception out there – we need to reject the logically incorrect but attractive interpretation: lots of Christians have accepted this teaching so it must be true. However the verse DOES provide a basis for the Catholic doctrine of ‘reception’ that sees the rejection of an idea by the people of God as a reason to reject it.

This paraphrase from the Passion Translation – a new kid on the block – is illuminating:

“If you really knew God, you would listen, receive, and respond with faith to his words. But since you don’t listen and respond to what he says, it proves you don’t belong to him and you have no room for him in your hearts.”

But remember they CAN’T hear; shouting more loudly isn’t helpful…

Tactics in the culture wars…

William Booth complained that the Devil had all the best tunes – and promptly wrote Christian lyrics for some. At present those of us opposed to the pro-gay agenda which is so prevalent in many churches are faced with the ‘Inclusive church’ tag, which leaves us appearing otherwise. We must do better. ‘Inclusive church’ is a great tag, and when the gay agenda is appended to other, wholly uncontroversial inclusions such as disabled people, the tag become hard to resist. Yet resist we must; so the adoption of a suitable alternative tag could be helpful.

Four possible contenders spring to mind:

1) ‘Confessing church’ was the label adopted by the resisters to Hitler in the German Lutheran church. To adopt this would be surely be a step too far; we are not yet facing substantial persecution, and the evil of our society is less blatant, though the number of abortions does point to a similar scale of destruction; let us respect Godwin’s law and avoid parallels with the Nazis.

2) ‘Faithful church’. This picks up the phrase from Jude where we are told to ‘contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’. ‘Faith’ is a positive buzz word – even though in practice it implies no actual content; Prince Charles’ ambition to be ‘Defender of Faith’ exemplifies this. Sadly therefore the tag would probably be too easily adopted and therefore subverted by our opponents.

3) ‘Obedient church’. This perhaps goes to the heart of the debate; are we being obedient to what God has said, or are we seeking to bend the word of God to allow ourselves to do what we want? Sadly of course prioritising obedience is an emphasis that fits badly with much church ideology today; whilst this might be a barrier, it’s perhaps one that we should welcome. And of course much of the motivation for the LGBT person who chooses a celibate lifestyle is obedience, so we would be implicitly celebrating that choice.

4) ‘Loving church’. If we believe that having gay sex is inherently sinful – as is all fornication – then the loving thing to do is to be up front about it and challenge it. It may also generate questions about what we mean, in a way that the others probably wouldn’t. It would also act as a challenge: beyond the gay issue are we, as a church, worthy of the title ‘loving church’. Given that part of the experience of gay, single, people in many churches is that the church is NOT loving, it’s a challenge which church members may need to hear. Sadly however the way in which ‘love = sex’ is so standard in our society, the term may be unhelpful.

There are no easy solutions therefore – but it’s an issue that is worth consideration; having a ‘flag’ around which the opponents of the gay deception can rally, given the way in which the church is losing the battle, may be helpful. I suspect ‘obedient church’ is the right choice, but it would be good to at least see the conversation starting.

Verses I’ve never seen before (3)

 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1)

Paul describes his ministry as being to bring about OBEDIENCE. Not just reconciliation to God, forgiveness of sin, the establishment of the church, but obedience. We don’t do a lot of preaching towards that; when one hears a preacher describing God as ‘desperate’ that we should accept Him. I suspect he’s lost the plot. Jesus’ preaching starts with a call to repentance, and it’s a word that is found throughout the New Testament. We are called to become citizens of God’s kingdom, which implies obeying His laws. Not a popular message, but whatever else the reformation is about, it’s about doing what the bible teaches, not what is fashionable.

Note of course this is NOT a call to moral perfection for the sake of it; it is the obedience that derives from faith because God is worth obeying because of what He has done for us, not merely because He is the ruler of the universe.

Verses I’ve never seen before (2)

Beloved, it is a loyal thing you do when you render any service to the brethren, especially to strangers,  who have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey as befits God’s service. For they have set out for his sake and have accepted nothing from the heathen. So we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow workers in the truth.” (3 John)

This is an interesting passage, indicating that the writer thought that accepting nothing from the heathen is a good thing, and that such self-denial should encourage us to be generous towards such. The issue of seeking support for ‘ministry’ from outside the church is one that we don’t often think through. Modern examples include accepting money for the repair of our buildings from the government – or just the local community – as well as the mess that the Salvation Army has got into with its fundraising, where the line between ‘evangelism’ and ‘social action’ has become totally blurred.

As the secular West becomes ever less tolerant of Christianity’s traditional teaching on many topics, it will become more problematic to become dependent on secular sources of funding for our good works. This is an area we need to think about clearly, recognising the issues.

Verses I’ve never seen before (1)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. (Eph 6)

In this new series I want to look at some verses I’ve stumbled across in the New Testament recently that have tied up some important loose ends in my understanding of how God expects us to live. As I’ve said in my post about slavery, we are too willing to agree with the world in accepting that the bible is wrong about slavery. However this verse adds a further dimension: as well as being required to suffer as slaves, they are also promised to ‘receive the same again from the Lord’ when they ‘render service with enthusiasm’. In the context of the Christian faith, where our hope is primarily focused on our eternal home, where true justice will reign, it becomes reasonable to refuse to obsess about the issue. If this life is all that there is, then to be enslaved is a horrible fate. If however it is merely an infinitely small preface to our eternal life with God, when ‘He will wipe away every tear’, then it’s not an issue of the most overwhelming importance that we can sometimes be led to believe that it is; ultimately evangelism – offering people forgiveness of their sins and so an escape from the wrath that they deserve – is more important than releasing people from temporal slavery.

But note: God promises reward for faithful service. It’s not just a matter of surviving the bad, but slaves can look forward to positive consequences from service to their earthly masters in the next world. This is also a reminder that our faithful service to our worldly employers – which is sometimes described as ‘wage slavery’ – is also rewarded, it’s not purely wasted the time we put in at our desk at work, but can be a means of earning reward from God.

Of course this is not intended to downplay the horrors of slavery. It is a serious wrong, and we do well to see it as evil in our modern society. But this context allows us to justify a refusal to be wholly focused on it at the expense of all other forms of Christian service. We must live our lives by God’s standards; these are not the same as the world’s, and if we become conformed to the world’s entirely, we lost our perspective as Christians.