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Verses that don’t say what you think they say (4)

Solus Christus, Baby! By Christ Alone! - DatPostmil

TRUE!

But Christianity’s claims are not as simply exclusive as we tend to think. Consider these verses:

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. Jn 6:44

“Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” Jn 6:55

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.  Jn 14:6

but also:

And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. Jn 10:16

So the claim is that Jesus is the only means by which a person can approach God.  That’s what Christianity proclaims, but its doctrine is complex. Given that the OT has many examples of people who are engaging with God without knowledge of Jesus, a fuller understanding sees Jesus as the one who opens the way, enabling people to enter as a result of His death at Calvary; as a result I am very confident I will be surprised by who is up there with us.

However that NEVER allows the church not to proclaim the grace and mercy of God as the way to find Him; if non-Christians don’t respond to that message, it is LIKELY, though not certain, that they won’t make it, and such a proclamation will gather some who hadn’t got the message via their own religion. To the extent a church fails to endorse active evangelism of non-Christians of any sort, to that extent it is being unfaithful to God. Which is not, of course, to endorse crass, confrontational, and ineffective evangelism. But all must be actively called by Christians to discover Jesus for themselves.

Part of the problem that in this multi-faith world it is FAR more comfortable to avoid issuing such challenges to those outside the faith. Of course they’ll be fine when they stand before the judgement seat of Jesus. They’ve lived good lives. They’ve inspired many. Such is a gospel of works – and is well short of the Christian message of all needing grace.

 

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When the bible bites back…

One of the advantages of reading the bible straight through is that you get to see the passages that are usually ignored by preachers. This has been been my experience in the last few days looking at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians; there are some verses in them that I’m sure I’ve never seen…

On church authority

1 Thess 5:12 in most versions is something like:

But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you NRSV

This is followed by v 27

I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. (NRSV)

So what we see here is a strong endorsement of clear church authority in the earliest days of the Gentile church; 1 Thessalonians is dated very early. In our individualistic membership of the church today we need to respect our leaders and take their authority more seriously; wandering around between churches for no good reason is deeply flawed.

On love for the brethren

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.’ (2 Thess 1)

It is extraordinary to my mind that Paul rates the growth of the love between the brethren as being as important as their faith growing more and more. And it’s a perspective that many of us who roll up to church once a week, or even maybe get along to a housegroup once a week as well will find challenging; our relationships in the body should be growing lots – and on that test we (I) fail spectacularly.

We (I) need to do better…

No – that passage in 2 Chr 7 doesn’t mean what you have been told it means!

Just repent before God and He will heal Britain…

You’ve heard the second verse here repeated to justify the expectation that God will heal the place we live in. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the verse doesn’t promise that.

The whole context is:

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 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 forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

So the promise is only valid when there is demonstrably a plague on the land.

But more crucially is the question: ‘What is the land’ for the church? A strict reading of the NT would suggest heaven – as we are exiles and ambassadors of God. An alternative might be the church as a whole. But to apply it to the country we are living in simply won’t fly.  The idea appears to have emerged from our American brethren, and may be part of the traditional belief in some US circles that America has a special place in God’s heart.

Of course the eisgesis is pointing to a truth; if people in a country become Christians and seriously live out their faith, then that country will end up benefiting enormously. But that’s not how this story is presented: it suggests that if we, as Christians, pray visibly then God will change the way the pagans of the land get on. Nice idea. It’s just a shame it’s not justified biblically.

What is important about this is what it tells us about:

  1. The quality of ‘theology’ that is being spouted from the front by our preachers. If someone preaches this, they’ve clearly not engaged with the text for themselves. If they aren’t doing that on this passage, where else have they failed to test what they have been taught against scripture.
  2. The agenda of many in Christian circles whose focus is on improving the quality of life experienced in this world by everyone rather than seeking to evangelise people. Evangelism is frustrating, hard, work. Focusing on improved housing, better health care, and ‘being nice to the neighbours’ is less fun. And yet, as Terry Pratchett expresses it (as a non-believer looking in on the church:

‘Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched them like a father and cared for them like a mother… well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs”. You wouldn’t find me just being ge’rally nice in the hope that it would turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgiving sword. And I did say burnin’ Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that people don’t burn folks anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathing the soul of it. THAT’S religion. Anything else… is just being nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbours.’

From Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett London: Corgi 1999 p.349

Are we anywhere close to living out that vision?

Reflecting on the Google blow up

The reality is that it is a powerful means to political power to tell those who fail in an endeavour that it’s not because they lack talent, but it’s because they are being disadvantaged by ‘the system’. Absolom builds his rebellion against King David in the bible on exactly that basis. Because there clearly HAS been irrational discrimination against certain groups, there has come a shift in our modern society to assume that all occasions where the outcome is not reflective of proportions in wider society are as a result of such discrimination. It then becomes possible to build a political career on arguing that the historically dominant are now being subject to the same sorts of discrimination…

Add in ideologically driven beliefs held with religious levels of intensity that there are no real differences between certain groups, mix in some uncertain science, and you have the recipe that leads to the present explosions.

This article in the Economist records the present outcome for entrants to Harvard for different ethnic groups in terms of the SATS score required to get in. Is is really legitimate to discriminate so strongly against Asians?

https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21725823-time-lawsuit-concluded-there-could-well-be-conservative-majority

We are in a mess. We don’t have the knowledge to be certain of what are or are not legitimate outcomes. The massive overrepresentation of men in the prison population, for example, is seldom discussed; on a strict SJW argument, this could be interpreted as evidence of discrimination against men by law enforcement…

Overall, I suspect we need to resist too much certainty, especially if it is shaped by our own experiences. Whatever else we need to do is to be willing to LISTEN to well reasoned arguments; if we merely shout down those whose conclusions challenge our beliefs without engaging with the basis for their arguments, we provide the basis for such beliefs coming back to haunt us when those marginalised by establishment’s deafness win elections. Brexit and Trump are a result of that mistake; we need to do better.

Responding to being called a ‘bigot’.

In the course of a Facebook discussion recently, I was described as a ‘bigot’. This prompted me to work through the use of the term, as well as to address the underlying division on the gay issue that is energising this debate. Much of the problem with the debate is that the participants are often coming from radically different presuppositions, and then clash in a public forum with an exchange of emotionally charged diatribes based on those rather than understanding why their opponent is coming up with something that they find unacceptable. The gay debate is thus a dispute between those who accept the traditional moral formulations of Western Society based on something over 1000 years of Christian influence against those offering an alternative derived from a mixture of utilitarianism, a Romantic over valuation of the role of ‘being in love’ and hedonism. I would tend to argue that the mix is incoherent, resulting in a selfishness worthy of Ayn Rand in its willingness to accept children being sacrificed to the pleasures of adults in both abortion and legitimating divorce amongst other negative features.

However this is not the place to discuss this; my point is well highlighted by this quote from Thomas Aquinas: ‘the theologian considers sin mainly as an offence against God. The moral philosopher as contrary to reasonableness’. As a Christian, I am concerned with the former definition of sin; if it is ‘unreasonable’ to the present culture, that is as likely to be because present culture is wrong as it is because Christianity is wrong.

The gay issue’s resonances in the church have demonstrated the degree to which large chunks of the church are no longer capable of coherent discussion about what they believe. Dairmad MacCulloch’s conclusion that ‘despite much well-intentioned fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity’, reflects my understanding. However as a church historian my view was massively strengthened by the claim at the time of the pro-gay marriage discussions that ‘the Roman Empire had gay marriages’. This seems to be true; the passage in the Codex Theodosius – the codification of the laws of the Empire in the 5th century – seems to indicate that they were banned by a Christian Emperor in the late 4th century. However the implication of this is that gay relationships – as we understand them – WERE known about at the time of the writing of the New Testament, bringing crashing down the claim that they weren’t, and that the homosexual practice that is being condemned in it was only pederastic.

However such an argument is a minor detail compared with the traditional arguments of Christianity in opposing homosexual practice; a full discussion is offered in ‘The Plausibility Problem’ by Ed Shaw, himself a gay Christian seeking to live a celibate life. This identifies no less than nine ‘missteps’ that Christians must make to distort their theology to legitimate homosexual practice. The website Living out website offers the personal experience of Ed and a number of others who hold that position, including at least one who has explicitly rejected long term gay relationships as a result of becoming a Christian. Note of course the repeated emphasis on PRACTICE; the rejection by many ‘Christians’ of it being possible to be gay – i.e. attracted sexually to a person of the same gender – and Christian is an appalling scandal within the church.

Bigot

After this preparation we can perhaps address the specifics that started this conversation! Of being a bigot, I feel an irregular verb coming on:

I express clear views

You are somewhat controversial in your beliefs

She is a bigot

Ultimately bigot is a boo word – indicating your emotional rejection of a view. It offers nothing useful to a serious debate, and its use should be as unacceptable as the use of racial and homophobic epithets, which ultimately are similar expressions of emotional rejection! (I spent a few moments trying to produce an appropriate, easy, riposte to ‘bigot’. ‘Libertine’ and ‘Hedonist’ are inadequate, and ‘spawn of Satan’ and ‘spiritually blind’, though both were used by Jesus, lack the necessary resonances in our society. I suspect that ‘fool’ is the right answer, as in ‘the fool has said in their heart “There is no god”‘. However I suspect it is as unhelpful to resort to such labelling, so will try and resist its use, as I do that of bigot.)

Homosexuality as disability.

The adoption of the ‘social model of disability’ is based on a relativistic engagement with the world that denies that there are any legitimate norms. This is, of course, a wholesale rejection of the Christian worldview that claims that the world was created good, and that people whose conditions make them less able to participate in the world as it is are the victims of the Fall’s release of illness into the world. Specifically, given that gay people are unable to have children without a medical intervention, they are ill in the same way that a person whose fertility has been destroyed by a physical disease. Defining such misfortunes as not being a ‘disability’ is coherent but is ideologically driven.

However demanding the adoption of this ideology constitutes an imposition of a particular worldview in a way that is wholly inconsistent with living in a liberal society. The increasing deprecation of other world views as unacceptable would appear to be the prelude to the end of freedom of speech as we know it. A Catholic bishop has said: ‘I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.’ That final sentence may sound arrogant – however if we are right in our beliefs then it is the inevitable cognate – or at least should be. Of course if we are wrong, then ‘we are of all people most to be pitied’.

The wider biblical context

As Christians we have a duty to make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ To the extent we fail to resist a direct challenge to God’s view, to that extent we are failing short of true love for the individual who we have deprived of the truth. OTOH to gratuitously confront with the ‘truth’ when there is no real need to do so is throwing pearls to pigs, and. ‘If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces’, a warning we probably need to take more seriously. To the extent there is doubt about where I stand on the issue, it may be appropriate for me to say something. Given that people have heard that the church is divided about it, they know that there are some who are opposed. Identifying myself as one of those MAY put a human face on what is otherwise dismissed as homophobia, or may merely disrupt an otherwise healthy friendship. Ultimately God wants to people to find His grace and come to Him in repentance. In the interim we should be seeking to truly love our non-Christian friends; this may include challenging the lies they live by – or it may, on any particular occasion, not. As ever we need God’s wisdom at the time by His Spirit.

Abraham and the instruction to sacrifice Isaac.

I got asked about this story today on Facebook and after 1000 words fell out of my keyboard on the subject, I thought I would publish them here as well.

Challenging question. Clearly the idea that God today would order such a sacrifice is appalling, and so there’s a big problem here. There’s an interesting passage in Hebrews 11 that refers to this, and for me it helps makes sense of it:

17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ 19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

So the point here seems to be that Abraham, having seen God do amazing things with him in the past and knowing that God was going to use Isaac as the means to give him descendants, is confident that God will pick up the pieces – that the sacrifice isn’t going to result in his being deprived of Isaac permanently. It is thus by way of the ultimate test of Abraham’s trust in God: is he prepared to obey what he believes God to be saying however hard that is.

Much of the problem with the religion that we see most of the time is that it not expecting God to turn up. The Catholic tradition has this most blatantly; yes, that wafer IS God. Yes I know you can’t see it, but it is, honest. The Reformation Protestant tradition focuses on the bible: hear it read and you are hearing from God – even when it makes no sense. Modern Pentecostalism – as seen in a wide variety of churches today – presents the ‘worship experience’ as engagement with God; the fact that the experience is remarkably similar to that going on in the average rock concert is an embarrassing detail they’d prefer to ignore.

But just sometimes God does break through all the ‘noise’; whether that’s the smells and bells, preaching or literal noise of worship songs and speaks. That’s when a real encounter with God has happened – and it can be life changing. And of course sometimes we get it wrong; we misheard – it wasn’t God but some powerful personality bullying us into thinking it was.

One of the many challenges of the New Testament is how Jesus AND the disciples in Acts are shown as performing miracles ‘on demand’. They know what is going to happen, and it happens. This story from Acts 3 is an example:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.

This appears to be the ideal; hear God, speak it out and God does the work. Most of the stories in the bible are occasions when this works out, though there are hints that at times things do go wrong; following the story of Paul’s return to Jerusalem before he is finally arrested shows ‘prophets’ telling him he’s going to be arrested – and concluding that therefore he should go to Jerusalem. He’s convinced it’s the right thing to do – despite the warnings. Interesting!

So – back to Abraham. He’s heard God promise Isaac will the means of his having descendants – and now he’s told to sacrifice him. One of the frustrations of the story is that we don’t know HOW God told him to do the sacrifice; there’s no description of an angel turning up or anything obvious. Yet Abraham goes ahead and does it – and it works out. At the risk of offering a cop out here, that’s a good test; if someone says ‘I’ve heard X from God’, it’s great practice to see what happens in the medium term. In my own life I was convinced God wanted me to buy the flat next to the one I live in. It was up for sale at the bottom of the post credit crash slump. I really really didn’t want the hassle, but the idea didn’t go away. So I asked God for the price to offer – and offered that and ended up with the flat. It has subsequently proved to be a great investment. Can I ‘prove’ God spoke to me? Of course not. But the outcome suggests that I got it right.

So we have Abraham hearing God tell him to do something outrageous. This isn’t flat buying territory; it’s killing HIS ONLY SON. Yet God has told him that that Isaac will give him grandchildren etc. So he concludes he’s got to do it – AND IT WORKS OUT. So why did God do this? To strengthen Abraham’s faith. And perhaps to provide a story for us for the future. Which is NOT to suggest we should be sacrificing children, but that we can trust God to sort things out in the long term.

I offer that for your consideration. Perhaps it makes sense to you. Perhaps it doesn’t. I tend to be a hardliner on this; if God is the creator of the universe and so the true measure of what is right, then ultimately we have to adjust our attitudes to what He says is right, rather than claim to know better than Him. Or perhaps I’m totally deluded. All I can say is that I’ve seen enough small miracles in my life and am certain enough of the truth of the Resurrection to make the Christian hypothesis about the world the most convincing.

Homosexuality as choice – another minefield

It is a commonplace that truth is the first victim of war, and in the culture wars the confusion over the facts about homosexuality is massive. Part of this is for good reasons; there have been times when the treatment of gay people has been appalling, and in reaction to that a delegitimisation of viewpoints that lead to such behaviour is not a surprise. However part of it comes from a desire to avoid hard questions that the full truth would otherwise force gay activists to engage with.

There is a widespread, though seldom articulated belief that gay people CHOOSE to be gay, and are therefore morally culpable for their situation. This is, almost entirely, untrue, although with some support within the gay community. But for most people it is a reality that comes into focus over time.

But this is where the fighting starts. For many people there is a phase of homosexual attraction and practice in their early years, yet many go on from that to heterosexual relationships. The most obvious example of this is the traditional pattern of the boarding schools of Britain, where such behaviour appears – from the hints of contemporary writers – to have been endemic. Were such practitioners gay, or merely self indulgent? Similar observations swirl about many single sex institutions…

The most extreme – and coherent – definition of homosexual focuses on a total inability to be sexually aroused by a person of the opposite sex. Yet that is not the one endorsed, at least by their attitudes, by most gay activists today. Instead the likes of Oscar Wilde and Gene Robinson are seen as exemplars, despite their both having children with the women they married before deciding they were gay.

A fascinating example is that of Tom Robinson. In 1978 he released the track Sing if you’re glad to be gay that speaks powerfully of the experience of alienation and persecution suffered by the gay community in those days. Yet in the early 80s he fell for a woman, whom he subsequently had children with and married.

So where does this all go? Sexuality is clearly fluid. Given the total confusion in the psychiatric profession about the causes and treatment of mental distress, it is irrational to suggest that we know anything about the causes or cures of homosexuality. As a result of the pillorying of those who defend the treatment of gay people is to adopt a politically driven certainty in an area where no certainty is justified. YET THEY HAVE A POINT. There was a time when barbaric practitioners used aversion therapy in an attempt to change people’s orientation; that was wholly illegitimate, and should be strongly condemned. However the dismissal of all modern, very different, therapy on the basis of the mistakes of the past, is more driven by a desire to legitimate homosexuality as normal than rational response to the evidence. This is part of the wider alteration of the mood music, which led to the psychiatric profession deleting homosexuality as a disease – because it was politically expedient to do so – resulting in the gay community claiming that this was objective evidence that it isn’t a disease. Good game…

Conclusion

More honesty is required on all sides. Christians need to be clear that homosexuality is a particular expression of sexuality that, if not actively expressed, is no more sinful than any other. We need to tell young people who are questioning that for many it IS a phase that they will go through – and come out of. And we need to defend the legitimacy of people investigating the possibility of change with the support of a counsellor, rather than accept that in this one area the psychiatric profession is right. But let love for the struggling sinner – from us struggling sinners – should be the first message heard.