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.


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

Solus Christus, Baby! By Christ Alone! - DatPostmil


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.


Paul’s perspective on suffering

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”

2 Cor 4

And some of the detail of that suffering?

“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

2 Cor 11

Shipwreck of the Minotaur by William Turner (Classic ...

So what’s Paul’s view of this?

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

2 Cor 4

We need to get an eternal perspective on what is going on; too often we conform to the world’s expectations, and see God as the way to get an easy ride through our human life. Two things tend to follow:

  1. We can drift into self pity when things go wrong, getting focused on ourselves instead of God and what He is trying to do. An extra downside of this is that He may have to shout louder if we don’t get it the first time.

  2. We lose sight of what is important in God’s perspective, and become focused on relieving the physical sufferings of the world at the cost of offering salvation.

Of course we can go too far the other way and lack all sympathy for those who are suffering. Yet the present attitude of much of the church seems to be making this mistake; we can end up offering earthly medicines, not true salvation. We end up being so earthly minded that we are no longer of any heavenly use.

As ever of course this is a matter of balance; of course it is good for Christians to offer medical care. The question that needs to be there below the surface is whether we are getting the balance right, because it is easy to let the world’s expectations encourage us to focus on what the world regards as valuable, not on what God sees as valuable.

Thoughts after visiting Sagrada Familia

As there are a vast number of photos of the building around, I’m not going to offer any or even point to any. Instead I want to highlight what the popularity of the building says about modern society, and the lessons the church needs to take away as a result.

It’s important to note the sheer genius that Gaudi demonstrates; like the best artists he breaks the traditional rules, and thereby creates something very special and the result is immensely attractive. This is a challenge to Evangelicals; we have settled for largely plain ‘preaching boxes’ which speak of a God who is comprehensible to the human mind. He is a God who is worshipped by being preached about – indeed – but massive screeds of the Old Testament that give God’s detailed instructions for the Tabernacle point to Him revealing Himself in religious art as well as the spoken word. The consequence is that many Evangelicals offer a distorted image of God. We also can make it very hard for those with a strong artistic consciousness to hear our words because of the the style in which they are presented is transmitting a very different message. We’ve all had cringe making moments when an evangelist commits a complete howler; this is the same sort of mistake in a different ‘idiom’. Evangelicalism is dominated by people who focus on ideas not art, and therefore prioritises ideas and not art, and on a bad day dismisses the insights of artists, ends up failing to evangelise artists effectively, and don’t realise their mistake because there aren’t any artists in the congregations to challenge them. We must cherish and sympathise with the artists in our congregations who cling on despite their pastors being deaf to their pain.

Of course the fact that much of the best Christian visual art over the centuries has been by… CATHOLICS – shock horror – makes it easier to dismiss the issue. Clearly this does raise some hard issues; the reality that much great art is produced by people whose lifestyle seem to indicate a total absence of spiritual values – to put it no more pointedly – should not come as a surprise; it is true of all whose achievements are amazing. But that doesn’t answer the central point that it is affecting. What is fair to ask is whether the effect is actually worthwhile; can we point to people who have come to God because of the impact of Christian art? Though given we are unsympathetic to this approach, people who are drawn to God this way may not end up in our churches.

Note, of course, that one form of art IS acceptable in Evangelical circles: music. This has been a feature of Protestant worship since the Reformation, one of whose shifts was the encouragement of congregational singing. To be consistent we need to apply the same arguments about our choice of music to our choices over archietecture / decoration of our churches in terms of accessibility and theological accuracy. And of course from that perspective at least some of the arguments about the issue fall away (there’s a separate debate to be had about the presence of art representing Jesus or the saints – let’s leave that parked for now).

Sagrada familia is a superb piece of art. How far it is ‘Christian’ may be debated, though much of it is uncontroversial. Its existence however raises some hard questions for art deaf Evangelicals; we need to face them honestly and not allow ourselves to enjoy its glories – and the glories of many church buildings in England – without looking at the challenge they present to how we do church.

On the Catalan declaration of independence

Estelada - Wikipedia

Sitting here in an outer suburb of Barcelona as things are unfolding down there, it is challenging to get perspective. Yet as Christians we must speak God’s word about these situations, regardless of whether we ‘like’ the logic.

I’ve seen a couple of the demonstrations – the first off the Place de Catalonia and the second in front of the City Hall. Both were remarkably peaceful by British standards; it is an unpleasant feature of British parades with a similar intensity of emotion that they tend to collapse into violence. Yet there was a harshness to the tone that struck me; at the second I felt strongly a sense of grief, which I ascribe to hearing God’s perspective on the matter. This development will cause hurt to many. A hard question is whether this hurt is in this world or the next – a perspective which we must seek to reflect accurately; the reality that the death of a 1000 Christians is of far less import than damnation of a soul is hard to cling to.

At the heart of the bible is the story of God’s reaction to the rebellion of some of his creatures, both angelic and human. Jesus’ death on the cross provides the means for us rebels to repent, be forgiven and come to live with him in the end. In the spiritual context rebellion is evil.

At the human level the belief that rebellion solves anything is one that we need to question strongly. Because sin within ourselves is a problem we want to pretend does not exist, it is always more attractive to blame another rather than our own sinfulness. This is seen in the scapegoating of an individual within a group, when the issue is something completely different, as much as it is at the political level. There the other may be the capitalist, the banker, the bolshie worker, the lazy civil servant or indeed the ethnic / religious minority, be that Jew, Muslim or white, as in the demonology of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and some elements in South Africa. It is a primary duty of Christians to challenge such scapegoating; sadly this is seldom done well.

At the political level few rebellions have gone well. The Terror of Committee for public safety in France and the horrors of the Stalinist and Maoist gulags are some of the better known  examples. The fact that slavery persisted 30 years longer in the USA compared with the British empire is a major stain on the American revolution.

In this context the auguries for Catalanonia at present are not good. The roots of the situation lie in the complexities of history; Catalonia was once a big fish and its separate identity a cause of irritation in the rest of Spain. It was a strong focus of socialism in the 1920s, and this combined with its separatism led to Franco’s aggressive attempt to suppress its separate identity, to the extent of banning the use of the Catalan language in public. This history of repression – that has never been fully addressed by the successor state – has left a history of resentment; it is widely claimed that the elite of the present Spanish state are the same, or at least from the same families, as those of the days of Franco. Of course it takes a particularly bloody revolution to avoid this tendency, as the far more blatant experience of the same effect in the Stans of central Asia shows. And whilst the economic experience of Spain at the moment is improving steadily, there is a massive youth unemployment which we can too easily overlook. Thus, as with Brexit and Trump, this proposed change offers hope to the hopeless, however irrational this may be; I had a brief conversation with a lady on the fringes of one of the demonstrations. She was very happy at the prospect for no obvious reason; yet unless we Christians hear the beliefs of such people and address them head on we will remain irrelevant – and that would be BAD.

These events are symptom of the disease of our society and of sin in general. ‘We fight not against flesh and blood’; unless we realise that we faced with a disease that is rooted in sin and can only be addressed by the right application of the grace of God, we will be wasting our time. As with the doctor who focuses on the disease and not the symptoms, we may get criticised for not doing the ‘obvious’. We need the wisdom of God to identify what is the right response for us; it is a measure of our maturity how far we get it right having resisted the pressure to conform to the world’s approach. It is the role of the church historian to draw out the lessons of the church’s responses in the past; that this is seldom done is one of the reasons we lurch from crisis to crisis because we fail to benefit from the fact that much the same problems HAVE emerged in the past and the church messed it up then in this way, let’s not do that again.

Marian Shrines

On a recent visit to Montserrat I saw the following statement


This is a concept that Protestants get twitchy about. The board outside the basilica is helpful: the problem comes when in practice the focus remains on Mary and Jesus in effect gets ignored. I know too many ex-Catholics to be enthusiastic about their general record, but equally the number of ex-Protestants in the Catholic church is not trivial. Certainly the style is one that the British are sceptical of: modern Catholic churches in England would not welcome this sort of iconography. Yet any attempt to be simplistically dismissive ends up endorsing the sort of vandalism that our Protestant forebears endorsed at the time of the Reformation. That was appalling, and we need to be discerning.

The temptation is to make the easy grab; there’s nothing right with the Catholic church, they are a sect like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, and need to be treated as such, or there’s nothing WRONG with Catholicism, they are just misunderstood and their heart is in the right place and that’s all that matters. In response to Rome’s massive persecution at the time of the Reformation of groups and individuals whom Protestants would now call their own – Waldensians, Hussites and lollards before Luther, and many Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans after 1517 – it is easy to be dismissive of their present attempts to do better as merely a deception. Or we can argue that it was all a sad mistake over language – a conclusion that the Lutheran RC agreement does offer some support for.

An interesting feature of this notice, and what I saw at one of the churches I visited in Barcelona, is the absence of any respect for the holy anymore. The Montserrat service was received as a tourist show, with people having to be silenced. At the Barcelona church kids were playing in the most place and having their photographs taken by their father while posing in front of the sacred statue. Of course the insistence of the modern church on emphasising the loving nature of God to the virtual exclusion of anything else probably accentuates this: ‘take off your shoes because the ground is holy’, is an approach which has little resonance today.

And it is in that context that one element in Catholic theology comes back to bite us. Catholic theology argues that the saints are conscious and aware of what is going on on earth. Specifically it suggests that we can ask them to pray for us in the same way that we Protestants ask Christians friend still on earth to pray for us. We however draw the line at asking for those who’ve died to do so. The messy question is why we – and Paul in the New Testament – ask for those prayers. However once we’ve accepted that those requests are legitimate, not least because they are clearly made in the New Testament, we have to address why it’s NOT legitimate to ask the saints above to pray as well. One protestant answer is to deny that the saints above are conscious, a view which requires some wriggling in the face of certain verses (e.g. Moses appearing with Jesus at the transfiguration having died), but does solve a lot of problems. The other is more interesting: if intercession is asking the God in whom we have HOPE for things, then it makes little sense for those who see God to intercede. However the fact that Jesus is described as ‘interceding’ for us in heaven (Heb 7:25) muddies the waters here. The iffy paraphrase of the Living Bible does follow the Protestant logic to its conclusion: ‘He is able to save completely all who come to God through him. Since he will live forever, he will always be there to remind God that he has paid for their sins with his blood.’

Yet more broadly it is seems clear that the intercession of those saints for the Catholic church has not resulted in a healthy church; its failings and corruption over the years give atheists much ammunition. Of course it might have worse if the saints in glory hadn’t been praying, but that’s rather difficult to prove.

Overall the issue raises hard questions where neither side is entirely biblical on a simple reading of scripture!


Conviction v Condemnation

In an excellent sermon last Sunday, my pastor articulated the difference between these in the Christian’s life:

Conviction: the work of God in pointing out a specific action which we’ve done and which is wrong. God calls us to reject this behaviour to be restored in our relationship with Him.

Condemnation: the work of the enemy, suggesting that because of our tendency to sin we are beyond hope.

We should expect and welcome God’s conviction in our lives. We are not perfect, we sin. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 Jn 1) Part of the sign of it being God’s work is that it relates to specific actions, and when we have confessed it, the guilt goes away.

By contrast the sense of being worthless, hopeless, unvalued, or no use, because we’ve messed up AGAIN is the work of the devil, and we need to recognise it as such, and respond by praising God for our salvation, for Jesus’ death on the cross that made it possible, and that the Spirit has revealed this truth to us (assuming that we HAVE accepted God’s mercy for the sins that we committed in the past).

Christianity is realistic that it recognises that all have messed up in the past, are continuing to do so in the present, and will do so until sin is removed from the world. It calls on everyone to accept that we are flawed – but offers a way forward. By contrast the world offers lies: ‘believe in children’, ‘love wins in the end’, ‘everyone has a heart of gold’. When challenged by the reality of the world today, excuses about ‘them’ abound: the 1%, predatory men, unreasonable women, the greedy workers, the Jews, the Muslims, the fundamentalist Christians, are offered as the real cause, and changes to society are proposed as the answer. (To be fair to Soviet Communism and the Chinese cultural revolution, they did recognise the need for individual change – they just assumed that it was only their enemies that had a problem.)

So far, so ordinary. Where this starts to get interesting is to consider this in terms of the response of mainstream groups to criticism from others. Certainly at times they respond to legitimate challenges by confusing ‘conviction’ and ‘condemnation’; challenges to wrong behaviour by individuals is dismissed as condemning the individual, not the behaviour, with the result that the legitimate critique is dismissed. This is seen in such terms as ‘slut shaming’, ‘body shaming’, homophobia and even Islamophobia’; because the guilt of these individuals is so wrapped up in their identity, their behaviour cannot be declared wrong without condemning the individual.

By ‘coincidence’ the Guardian has a long read on guilt just out. Musing on the issue of feeling guilty all the time, Baum argues that ‘His guilt is a constant, nagging reminder that he has taken this wrong turn’ and ‘It keeps us, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written, in thrall to that boring and repetitive voice inside our head that endlessly corrects, criticises, censors, judges and finds fault with us, but “never brings us any news about ourselves”.’ This is a reminder that the gospel IS that ‘news about ourselves’ that gives us a truth on which to base our lives. Our evangelism must scratch where people are itching; merely repeating ‘God loves you’ is insufficient. The starting point of the gospel is that we are worthless wretches who have every reason to be guilty; we deserve to be condemned.

But instead God has chosen to declare us not guilty, to adopt us into his family and give us a hope. Biblically this makes sense of John’s comment: ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3) and Jesus’ words: ‘There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day’ (Jn 12).

We need to accept that if we are preaching Jesus then people will feel condemned – indeed if they aren’t we may well be doing it wrong. The answer to that condemnation is to offer them the grace of God revealed at the cross – at the cost of their dying to themselves and being born again to live as God’s children obeying His commands. If we offer less than that – or succumb to the temptation to assure them they are ‘all right really’ – we are in danger of stifling the work of the Spirit.