Making the church RELEVANT

‘We have a gospel to proclaim, good news for all the world’

So the song goes – but for any news to be good news, rather than a useless piece of information, it needs to address issues that are of concern to the listener. The news that Malaria is on the retreat, for example, is great news – but it’s almost entirely irrelevant to the average British person. One of the problems that the modern church faces is that our central message – there is hope for after we die – no longer seems to have any resonance with the British public, at least if this poll of what the British worry about is correct; it list 30 things that are worried about, but death / life after death just isn’t there. Its top 10 are:

  • Work

  • Financial worries

  • Being late

  • A relative or friend’s bad health

  • Bad health

  • Relationships

  • Missing a plane/train/bus

  • Not waking up for alarm

  • Appearance

  • Family safety

Yet what does the average church preach about? What does it resource? Do we provide space to respond to these worries? And should we?

Clearly issues of health do get some treatment at church, and the success of Benny Hinn and others show there is a desire to see this addressed. Our prosperity gospel ‘brethren’ also do financial worries, and, perhaps more appropriately, Christians against Poverty some great practical work.

Yet should we give up proclaiming our eternal hope, which is what make sense of life? Of course this asks hard questions, and may need trigger warnings(!) if we are to talk honestly. Yet its absence is surely something we shouldn’t just accept, leaving people unwarned of what the bible teaches about death and judgement. As ever the history is illuminating; certainly parts of the church reacted against the hell fire preaching that became seriously abusive in some circles by focusing on ‘the love of God’, to the total exclusion of judgement. Meanwhile the experience of most people moved from death being a regular part of life to its being something that was rare and hidden away. Funerals have become celebrations of the deceased life rather than a clearly religious occasion, and any sort of appeal for God’s mercy for their sins has long since faded out. Of course a funeral is not a good moment asking the hard questions, though Christians perhaps have a duty to encourage the preacher at such events to be more upfront when a Christian’s ‘promotion to glory’ is being marked. More generally perhaps church advertising should be more challenging: ‘what’s next’ over a grave stone might work…

Interestingly secular research is suggesting that thinking about your mortality is helpful. Meanwhile the Rule of Saint Benedict, the guide for Benedictine Monasteries describes keeping ‘death before one’s eyes daily’ as an instrument of good works. When the wisdom of both the 6th and 21st century says something, perhaps we should pay more attention.

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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…

Penal substitutionary atonement – a necessary belief

Much ink is spilt in theological circles about what the atonement was about, why it ‘works’ and what lessons we can draw about God as a result. There are many models advanced to try to gain an understanding of what is one of the most challenging features of our faith: what does the death of Jesus in agony on the cross achieve?

One of the tendencies of Evangelical theology was to focus on a single explanation and be rather negative about others. This is unhelpful; reading the bible with an open mind leads to the discovery of many different understanding of the atonement, and it is thus bad theology to try to force them all to point to a single understanding. However it is important to understand when some models MUST be accepted in order to make sense of who God is. This is particularly the case with Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).

God makes many promises in the bible. Yet two conflict spectacularly:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom 12:14)

versus

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  (1 Jn 1:9)

and

heir sins and lawless acts
    I will remember no more. (Heb 10:17)

I’m writing this on the day of the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, where over 80 people were killed in a terrible fire. Those affected by the fire are looking for ‘justice’. The bible promises that God will give them justice. But if one of those responsible has now died having confessed their errors to God without suffering any consequences, it appears that they have ‘got away with it’ – there is no vengeance for those victims. The only way to hold those two promises together is to accept PSA as one of the components of our understanding of the atonement.

 

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?

Christianity’s exclusiveness – what does the bible actually teach?

In a liberal society that wants to believe that ‘all roads lead to God’ – and is unwilling to accept that this might not be the case, it is important for Christians to hold to our claim that Jesus is THE way to heaven. The problem is that we can overstate the case, and leave ourselves exposed to legitimate challenge, and thereby end up failing to present the truth as it is.

The verses at first sight are unambiguous

‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14)

‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4)

Yet these are spoken to Jews, in the context of the Hebrew bible, where many clearly came to the Father without any explicit recognition of the role of Jesus, and Enoch and Elijah are admitted to God’s presence without even dying.

So what is going on here? The interpretation that makes sense for me is to argue that it is only through the death and resurrection of Jesus that it is possible for God to give anyone access to Himself. Yet this doesn’t require an explicit understanding of the nuances of the role of the cross in order to allow God to accept us; rather we see them benefit from the cross because it happened, despite its being in their future.

Yet it is crucial to recognise that this does not mean that we have any excuse not to offer the gospel to anyone. It MIGHT be that they have actually found God real in their lives – perhaps under another name. However it is clear from the attitude of the apostles that they sought to convert everyone to an explicit endorsement of the role of Jesus and membership of the Church. This offers an interpretation of

‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.’ (John 10)

For us to refuse to evangelise anyone on the assumption that they don’t need the gospel is therefore disobedient to the clear teaching of the bible. Unfortunately it is always attractive; it’s nice to be nice, and challenging others about something as deeply held as their religious beliefs is never going to be comfortable. Yet it is what we are called to. No, this is not an excuse for being obnoxiously challenging, but it is a call to be obedient.

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.