Tag Archives: bible

Biblical oddments (2) The ‘most high god’ of Acts 16.

‘As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.’ (ESV).

At first sight this passage is odd. Why is Paul objecting to the girl’s proclaiming of what appears to us to be the truth? And yet he does. We need to look further.

The crucial verse here is:

She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”

In this version, as in so many others, there’s a definite article, ‘the’, in the verse. Yet the Greek doesn’t have that – which is the first clue. Most English versions follow this – indeed one offers: ‘They are telling you how to be saved.’ Following the logic of this, in a sermon the then Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church argued that Paul had rejected the girl’s valid spiritual gifting,

‘Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does” maybe more so!’

(transcription from an opponent of the bishop)

This notably fails to engage with how Paul was able to achieve (not ‘tries’) this depriving – though he must have done, given that her owners are upset enough to have him dragged before the magistrates. For the record, if you ever need to fight this, look at the previous verse, where the girl is described is having a ‘spirit of divination’ – or more literally a ‘python spirit’ in some seven of the versions, which is also the name of the deity that presided at Delphi, the leading Oracle of pagan times. The reader may wish to consider how a bishop of the Anglican communion is unable to see a pagan spirit as evil.

So what IS the problem?

The issue is illuminated one we realise that the title ‘most high god’ was one given in the area to a somewhat ill-defined pagan deity. The Catholic encyclopedia of 1913 offers some background:

Hypsistarians or worshippers of the Hypsistos, i.e. of the “Most High” God; a distinct Jewish-pagan sect which flourished from about 200 B.C. to about A.D. 400, mostly in Asia Minor (Cappadocia Bithynia, Pontus) and on the South Russian coasts of the Euxine Sea. A more modern writer offers evidence that this deity was worshipped in the north east of the Black Sea, placing the god alongside Aphrodite in the area.

We can see therefore that the people hearing the comments of the slave girl would have assumed that Paul was an evangelist for this deity, and so undermined his message of salvation from the God of the Jews, the one true, creator, God. This is thus a reminder that what looks like the truth can be misleading, especially to those outside the faith. We need to be very cautious at accepting others’ statements about the faith as valid – because they may be hiding a deception. Once more ‘Test Everything’ must be our policy – even women bishops make mistakes…

Verses I’ve never seen before (14)

‘Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.’

Leviticus 18

The General application

Tucked away in one of the less fashionable books of the Old Testament is this statement. It’s a big challenge: it makes clear that the Canaanites are being punished for behaviour which God is not prepared to tolerate. Note that it’s people who are not part of God’s people: they have no knowledge of God except that

‘what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.’

Romans 1

So the implication here is that God will act in judgement of any people if they act contrary to His will for long enough. Note that this contradicts one of the basic precepts of our modern liberal society, which argues that people acting immorally are not harming the wider community. On the whole, we may be right not to get into that fight most of the time, but we need to beware coming to believe it ourselves.

The Specific Application

This is where it gets more challenging for us. The offences that lead to this outcome are sexual. It starts with incest, moves on to adultery, is especially negative about homosexuality – described as an abomination – and finishes with bestiality. So we’re not focused on issues of economic justice, it’s sexual sins that bought God’s judgement on the Canaanites. Which means that our modern society with its relaxed attitude to these offences is lining up for God’s judgement. Which is not the story we are comfortable with, and, more significantly, it’s not the story which the people outside the church ever hear from the church – except for a marginal few who come across as flaky and never get any support from the mainstream churches. Yet Ezekiel 33 makes clear that God holds the watchman who fails to warn responsible for the blood of those who suffer because of their silence.

May we be faithful in declaring ALL God’s word.

Jeremiah – not a fashionable book…

The church as a whole is bad at preaching the Old Testament; it’s easier to focus on the New, which is more familiar, and has all those stories of Jesus we like to display for the 100th time, though note, we still leave out large swathes of his teaching – when did you last hear a sermon on Matthew 23-25 apart from the ‘Sheep and the Goats’? It’s a fun thought that a church that aspires to be a ‘New Testament Church’ would never preach from the New Testament… it wasn’t written yet.

If we are to proclaim and test ourselves against ‘the counsel of God’, we need to be engaging with ALL the bible. Unfortunately many bits of it are not nice, as I demonstrated in my material on Nahum. This is a brief introduction to Jeremiah, highlighting a few passages and presenting a series of topics that could easily become a sermon series, as that is how it started.

Overview

Jeremiah is the last prophet in Judah before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and the exile of many to that city (cue Ezekiel, Daniel). He prophesied over many decades, long predicting the fall of Jerusalem as a result of its rejection of the Lord. Yet he also predicted a return after 70 years, and offers hope for the future long term. Whilst there are a few passages that are quoted promiscuously – and often inappropriately – much of the book is unknown to most of us. We need to do better!

The called prophet

Jeremiah 1. One of the better known passages – because it’s used in the culture wars as a criticism of abortion – is:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

Yet the chapter also includes:

The word of the Lord came to me again: ‘What do you see?’

‘I see a pot that is boiling,’ I answered. ‘It is tilting towards us from the north.’

The Lord said to me, ‘From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ declares the Lord.

‘Their kings will come and set up their thrones
in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem;
they will come against all her surrounding walls
and against all the towns of Judah.
I will pronounce my judgments on my people
because of their wickedness in forsaking me,
in burning incense to other gods
and in worshipping what their hands have made.’

The complaining prophet

We get a striking insight into his struggles; unlike Ezekiel, who merely records that God told him that his wife was going to die, and she does, and he goes on and preaches on the basis of that, in Jeremiah we see his pain and his struggles. This is most blatantly visible in Jeremiah 15:

Lord, you understand;
remember me and care for me.
Avenge me on my persecutors.
You are long-suffering – do not take me away;
think of how I suffer reproach for your sake.
When your words came, I ate them;
they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
Lord God Almighty.
I never sat in the company of revellers,
never made merry with them;
I sat alone because your hand was on me
and you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unending
and my wound grievous and incurable?
You are to me like a deceptive brook,
like a spring that fails.’

To which God replies, in a less than entirely sympathetic manner:

Therefore this is what the Lord says:

‘If you repent, I will restore you
that you may serve me;
if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
but you must not turn to them.
I will make you a wall to this people,
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you
but will not overcome you,
for I am with you
to rescue and save you,’
declares the Lord.
‘I will save you from the hands of the wicked
and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel.’

Sometimes we need to be told to get on with it, I guess.

The weeping prophet

A feature of Jeremiah is his visible emotional reaction to the future that God is warning of. Thus in Jeremiah 9.

‘Oh, that my head were a spring of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears!
I would weep day and night
for the slain of my people.’

And

I will weep and wail for the mountains
and take up a lament concerning the wilderness grasslands.
They are desolate and untravelled,
and the lowing of cattle is not heard.
The birds have all fled
and the animals are gone.

Too often we hear from the pulpit the self righteous pharisee who announces judgement on others with no sign of sympathy for their impending suffering, especially when ‘they’ are obviously other than ‘us’. This is NOT a good model.

The symbol using prophet

There are a number of examples of his using acted parables to make his point. Thus we have his ‘Loincloth’ (boxer shorts equivalent) of Jeremiah 13, the Yoke Jeremiah 27 and the potter’s clay of Jeremiah 18. A particular example is his celibacy (Jeremiah 16) which was very counter cultural in his time:

Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place.’ For this is what the Lord says about the sons and daughters born in this land and about the women who are their mothers and the men who are their fathers: ‘They will die of deadly diseases. They will not be mourned or buried but will be like dung lying on the ground. They will perish by sword and famine, and their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.’

Note that it’s not just a parable, it’s acting on the basis of what God has told him. Having children will only result in their coming to a nasty end, so he lives by what he believes God has told him.

The confronting prophet.

He spends most of his time being contrary to the establishment’s view, even, on one occasion, having his written material cut up and burned by the king. On the whole he doesn’t react, but there’s the pointed story of Hananiah in Jeremiah 28:

Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah and broke it, and he said before all the people, ‘This is what the Lord says: “In the same way I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years.”’ At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way.

But a bit later God does react:

‘Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, ‘Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore this is what the Lord says: “I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.”’

In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died.’

The specific prophet

The way Jeremiah foretells this person’s death is an example of some very precise, dated prophecies that he offers. The best known of these is:

This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.

‘But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will make it desolate for ever.’

We tend to focus – because that’s what Daniel did – on the promise of restoration. Let’s not forget the other part, which Daniel had already seen fulfilled.

The prophet to the nations

That warning to Babylon of its future downfall is only one of a number of prophecies to other nations that the book contains, meeting the promise of Jeremiah 1 that he would be a prophet to the nations. Most of these are in a series from chapter 45 onwards, addressing Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, Ammon, Damascus as well as Babylon, whose destruction gets two long chapters.

The persecuted prophet

He’s not popular, which given he tells people to surrender to the enemy is not, perhaps, surprising. The low point comes when he’s dumped in the mud in a cistern. (Jeremiah 37, 38) He’s rescued from that – but still held as a prisoner until the fall of Jerusalem.

The ignored prophet

A feature of the whole book, but the story in chapter 42 caps it all. After the fall of the city and an attempted rebellion against the Babylonians, involving the assassination of the Babylonian, a group approaches him for advice as to whether to go to Egypt or to stay in the land. They promise to do what he says, so he goes off and seeks the Lord, and after 10 days gets His reply: ‘Stay in the land’. But no – they’re sure they should go to Egypt, and do so, taking Jeremiah with them. He promises that it won’t end well:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “If you are determined to go to Egypt and you do go to settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you into Egypt, and there you will die. Indeed, all who are determined to go to Egypt to settle there will die by the sword, famine and plague; not one of them will survive or escape the disaster I will bring on them.”

The discouraging prophet

The most popular verse from the book, widely quoted, and usually inappropriately, are from Jeremiah 29:

‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

Yet, by contrast, the book also includes:

‘‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, “Woe to me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.” But the Lord has told me to say to you, “This is what the Lord says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the earth. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the Lord, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.”’ (Jeremiah 45)

and not to forget: ‘ I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah’ in Jeremiah 44.  These verses are somewhat less quoted; I wonder why?

Conclusion

Jeremiah offers us a bleak landscape, reminding us of the consequences of rebelling against God. As such it offers a part of the backdrop for the grace and mercy of God revealed especially in Jesus. Yet we are in danger of offering an idol to worship if we fail to preach the tough stuff as well:

God did judge

God does judge

God will judge

No, our sin is not OK. Yes, it does matter. Yes, we need to work with God and our brothers and sisters to sort it out. Jerusalem was trashed by the Babylonians because of their sin. Babylon was destroyed, never to rise again because of theirs. Hear the word of the Lord.

Yes But…

Accompaniment, Community and Nature by Jonathan Herbert (Jessica Kingsley, 2020)

This is a powerful and challenging book. It offers the wisdom of a Church of England priest who has used his life to reach beyond the comfort boundaries of the way that we tend to do church in the UK to find wisdom in others’ traditions. It is especially strong in rediscovering the healing power of community life, reminding us of what we in the West have lost for the most part.

Herbert’s clerical career started as a curate in a rough area, where his ‘training incumbent’ – notable for the lack of material that was obviously training – effectively taught him to engage with the local people of the parish, to learn to accompany. After a stint as a team vicar in another deprived area, where his willingness to refuse to pay the Poll Tax led to a confrontation with both his Team Rector and the government, he became leader of the Pilsdon community. This is group of people who offer hospitality to many struggling with mental health issues, seeing remarkable change as a result of engagement in the community; a friend who was struggling with depression to the point of at least one suicide attempt, spent some time there and was substantially restored to a good place. An important element is the role of strict boundaries; ‘guests’ are expected to be remain drug and alcohol free, to refrain from violence, and work in the farm that is the heart of the place. A surprising element is that the rules also require attendance at meals – an insight that encourages engagement with others. The boundaries were enforced by an active willingness to exclude guests who broke the rules – either for a temporary period or permanently; Herbert argues that this ensures that the community remains a safe place, able to do its job. It is interesting to note that a similar willingness to exclude for the benefit of others is seldom seen in the life of the church. A feature of his time there was a positive outcome to a public meeting process about opening a half way house for Pilsdon guests seeking to return to urban life. The meeting’s starting point was fear of the presence of ‘these people’ in the nice area where the house was to be located; the turning point came when the local police officer referred to the local ‘crack house’ which the law was unable to touch; the final outcome was a willingness by many to engage and the house being accepted.

After Pilsdon he, and his family, moved on to Hillfield Priory, a Franciscan (SSF) house. Between the two, Herbert walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain; here he learnt the power of the shared experience and opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with those walking with you. Other involvements have included time in the Solomon Island, where he was impressed at the way people worked together to get things done without the need to active supervision, a period in Uganda seeking to help enable reconciliation of pastoralists and farmers by the establishment of mixed communities, and Palestine, where the contrast of community life among the Arabs was in marked contrast to the individualism, typical of a Western mindset, he felt was displayed by Israeli settlers. Currently he is ‘Church of England chaplain to Gypsies and Travellers in Dorset and Wiltshire’, where his focus is to become involved in the life of those marginalised groups ‘accompanying’. Most recently he has also become active in climate crisis campaigning, getting arrested for ‘Extinction Rebellion’ inspired civil disobedience. This he presents with a spiritual dimension, offering Francis’ concern for the natural world, and his appreciation of ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Moon’, the value of physical labour, especially farming, as engagement with ‘Mother Earth’.

And yet, and yet

Is he teaching the ‘whole counsel of God’? Is he fulfilling the instruction: ‘make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’. Is he a minister of God declaring His forgiveness to penitent sinners, or is he merely offering a better way of being human by living together well? Are people finding God real in their lives? Is the cross being proclaimed as the source of God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness? Do people end up being ‘guided by the Spirit’? Do they come to ‘know God’? Is he truly a prophet of God declaring His word, or is he merely a wise man sharing human wisdom – ‘common grace’? Is he so earthly minded that he is no heavenly good?

Herbert confesses to a dislike of fundamentalism, rejecting the certainty that it proclaims. However such a belief – as with all relativism – is logically incoherent; relativists have an absolute belief that there is no absolute truth, believing that there is no absolute truth as an absolute truth. This is a comfortable place to be, allowing one to bat away hard questions about ‘why you believe?’; you can pick the beliefs you like and discard the stuff you find problematic. At some point this becomes a marriage to the zeitgeist – and will leave its proponent revealed as having chosen an idol over ‘the God who made heaven and earth’. ‘We have a gospel to proclaim’: will we be found, on judgement day, to have been declaring ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’? Herbert does talk about our society’s failure to engage with death – making the interesting point that the growing tendency towards memorial services, in the absence of the body of the deceased, avoid the issue. Yet without Jesus’ death and resurrection as the reason for true hope for the next world – for ‘if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied’ – as well as this. Yet Herbert offers, at least in the book, no clarity about what follows death.

Conclusion

As I said: this is a powerful and challenging book. It offers the insights of a person who has helped many towards healing, and perspectives that rightly challenge much of what passes for religion in the West. It elegantly presents the currently fashionable theology of a large sector of the Church of England. There is much good in it – yet ultimately it fails to offer the living Jesus.

Good Omens – and the definition of evil

(SPOILERS)

Another great fantasy series – Good Omens – ended on BBC2 last week. As with ‘The Good Place‘ – which I reviewed recently – it’s great fun; along with it, it reveals fundamental flaws in theology, which once spotted help us understand why many people don’t understand the gospel.

Good Omens ‘set in 2018, the series follows the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale, longtime friends, who, having grown accustomed to life on Earth as representatives of their respective masters, seek to prevent the coming of the Antichrist and with it Armageddon, the final battle between Heaven and Hell.’ (Wikipedia) We also have a subplot with a witch burnt under Oliver Cromwell, Agnes Nutter, and her descendant today – Agnes’ accurate predictions of the future have been fulfilled – and the Anti-Christ himself, an 11 year old boy called Adam. Crowley’s disorganisation at the time of his birth resulted in him growing up in a small Oxfordshire village instead of as the son of the American ambassador (playing on the Omen‘s myth); the final climax sees Adam and his friends defeat the four horsemen of the apocalyse, based loosely on the characters in Revelation 6, as well as Satan himself, whom Adam dismisses as not really his dad because he was never there for him.

The failures of theology include not understanding why the end of the world is good news, and a failure to take evil seriously enough. The end of the world is good news for Christians because it means an end to the suffering that we and every new generation is enduring in the world. Our God will reign over a renewed earth and every tear will be wiped away. By contrast Aziraphale has become entranced with the good things of the world – he runs the sort of second hand bookshop that appeals to many, and enjoys fine food and wine; he wants to keep that lifestyle going. Crowley is similarly entranced with this world, though his predilections are less defined, though there is an very amusing scene showing his relationship with his house plants, and he has a wonderful vintage Rolls Royce that he is clearly in love with; the Queen track is used on several occasions.

The point about evil is that it’s about being destructive for the sake of it: ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy’ as Jesus puts it in John 10. Specifically, Christian theology sees the Devil and his demons committed to the destruction of God’s works because they are God’s works; destruction for the sake of destruction, not for what you get out of it. Crowley has long since lost this motivation; instead he’s around, like Aziraphale, to enjoy life. Of course such an approach to life can have evil consequences when things are destroyed along the way in the pursuit of personal pleasure / fulfilment. The drug addict who destroys the life of the victim of the mugging is only interested in the cash for the next fix; the fraudster who wants money regardless of the damage they do to others. Indeed on this basis the developer whose destruction of the beauty of creation as well as of attractive and loved old buildings is thus more clearly revealed as evil.

‘Good Omens’ is thus propaganda for a world view that is not serious about good or evil; it’s about having a pleasant time because that’s what the British Middle Classes have got now. In the end heaven and hell prove unable to discipline their minions, and they are shown, having averted the end of the world, continuing their metropolitan elite lifestyles. We shouldn’t be surprised; it’s an obvious way to live, and one that is tempting. Yet to succumb is to refuse the call to true service of God and the good, and to allow evil to flourish unchallenged; we would miss opportunities to be of real value, to have done something with our lives, to not see all our achievements burnt up, as Paul warns:

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

(1 Corinthians 3)

The wrong Jesus?

Ultimately we are saved by God’s grace, by accepting His mercy having recognised our need for forgiveness because we HAVE sinned. Jesus’ first proclamation was “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1), and his last was ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28).

So as Christians we are called to obey God. If we’ve got the wrong Jesus, we’re likely to make bad decisions about what He requires of us; this is the root cause of the scandals in church history where the pretty much the whole church ended up supporting behaviour that we now abhor. Yet, as the war over the gay issue reveals, the church has to try to get things right – and is still failing. The failure is over theology, and is a reminder we need to do it right.

History’s examples

There’s nothing new in this. 85 years ago appeasement was widely endorsed in Christian circles as the Christian way to respond to Hitler. 200 years ago slavery and racism were entirely ‘Christian’. 400 years ago the state’s persecution of heretics was endorsed on almost all sides; quite apart from Rome’s burnings, Luther and Calvin welcomed the execution of Anabaptists, the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers executed Quakers, until told to stop by Charles II, whilst in England, apart from executing Catholic priests for being emissaries of a foreign power, the Papacy, seeking to overthrow the government, the Church of England merely jailed Baptists (e.g. John Bunyan) and Quakers (e.g. George Fox) as well as harassing early Methodists. Passing swiftly over the Inquisition and the Crusades, we come to the divide over icons, which led to civil war in the Byzantine empire, the New Testament epistles are replete with theological divides, and the gospels reflect the divide of Pharisee v Sadducee. If we take our theology seriously, then there WILL be divisions over issues.

Defining theology

We ALL have a theology; the only question is whether we’ve got one that’s in decent nick, or one that is incoherent and not fit for purpose. We have a duty to apply our minds to this – Jesus reminds us that we are called to worship God with our minds – when he endorses the words of the scribe: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10). However, as a starting point, it’s crucial to realise why we are doing it: because we want to know, serve and love God better. When a theological idea doesn’t offer this, we have to question its value.

Authority in theology

A primary question in theology is: ‘on what basis do I make my decision about whether this belief is true?’ There are four main sources; on a good day they all line up and everyone’s happy, but in practice there is often conflict. At the risk of offering a caricature, I offer these outlines.

  1. Obey the church. Although usually associated with Catholics, who can simplistically emphasise the role of the Papacy, especially with Vatican I, there are elements of this visible in the New Testament, most obviously the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, but also in Paul’s expectation of being obeyed because of who he is. It is also important to recognise that in practice much of church life operates on this basis; we are members of a local church whose leadership needs us to accept their authority to keep operating reasonably efficiently.
  2. Tradition One element of this is summarised by the Vincentian Canon: ‘Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.’ An alternative way to understand this is to express it in terms of having faith that the Holy Spirit has been able to guide the church down the centuries, so an idea radically opposed to what the church has always believed is likely to be wrong. It’s a powerful challenge to some of the wilder new ideas that fly around in some circles.
  3. Logic and ‘reason’. This is problematic because it often allows the beliefs of the present age to overcome the claims of the other sources. An ancient example is Arius’ use of logic to deny the full deity of Jesus because that status doesn’t make logical sense. More recently those seeking equal status for gay relationships have often focused on the claim that ‘God is love, gay relationships are an example of love, therefore God must endorse them’. Both Arius and pro-gay campaigners have a point, but their logic is inconsistent with the conclusion of other sources of authority, so is not acceptable. Similarly, modern philosophical systems are offered which are inconsistent with traditional Christianity, so the teachings of Christianity are tested against these systems, and the bits that don’t fit are ejected. Note that this implies that human philosophy can be constructed in a way that ignores the evidence of the Christian faith, a strong claim on its own.
  4. The bible. This, of course, is what Protestants claim as their unique authority and, on a bad day, claim that it’s the only authority they will accept. A moment’s thought reveals that this is inadequate: the bible can’t tell us what time to meet on a Sunday morning and what passage should form the basis for the sermon, let alone the totally problematic issue of what books should be IN the bible. It’s a sad sight watching Evangelicals try to solve that one.

Nulla contra scriptura v sola scriptura

Or, in English, nothing against scripture v only scripture. The genius of the Reformation lay in the use of the bible – and particularly the translation from the original Greek rather than the Latin of the Vulgate which was St Jerome’s translation into Latin from the Greek and Hebrew – to challenge the accretions and errors that had arisen in the Medieval church. This wasn’t entirely new – both Wycliffe and Hus had done the same in previous centuries – but this time the new understandings weren’t suppressed (Wycliffe) or contained (Hus) with only limited impact. Yet it is important to realise that both Luther and Calvin were not wholly dismissive of the Catholic church, instead seeing it as a seriously corrupt institution but ultimately still a means of God’s grace to some. Their test was scripture – but only to strain out the false, not as the only basis for the true.

By contrast a latter generation of Protestants understood the New Testament as being the limit of what was acceptable in the church, developing a tendency to reject anything not explicitly in it. Some, therefore, rejected any of: all special feast days; the use of instruments in church worship; any hymns apart from the psalms; paid employment of local church leaders and buildings set aside for worship. However as far as I’m aware they don’t ban their paid evangelists from travelling by air, and they do tend to wear wedding rings, a church tradition with zero biblical basis (no, a signet ring is NOT the same thing – someone tried to sell me that line when I challenged him over it).

protected church

The central point

MacArthur has an important point here, and the collapse of many ‘Evangelicals’ into a pro-gay stance is, to my mind, evidence of a deep rot in the quality of what has been going on in our churches. Yet the danger is that we become heresy hunters: far more interested in getting our THEOLOGY right than actually obeying God or ‘knowing’ Him. Jesus’ words need to ring in our ears:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

It’s interesting to note that Jesus immediately continues on to say:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

(Matthew 7)

Paul offers an insight when he states:

‘all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God’. (Romans 8)

Our aim is to be accurately led by the Holy Spirit to be obedient to all that God is commanding for us. Good theology is a vital means to this end – but is never an aim in itself. I am confident that we will be surprised by who will be with us in heaven; many whose theology we struggled with on the earth will be there because they ‘knew God’, whilst many whose theology ticked all the right boxes in our not so humble opinion will be missing. There are no easy solutions here; we need to keep listening, keep reading ALL the bible, keep thinking, and keep praying that God will go on granting us the grace to continue faithful to Him until our last day.

‘Sticking fruit onto trees’

When church leaders wants members of congregations to do something, there are a number of strategies that they can adopt; many of them are the same as those of parents – a fact that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Paul’s comments about choosing elders on the basis of their ability to manage their households well. The first is to try to bully it into happening; a simple confrontation where the leader asserts that ‘This is God’s will, and anyone who opposes it is opposing God.’ The slightly lesser versions of this may leave out the precise logic, but still see an assertion of the way forward, without any actual consultation.

The second approach is emotional blackmail; we need this doing: how can you resist the need for it to be done given you have relevant gifts – or ones that could be put to this task. The willing workhorse succumbs to the pressure, the job gets done, but this isn’t healthy; there’s a bad taste in the mouth.

Note that both these techniques apply in both preaching and personal interactions. In preaching the issue is less obvious – and the rationale may be solid. And yet the danger is that the hearers are bounced into a decision that isn’t actually what God requires FOR THEM. So what is the ideal here?

We need to be discerning the will of God for ourselves, based on what is said to us and taking the input of our leaders very seriously, but ultimately shaped for our gifts by God’s wisdom. Note that we’re not talking about actually sinful behaviour here; that should be dealt with as such, and shouldn’t be controversial. It’s where the leader has an agenda – which may be a simple as the ‘need’ to keep the children’s work going as it is, or as complex as a desire to build something which will be their memorial – and it captures the commitment of their followers without its being right.

So how do we look at this biblically? Paul teaches two important lessons which we can miss. The first is that only the things of real value to the building of the body of Christ are of significance and will get rewarded in the end:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3)

A second point is that the definition of a Christian is being guided by the Spirit: ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.’ The ideal is that we learn to respond to His instructions, spend our time doing what He is specifically guiding us to do, and resist the temptation to do what is being imposed on us. The Christian world is replete with examples of organisations on their last legs dependent on declining numbers of volunteers and ageing congregations to carry on for a few more years. These are probably not serving any useful purpose, are absorbing much energy, and give the world the idea that all churches are like this. The alternative model is for institutions to be colonised by non-Christians to the point where their Christian origin is obscured – thus the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were Christian foundations, whilst Barnados was started by an Evangelical – a fact that has been airbrushed from its history – yet now ‘believes in children’.

Of course this can be an excuse for ignoring responsibilities that we do have, but it should encourage us to be more discerning about what responsibilities we accept. Are they really consistent with our call to obey God. Part of the challenge is a willingness to believe that God will provide the resources that we need to do what He wants; if they’re not turning up unless we indulge in emotional blackmail to get them, then that’s a strong hint that we’re in the wrong place. As Christians we are rightly open to a ‘sob story’; how else do we show God’s love unless we respond to misery around us. And we should be faithful in the sense of trustworthy and reliable to those who place their trust in us. Yet those traits make us subject to emotional blackmail to carry on with things whose time has past, thus wasting our time. We need to do better…

I’ve been told of a Methodist church in a town (I was told this by a minister in the town) where they realised they were going nowhere. So they prayed and planned and worked for one special push, saying to God: ‘if you want us to continue, give us some clear fruit from this, or else we’ll close’. Nothing developed, so they closed. I feel that is a wise response to such situations: is there really life, or are we maintaining a tradition? ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit’ is a phrase we need to take seriously. Do it God’s way in God’s power in His time. Or else go down to Tescos, buy the apples and stick them on the tree…