Tag Archives: theology

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…

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Pacifism and parenting – a new point in the pacifist debate?

I’ve been engaging with the debate over pacifism recently as a subtext of my studies in Constantine. Much is said on the topic, and the view of the early church seems to be very mixed, with strong defences of pacifism from both Origen and Tertullian, yet there is clear evidence of Christians being present at all levels in the Roman army and government before Constantine. Following his rise to power, pacifism was largely rejected, although a continuing strand discouraged ex-soldiers from being given clerical office. By the middle ages it had become an ideal for some monks, but the crusades and the military orders – Templars, Hospitalers and Teutonic Knights amongst others = demonstrate that on the whole church was reconciled to the use of force.

The Reformation reopened the debate, and the Anabaptist tradition espoused most visibily in recent years by Yoder and subsequently made more popular by the efforts of Hauerwas seeks to justify a strongly pacifist interpretation of the New Testament. This follows quite naturally from some of the comments of Jesus about ‘turning the other cheek’. The problem comes when this is taken to exclude Christians from any coercive role in a state; as Constantine’s defenders point out, are we to tell the office holder in the state to resign if they become a Christian?

The traditional ‘move’ in the ethical debate is to separate the role of the Christian as an individual from what they do as a officer of state. This is criticised by the pacifist tradition in favour of arguing that it is God’s command not to resist evil / take revenge etc, and this is not challenged by the change of hats. It is my contention that this fails to note the role of parents in using force and ensuring justice for their children; if Molly is beating up her little brother Timothy, it is clearly the duty of the parent to address this sin / evil / breach of justice. In doing so the parents are fulfilling a role that they have voluntarily adopted, especially these days. Yet our pacifist co-religionists fail to extend a similar legitimation to Christian officers of the state. Is this coherent?

As ever with pacifist arguments, once the dam is breached, the rest of the case for Christians to enforce the law with force must be admitted; if it is my duty to protect Timothy from Molly as a parent, it is surely equally my duty to protect Timothy from the rampaging criminal. If I can do that as a parent, I can surely do it as a officer of the law. And if I can use force to stop the local criminal, it follows that I can use the police to protect a small island from pirates, or an army to protect a state from invaders.

Justin Peters’ testimony

This is a response to the fascinating document which Justin Peters, an American preacher whose shredding of the ‘Word of Faith’ movement in his ‘Call for Discernment videos is superb. Yet despite this service to the church, he was left with a sense of preaching the faith, but not really believing it himself. For him this led to a time when he responded more to God: ‘I had a guilty conscience to be sure, but did not have a true, gut-wrenching godly sorrow. I had never genuinely wept over my sin until then.’

He uses the bible to justify the claim that this is the ONLY gateway to a true relationship with God, going so far being ‘rebaptised’ after this experience, having first been baptised as a seven year old, when believing in Jesus was on a level with believing in Santa Claus. He extends his exposition to defend the Calvinist position that such repentance is given by God to His elect – so it’s not something to which can aspire, but just happens. That’s a secondary debate that I’m going to park for now.

There is a strong tradition in the Calvinist tradition that we should experience some such ‘gut-wrenching’ sorrow. This is what underlies the Calvinist revival tradition – most clearly seen in Jonathan Edwards’ experience in the early 18th century. Yet it is one that carries over into early Methodism, where a clear awareness of your own sinful state before God is the starting point for conversion. The ‘Evangelical’ movement is usually separated from this earlier Puritan tradition by Evangelicals’ willingness to allow the process of contrition to move to resolution by engaging with the grace of Jesus relatively quickly; the Puritans expected the period of contrition to be measured in days. Yet both remained committed to an expectation of visible contrition, as a result of engaging with God, before the salve of the Cross was to be applied for the individual. Both traditions are thus highly sceptical of the modern emphasis of preaching God’s love first…

The danger at this point is, of course, that it becomes the PREACHER who hangs his listeners over the flames of Hell and frightens them by such stories into signing up to the faith, rather than the process seeing God bring to an awareness of their sins. We can go too far the other way. The book of Acts shows us Peter being unsubtle in his criticism of the Jews on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), though it is notable that his focus is on the visible events of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Stephen similarly does not model gentleness on any understanding we can cope with in his attack on the leaders of the Jews that gets him martyred. (Acts 7).

However I want to pursue is how far a ‘gut-wrenching’ experience of repentance is a necessary precursor to coming to know God. A review of the gospel stories of Jesus’ encounters with people seems to offer little evidence for it. The emphasis there is far more on living out the decision to repent; thus Levi and Nathaniel are called to follow Jesus, and the Samaritan woman is wowed by Jesus’ knowledge of her life so that she tells all her neighbours (John 4). Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish hints at this sort of reaction (Luke 5), but it is notable in its uniqueness, and it doesn’t make the other gospels. From a historical perspective, Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ offers an experience that might or might not be what Peters insists on; he is indeed deeply miserable in his garden when he hears ‘Take and Read’, though it’s hard to assess. Is it ultimately about his struggle with lust, rather than ‘sin’. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confessions.xi.html Similarly CS Lewis’ report of his conversion in ‘Surprised by Joy’ doesn’t have such an episode, nor does GK Chesterton offer any such event. This modern paradigm can perhaps be traced to Luther’s experience of sin and being released from it when he discovers the meaning of Romans, and is seen in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, but that doesn’t make it normative.

And yet Peters’ focus on the need for genuine repentance is important. The issue however is whether it needs to be expressed by a specific experience, or whether, as with all conversion, the process can be gradual. The central issue is one of true engagement with God leading to a changed life in the medium term; the problem comes when we try to bottle this and do it purely on a human level. We’ve already touched on the ‘scare them into heaven’ approach. There are a number of alternatives. One is the ‘sign up now and all will be well for ever’ – a perversion of the ‘born again’ movement which validly emphasises the need to engage with God – but makes the process so easy that it takes no real commitment, requires no repentance and has no meaning. We have the ‘join the community, enjoy the buzz, have a great time at church’ approach, that at best does lead people to seek more, but at worst legitimates their sinful lifestyles. We have the Catholic solution to the conundrum; as the established church, it needed to offer its religion to all the citizens of the Roman Empire. As a result it came to see baptism as a infant as the entry point to the church and engagement with the sacraments as the way to progress. As ever, at its best, such an approach can lead to true engagement with God, but when combined with a desire to conform without such engagement, can easily lead a formalised religion with no reality.

An interesting feature of this story is Peters’ decision to be ‘rebaptised’. Whatever else happened, that isn’t it; you can only be baptised once, so he is rejecting his baptism at the age of 7 and claiming his new one as his baptism. Note, in passing, the problem for who favour believers baptism in the legitimation of the cycle of feeling that a further baptism is justified because the first one wasn’t real. However I do want to highlight that baptism does point to a specific point of transition in a person’s life, which should be recognised in our theology. Instead we have a tendency to downplay the crisis of conversion, perhaps leaving a legacy of people hanging around in our churches because it’s a comfortable place to be, rather than because they’ve met with God.

So – what conclusion are we to draw? Surely we must accept that God works in a variety of ways to bring His children to new life. An experience that is central to the spiritual life of one person may have no resonance in the life of another – because that’s not God’s priority for them. Of course this can be taken too far; at some point if a person is TOO far from a pattern of experience that resonates with the rest of the Christian community, it becomes necessary to conclude that they haven’t actually engaged with God at all. The complexity comes where the same experience is truly of God in one person – but not for another; Satan has disguised himself as an angel of light, as we are warned (2 Cor 11). It is here that the gift of ‘discerning of Spirits’ becomes required…

Feminist theology

There are a number of Christian beliefs which I wish I didn’t hold: I wish I could be a universalist; I wish I could give equal legitimacy to gay relationships; I wish divorce and remarriage wasn’t such a no-no. And I wish I could buy the claim that men and women are not inherently distinguished; instead I  would argue that men are tasked with leadership and authority roles which it isn’t right for women to exercise.

This is a minefield. Over the centuries the church has got it badly wrong, suppressing the gifts of women to an unhealthy extent. Actually that wasn’t restricted to women; the ability of most to develop their gifts to any significant extent wasn’t really an option. But the failure to offer women the education that was available no doubt left us deprived of their gifts. This can be over stressed; the church did better than the cultures from which it was emerged, and the New Testament hints at women having a significant role in the early church, though one that faded subsequently.

The issue is, of course, about how we interpret the bible. For the purposes of this discussion I’m taking Genesis as authoritative, which given that Jesus did so in his condemnation of divorce, seems appropriate. So what does this give us?

Genesis 2 offers us the story of the creation of woman. She is bought to Adam, and he NAMES her. This matches his relationship to the animals, whom he has named and has authority over. We name what we have authority over; even in our culture, the parents’ naming of their children reflects our authority over them. And this occurs BEFORE the fall; it’s not after it. Thus suggesting ‘Had God wanted demonstrate that woman is less fit to rule, he would not have given them the same calling to take dominion’ misses the significance of being a queen; a queen shares the king’s authority in reality, though ultimately under his authority.

It’s also important to recognise the words used in the Hebrew for rulership. The type of rule that the man is described as exercising over the woman as a result of the curse of the fall is מְשָׁל ‘mashal’ – the sort of rule exercised over a foreign land, rather than the rule of the king of Israel over Israel, which is the word מְּלֹךְ ‘malak’ which has the concept of taking counsel in it. So the fall results in a collapse of the relationship between man and wife from consultative and healthy to domination and unbalanced – as the phrase about ‘Your desire will be for your husband’ also suggests.

Turning to the New Testament, and its use of the creation story, we have 1 Tim 2:

‘8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.’

The point here is that women, after conversion, are still limited in what they should do. If we are to take this passage seriously, we have to provide an interpretation that engages with the reference to the events in the Garden. My own preference is to see this as a ban on church leadership for women; a policy that remains in place in theory in most of Christendom, though the drift towards Catholic parishes being headed by a woman religious because of the shortage of priests is a reality that is unhealthy. A particular problem relates to what is meant by ‘teaching’: it may well relate to the specific laying down of what the church believes on a topic that is distinct from week by week preaching. If so, this provides space for a woman to be the one who brings the sermon on a Sunday; however this leaves open the question of when ‘teaching’ IS occurring in the church. Not a topic I want to open up now.

A detail to bear in mind any discussion of this issue is way in which the punishment that lands on Adam and Eve persists to this day. Men still till the ground with great difficulty, and women suffer pain in child birth. Any attempt to minimise the truth and implications of the rulership of men over women should be able to point to these other effects being removed before claiming that women are to be released from the rulership. So when Christians by miraculous means are painlessly producing babies and our jobs don’t require the ‘painful toil’ and ‘the sweat of the brow’, then the rest of the package is defunct. Until then, we should resist trying to avoid what does seem clearly taught as part of the reality of living – though this is NOT an excuse for men being gratuitously dominant over women.

Finally we must recognise that the existence of what seems to be a gift from God doesn’t create the right for the possessor to use it. This is most clearly seen in presently celibate people; such individuals are gifted to be parents and sexually active, both good gifts from God. But just because they have that gift doesn’t mean they have the right to exercise it. So the fact that a woman appears well equipped to be a church leader doesn’t constitute evidence that she is fulfil that role.

Conclusion

‘Had God intended for man to rule over woman, he would have stated it more clearly when creating her. Instead he speaks it out as a consequence of her sin, and by doing so he relays the pain it is inflicting on both humanity and creation, but also, to the heart of God… It is time to set Eve free.’

I hope I’ve challenged the logic of this rhetoric. We are called to be faithful to the God who is revealed in the bible, even when He requires us to go against the fashionable views of the world that have come to dominate large parts of the institutional church.

Finally – to shoot us at men; the reason why women end up doing the jobs which the bible seems to indicate should be reserved for women is because we duck our responsibilities. We sit back and let them do the sharing, the leading and the praying. We may be sitting back in church because we have over committed ourselves at work – making our career the centre of our lives instead of finding God’s balance for it.

Recommended reading:

David Pawson Leadership is Male

John and Paula Sandford Restoring the Christian Family

Christians whinging about ‘Easter’ – who do you think you are?

This year the meme ‘we shouldn’t celebrate Easter because it’s pagan’ did the rounds on facebook. It is depressing to see mixture of ignorance, arrogance and superstition that drives this meme. Let’s take it apart.

  1. There IS reason to complain about the name ‘Easter’. Not that it comes from Mesopotamian Ishtar – as the fact that the name is only found in Germany and England reveals; elsewhere a name derived from Pascha is used for the Christian feast. It’s probable that the name of feast day comes from the Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, though even that may be invalid. However given that all the days of the week are named after pagan deities in English, to be consistent you’d have to abandon those as well. Thor’s day, Woden’s day, Saturn’s day etc. Use those and Easter, or neither…

  2. The dating of Easter was finally set by the Council of Nicaea called by Emperor Constantine in 325. He didn’t invent the feast, merely got the council to get the minority of the church in Asia that was holding it on one date to come into conformity with the practice of the vast majority of the church that was holding it on another. It is certain that the feast had been celebrated by the persecuted church that preceded the days of Constantine; why do we, who’ve never been significantly persecuted, think we have the right to criticise those who were?

The modern challenge to Easter usually comes from ‘Sola Scriptura’ believers who try to pretend that it is possible to construct a working faith merely from the things in the bible. Whilst this is an improvement on the proponents of the ‘New Testament church’ fantasy – who try to do the church like they did it in the New Testament, but still insist on using the New Testament (think about it) – it not much better. The core objection is the idea that the Holy Spirit took a sabbatical from the earth for some 1500 years after the death of John until the Reformation. Really?

But it’s also defective because it fails to engage with the material in the New Testament that indicates that Christians are to be formed by the people through whom they were converted; Paul’s references to the Corinthians as his children who are to obey him as a result makes this clear. And any such Christian who wears a wedding ring is to be giggled at… In practice we ALL have traditions that we inherit; whilst it is appropriate to test them against scripture and discard what is CONTRARY to scripture, it is not biblical to pretend to a tradition free scripture.

Joshua 22:10-end – a text for the week of prayer for Christian Unity.

This story from Joshua is little known. When the Israelites first arrived in the promised land, some of the tribes settled on the eastern bank of the Jordan subject to a promise that they would help their brethren capture the territory on the western bank. When this task was finished, the Eastern tribes raised an altar to mark their commitment to the Lord – and to emphasis that they were part of the people of Israel. However this was misinterpreted by the Western tribes to be a violation of the law of Moses, which banned the building of an altar anywhere except the one place that the Lord would direct. So the Westerners organised to attack their Eastern brethren – but did make the effort to send a party to investigate first. These investigators were convinced by the Easterners’ explanation, and peace was restored.

So what lessons can we take from this?

  1. We need to take the commandments of God seriously. If a fellowship is reported to be acting in a way that is contrary to the scriptures, we should not ignore it. Although the New Testament model does not call for us to physically attack them, we should be prepared to clearly separate from them.

  2. Our actions need to be based on clear investigation. It’s NOT good enough to respond to vague reports that ‘those dreadful people are doing X and that’s not acceptable’. We see here that they were doing something that looked like X – BUT WASN’T. The classic example from church history is the attitude of the Reformation to pictures in church. ‘Must be idolatry – we must destroy them’ – an attitude that cost the UK much of the artistic heritage of the Medieval period. In more recent years allegations of ‘sheep stealing’ and ‘heavy shepherding’ were routinely made against the new Charismatic denominations. Whilst there may have been mistakes, the fact that those groups have now largely come to be accepted in the wider Christian community is a sign that the early rumours were, ultimately, unjustified.

  3. The outcome should be reported back. If a group has gone bad, then this fact should be declared publicly by the leadership of other Christian communities in an area. Equally if it’s been investigated and found healthy, then its clean bill of health is to be publicised as well. Of course this requires church leaders who are willing to ask those hard questions, take a stand and be clear about what they regard as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour or beliefs. Sadly instead we suffer a surfeit of rumours, a lack of clarity about where the lines are, and a general chaos, enabling the wolves to have free range in the flock. Meanwhile real relationships are disdained and opportunities are lost because those who have been hurt in the past by such wolves are more suspicious than they should be.

Why is this happening? A lot comes from an unwillingness to challenge other churches, to go and discover if they are ‘of the Lord’. It’s easier to avoid asking hard questions and drawing sharp lines. Part of this is because there is a strong belief that the church has tended to be more willing to reject the ‘new things’ that the Spirit is doing; the widespread rejection of Wesleys’ ministry and the Anglo-Catholic movement by the Church of England are trotted out as examples. So instead we’ve allowed liberal ‘theology’ to rule the roost – and seen chaos and massive decline in attendances.

It’s also hard work; there needs to be solid engagement between churches to enable the sorts of conversation that are necessary for this to occur. It’s interesting to note that the incident in Joshua occurs after the two protagonists had been fighting alongside each other – yet still distrust occurred. And today it’s not given the priority that it needs; because the leaders of churches don’t see this as one of their primary roles, they allow other issues that should be lower priority to distract them. Actually this follows from a belief that there aren’t really wolves out there – buying into the vague ‘ecumenical’ agenda – yet the reality is that there clearly are.

As ever we need to be discerning. It’s easy to get it wrong – it’s more attractive to look the other way – and that’s a dereliction of duty by our leaders. And remember where the story starts; the Easterners had wanted to affirm their full membership of the people of Israel – but didn’t talk to the right people to do so. We need to spend far more time in real communication – and far less in things that we KNOW are of no value, but are not prepared to actually kill off.

A minefield we need to cross

Comparing homosexuality and paedophilia!!

One of the more obnoxious forms of homophobia over the years has been the confusion in many minds of homosexuality and paedophilia. The response of many church leaders to an admission of being same sex attracted is to ban the person from any involvement in youth work. This tendency is one of many mistakes that the ignorant have made in an attempt to avoid criticism, and is wholly unacceptable; indeed in the present climate of confusion, the model of a single person working out their celibate lifestyle would be helpful to any members of a youth group struggling with the issue.

However the result of this pastoral abomination is that it has become unacceptable to even mention the two issue within the same context. As a result the insight into the gay issue that paedophilia brings are lost, to the benefit of the liberal cause. Let me repeat – at the risk of getting boring – that drawing the parallel is not intended to suggest that a homosexual person is more likely to be guilty of child abuse, and it is very wrong to make any such assumption. However the two issue do illuminate each other.

Both homosexuality, paedophilia and heterosexuality constitute ‘sexual orientations’ in the strict sense; they are labels for the sexual preference that most individuals experience. That is a fact, in the same way that blue, green and brown are labels for the eye colours of humans. History reveals that the church led the delegitimation of the homosexuality in the Roman Empire, an attitude which Western European culture inherited, though in the past 50 years that delegitimation has been substantially reversed. Paedophilia experienced a similar rejection, but one that has not been reversed.

Modern ethics tries to draw a sharp distinction between the two, on the basis that paedophilic behaviour is always damaging to the child, but a sexualised gay relationship is not. This claim is held as a matter of faith, and those challenging it are seldom welcome in polite company. Yet from a Christian perspective – where we seek to obey what God commands and not merely conform to what the current fashion is – such a basis for decision making is not acceptable. Jesus’ condemnation of the remarriage of divorcees as adultery exemplifies this; that much of the modern church is unwilling to obey his command on the matter merely evidences the same attitude in another area.

So what has this exercise shown us? Getting through the minefield allows us to challenge the widespread piece of ‘theology’ such as this:

‘[Gays] are simply human beings, with every possible mixture of good and bad, who happen to be (as it were) differently wired as regards sexuality. The most recent statistic I’ve read says that roughly 10% of the human population is homosexual. I cannot believe that God made 10% of his human children gay and now hates them for it–or wants the other 90% to hate them. it doesn’t make sense. Is God so sex-obsessed that he (or she!) judges humans primarily on sexual behavior, and not on things like kindness, generosity, creativity, or any other positive quality?’

http://thurible.net/2015/12/12/the-next-questions-the-archbishop-needs-to-be-asked/#comment-44876

There are of course two mistakes here – the assumption that the deeply flawed position of Westboro Baptist represents mainstream Christian belief that ‘God hates gays’. It’s sad that there are a few still at that place – and I deeply regret their attitude. However the mainstream attitude is that a temptation to homosexual activity is a temptation to do wrong – not any worse than any other temptation.

https://b66423.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/articulating-the-four-christian-responses-to-homosexuality/

is my extended discussion of the matter.

The second is that the point that this article is attempting to show; the claim that God made gay people gay offers any legitimacy to claims that they are free to have a sexualised relationship. The existence of people whom ‘God made paedophiles’ makes this problematic. The argument therefore comes down to WHY certain relationships are legitimate and others aren’t; the attempt to short circuit the process by this appeal is flawed.

Let me repeat again that I’m not trying to tar the gay community with the paedophile tag. This is an unfair allegation, and they have every right to object if such a connection is made. But we do have the right to challenge those who want to try to use a theological argument to add to their justification of gay relationships when it simply won’t fly. Yes, of course there are others, and I’m NOT trying to claim that this destroys the pro-gay position. I’m just trying to nail one of the arguments that is commonly thrown around. That it has taken over 800 words to do so is a measure of the sensitivity of the matter. But nail it we should.

For those wanting a fuller discussion of the issue of homosexuality and the church, Ed Shaw’s book

‘The Plausibility Problem’, written by a Church of England minister who is himself ‘Same Sex Attracted’ – a term he prefers over ‘gay’ for reasons that he explains in the book – is an excellent challenge to the prevailing ‘missteps’ that have led to the present confusion.