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Thursday, 26 February 2015

Free speech means nothing without the right to offend

The latest edition of Evangelicals Now carries an article which asks the question should free speech include the right to intentionally offend? Disappointingly, the author seems to conclude that it should not. He states "Freedom of speech should not mean freedom to say anything. Cartoons that diminish people by ridiculing their faith come into the category of journalistic jihadi and are on a par with hate speech."

Almost everybody agrees there should be some boundaries to free speech. The vast majority of people accept slander and liable to be legitimate limits. Most agree that it is not acceptable to spout, or print, lies about others. Many, though not all, believe words that are liable to incite violence should not sit within the bounds of free speech. Others are quite happy to disallow anything termed "hate speech", which includes anti-religious sentiments and racially motivated comments among other things. We are now moving toward a situation where some even consider offensive language to be unacceptable.

The problem with "hate speech" or "offensive language" is that such terms are so nebulous and subjective that the range of things disallowed is enormous. The world is full of people waiting to be offended or deem words hateful. In recent years, there have been multiple stories of police action against street preachers, protesters and political activists on such grounds. When anti-terror legislation - intended to suppress acts of violence against the country - is used to eject elderly gentlemen who object to party speeches (see here) we have undoubtedly pressed the limits of free speech too far.

I am wholly for liable and slander legislation. Indeed, these are civil laws that do not tend to lead to imprisonment but damages and reparation (and rightly so). Though I have some sympathy with the thought behind legislation that prohibits incitement to violence, I am not so sure this should be considered a legal offence (see here). I am absolutely sure that neither "hate speech" nor offensive language should be considered illegal (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

The line between "hate speech" and "offensive language" is not clear cut. It is most certainly offensive to spout racist insults in the street. In fact, we may call this hateful. There is nothing good, endearing or acceptable about it. Yet, offensive as such repugnant views may be banning their very utterance won't change the attitudes of those who express them. If such views turn into harassment, assault or worse we have laws to address such behaviour that cover all people regardless of gender, creed, colour or sexuality. I don't care if somebody assaults me because of something about my person to which they take exception. I simply care that they assaulted me and I want them treated as anybody else who may have assaulted anybody else for any other reason.

We may find Charlie Hebdo unnecessarily inflammatory and offensive. If that is the case, the answer is not to ban it but not to buy it. Offence over what they print is no reason to ban them from printing it. Free speech should include the right to intentionally offend. In fact, free speech means nothing without the right to offend. Christians are well aware that the gospel is a cause of offence (cf. Rom 9:33; 1 Cor. 1:23; 1 Pet 2:8) and yet we rightly continue to preach it regardless. If we demand the right to offend through the preaching of the gospel (as well we ought), we must accept that others should also have the right to offend us. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Tax avoidance, tithes and total depravity

Tax avoidance seems to have taken centre stage in the news of late. In particular, HSBC have found themselves in the firing line (see here). Many right-wingers have lined up to defend lower-level forms of tax avoidance (cf. Lord Fink, Nigel Farage, Toby Young, et al). The Labour leader, Ed Milliband, as well as other voices on the left (e.g. Owen Jones) have come out against the practice. The Prime Minister is trying to walk that tricky line between upsetting his friends in business - for whom aggressive tax avoidance seems standard practice - and the majority of voters who don't have the income to warrant employing personal tax accounts and thus generally dislike the practice.

There is obviously some talking past one another on this issue. This typically revolves around our definition of terms. When Lord Fink claims "everybody does it" he is almost certainly referring to pension contributions, ISAs and other tax deductible activities encouraged by government. If our definition of tax avoidance is utilising anything that reduces our taxable income, then yes, most of us engage in tax avoidance. However, if our definition of tax avoidance, as per Owen Jones' claim, is anything that avoids the tax government would ordinarily expect us to pay, then it is probably true that most of us do not engage in tax avoidance.

There is certainly something distasteful about government employing accountancy firms to help draft tax legislation who then win customers on their ability to avoid the very legislation they helped implement. At the very least, those of us without the income to warrant access to personal tax consultants are not on a level playing field. Even on a business level, when larger companies can write off their tax losses in the UK against other EU countries and thus avoid UK tax is not a level playing field for smaller, independent companies who have no such foreign presence.

The question that inevitably does the rounds is whether, if you could, you would accept the ability to pay one per cent tax. But it is a redundant question when most of us aren't in the position to do so. We can make any bold statement we like knowing we will never actually have to follow through on our claim. As the comedian David Mitchell put it when asked if he would pay 1% tax if he could get away with it, "well I certainly wouldn't say I would". This is probably closer to the truth than many of us like to think.

At heart, however, the issue is clear. It is not fundamentally one of the tax system (though that is an issue) but one of sin. Given the chance, the human heart will exploit whatever means it can for greed and gain. The OT system of jubilee years recognised this tendency. God instituted a system that would effectively redistribute wealth, stop long-term poverty and lifelong slavery. It was a system in which wealth and land could not be hoarded forever and the impoverished would not remain so generation after generation. Debts were mandatorily cancelled, land returned and slaves set free. God recognised, left to their own devices, the rich would exploit the poor in perpetuity and thus set in place a system to stop such practices.

It is this very tendency that always staggers me when Christians (rightly) uphold total depravity on the one hand, whilst (wrongly) maintaining trickle-down, capitalist economics will work for the many. Since when did the sinful human heart think, of its own volition, giving away wealth to strangers is a good idea? Since when did the sinful human heart think, of its own volition, I have a means of keeping more of my own money but I'm not going to utilise it? That some people don't do this is testament to common grace. That most do (or would do given the opportunity) rather underlines human nature. The OT system seemed to recognise that without legal structures to enforce wealth distribution, land return and slave release it simply would not happen. This is as true today as it ever was. 

A heart changed by the spirit of God may cause these things to happen without enforcement. The collection boxes of churches up and down the country are testament to this. However, even there, sinful human nature plays its part. My offering may be equal to the number of people watching me place it in the offering box. My tithe may be a portion of my income after my outgoings have all been taken into account. It may not be tax avoidance but it might be tithe avoidance. The Bible never dictates how much or how often we ought to give, it simply says believers ought to give. Yet we too continue to fight against the old man; greed or approval may still rear its head. As one minister friend was fond of pointing out: most people either want more money or a round of applause. If we are able to get both, what a day!

Greed is a powerful motivator. We shouldn't be surprised by tax avoidance because, in a system which openly encourages greed what are we to expect? There needs to be a system that doesn't simply expect greedy, sinful people to act in honourable ways. As the old quote says (often, probably wrongly, attributed to Keynes), “capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all".

Yet, though we are fast to point the finger, most of us pay tax through PAYE and have no opportunity to avoid it on any large scale. But what do our tithes and offerings suggest about what we'd do? Do we skim off our outgoings and other things to effectively reduce what we feel we ought to give? Are we generous toward the Lord and his people or are we greedy and seek to hoard our wealth for ourselves? 

If our response to the Lord's work, and our claim to love his people, doesn't extend to our wallets and purses then perhaps we haven't been affected by the gospel. If we skim off our tithes and offerings, using loopholes and arguments to justify what we give, then how are we any better than tax avoiders? In fact, surely we are worse. Many companies make little pretence they like paying tax and clearly say if they could pay less, they would. Their exploitation of loopholes is a logical outworking of that claim. We, who claim to love the Lord and say we support his work, are hypocrites if we seek to lessen our offerings. With our mouths we claim to love the Lord, his people and his work but with our wallets and self-justifications we don't.

Tax avoidance is a soft-target. Most agree the face-value of the tax owed ought to be paid by those that owe it. It is quite right they should come under pressure to pay their tax. It is also right the government should clampdown on existent loopholes. But we shouldn't forget that most of us are in no such position to do it. It is very easy to claim we wouldn't do the same when there is no reason to presume we will ever be in a position to make that choice. What we are in a position to see is our own generosity toward our saviour and the work of his church. That should give us a real insight into whether we would seek to avoid our taxes the same way given the opportunity.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

3 reasons why I would admit paedobaptists to membership

This post has, in part, been encouraged by the question asked by Jonathan Leeming - of 9Marks - via Twitter.

I am a baptist. I have pretty well always been a baptist. I am personally convinced of credo-baptism and I lead a church that practices believers baptism by full immersion. I genuinely believe baptism matters and I remain personally unconvinced of paedobaptist arguments to the contrary. Our church practice is that only baptised believers can be admitted to church membership and will only conduct believers baptism by immersion.

With that said, it bears asking why our church is willing to admit paedobaptists to membership? I have previously tackled the question of whether we can do that consistently here (I argued we could). However, this position leads to cries from some baptist quarters that we, therefore, don't really believe in baptism as a criteria for membership. Alternatively, we may be charged with inconsistency in that we insist on baptism for membership, and only conduct believers baptism as a church, yet admit paedobaptists. With that in mind, I'd like to suggest 3 reasons why we admit some paedobaptists to membership (1).

Baptism is demanded by all churches

Throughout history, there have always been denominational differences and the issue of baptism is no different. There are those who will baptise babies (paedobaptist) and those who only baptise professing believers (credo-baptist). There are those who will baptise all infants (universal paedobaptists) and those who only baptise children of believing parents (covenental paedobaptists). There are those who baptise by sprinkling children and adults, those who immerse children and adults, those who sprinkle professing believers and those who only immerse professing believers. The reason for these differences has been picked over many times.

However, one thing remains clear: there are no Christian churches, no denominations, who do not see baptism as important. Whether Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist or Free Church baptism is seen as highly important and a measure of obedience to Jesus Christ. Almost no churches would argue baptism, in any form, is of no value or importance. Very few would say it bears no relevance to membership (though, undoubtedly, some exist).

Our church is very clear that only baptised believers can be admitted to membership. Those who will not be baptised in any way, shape or form are deemed to stand contrary to the commands of Jesus Christ. Those who openly flout Christ's commandments naturally cause us to question their testimony (2). 

However, many who have undergone paedobaptism believe they have been obedient of Christ's command and equally do not believe they can be "re-baptised". Though we would continue to teach and encourage believers toward baptism by immersion (even those who have been baptised as infants), we do not want to force individuals to choose between their conscience (in light of the fact they truly believe they have been obedient to Christ on this issue) and joining the church in membership. This is not admittance of unbaptised believers, it is admittance of believers who have been baptised in an irregular way (3).

Paedobaptism is not without significance

As I argued here, paedobaptism is not entirely insignificant. Though it may have been done 'out of order' - in that it preceded, rather than followed, conversion - that does not undo the fact the later faith of the individual imbues it with some significance. Equally, though paedobaptism does not fully communicate the fullness of washing from sin, the dying/rising motif and union with Christ it is not totally bereft of such symbolism. It is therefore possible to consider paedobaptism - at the point one comes to faith - as retroactively imbued with some significance, though not full significance. It is, if you like, a partial or improper baptism.

Again, though the church would teach the importance of credo-baptism and encourage paedobaptists into full believers baptism by immersion, this does not undo the smaller significance of the paedobaptism itself. The individual has gone through the waters of baptism and is convinced such is an effective response to Christ's command. We, therefore, do not want to disbar such people from membership. Nevertheless, we would still want to encourage them into the fuller significance of credo-baptism and would not consider this a "re-baptism".

It is better than the alternatives

Faced with this question, we must assess the options available to us. As far as I can tell, we have three central options:

  1. Ignore baptism as a criteria for membership
  2. Refuse membership to paedobaptist brethren
  3. Find an accommodating middle way


Option 1 seems rather a poor position for a baptist church. It is evident from scripture, baptism preceded church membership. It is also an obvious matter of obedience to Christ. To admit to membership those who have made zero effort to fulfill this criteria (leaving aside subject and mode for the time being), is a bizarre position. There is little, if anything, else we would tolerate as openly disobedient to Christ without calling membership into question. Baptism, it seems, should be no different. Allowing folk to remain openly disobedient to Christ whilst admitting them to church membership seems irreconcilable with more than just the baptism passages of the bible.

Option 2 is certainly a more consistent position. It upholds baptism as important and makes a clear distinction between what is, and is not, meant by biblical baptism. In many ways, I am sympathetic to this position. Yet, it seems unfortunate (to say the least) to lock out of membership those who are obviously brethren in Christ and wholly in line with your stance as a church but for this one issue. It equally leads to anomalies such as Reformed Baptist Churches, standing firmly in the Calvinistic tradition, who themselves would lock Calvin out of membership. Is it right to disbar brethren, not due to disobedience to Christ, but because their conscience won't allow them to be "re-baptised", irrespective of how we may view that mode of baptism? This is not a matter of obedience but an issue of how obedience is interpreted.

I, therefore, end up leaning toward option 3. This may seem like something of a sop. In truth, were this current point the only one, I'd be inclined to agree. Yet, given the two (more important) points above, I think this is a legitimate position. It is a means of not dividing the church whilst maintaining believers baptism by immersion as important. It makes Christ's command to be baptised of central importance whilst making allowance for improper, or irregular, modes. It recognises there is some value in paedobaptism without conferring on it the full value of believer's baptism by immersion. It lets believers baptism by immersion be taught as proper, and even allows credo-baptists to encourage their paedobaptist brethren to go through believers baptism by immersion, without breaking unity in the church.

I write this not to knock other practices. Each of these positions seeks to be biblically faithful and, in some measure, hold unity together with truth. I don't pretend this is anything less than a thorny issue in which each church must come to its own settled position. I merely offer my own here.


Notes

  1. We wouldn't admit all paedobaptists to membership. Only those who can credibly (theologically) defend their paedobaptism
  2. That is not to say those who are unbaptised are necessarily unbelievers. It is simply to say, those who refuse to get baptised - especially when they agree such is commanded by Jesus Christ - cannot wonder why we are surprised by their lack of desire to do as Jesus commands and suggest it may reflect an unregenerate heart
  3. It's worth saying, we would baptise some folk by sprinkling where full immersion would be a danger to life or limb. Sprinking is not fully significant, it is not the proper mode, but it does convey something (not least, a heart willing to obey Christ) and is therefore adequate for membership if not the most full and proper sign

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A return to regeneration, indwelling and the coming of the Spirit

Almost exactly a year ago, I began tentatively exploring the nature of belief and salvation; specifically regeneration and the indwelling of the Spirit before and after Pentecost. Briefly stated, I considered passages such as Ezekiel 36:24-28 and John 16:7, among others, which speak of a distinct difference between the pre- and post- coming of the Spirit. However, the Reformed ordo salutis (to which I subscribe) insists regeneration must occur prior to receipt of the Spirit. To state the problem briefly: if the Spirit is required in the work of regeneration and this precedes repentance in the ordo salutis, how did believers come to repentance prior to Christ's ascension when the Spirit was not present in their hearts?

You can read my three previous posts on this issue here, here and here. I last left this discussion having arrived (very tentatively) at the following conclusions: first, and never really in doubt during discussion, salvation was always by faith alone. Second, regeneration was always necessary to counter Total Depravity in both the OT and NT. Third, there appeared to be a distinction between the Spirit 'on' individuals in the OT and the Spirit 'in' believers in the NT (broadly speaking). The mechanics of how this all held together was left unclear.

I was (relatively) OK with this broad position until a recent discussion pointed out 1 Peter 1:10-11
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and enquired carefully, enquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.
This verse appears to suggest the prophets had the Spirit of Christ indwelling their hearts prior to the coming of the Spirit himself. This sent me back to the issue for a reappraisal. Here are some further (still tentative) thoughts on this topic.

Before I go on, it's important to affirm what I uphold. Principally, I maintain salvation - in both OT and NT - was by faith alone. Similarly, I maintain the Reformed ordo salutis that Total Depravity demands regeneration by the Spirit prior to conversion. However, I want to uphold a legitimate distinction between Christ's going and the Spirit's coming. I also want to maintain a reasonable distinction between Ezekiel's comment (related to a future reality) and the present experience, at the time of writing, of OT believers.

In previous discussions, I posited the idea the Spirit may not necessarily have indwelt OT believers (though they were regenerate). The question follows: is it possible to have regeneration without indwelling? Certainly, the ordo salutis would allow for this. Further, there is no scriptural reason to insist - just because the Holy Spirit indwells believers as a sign and seal of their faith today - that excludes God's work on unbelievers prior to faith. Even in the church age, where we certainly receive the indwelling Holy Spirit, we believe regeneration occurs prior to conversion from which indwelling follows. Indeed, John 16:8-11, Titus 3:5 and James 1:18 would bear this reading out. If such is true, we have good grounds to argue regeneration occurs without indwelling (though receipt of the Spirit follows for believers today). If it is true that regeneration occurs prior to indwelling, this could readily apply to OT regeneration irrespective of their indwelling.

Given that, Jesus words in John 14:16-17 would also bear out this reading:
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Notice Jesus' construction here. His disciples know the Spirit because he dwells, or abides, with you (present tense) but he will be in you (future tense). As John Hendryx helpfully points out:
This is a future tense of an indwelling. Apparently the saints of the OT enjoyed regeneration but may not have enjoyed indwelling... Regeneration and indwelling are not exactly the same for in regeneration the Spirit works to illumine our minds and renew our hearts prior to our faith in which He comes to indwell us. That pre-salvific action is not called indwelling. "WITH YOU" and "IN YOU" appear to demonstrate qualitative differences.
So, just as the OT believing Jews experienced a type and shadow of things to come, so it may be they were regenerate - that is the Spirit worked on the hearts and minds of OT believers - without indwelling their hearts. Today, the ordo salutis is largely logical (not necessarily sequential). That is, regeneration is logically prior to conversion which is logically prior to indwelling and sanctification though the latter three (broadly) occur simultaneously and end in glorification. For the OT believer, the same logical sequence would be true but regeneration and conversion happen in quick succession, whereas indwelling, sanctification and glorification may all occur later in a much more rapid succession.

There is an argument that OT believers were both regenerate and indwelt by the Spirit. Yet, this quashes any meaningful difference, as outlined in Ezekiel 36 and John 16, pre- and post- the Spirit's coming. It is often argued the difference was between a partial experience of the Spirit and the fullness after his coming, the emphasis falling upon Joel 2:28-29 and the post-Pentecost signs and wonders. However, it can't escape our notice that such things also happened in the OT. Visions and dreams were experienced and miraculous works were done as well. This doesn't really provide us with any quantitative or qualitative difference.

How then do we explain OT believers doing miraculous works and specific tasks? It seems, in the OT, the Spirit came upon people and anointed them selectively and temporarily for particular works (cf. Judges 15:141 Samuel 16:12f2 Chronicles 20:14; et al). It is notable that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul (1 Samuel 10:10) and yet he is widely regarded to have died in unbelief. As such, the Spirit coming upon an individual did not necessarily indicate their spiritual state. The Spirit thus moved individuals to specific acts without necessarily indwelling. Again, such causes a problem for the view that Pentecost was the dawn of the fullness of the Spirit's coming (these acts of the Spirit were occurring in the OT). 

How then do we explain verses such as Numbers 27:18; Ezekiel 2:2; 3:24; Micah 3:8Luke 1:15, 41, 671 Peter 1:10f? They are best understood as the Spirit moving these individuals at particular times for particular tasks. So, the prophets who enquired "what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating" could be read less as a reference to their ongoing, permanent indwelling and more a reference to the empowering of the Spirit at the point they were prophesying. In other words, this is a manifestation of the selective, temporary anointing of the Spirit. It does not speak to permanent indwelling but their anointing by the Spirit as prophets, spokesmen for God, whom the Spirit also anointed to write the canon.

This reading allows us to make a qualitative difference between the pre- and post- coming of the Spirit. It stops us from quashing all meaningful difference in the words of Ezekiel and Jesus. It also allows us to uphold Paul's statements in Romans that the Spirit - the same Spirit who descended on Jesus, anointed him at his baptism and on whom he relied to live out a perfect human life - will empower us to keep God's law in a way OT  believers could/did not. This reading maintains the continuity of Covenant Theology - salvation by faith alone requiring the regeneration of the Spirit of God to overcome our Total Depravity - without flattening any sense of discontinuity from when the Spirit begins to dwell in the hearts of God's people.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Are we called to ignorance and credulity?

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8)

Many are the verses often ripped out of context to press particular points in the church. Matthew 18:20 is one such favourite (see here), Matthew 7:1 is another and John 16:23b is often handled this way too. Ignoring the context of these verses will inevitably lead us to false application (sometimes dangerously, sometimes less so). As Don Carson has often stated, attributing the quote to his father, "a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text". The above verse, Philippians 4:8, is another such example.

This verse is rarely used in its contextless form as an encouragement to other believers. Rather, it is typically wheeled out when one party wishes to stop another from acting a particular way. Such is a shame given a plain reading of the verse, even while ignoring the wider context, suggests it was intended as an encouragement to the believers in Philippi, not a warning to stop doing something in particular.

Those who employ a contextless reading tell us to think about those things that are true, honrouable, pure, excellent, etc. That is a plain reading of the text. Therefore, they aver, it follows we are to avoid thinking about those things that are not lovely, commendable, excellent, etc. As such, they go on, anything we can deem unlovely, not commendable or less than excellent must be shunned by the believer. It is here we run into some trouble.

On such a reading, the range of things condemned as unedifying is enormous. The usual suspects in view are such "worldly" pursuits as TV, music, film and then a whole host of other things dependent on the particular hobby horses of the individual. However, what they singularly fail to take into account on their reading is the logical conclusion of this position. 

If we can only focus on what is true, any form of fiction must be discarded because it is not (and that would presumably include such classics as Pilgrim's Progress.) Pursuing regular news coverage must be ruled out. Rarely is the news commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. In fact, any thought of considering the state of the world around us must be removed from our thoughts because, though it may be true, it is not pure, excellent or always worthy of praise.

But the view must be pressed further. Evangelism suddenly becomes impossible because, as often happens when one engages with the world, conversations may be less than excellent and praise worthy. We may have to listen to views, and language, that do not equate with Paul's exhortation. Paul himself was wrong to do evangelism because he was regularly flogged, beaten, stoned or imprisoned - hardly lovely and commendable. 

Then we are faced with portions of scripture itself. What precisely is lovely, pure and worthy of praise in certain descriptive parts of Old Testament narrative? Consider (or don't, if you take this reading) passages such as Genesis 4Judges 19:22-29 or 2 Samuel 13. Of course, in their appropriate context and with proper thought, there are valuable principles to be drawn and understood. But the events themselves, that we must consider if we are to understand what God would have us learn through such passages, cannot be meditated upon if we follow this contextless reading to its logical conclusion.

This approach to Philippians 4:8 is a charter for ignorance and lack of thought. We can only really consider the lighter, fluffier parts of the Bible because they are pure, excellent, true, etc. We cannot consider, with meaningful thought, anything that is not wholly true, honourable, just, pure, excellent, etc. Engagement of any sort with the world, and worldviews apart from the Bible, are out. Even portions of scripture describing unsavoury events must also be ignored if we are not to fall foul of considering things that are fundamentally unlovely. The Bible simply does not call believers to a state of credulousness and ignorance this way.

Instead of this approach, putting the verses in context can help us out. The preceding verses, Philippians 4:4-7, are dealing with our potential for anxiety. Paul is telling us to be anxious in nothing and to bring our prayers and petitions to God with confidence. The following verses, vv-8-9, are offering a solution to our anxieties. Moreover, the only thing to truly meet all the criteria outlined by Paul in v8 is Jesus Christ himself. Thus the solution to our anxieties as Christians is to focus upon the Lord Jesus (who himself will guard our hearts) and will allow us to thus bring our prayers with confidence to the Father.

Paul's point is that Christ should be our ultimate focus. As per v4, we are to rejoice in the Lord. Thus his exhortation in v8 is to make the Lord Jesus our central focus. Where we do this, our anxieties will be cast aside and we will bring our prayers and petitions to the Father with confidence. As Sinclair Ferguson points out, in the space of 3 verses, Paul calls us to constantly rejoice in Christ and reject anxiety. He comments "the two are related; the joyful person is not likely to be dominated by anxiety; the anxiety-ridden spirit cannot be a joyful one".

Paul is not calling us to credulousness, nor ignorance, nor circling off certain activities as unlovely, lacking excellence and unworthy of praise (though such things undoubtedly do exist.) His point is that Christ should be our focus. Where he is, our anxieties certainly will not prevail. Where he is the centre of our thoughts, film, music, tv and all other manner of possible activities can be assessed rightly and hold nothing for us to fear. Such a position does not lead us to cut ourselves off from the world, or meaningful engagement with it, but rather causes us to make proper and valid assessments of the things we see around us in light of Jesus; the object of our faith, the pivot around which we assess all else and the definition of the qualities of Philippians 4:8.

Paul makes this same point in v9. He tells us to shape our thoughts and minds around the apostles teaching and to practise such things. And the focus of the apostles teaching was the person and work of Jesus Christ. If our thoughts and actions are focused upon him, our minds will be focused on the things of v8. When our minds and thoughts and actions are focused this way, we may assess all else - not in a spirit of credulity or ignorance - but in the Spirit of Christ himself, which he gives to all true believers. 

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Jesus' humanity, deity and the power of the Spirit

I posted some time ago, here and here, regarding Jesus' humanity, mission and anointing by the Spirit. It seemed to cause quite a stir in certain quarters. There was particularly some concern expressed over Bruce Ware's The Man Christ Jesus.

In my previous posts, I argued the miracles of Jesus did not prove his divinity. Rather, they proved his anointing by the Spirit for his specific mission from God. I went on to argue that Christ lived his life in the Spirit, yielding perfectly to his power, such that the works he did were not acts of his deity but were done in his humanity by the Spirit's power. It is his perfect human life accounted to all true believers and this same Spirit given to all true believers.

Following his excellent The Good God, I recently received Michael Reeves latest book Christ Our Life for Christmas. Thus far, it is excellent and can be highly recommended. One particular point pressed by Reeves is that the Son (or Word) of God never acted alone. He always worked in conjunction with the Spirit (as in Genesis 1, when the Word of God is spoken into the darkness borne by the Spirit). Reeves argues, in relation to the incarnation, "And as it had always been,so it was when the Word became flesh: he did all that he did in the power of the Spirit".

I was particularly struck by the force of his argument. He goes on to comment:
Born in the power of the Spirit, he lives and acts as a man in the power of the Spirit. At his Baptism in the Jordan, the Spirit anoints him, then sends him into the lifeless wilderness just as he had once sent him into the lifeless void in Genesis 1. Returning to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, he announced and defined his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth using the words of Isaiah 61: 'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour' (Luke 4:18-19). So he healed, did good, and drove out demons - all in the power of the Spirit (Matthew 12:28; Acts 10:38). Later he would offer himself up on the cross by the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14) and be raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:11)
In line with Ware's argument, Reeves states "Christ shows what it is to be a human, fully alive in the Spirit. And he is the head of a new, Spirit-filled humanity: all in him share in this anointing of his".

The importance of this cannot be missed. Though the impeccability of Christ must be defended, we mustn't miss the distinction between why he couldn't sin and why he didn't sin. As God, Jesus Christ could not sin yet, in his humanity, the reason he did not sin was because of his perfect reliance upon the power of the Spirit.

It is this distinction that means Christ's perfect life, lived in the Spirit, can be fully accounted to those who believe by faith in him. If the perfect righteousness of God could simply have been accounted to us, as God, Christ's humanity would have been unnecessary. Likewise, if Christ shifted at will between his deity and humanity during his ministry, it seems there would be aspects of his perfect humanity that could not be accounted to us (as he would have lived them out under his deity). Similarly, the call to "walk as he walked" must be rendered wholly impossible because he would have walked as God, in his deity, something we can never aspire to do. Instead, in his humanity, Christ perfectly yielded to the power of the Spirit - the same spirit he gives to all those who believe by faith in him and who are united with him in his death.

It is equally why believers, who receive the Spirit upon conversion, are now able to live lives that are truly and actually pleasing to God. Not in our own power, suddenly changed to be "good", but in the work of the Spirit in our lives when we yield to his power. Thus, when we sin as believers (and we always will until we reach glory), it is not because we have no means to put sin away (as when we were unbelievers) but rather because we are not fully yielding to the power of the Spirit at work in our lives. It is a tendency to yield to the call of sin (which we could only do as unbelievers) rather than the power of the Spirit (which we are now able to do as believers).

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Christmas detail I've long overlooked

I have sat through dozens of carol concerts, Christmas services and festive homilies in my lifetime. I know the story of Jesus' birth, and the surrounding events, inside out. I suspect most of us who have grown up in Christian homes (or even around families that only go to church at Christmas) feel the same way. What new thing are we possibly going to hear this Christmas that we haven't heard before?

But the Bible is a wonderful book. No matter how many times you read it there is often something new to find. Yet, I am always surprised when I see something new in a passage that is particularly familiar to me. Though this is a detail that many of you have probably noted long ago (and therefore can't understand my wonder), here is something that only just struck me this year.

In Matthew's account of Jesus' birth, he writes:
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Mt 2:7-12)
I wonder if you have seen the new thing too (which may not be new to you)? It's not the lack of mention of three wise men - everybody knows that old red herring!

Perhaps some of Matthew's following comments might help. He says in 2:16 "Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men."

Can you see it now?

I knew about Herod's command to kill all the children in Bethlehem under 2. I knew about Mary & Joseph fleeing to Egypt so they wouldn't be caught up in the melee. What I (rather unthinkingly) failed to clock was the reason for Herod's decision to aim for everyone under 2 (I know right!? How dense am I?!)

Here are two little details that I have failed to notice for the best part of 30 years. Mt 2:11 clearly tells us Jesus was found by the wise men in a house. The wise men - despite all the Christmas imagery to the contrary - were not rocking up the day Jesus was born to give him presents. Well, granted, there would be at least a few days between their visit.

But, Mt 2:16 makes clear that Herod took a while to realise he had been tricked by the wise men and sought to kill all males under 2 "according to the time he had ascertained from the wise men". In other words, the wise men were visiting Jesus up to any time within 2 years after his birth. That's why Herod goes mad and wants to kill all males in Bethlehem under 2 - this usurper could be any age within that bracket and this is the least messy option to deal with him.

Anyway, there you go, a small Christmas detail I've never really noticed. Jesus was probably just under two when the wise men saw him and Herod got after him. He wasn't in a manger, he was in a house. Life had returned to some normality (for nearly two years) before the wise men rocked up.

It's not exactly hidden away in the account at all. Staggering what an unquestioning look at Christmas imagery will do for you!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

CofE's first female Bishop and what business is it of yours?

It cannot have escaped your notice that the Church of England have just appointed their first female bishop. Details can be found herehere or at any other newspaper you prefer. Rev'd Libby Lane has been promoted to the vacant post in the See of Stockport. Greater Manchester will no doubt see this as something of a coup, maintaining it's reputation as a liberal, progressive region. Two comments from opposite ends of the spectrum can be found here (by the Archbishop Cranmer blog) and here (from Reformation 21).

As I commented here, quite the cause of the hoopla is beyond me. Irrespective of my own position on the matter, I can entirely understand the internal machinations of Anglicanism determining this as "a time for change". I can fully comprehend those within the church wishing to see their own personal views worked out within the church itself. I can also understand the strength of feeling on both sides of the debate and the difficulties this will cause to those currently within Anglicanism who do not share the view this marks a momentous step forward. I can even grasp why those Christians outside the Anglican church would take an interest on the basis that which affects Anglicanism will affect the rest of Christendom. The idea that the little Independent Evangelical Church will in no way be affected by the decisions from within the Anglican communion is nonsense.

However, what I cannot get my head around is the desire of people outside the Anglican church - those who have no attachment to Anglicanism, involvement in other denominations who will face knock-on effects, nor even identify as Christian - who insist upon a say in church matters. It seems such people believe a church to which they don't belong, which they deemed an irrelevance long ago and for whom their decisions will have not the slightest effect on their life, ought to do what they want. It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a Spaniard, who has never left Spain and has no link to the UK, insisting on the right to determine Home Office policy in Britain. They neither suffer nor benefit from the decision, they have no right to make that decision and yet they insist their voice must be heard in the decision-making process and, more than that, should prevail above all. Maybe I am missing something but, to me at least, it seems totally crackers!

I have no doubt there are strong, and probably majority, voices pressing for such changes within Anglicanism. Such are entitled to their position. For those less inclined to the new direction, they too are entitled to voice their views and (certainly now) face a decision as to whether to remain within the communion or to jump ship. But, of course, the predominant fanfare has come from neither of these quarters. Much has come from the mainstream media and those with little to no connection to the church, or Christianity, at all. 

At last, those underrepresented voices - the many who neither identify as Anglican, have any love for the church nor belong to other denominations for whom such decisions have knock-on effects - can rest safe in the knowledge that an institution for which they ordinarily care not one jot has finally come into line with their views. What a relief this news will be for them!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

3 doctrines to which we assent in word but not always in practice

There are several key doctrines to which confessional evangelical churches subscribe and to which the entirety of the membership assent upon joining the church. Yet, very often, though the membership claim assent to what is written in the doctrinal basis/statement of faith, it is apparent many do not in practice really believe such things. Here are three doctrines to which we often assent but in practice do not always hold:

The sufficiency of scripture
Most evangelical church members would confess a high view of scripture and have no problem assenting to it as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Yet, it seems to be one of those doctrines that is most commonly ignored in practice. It never ceases to amaze me when people sign up to such a doctrine in a statement of faith but fail to seek to conform their church practice, or more commonly, their own lives to scriptural principles.

I have had more than few conversations with people, over many years, who claim assent to this doctrine. Yet when it comes to matters of church practice or personal holiness, the Bible suddenly becomes subservient to whatever they happen to feel is right or what their reason tells them is appropriate. In either case, scripture is not the final authority in matters of faith and practice, one's logic or feelings on a matter become the arbiter of right and wrong. 

I was staggered when I first had a conversation with somebody about a matter of personal sin. They agreed with my interpretation of scripture; that what it said was precisely what it meant. It was equally obvious that interpretation didn't tally with their ongoing choice of action. Nevertheless, they were going to continue in their sin nonetheless because they felt it was OK - they had peace about it. That sort of action is not submitting to scripture as one's final authority in matters of faith and practice.

The work of the Holy Spirit
There is obviously some debate about the nature and extent of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not my intention here to rehash all those arguments or even make a case for any particular view. It is not the issue of gifts and the empowerment of the Spirit for service and mission that is in view here.

Rather, on pretty much all evangelical views of the Holy Spirit - irrespective of the scope and nature of all his work - most agree that one aspect of the Spirit's work is proper understanding of scripture, conviction of sin and regeneration of true believers. This is a standard article of faith in most confessional evangelical churches. Most members are happy to assent to this position.

However, in concert with the non-practice of the sufficiency of scripture, the Holy Spirit - far from giving proper understanding of the Bible - is often reduced to a feeling which simultaneously manages to contradict scripture. The Spirit becomes a tool, not for the conviction of sin, but to press the particular desires the individual claiming the Spirit's guidance happens to hold already. The Spirit unerringly agrees with the predisposition of the person claiming his guidance, irrespective of whether it contradicts scripture or not (which the individual usually agrees was written under the inspiration of the same Spirit they now claim contradicts portions of God's word). When we don't accept the sufficiency of scripture, the work of the Spirit normally extends to guiding us in all sorts of ways that readily contradict God's word.

The doctrine of the Church
Most are happy to assent to the concept of the universal church made up of all true believers. The outworking of this for personal practice has very few implications. Members will also assent to the idea of the universal church being expressed in the local church. They will even go further and assent to local church being - as the FIEC statement of faith puts it - "congregations of believers who are committed to each other for the worship of God, the preaching of the Word, the administering of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; for pastoral care and discipline, and for evangelism."

Yet, in practice, many members are dumbfounded when the church is not keen to admit to membership those who actively refuse to commit in any meaningful way to the local body. Likewise, it is often not well received when an individual is refused membership for ignoring scriptural commands. They are similarly perturbed when the church enacts biblical discipline against members in unrepentant sin.

I was amazed when I first heard somebody insist a church at which I was a member must admit an individual who gave no credible testimony and refused to follow basic scriptural criteria (despite agreeing scripture demanded them) on the basis "their heart is right". There was no concern for the heart of the individual to follow scripture nor for the individual to give a clear testimony of how they came into a relationship with Christ. On another occasion, I recall an individual seeking membership despite stating outright they didn't always fancy coming to church, attending Sunday or midweek meetings and often didn't really want to spend time with other believers in the church. They were flabbergasted - despite assenting to the view of local church above - this view didn't really fit.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Extremism, free speech and mother's logic

Sir Peter Fahy - Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police - has today voiced concerns that Britain is in danger of becoming a police state. His comments, reported in the Guardian, come in the wake of Theresa May's recent advocation of Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs). Fundamentally, he believes the police are being asked to increasingly define and determine extremism rather than being asked to enforce a clear set of guidelines. This blog has previously commented on this issue here and here.

Sir Peter is concerned that police constables are having to make snap decisions about what does, and does not, constitute extremism. He cites several examples in which it is less than ideal for police officers to make spur of the moment judgments on whether an incident must be considered extremist. Whilst he states his support for EDOs, he argues the definition of extremism and extremist behaviour ought to be determined by other members of civic society. In effect, he suggests the police ought to be told what constitutes extremism and then given the task of enforcing such parameters.

It is certainly true that the police are increasingly asked to go beyond mere law enforcement. At a basic level, they make legal interpretations - whether within a clear set of guidelines or not - that are routinely not borne out in the courts. There have been several examples of police arresting street preachers, protestors and others under the guise of 'extremism' or 'hate speech' that subsequently never led to charges or were thrown out of court. So current efforts to interpret the law are not going terribly well and to ask the police to now define the law on the spot is unlikely to go any better.

Fahy said government, academics and civil society needed to decide where the line fell between free speech and extremism. But this is rather troubling. Why need there be a line between free speech and extremism? Surely the very nature of free speech is that it is free, extreme or otherwise. If we begin drawing lines around acceptable words, we are on the fast track to only being allowed to utter state authorised orthodoxies. Free speech and free debate are disallowed under such a system.

Fahy is right that police shouldn't be about enforcing what can and can't be said. Sadly, he is wrong that such should be the preserve of others in civic society. We already have laws against violence, harrassment, terrorism and the rest. Such actions are dangerous and are rightly controlled. Speech does not cause such actions. Even in cases of an individual "inciting" violence, it is the one who makes effort and plans to carry out the act who should be found guilty. Unless there is some evidence of coercion and duress, it's difficult to see how speech can be held accountable. 

Most of us can surely remember a time, as I certainly can, when we responded to parental punishment with the enduring line "but he told me to". I can also recall my mother's incredulity and typical response (as I'm sure I employed it more than once) "if he told you to stick your hand in the fire, would you do that too?" 

Sadly, it seems, the government no longer take such a sensible line. Now, according to government, the one who even suggests a course of action is guilty. Worse yet, most will not suggest a specific course of action but will talk in generalities around a point. So now, even if they only infer or suggest an action, they may be guilty. Indeed, they may neither infer nor suggest but build a framework within which one might conceivably draw a personal conclusion to act. For such they would be guilty too.

I think I prefer my mother's logic.