Thursday, 23 April 2015

Grace & Service

Grace is a great Christian truth. It is the means by which we have faith at all (cf. Eph 2:8f) through which we come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Not only is it the basis of God's saving act toward us, it is also a means to live out the christian life (cf. Rom 5:2; Eph 2:8-10; 1 Pet 5:12). God's effective calling of his children, the means by which he makes us holy, by which we live out our Christian walk, and the basis of how and why He keeps us until the end are all of grace. Little wonder then that Christians are happy to talk about grace. A lot.

However, I have become increasingly convinced that our view of grace can impact in the most direct way on our service for the Lord. If you will forgive the crass terminology (I didn't have anything better to hand), there is a low view of grace (or, cheap grace) and a high view of grace (costly grace). Please don't confuse low and high, cheap and costly, as necessarily indicative of which view is "correct". Both affirm something rightly and deny something wrongly.

The low view of grace rightly affirms that works play no part in salvation or forgiveness. However, it tends toward a form of antinomianism. It establishes grace as the means of forgiveness and then fails to concern itself with individual sin. That is it takes a blasé attitude to sin because, of course, God will just forgive me. It is cheap because in the old analogy - we stand in court, God is the judge and we are unable to pay the fine - this low view treats the price paid by Christ as though it were a mere speeding fine. An inconvenience, for sure, and money we'd rather not pay but hardly an eye-watering sum. Perhaps, to take the analogy further, we may accept we were broke and couldn't pay £60. Yet, it is still only a relatively small price. Thus Christ's forgiveness comes cheaply and easily available.

The high view of grace, by contrast, rightly affirms we are saved from sin and are brought into a relationship with God in order to glorify him. It correctly holds dear the truth that just as God is holy so we are to be holy (1 Pet 1:16). However, it tends toward a form of nomianism (or legalism). It can have a particularly hard attitude to sin as God hates sin and Christ paid such a high price to remove it from us. Grace is, therefore, hard to come by. It is costly because in the old analogy - we stand in court, God is the judge and we are unable to pay the fine - this view treats the price paid by Christ as trillions of pounds that not even the richest man in the world could pay, let alone you or I. Thus forgiveness comes at the highest of costs. To add further sin to the debt is to pile Pelion upon Ossa.

The problem the low view causes for our service is ultimately this. Christ has paid the price for my sin, I am no longer guilty before God and I don't have to continually worry about my standing before him. I don't have to keep working out my righteousness by doing anything. Thus far, thus correct. However, because I am right with God I have no need to prove anything. If I don't fancy serving him I don't have to. If I don't want to do x, y or z for him, so what? I'm forgiven. I don't need to earn my way to Heaven so why bother working hard for the Lord when I don't necessarily fancy it. And, even if I ought to have done something, well, he'll forgive me won't he.

The problem the high view causes for service is this. I'm forgiven and because of what he has done for me, I owe Jesus everything. Thus far, thus correct. However, because I owe Christ so much, I effectively have to pay him back for all he has done for me. Every time I sin, that adds to my debt (which I know he has forgiven and I am no longer liable for it). But every time I do something good, that pays him back in a small way for all he has done for me. Therefore, I must get to every meeting, do all the evangelistic events I can and generally try to do as much good as I can. I can measure my holiness and righteousness by the amount of stuff I do for God. Whilst I know he will forgive me when I sin, I've already got a mountain of debt I owe so I don't want to be adding to that. Though I know I will never (indeed, couldn't) fully pay him back, I'd like to do what I can as best as I'm able.

Both views have hit on some truth to the detriment of an equally important truth. The low view is thoroughly liberating whilst simultaneously dismissing biblical imperatives to pursue holiness and to follow particular commands. It ignores the work of the Spirit in our lives who empowers us to keep God's law. The high view emphasises personal holiness but can lead to a crushing expectation in our spiritual walk. It can also create a two-tier system of believers and super-believers, based on the twin measures of the amount of stuff we do and our personal piety (usually assessed entirely negatively in how much stuff we are willing to shun).

How do we avoid the Scylla of cheap grace and the Charybdis of legalism? The high view primarily errs in presuming we can "pay back" Christ at all. It is not simply that the price he paid was beyond our means, it was that the price he paid was in a currency to which we have no access. No amount of good works will pay him back one penny. Equally, when Christ's righteousness is imputed to us we are clothed in Christ's righteousness. You cannot be more or less righteous, you either are or you aren't righteous at all. If we are in Christ, we have his perfect righteousness. This means there cannot be tiers of believer. Yes, there are those who do more for Christ than others and the scale of our reward in Heaven may differ as a result. But our fundamental righteousness, our standing before God, is a flat platform as our holiness in glory will also be.

The low view errs inasmuch as it treats Christ like an insurance policy. I may aim not to sin but, if I do, it's not the end of the world because Christ will forgive. It equally denies the ongoing work of the Spirit in our hearts. He isn't called the Holy Spirit for nothing. It seems highly unlikely God would put his Holy Spirit into our hearts simply to sit there and care not one jot about our personal holiness. If all true believers receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (and they do), it follows that all true believers would pursue holiness. If we are growing in holiness, it follows that such will have a clear a noticeable outworking in our lives and in our service. Though our service is no payback scheme, nor does it earn us righteousness, it does please the Father (as Kevin DeYoung points out here). 

At heart, grace is the means by which we are saved. It is the means by which we receive Christ's righteousness. Yet, it is also the means by which God empowers his children to live lives that are generally pleasing to him. When talking grace, it's always worth keeping these two truths together.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Thinking biblically about politics

I came across this helpful post by Martin Salter. His church - Grace Community Church, Bedford - are currently going through a series aimed at helping their members think biblically about the upcoming election. I thought it was a useful post highlighting the key questions we need to think about when it comes to voting.

To that end, I thought I would go a little bit further and engage with those questions myself. Like Martin, I have no desire to tell my congregation how to vote (honestly!) I must admit, I'm not great at keeping my tendencies under my hat (as a quick glance at the 'about the author' page of this blog will show), so I'm pretty sure most my congregation know where I sit politically and where I am likely to place my vote. Despite that, I am not in the business of defying gospel unity simply because someone thinks and votes differently to me. I just wanted to think through Martin's question and show my working.

1. How do you view the state? Beast or servant of God?

It seems hard to maintain a scriptural argument that the state is inherently evil. Passages such as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 seem clear enough that God appoints rulers for our good. That is not to say that the state will always act in godly, honourable ways. Even the most rudimentary knowledge of history shows that to be patently false. However, Paul and Peter suggest the state is God's servant for our good.

A proper view of God's sovereignty, providence and agency in the world may help us out here too. There can be no doubt that some evil empires and autocratic rulers have done heinous things that cannot, in any meaningful way, be considered godly. However, even such leaders are still God's servants. They hold power only because the Lord allows it and their acts of evil are only permitted by God to serve his greater purposes. Though they may not appear to act for the good of their own people much of the time, they are nonetheless permitted to act as they do within the grand scheme of God's plan.

Yet, the general thrust of Pauline and Petrine writings on government make clear that rulers are God's servants. What is more, they suggest rulers are generally there for our good. Whether we can make arguments about ungodly leadership and those who rule in ways that don't appear to be for the good of the people, we surely cannot suppose that the state is necessarily, inherently evil.

2. What do you think the state should do? Big or small? Why?

There seem to be very few (if any) biblical imperatives for the state. Some of the things that seem important are these:

  • To collect tax for the collective good (cf. Mt 20:20f; Rom 13:7)
  • A taxation system based upon ability to pay (cf. Deut 16:17)
  • To punish evil and encourage good (cf. Deut 16:18-20; Rom13:4; 1 Pet 2:14)
  • To allow a certain degree of individual freedoms (cf. 1 Pet 2:16)
  • Equality before the law regardless of gender, status, or country of origin (cf. Deut 16:11f)
One of the key reasons argued in favour of a small state on principle, is the inherent evil of the state itself. As already said, there is no biblical reason to assume the state is inherently evil. Therefore, there is no reason to insist on a small state for this reason.

As we consider the things we have highlighted as important for the state (NB: this is not exhaustive), it strikes me none of these things are affected directly by big or small government. Each of these things can be achieved, in some measure, on either system.

Nevertheless, it would be my contention that the collective good for which tax is collected is best achieved through a large public sector. Certainly, I would argue state ownership of certain (most?) public services serves the collective good in a better way than allowing such things to be run by private enterprise for the primary purposes of profit.

Beyond this, we must consider how the state can work for the benefit of the people. It strikes me there is biblical warrant to consider the state a fundamental good for the benefit of the people whereas there is no scriptural warrant to view business and private enterprise as inherently good (scripturally speaking). That is not to say business is necessarily evil all the time but it is to say there is no biblical warrant to consider businesses as inherently good nor as working for the best interests of the people. 

Scripture has much to say about the value of work and a government that creates jobs does a great service for its people. Even where such job require state funding, work is itself valuable and preferable to welfare (which requires state funding too). A large public sector generally provides greater scope for work than attempting to create jobs through the private sector.

3. On what basis does the state function?

In the run-up to the last election, I wrote an article here discussing this very issue. I stand by most of my considerations there.

In summary (though I suggest you read the article itself), I make a sort of case for natural law as the basis of legislation (or natural rights, akin to Locke and Hobbes argument). I begin with the central premise that all men and women are made in the image of God and are therefore born with certain rights (unalienable rights, if we want to go for Jeffersonian language). I go on to argue that whatever does not impinge upon the common rights of others ought to be lawful. Whatever impinges on the common rights of others ought to be illegal.

This view is primarily about legislation that affect individuals. In particular, it takes account of 1 Peter 2:16, which appears to allow for a certain degree of personal freedom. Beyond this personal form of legislation, government is primarily to seek the collective good of its people. Taking account of those personal freedoms, such collective good will be worked out in different ways depending on context and individual disposition of the policy maker.

4. How do you view the relationship between church/Christians and the state – disengagement, suspicion, co-belligerence, sphere-sovereignty, or something else?

I would advocate a form - if not the exact form expressed by Kuyper - of sphere sovereignty.For both the protection of the state, the people and the church it is absolutely right for there to be a separation between religion and politics. There ought to be no state church nor one particular dominant religious voice (Christian, secular, or any other). That is to protect the people from undue influence of one particular religious (or non-religious) persuasion and also to protect those religious (or non-religious) institutions from unnecessary interference by the state.

As in (3), I believe Christians (churches simply being collections of Christian people) have particular rights inherent to them. The state should not interfere in matters of religion except, and only when, certain religious practices interfere directly with the inherent rights of another.

The obvious issue with this position is what happens when religious freedoms directly conflict with the freedoms of another. For example, should the religious freedom of a group who deem it acceptable to engage in child-sacrifice be respected? Clearly, as this religious practice impinges directly on the inherent rights of the child in question, the government would be entirely justified in intervening here. Of course, there are legitimate questions to be had over what constitutes interfering with the inherent rights of an individual and how far such things are central to the freedom to practice one's religion. But, as a general rule, this seems a sensible position.

However, the issue is often not so clear cut. In today's climate, it is very often religious freedom pitted against sexual freedom. For example, should a church that objects on biblical grounds to homosexual marriage be forced to carry them out because a homosexual couple seeking to marry are entitled to do so legally? With a separation of church and state, this question becomes incredibly straightforward. The government are the only organisation permitted to carry out marriages. So a church would be in no position to carry out the legal ceremony. Weddings would then only be carried out as a religious, non-legally binding, ceremony. There would be no cause for government intervention as marriage was permitted to the couple in law, as to everyone else, whereas the church would be free to bless (or not) the marriage according to their own conscience. Such questions, naturally, become much more complex with no separation of church and state.

This is broadly how I answer those questions. How about you? Why not comment below and explain how you address these things? Answering these question can really help you work out where to place your vote.

Monday, 6 April 2015

God's power made perfect in weakness (even in this small way)

It is Easter Monday. The last day of the Easter period (mainly noted here because Easter Sunday is a bank holiday and so it stands in lieu of a proper day off for most people). And me and my family have been sick the whole way through!

I preached on Maundy Thursday evening (on Jesus' comments about washing from John 13) and Good Friday (on the three crosses and respective responses of two criminals either side of Jesus). If you are interested, you can listen back to those here and here

I had planned to speak on Easter Sunday about Matthew's account of three very different responses to the resurrection event. Sadly, having croaked my way through Good Friday (I edited out the coughing fits for the online upload) it all proved too much and a contingency speaker was drafted in last minute on Sunday morning (who I am told did a stellar job). Instead of sitting under some uplifting ministry on the resurrection of Christ, I had the joy of sitting in a medical walk-in centre - wife and son in tow - to find out whether we had an infection that required antibiotics or just a horrible virus that we had to wait out (for those that care, it was the latter - which really stinks because not only is it hanging around but there is nothing we can adequately medicate with either!)

But here is what encouraged me. I felt totally sick and ill, had to help look after my family who felt much the same, and had no hope of preaching Sunday morning (that's not the encouraging bit). I also know the gentleman who stepped into the breach to cover the preaching was not looking forward to delivering an off-the-cuff word or having to deliver my poorly planned, inadequate notes that he wouldn't get sight of until about 10 minutes before the service started (his servant heart and willingness to do so is more encouraging but that's not quite it either). What was so encouraging is that despite every reason for everything to fall apart, the church was full, the service went ahead and the word was well received.

Often what we plan to be great isn't as great as we might hope. Other times, what doesn't go to plan at all and ought to be a disaster is no such thing. I am reminded time and again of Christ's words to the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” You don't get much weaker than a preacher that physically can't deliver the sermon and a stand-in working from notes he has neither seen nor prepared!

And what more appropriate day than Easter Sunday for such things to happen. What looked like a disaster to the disciples on Good Friday, the death of their Lord on a shameful Roman cross, proved at Easter Sunday to be the plan of salvation God had ordained before the foundation of the world. What would have never been the plan of you and me was the appointed means by which God brought salvation to the world. What, by rights, should have been a total disaster and the end of the Jesus cult was God's greatest glory and the beginning of his 2000 year old church.

All that is to say, what may appear disastrous and seem destined to failure may be the very means by which God brings glory to himself. Whether that is in the small (or slightly bigger) parts of a church service or in the huge, grand sweep of salvation-history, God chooses the weak things by which to glorify himself. He chooses not to conform to human convention and wisdom. He chooses a virus to knock-out a church pastor and stop him preaching the word in order to glorify himself through another man taking his place and doing a far better job because he is almost certainly relying on the Lord in a way this pastor probably wasn't going to because his "power is made perfect in weakness".

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Heaven Tourism is bunk & how we can be sure if God is speaking

I was delighted to read that LifeWay, a major Christian bookseller, has taken the decision to no longer stock books that come under the genre of Heaven Tourism. You can find out about why here.

As pointed out here and here, there is really only one reason why Heaven Tourism books keep being published. Money. There is a great demand for them and Christian publishers often make a calculated decision to stock them.

So, if you are offered a copy (or tempted to buy one), here are a few reasons to reject as nonsense any book claiming insight into Heaven from the perspective of one who has been and come back.

The Bible says it is made up

"No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known." - John 1:18

"No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man." - John 3:13


"it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment" - Hebrews 9:27

Although the Bible clearly shows that some people had visions of Heaven, there are no examples in the entire corpus of biblical writing detailing anybody having gone to Heaven and come back. The above verses make clear that the Bible gives no room for anybody to go to Heaven and come back. 

God has been pretty clear in his word. Apart from Christ, nobody has seen God fully and nobody has been in his full and direct presence, and come back to Earth to tell the tale. If we accept the word of these Heaven Tourism books, we effectively say God is lying to us.

The accounts are not consistent with Biblical teaching on Heaven

There are only four biblical writers who record visions of Heaven (Isaiah and Ezekiel in the OT; Paul and John in the NT). Of those four, only three tell us what they saw. In each case, the focus is on the glory of God (Isaiah 6:1–4; Ezekiel 1, 10; Revelation 4–6). Similarly, in each case the reaction to God's glory is fear and shame.

Contrast these accounts with the jejune and mundane accounts we are given in Heavenly Tourism books (things like picnics, games, juvenile attractions, familiar faces, odd conversations, and so on). Note the reactions of the individuals to the events happening around them; to being in the very presence of holy, almighty God.


Beyond this, as Tim Challies points out, "Those who have a biblical understanding of life and death and heaven and hell will know that for a person to die and visit heaven, to experience sinlessness and the presence of Jesus Christ—for that person it would be the very height of cruelty to then demand that they return to earth."


These accounts call us away from scripture & bring dishonour to God

Not only do these accounts not tally with what scripture actually says, they call us away from scripture altogether. They encourage us to take the word of a man (or child) over and above the word of God. They don't simply lead us to call God a liar if we accept them, they lead us to dishonour God altogether.

Jesus says "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). Our hope is not in the word of a child, a doctor, a minister or anyone else who claims to have been to Heaven. Our hope is in the words and person of Jesus Christ as revealed by God in his word. Faith is believing in the word of God as true and without error. To then be convinced of the reality of Heaven based upon these Heaven Tourism books is to say you need more proof than God has given. It is to say the Bible is not sufficient for matters of faith, that God has not given us enough to warrant belief in him. Again, Tim Challies rightly says "you dishonor God if you choose to believe what the Bible says only when you receive some kind of outside verification."

These accounts are obviously falsified

The Bible insists such accounts cannot be true, they do not accord with biblical visions of Heaven nor of biblical teaching about Heaven and they draw us away from God's prescribed method of revealing himself to people. All of that should be cause enough for us to recognise these accounts are certainly not reliable. It is reason enough to consider them to be falsified (whether purposefully or not).

But if that's not enough, then consider the fact that some of these accounts have been recanted by those who wrote them. Alex Malarkey, co-author of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, has since claimed he made up the whole story (see here, here and here amongst others). Malarkey makes clear he did not die and he never visited Heaven. In fact, he made it up because he thought it would garner him some attention.

Such things are not limited to Heaven Tourism books. The Christian world is replete with stories of children (and adults, to be fair) making professions of faith, seeking baptism, giving testimony of how God has spoken to them for a variety of reasons despite none of it being true. Sometimes it is attention seeking, other times to fit in with what others do around them or it could simply be to please a dominant person/voice in their life. 

We are wont to believe people at face value without ever seeking to ask the serious, and necessary, questions we must. Does God speak today? Yes he does. Does that mean we cannot question any person who claims "the Lord said to me..."? Absolutely not. 

The Lord most usually speaks through his word. Even there we need to be careful that we have understood and applied it correctly. Anybody bringing testimony apart from the Bible must surely be held to a higher standard still. That is not to say such testimony cannot be true but it is to say we cannot be sure it is true unless it is verifiable and closely tied to scripture itself.

In Tim Keller's book Prayer he offers this story that illustrates the point well:
If we leave the Bible out, we may plumb our impressions and feelings and imagine God saying various things to us, but how can we be sure we are not self-deceived? The eighteenth-century Anglican clergyman George Whitefield was one of the spearheads of the Great Awakening, a period of massive renewal of interest in Christianity across Western societies and a time of significant church growth. Whitefield was a riveting orator and is considered one of the greatest preachers in church history. In late 1743 his first child, a son, was born to he and his wife, Elizabeth. Whitefield had a strong impression that God was telling him the child would grow up to also be a “preacher of the everlasting Gospel.” In view of this divine assurance, he gave his son the name John, after John the Baptist, whose mother was also named Elizabeth. When John Whitefield was born, George baptized his son before a large crowd and preached a sermon on the great works that God would do through his son. He knew that cynics were sneering at his prophecies, but he ignored them.
Then, at just four months old, his son died suddenly of a seizure. The Whitefields were of course grief-stricken, but George was particularly convicted about how wrong he had been to count his inward impulses and intuitions as being essentially equal to God’s Word. He realized he had led his congregation into the same disillusioning mistake. Whitefield had interpreted his own feelings—his understandable and powerful fatherly pride and joy in his son, and his hopes for him—as God speaking to his heart. Not long afterward, he wrote a wrenching prayer for himself, that God would “render this mistaken parent more cautious, more sober-minded, more experienced in Satan’s devices, and consequently more useful in his future labors to the church of God.”  
The lesson here is not that God never guides our thoughts or prompts us to choose wise courses of action, but that we cannot be sure he is speaking to us unless we read it in the Scripture.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

MP voting records and rundown biases

When considering where to cast your vote this election, MP voter breakdowns can be a helpful tool. They Work for You offers a fairly comprehensive breakdown of how your MP has voted and links directly to Hansard reports on which your MP has delivered a speech or voted. They give you a general breakdown of how your MP has voted in the commons and a much more detailed rundown (if you want it) of specifically how they have voted on each bill, reading and amendment.

Understandably, many Christians want to consider whether to vote for their incumbent MP based on their voting record concerning the issues that matter to them. For this reason, many will search out Christian-focused vote histories. Many presume these Christian organisations will offer a fair summary of the issues that matter to them most. On this, let me offer a word of caution.

The Christian Institute offer one such voter rundown. They run a very simple system: a green tick means "morally right"; a red cross means "morally wrong"; a black dot means an abstention or absence from the chamber. Inevitably, this is going to involve a certain level of interpretation. It is also likely to end up being a little misleading.

Nowhere do the Christian Institute link back to Hansard nor breakdown the specific voting record of the MP in question. They don't even offer the eminently more helpful caveat of They Work for You, which qualifies each issue with information on whether the MP voted strongly or moderately for or against the issue (that is, they may have voted for certain elements but not others). The Christian Institute rundown simply says the MP either voted for or against a measure and this is deemed either morally right or wrong.

It is also worth considering how far back some of these histories go. You may find a voting record stretching back to first appearance in the Commons incredibly helpful. However, it is always worth bearing in mind that individuals can change their mind over time and issues certainly change their substance over time. Someone voting one way in the 90s does not mean they will vote the same way now. Equally, having voted one way decades ago on an issue simply means they were voting on the issue before them on the day. Though current bills may relate to similar issues, the specific provisions will inevitably be different. For example, many MPs voted in favour of Civil Partnerships (specifically because they were not gay marriage). That is not evidence they were going to vote in favour of gay marriage.  The Christian Institute took a hard line that said Civil Partnerships were "gay marriage in all but name". As such, on their breakdown they deem a vote in favour as morally wrong. Were an election to follow immediately after a vote on this issue, to read the Christian Institute rundown would be to presume this MP will vote for gay marriage when that is not evident at all.

Other of their interpretive views are interesting. For example, they deem a vote against "mainly Christian" Religious Education (back in 1988 no less), to be morally wrong. Yet, this isn't really a moral issue. This measure wasn't preventing the teaching of Christianity, it was removing a presumption that learning about other religions in any detail would be prohibited. Moreover, this moral stance presumes RE existed for the purposes of Christian Instruction. Certainly that was once the case but most Bible-believing Christians would surely balk at the idea of non-Christian RE teachers attempting to instruct children in a "mainly Christian" manner. Further, it is hard to see what it morally wrong about expecting RE to be about comparative study and learning about the different religions in the UK. It is possible you may prefer "mainly Christian" RE (though, equally, you may not as outlined here in respect to assemblies) but to view it as morally wrong to demur seems well beyond the bounds of scriptural morality.

Other examples include a specific point about voting to remove the ban on homosexuals joining the army. This was deemed morally wrong. Whatever our views on homosexuality (and they usually are morally based), it seems hard to maintain a moral argument for homosexuals being prohibited from serving in the armed forces. Even if there are reasons we may give for that ban (though I'm not sure I can think of any), they surely cannot be moral ones. There are a handful of further examples here too.

At the end of the day, we have to be pretty simplistic in our thinking to believe all true Christians agree on all matters of politics. That Christians exist in almost every political party in the UK, of all stripes and colours, speaks to this. Even where we agree on matters of morality, we may not agree on how those moral views ought to be played out in the public square and the prohibitions put on them. Effectively, we may agree on what constitutes sin and how that will be judged by the Lord whereas we may disagree on whether individuals ought to be free to commit those sins and in what measure. For an explanation of how I work that out, how I understand the relationship between civil law, sin and morality see here.

All that is not to say we should ignore these voter rundowns. It is not to say they are of no value at all. It is only to say that we should read them with our eyes open. We should be aware of the biases of the groups writing them. It is probably best to compare a few of them. Cross-reference between The Christian Institute and They Work for You or other similar voting histories. The bottom line is we should not simply presume, at face value, a green tick or a red cross does true morality show. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The first female bishop is the Anglican's AV referendum. The second may cause further issues

Having only just appointed the first, the CofE have now appointed a second female bishop. The Guardian report Rev Canon Alison White will accept a bishopric in the see of Hull. The announcement comes shortly after the first female bishop, Rev Libby Lane, was appointed as bishop of Stockport. Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, called it a "joyous day" and hailed the move as "fantastic".

Rt Rev Lane has already come under fire from some liberal quarters for not being quite liberal enough. Given that Conservative Evangelicals and High Church traditionalists were never going to wear the appointment, regardless of the theological inclinations of the appointee, it seems an ill-conceived move to appoint a woman who wasn't a thoroughgoing liberal. 

The group for whom this appointment was most welcome, and long overdue, is the more liberal wing of the church. To then appoint a mildly conservative, or even middle-of-the-road, candidate has caused the most receptive group to have their noses put out of joint because the appointment is not sufficiently liberal for them. This seems to be an exercise in shooting one's church body in the foot. Nobody, neither opponent nor proponent, got what they were seeking. This is the CofE's very own AV referendum; an attempt at progress which neither liberals nor conservatives actually want. As attempts at politically progressive acts that seek to uphold some semblance of unity go, this seems to be a total dog's breakfast.

No doubt, once again, we will be entreated to the next round of Conservative Evangelical hand-wringing. The lines will be drawn ("here I stand..." and all that), they will once again be breached, new lines will be drawn ("Here we really stand...") and they will be pushed. Inevitably, the current protection for Evangelical complementarians to reject the headship of a female bishop will be the next battleground.

In years past, I had little sympathy for Evangelicals that wished to remain within the bounds of the Anglican communion. My feeling was that the issue was quite simple: the church had departed from the gospel and the Evangelicals could either choose to remain in fellowship with non-gospel churches or remove themselves and join with like-minded gospel churches. In many respects, that choice remains the same.

However, the matter is wildly more complicated now. In the past, Evangelicals could have left over the denigration of the gospel. Having chosen not to do that, many are now faced with leaving over important, but secondary, external matters such as complementarianism and gay marriage. What the world would have seen as an exodus over gospel issues - a watering down of theology and an inability to have meaningful fellowship with churches that eschew basic gospel truth - will now simply be seen as a hissy fit by misogynists and homophobes who couldn't get their own way. Cries of "but this is a gospel issue" will be lost on those who see only years of increasingly errant doctrine, denounced as dreadful at the time but nonetheless tolerated to the point of remaining in fellowship, while the inclusion of women and homosexuals is the prima facie cause of schism.

Whilst we in the Free Churches may look on and wonder why such lines were not drawn decades ago, the CofE is where it is. The question has now become eminently more complex. Do Evangelicals remain in a church broader than the Norfolk waterways and risk increasing compromise or do they leave for the sanctuary of independency and risk a misconstruction of the basic issues? 

I have to say it is not a choice I envy. But one feels the "it's a gospel issue" boat sailed some while ago. One way or the other, there are choppy waters ahead.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Moving from believer's to infant baptism: a common theme

Rather mirroring the first article to which I am going to link, and despite sounding like the start of a support group introduction, I feel it important to open with a caveat. Though I am a credo-baptist, I have many friends who are paedobaptist and I respect them a lot. I have learnt a great deal from many Reformed Presbyterian paedobaptists, whose books and articles I read, enjoy and agree with so much.

Beyond all that, it is worth mentioning I do not believe our view on baptism (whichever side of the divide we fall) should be a cause of division. Though I lead a credo-baptist church which only practices believers baptism by immersion (we are not dual practice), we will accept convinced paedobaptists to membership if they can theologically defend their position (see here for why). However, so long as (on either view) it is understood that baptism does not confer spiritual life - again, regardless of which side we fall - an errant view of baptism will not fundamentally alter our union with Christ and thus nor should it with his church.

With all those caveats out of the way, let me briefly point you to this defence of paedobaptism by Kevin DeYoung. I don't want to focus on his article so much. Rather, I want to consider the three articles to which he links. They are three different individuals who changed their view from credo-baptism to paedobaptism. The three articles are:

  1. How I Changed My Mind About Paedobaptism - Liam Goligher
  2. Why I Changed My Mind About Baptizing [sic] Infants - Sean Michael Lucas
  3. Infant Baptism: How My Mind Has Changed - Dennis E. Johnson
Two things struck me that were common to each of these accounts: (1) In each case, an incredibly weak view of believer's baptism was advanced during their upbringing; (2) in each case, it was interaction with paedobaptist books and writers that led to the change.

It is not difficult to see how a poorly articulated, badly taught view of believer's baptism could be so readily overturned when met with well written cogent books advancing the opposite case. Not to compare the two for one minute (honestly!) but it is often a similar story when it comes to folk joining cults and sects. Poorly advanced theology - or no real theology at all - drags people off into the worst of error because a more articulate advocate advances a view that sounds credibly biblical.

And yet... isn't it interesting that in story after story of those who "convert" to paedobaptism, a direct and plain reading of scripture itself is rarely the cause of change. The story usually begins "I was reading Francis Shaeffer when..." or "I attended Presbyterian Seminary X and was taught...". Rarely does the story go "I was simply reading the Bible when..."

Interesting that.

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