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Friday, 24 October 2014

Six reasons to pursue fellowship, community and hospitality

Yesterday, I posted here on the cost of community, hospitality and fellowship. It's important we understand what true fellowship, real community and genuine hospitality look like if we are to have any hope of actually pursuing them. But, having done that, it seems worth giving some reasons why community, hospitality and fellowship are vitally important (despite the cost to ourselves). So, here are a few:

Jesus commanded it
It's always the natural place to start whenever we ask ourselves why we ought to do anything. Jesus commanded us to engage in fellowship, community and hospitality. In John 13:34f, he tells us the sign that we are truly believers is that we love one another as he loved us. Without spending time together, just as Jesus spent time with his disciples, we are going to struggle to do this. The Lord's command should be reason enough for us to do this.

Jesus modelled it
Jesus did much of his ministry in homes over meals. He reaches out to unbelievers this way and he trained his disciples this way too. The Last Supper and the feeding of the 5000 is recorded in all four gospels, Jesus meal with Levi is found in all but John's gospel and the feeding of the 4000 is in Matthew and Mark's gospel. That's four meals in thirteen passages. Add to that the meal at the houses of Pharisees (Luke 11:37-54 and 14:1-24), the meal with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), and the meal that followed Jesus’ resurrection appearance on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-34). Even then, the list of meals is not complete. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus saw fellowship, hospitality and eating together as vital to ministry. If, as John says, we are to "walk in the same way in which he walked" (1 John 2:6) that must include this form of fellowship and community.

The Early Church did it
We read in Acts 2:42-47 that the Early Church were devoted to fellowship and hospitality. The passage outlines precisely what their fellowship entailed: studying the word, praying together, eating together and spending time with one another in homes. Such hospitality and fellowship is pressed by Paul (Rom 12:13), Peter (1 Pet 4:8-9) and the writer of Hebrews (Heb 13:1-2) as well as being a central part of the criteria for church leadership (1 Tim 3:2; Ti 1:8).

It will make your joy complete
The apostle John speaks plenty about fellowship. In particular, his comments in 1 John 1:3-4 and 2 John 1:12 link our fellowship to our joy. In 2 John, the apostle is clear enough that his joy would be complete when he is able to physically spend some time with the people to whom he is writing. It doesn't take much to note that his presence with them, engaging in real fellowship, will complete his joy in a way that a long-distance relationship simply can't. In 1 John, his comments are even more surprising. He says "we are writing these things to you so that our joy may be complete" (my emphasis). Immediately prior to this comment, he says the reason they are proclaiming their message is "so that you too may have fellowship with us" (1 John 1:3). So, John's joy will only be complete when he can truly enjoy the fellowship of these other believers. There is something special when we engage in true, genuine fellowship between believers.

It makes church discipline meaningful
It is an unfortunate fact of life that some people who profess belief will fall into sin. It is an even worse fact that some who profess faith within the church may not even be believers (cf. 2 Pet 2:1). Scripture tells us not to be surprised by such things but to be on our guard and swift to act when they become apparent. One such example of dealing with a serious disciplinary matter in the church is outlined in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul's clear guidelines for dealing with believers in open sin (cf. 1 Cor 5:1-2 & 9-13) make absolutely no sense if we have not already pursued, and enacted, true fellowship like this. If we never spend time together, eat together or share life together Paul's sanctions in 1 Corinthians 5 suddenly look totally toothless.

It will aid your growth
If Ephesians 4:11-16 is teaching anything, it is talking about how the church will grow its members. Principally, it is through the exercise of various gifts for the mutual upbuilding of the body. Certainly such cannot exist without a framework of fellowship and community. But, note also that Paul says as we speak "truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ". Again, it is incredibly hard to grow together and to speak truth into one another's lives without close fellowship and community. What opportunities are there to do this otherwise? Paul makes this same point in reverse in 2 Thessalonians 1:3 as does Peter in 2 Pet 1:5-8. There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between our love, and fellowship with, one another and our growth in faith. As the one increases, so does the other.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

4 ways community, fellowship and hospitality will cost us

We talk an awful lot about community, fellowship, hospitality and friendship in our church. In truth, there is no pretending that fostering genuine community - and all that goes with it - is easy. It takes work and it will cost us in one way or another. Here are a bunch of ways it will do exactly that:

Time
Community, fellowship and hospitality will cost us time. There is no getting away from the fact that we call it "spending time together" for a reason. It costs. For most people, time is a precious commodity and we all feel we need more of it. "I'm too busy" is the mantra and can usually be read as "I'm too busy for you". True fellowship requires investment in relationships. It demands our time and, if we are to have it, we must make time for it. Even on a basic level it requires time cooking for people, cleaning up after people, doing favours for people, helping people, listening to people, sharing with people. If we're not willing to invest time, we're not really willing to have fellowship.

Money
Community, fellowship and hospitality will cost us money. When we have people in our homes, we will have to spend money on extra food. We may have to run the heating for the comfort of other people (rather than for the thickness of our wallets). It may cost us money in petrol, ferrying people around here, there and everywhere. It may cost us money when we see friends in need and conclude 1 John 3:17 demands we actually help (rather than do a lot of talking about helping). Real fellowship demands our money. If our wallets are not in it, then we are not really in it at all.

Things
Community, fellowship and hospitality may cost us our things. When we have people in our homes, they may not look after things in the way we would like. We may have expensive furniture that people slouch on, drop food over and spill drinks on. We may have carpets that get worn, or stained, quicker than we might like. Things may get damaged because - as we all know - most people don't care about your things the way you do. Yet, God has given you all those things to enjoy and it is right to share them with others, just as Christ shares the blessings that are his with his people (even though we don't care for them as he does!) It is not terribly warm, friendly or hospitable to give people a list of items they are not touch or go near. To act that way is to treat them as children; it makes your hospitality something closer to patronage. If your things aren't included in your hospitality, then you're not really being all that hospitable.

Emotional energy
Community, fellowship and hospitality will cost us emotional energy. We may be happy to share our things, our time and our money but if we are not emotionally invested we aren't really engaging in proper fellowship. We cannot expect anyone to open up to us if we never open up ourselves. It is a thoroughly vulnerable position to be in - opening ourselves up to scrutiny and judgment - but unless we do so, we cannot expect anyone to make themselves so vulnerable with us. How can we expect people to confess their sin (and grow by putting away with the support of the church) if we continually make out we are perfect? When people are struggling, our emotions must be engaged otherwise we are not really all that concerned. Now, doing that is emotionally draining and tiring. Yet, if our hospitality and fellowship doesn't extend to our emotions, we may as well be hosting business networking events.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Four signs you don't belong to God

As a community group, we have started a series of studies in 1 John. Tomorrow we reflect upon the key points and applications from our first study in 1 John 1:1-2:6 as a means of focusing our prayers. I have also been organising our future studies in 1 John. Today, I have been reflecting on our first study as well as preparing a future study in 1 John 3:11-4:6.

One of John's central concerns is determining who belongs to God and who does not. More specifically, he is concerned as to whether we belong to God or remain under the influence of Satan. He also wants us to be clear that not all teaching that purports to be from God is truly from Him. Much of what claims to pass as "Christian" is not such thing and comes from the Devil.

One sign that we do not belong to God, according to John, is a claim to sinlessness. He says:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
Teaching like this seems to be precisely the sort of thing John has in mind here.

Two further signs are offered in chapter 4:1-3. John says:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:1-3)
It is a sign of unbelief, and Satanic influence, for one to deny "Jesus has come in the flesh" i.e. he is not fully man. It is similarly significant if one argues "Jesus is not from God" i.e. he is not fully God himself. Teaching like this (1) seems to be in mind here.

On top of that, in the studies I have been preparing (though throughout the letter John offers further tests), he says:
They [false teachers] are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:5f)
In other words, true believers will listen to God's word in scripture. They will hear the teaching of the apostles and reject things that don't accord with it. They certainly will not teach things that cannot be found, or cannot be tested, by the words of scripture. John seems to be aiming at teaching like this and this:
“The Bible can’t even find any way to explain this. Not really. That’s why you’ve got to get it by revelation. There are no words to explain what I’m telling you. I’ve got to just trust God that He’s putting it into your spirit like He put it into mine.” Joyce Meyer (What Happened from the Cross to The Throne? audio)
The most concerning thing here is not the warning against false teachers themselves. It is far more troubling that John says "they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us". In other words, if you are swept up in such false teaching - you listen to it and believe it over and against the clear teaching of John in these passages - it is a sign that you are not saved yourself.

For most of us - certainly those who move in my circles - this sort of false teaching doesn't tend to be pushed. Amongst our church members, there aren't usually people standing up and teaching these sorts of heretical views. What is far more likely, and troubling, is people in our congregations may hear such things and be swept away with it. They themselves aren't teaching it but they are imbibing it and ultimately responding to it.

Heed John's warning, best to ignore anyone who comes with such views.

Notes
  1. Joyce Meyer audio

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Can UKIP claim to defend "Christian values"?

It cannot have escaped anyone's notice that UKIP seem to be doing rather better than a few months ago. Gone from public view are some politically problematic characters, such as Godfrey Bloom. Now the party is riding high on a tidal wave of public support, Tory defections and their very first MP elected to parliament. Whether UKIP are right to be so optimistic - not least given the polling levels and single MP enjoyed by the (ironically) less colourful Greens for years - or the media are simply making more of this than they ought, time will tell.

Whether spin for a good story or otherwise, the media are certainly giving significant column inches to covering UKIP. One particular claim from the 'kippers seems to have gained significant traction. Namely, that UKIP robustly defend Christian values. Such a claim has led to disgust among some (see here) and a proud defence from others (see here). 

Whatever side of this discussion one may fall, these articles are a prime example of two individuals talking straight past each other. In response to Giles Fraser's specific concern that foreigners living in the UK were not helped by UKIP policies, Richard Lucas argued that aid shouldn't be spent overseas. Both men, in one way or another, made some valid points whilst simultaneously failing to address any issue the other raised. Given Fraser broke cover first, he wasn't answering anything but raising specific objections, most of the blame for ignoring the concerns must lie with Mr Lucas. In truth, neither particularly helped answer the question they claimed to raise: whether UKIP truly do defend Christian values.

Before we can even begin to answer that, we have to work out precisely what "Christian values" are supposed to be. Politically speaking, there seems to be no obvious answer. Christians exist across the political spectrum in just about all parties, mainstream and fringe, and yes that includes UKIP too. Evidently, appeal to numbers isn't going to help. Christians involved in politics come to wildly different positions on the best party to support and the most pressing issues concerning faith and wider society.

Theologically speaking, things don't really fare much better. The plethora of denominations and shades of Christian thought suggest that "Christian values" are rather hard to pin down. Even if we wanted to be tighter about our definition, perhaps excluding all non-Evangelicals, things still don't come out in the wash. Those who claim to be Evangelical exist across the denominations and within Free Churches. The idea that even all Free Churchmen (or Anglicans, or Strict Baptists, or whomever) think alike theologically or politically is something of a nonsense. Even were we to pare this down to one particular Evangelical church, though perhaps closer to a consensus, theological and political differences will be prevalent (unless one belongs to a Free Presbyterian church in Northern Ireland. In that case, you're highly unlikely to be anything other than theologically uniform and Democratic Unionist, though surprisingly some Ulster Unionists even dare to join!)

Pinning down "Christian values" is rather harder than some might think. Even where we agree on gospel priorities, different emphases will still exist. Some favour social action, others direct gospel proclamation, others still a middle way. Theologically, though we may agree on each point, how far we want to press each matter will differ. Politically speaking, things are much the same. Though we may agree in principle as Christians, our emphases and priorities are likely to differ.

On that basis alone, I think we are safe in saying UKIP do not support, or defend, Christian values. Incidentally, nor do any other major political parties. It is pretty difficult to pin down precisely what is meant by the term. Frankly, I know enough Christians - especially those politically active - to know one would be a little reckless to vote for a candidate simply because somebody is a Christian. I am all too aware that many Christians have different approaches, views and emphases to me. To vote based on faith alone is likely to mean political views are pressed that are far removed from my own.

Could UKIP help themselves out by claiming to defend biblical values? Not really. No doubt some of their policies chime with certain pressing and current biblical issues. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure that for every one that does, there is likely another that doesn't. Even if the party sought to claim defence of Christian people, we run into similar problems. I'm sure their stance on freedom of speech (better than the position of many others) helps enormously those Christians engaged in public gospel proclamation. Unfortunately, their stance on those Christians who have come to Britain as either asylum seekers or economic migrants really cannot feasibly be claimed to help, or defend, the values of those Christians.

This is not specifically to get at UKIP. For as many of their policies that don't defend "Christian values" (whatever they may be), the other parties hardly uphold biblical mores. I suppose the only difference is the other parties never claimed to be trying.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

What is it to "hate [your] brother"?

I've just been working through a bible study in 1 John to be delivered next month (one likes to keep oneself ahead). I have spent considerable time looking at 1 John 2:9-11:
9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
It is a passage I have read many times before. The point John makes here is pretty obvious; if you hate your brother it seems highly unlikely you have been saved. If God is love (and light), as John says repeatedly in the letter, then those who abide in him are unlikely to exhibit lots of hatred (and darkness). A simple, yet profound, point.

What is almost never discussed is what hatred of one's brother actually looks like in practice. How do I know if I hate my brother? Is hatred and dislike the same thing? If I simply find someone annoying, or I get on better with someone else, am I written outside of God's love? If hatred of other believers is a mark of unbelief, how can I ever know the truth of the antipoint John is actually making, the assurance of my salvation, if this hatred is never defined?

I have heard some wildly contradictory (and, largely, unsatisfactory) views on what hatred of one's brothers looks like over the years. I am still not certain I could give any categorical definition. But, I offer the following as a potential starting point.

John spends much time outlining the differences between light and dark, love and hate, godliness and worldliness. These seem to be the fundamental contradistinctions John wants to make. Given this, it follows that hatred of one's brother can be identified by determining the defining features of love and inverting them. Though not exhaustive (1), Paul's list of loving attributes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 can help.

Paul comments on love:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This might be inverted to read:
Hatred is impatient and unkind; hate envies and boasts; it is arrogant and rude. It does insist on its own way; it is irritable and resentful; it rejoices at wrongdoing, but not with the truth. Hate bears nothing, believes nothing, hopes for nothing, endures nothing.
Perhaps this is where we should start to assess our state before the Lord.

Notes

  1. I do not think Paul is offering a definition of love here. I rather suspect he is outlining all the things the Corinthian church are doing and telling them that love would not do those things. It isn't a definition but rather draws some boundaries around what love is (or, is not)

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Willful misapplication of the law: a case in point

Three days ago, I commented on the Home Secretary's troubling new proposal to introduce Extremism Disruption Orders. You can see my comments here. My central concern was the stifling of free speech and free debate coupled with the almost certain willful misapplication of the law. Such proposals will have grave knock-on effects, not only for those whose faith is lived out in the public square, but also those who proclaim their faith from the heretofore safety of their own religious building.

For those who doubt the heavy-handed application of the law, an interesting case in point can be viewed here and here. A gentleman who went to Taunton town centre to share his faith has been specifically targeted by police. Market traders have been encouraged to film his street preaching in order to "prove" his words are offensive. Having encouraged locals to aid their evidence-gathering exercise, the evangelist in question is now being prosecuted under Section 5 of the Public Order Act (the very section that has since been amended due to such policing, as you can see here).

The fact the police encouraged market traders to film the man in question is not particularly troubling. Anybody can decide to film anyone else. If anything, it may even help his evangelistic efforts knowing that several market traders are intently listening to his message and, better yet, are keeping it for posterity. Even better again, they are probably passing it on to police as "evidence" meaning his message is being spread further than he could ever have hoped. All of that is to say the filming is not really the problem.

The real issue is that the police predetermined the level of offence and the extent to which Mr Overd was likely to breach the peace and then sought to incite the public themselves gather evidence to prove how offensive he was being. It also seems apparent that those listening were not all that incensed, given a number of complainants "failing to remember what he had said or forgetting when the alleged offensive remarks had taken place". Worse still, Mr Overd is now being prosecuted for a factually-based comparison of the lives of Jesus and Mohammad based upon historical evidence as Mr Overd understood and interpreted it.

Whatever one may feel about his mode of evangelism or the wisdom of making such comparisons, it is undoubtedly beyond question that Mr Overd should be free to do so without police intervention. Muslims, market traders and the multitudes should be free to tell Mr Overd that they don't care for his comments with equal freedom. Those same people should be free to agree and support his comments should they choose to do so. This really isn't a matter for police involvement. There was no danger of violence and certainly no call to arms.

This issue is pertinent because anybody doubting that proposed Extremism Disruption Orders will be misapplied to shut down evangelical street preachers, or even less vocal expressions of evangelicalism, need only look to the application of existing laws. Stories abound, not least this case in point, of such things using existing legislation never intended to be used in this way. The Home Secretary makes no bones about intending to permit the application of the law to people such as Mr Overd. If current legislation, never intended in this way, can be used to stifle free debate and inhibit free speech, what will come of such freedoms when the expressed position of the legislation is to inhibit in precisely these ways?

Know that this is a real issue. An issue that no longer only impacts upon evangelicals brave enough to share their faith in public ways but will affect all those who are evangelical on a Sunday morning, within their own buildings, preaching orthodoxy to their own congregations. We may have spent much time thinking they are coming for the street preachers but I'm not a street preacher so I did nothing. Well, as ever, our inactivity because it doesn't affect us means our comfortable position inside our own church buildings is likely to be next.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Extremist Disruption Orders and ill-judged legislation

Forcing through ill-judged legislation to solve a particular mischief seems to be an unfortunate recurring theme for governments of all stripes. We have already endured a raft of New Labour anti-terror legislation that, whilst primarily aimed at those who espouse violent extremism, was so haphazardly applied (or, mischievously, depending on your predilection) that "extremism" and "hate crimes" were interpreted to include anyone proclaiming anything other than banal, state-approved views. Nonetheless, though over zealously applied, it is probably fair to say the central mischief in mind was genuinely the primary target of the proposed law.

This is what makes the new Extremist Disruption Orders posited by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, so concerning. Not only have past lessons of anti-terror efforts not been heeded, May now goes one step further. In her conference speech, she states outright:
..to live in a modern liberal state is not to live in a moral vacuum. We have to stand up for our values as a nation. There will, I know, be some who say that what I describe as extremism is merely social conservatism. But if others described a woman’s intellect as “deficient”, denounced people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or rejected the democratic process, we would quite rightly condemn their bigotry. And there will be others who say I am wrong to link these kinds of beliefs with the violent extremism we agree we must confront. To them I say, yes, not all extremism leads to violence. And not all extremists are violent. But the damage extremists cause to our society is reason enough to act. And there is, undoubtedly, a thread that binds the kind of extremism that promotes intolerance, hatred and a sense of superiority over others to the actions of those who want to impose their values on us through violence.
And there we have it. Not only "extremism" that leads to violence but "extremism" of all forms. And how do we define such a nebulous term? Though evidently not an exhaustive list, the Home Secretary considers those who believe women to be intellectually "deficient" and those who "denounce" others on the basis of their religious beliefs should be included. Is it offensive to state such things? Almost certainly. Are such views worthy of police intervention? Almost certainly not. More to the point, are those who face the force of the law likely to have done either of those things? In many cases, probably not.

As the Cranmer blog rightly points out "the policy is reasoned and moderate in expression, but the legislation will be almost Marxist in its application as it is wilfully misinterpreted and misapplied to Evangelical Christians (ie those who publicly proclaim the Good News) in exactly the same manner as anti-terror legislation has been invoked to eject a disgruntled pensioner from a Labour Party conference".

The central problem with outlawing "extremism in all its forms" (as the Home Secretary went on to promise) is that such a vacuous subjective term is patently open to abuse. It simply ought not to be illegal to voice an opinion or view that may be deemed "extremist" based upon some undisclosed, subjective assessment. The sad truth is, there are an inordinate number of pressure groups and hyper-sensitive people just waiting to be offended. Worse, they use such attacks on their sensibilities, now bolstered by this egregious law, to see the miscreant removed from the public square for their, often unintentionally, offensive statement. It has also been known for some to actively elicit "offensive" comments (suggesting the view cannot be so unpalatable if questions are being asked for the purpose of obtaining the comment itself) simply so they can involve police in a matter they shouldn't even entertain. As Cranmer correctly states, "For the secular state to seek to define “extremist views” reduces freedom of speech and freedom of religion to the lawful expression of culturally orthodox utterances".

Many Evangelical Christians may think this is an abstract problem that doesn't affect most of us. Surely it only affects street preachers with "offensive" views, those passing out irrelevant literature and others engaged in dated modes of evangelism. But even the central target of this legislation, so-called Islamist "hate preachers", are predominantly not addressing people out in town but inside mosques. They are not ramming their views down people's throats out on the street, they are stating their views on the internet for those who care to listen. That is not to say such views - if they are genuinely those that cause and incite violence - shouldn't be addressed. It is simply to say that such views are being addressed without being in the public domain in the way a street preacher or literature distributor happens to be.

If Evangelicalism is now lumped into the same category as Radical Islamism in the minds of many (not least, the UK government), the idea that only those engaged in active, public evangelism will be affected is cloud-cuckoo land. Most evangelicals still hold views that may be deemed "offensive" by some, state them inside their church buildings and put them up on websites for those who care to listen. Though the clampdown on nebulous "extremist" views begins with Islam, we can be in little doubt that it will extend to Christianity and will not only include those public enough to do their evangelism outside their building. For, if an offensive or "extremist" view in the mosque can lead to legislation and police action, the church is unlikely to fare any better.

The reality is there is no universal human right against being offended. As Cranmer correctly notes, "Extremist opinion that does not involve a call to arms or incite people to acts of terrorism ought to be tolerated by the liberal democratic state. Otherwise those who seek to undermine our liberty and overthrow democracy have won". One can only hope the divergent, yet unerringly consistent, voices of David Davies, Peter Tatchell and many others are finally heeded on this matter.

Friday, 19 September 2014

What do the Scottish Independence referendum and the Anglican Church have in common?

To the great relief of some and the consternation of others (on both sides of the border), Scotland have voted "no" in the independence referendum. The status quo is maintained and we remain the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Whether it was fear of the unknown (or, fear of troubling knowns), the lack of a positive vision for an independent Scotland or simply that many Scots are more conservative than they let on, it is clear most did not share the belief of the Scottish National Party that Scotland is better as an independent nation. Sadly for those seeking independence, a referendum of this order comes around once in a lifetime and, for them, it seems the boat has sailed.

It occurs to me that discussion within Anglicanism mirrors, on some level, the Scottish independence debate. Calls for a mass exodus of bible-believing evangelicals from the Anglican communion have certainly been around for decades (possibly centuries). Yet, evangelicals within Anglicanism - despite their own growing discontent over an increasing number of issues - continue to hold fast their denominational allegiance.

Perhaps, like Scotland, it is a lack of any positive vision that is the stumbling block. It is one thing to heed the voice of Martin Lloyd-Jones and remove oneself from Anglicansim but it is quite another to do it without any positive vision of what to do thereafter. Breaking ties with all one has ever known is not as straightforward as one may think. There are a handful arguments advanced for remaining within the denomination which, without similar positive reasons to leave, mean making the break is not the no-brainer it seems to those of us in the Free Church.

Maybe it is simply a fear of the unknown (or, certain concerning knowns). Not only is it unclear what some would do after their disassociation but there are some known problems associated with leaving. Buildings, land and stipends are often tied up with being part of the wider Anglican communion. It would be no small step of faith to remove oneself from the denomination and trust that buildings, land and stipends (not to mention a raft of other things) will follow suit.

Alternatively, the issue may be one of timing. Many evangelical Anglicans I meet speak of "now as the right time" to begin making a stand on X, Y or Z issue. What is rather unfortunate is that Lloyd-Jones encouraged evangelicals to leave Anglicanism decades ago based on a commitment to the gospel. Today, discussion centres on issues of headship, female ordination and homosexuality rather than the gospel itself. Like it or not, even if evangelical Anglicans now decide the church has taken a step too far, it will be cast as a separation on the current issues, not on theological concern for the purity of the gospel.

As with Scottish Independence, the opportunity to make a stand on the right issue tends to roll around but once. Unlike Scotland, evangelicals within the Anglican Communion could still leave the denomination if they so choose. What is less likely is that they will be able to do so on both the issue, and the terms, they might like.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Is God's greatest pleasure to make us happy?

Many of you will have come across Victoria Osteen's most recent internet hit. In leading the audience to participate in a time of worship, she offered her case for why they should be motivated to do so. Her argument, without trace of irony, was the following: “You’re not doing it for God, you are doing it for yourself, really.

If you haven't seen it, here is a clip of the aforementioned video:


If you have seen it already, here is the clip as it ought to be viewed:



Here, we are given an example of some specious reasoning: (1) God wants you to be happy; (2) Whatever makes you happy makes God happy; (3) Therefore, God is glorified whenever you do whatever makes you happy.

Stated another way: (1) Obeying God makes you happy; (2) God is pleased when you are happy; (3) Therefore, obey God for the sake of your own happinness

This is the unfortunate logic of Victoria Osteen's exhortation. Obey God because it will make you happy. That sounds fine. That is, of course, until I find my supposed happiness and God's commandments seem to conflict. It suddenly makes my happiness my central purpose in life. Glorifying God takes second place to my happiness.

As Ligon Duncan comments here, "the fundamental purpose of human existence is God’s glory". The summum bonum of our existence is not our own personal happiness. Rather, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism rightly states, the chief end of man is "to glorify God and enjoy him forever".

God is the focus of our worship. Our primary purpose in worship is to glorify God. Yet, that does not mean our happiness and God's glory are in opposition. As the catechism says, when we glorify God we "enjoy him forever". Our chief end is not our own happiness, it is to glorify God. Yet, when we glorify God, we enjoy him. It is impossible to glorify God and not enjoy the blessings that come from such a pursuit. There is blessing to be had in worship. It is not a case of glorify God and there's nothing in it for me. When we truly give ourselves over to the pursuit of God's glory (as opposed to the pretense of God's glory in the pursuit of our own happiness) we receive from God far more than we could ever give.

If our happiness is our chief end, propped up by a God-just-wants-me-to-be-happy mentality, we can justify anything we please, no matter how sinful it may be. I obey God because it makes me happy quickly becomes I won't obey God on this issue because it won't make me happy, and that's all he wants for me, right?!

It is one of those amazing paradoxical claims of scripture. Pursue your own happiness, even if we pretend we are glorifying God, and we will find ourselves wanting much. Pursue God's glory, making it our chief end, and we will be happy to enjoy God forever, sharing in the blessings he promises.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Cliff is not the last, just the latest. How do we respond?

Sir Cliff Richard is the latest celebrity to be accused of an historic sex-crime. He has yet to be formally charged with anything but an accusation has been made and the police have begun their investigations. Although unconnected to Operation Yew Tree - the police investigation into child sex offences following the Jimmy Saville revelations - it marks yet another chapter in the seemingly endless slew of accusations following just about every celebrity that was famous pre-1990.

What is especially disheartening about this particular accusation is that Cliff Richard is a Christian. He has suffered professionally for his religious stance. Upon his conversion, he planned to quit music altogether but, deciding against this, changed his act, which had been labelled "too sexy for TV". In later years, he lost credibility within the music world seemingly for no other reason than his Christian stance. This is supported by the fact that he released a number of tracks in the 1990s under the pseudonym Blacknight, receiving widespread airtime and critical acclaim until his true identity was revealed as the artist. There have been plenty of people waiting for Cliff to fall in the most public of ways and, certainly until now, he did not oblige. Whilst no Christian is beyond any form of sin, it is astounding to think it possible, after such a long-standing and clear Christian witness, that this might be true.

What are we to draw from this latest saga? 

We should presume innocence until proven otherwise

It is a well establish principle of law that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Many of us let the phrase trip off the tongue so easily. Yet, in the emotive case of child sex offences, this principle is rarely applied outside the court room. Trial by tabloid seems to be the order of the day. Phrases like "he looks like one" and "I always knew he was a bit weird" belie claims to impartiality. Very few people acknowledge that many accused celebrities, even those formally charged, have ultimately been found innocent. William Roach, Michael Le Vell, Jim Davidson and, long before the floodgates opened, Matthew Kelly have all been found innocent following charges. In this case, as yet, Sir Cliff has not even been formally charged. Let us call off the dogs and hold our fire until a trial has taken place and a verdict been reached.

We should see Moral Relativism for what it is

We have seen plenty of celebrities charged with offences. In the cases of Stuart Hall, Rolf Harris and Max Clifford the charges have been upheld and prison sentences given out. Others have been charged and find cases ongoing, recurring or new cases arising. The defence that seems to crop up time and again is that the culture was different back then, nobody really thought these things wrong. 

Aside from the fact such offences were against the law even in the 1970s, showing the authorities evidently thought these things wrong, the victims themselves clearly don't share that view either. The problem we have is that a moving moral compass opens the door to such nonsense. Today, we believe we have advanced so far that previous social mores simply do not hold. If such is the case, then existing social mores cannot be pressed retroactively. If morality is ever-changing, we cannot hold people to account historically for things that were not deemed amoral when they were committed. If we want to see justice done in historical cases, moral relativism simply makes it impossible to do so consistently.

We should recognise why we have an appetite for these stories

What is it that makes us buy tabloid papers screaming about these things? Can we honestly say that it is nothing more than a desire to keep informed? More likely, it is because we enjoy feeling superior. We feel good when we see others fail and that is not because we particularly enjoy watching heinous acts of sin. Rather, it is because in judging others worse than ourselves we make ourselves relatively good. An unchanging moral compass means that the sin of another does nothing to effect the value of my own sin. Moral relativism allows me to look at those committing worse acts than me and justify my own shortcomings by arguing I'm not as bad as that.

Knowing a number of people involved in prison outreach, it may surprise you to know that moral relativism is as alive in gaol as it is on the outside. Murderers, though guilty by their own admission, justify themselves as not as bad as the paedophiles. Paedophiles have their own sliding scale. The barrenness of this view is evident. it leads us to conclude, despite the Biblical claim "there is none who does good, not even one", that all do good, except one... the one who is the worst person in society. Really, our agenda is driven by counting ourselves good and doing so by deeming all those worse than us as bad.

We should acknowledge Christians are not beyond sin, even of this magnitude

Even a cursory reading of the Bible will show that none of us are beyond the reach sin. Christians, like everyone else, may fall in public and disgraceful ways. Any reading of Paul or John that does not lead us to understand our inherent propensity to sin shows we haven't understood either the Bible or the gospel. 

Bearing in mind the point above, I do not want to accuse Cliff Richard of anything here. Yet, we cannot pretend that Christian people are beyond even gross acts of sin. A common perception is that "sin" is what Christians talk about when they point the finger at unbelievers. Such a view misunderstands the Biblical position. Far from pointing the finger, Christians know all too well how sinful they are and take both Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8 very seriously indeed. The wonder shouldn't be that people do such heinous things, the wonder should be that less of us do. God's grace holds back the tide of sin.

We should remember, though some escape justice, none escape justice

The spark that ignited the fire was the Jimmy Saville revelations. Many are frustrated and angry that Saville not only indulged in this grotesque behaviour for so long but was never brought to justice. For many, Saville simply got away with it. The Bible tells us we have a loving and merciful God. Yet, the Bible is also clear that God is just. All will have to stand before him and give and account of our life, both Christian and non-Christian alike. Though justice may not have been done on Earth we can rest assured that it will be done by Almighty God.

We should not be fooled. Judgment is not only for those who have committed the most heinous crimes. If moral relativism is flawed, God's justice cannot only extend to the worst of all criminals. Indeed, his justice must simply extend to all those who have fallen short of his glory. If scripture is to be believed, none of us have lived up to that exacting standard.

We should rejoice that God welcomes those who repent, even repentant celebrities

The God of justice is not only concerned with what is just. Though his justice demands satisfaction, his love and mercy demand a means of escape. In Jesus Christ, God simultaneously satisfied his justice and mercy. The central message of the Bible is not that all are sinners. The central message is that Jesus Christ welcomes sinners who repent. Moral relativism keeps us from recognising that we have all fallen short of God's perfect morality. Yet, if we acknowledge our shortcomings and look to Jesus in repentance, the just wrath of God that we deserve can be laid upon Jesus Christ.

It is sad that there was no evidence of repentance on the part of Jimmy Saville. In the cases of Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris, the same seems to apply. They seem sorry at having been caught but not all that sorry for what they have done. Whatever views one has on the British prison system, they will ultimately have to answer to the Lord and face the real punishment for their crimes and not just those for which they have been sent to prison.

But God does welcome repentant sinners. The apostle Paul states "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am foremost" (1 Tim 1:15). And that was not moral relativism at play or false modesty, Paul had well documented reason to think of himself as the chief of all sinners. Yet, Paul - who was a murdering, religious persecutor not unlike IS, formerly ISIS - repented of even this heinous sin and the Lord Jesus Christ welcome him. Likewise, he offers forgiveness to you and I if we turn in repentance to him. If he can save a repentant Paul, he can save any of us!