Wednesday, 17 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 December 2014

Extremism, free speech and mother's logic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I prefer my mother's logic.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

God, Utilitarianism & Deontological Ethics

I have been struck by two interesting (almost certainly not original) thoughts. The first is clear and obvious: God's law exists for our benefit. Though it shows how sinful we are, when we receive his Spirit we are capable of keeping it with the Spirit's help. As such, our actions can be deemed good or bad according to whether we are living in line with his divine decrees. In essence, God calls us to live under a framework of deontological ethics.

According to Kantian deontological ethics, consequences do not determine whether an action is morally good. Rather, good actions are determined by individual motives which are borne out of adherence to universal morals. For Kant, a good will and right motive determines whether an action is good, not the consequences of the action itself. In simple terms, Kant argues for a model of personal integrity. He says individuals should only act (1) according to laws they wish to be universal and (2) treating humanity as an end, not merely a means. This is a remarkably similar statement to Jesus' "Golden Rule" in Luke 6:31 and his comments in Matthew 22:39. It is little wonder then that many deontological ethicists are moral absolutists and often hold to Divine Command Theory.

That God's word calls us to personal integrity, based upon the moral law (summarised in the 10 Commandments), is clear enough. The Penal Substitution model of atonement encourages a guilt-righteousness worldview. All are personally guilty of breaking God's moral law - and thus liable to judgment - and are only counted personally righteous once found in Christ. On this view, our guilt is determined by our ability to keep God's moral law. Our actions are only morally good when motivated by a desire to keep God's law and when we positively manage to do so.

The second thought, in contrast to the first, is that God (in a sense) is the ultimate utilitarian. If Divine Command Theory is to be believed, an action is only morally right when God decrees it morally right. But this means God cannot himself be held to a Kantian ethical model because he is not governed by any external moral law. His motives cannot be judged according to a set rule because he sets the rules. Though his law flows from his divine character, God's goodness is not determined by adherence to a prescribed list of rules. Rather, his goodness is essential to his nature thus he cannot be deemed good according to Kantian ethics.

If we dispense with the Benthamite terminology of 'the greatest happiness principle', it is possible to see that God works for the greatest ultimate good of mankind (a fundamentally utilitarian view). God's greatest desire is that all men everywhere be saved. On both the Calvinist and Molinist views, God has ordered the world such that the greatest possible number of people will freely choose to turn to him. Both the Calvinist and Molinist views differ on the mechanics and order of how he does that, and more fundamentally over the nature of what constitutes freedom, but they do both agree God orders events to win the greatest number freely to himself (1). In essence, God seeks to implement the greatest possible amount of good by his activity in the world.

It is also clear from scripture that God orders the events of the world to work out his greater plan. He orchestrates good and restrains evil to achieve his purposes. He permits - without being the author of - sin and wrongdoing where such will serve his ultimate glory. Plenty of examples can cited from scripture, such as the story of Joseph or the roles of Daniel or Esther during periods of judgment for Israel/Judah, but is seen most clearly through Jesus Christ's death on the cross. A gross act of sin and injustice on the part of those who tried and crucified him. Yet, this was an act of sin permitted by God and determined before the foundation of the world, to achieve his greater salvific purposes. God ordered the act, without being the author of the sin, to achieve his good ends.

So why does God, who appears to be the ultimate utilitarian, demand that those who trust him follow a deontological system of ethics? It is specifically because God is the ultimate utilitarian that deontological ethics are necessary for his followers. Because God is omniscient - holding knowledge not only of all actual events but also of all possible events - he can see how each universal event, from the greatest to the smallest, can work for ultimate good. Further, because God is God, he alone can determine, without interpretative fallibility, those actions that can truly be deemed good and those which are objectively bad. 

As mere human beings, our subjective attempts to determine ultimate good are liable to fail as we cannot see the bigger picture and only know good from bad as a result of God's divine command and general revelation. God requires a deontological ethic of his followers because we cannot truly determine utilitarian principles. God is the ultimate utilitarian because he is the only one in any position to determine the greatest possible good. Our subjective attempts to figure that out will fail because we cannot see the bigger picture and have no knowledge of future possible events (and subsequent consequences). God, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of this and in his sovereign goodness divinely decrees those good actions that will work for the greatest possible good. In such circumstances as individuals fail to obey his divine decrees, it is only because God has permitted their disobedience to bring about an even greater good as part of his ultimate plan of redemption in Christ.

Utilitarianism fails at a human level. We cannot possibly know what actions will bring about the greatest good. The only one who can truly know this is God himself. He gives us divine commands and orders the world so the greatest possible good may come about. He calls us to live under a deontological framework of ethics because to do anything else would result in sub-optimal goodness. 

In layman's terms: if we're charged with bringing about the best of all possible worlds, we'd make a right hash of it. God gives us good commands because he knows (a) what is ultimately good and (b) what direction we need in order to attain it.

  1. For a more full discussion of these issues see herehere and here. For further reading see William Lane Craig's book The Only Wise God, Bruce Ware's God's Greater Glory and John Frame's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God

Thursday, 27 November 2014

How do you sell God in the 21st Century? More Heaven; less Hell

I came across this article in today's Guardian online. The piece recounts a conservative Evangelical journey away from their faith. It outlines the story of somebody growing up in an Evangelical baptist family, going to Moody Bible Institute (a conservative, Evangelical seminary), engaged in evangelism and yet becoming increasingly disaffected with theodicy and theology of Hell. In many ways, it is a common story of an Evangelical unable to square what they see in scripture, the apologetic arguments and theology they are taught and their own internal sense of what is just, fair, moral and right. Though lengthy, the article is certainly worth reading.

Nevertheless, the article's emphasis isn't really autobiographical. The writer isn't ultimately trying to share how they became disaffected with Evangelicalism (though they do share that and do so - in my view - in a way that still exhibits fondness for Evangelicals if not for Evangelicalism nor Evangelical theology.) Rather, the writer is trying to address why the perception of Hell - and certainly the formulation of the doctrine of Hell at a popular level - has changed over time.

The article contends that 30 years ago - whilst the writer was growing up in Evangelical baptist circles - Hell was taught in, what would now be considered, an anachronistic way. It was all fire and brimstone, eternal torment and attempts to scare folk into Heaven. It notes a shift in emphasis, focusing on the preaching and writing of Bill Hybels, toward less of a focus on Hell itself. Certainly when Hell was mentioned, it was brought into focus by empathetic appeals to sin and evil existing in all people. The writer then considers how this has changed again, focusing on the writing of Rob Bell. It argues Hell is now either (a) something to be experienced here on Earth; or, (b) a purgatorial refinement leading to ultimate, universal reconciliation and the end of Hell itself.

The article misses the mark in various respects. Principally, it argues the way to avoid Hell, according to protestant Evangelical theology, is to say the sinner's prayer. It states "For contemporary evangelicals, it’s solely this act that separates the sheep from the goats." Though there are undoubtedly people who hold this view, most at a personal level, it is not mainstream Evangelical belief. 

Paul Washer, a well-known conservative Evangelical couldn't be clearer when he states "We call men to repent and believe. And if they repent and believe, truly in that moment they are saved in that moment. But the evidence is more than just the sincerity of a prayer. It is a continuation of the working of God in their life through sanctification." He has also argued "We have taken that truth [that if you truly believe and you confess Christ, even if it costs you your life, you will be saved]… we have taken that beautiful truth and reduced it down to, “If you pray a little prayer before a bunch of people in a church in America, you can be guaranteed you were saved if you think you were sincere.”"

Denny Burk - Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College (Southern Baptist seminary) and associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church - has published this comment by David Platt - president of the International Missions Board, the mission agency of the Southern Baptists (a conservative Evangelical denomination). Platt states:
Do I believe it is “wrong” for someone to pray a “prayer of salvation”? Certainly not. Calling out to God in prayer with repentant faith is fundamental to being saved (Romans 10:9-10). Yet as I pastor a local church and serve alongside pastors of other local churches, I sense reasonably serious concern about the relatively large number of baptisms in our churches that are “re-baptisms”—often representing people who thought they were saved because they prayed a certain prayer, but they lacked a biblical understanding of salvation and were in reality not saved. This, in addition to a rampant easy believism that marks cultural Christianity in our context (and in other parts of the world), leads me to urge us, as we go to all people among all nations with the good news of God’s love, to be both evangelistically zealous and biblically clear at the same time (Matthew 28:18-20).
Plenty of other conservative Evangelicals can be found stating categorically that nobody is saved simply because they prayed a "sinner's prayer". Though a prayer of repentance may be an outward expression of the repentance that has already taken place in the heart of a believer, it is this ongoing state of repentance and trust in Christ's atoning work that saves.

However, the article is helpful in pinpointing where the boundaries of belief lie. It quite rightly sees the arguments advanced by Rob Bell as demonstrating "the potential pitfalls of the church’s desire to distance itself too quickly from fire and brimstone." As the writer comments:
Bell claims to address the exact theological problem that motivated me to leave the faith, but rather than offer a new understanding of the doctrine, he offers up a Disneyesque vision of humanity, one that is wholly incompatible with the language biblical authors use to speak about good and evil. Along with hell, the new evangelical leaders threaten to jettison the very notion of human depravity – a fundamental Christian truth upon which the entire salvation narrative hinges.
The issues for the writer were plain enough. The Bible teaches the doctrine of Hell. An internal sense of that which is just and merciful couldn't accept the doctrine of Hell. One either accepts the teaching of the Bible or rejects it. Bell's attempts at "disneyfying" the doctrine seemed too hollow and shallow for credible belief.

What the article helpfully states in the clearest terms is the following:
what made church such a powerful experience for me as a child and a young adult was that it was the one place where my own faults and failings were recognised and accepted, where people referred to themselves affectionately as “sinners”, where it was taken as a given that the person standing in the pews beside you was morally fallible, but still you held hands and lifted your voice with hers as you worshipped in song. This camaraderie came from a collective understanding of evil – a belief that each person harboured within them a potential for sin and deserved, despite it, divine grace. It’s this notion of shared fallibility that lent Hybels’s 9/11 sermon its power, as he suggested that his own longing for revenge was only a difference of degree – not of kind – from the acts of the terrorists.
Without a clear and defined understanding of the doctrine of Hell the message of the gospel is liable to be lost. No amount of rebranding is going to help. For a reformulation of the doctrine of Hell means the gospel, the message of salvation in Christ, ultimately loses its power. No Hell soon leads to a watered down, or non-existent, statement of sin. No sin means no need of salvation. No need of salvation means no need of Christ. No need of Christ makes Jesus a pitiable character indeed.

Efforts to rebrand Hell, or to push it to the sidelines, are misguided at best. That is not to say our preaching must be fire and brimstone every week. Nor is it to say Hell must be the centre of all our gospel presentations. It is to say, that to pretend it doesn't exist or to speak of it in such ways as it seems little more than trifling irritant - like a small wart on God's created order - is to undermine the gospel.

A right view of sin - to see it as God sees it - lends credence to the existence of Hell. To do anything other than present Hell as scripture presents it damages our understanding of sin, salvation and the work of Christ. Whatever else the article made clear, it is apparent that changes to the doctrine of Hell were ultimately unconvincing and - despite the title of the piece - more Heaven and less Hell doesn't do much to win anybody. If anything, it undermines the achievement of Jesus on the cross and the reality of our standing before a holy God.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

3 things my 1 year old son has taught me about God

This last week, on the 13th November, my son turned 1. During this time, I have learnt an enormous amount - far more than during my theological studies - about God and myself. It is not that I didn't know these things before but they have become more real, and painfully obvious, to me since becoming a father. And, of course, it is no coincidence God is cast as a Father in scripture. There are a whole ream of things I could share but here are three things my son has taught me about God and myself this year:

God is always faithful; I am impatient and lack trust
Even this morning, my son and I went through our usual routine. I got him up and dressed - during which he played and was incredibly happy. I took him downstairs and poured some milk into his bottle (at which his eyes lit up). I took the bottle over to the microwave to warm it for 30 seconds. It was then he decided to get angry. This is a daily occurrence.

Clement loves his food. He doesn't tantrum a lot (praise God) but, when he does, it is usually over food and drink. Either he wants some, wants more or wants it quicker. This morning, when he got angry, I said to him "I get you your milk every morning, warm it and have never yet failed to give it to you. What do you think is going to happen?" Lo and behold, when the milk appeared again, Clem had his bottle and all was once again well.

It was a poignant reminder that God has never yet failed to sustain or uphold me, even during times of difficulty. He has never once failed to deliver on his promises and has, over the course of my life, given me all sorts of things which I acknowledge come from him and for which I thank him. Yet, so often, I throw little tantrums of my own effectively questioning whether God will give me this or that. They are the sort of things he hasn't yet failed to give me, so I have no reason to doubt he won't give them to me now, but so often I do. I am either impatient, wanting them now, or question that he will give them to me at all. My son has taught me the truth of Mt 7:11.

God wants my good; I am defiant
It is undoubtedly true that Clem knows the difference between right and wrong. Not all right and wrong but certainly he knows what 'no' means. I know this because sometimes, when I say no, he turns around and stops batting the thing he was touching. Equally, I know he is defiant because sometimes, when I say no, he turns around with a big grin and sticks his hand straight back on the front of the fireplace we have repeatedly told him not to touch.

Most of the time, my son's desire to touch stuff is irksome rather than grievous. He has a mountain of toys we use to distract him. The toys are eminently more fun than touching the tivo box or poking a plug socket. Nevertheless, toys become boring compared to the sheer delight of doing something he knows he shouldn't. The actual value of that decision, objectively speaking, is minimal (touching a glass front on a fireplace really isn't that exciting!) But the very act of defiance is what makes it appealing. What he doesn't realise is when we ask him not to touch the fire we aren't out to spoil his fun. Rather, it is something for his own good.

Every time I say no to Clem (especially when he defies me), I am reminded of how gracious God is to me. He has given me all sorts of good things to enjoy in the world. Yet, often, I think the most appealing things are those to which he says 'no'. When I pursue them, their value turns out to be minimal - or, more usually, detrimental - to me. Yet, pursue them I do. Rico Tice, in Christianity Explored, gives the example of a beach in Australia with signs up saying "Beware! Sharks." We have to ask whether the signs are there for our own good or simply to spoil our fun. In the same way, we must ask whether God's word is there to stop us enjoying ourselves or if he intends it for our good. When he says no, it is always for our benefit. When we defy him, just like my son, we say we know better and touching a fire seems like a good idea.

God loves me; I question his care
When my son does what he shouldn't, discipline usually follows. Typically, this involves some sort of "time out" or being held so he can't play. It is inevitably accompanied by tears and screams as he hates being stopped from doing what he wants (even if what he wants is eminently stupid!)

Now, I don't stop loving my son when he defies me. I'm certainly not full of hate and contempt when I discipline him. Usually, especially given his age, his little acts of defiance are little more than a bit irritating. Often, it's not even that - it's just a bad habit for him to get into (such as touching the fire). The discipline is a corrective measure more often than not. It is occasionally meant as a punishment too but, even in those circumstances, is a corrective to his behaviour. To leave him to it, and ignore behaviours that I know will be destructive, would be a surefire sign that I don't love or even care about my son.

In the same way, I am reminded how much God loves me. Not only has he given me a world to enjoy and his word for my good but he also disciplines out of love. Both Proverbs 3:11f and Hebrews 12:3-17 make this truth clear. His discipline is a sign that we are his children. Though no discipline is pleasant at the time, as the writer to the Hebrews says, "it later yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it". God disciplines his children out of love just as I do my son. He does it to train us, to refine our characters where they need refining. To enact no discipline when we err would be to suggest we are illegitimate sons - one's whom he doesn't really care for at all. Discipline is for the good of the one being disciplined and is a sign of love and care. It is a sign of wanting the best and seeking to stop destructive behaviours (1).


  1. The same applies in the church. Church discipline is a sign of love and care for an individual. To enact no discipline is to suggest we don't care about destructive behaviours for them or the church

Friday, 7 November 2014

On the "stand up and greet time"

Thom Rainer recently produced a post on the top ten ways to drive guests from your church. He followed this up with a post here, after a slew of comments in relation to his inclusion of "having a stand up and greet time" in his original article. Tim Challies has responded to this with his own article: How I learned to Embrace the Stand and Greet Time. The following is my two-penneth.

In his original article, Thom Rainer highlights the extreme revulsion many guests have to the stand up and greet time in the service. His follow up article makes clear that many have, not only refused to come back to the church after such trauma, but left mid-service as a result. 

In his response, Tim Challies honestly admits that he too finds it awkward and difficult. However, he argues in favour of a stand up and greet time, basing this on two key arguments. Firstly, he wants to argue church is not all about me and my comfort. Sometimes we have to do things that are uncomfortable in order for the church to fulfil its function. Secondly, he argues church is for the believer. Though unbelievers should factor in what we do, he says, their comfort shouldn't take precedence. It is what builds up the believer that should be paramount.

So, what do these various articles present us with? Each makes valid points. When we work through them, we are left with three basic facts: (1) visitors - believers and unbelievers alike - despise stand up and greet times and will not return to a church if one exists; (2) church members should not make the church about their own preferences and comfort; (3) what happens in the church exists primarily to build up believers.

The question that remains is whether there is some way to hold these facts in tension. Some of us, I suspect, would be tempted to drop one of the assertions at this point. Most likely, if that's our solution, we either deny the problem of (1) or we reject the assertion in (3). Personally, I subscribe to all three statements but I believe there is a simple solution.

Firstly, although (2) is undeniably correct, it rather misses the point. (2) is only relevant to the discussion if stand up and greet times (a) actively build up the church membership and (b) that what goes on in the church only exists to build up believers. As such, though (2) could be relevant to the discussion, it is only relevant once we have determined (a) and (b).

At this point, we must address (3). It is certainly true that what happens within the church is primarily for the upbuilding of the membership. However, that does not mean the upbuilding of the membership is the only priority of the church. Indeed, if the church is concerned with mission, how we relate to those outside (especially if they have been brave enough to cross the threshold into a foreign church culture) is surely more than a footnote on our service. It is certainly true, the comfort of the unbeliever isn't paramount. Were it, there would likely be no real preaching of the gospel. But that isn't to say their comfort doesn't matter at all and we should ride roughshod over it because one element - indeed, one pretty small element - of the service might benefit believers but make unbelievers uncomfortable in the process.

That leads on to our answer to (a) - does a stand up and greet time actively build up the membership anyway? The sheer number of believing respondents - those who are sympathetic to the church - who seem to loathe stand up and greet times would suggest not. What is the purpose of the stand up and greet time? If it is to be welcoming - yet makes everyone uncomfortable - then it seems to have failed. If it is to build up believers, one is unclear how a forced handshake and contrived greeting (or, in worse cases, hugs and literal renderings of "holy kiss") do anything of the sort. It also begs the question what the point of being greeted at the door (and, in some cases, over coffee pre-service by several others) if we're all going to be forced to do it again mid-service.

On top of all this, there is a point that appears to have been missed in discussion. Are there any ways of welcoming unbelievers, building up believers and encouraging church members to look outside of themselves without making everyone uncomfortable or compromising the purposes of the church? It strikes me there are plenty of ways to do this. 

Most churches do this over tea and coffee before or after the service and train their members in how to welcome guests. Not only does this achieve the same purpose as the stand up and greet time, it actually exceeds it. The greeting (both the timing and the nature of it) are not contrived and forced. It means visitors are not "on display" when being welcomed and are not pushed into meangingless conversations they (nor the other participant) particularly want. It also means church members are built up all the more. Shaking hands and smiling politely at a brother or sister at an enforced point mid-service does not build up in nearly the same way as an intentional approach for a genuine conversation that was taken by choice.

So can we hold all three comments in tension. Yes, I think we can. Though church is primarily for the building up of believers, if believers are rarely built up by a stand up and greet time, it is not doing anything to achieve that purpose. Though visitors hate stand up and greet times, if it does little to build up many believers it seems perverse to insist upon it when neither the church nor the visitors gain from it. Though church members are supposed to look outside of their own comfort in order to build up the church, that doesn't mean we must persist with uncomfortable things simply because they are uncomfortable. Members need only be pushed outside their comfort zone when their comfort is stopping them doing something scripture suggests they should, or should not, do. If there is a way to build up other believers that makes us uncomfortable, we should certainly do that. However, it seems stand up and greet times are not one of them.

Church can build up believers without stand up and greet times. Visitors will feel more welcome without a stand up and greet time. Church members can be encouraged to build up the body over and against their own preferences without a stand up and greet time. Given all that, I'm unsure what is to be lost if we simply canned the practice. There seems to be much to gain by dropping it.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Do we need to fear Halloween? Three things to consider

There is an awful lot of superstition and nonsense surrounding Halloween. At this time of year, Christians are wont to get worked up and fearful. There is both a rightness and a wrongness to this. So, here are three things to consider this Halloween:

Evil and darkness are real
The Bible is pretty clear that evil and darkness are real. They are the very things that stand in opposition to God. If God is light (1 Jn 1:5and good (Mk 10:18), then evil and darkness are those things that stand in opposition to him (1 Jn 3:8ff). The Devil himself both orchestrates certain acts of evil and influences those that belong to him (Jn 13:2Eph 2:1-3Eph 6:11f; 2 Tim 2:24-26; 1 Pet 5:8f; 1 Jn 3:8-10).

Nowhere does the Bible talk about gruesomeness, ghosts of the departed or monsters as particular examples of evil. Rather, the evil with which the Bible is concerned is opposition to God. It is seen first in our response to Jesus; whether we will accept him as Lord or not. It is then seen in our actions that result from this decision to be found in Christ or against him (Mt 12:30-32). The Devil delights in lies, indeed he is a deceiver by nature (Jn 8:44), and his greatest pleasure is to keep you from trusting Christ and following after God. This is the evil and darkness we should be sure to flee.

Celebrating evil and darkness is perverse
The dressing up, sweets and stories of things that go bump in the night obscure the real issue. In and of themselves, there is nothing to worry about in silly monsters and costumes. If these are your central concern about Halloween then I have some great news for you: the zombies, ghouls and monsters in which Halloween revels aren't real. If you are scared by such things, there is nothing to fear in that which doesn't exist. Paul makes this same argument in relation to idols and false gods (1 Cor 8:4-6). We can eat food offered to other supposed deities without anxiety because they aren't real and don't actually exist. They are nothing thus we have nothing to fear.

But the heart of the matter is not the costumes, the monster and the stories. The real issue is what lies behind such things. Halloween is, fundamentally, a celebration of evil. As Canon J.John comments here, when costumes cover "a chainsaw killer, a psychopathic butcher or even a shooting victim (‘with authentic-looking bullet holes’).This is hardly harmless." It is a move beyond fictional stories to glorifying and reveling in real and grotesque evil. As J.John notes: 
"In some older Halloween traditions people dressed up in clothes that made them look evil and then, at the end of the evening, the outfits were burnt. The message was clear if naive: in the end, good triumphs over evil. Yet there is no hint of that in the modern Halloween. Now, evil is unchallenged and just slips away into the darkness, to return at some other time."
There is something perverse about the celebration of evil. It amounts to a celebration of the works of the Devil. The Christian really shouldn't have any part in celebrating that which the Devil stands for (2 Cor 6:14ff).

The Christian has no cause to fear
As we've already seen, if your fear of Halloween stems from the costumes and stories of ghouls and monsters then we really have no cause to fear. Such things aren't real. Yet - as we said at the beginning - evil, darkness and the Devil are real. They are things to be taken seriously. Does that mean Christians have cause to fear?

The short answer is 'no'. Jesus himself tells us: 
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. (Jn 10:27-29)
There is no way the Devil can take those who belong to Christ away from Him. Paul offers us this same assurance in Romans 8:38f. Again, Jesus tells us not to fear the Devil or any who belong to him (Mt 10:24-28; Lk 12:4f). Indeed, one of the signs that we have received God's Spirit is that we don't fear sin, death or the Devil any longer (2 Tim 1:7; Heb 2:14f; 1 Jn 4:17f; Rev 2:10).

John Knox famously said "I have never once feared the devil, but I tremble every time I enter the pulpit". Knox had grasped the true meaning of Proverbs 1:7, 29 & Mt 10:28. The believer has nothing to fear in the Devil. Jesus has already won the victory over his most powerful weapons: sin and death. Yet proper proclamation of God's inspired word is a serious task indeed.

So, the Christian has nothing to fear in Halloween. We will not get swept away with the Devil simply because it happens around us. Nor will we be dragged away if we try to use it as a means of proclaiming the gospel to those who decide to take part. Is it something I would encourage us to join in? Probably not. Is it an event that should cause to tremble? By no means.

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:

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.

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.

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.