Wednesday, 20 May 2015

On the Ashers Bakery judgment

The Ashers Bakery judgment has been published and the bakers are found to have broken equality legislation. The full judgment is worth reading and can be found here. For a helpful, and relatively brief, summary of why this is an astonishing (if somewhat unsurprising) result see Archbishop Cranmer.

It bears saying that the principle of equal service is a good and valid one. Few would disagree that service ought not to be denied to somebody simply because of their sexual orientation or political beliefs. A bakery that bakes standardised cakes ought not to refuse service to an individual simply because they are homosexual, subscribe to a political party whom the service provider does not or support a campaign the service provider does not/cannot. The Asher case, however, was never about the provision of a standard service being denied to somebody because of their religious or political beliefs. Rather, this was a case of somebody being denied a particular service that would have been denied to anybody else requesting that same identical service.

Rather than offer a summary of the whole case (others have done a better job of that already), I rather want to direct your attention to a handful of rather concerning elements of the judgment itself.

Point 39 of the judgment states the defendants must have known the plaintiff was homosexual and/or associated with homosexual people because of his support for gay marriage, the claim he worked for a small volunteer organisation and the stated graphic on the cake including the word 'QueerSpace'. Certainly there are plenty of heterosexual people that support gay marriage and there is no particular reason for the defendants to have any knowledge of what 'QueerSpace' actually is or does. The presumption of the judge was that this service was denied because the plaintiff was homosexual. However, point 7 of the judgment states quite clearly that the plaintiff 'had previously purchased items at this branch of the 1st Defendant Company'. Were it the case the defendant was denied service because of his homosexuality - which, according to the judge, was 'abundantly clear' - it is virtually impossible to account for the previous provision of service.

Point 41 of the judgment quotes a number of cases that make concerning statements regarding the nature of discrimination. One judgment avers 'discrimination... is something subtle insidious or hidden' while another states motive and purpose have no basis in judgments on discrimination. point 42 then goes on to argue that the necessary comparator is not a heterosexual person purchasing the same cake but a person of undisclosed sexual orientation purchasing a pro-traditional marriage cake. The comparison is laughable. The very cause of discrimination was not the sexual orientation of the person purchasing the cake, which was not known to the defendants and the judgment offers no great evidence they were aware of such orientation, but the message contained on the cake. Equally, even were the judgment correct on this point, it beggars belief that the previous service to this same individual was then not considered as evidence his sexuality had nothing to do with the refusal of service. As the bakery stated throughout, there have been a number of other cakes that were deemed indecent or offensive that they also refused to bake.

Point 43 acknowledges that the bakery 'cancelled the order as they oppose same sex marriage'. It is something of a logical leap to then find, as in Point 46, 'the 2nd and 3rd Defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the Plaintiff on the ground of his sexual orientation'. The prior service of the plaintiff, the provision of cakes bearing no specific political slogans, speaks against this. Moreover, acknowledging that it is indeed the message to which they object in no way implies discrimination against the individual. It, not implicitly, but explicitly implies a refusal to assert political and/or religious slogans and opinions that the service provider themselves do not hold and cannot in good conscience state.

Points 53-60 seek to establish that the Plaintiff held a political opinion and was discriminated against on these grounds. On balance, I suspect the judge is correct in asserting this is a political opinion and is almost certainly correct that the defendants knew the Plaintiff's political opinion on gay marriage (as per their letter and the specific writing on the cake itself). However, it is patently not the case that the political opinion held by the Plaintiff was the basis of discrimination. The purpose of the legislation is to stop the refusal of a standard service to those who hold specific political opinions. However, it is not the purpose of the legislation to coerce service providers to create material and products that actively promote political beliefs and opinions contrary to those they campaigned against. Again, had the bakery refused to serve the Plaintiff a standard cake simply because he supported gay marriage, this would legitimately fall foul of the law. That they refused to bake a cake bearing a political slogan to which they themselves object and campaigned against ought to be outside the scope of this legislation.

Point 64 of the judgment is, frankly, ludicrous. It states 'if the Plaintiff had ordered a cake with the words "support marriage" or "support heterosexual marriage" I have no doubt such a cake would have been provided. It is the word gay to which the 2nd and 3rd Defendants took exception'. That is patently not true. It is the campaign in favour of gay marriage to which they took exception. Now, whatever one's views on gay marriage, it is surely inappropriate to force anybody to produce materials and products which actively promote a position and/or campaign to which they themselves specifically disagree. For example, would it be right for a homosexual baker to produce a cake saying "no to gay marriage" despite campaigning in favour for it? It strikes me that would be just as unfair as the case we are discussing.

The absurdities of this judgment are not hard to discern. For one, the defendants have been found guilty of refusing to bake a cake which supports a position that is currently unlawful. In other words, they have been found guilty of standing up for the existing law of their province. 

It has also been deemed illegal to not provide services and products which directly contravene the views and opinions of the service provider. Now, service providers are compelled to produce products and provide services in favour of campaigns to which they themselves specifically campaigned against.

Further, Asher's Bakery were found to have discriminated against a legitimate political opinion. Though gay marriage is currently not legal in the province, it is certainly not illegal to hold the view that gay marriage ought to be legalised. Such a judgment, however, means a BNP member who requests a cake from a Jewish baker bearing the slogan "Hitler: the best leader we never had" would be compelled to produce such a product on the grounds that to do otherwise would be to discriminate against a political opinion that is not illegal to hold.

The bakers' religious views were found to be moot in this case. As such, religious believers will be compelled to offer products and services to those who request blasphemous, religiously offensive or religiously unconscionable products. If an EDL supporter (holding a political view) asked a muslim baker to produce a cake with a picture of Mohammad and the caption "false prophet" underneath (a religious view), would they be compelled to make such a cake on the grounds to do so is to discriminate against political opinion?

There is no doubt that most agree political opinion, sexual orientation and religious beliefs should not be a basis for withholding products and services. Such a position was always intended to stop those who supported one political party, were of one particular sexual orientation or religious belief from refusing to provide services to a person of any other. What they were never intended to do was compel people with deeply held beliefs and convictions to provide services and products specifically advocating and promoting views contrary to their own that would involve the suppression of conscience. It does not take a genius to see a distinction between refusal to serve a gay man because he is gay (evidently wrong) and refusal to provide a product bearing a slogan supporting a position which you have spent some time campaigning against. As far as I can tell, Ashers Bakery were seeking that distinction. Their service of the Plaintiff and their refusal to bake a particular product (rather than serve the man at all) speak to this. One can only hope an appeal judge recognises this too.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

British values, EDOs and whether we'll keep our church buildings

Now they are free of their Liberal Democrat shackle, the Conservative government will press ahead with plans to scrap the human rights act and introduce Extremism Disruptions Orders (EDOs) based upon "British Values" (whatever those are supposed to be). I previously commented on EDOs here. However, there are a few new features that warrant comment.

David Cameron states:
For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.
This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation and bring our country together. That means actively promoting certain values. (Source: Guardian)
It is, therefore, apt for Politics Home to state 'David Cameron is promising to introduce a bill in his first Queen’s Speech that will give authorities stronger powers to clamp down on radical groups and individuals – even if they have not broken the law.'

The Guardian claims the measures are intended to give the police 'power to apply to the high court for an order to limit the “harmful activities” of an extremist individual'. Harmful is defined as a risk of public disorder, a risk of harassment, alarm or distress. The measures will allow for bans on broadcasting and requirements to submit to the police in advance any proposed speech and any web, social media, or print publications. Extremist organisations which seek to undermine democracy or use hate speech in public places are also in view. The bill will also contain new powers to close premises "where extremists seek to influence others".

All of this is done in the name of promoting the heretofore undefined concept of "British values". When pressed on this idea, we are told British values incorporate such novelties as freedom of speech and tolerance of others. This either means we have our British values mixed-up or such measures are not really in the name of British values. For, it seems strange to defend free speech and tolerance by denying free speech and tolerance to all views but state prescribed orthodoxies. If free speech and tolerance are truly British values, that should surely extend to speech we find hateful and unpleasant. Indeed, what room is there for the exercise of tolerance if we are never faced with opposing views we must tolerate? Throwing people in prison for expressing unorthodox views - whatever they may be - is a strange approach to tolerance and free speech. Dare I say, it isn't really tolerant at all.

The major problem with these limits on free speech is that they are the slippery slope to repression and authoritarianism. Though judgment may begin at the house of radicalised Islamist terrorists and sympathisers, it very quickly narrows in to those who hold a whole raft of views outside of mainstream thought. Theresa May has already alighted upon those who oppose gay equality legislation as "extremist". Whatever your views on that particular issue, it is surely not right to criminalise those who disagree (unless they have violent thoughts towards those who don't share their views and plan to act upon them). It has political ramifications too. Judgment will begin with those archetypal extremists in the BNP but will soon narrow to take in UKIP, the hard-right of the conservative party any number of "extremist" left-wing parties and the hard-left of the Labour party. 

The rhetoric being employed in favour of this legislation is precisely the same as that used to try and suppress those movements most people today see as vital moments in history. At one time, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the Labour movement, the Civil Rights movements of America and Northern Ireland, those fighting apartheid in South Africa, those asking for Home Rule for Ireland, just about any independence movement and any number of other significant historical movements have been labelled "extremist" or some similar epithet. 

I am not suggesting those being radicalised by Islamists sit within this same company. However, two things should be said. First, it is the unstated consequences of this legislation that will inevitably impact the newer movements that could potentially sit amongst such historic company. Secondly, some of these historical movements - often church-based dissenting movements - sought to enshrine the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech in British law. For several hundred years those rights have been broadly recognised. It is, therefore, immense folly to claim to uphold British values - especially the values of freedom of speech and religion that were won primarily by dissenting churchmen - whilst simultaneously eroding the freedom of those very people to exercise those rights. Threatening prosecution and the removal of buildings for stating views that do not accord with state orthodoxy is a return to medieval rule whereby the governing religion is not Protestant or Catholic but a secularism that isn't fully realised and still hides behind a veneer of the more palatable facets and labels of Christendom.

The way in which the limits on free speech have been applied over recent years is well documented. Street preachers have been the ones who faced the brunt of these pernicious laws and the militancy of those who are desperate to find offence in the things of faith being presented in the public square. Unfortunately, street preaching has fallen out of favour in many Christian circles. I don't know whether it is out of fear of man, embarrassment of the mode, a lack of belief in the power of the gospel and the folly of preaching or something else altogether. Whatever the reason, it sometimes felt as though many unwilling to engage in such public proclamation sat idly by whilst those brave enough to do it faced the ire of the law. It was as though many viewed police involvement as the comeuppance of those foolish enough to engage in such outmoded practices.

As I have argued throughout my posts on free speech, what was being done to evangelists on the street was soon to come home to roost in church buildings. And such is coming to pass. EDOs are specifically designed to root out "extremism in all its forms" and grants powers to close down buildings and venues in which "hate speech" (as yet to be properly defined) is propagated. This was a potential Martin Niem√∂ller moment, and I'll leave it to you to decide how we fared on that front. The offence being taken on the street is now going to be taken in the church. In fact, offence needn't even be taken in the church. Sermons and studies placed online, or even "extremist" views being taught in principle could spell the end of our church buildings and venues and/or the vetting of our sermons and studies.

One can only hope the government sees sense and changes course. If not, this may be an issue on which the church will have to suffer if it is to remain faithful to the word of God. We can nevertheless rest assured that the church of Jesus Christ was not built on the back of state sponsorship and nice church buildings. The early church did quite well without well disposed primary schools offering them a nice venue on a Sunday. What we need, as much now as then, is a work of the Holy Spirit and deep belief in sufficiency of the scriptures. It takes God's word and a work of his Spirit to bring revival. Perhaps we need to lose some of our buildings before we fully realise that.

Friday, 8 May 2015

The results are in. So what now?

The votes have been counted and the government is in. The UK has elected a Conservative majority government and the people of Scotland have overwhelmingly voted Scottish Nationalist. The Labour party are coming to terms with a woeful performance that saw the loss of several big beasts and the obliteration of their presence in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats - the biggest losers on the night - are dealing with the near annihilation of their nationwide support. The election was not nearly as close as anybody predicted and we have seen the resignation of, not one but, three party leaders.

Whether you voted Conservative, Labour, SNP or the ominously labelled 'other', we must all face this question: what do we do now? Whether you are pleased or despondent, here are three things to bear in mind.

We must pray for our leaders

You don't have to like them, you don't have to agree with them and you certainly didn't have to vote for them. What the Bible does insist we do is pray for them (1 Tim 2:1-3; Jer 29:7). Even [insert most hated party here] are capable of making right decisions some of the time. Even [insert most hated party here] can work for the good of the people some of the time. Where [insert most hated party here] do not appear to be working in the best interests of all the people, or appear to be pressing ahead with whatever folly we wish they wouldn't, surely that is all the more reason to pray for them! Let's remember -whether we are in favour or not - to bring our leaders before the Lord in prayer.

God is still sovereign

Indeed, what would be the point of praying otherwise? Scripture is clear that God is the one who sets and removes leaders (Dan 2:21) and they are ultimately under his control (Jn 19:10fRom 13:1). God has established the leaders we have and put them in place. 

Romans 13:4, 6 go further still and tell us - even in the face of what appears to be the case - governments are God's ministers for good. Before we cast this off as trite nonsense and begin getting het up by all the terrible things we know [insert hated party here] are going to do, let's remember Paul was no stranger to the less amicable face of government. Nor was he so stupid as to ignore history (especially recent history of Antiochus IV Epiphanes). Paul wasn't being trite. He recognised rulers are put in place by God and work only according to his sovereign will. No matter how terrible they may seem at times, they generally seek to work for the good of the people and - even where they do not - are only permitted in such action because it serves the ultimate, sovereign purposes of God.

Government is fleeting

The book of Daniel is dedicated to these twin truths: (1) God is in control; (2) all kingdoms and rulers are fleeting. No matter how powerful (or bad) kings and rulers may appear, they are here today and gone tomorrow (or, here today and gone in five years).

Whether we see the next 5 years as a trial to be endured or a blessing from Heaven, it is so because God said it would be. In 5 years time, we will have new leaders and a new government which will be viewed in the same way. In each case, they are there because God put them there. What is for sure is they will not be there forever. We either see this as a time of blessing on our country or one to be worked through. However we see it, it is not forever. God sets the rulers but he also removes them too.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Four reasons I would restrict communion to church members

It is probably worth noting from the outset, I pastor a church that currently practices an open table. Though this is not where I sit by conviction, as I'm sure you've gathered from the title of the post, this is not a matter of first-order importance for me. The members are aware of my position and it inevitably makes its way into my teaching as (I understand) particular texts demand but I submit to the church on this issue. However, let me offer a handful of reasons why I believe we ought to restrict communion to confirmed members of the church (1).

Communion symbolises unity with the body

1 Cor 10:17 makes clear that one of the central purposes of communion is to express our unity with one another. Given communion is an ordinance administered by the local church, we are specifically expressing unity with the visible body of believers with whom we are gathered at the moment of partaking, not the entire catholic church. There is something flawed about our concept of unity if we argue we are unified by taking communion but not so much that we dare join the local church in membership. In what world are we united with the body if we will not join in membership with it? Can we really proclaim with a clear conscience before God, and the watching world, that we are, in actual fact, one with the very people we refuse to join?

Communion symbolises association with God's people

Outside of membership, the church ordinances make no sense. 1 Cor 12:13 tells us that baptism marks our union with Christ and entrance into his church. It is the initial step in publicly associating with Jesus and his people. The Lord's Supper, likewise, is the ongoing statement that we continue to associate with Christ and his people. Again, it seems a funny form of public association to proclaim in the communion that we are joined together whilst simultaneously making clear on paper, in the church membership records, that we aren't as united as we claim. If we can't assent to the church doctrinal basis or find some problem with the church, how can we proclaim ourselves one with them in communion? If we can assent to the doctrinal basis and we find no problem with the church, why on earth will we not join in membership and then proclaim our oneness through communion after we have made clear our unity in membership?

Communion demands the ability to "discern the body"

Paul's warning to the Corinthian church makes clear that the one eating and drinking judgment upon themselves is the one who fails to "discern the body" (1 Cor 11:27ff). That v29 mentions eating and drinking but only talks of "discerning the body" suggests that Paul is no longer talking about Christ's physical body but the body of believers. There are two ways to take this verse: (1) Paul is saying Christians should act like Christ when they come together; or, (2) Paul is saying we must examine our unity with this local body before we can partake.

On either view, a case can be made for requiring membership. Just as Christ associates with his body, if we are to imitate Christ we ought to associate with his people. Alternatively, on that first view, if Paul's main emphasis is on being selfless and Christlike, rather than selfish, that may have wider applications to building up the body and joining in membership. On the second view, we are pressing similar ideas to points #1 and #2 above. In either case, "discerning the body" must involve knowing the people around us and being involved with them. At the very least, it involves a sense of knowing who is a part of the body and this is usually determined by membership of the local church. Standing outside of the membership makes this command either difficult or nonsensical. 

Communion acts as a membership control

As already noted, baptism is the means of admitting people to the church and communion is the sign of continuing fellowship with the local body. Through these ordinances, the church signifies that it considers those who receive baptism to be saved and those who take the Lord's Supper to be continuing in the faith and in good standing with the fellowship. It is most difficult for the church to affirm these things in those with whom they have no ongoing fellowship. Equally, it is strange (at best) for the church to affirm such things in non-members even where they are regular. 

One primary sign of continuing in the Christian life is ongoing fellowship with God's people. If the church has refused membership to an individual, it is usually because they cannot detect a clear testimony, the person doesn't affirm the doctrinal basis or they are in some open unrepentant sin. In any case, there is a question over that person's spiritual state. Likewise, it says something to the church leadership if an individual is in regular attendance at church but will not commit in membership. It is difficult for the church to affirm continuance in the Christian faith. It is equally hard, if not impossible, for the church to affirm its unity with this person because they will not join in union with the church itself.

  1. In the case of visitors, I would permit those in membership with their home church to partake

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Four questions to ask about prayer

Last night was our corporate church prayer meeting. Our usual format is to have a short time in the word and using that time as a prompt to our prayers. Having been helped by Tim Keller's book on prayer in which he notes Martin Luther's method of meditating upon the word to prompt his prayers, we decided to take Luther's lead.

Luther asks four key questions of any given text:

  1. What does the text demand of me?
  2. How does this text lead me to praise or thank God?
  3. How does this truth lead me to confess and repent?
  4. How does this truth prompt me to appeal to God?
Given our limited time in the text, we decided to apply this fourfold method to the passage we most recently heard preached: Daniel 4 (you can listen to that here).

Using Luther's method, we had a excellent opening time of prayer. We knew what the text demanded of us because we had heard it preached days before (q1 amounted to a brief sermon recap). The rest of time helped us apply that truth in a number of different ways and led to a helpful time of praise, confession and supplication.

It's well worth using as a method in your own quiet times and personal prayers.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Grace & Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 April 2015

Thinking biblically about politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. On what basis does the state function?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 April 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

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

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

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

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

The Bible says it is made up

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

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

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

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

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

The accounts are not consistent with Biblical teaching on Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

These accounts are obviously falsified

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 March 2015

MP voting records and rundown biases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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