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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 Tyce, 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).

Notes

  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:

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Four signs you don't belong to God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
  1. Joyce Meyer audio

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Can UKIP claim to defend "Christian values"?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Willful misapplication of the law: a case in point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Extremist Disruption Orders and ill-judged legislation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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