Sunday, 6 December 2015

Think theology everybody!

Over the last few months I've become a member of several apologetics discussion boards. With a small number of exceptions, I've been shocked and depressed at the poor quality of debate. Too often it seems to consist of people trading the same lines-and, worse, insults-time and time again, and issues just go round in circles. There is little sense of people genuinely trying to get to grips with biblical truth and seeking to argue it in a persuasive way.

However, one discussion particularly caught my attention. Someone-who said they were a Christian-was arguing that what they labelled 'creationists' were not real Christians and were a fringe cult due to believing in 'creation' and this meant that they were delusional and brainwashed.

Creation and evolution is a whole other subject. What struck me was that the author had totally misunderstood what makes someone a Christian. A Christian is someone who knows that their only basis of salvation is by faith in God that, entirely through through His grace and kindness, we are made clean and holy by Jesus dying in our place. What we believe about creation is important, as are what we believe about many other things, but it has nothing to do with our salvation.

What struck me even more was that none of the Christians in the discussion picked up on this issue-that the author had fundamentally misunderstood what makes someone a Christian. Instead they launched in a debate about different creation vs evolution perspectives.

Would that this was the only example of missing the point, but it isn't. I remember some years ago a Christian magazine ran a letter from someone arguing that Christians should not use transport but should walk everywhere. In support of this they quoted Colossians 2:6 'As you have received Christ Jesus, so walk in Him'. As if that wasn't bizarre enough, the next issue ran letters in response from several Christians, all arguing along the lines of 'what about people who live in villages and need transport to travel? God would understand'. None of the letters said 'the writer of the original letter has misunderstood the verse. This is theological nonsense'. The next issue of the magazine ran a letter of response from the original contributor, saying that he had concerns over the poor level of theological understanding of many Christians and so deliberately written the letter, knowing it was a total misunderstanding of the verse, to test out what sort of responses would be sent-and was the fact that no one had picked up on the misuse of the verse only confirmed his concerns.

One of the reasons for this lack of being able to understand the truth and use it well is that in too many churches, even ones that passionately believe in biblical truth, having a real foundation of understanding is seen as something for leaders. What we see in the bible is very different. A letter like Romans which is one of the most key books in the bible in giving an understanding of salvation by grace not law, but which uses complex arguments to make its point, was not addressed to leaders. Instead it says in chapter one that the letter is 'to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints'. The same applies across most of the other letters. They are sent, not to leaders, but to the church as a whole in particular towns. Grasping hold of great truth was seen as the normal expectation of being a believer in Christ.

This fact was being addressed in some places in recent decades. In some families of churches, it looked like the issue of making sure Christians had a good theological understanding-a good basis of what they believed and why-was taken seriously. There was a new expectation that making sure people were taught well was a normal part of maturing as a Christian but I think there is a danger of the tide turning and it is something we need to pay attention to.

In the last few years, I've been conscious of a growing assumption that it's really only leaders who can be expected to understand theology well. Websites and events have sprung up that, although not labelled as just being for leaders, have operated in different ways with the assumption that only leaders would want to participate and, in some cases, have only allowed leaders to contribute articles to sites, not leaving any space for others to debate or discuss what is said. I've also picked up a growing trend of comments along the lines of 'people in our churches wouldn't be aware of/be interested in the debate on issue x', which begs the question 'what does it say about the level of teaching/maturity in your church that you think that most people in it have no interest in sound theology?'

The bible takes the opposite view. Yes, it sets out that leaders have a core responsibility to lay foundations of biblical truth, but not with the aim of them being the only ones who can understand such truth. Rather, Ephesians 4:11-12 says that Christ gave key leadership gifts 'to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine'. The purpose of sound teaching from leaders is so that people become mature and learn to recognise truth from falsehood for themselves.

It is so important to promote a culture where understanding a sound foundation of biblical truth, and being able to apply it in life and explain it to others, is the normal expectation of all believers, not the preserve of leaders.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Hide and Sex

It was the footnote that made me sit up and take notice. I was reading Ezekiel 16 where God is pronouncing judgement on Israel, calling her his bride whom he had loved and cared for, but who had been unfaithful. In verse 25, he says 'at the head of every street you made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passer-by'. However, 'offering yourself' had a footnote next to it which said that the actual phrase in Hebrew was 'spreading your legs' to every passer-by.

Now this was the English Standard Version of the Bible that I was reading, one that places a high value on accurate translation, and yet the translators had chosen to replace the accurate 'spreading your legs' with the more discreet 'offering yourself'-even though the actual words were entirely intended to have the shocking impact which they carry-which has to beg the question 'why?'. The only conclusion I can come to is that the translators were concerned that readers would find the phrase too shocking, which reflects a much wider problem the church has-that in a world that is on one level obsessed with sex, and yet on another level is messed up and confused about it, the church and Christians are all too often too embarrassed and confused themselves to boldly speak into society about it.

When the subject of sex comes up in church settings-and it comes up all too rarely-it is put into 'safe' boundaries. It is put into a separate seminar that people choose to attend if they wish, or put into a youth group discussion. If sex comes up at all in a Sunday morning preach, it is usually surrounded by cushions of 'I'm sorry if anyone is embarrassed by this but …' and is moved on from as quickly as possible. All this reinforces a notion that sex is somehow a shameful or embarrassing subject.

The Bible knows no such boundaries. It devotes a whole book, the Song of Songs, to a couple expressing sexual desire for one another. Large parts of Leviticus deal with the approach under old covenant law to all kinds of sexual issues-without any warning to the effect of 'we're going to talk about sex now. If you think you might be offended you can stop reading if you want to'. In Proverbs 5, warning of the dangers of adultery and exhorting men to rejoice in their wives, it says 'let her breasts at all times fill you with delight'. The only boundary the Bible sets is that sex is for a husband and wife within marriage, and indeed is a core part of the 'one flesh' that constitutes marriage, but within that boundary it sets out what a huge delight it is.

And lest anyone reading this think that the Bible in examples like the above just reflect men being obsessed with sex, one of the principles in the Bible that desperately needs to be taught clearly is that it presents sexual desire as something that is equally normal and good for both men and for women. One of the facts that is striking about the Song of Songs is that the man and the woman both equally express their desire and fantasies about one another. The apostle Paul in writing to the Corinthian church assumes that sexual pleasure is something a wife should expect from her husband every bit as much as a husband from a wife. In 1 Corinthians 7 he says: 'The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband', and then goes on to say 'do not deprive one another'.

This very issue, of sex being intended to be something of delight for both the husband and the wife, is one reason why Christians and the church need to ensure that sex is something that is discussed and taught on without embarrassment as part of normal day to day life. People come into the church with all kinds of history and perspectives on sex. Even for those who have grown up in a church background there can be all kinds of wrong teaching that has given false guilt about sex, and for some, tragically and appallingly, abuse in their past for which a godly perspective on sex is key to restoration and healing.

Couples can often struggle on, thinking that they are the only ones with difficulties on a particular sexual issue, when a church with a biblical attitude to sex can promote a culture of openness between friends and in the church community, where they can find others who've worked through the same issue and found solutions.

Sex was one of God's greatest gifts in creation. Part of the church's calling lies in restoring an understanding of just what that means.


(Thanks to my wife for her input and advice on this post.)

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Radical is a good word

The government talks a lot at the moment about preventing young people from being radicalised. Now I know what their actual issues are, in terms of understandable concerns about a particular type of Islamic ideology, but the use of 'radicalised' implies that there is something wrong with being radical.

The word 'radical' is derived from the Latin 'radix', meaning a root. Radical therefore means 'going to the root or origin; touching or acting upon what is essential and fundamental; thorough' (Oxford Dictionary). It is also 'marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional... disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions or institutions' (Webster's Dictionary).

The principle of living consistently with what you believe, of going to the roots, and changing how you live and what you say, to be in line with what you believe is surely a good thing. Some might call it having integrity. Arthur Wallis explores this in terms of what it means for a Christian to live radically in his book 'The Radical Christian'-a book that was a key one for me as a young Christian in setting out what it means to follow Christ. (It is now available free online at http://www.disciple.co.za/site/attachments/071_The%20Radical%20Christian.pdf ).

However I do not think that being radical is simply a matter for Christians. It is surely a desirable aim for society in general for people to know what they believe and to live in line with it. This is the point where people often come in with three objections:
a) Wouldn't that lead to conflict where people have opposing beliefs
b) Isn't it impolite to challenge people and:
c) What about people who have beliefs that would lead them to carry out violent acts (such as we have seen this weekend)?

In response I would say the following. Firstly, having differing views and learning how to live together, and learning how to like people with differing views as people, is a sign of maturity in a society. Hiding one's beliefs and just keeping a superficial veneer where it is seen as impolite to express clear beliefs is actually a sign of immaturity in a society which hasn't learned how to debate and discuss in a passionate, but respectful, way. Moreover, hiding beliefs does not lead to violent, harmful beliefs from changing. It only leads to them being kept secret until it is too late.

Secondly I think one reason why modern western society finds it so difficult to know what to do about so-called radical Islam is that western society lacks a narrative of its own about why it believes what it does. Faced with a group of people with both a different worldview and a clear narrative about what drives their actions, western society with its general hazy 'do what you want as long as it isn't something we consider hurts other people' is stuck. Without a guiding morality or narrative that explains why they believe what they do-that gives a compelling different picture as to what drives their views of morality or society-that explains why they consider certain things to be right or wrong, western society does not know how to challenge beliefs and change hearts.

These two factors-of having no clear basis of morality, and regarding it as impolite to challenge and debate-are a deadly combination. It results in the only answer being to shut the debate down, in ways that result not just in the government seeing young people expressing radical views as being a cause for concern and investigation, but also in other effects such as Germaine Greer (of all people) being banned from speaking at a university because some of the students were offended by her views on transgender issues, rather than welcoming the opportunity to debate and challenge. It also manifests itself in society's obsession with privacy, the notion that anything one carry out in one's own time should not be commented upon in any way.

Needless to say, these attitudes are also having an effect on the ability of Christians to speak out freely and also, worryingly, in the attitude of some Christians towards speaking out, seeing it as 'unloving' to do so.

What we need is a culture that encourages debate and challenge-that does not by any means leave the offensive views of IS supporters unchallenged but instead faces these head-on by having clear arguments to the contrary that persuade and change people.

It is also even more so a reason why we desperately need Christians to not just be clear about what they believe, but why they believe it, and to confidently, passionately express that. Every generation of Christians faces values in their culture which they can embrace and ones that they need to challenge. For this current generation that we live in, the challenges are in resisting the notion that living lives radically is bad, in clearly being able to explain how following Christ gives them a totally different view of how the world works and why we are here, in demonstrating how they can live gracefully but without compromise alongside people with very different views, and most of all explaining why following Christ is the only hope and the real answer. This is the challenge for our generation that churches need to equip people to successfully fulfil.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Casting light, not throwing stones

Like some others I know, I have a passion for politics and love to seek to influence to change lives and society for the better. I've tried to set down here a number of principles that may be helpful for Christians involved in politics:

1. Our preoccupation is Christ, not politics. The desire to change society for the better is good and honourable, and for some of us, politics is the route we use to bring that about. However, our preoccupation in doing this should to bring glory to Him. If 90% of what we post on social media is about politics, and rarely about Christ, where does our preoccupation lie?

2. In all we do and say, bring glory to Him. Remember that we are ambassadors of Christ in all we say and do. That does not necessarily mean working references to Christ in everything we say and write, but it does mean that the beliefs and attitudes we express in our words and actions should give people a glimpse of what Jesus is like. It is particularly important that we express that in how we act toward those who disagree with us politically. 

3. Avoid calling other parties or their members 'evil'. You may disagree with their policies, but you are a sinner now saved and made a saint by grace, in your background no better than those you are calling evil. Are you calling Christians in other parties evil? Are you implying that those who do not know Christ but are members of your party are in some way morally superior to non-Christians in other parties? If so, what is the standard of righteousness you are applying?

4. Make the focus of what you say to be about what you believe and why, not about rubbishing other parties. Spend four times longer explaining what you consider to be right than you do saying why you think the other side are wrong. Be quick to say when you think the other side are right.

5. Be sparing and wise about what articles you link to on social media. Sometimes you may come across an article that expresses what you want to say far more effectively than you feel you can, but if their analysis is right, but their attitude is wrong, don't share it. Remember that people will associate you, not the author, with the attitudes that are expressed there.

6. People in other parties are not your enemies-or, if you think they are, then biblically that should only lead you to love them and seek to bless them.

7. Have nothing to do with gossip or plots to undermine people.

8. Be quick to give honour to those in other parties. Most people in politics that I have come across have got involved because they genuinely want to make society better. They may vary in their ability, radicalism and the degree to which I agree with them, but most of them come from that motive. Wanting to make the lot of those who live around you better is  a worthy motive and people should be given honour and respect for wanting to do do.

9.  Be especially quick to give honour to those in leadership in society. Christians in the early church were told by the apostle Peter to honour the emperor-that same emperor who was persecuting Christians in a way that many of us have never experienced. Yes, Christians should express when they profoundly disagree with a decision, but they should do so thoughtfully and with wisdom-and they should be even quicker to praise when they agree with a decision, and most of all they should give honour to those in leadership simply because they are in leadership. Leaders have been placed in those roles by God and we should pray for them to make wise decisions.

10. Be bold. I am constantly surprised when I find out after 20 years that politician x is a Christian or that, when faced with a policy that most Christians would regard as wrong but their party supported, the most they did was abstain. The world is not changed by abstentions. Call to God for protection and wisdom so that, when faced with situations like those of Daniel and his friends, you are able to speak with wisdom to those in authority and say 'I cannot support this' and look to God to deliver you, and if it ends up costing you office in your party, or prestige, or friendship, still look to the God who loves you and has called you.


Thursday, 13 August 2015

The cult of youth

A question for friends in Newfrontiers and similar groups of churches. When was the last time that you heard of someone over 50 being appointed an elder for the first time? Not someone who had previously been an elder in a different church and was now taking up eldership in another. I mean someone becoming an elder for the first time when over 50 years of age. I can only think of one example in the past five years.

The same is reflected in much evangelism. Yes, you will get some people aged 30 plus turning up at Alpha Courses, but when you look at the publicity materials, most of it is clearly targeted at those under 30. In other focussed evangelism, churches would seem to far more often prefer to target students than older people.

When you ask churches about the reasons for this, you often get the response 'young people are more open to new ideas and so easier to reach'. Young people may tend to be more open to new ideas (although I think that is far too sweeping a generality), but I thought that coming to know Christ came from the call of God? It isn't to do with who would be open to new ideas. It's to do with the call of the Father in bringing people to Him, of which our evangelism is simply us having the honour of being God's agent in the process. When you look at the New Testament, you see people of all ages-and whole families-coming to know God. The same is true of just about every major revival in history. When you read about them, you don't see God doing work in the young people in a nation and leaving the rest untouched. You see all generations falling down before God and calling out for Him to save them.

Similarly in terms of leadership, in the Bible you see people like David who come to leadership in their youth, you see people like Moses who have promises from God in their youth that only come to fruition when they are much older, and you get people like Abraham, who God calls when already a mature adult.

A subconscious message behind the lack of older people coming into leadership is that, if you haven't come into leadership by the time you're forty, you're not really leadership material. Subconscious messages behind focussing evangelism on under 30s is that it really all depends upon us and not God, and that anyone older who becomes a Christian is a bit of a bonus, like extra seeds that happened to spout by the roadside.

As with so many other areas of church life, in evangelism and in recognising leadership it is vital that we are biblical and don't try and be wiser than God,

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Roaring Silence

In recent decades there has been a welcome renewed emphasis in many churches of ensuring that everyone is 'well taught'-of being clear that understanding and applying biblical truth isn't just an issue for leaders but is a normal expectation for all believers.

I've blogged before about my concern at examples of some churches moving away from that-of some leaders saying about key issues that 'the majority of people in our church wouldn't be interested in understanding x', which does beg the questions 'what does it say about the type of church you're building if you're saying that most people within don't have an appetite for understanding biblical truth' and whatever happened to the Ephesians 4 role of leadership gifts being to bring everyone (not just leaders) to maturity?

However there are a couple of examples of particular concern recently. One is of churches moving towards significant change without, as far as I have been able to detect, teaching into it, and the other is of churches closing their eyes and ignoring a subject.

The first of those two issues is that of women in leadership and teaching roles. I think that it is possible to make biblically-based arguments both ways on this matter-and that there are separate issues depending upon whether it is in relation to women in eldership, wider leadership or in teaching roles. My concern is I see a number of churches moving towards women operating in leadership and teaching roles without, as far as I have been able to find out, any acknowledgement that this is happening, or any teaching or explanation to the church on what the leadership considers the biblical roles of men and women to be in these areas. It gives the impression of just trying to slip the issue under the carpet, of putting women into those roles and just seeing if anyone comments (and, if no one does, move further, still without any teaching or acknowledgement). That isn't leadership.

The second issue is of equal concern-that of how churches are dealing with, and teaching into, the whole issue of same-sex relationships. Perhaps that would be more accurately expressed as how churches are not dealing with, and teaching into, the issue. At a time when this is a subject of so much controversy and change in the world, it is all too striking how many many churches have had nothing to say. On one level I can understand where I think some are coming from-out of concern that too many non-Christians wrongly think that Christians are obsessed about the issue anyway, and so do not want to reinforce the cliché. I understand that and, whatever one thinks about same-sex relationships, there is clearly much work to do in ensuring that Christians and churches show just as much grace and wisdom on that issue as anything else. However, staying silent does nothing to advance that. All it does is leave too many people with a totally unclear understanding of biblical perspectives on the issue, and with individual approaches that vary from basing their approach on Leviticus and Old Testament law, to instead saying that grace means 'anything goes'. Both of these approaches totally miss the mark in terms of a biblical perspective on the issue.

You only have to spend a small amount of time speaking to young people in churches to realise that there is a ticking time bomb in the variety of views, and lack of a biblical basis to them, and that is a product of too many churches' silence on the matter.

However, it would be an even bigger trap for a church to say ' well we should do something in the youth group about the issue'. There are people in their 40s, 50s and older in churches who have never heard this issue taught in a biblical manner. For some this has an effect on how they react to people they meet who are in same-sex relationships. For others it is an issue they have struggled with themselves for decades and have never been in a situation where issues like that are taught-and, importantly, discussed in an atmosphere of community, grace and wisdom, so they have an opportunity to work through the matter with others.

Might raising these issues in a church have the risk of raising controversy and the risk of misunderstanding? Absolutely, but dealing with such issues is in the nature of leadership. Far better to know where people are at, far better for people to be able to express the issues they have questions about, and are perhaps struggling with, and for a church community to address them together with love, grace and truth, than to close our eyes and hope they will go away.