One thing is for certain: God’s people are praying more – more often, more intensely, more urgently, with more faith and less self-interest than usual – none of which will harm us.
As to why this pandemic has spread with such virulence, I have no idea. Whether it is the outcome of cross species contamination or a lab leak, I speak with no authority. Beyond this, we speculate.
Apportioning blame is something for Governments, not God’s church. We are the antidote, not the accusation.
What can we pray?
There is no better place to start than the Lord’s prayer, which currently makes more sense prayed in community than in the closet. It is a prayer that glorifies our Father, a prayer that invites the uniting of “things in heaven and things on earth,” and a prayer that situates us with our daily needs being met, forgiveness being extended to us and from us, testing with limitations, and deliverance from evil.
This prayer has an ‘eschatological horizon’ realised in the resurrection of Jesus and the inauguration of God’s kingdom – as in heaven, so on earth. We are invited into much more than just anticipating a nice time here, as up there. Kingdom will here, on earth, in your city, your community, your family, as it is in heaven! We are praying with prophetic boldness the realisation of the will of the one who is far above all power and authority, be it human, angelic or demonic.
1 Timothy 2:1-4
We might also pray what Paul writes to his understudy, Timothy, urging him in the right direction to use all manner of prayer for all people, “for kings and all who are in high positions,” with the purpose that we, God’s people, may live in peace with quiet dignity, resulting in people coming to salvation in Christ. Whatever we pray for our governments, with whatever political preferences we adhere to, the point of this prayer is not that our Prime Ministers, or Presidents, become Christians, but that we, the church, can lead a quiet and dignified life so that the Lordship of Christ might be experienced in salvation.
Nothing wrong with praying for the saving power of Christ to be extended to our Government leaders, but this prayer isn’t about that – it is about a different sort of governing; it is about a governing, a lordship, that isn’t compromised by “the principalities and powers” of this “present evil age.” It is about peace for the sake of the church, his body.
This isn’t how this prayer is normally comprehended, but it is what it was written for, if a plain reading is allowed.
Praying these prayers in lockdown is a good place to start. Who knows where it might lead as the Holy Spirit prays through us, with prayers beyond our finitude, in intercessional groanings?
On Earth as it is in Heaven.
Are there lessons that lockdown could teach us, because every new situation has the potential to speak to us. But it may be premature to speak of lessons, because, if the present situation resolves sooner than is expected I conject we will have learnt little. It will be business as usual, with an inconvenient hiatus – for most of us. To some, my inconvenience has been for them an occasion of great loss.
I suspect this lockdown will last longer than we’d wish. And time itself may be the only thing that effects actual change.
Of course, the temptation to pontificate will prove more than some can resist. We will hear every hue of prophetic pronunciation and denunciation. Some of them will be insightful, some will be bizarre, and others inconsequential (much to the chagrin of those would-be prophets).
Lessons may be a way off yet, but not observations. For instance, churches that are tech savvy have responded quickly, and in many cases very effectively. Some had already shown prescience doing online services. They have sophisticated systems that adapt to numerous platforms to keep connections alive among the church community. Many of these have resources to continue in high quality productions featuring worship and preaching. A normal Sunday, except online. But is this optimal? We may need to wind the clock back before we can answer this.
Until the time of the Reformation, church community gatherings were largely ‘us and them.’ The focal view of churches was the sacramental table, administered by ‘them’ – the priest. He celebrated the host, dispensed the wafer, and proclaimed the gospel in sacramental terms, all in Latin. Essentially, he did our religion for us. He had to, we barely understood what he intoned.
With the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, the focus of the churches, in time, became the pulpit from which the minister preached the gospel in the vernacular, expecting adherence to its truth.
The pulpit, if not front and central by location, was elevated above the congregation (for voice projection reasons, but also a point was being made), and central to the mission of the church. If you visit a Roman Catholic or a Protestant church today, you will still see this essential difference.
This heritage is deeply embedded in the life blood of our churches – Protestant, Pentecostal, Evangelical. Preaching is the high point of a service – the direction they are geared towards. I doubt this thought will raise an eyebrow.
But does this focus tend to obscure, or take out of focus, biblical patterns/paradigms that the scriptures present for church life? And, maybe we have an opportunity to refocus due to this pandemic?
It sounds as if this is already being done in many churches, where connection with community is, at very least, supplementing preaching. Of course, it is never going to be either or, nor should it be. It is both, but a balance is being redressed.
In our foundation texts Acts 2:42-47 describes the structure of the church after the day of Pentecost. Debate still exists as to whether these verses are prescriptive or descriptive. It is likely to be both, and may even bend towards prescriptive, as Luke is writing with specific purpose, including this part of the churches narrative in Acts to call his readers back to this pattern of church life. Even in his time of writing the church needed to remember.
Teaching is the mentioned, then fellowship, the lifestyle, followed by breaking of bread and prayers. Generosity to/amongst God’s people is also included in this list.
The picture is clear. Community contextualised everything.
Most of these elements were not temple based, as teaching may have been. They were connected to homes, meals and fellowship. Teaching is not minimised, but it doesn’t dominate – God’s people being together eating, praying and caring for each other does, even if for the purpose of hearing the apostle’s teaching.
In a further example the apostle John writing in I John 1:3 states that the purpose of his proclamation was so that those who heard would have fellowship with those that spoke. John didn’t preach to be merely heard; he preached to affect connection with his hearers and with himself, which in turn would be with the Father and the Son. This is a different purpose to preaching; it has shared community and shared experience as its end.
All to say, maybe in lockdown the observable trend of heightened community connection (so much more like the church Luke saw) is as important as preaching messages.
If Sunday online is no different than an ordinary Sunday, I suspect we may be out of focus. Why perpetuate a monolithic model, that fewer seem attracted to, and not use this time to ramp up and enjoy connections with your community – as well as, not instead of.
Some are forced to do this, simply because they have neither the technology nor the know-how to present professionally competent content. Others are choosing to add life giving community to content rich communication.
If the four or five fundamentals Luke presents in Acts 2 are about community then an overdeveloped emphasis on preaching pulls this picture out of focus.
Going back to our foray into history, in a reaction to a sacramental approach to church meetings preaching became the replacement. Even here it isn’t either or, but something has been left out of the picture; a picture Luke was at pains to ratify in Acts – the vital and sustaining role of community, a community that hears together, eats together, receives communion together, prays together, and cares for one another, together.
It appears ironic that we may now be doing this better online than we did offline. This is as incongruous as the pandemic is ubiquitous.
I hope you have heard the message, ‘Return of the Shepherd,’ by the articulate Leanne Matthesius. The title has a Tolkien resonance to it, does it not?
Leanne has superb insight into, amongst other things, the value and glory of the task of caring for God’s flock, which, if we want to get Pauline about it, is largely what we are asked to do. “Pay careful attention … to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Acts 20:28. The precious possession of the Lord’s church demands the care of attentive shepherds.
This got me thinking about the role of a shepherd and how vastly different it is from the other ascension gifts enumerated in Ephesians 4. We aren’t completely sure if Paul was referring to four or five roles/gifts. It would seem to be four as the pastor is also, necessarily, the feeder – the teacher. It is difficult to be or do one without the other.
But it wasn’t this that piqued my attention.
I spoke at an Evangelists gathering – yes, you heard right – and addressed the topic of the pastor and the evangelist, how they relate and how they can co-operate. As an aside to the conversation it struck me that, apart from the pastor, the ascension gifts by and large (and remember when reading this, you have to exaggerate differences sometimes to see the difference) are reasonably straight forward, almost black and white.
The apostle is a ground breaker, requiring resilience and focus. They normally don’t deal with the tangle of lives.
The prophet is a proclaimer, a revealer, and they are often black and white – in the sense that a picture, a word, is relatively clear and always a simplification.
The evangelist is a bringer of good news. The cross, forgiveness, faith are straightforward enough. Of all these the evangelist is probably the most black and white – they need to be.
The teacher speaks of truth, application to lifestyle, and is often systematic in presentation.
But the pastor, ohh yes the pastor, deals with the inconvenience of nuance, the complication of lives, the tangle of relationships, of humanity – messy, complex and sheep like. To pastor you have to reconcile yourself to nuance. Things are always less straight forward in the sheep pen.
I suggest pastoring may be the most difficult, the most awkward of the ministries, because nothing is so complex as people.
The other equally important gifts can avoid the tangle a little more easily, especially if they travel.
For the pastor the nuance of situations, that never seem to quite conform to biblical verities, has to be constantly navigated. Almost every situation requires a different approach. The sermon on Sunday has to be massaged into mess, bad decisions and self-orientation.
If you are a pastor, you necessarily will have to trade in nuance. If you can’t you are in the wrong job.
Go the pastors – you are the real heroes.
Senior Pastor C3 Fulham and Regional Director C3 Europe
If we join a few dots it’s possible to trace changes that are on the way, if not already with us. These changes won’t be all-encompassing (changes seldom are) and in some cases, they may prove counterproductive. They appear to be nudging above the horizon like the morning sun – unstoppable, inevitable, and bringing light.
I submit the following for comment and reflection.
COMMUNITY isn’t just another way of describing the church. It has specific local implications. People are less likely, and less willing, to travel long distances and we would be hard-pressed to suggest that this is due to a lack of commitment to God’s church. In fact, it could prove to be the exact opposite.
People want a localised community of believers that connects them to each other, as well as the broader community around them.
Some churches will buck this trend for reasons of size, influence, pulpit dynamics, multiplicity of ministry, etc.
Globalisation, the great liberal and economic dream to contain prosperity and peace, is waning in popularity as people wish for a return to national identities. This terrifies many (in Europe) as they see a possible return to the days of fascism seen in Germany and Italy. However, globalisation simply doesn’t and can’t account for a real, reasonable and heartfelt connection by nationals to their own country. This comes out very clearly in sports. For better or for worse (we are yet to see) the UK abandoned its membership of the European Union, in part because the of the perceived loss of national sovereignty around laws, finances and borders, all of which create identity.
All this to say: people want identity as much as belonging.
Large churches will and should always exist, but two thousand years of Christian history has taught us that most will be considerably smaller, despite all the consulting, encouraging (and occasional chiding) that we do. This is not pessimism. It is realistic, without dishonouring Christ’s promise as the head of the church to build his church. It is a challenge to us: do we believe he will?
BUILDINGS are very expensive to build and maintain, and they are often empty for much of the week. Exceptions exist, but that is why we call them exceptions – they are exceptional, not normal. Some pastors are talking of renting buildings for Sunday and buying ministry centres – with multiple and consistent weekly use. There are always advantages of owning your own, as you aren’t at the whim, the mercy, of landlords, who can be everything from accommodating to not so. A building may also make us less flexible under times of duress – not something I am prophesying.
These in themselves are not defining arguments. I suspect the bigger issue is fiscal resourcing for smaller churches. Locking up their money in bricks and mortar is less appealing than mission and staff.
I’m a fan of owning but I am also a baby boomer to whom owning was and is sacrosanct. Others don’t necessarily feel this way. Whole nations don’t feel this way.
LEADERSHIP structures are changing or, at least, diversifying. A common trend seems to be the flattening of structures, whilst not diminishing the need for leadership.
Trends can be reactions, and in the case of leadership, the reaction is towards unilateral decision making. Some younger pastors and leaders are wanting to avoid the liabilities of top-down leadership structures seen in corporations. The collapse of so many high-profile leaders is a worrying trend, but to throw the baby out with the bath water wastes both water and child.
Some of this change is biblically-driven in the recognition of gifting or role as the means of governing God’s church. Paul was a strong leader (a great understatement) but he asked Titus and Timothy to set up leadership structures that were elder-based, and not so much individual-based. It looks to me like a case of both, not either/or.
The call for accountability and confession in younger leaders is a healthy reaction and should be welcomed.
In conclusion, these are far from the only trends, as Mark Kelsey affirmed at the Pastors Gathering in Sydney this year, in his excellent session on trends within the church.
In some ways these trends are oblique, but identifiable nonetheless.
To find out more about Ps Simon McIntyre and C3 Fulham, visit c3fulham.com.
C3 Europe Regional Director and Pastor of C3 Fulham
Currently there are some words (popular words) acting as catch phrases and, it could be added, catch-out phrases. These words have enormous defining and limiting power. They often exclude in their wish to include. Any attempt to disagree or question receives Orwellian condemnation, by an outraged righteousness. Diatribe replaces debate.
‘Diversity’ once meant difference.
‘Inclusion’ once meant invite.
‘Identity’ once meant what you are.
Diversity is now a legislated quota.
Inclusion now excludes and condemns by legislation.
Identity is now whatever you choose, soon to be legislated.
What if we were to re-baptize diversity, inclusion and identity – breathe new life into old words, give them new meanings?
God’s church is a study in diversity, inclusion and identity. If we were to plunge these words in fresh water, a new creature might emerge, re-baptised, renewed – fit for purpose.
Diversity is trying to redress imbalances and injustices that are deeply entrenched. These are often not lacking in any civility. Kindness can go a long way.
The answer to a lack of diversity is essentially a legislated process to the end that doesn’t and can’t account for kindness; in fact, it may well diminish it, as being told to is different than wanting to.
Whilst gaining some ground the process may be losing more than it is gaining, partially because it is public-speak, in that people are actually afraid to question. This may produce conformity of speech, and how far is that from totalitarian power, but no real change has been secured, just resentful acquiescence.
I posit that in spite of the apparent progress of the community we are further from kindness and civility that ever before. The goal is further from sight, caused by the very process that is meant to ensure it.
The gospel was published in a world where diversity was not on the table. The divides were obvious and inviolate: Jewish and Gentile, Roman and Barbarian, male and female, slave and free. Systems of value and worth excluded, be they economic, social, racial or religious. You were in or you were out. (And this was largely defined for you at birth.)
The gospel of Jesus has accomplished something in regards diversity that no human agency or law is capable of. The entire system of worth and exclusion along with the obvious oppressions it enforces, has been done away with by the cross of Christ. Dividing walls have been abolished in that God’s people are no longer defined by race, sex and social status. These differences may not necessarily or quickly disappear but their excluding value no longer holds sway in the new community of the church.
The church embraces diversity and celebrates difference without flattening everything in an attempt at uniformity. It is not by might nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord.
Diversity is not best expressed in uniformity – but in unity. And unity is a matter of the heart not the law.
Inclusion of minorities should never be an issue. It is quite another matter to be compelled to do so by demand with punitive consequences. Were graciousness to steer the ship of state (probably too much to ask, and maybe not the role of the state) we would not require the legislative muscle of inclusivity.
Inclusion hasn’t brought with it respect, love or pity (rightly appreciated) but a demand for acceptance of lifestyles, sexual proclivities and the re-engineering of family – all part and parcel of the repackaging of inclusion. Include or else. How swiftly the underdog becomes top dog, making others the under dog.
It isn’t enough to simply allow or show grace. We now have to act and speak as if any preference is now enshrined as a human right. Nothing has been more redefined than what does or does not, may or not may, constitute fundamental human rights. It used to be human rights premised on a Christian-ised foundation of man’s imperfectability and good of the community, now it is my right, premised on a belief in the inherent goodness and perfectibility of humankind.
Anyone with half a brain knows that when we trump community with the individual we have effectively rewritten most every moral and ethical code/law in the history of mankind. I doubt good will come of it!
God’s church is the master of inclusion, a robust inclusion into community and conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. No organisation on earth has so successfully included in its ranks such a diversity of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly.
The exclusivity of the church is not in her welcome – at this point the church is all about welcome and inclusion – but in her call to holiness, the re-engineering of the image of God in us through Christ.
Identity is fundamental to wellbeing – to communities, to individuals. This is axiomatic. Ask someone who was adopted. No matter how well they have been cared for, loved, a gap usually exists in regards their identity that isn’t soon, if ever, completely satisfied.
Our identity in large measure comes from community. It is likely that the hermetic person is profoundly insecure about their identity, as it is not possible to adequately form identity in vacuums of self-reference. We are not ourselves by ourselves.
Identity is under assault in part because we are assaulting the institutions and structures that promote it. Whilst we continue to mock and decry family/marriage by turning it into a parody of itself we undermine the very structure that prompts a secure identity. The insecurity of children with no effectual father or divorcing parents is monumental, and legally reprehensible.
It is no surprise, nor should it be, that pre/post pubescent are confused about their identity and wishing to re-identify, what with the perfect storm of community collapse and puberties own confusion crashing in on them.
I predict the day will come in which they take legal action against their parents and/or the state for allowing them to express themselves in realigning their biological identity, when they, seriously, didn’t know better.
Except in the rarest of cases, to be shown all the help and grace available, our identity is reasonably and simply identified.
The struggle of few may have become the fantasy of many.
Gaining our identity from both our biology and our community may not, however, be sufficient. Creation gave us an identity as God’s creatures and image bearers that in light of sin and the fall has been dislocated in ways both subtle and earth shattering. A new identity in the creation of a new humanity founded in faith makes us new creations in Christ.
Being in Christ is identity securing in ways both immediate and unimaginable. We are participating as church and as individuals in the life and promise of the Risen Lord. He is far above all rule and power, and everything that minimises, relativizes, and confuses his image in humankind. We are included in Him. If his identity is secure so is ours. If his identity is divine so is ours. In Him we have fullness.
We find a new community and therefore a new identity as one of God’s people, his church.
We are diverse, yet one in Christ. We are included in Christ. We are new creations in Christ.
C3 Europe Regional Director
Most want to leave a positive legacy – few don’t care. Fact is; we all will leave one, for better or for worse. If death isn’t an option then neither is leaving a legacy.
If we can define legacy we will know what it is we should be leaving. If we can’t, we are likely to think of the wrong things, or things of less importance surviving us.
A legacy should be a positive and defining influence, often, but not always, including an inheritance, left in the lives of others. Of course it can be much less than this – a legacy can also be one of failure and ineptitude, or worse. Some leave debt as their legacy; however, this is hardly the sort of legacy we have in mind.
Jesus’ legacy, which can’t be bettered, is found in the lives of his disciples. He left no other legacy than the formation and influence of his church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Initially there were no church buildings, no institutions, no charities, universities or hospitals, nor legacies in terms of tangible items. Some of these came latter, and aren’t necessarily unimportant, but it is the priority of disciples, his church, that is his prime and enduring legacy. His church is the only thing he said he would build. Most other things are temporal; they have a habit of passing away, out of use, or out of fashion. Not so, his people.
It is striking and noteworthy that the church in Colossae, to which Paul penned the stunningly revelatory insight into the reign and divinity of Christ, was severely damaged, if not wiped out by an earthquake in 61AD. And this possibly only twenty years, or so, after the church was established. Church scholars posit it had a likely maximum 60 members.
What was Paul’s legacy in this instance? It wasn’t a surviving community, much less a building. The legacy was in transformed lives, the fact that some would have left and spread the good news whether as sent, or as merchants and traders, and, of course, the Letter to the Colossians – as a magnificent legacy as can be imagined.
The Western world is replete with virtually empty historic church buildings that were once vibrantly occupied, filled. Today they are, in numerous instances, a financial noose around the neck of denominations, or a burden to the government. Whilst some denominations are renewing them with younger congregations/communities using them, many are sold, for everything from art galleries to apartments.
They looked like an enduring legacy when founded, but the real legacy has always been the lives of the people who heard and believed the gospel.
Westminster Chapel in London was once the pulpit of the luminary Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones. Today it is more empty than full, and has never been filled week by week as it once was, with due respect to the excellent preachers who have since led the church. It may never be full again, in spite of our fondest wishes and prayers. The sort of building, its structure and construction, is possibly no longer relevant.
It may be that what we consider a legacy today may in fact be a noose tomorrow, if we see buildings and institutions as defining our legacy.
God’s church may require flexibility about buildings that sentiment finds difficult to swallow.
Our legacy is first and foremost disciples, the people we influence for and by Jesus Christ. These people may at any one time be scattered over communities, over cities, nations, and hemispheres. They may not see you year by year, they may long have moved on to different church environments, and yet when occasion affords it they are quick to tell you what a defining influence your life, ministry and words had on them. This is our legacy, and it trumps all others – buildings, ministries, books, titles – you name it, it won’t and can’t measure up to disciples.
For Legacy Planning make Disciples
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field keeping watch over their flock by night.”
It is commonly accepted that shepherds were at, or very near, the bottom end of the social scale – lower caste, if you will. They were hardly likely to be on anybody’s ‘invite list.’ Neither their job nor their charges were particularly glorious. Sheep are smelly, prone to wander, scare easily, and get themselves into a pickle (or a bush).
When it came to the announcement of the birth of the saviour it would have taken a brave prophet indeed to suggest the shepherd’s inclusion, much less the appearance of the heavenly host to them. Royal worshippers from afar yes, local shepherds – hardly. And, yet …
I recall attending revivalist meetings (extraordinary in themselves) at which some speakers berated Pastors in front of their flocks. This always struck me as self-defeating, somewhat ironic, considering it is the Pastors who care for the people who attend these meetings – church members.
I would counsel less haste at condemning the people who are responsible for those that come, and who financially support the meetings, by virtue of their people being there.
Perhaps shepherds are still the least likely to be noticed or honoured?
Perhaps they lack the sophistication of the academic, the gifting of the gifted, or the resources of the connected? And, yet …
In the 1970’s Teachers were all the rage. In the 1980s Prophets entered the domain of church life, and since then Leaders have been front and centre. Undoubtedly we have all benefitted from these ministry gifts. And yet, behind the scenes we find the Pastors – those who more naturally live for, bleed for, and die for, “the sheep of his pasture.”
Reflections on the Text
“And in the same region.” Shepherds live in the same region, the same locale, as their sheep, and often for most of their lives. They don’t tend to travel very far. They can’t. Sheep aren’t self-sustaining, self-regulating creatures.
The presence of a shepherd matters in regards the health, safety and longevity of the sheep. Absent shepherds are too much of a temptation for wolves: the unscrupulous, the avaricious, those that consume. Strength and safety are found in proximity.
“there were shepherds.” Pastors, you and I. That is what we are, and that is what we do.
“out in the field.” This is where the sheep are, in the fields. They don’t reside in palaces. Most people live in their fields; fields of employment and endeavour. Where the sheep are, so also the shepherd.
Life may be less spectacular and more pedestrian in the fields, but this is more indicative of daily life for most than that portrayed in movies, via social media, or on television (Christian and otherwise).
A shepherd is outside, around the sheep, mixing, living with them, as well as feeding and caring for them. It’s messy.
People are still like sheep in that they go astray, and need a shepherd. They wander, get lost and are prone to infections.
“keeping watch over.” In the case of a shepherd this requires constant physical vigilance, for reasons already enumerated.
To a Pastor this watchfulness is primarily in and by prayer. We are mindful of their condition, their productivity (fruitfulness), and the necessity of their proximity to other sheep.
The work is sobering, at times exhausting, never ending, frustrating, rewarding, and fulfilling. Shepherds watch for wolves, snakes, bugs, and ravines.
The shepherd oversees – they see over the sheep. They see what is coming, they see implication and outcome. They oversee. Sheep don’t and can’t. They are too busy, head down, eating.
“their flock.” It is their flock – not another’s, neither is another’s flock theirs. The sheep were known to the shepherd, and the shepherd to the sheep. (John 10.)
It is a charge, a responsibility – both calling and privilege.
A shepherd would guide his flock to fresh pasture and water, by means of directing and by means of correcting, using their voice, and where necessary their staff.
A Pastor is to disciple and teach, directing the people towards living water, and fresh nourishment in God’s word. And, unpopular-ly a Pastor may need to correct with the staff of their authority, on behalf of the great shepherd of the sheep’s souls, and for the wellbeing of the flock.
“by night.” When no one is looking, when you can’t be seen. When times are dark, and when it appears thankless.
And Yet …
It wasn’t to Kings and Priests that God revealed his purpose and power, nor was it to philosophers and politicians, nor the rich and powerful. Luke 3:1-2 lists the powerbrokers of Judea – quite the line up – yet it was to John in the wilderness that the word of the Lord came to.
And it was to the shepherds that God displayed his heavenly glory. In the appearance of the angel, and the heavenly host, the shepherds were made privy to one of the most important junctures in history: the birth of a child in humble circumstances, in a little village on the outskirts of a great empire.
What glory, what wonder, what unexpected recipients. Who’d have thought it – of all people, shepherds?
This is God’s tribute to the Shepherd.
And this is mine to you – the faithful, the unseen. May God reveal to you a heavenly vision of His Son, of angelic powers, befitting of shepherds – who still watch their flocks by night.
If you would prefer to read as a PDF, please click here: C3 Forum_SameSexMarriage.
Human rights if not anchored in something outside of human rights will always end in being individual rights, my rights – in that, what I consider right is therefore indubitably my right, should be enshrined in law, and woe to anyone that suggests otherwise. Of course in any society that has a Christian moral memory, this may seem to work for a season, but once we have effectively stripped away God and the Bible we will be (are becoming) the victims of radical moral decay, with its attendant social misery. And in a strange twist (apparent) discrimination has come full circle so that the persons who once cried oppression are now at the vanguard of oppressing anyone that opposes their view. Any concept of community and moral well-being is thus swamped in the flood of ‘my rights.’
We believe and affirm that God sets both our value (very high) and the moral and ethical parameters that assist in maintaining that value, whilst the age we live in has championed the cause of total and complete freedom re. choices and morality, which in turn has caused an unprecedented collapse of family, moral integrity and personal disciplines, not to mention a crisis in mental health. The redefining of all these issues is the unapologetic agenda of cultural Marxism. Redefining marriage is part of the agenda of so-called progress. C.S. Lewis remarked, however, that people suffer from ‘chronological snobbery’ thinking everything modern to be necessarily better than anything ‘medieval.’
Redefinition of words, words that for millennia meant essentially the same thing, should alert us to the importation of concepts that are very different than those the words originally meant. This is an attempt to change a worldview within a culture by changing the language itself. Many words have been re-engineered to mean something far from their original intent, and the effect of this is that people don’t see what is being promulgated, subtly or otherwise. (Postmodernity has no conscience when it comes to conscience.)
Politically Correct thought/speech has done some service in forbidding rampant and unacceptable verbal vitriol. But equally, it is leading to the curtailment of free speech at a spectacular rate. And coincidentally creating nervous hesitant communications.
There are many able apologists in the Christian world that graciously and wisely can take on arguments such as genetic pre-determinism and sexual orientation, human rights and ensuing legal arguments. This is not our goal in this paper. We wish to reiterate the view of scripture about the role and destiny of men and women, as this gives people hope and safety.
We come back to the issue of the scriptures revelatory understanding that the image of God is seen in man and woman – not one, not a combination of the one, but the complimentary two, male and female. This is our starting point and the place we come back to.
The opening chapter of Genesis is very carefully crafted to ensure that we see the binary nature of the physical world – heaven and earth, land and sea, night and day, etc. This climaxes in the creation of man and woman – the binary picture in its most exquisite and final form.
From a mere physical point of view, there is no continuation of the human species without a man and a woman, and it can’t be argued that the optimal way to raise a child is with people of the same sex. Practicality may argue that it is better for two women or two men to raise a child rather than just a lonely one, or dysfunctional male and female. But the jury is out.
Men and women are significantly different, and where that difference is downplayed or eradicated something of God’s own image is likely missing. The creative order is clearly binary and no naturally occurring productive options exist aside from a male and female. Part of God’s mandate of being made in his image is clearly seen in the reproductive increase of mankind upon the earth as we express God’s image and will. A case can be made that marriage isn’t only for reproduction, but it still is normal to include this, and homosexuality can’t; by its very non-reproductive nature.
Not only so, but marriage, aside from being the foundation of just society and human relationships, is a picture of Christ and his church – according to Paul. This elevates marriage into the stratosphere in what it represents. The image of bride and groom is clearly in mind, nothing more and certainly nothing less. There appears no way this picture can be made anything but heterosexual in orientation.
And it is at this point that some insist that scripture is their truth source as well but has been discriminatory in treatment towards homosexual people. (Christians may have been – granted, sadly.) They present a hermeneutic that has revised the intent and outcome of every single reference in scripture to homosexuality. Dr Ian Paul has written a booklet on this – Same-Sex Unions: The Key Biblical Texts. With scholarly care, he shows the traditional readings to be the ones that stand up to scrutiny, rather than revisionist readings.
A common argument used when attempting to validate same-sex unions is the (spurious) argument that the scriptures also speak of slavery in apparently acceptable terms along with poor treatment of woman. Both these areas have been championed by Gods church, so homosexuality should be, it is argued. Although the scriptures see a real change in attitude towards both woman (especially Jesus) and slavery there is no such progressive movement when it comes to our sexuality. In this instance, the New Testament ratifies and strengthens
anything in the Old, so that the analogy between slavery and women, and homosexuality simply does not exist.
Another shift that has enabled a change in sexual behaviour is the change in how we use the word – love. It now means love as emotion, preference, inevitability, and is linked to my choice. If this is truly the case then it must needs to follow that all sorts of sexual preferences are viable – pornography, polygamy, sadism, incest, bestiality, and even necrophilia. To say these are all legitimate is consistent with our new definition of the word love, and we should hardly be surprised that these options are being presented as legal alternatives.
God is love but love is not God.
A biblical understanding and appreciation of love are that it is first and foremost a word used to describe a love that is sacrificial before it is fulfilling, ethical, before it is personal, and based on truth, before it is about my needs and emotions. This love was magnificently displayed for us in the cross of Christ, not in an Elvis chapel in Vegas. But it is costly and doesn’t always take into account our feelings, and therefore it is not so popular. Nevertheless, it is the stuff of legends.
Some have cleverly disconnected love from biblical injunctions about things such as holiness, but scripture marries the two. We are to love the sinner, as Christ did, but not their/our sin that he died for. It isn’t love to insist behaviour condemned by Gods word is viable, acceptable and to be promoted, and yet that is what is being insisted upon by those wishing to validate same-sex unions.
Further to this is the picture painted in Romans 1 about sexual denigration that is itself linked to idolatry, arguably the greater problem. Paul sees the issue of same-sex relationships as an inevitable outcome from the lack of honour and thankful worship to God because we chose to worship the creature and not the creator. This is a serious indictment of and insight into human nature – deeply idolatrous. This does lead to the idea of demonic influence over the direction and choices of communities/nations. Whilst an unpopular view, even in the Christian world, it does help explain at times the inexplicable, and it is certainly true to the writings of Paul in his letters, and especially in Colossians which speaks in clear terms of rulers and authorities.
Without solid biblical warrant we will be subject to shifting sands of moral expectation, and to the strident demands of the world, we live in. It is to be remembered that the two defining features of the Jewish worldview that Jesus clearly took as axiomatic were: repudiation of idols and that sex before and outside of marriage was unacceptable, marriage being defined as that between a man and a woman. This is our moral heritage and we need not feel ashamed of it or cowed by the world (itself a confusion of right and wrong). But it will make us unpopular.
Understanding some of these thoughts is half the picture. Responding is the other half.
We are all on a journey into the realised fullness of Christ, and need to take great care we don’t offend/belittle someone on the same path. We are all sinners saved by grace. We are saved by grace, and we are being saved by grace.
Our churches are open to all, and all can be saved. In fact, our churches welcome anyone from whatever their background into the renewing fellowship of Christ and his church. But this is not the same as saying, come and stay as you are. Jesus Christ and he alone transforms us into his image – an image of truth, holiness and righteousness.
Our collective journey is out of sin and brokenness into righteousness and joy. This gives none of us a right to exclude and demonise, but neither are we to be held captive to the demands and social trends of the world we live in.
We are inclusive in that all are welcome and exclusive in that we believe Jesus is the only way of and to salvation.
Care should be shown to people who want to engage re their sexuality. And we should be careful of inflammatory language that is exclusionary by nature, in our preaching and teaching the good news of Jesus.
God is love, and the cross is the answer.
Sadly, taking into account current legal trends, we may be wise (if not forced) to redefine membership so that in our by-laws we only marry people who are current members, and that have received marriage guidance/counselling. In this case, we are essentially presiding over Blessings Services – as the State itself provides the legal certificate of marriage.
Although the English Parliament, in legalizing same-sex marriages, has declared that churches will not be forced to marry same-sex couples, this is likely to be contested at which point we will simply disengage from marriage ceremonies as they stand and/or involve ourselves in civil disobedience, if the state demands we use our churches for same-sex ceremonies.
In some countries (Australia being one) marriage celebrants are also the ministers. It may be prudent to hand back marriage licenses and confine ourselves to Blessing Services for our people – which we see as the true validation of marriage, being in the eyes of God and his church. People will still wisely obtain a Legal Certificate of Marriage at Registry Offices.
- Please see below Article from Revd. Canon J. John. Gay Marriage: Issues and Arguments. A good overview from the Canon.
- What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? Kevin DeYoung. IVP, 2015. A straightforward, accessible, yet scholarly, look at the main arguments presented by revisionists re the texts on homosexuality in scripture. De Young is faithful to the tone and intent of scripture, and uncompromising in his conclusions. He refutes the arguments in favour of same-sex relationships with care and skill.
- Can you be Gay And Christian? Responding with Love and Truth to Questions about Homosexuality. Michael L. Brown. FrontLine, 2014. This is a comprehensive treatise by Dr Brown. He is a Hebrew scholar, which gives credence to his arguments against attempts to make the Scriptures into a text that affirms same-sex relationships. Brown is more provocative than DeYoung, and is, at times, sarcastic/provocative. His material is well researched and compelling, if not occasionally alarming.
- Same-sex Unions: The Key Biblical Texts. Ian Paul. Grove Books Ltd, Cambridge, 2014. This little book in the excellent Grove Biblical Series looks at all the Biblical Texts that mentions homosexuality. He responses to modern ‘revisionism’ that attempts to validate same-sex relationships. Typical of British Scholarship rewrites plainly and kindly, and whilst saying clearly that same-sex relationships can’t be biblically validated, he does so with grace. Dr Paul is an Associate Minister and Honorary Professor at Nottingham.
Gay Marriage: Issues and Arguments – Canon J.John
1. Some General Observations On The Current Issue
It is interesting to ask why the gay agenda is currently so prominent. Let me suggest the following reasons.
- Society has become fragmented and urbanised; the homosexual lifestyle that was unthinkable in a village of linked families now goes almost unnoticed in the anonymity of a city.
- There has been an erosion of both churchgoing generally. Amongst those who do attend church regularly there has been a loss of confidence in Christian morality.
- Relativism and ‘tolerance’ has undermined the absolute claims of Christianity.
- Society has come to believe that the ultimate objective of existence is not doing God’s will but being personally fulfilled. Finding sexual fulfilment is now not just a personal obligation but a creedal item. Churches have not been immune to the hedonist agenda; the unsung chorus in all too many places of worship might easily include the line ‘It’s all about me, Jesus!’
- In many circles it is now fashionable to be gay. There is considerable subtle and open pro-gay propaganda at every level, which it is difficult to counter without being accused of homophobia. Ironically, in an age of political correctness, to be gay is now a positive advantage at interviews. There is very definitely over-representation of homosexuals in the media.
- Fear of offence against the new morality of Political Correctness means that people with concerns on the issue feel obliged to stay silent.
- There has been some clever ‘verbal footwork’, which has allowed gayness to be portrayed as being in the same category as colour or gender. The impact of this has been to portray ‘gay equality’ simply the next logical and inevitable step of emancipation.
It is worth noting that although the government talks of ‘consultation’ the word here does not bear its traditional meaning. In the past, a consultation was to ask people’s opinions before a decision so that their views could be incorporated into what was decided. Now the role of a consultation appears to be to minute people’s grievances after a decision is made. Certainly there is every evidence that ministerial minds are already made up. What controls political decisions in this, and other areas, is not so much a moral compass as a moral weathervane.
You do not have to be a Christian to have concerns about the issues raised by this concept. It is important to remember that despite the sneers, it is not homophobic, fundamentalist or politically incorrect to raise such concerns. Indeed you could argue – as some have – that redefining marriage in this way does no service to the gay community itself.
2. The Issues
Let me raise the issues as I see them.
a) First of all let us deal with the fundamental argument that is often made that ‘being gay’ is a genetic or developmental condition over which an individual has no control; the view that it is as much a given as race or hair colour. As such, the argument goes, homosexual practice cannot, and should not, be legislated against and should therefore be treated exactly the same as heterosexuality. On these grounds the ability to be married should extend to gay people. This argument is however profoundly flawed. Human sexuality is messy and includes a range of conditions which are, to say the least, problematic. These include: voyeurism, rape, addiction to pornography, polygamy, polyandry, incest, sadism, masochism, paedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia and, the inability to have stable relationships with a single person. Presumably many (or all) of these have genetic roots and those who engage in them would say ‘I can’t help myself.’ Now no one (one hopes) would want to say that all of these are satisfactory expressions of sexuality, which should be endorsed by society: we all draw a line somewhere. Gay-rights activists cannot even get out of it by saying that we should only endorse loving sexual relations between consenting adults. Passing over the difficulties involved in the word love it is important to note that polygamy, polyandry, sadism, masochism and – critically – incest might all be acceptable practices within this definition. In other words, Christians and atheists alike agree that there are some forms of behaviour that are unacceptable and should be outlawed and that those who wish to pursue them must resist the temptation to do so. There is therefore no logical difference between the gay position and that of the Bible-believing Christian; we both draw a line but we draw it in different places for different reasons. This is at the heart of the point that Christians are not against homosexual orientation but against homosexual practice.
b) There is what we might call the ‘progressive fallacy’ at work here. This is the view that emancipation is a continuous, unstoppable moral process. So first of all we liberated and gave rights to slaves, and then we liberated and gave rights to women and now, it is argued, the process inevitably continues, with the emancipation of gay people. This view is extremely simplistic. In the case of slaves and women, we are talking about a fundamental social or biological identity, not a behavioural practice.
c) Heterosexual marriage is endorsed as a fundamental basic of society by almost every human culture and is a phenomenon that is nearly universal throughout both history and geography. It is also an unarguable fact that a working marriage is the foundation of social stability, a proven source of human happiness and best basis for the nurture of children. Surveys suggest that most women (and many men) in partnerships would prefer to be married.
d) A related concern (shared by many who hold no religious position) is over the speed of change with which homosexual practice is being normalised. What is being proposed is a dramatic experimentation with marriage; a near-universal social structure lying at the very core of society with millennia of tradition behind it. We know almost nothing about the long-term stability and medical and psychological healthiness of gay couples and little more of the effectiveness or otherwise of such people in areas, for example, like the upbringing of children. On purely pragmatic grounds it would seem wise to wait a generation or two while gay marriages in countries where they are already allowed are observed carefully before encouraging gay marriage within our own society.
e) The motives for this proposed change are suspect. Civil partnerships have existed since 2004 and appear to work satisfactorily. So why is there this demand for a change in the basis of marriage? It’s hard not to conclude that this is a deliberate and aggressive attack on traditional heterosexual marriage. A small but vocal minority within the gay community seem to be pushing for ‘a take it or break it’ attitude to marriage. And within this government there appears to be little more than a desire to follow the crowd and gain votes. This combination of hostility and expediency is the worst possible basis for legislation.
f) As Christians we have to turn to Scripture. Unfortunately a lot of the debate has been fought over texts within the Old Testament or the New Testament letters, which condemn homosexual practice. These are important and should not be ignored but they are open to being dismissed as culturally determined ethical principles. We are surely on much safer ground by going back to the scriptural definition of humanity and marriage. In the first pages of Genesis we find first of all, the definition of humanity as being made male and female in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). In other words, neither sex on its own fully reflects God. The image of God is most obviously seen when men and women are linked together in marriage. Secondly, in Genesis 2 we see the setting out of a clear definition of marriage (Genesis 2:18-24): “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Christianity has always upheld that the only legitimate expression of sexuality is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman. What is important about these definitions is that they have the very highest possible authority. These verses are directly quoted and reaffirmed by Jesus. ‘“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6). As if this were not enough, St Paul re-endorses the same passage in Ephesians 5:31. These statements are surely some of the most non-negotiable in Scripture.
g) There is the issue of precedent. If we feel that we are free to redefine marriage what, if anything, do we now exclude from legal ‘marriage’? Polygamy? Any combination and number of partners? Animals? Once you have dismantled the weighty historical and biblical foundations that uphold traditional marriage what other foundation will we erect in its place? And why, having done this, should this new foundation hold?
h) There is real and genuine concern that churches will be forced to conduct gay marriages. We are assured that this will not be the case yet the momentum of the gay rights juggernaut is surely not going to stop at the recognition of same-sex marriage. This raises interesting questions of oppression of human rights.The gay marriage movement raises significant and
i) The gay marriage movement raises significant and little discussed questions over gender. At the heart of the ‘gay marriage agenda’ is a presumption that men and women are sufficiently identical that they can be interchanged in relationships. It is taken for granted that it doesn’t fundamentally matter whether a relationship is male-female, male-male or female-female. Yet the Bible, psychology and experience combine to state that men and women are different in many ways. The biblical definition of humanity as made in the image of God includes not one but both sexes (Genesis 1:27). Feminism did not simply achieve a measure of equality for women but also a hard-won acceptance that women and men are different and that these differences can be celebrated. That victory will be trampled on by allowing same-sex marriage with its disregard of gender differences. Here are problematic issues to do with gender that need to be explored. We need to ask what will happen to gender relationships when we have some communities full of men who do not need women and others peopled by women who do not need men. These are issues that surely need asking sooner rather than later.
j) There is the further issue of how appropriate marriage is as a homosexual institution. Traditional marriage is designed – or has evolved – to accommodate the complementary psychological and physical differences that exist between men and women. Same-sex relationships are very different. So on what basis do we assume that marriage is appropriate for them? Legal homosexual relationships are a relative novelty in the West and surely we need time and study to find out what the best legal and social framework for them. To assume that it is marriage is yet another presumption.
k) A more subtle issue and one that has not been much discussed is the implications of gay marriage for Christian morality generally. Traditional orthodoxy has always held that human beings have two choices: celibacy or faithful heterosexual marriage and that anything outside these areas is sexual sin. Once we approve gay marriage we set aside a scriptural ruling in the specific area of same-sex relationships. We all know the pleas: the biblical passages are culturally determined, they are open to alternative readings, they do not take into account modern knowledge of psychology and behaviour etc. The point is that we have established the principle that if it’s a choice between sexual preferences and Scripture, our sexual preferences win. Staying within the area of homosexuality there must be real questions over what exactly we are endorsing when we approve gay marriage. Are we also approving all expressions of gayness such as the notorious promiscuity of some sectors of the gay community? There is an extraordinary silence over this. Moving beyond this, once gay sex is legitimised, why should we condemn any other form of sexual behaviour? Some men (and possibly women) appear to be genetically predisposed to be sexual adventurers, incapable or unwilling to form stable relationships. How can we now condemn them?
The problem goes further: the same strategy used to undermine the Bible’s authority in issues of homosexuality could easily be deployed in every other area of morality. So for instance, thieves could plead that they should not be condemned because their behaviour is genetically determined. Why, when we have removed its authority from the bedroom, should we accept the Bibles rulings on what happens in the boardroom? The Ten Commandments become written not in stone, but sand.
Two Final Points
There are many aspects of this issue that have not been fully discussed. One is the way that what is seen as increasing freedom for homosexual’s results in the loss of freedom of other people. Those people with legitimate grounds for dissent against the normalisation of homosexuality are now being penalised. If, as seems likely, these moves continue so that ultimately religious believers are forced, against their conscience, to affirm and allow gay marriage in their places of worship, then this movement will have become truly repressive. There is something of a tragic irony that what was a move for liberation against oppression has now become the agent of oppression itself.
One other very important issue is this. The gay community may wish the church to bow to public pressure and endorse its agenda. Yet do they really want the church that bows to media pressure and determines its morality by public opinion? Vox populi vox dei is a very dangerous principle. A church that, on that basis was tolerant of homosexuality today could easily bow, if the mood changed, to homophobia, tomorrow. It is in everybody’s interest that the church is allowed to be the church.
Revd. Canon J.John.
 George Orwell’s 1984 is both an indictment and a prophecy about this practice.
 Political Correctness, as a term, was coined by Stalin, picked up by Mao Zedong, and is the currency of cultural Marxism with its lust of power and domination of all and any who disagree with its ideology. This alone should make us wary.
 See Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? by Mick Hume, William Collins.
 In the UK there was a furor when it was suggested that a well known pop star and his homosexual partner were naturally not as well suited to raise their adopted child as a man and woman would be. They took this as a great offence. What was ironic was who said it – Doloce and Gabana, themselves gay, and proud.
 Grove Biblical – Grove Books Limited. Same-Sex Unions: The Key Biblical Texts. Dr. Ian Paul. 2014.
 See, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey – SPCK.
 Romans 1:18-32 and Revelation 2:14, 20, which link closely idols and immorality.
 Some prefer these terms to relate to human institutions, but the context and text itself tend to militate against this as the only viable option. It is likely both – human powers and demonic powers – aside from which, how do you separate them?
 It is still worth our while to realise that same-sex choice/orientation amounts to a very small percentage of society. The figures of 10% are wildly overstated and it is more likely to be 2%-4%. This is no reason for bad behaviour on our behalf but neither is it reason to accede to the same-sex lobby the accord their public volume demands.
 This is something C3 Long Island (New York State) has already enacted.
 Used with permission.
Forever susceptible to equal and opposite errors, we reject one thing in favour of its polarisation. Institutionalisation gives way to thoughtless anarchy, an over realised capitalism leads to an overblown socialism, and … so on.
Church life is no less guilty of over-reaction. When church groups ossify, and bureaucracy trumps connection and relational health, we cry foul and cast off the restraint it imposes, thinking that to be the solution.
We know and expect that new life is often accompanied by disruption. Life bursts from the ground. It finds it way through the crust, nudging its insistent sprouting into the light. Decay gives way to fresh, life perpetuates itself, young replaces old.
New groups spring up to satisfy the constant of the need for meaningful connections.
The question is not, should these groups, these connections, or these aggregations exist? The question is what do they look like, and what do they produce? And what drives them?
Loose Associations. The clue is in the title. They are associations; people gathered for a related purpose. They are loose in that there is no accountability, no more than that which simple exclusion affords. No harm was done; some good done. No real connection.
Networks. What is true of Associations is also true of Networks, with the inclusion of a slightly more formal structure, which includes some common goals, or modus operandi. Little harm done, some good accomplished. People have a sense of connective purpose, and thrown in for good measure, growing friendships.
Families. What is true of Associations and Networks is true of Families, plus some. Families are accountable to each other, for them to be an effective family. You can run but you can’t hide in a good family, any family. A connection is formalised yet less formal than Associations and Networks provide – because they are functional more than relational. Harm can be done, much more good accomplished.
Denominations. What is true of all three is true, potentially, of denominations. They are more formalised than all three, which may be the reason people eventually break with (the) tradition and create Associations. Back to the future. Denominations eventually tend to become top-heavy with Policy, Procedure and entrenched Personalities. Which is their death knell – for whom the bell tolls. Institutionalised harm was done, and some good done.
Apologetic/Preference. Associations have value, as do networks. They tend to be nimble and have little formal structure, which can be appealing. Denominations have value, but they can tend to the sluggish, which frustrates younger people, all people in fact. (It’s just that the young vocalise it.)
Families can be as families can be. But the building block of a civil (and I mean civil) society is the family. We are increasingly exposed to the notion of a reconstructed family model that is, in fact, no family – it is a perversion dressed up as a princess. And it may explain why family church groups have less enthusiasm expressed about them in preference for Networks and Associations. If people come from broken families they are unlikely to want a repeat, or, they are shy of the possibility.
But the health of a civil and just society is family based – or it should be. It has authority, and safety and belonging. We don’t get the latter without the former.
A family has the uncomfortable truth of accountability at its core – if it is to be a family and not a mere collection. And in a family, we aren’t ‘impressed’ by each other. Nothing we do is in comfortable isolation in a family.
But to our loss and peril do we minimise or disregard the institution of the family – and, an institution it is.
Church leaders, by the nature of their call/job and locale are in a form of social isolation. The antidote to this is not found in Associations and Networks. Only in Family.
The loneliness an honest Pastor admits to is partially normal (leadership has its costs) and partially abnormal (some costs are too expensive). Belonging satisfies a deeper, if more reluctant, need than casual connection can ever provide. The safety of someone actually knowing you, and your humanity, is wise and necessary, and, might I add, rare.
And this is why I am, In Praise of Belonging.
“For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
I wish to acknowledge the insight and assistance of Ps Phil Buechler, C3 Long Island. Phil is one of the better theological minds in C3: well read, articulate, and an astute practioner. His knowledge of church history gives him that unique perspective of – ‘I’ve seen that before and it inevitably leads to this.’ Thank you Phil, and so to our topic – Grace.
Unless you are a descendant of Rip Van Winkle you will know that grace has been getting quite an airing in the last few years.
Some speak vehemently in its favour, in the sense it is everything, and others argue it is not the only word/term to delineate the wonder of our salvation, and that it certainly cannot, and should not, be used as an excuse for bad behaviour, (not the intention of grace preachers).
I recently attended a conference at which a speaker claimed he wasn’t merely for grace, but a grace ‘only’ devotee. The tone of his voice left no doubts as to his conviction, equally his thoughts about anyone that didn’t share his enthusiasm.
Now it would be a strange thing to argue against God’s grace, in the sense of minimising it. To even have an argument would seem counterproductive. The topic itself appears to militate against this being an option. Hence the following comments are more pastoral and observational than theological, much less argumentative.
I have witnessed two things. Firstly any message of conviction is not a message disassociated from the circumstance of the preacher. Our message is as much about our need as it is about a free standing truth, if such a thing exists. Revelation will always make something very personal, and therein is its efficacy and its danger. Luke Timothy Johnston, states, “Even though they (the NT letters) were written from within a religious movement, the compositions gathered into the New Testament were not intended to be sacred texts that express eternal truths. They were written to address the real situations of specific readers … Paul’s thought, then, is not that of a systematic theologian, but of a pastor who tries to get his readers to think about their lives.” He makes a point.
A Christian leader who speaks about grace came from a traditional evangelical tradition where the word, tradition, may well have trumped the word, evangelical. He expressed the all too common burden of never feeling good enough, never doing enough, never believing enough. It is little wonder the message of God’s grace is to him the lifeline to victory and liberty, as it is to many from a similar legalistic tradition. So much so that he now sees everything via this prism. His inability to be good enough for God seems sufficient reason for his emphasis on grace. However his shoehorning of scriptures into this theme, his unifying theory of everything, is less justified. Phil Buechler notes that when grace is overstressed licentiousness is never far away, although we know it’s hardly the intention of the most preachers.
The gentleman, mentioned previously, faced a very sad relational collapse – a divorce. He has no doubt had some dark nights of the soul, leading to self-examination, which can so easily lead to self-recrimination and its attendant – guilt. Guilt is in opposition to grace – grace is an antidote of guilt – grace was his rescue.
Their understanding of God’s grace is as much psychologically and sociologically driven (in the sense of personal need and being situated in a particular milieu), as it is theologically motivated. This hardly invalidates it, as the same is true for all of us, but it doesn’t impose on everyone with the same forcefulness.
My second observation relates to the strident toing and froing about grace being dominated by the U.S. It does not appear to be a fixation/dividing doctrine in Europe. It is possible this is due to the polarising nature of the U.S. – where, by way of example, Democratic and Republican lines have traditionally been sharply and divisively drawn – still are. U.S. Christian leaders, in a similar polarising spirit, seem to be quite happy to slug it out in public via books, over their pulpits, and through social media. They appear combative and relentless. I’m not sure as to the value of this. They will likely retort they are defending the faith against heretical tendencies, which justifies their public spates – or maybe not?
The point being that polarisation seems the consistent and graceless outcome.
I wonder if people are failing to see that grace is not just one thing – unmerited, unearned favour. It is two things – position and power. It defines a standing we have with God due to the gracious action of Christ in becoming sin for us, and it is a power to live the life that Jesus has modeled in himself and that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he expects of us. If we only see one aspect we necessarily minimise the other, instead of seeing it as both – positional and enabling.
I quote Phil Buechler: “It is important to see that the Greek word normally translated into English as ‘grace’ has 2 basic definitions … The definition is determined by the context. The first is that grace is the unmerited favour of God that positionally places us in Christ … yet the second and most predominant definition … is that of the (enabling) power of God.”
There is nothing we can or could do to deserve God’s grace, and there is nothing we can’t do to express it – by the power of the enabling spirit. Reformed theology tracks along similar lines, in stating, “We are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone.” Our legal right is the basis of right living, and not the right to an absence from it.
Luther stumbled at the book of James in which James clearly states that an unexpressed faith (by itself) is useless. “You observe that a person is justified through actions and not through faith alone.” James 2:24 ISV.
He used the life of Abraham – not just the first instance of his believing but the outworking of it – so that he was justified in the action of being prepared to sacrifice his only son. Luther’s rant about James being an epistle of straw was clearly by way of reaction to his life finding no peace with God by following the prescribed pattern of Roman Catholic liturgy and lifestyle – works. He would have nothing of any intimation that faith alone wasn’t enough. He proves the point suggested in the two instances I gave earlier – his need and God’s remedy became his stance about everything for everyone, to the point of rejecting an entire book of the canon, as it fell outside the purview of his insight/need, and therefore of his theology.
No one person sees it all, and when they claim they do, they only prove the point.
Grace sufficiently and wonderfully saves us, and it in so doing enables us to live a holy life.
To divorce these two thoughts does damage to the intent of scripture, I posit.
Phil comments, “Already emerging in the hyper-grace camp are strong exhortations against the basic spiritual disciplines (or any discipline for that matter) such as the need to repent of sin, to confess them to God and to pursue holiness without which we will not see the Lord. Obedience to the NT teaching is now seen by some, as a ‘work’ that negates grace. Allergic reactions to NT good works are on the rise. Grace has for some, become the absolute attribute of God and the quintessence of the gospel. It seems that for a growing body of grace alone teachers, grace has removed all need for the spiritual disciplines. There is no need to work out what is already taken care of and covered. Grace, in the hands of a few, is becoming in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s turn of the phrase ‘cheap.’ Quickly disappearing is that healthy fear of God – that reverential awe that loves what God loves and hates what God hates. Jude warns us about those “who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality….”
It must be possible then, otherwise why would Jude mention it? And nothing is new under the sun.
In concluding this, the first part of two regarding grace, we leave you with Paul encouraging Titus, in Titus 2:11-15. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”
– Thoughts about Grace –
This is part two of, Grace has its Merits. In the first part Phil Buechler and I spoke to and of the current emphasis on the Grace of God. Now to some thoughts about grace:
1. Hebrews 12:15 warns us of failing to ‘obtain the grace of God.” The context is of holiness, morality, and repentance. This is not appealing to a positional stance regarding grace but to the active and serious outworking of grace in our lives and it is followed up with strong warnings – the sort we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with, because we may consider them not in line with our preferences about grace.
But grace is not just a nice attitude of God’s towards us. Grace is juxtaposed with wrath otherwise it isn’t the empowering grace of God. God’s wrath is something implacably holy, only ever satisfied by its absorption on the cross in Jesus. He took in his body, in his person, the weight of sin’s punishment – death forever. This is the work of his grace towards us, something hardly lightweight, or merely gracious.
2. Grace is also coupled, or more precisely, seen in opposition to works. The term works however needs clearer definition as it does not refer to just trying to be good – defined by good deeds and moral virtue. Works based salvation was referring to the works of the Old Covenant – the actions of the community of God’s people, actions and things that defined them. They didn’t do them to become the people of God. They did them because they were the people of God.
Torah, temple, land, and such, were not just the goal of good living but the boundary markers of the people of God. Falling from grace was to return to the way of their fathers, to Moses for salvation. It is highly unlikely that immorality and riotous living was on their agenda when they were doing this – but they were mocking the cross of Christ for salvation – which, you’ll agree is something much more significant than getting drunk or stealing.
3. 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Paul’s statement about grace being sufficient means more than is often understood. Firstly, he is not referring to the grace of salvation as Paul was clearly already saved. But he is referring to a grace (charis – gift) of power – but not that which we may expect. This grace was one of both endurance, and a new way to power via weakness. We tend to equate grace with strength, but here it is aligned to weakness.
Paul was buffeted by a messenger of Satan in a way that troubled and hampered him. He wasn’t relieved of this through prayer, regardless of his persistence, but was rather told that grace was sufficient for him. His experience of weakness was God’s door of power.
This made Paul actually boast about his insufficiencies (V9-10) as he now saw that Gods power was perfected in his personal weakness, enumerated as, “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities.” Most people would immediately consider these to be the very opposite of the benefits of grace, as these hardly made for a blessed life (in our terms). And it must be added that Paul had unusual levels and experiences of revelation, so what refers to him doesn’t necessarily refer to all.
Still, we are slow to see God’s grace in these terms of weakness, and frankly, seeming defeat, as they simply militate against understandings of grace that may be misunderstandings in the first place.
However we view it, grace is certainly more robust than an understanding mediated only in the terms of a father’s love for his children, or his unmerited favor towards us.
4. Grace in Romans 12. Paul states by the grace given him – not specifically a saving grace, but the grace of his ministry, which was formative and authorative – that others were to think soberly of themselves in light of what measure of faith they were entrusted. In other words the faith given to each differs, as their function differs. “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us.” No room for big heads. We are to act proportionally. Paul’s proportion was larger. His grace was different – not his salvation, his function.
The word grace hasn’t changed but the situation it is applied in has, therefore it looks different. Grace still means gift, but in this instance it is a spiritual gift of service to God’s church. It has its source in the cross, it is mediated by faith, and it is manifested as a function of being a member of Christ’s body – therefore it is different in each case.
We are unwise to make one thing everything, and to make everyone the same.
5. Showing Grace. In an age delineated by permissiveness, showing a person grace can often mean the endorsement of bad behavior. Far from helping and enabling a person, showing them this sort of grace can as easily weaken their resolve, and make light of a serious issue. They aren’t going to be saved by moral resolve but salvation by grace will result in change and conformity with the image of Christ, and the structure of scripture. Being accused of not showing grace when a person is in clear, deliberate, and belligerent opposition to the law of Christ is to misunderstand grace.
There exists a fear of offending people that has absurd out workings. I heard recently of a young man who had taken exception to, and been offended by a church, when he was called to account over the morality of his immorality. No doubt he huffed his way out of that church saying they showed no love or grace – whereas, in fact, that is exactly what they had shown – love in caring for his future and choices, and grace as in trying to point him to Jesus and his enabling grace/power that teaches us to say no to ungodliness.
We are unwise to validate bad behavior under the rubric of grace, so called.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Written by Simon McIntyre