Last week I returned from a three day retreat with fellow interns at CAP to find that the Christian corner of the internet was ablaze with the roaring bushfire of debate. Needless to say, I was rubbing my hands together with no small amount of glee. Some people hate it when Christians argue; I take a differing view: what is the measure of man but (in part) his ability to hold or appreciate an intelligent discussion or debate? All Christians do not hold the same views - what's the point in pretending otherwise? Arguments in Christian circles are a golden opportunity to show grace and love in an arena known for mis-representation and, in the case of the internet, putrid bile. It doesn't always happen, and I know I struggle in this area, but that is our ideal to strive towards.
The cause of the great internet debate was the Strange Fire conference held by John MacArthur's church in the US. To understand why it promoted such an outpouring of internet blog posts and discussion it is sufficient to quote from the description on the Strange Fire website (apologies for American spellings):
"The sons of Aaron…offered strange fire before the LORD…and fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them.
There are a lot of things that can vex me about the modern day church but high on the list in particular is the anti-intellectualism of many Christians today. There was a time when theology was looked upon as the queen of all sciences but all too often the trend today is to sweep theological matters under the carpet. Perhaps, as Christianity comes under increasing attack from secular thinking, the easy path becomes to retreat away from theology and take refuge in "just being about Jesus."
It comes out in many ways. The unwillingness of many Christians simply to put the effort in and form an opinion on any number of theological topics - anything from women in church leadership to worship to biblical evangelism. Or in the fact that many are unaware that there is, indeed, a biblical (and non-biblical) approach to evangelism. Or in holding to scientific views with deep theological consequences that remain cast aside - for example, embracing the evolution of man causes serious problems to holding a consistent view on the historicity of Adam, the integrity of the Genesis narrative and all resulting negative consequences.
This has all been on my mind because I've been reading Engaging with Keller - a critique by half a dozen British pastors of Tim Keller's theology. Expect a review soon but two things have struck in particular. The first is that the book is very gracious towards Mr Keller, it debates theology as Christians should debate theology - with grace and love. The second is that the book illustrates the vital importance of theology.
When it comes to worshipping God the immediate reality which springs to mind is the necessity for being led in worship. For I know my own heart, how cold and stubborn it can be to the gospel reality; how distracted it can become from thinking heavenly thoughts and how blurred and far away God can appear when the worries and cares of this life loom large. When worshipping God I know my heart should melt and overflow with love and joy and a holy awe but instead there can be nothing but doubt and unbelief. Christ should be my all in all not my occasional vague thought.
I need to be led into worship: my heart coaxed into a better frame of mind, my eyes taken off this world and set upon heavenly things and my faith stoked into greater flames that burn away the shards of doubt so that zeal for the Lord overcomes me.
This is no small task. And it strikes me as odd that there are people who would claim to be worship leaders. For it is not a position easily filled. Indeed, it is a position with only one qualified person available for to fill it. Our only worship leader is Jesus Christ.
There must be many who, secretly or not so secretly, despise the church for the fact that in the year 2013 large sections of the church still teach that allowing women or practising homosexual ministers is wrong and against God's will. Fortunately, our standard is not what society may think of us but rather the word of God as our 'supreme rule of faith'. Still, even accepting this there are disagreements within the church over these two issues.
Recently, I was pondering the biblical case (or lack thereof) for practising homosexual ministers and it suddenly occurred to me that I'd thought about these issues before in another debate within the church, this time on women ministers. It is interesting to reflect on the extent to which those arguing for the acceptance of women ministers and those arguing for the acceptance of practising homosexual ministers use much the same type of arguments for making their case.
One argument involves the Christian teaching on gender and the other the Christian teaching on sexuality. Any attempt to make a biblical case for them involves explaining away explicit bible verses to the contrary. This does not automatically make the ideas wrong – there are parts of the Bible which are no longer applicable today (the Old Testament sacrifice system or civil laws for Israel for example). But it's important to note that to faithfully argue against what the Bible says on a matter must involve using another part of Scripture that overrides the other. For example, the New Testament authors are quite clear that because Jesus implemented a new covenant the old order of things passed away. Hence we have a biblical reason to not obey another part of the Bible.
Over the past year I've said a fair bit about the Church of Scotland, most of it critical, (check out here and here) and I'm afraid that trend is only going to continue. It's not that I have a grudge against them or anything, in fact, I was converted under the preaching of a Church of Scotland minister and there are many faithful godly men working away in the national church. But their faithfulness, especially in this matter, is inconsistent.
For those of you who don't know the Church of Scotland is meeting tomorrow (May 18th) in order to vote on whether or not practising homosexual ministers should be allowed. The debate is split between conservative evangelicals who argue that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin and the church should not give way to the cultural trend. And on the other side are the liberals who argue we should ignore the Bible, or rather, 'interpret the Bible in a modern framework'. As you can guess from my sarcasm I'm siding with the biblical view, we have no other authority, society can say what it likes, we must stand on the Word of God or we will fall.
Yet with all the discussion happening two things have vexed me. The first is that there seems to be no recognition that the Church of Scotland has brought this on their own heads. As the Bible says: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." (Galatians 6v7). In this case, the evangelical members of the CoS are reaping the fruits of allowing liberalism within the church to grow. The Bible has a clear command on the issue of necessary separation:
Around eighteen months ago I wrote a blog post on the joy of attending a prayer meeting; so in the spirit of better late than never here's the next part to it! Truth be told, this was not a post I could have written back then because it has only been over the last six months or so that I've actually regularly started to look forward to going to church. Although it still surprises me when I wake up on Sunday and I find that I'm actually eager to attend.
Before I get started I'd also like to say that while the title to this piece speaks of abundant joy then that is still very much an aim for me. Most of us will hopefully know the partial joy of church attendance and it is my hope and prayer that this will spur us on to seek its abundant joy.
The first and most basic joy is that of obedience. As the 4th commandment goes: "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God." (Exodus 20v9-10) Even if our Lord's day is otherwise a joyless affair and we can see no point in attending church at least we do go. When all other joys fail there can still be the joy of duty, however minor such a joy may be.
On December 29th then I came across a story in the telegraph about the decision of a judge that Christians have no right to refuse work on Sundays because, and I quote, “Christians have no right to decline working on Sunday as it is not a “core component” of their beliefs.” It gets better, he went on to say: The fact that some Christians were prepared to work on Sundays meant it was not protected.”
First it is a really stupid decision, surely the issue is not what other Christians are doing but what the Christian teaching on work on Sundays is? Even if the matter was uncertain then her managers initially agreed to respect her decision that she could, in clear conscience, work on a Sunday. It’s not as if she deceived them and yet her stand for what she believed right is branded wrong because according to a secular judge, who seems to have little understanding of Christianity, working on a Sunday is not a core element to the faith.
I suppose it is to be expected and rant aside there’s a bigger issue to talk about. This isn’t just a testament to the foolishness of the judge; far worse it is a massive rebuke to Christians in Great Britain. The judge was correct in saying that many Christians are prepared to work on a Sunday - the disobedience of these Christians heaps problems on the head of their brothers and sisters who are being obedient!
“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
1 John 3 v 18
This verse has been on my mind a lot recently for I think it does a good job of summing up one of the failures of my own walk with God and, if I can be so bold as to generalise, the church as a whole. We know that the essence of Christianity is love: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13v13) and we know the summary of all of God’s commandments: “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22 v 37 – 39). And yet when push comes to shove then we are not very good at loving others.
Oh, we are very good with loving with words and speech! It is easy to say “I’ll pray for you”, it is also pretty easy to actually pray, but if that’s all we ever do for our friends then we’ve missed the glaring point of Christian love. Don’t get me wrong, there is always room for encouraging words, promises to pray, a cheerful word, a reminder of a bible verse, these are good and we should overflow with them. But if that’s the extent of our love then we have a problem. And that problem is that we are not truly loving.
Take the Lord Jesus Christ, he doesn’t just say he loves us, he doesn’t just pray for us, he doesn’t just give many encouraging promises to us (though he does all these things), Jesus also died for us. You can’t get more nitty gritty practical than that. As John writes a few verses earlier: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3v16). In fact, if you follow John’s argument the reason why he calls us to love with actions is this is exactly what Jesus did!
Edited last paragraph because I didn't realise women priests were already allowed by the CoE. Terms like bishops and priests confuse us reformed folk!
A year or so ago I was having a discussion with a friend about girls and I passed on a particular pearl of wisdom (not my own): “Sympathy not solutions.” To my concern the expression on my friend’s face furrowed into a confused frown so I expanded my explanation saying that when a woman comes to you with a problem unless they specifically ask for help all they want is sympathy whereas for men we expect and give solutions. I could see the cogs turning in his mind as he assimilated this information before with a great cry of frustration he said: “But that’s not logical!” My reply was a wry laugh. The point of my hopefully amusing anecdote is that men and women are different. It may seem a pretty obvious observation, akin to the observation of Newton that apples fall to the ground, but it is a truth that I feel is often forgotten. For instance, I bet some people reading this will immediately assume that by different I meant ‘inferior’ or that my story somehow is meant to reflect badly on women (when frankly it says more about men’s inability to cope with anyone more emotionally complex than a teaspoon). The reason I mention this is because of the recent decision by the Church of England not to allow women ministers, well, it was more that not enough people agreed that they should allow them. In particular I write because of the reaction I observed on Facebook to this decision.
The comments made by my non-Christian friends did not bother me too much for this is a question of Scripture and theology and the unspiritual man cannot understand the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2 v 14). But it was the reaction of my Christian friends that saddened me for many were expressing disappointment that such a decision had been made. So I write this letter because the love of Christ compels me to and because I know we all share a desire to love God with all our heart, soul and mind; that we want to obey him in every aspect of our life because as Jesus said: “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14v15) and that we hold Scripture to be the Word of God, inspired and our final authority on all matters of religion.
In economics there is a concept called ‘diseconomies of scale’ which refers to the fact that as firms get larger then they also can become less efficient because size brings with it problems. It is a shame that this concept is not applied more to churches. We are all apt to assume that a large church equals a successful church forgetting that numbers is nowhere mentioned in the Bible as a sign of a healthy church. What will follow is a challenge to think about your church and whether or not it is too big for you.
A few qualifications must be made first though. I am not going to draw lines in the sand and say “over x amount a church is too big”. Life is never that simple, instead I’m going to give you principles to apply to your church experience and let you do the maths. Secondly, as our local church is very much part of our identity then you will feel likely threatened by this article, I would encourage you to read it anyway and read it prayerfully, I’m challenging myself writing it and its good to ask ourselves the hard questions we don’t want to answer. And lastly, my whole argument is based on the premise that in the Bible when it talks about the body of Christ it means the local church congregation. Many, I’m sure, will disagree but if we do not understand the local church as being a physical manifestation of the body of Christ then how can we understand the lessons Paul teaches from this image?
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” 1 Corinthians 12 v 27. In the context of 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is talking about our difference gifts and how they all work together in unity. This only has meaning in a local church context. While as a Christian I am part of the body of Christ universal then this can only work out in practise in a local church.