DOCTRINE SLOT 3: Conservatism

Third in series
CHRISTIANITY AND POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES
PART 3: CONSERVATISM
In Part 1 we saw that liberals, those seeking freedom for the individual, were admirable for opposing tyranny… but that they were wrong if thinking that freedom lies in treating all choices as equally ‘right’ or in trying to escape good authority – like the authority of God’s good rules. Seeking to go one’s own way is not freedom – but leads to slavery.
In Part 2 we saw that socialists perhaps had something to teach us in their heart for the poor and oppressed. But that we should consider carefully the wisdom of investing too much power in the hands of the secular state – or in assuming the wealthy are evil or that God desires total equality. The sovereign Lord entrusts different amounts to different people – it’s what we do with it that counts.
And so to conservatism. It is perhaps seen as the ‘natural home’ for many evangelicals. However, I recognise that frustrates some of the younger among us.
What is conservatism?
In a way, conservatism is an anti-ideology. An ideology is a visionary body of ideas with which one believes they can change things for the better. Conservatives, on the other hand, are naturally suspicious of change and of new ideas. They fear that sudden change leads to uncertainty and disorder. They have put great stock in tradition, in existing institutions and hierarchies and in what has been proven to work. This might mean family values, the Church of England, the City of London or even certain well established schools. Conservatives also tend to be patriotic – fearful of rapid immigration or a loss of power to the EU.
What does it look like?
It is easy to assume that conservatism is the same as what is endorsed by the Conservative party here in the UK. That has more been the case in the past. Tories have traditionally avoided major changes and have been seen as protecting the class system, the monarchy, private property and even the British Empire against the forces of revolution. And whilst the party did accept the creation of the welfare state after 1945, this is perhaps an example of them sticking with what seems to work and not being too ideological about it.
However, Conservatives have increasingly come to represent business interests and have showed themselves willing to make changes for their benefit. This was particularly the case under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Whilst socially conservative, she made wholesale radical changes to the country in order to bring about free market capitalism. She was unusually strong in her ideological opinions – seeing socialism as a deadly enemy and aggressively cutting back the state.
In America too Republicans, traditionally the most conservative party, are no longer willing to sit back and let things happen gradually. Rather they are fiercely in favour of business and the military and are aggressive in standing against abortion or gay marriage.
What’s right about it?
Well it’s not co-incidence that Bible believing Christians have often seemed to support conservative parties above others. Where liberalism exists to grant individual freedom from rulers, conservatism upholds law and order – taking a more biblically correct view of human nature as flawed and in need of boundaries. Where socialists have urged the working classes to rise up in anger against the rich, conservatives have traditionally counselled respect and charity between the two.
Even nowadays, it is hard to see beyond the fact that it is most likely to be Conservative MPs who speak in favour of Christianity, of marriage, for pro-life issues. The Christian Institute keeps a record of how every MP has voted on issues it perceives as moral – recording their response by simple ticks and crosses. There is no getting away from the fact that, in most instances, Tory MPs have more ticks than non-Tory MPs. Yes there are Christian MPs in all three main parties but, for example, 12 newly elected MPs in 2010 were members of the Christian Conservative Fellowship, a Bible-believing Tory organisation including a member of the Cabinet, the Deputy Party Leader and the Attorney General. This proud Christian influence does not exist to anything like the same extent in the other parties.
Because conservatism is not a real ideology, it is hard to compare its core values against the Bible as I have done in my last two talks. However, in case we need reminding, Jesus, in Matthew 19, does preach the sanctity of heterosexual marriage:
at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, 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. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
The Bible does lead us to oppose abortion, as God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”
And, where the world wants to change, water down or disregard our teaching, Paul writes that ‘Scripture is God-breathed’, Luke that ‘you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’.
Therefore, if conservatism looks, even to some extent, to uphold these things where others want to move on from them; that is indeed a good thing.
What’s wrong about it?
However, we shouldn’t equate conservatism with good. The Pharisees were highly conservative, morally and politically. They wanted things done as they always had been and, in their eyes, Jesus was a dangerous radical – threatening to upset the balance of power and ferment an uprising. Therefore they wanted him gone by any means necessary.
In the same way, the High Church, whether Catholic or Anglican has generally placed too high a premium on the way things have always been done – considering the biblical demands of Christ as an inconvenient imposition and sometimes preferring to focus on the sanctity of old buildings and sacraments. We should not be too conservative to be able to stomach Christ’s New Wine.
And, in practice, neither should we spare conservative politicians the same scrutiny we would afford to others. For a start, many are not Christians. Moreover, here, and particularly in the USA, they may be keen to be seen going to church but it may not keep them from indulging in sharp business practise or in extra-marital infidelities.
Indeed we may have significant questions for conservatives if they lack compassion, or if they favour the wealthy or privileged, reminding them of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus promised blessings to the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted. And where the right wing of conservatism tends towards xenophobia in its patriotism, we should remember the likes of Galatians 3, teaching that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’.
What should we do about it?
Well if one among us is TOO conservative, they may need a kick up the bum. If something can be done better and more profitably for the sake of the gospel – then we should be radical enough to change it! In truth, if we were bindingly conservative then we probably wouldn’t be here – in a church plant meeting in a school! Our very existence as a congregation is fairly radical in the eyes of some Anglicans.
Our danger is perhaps that sometimes we’re not respectful enough of our heritage, of elders, of hymns or prayers that have served us well and aren’t easily improved upon.
It’s important that the temptation in a young congregation to be seen as liberal, trendy and interesting by the world doesn’t tempt us against defending Christianity, morality or the sanctity of life – however old-fashioned or illiberally conservative those causes may seem.
The truth is, as this series ends, our ideology should be Bible-centred Christianity. That won’t chime exactly with any of the world’s ideas, so we shouldn’t ultimately be locked into or compromised by, any of them. We should endorse the good in all great ideas, but must never let ideals, parties or politicians become our idols.

Advertisements

Doctrine Slot 2: SOCIALISM

CHRISTIANITY AND POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES

PART 2: SOCIALISM

In Part 1 we saw that liberals, those seeking freedom for the individual via tolerance and reason, were perhaps working from good instincts in opposing tyranny… but that they were wrong if thinking that freedom lies in treating all things as equally ‘right’ or in trying to escape good authority – for instance the authority of God’s good rules. Seeking to go one’s own way is not freedom – but leads to slavery.

Now today we move onto another great political movement – Socialism.

What is socialism?

As a starting point, we can say that socialists are those who want redistribution of wealth, seeking greater equality. They have seen the world in terms of class differences and have opposed capitalism because it promotes inequality and exploits the poor. Whilst the end-dream of early socialists was a perfect stateless society, in the meantime they have supported a bigger state – one that provides services and runs industries for the common good, rather than leaving it to individuals seeking profit.

What does it look like?

The father of ideological socialism was Karl Marx. He believed all human history was explained by economic systems – each one brought to an end as its ruling class was displaced. He believed that industrialised Capitalism would bring about the greatest struggle yet; between the labourers – who did all the work for poor return – and the middle classes they worked for – who got rich without breaking a sweat. He felt it inevitable that the workers would rise up in violent revolution, bringing about true socialism and, ultimately, a perfect Communist world where each worked according to his ability and received according to his need.

In the UK, we have a less revolutionary mindset. Thus, UK socialism has taken a more democratic, gradual approach to class conflict – the idea being that workers will vote for Socialist governments, who can then redistribute wealth via taxing the rich, can help the poor via the welfare state and can take over major utilities like gas, steel or railways to run for the common good. This is the ideology of Old Labour, largely abandoned by New Labour since the 90s.

Meanwhile, some countries did have their revolution – but not the industrialised superpowers as Marx predicted, rather relatively backwards regimes like China and Russia. Here we saw redistribution of wealth and the abolishment of the old order but, as time went on, socialist dictators seizing ever greater power and becoming ever more corrupt.

What’s right about it?

Socialism has a very bad rap in the evangelical church, far more so than liberalism. However, a heart for the poor and oppressed is profoundly biblical – Christian Socialist movements and individuals have a proud and rich history we should respect. Indeed, Belgian socialist Henri de Man wrote how he founded his movement ‘in the name of all those spiritual values – the ideal of equality, the sentiment of human dignity, the desire for justice and caring – which Christianity has brought to the world’. It’s great then that people here are helping the homeless or visiting prisons. For a long time social justice was the neglected Evangelical ministry, but Jesus is crazy about it. To the man who loves wealth too much in Matthew 19 he says to sell all he has and give to the poor. To his disciples a few chapters later he says that if they help the ‘least of their brothers’ they help him. This is not a new idea but one found throughout the Old Testament:

Ps 140:12 – God gives ‘justice for the poor’

Prov 14:31 To help the poor is to honour God

And after the gospels it continues…

1 Tim 6:18 Command them to be generous and willing to share

1 John 3:17 – If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

This is how the early church lived. They shared all they had and lived in community.

However… it’s worth noting that in none of these cases does the Bible talk of Christians giving to the state in order to help the poor. It is the responsibility of the individual and of the church itself to help – first – brothers and sisters in Christ and then others in need. In doing so we model Christ and point towards him.

What’s wrong about it?

Well, to continue on that theme, whilst we must give taxes to the state as required – rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – we are not necessarily seeing God’s will enacted in terms of where the money goes. The welfare state and NHS are admirable institutions… and our government – whoever leads it – is relatively upright… but the state does nevertheless endorse and fund organisations that the Bible opposes – eg other religious groups or those who carry out abortions. More power and money in the hands of a non-Christian state rarely serves to advance God’s glory; thus we might choose to question it. And we must not be satisfied to leave to the state those roles God means for us, whether caring for need in our community or providing for our families. It is good there is a safety net, particularly at the moment, but we are called to work and to look after one another and we should always try to do so.

There are other issues. Returning to Marx, as well as calling religion the ‘opium of the masses’, he believed that all wrongdoing and selfishness in the world was the result of Capitalism. He therefore believed that a post-revolutionary world could become perfect and selfless – an idea rather let down by attempts since. As Christians we have a different understanding – the reason for bad behaviour is sin, the only solution to it is Jesus’ death on the cross and we won’t know a world free from sin until he returns. Indeed, a revolution, certainly for such motives, would be a godless violation of 1 Peter 2:13’s command to ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority’.

Some socialists have also been guilty of hating the rich. Yes, God issues plenty of warnings to those he entrusts with money… but bitterness is the wrong reaction. Abraham, Solomon and some among Jesus’ followers were certainly wealthy. 1 Samuel 2:7 states that ‘the Lord sends poverty and wealth’ – financial gifting, like spiritual gifting, is not equally distributed and we’re never told it should be – rather we’re told that for those given more there is greater responsibility – as shown in the Parable of the Talents.

What should we do about it?

To both the friends and critics of socialism I would say be careful. Be careful about endorsing too much power for the state and be vigilant in checking what they do with it – particularly given recent moves against public Christianity, of which we are perhaps seeing only the start.

But, to those who oppose Socialism, check your motives. If you want to hold onto wealth for your own comfort then perhaps it would be better that it was taken from you to do at least some good. But if you’re saying it is up to us, not the state, to care for the poor – then show that by doing the job better than them, according to your resources – or at least by supporting those who do. I certainly hope that those American Christians shown in the media as loudly opposing all taxation and state healthcare in the USA are, in their own lives and churches, quietly acting vigorously and sacrificially in order to care for the poor of their communities – we should expect so.

And to a socialist, we might congratulate them on their heart for the poor and oppressed, indeed show we share that instinct, but might then seek to convince them that true justice will be found in the coming kingdom… and that, unlike Lenin or Mao, there was one who didn’t let all the riches of heaven corrupt him, but rather gave his very life for poor and wretched humanity.

Doctrine Slot 1: LIBERALISM

Hello. The blog isn’t running again – it just seemed a good place to put these doctrine slots, recently aired at Christchurch Balham, for further scrutiny…

Please note – this one doesn’t have the clear structure of the others. That came about as a result of Perks’ very good feedback!

PART 1 – LIBERALISM

Some here will see liberalism as an inherently ‘good’ thing – ie it is good that we live in a ‘liberal democracy’ where people have rights. Some will see it as bad; ie in overly soft ‘liberal parenting’. Well I’m not up here to tell you one or the other is politically right – however, as liberalism is the key ideology of the modern West it’s worth knowing what the term means and how we as Christians might engage with it.

In fact, it’s harder to define than you might imagine, mainly because the original liberals of 200-odd years ago were so different from the liberals of the 20th Century. However, they each share a core desire by which they can be defined – to grant freedom for the individual – freedom from tyranny, freedom to pursue their own path in life.

The original liberals pursued freedom from the tyranny of harsh rulers and old ideas – their achievements include the US Constitution or French Revolution. Modern liberals have more seen freedom as being found in escape from poverty, or prejudice. Therefore, they are proud of the Liberal reforms that granted Old Age Pensions, or the Beveridge Report that led to the Welfare State.

If this all sounds great then that’s because much of it is. Freedom, tolerance, justice – meaning in this context a fair chance for all – well they are all things we would generally approve of.  Indeed, the Bible endorses much of it:

On Justice:

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless PSALM 82:3

On Freedom:

For freedom Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1)

For you were called to freedom, brothers GALATIANS 5:13

On Tolerance:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus GALATIANS 3:28

It is perhaps unsurprising then that there have been notable Christians among Liberal thinkers – for example, philosopher John Locke – who wrote a book called ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity’.

However, we must be aware that there is another side to this ideology that should make pause before lending our support.

Liberalism is very much the ideology of the Enlightenment – that was the 18th Century movement advancing science and debate across Europe. Its claim to ‘reason’ encouraged those who would challenge and ridicule Christianity in the name of supposed intellectual progress. Indeed, ‘reason’ is defined by many liberals as being the opposite of religious faith. One liberal famously called Locke’s idea of rights being God-given as ‘nonsense on stilts’. Others were as determined to escape the supposed ‘tyranny’ of God and the church just as much as they wanted to escape bad kings in Europe. The most influential critic of Christianity was perhaps John Stuart Mill. He believed that people would be free only once educated to make their own decisions, freeing them from the influence of the church. Like the Dawkins of the day, he effectively called God wicked, unholy and out-of-date.

But in fact, it shouldn’t unduly trouble us that clever people have seen Christianity as wrong, or even foolish. For the Bible says, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’. And, in case we need reminding, our faith is NOT unreasonable – we are not leaving reason behind us when we believe – hence the fact we have philosophers and scientists here at CCB… Even outside of God’s revealed and coherent Word, the Bible, it is NOT unreasonable to suppose that a vast, ordered creation out of nothing points to a purposeful creator, nor that the historical figure of Jesus Christ, his empty tomb and the witness and impact of his followers points us to a Saviour. Our reason rightly prompts us to consider those claims, like so many millions before us.

But ultimately, above our own reason, our evidence for following Christ comes in the assurance of God’s word and the change in us when we accept it. And if we can’t get our head around it all and win every argument… well in Isaiah 55:9 God reminds us that ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’. It’s therefore OK to accept that some things are hidden for now… we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit – something unknown by unbelievers – so can wait for full revelation beyond this life.

Besides this, we do not share the liberal ideal. Christians do NOT believe that people should be free to run their own lives. Nor that we, apart from God, know what is best for us. We don’t believe that is what freedom is. Galatians says that if we try to run our own lives we are in fact slaves. It says we are not meant to indulge ourselves but rather to ‘serve one another humbly in love’ as compatible parts of Christ’s body the church (4:8). Due to sin, the flesh and the Devil, our path, if left to our own devices, is one of destruction… not freedom.

And yes, tyranny is to be opposed, but God is not a tyrant. 1 John 4 tells us that God is love and Psalm 139 repeatedly tells us His rules are good. Therefore trying to run our own lives free of Him is a counter-productive and tragic rebellion – one that deprives us of living under God’s good rule.

The final thing that must be said regards tolerance – possibly the defining value of liberalism nowadays. Again, there is something good in it. We are on the side of tolerance where racism, sexism or homophobia leads to hatred or persecution. We don’t consider anyone beyond redemption, nor as beneath us in value. However, unlike liberals we cannot see tolerance as an absolute good. All views and lifestyles are not equally valid and commendable in the Bible. Some are godly and some are sinful. Returning to Galatians 5, those who serve idols or pursue sexual immorality – that is anything other than sex outside marriage – ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (v 21); not unless they accept that Jesus died for these things and then repent from them.

We say that Christianity is right. That other religions are wrong. That men and women, alike in value and dignity, nonetheless have different roles in a family or church. That marriage is for a man and a woman. These things are offensive to liberals. When all’s said and done, God’s word is not liberal.

Thus, if a church is liberal, it has probably turned from God’s word. And if liberals find no problem with us at all, then it’s probably either because we have also turned from God’s word, or because we’re keeping quiet about our views.

So, in conclusion – acknowledge the good in liberalism, but don’t embrace it wholesale. God’s authority and law stands above the false ideal of individual freedom. And, if you end up discussing this with one who considers themselves a liberal, aim to be equipped to show that freedom, real freedom, actually comes, not from self-sufficiency, but through relationship with God through faith in His son Jesus Christ.

AND FINALLY…

My wife – the unnamed hero of much of this blog’s output (Jesus being the named hero) – is getting baptised on Sunday. Having been raised a Baptist myself I have bugged her about this for years. She always said she wouldn’t do it until she could genuinely proclaim repentance, active faith and a changed life. She also thought the prospect of standing in front of a crowd and inviting people would be too terrifying. Well on Sunday she’s doing it, entirely of her own initiative. She’s scared but she very much wants to proclaim the goodness of Christ in front of friends and family, Christian and non-Christian. I hope you’ll be there Sunday to see it…God is brilliant and I’m chuffed to pieces. That’s a good way to end the blog.

THE END OF THIS BLOG!

What a melodramatic title. It is true though. I’m quitting for now. ‘What a fickle, impulsive chap you are’ I hear you think aloud – ‘just last week you were obsessed with drumming up business for the thing’. Yes, I know… and that’s part of why I’m stopping. Here are my reasons:

  1. It was detracting from my work. You may have seen the times of these posts. They are generally during school hours. There is absolutely no doubt I have committed myself significantly less to the job I’m paid to do in favour of writing and checking this blog. That’s not good, honest nor godly.
  2. There is too much desire for self-affirmation. I know I’ve blogged on this before. However, I’m too competitive and I can’t help the drive for recognition, ‘hits’ and feedback. It means I’m often posting with the wrong motive and I can’t abide it. There are plenty of people serving a heck of a lot more sacrificially and effectively within CCB, but without e-mails to advertise the fact.
  3. As a general rule, this is not ‘doing’. I don’t know exactly what ‘doing’ looks like – but blogging is generally just ‘talking about doing’ instead of ‘doing’ it. There are some posts on here I am proud of and which God has used to help others as well as me. However, in the majority of cases, time spent blogging would be better spent doing something else. I’m finding this ever harder to justify.
  4. Whilst I have come some way in terms of a ‘theological education’ via sermons, books and my own study, I want to formalise my learning a little. Therefore, I plan next term to start taking the theology courses from Moore Seminary via correspondence, in order to give my endeavours greater discipline, soundness and a certificate! I do love to study…

 So, was it all a waste of time? No, I don’t think so. For the following reasons…

  1. It gave me a reason to think things through with a degree of accountability. Thanks to this project I now far better know my Bible-based mind on Calvinism, gender issues, movie-watching, evangelism and a great deal more besides. This is very helpful for apologetics and mentoring younger Christians.
  2. I know, more via e-mails that comments, that some people have occasionally been helped and challenged by a couple of things that came up. Being honest however, this was more true early on  – when the posts were more occasional but more borne of deep conviction and a troubled soul.
  3. This whole blog relocation was part of a drive from the start of 2009 to get my focus on God. Along with setting myself some rules, reading more and listening to a heap of sermons I have managed to wean myself off some bad habits that I’m sure still lurk, ready to reclaim me lest I ever grow complacent!

Right, so, the end of the game for now. The best posts of the 71 were probably these about sex, a stag weekend, blogging v atheists, Jade, my wife’s op, The Shack and how it’s all irrelevant compared to the cross. I do love writing and I pray God will use that willingness in some way I haven’t yet been shown. I do also love discussion, but it may be more honest done in person and via e-mail, so do feel free. Thank you for reading and God bless.

 PS There is also one quick post to go which is very important…

NEHEMIAH AND THE GOSPEL

A couple of really interesting comments on the last post regarding the necessity of ‘giving the gospel’. I will get to responding! However, I want to start with Nehemiah. I am all over that book right now. I’m reading and studying it in my quiet times and listening to Driscoll preaching on it on my journeys to work. It’s just a great book for those of us who live in the city. It’s about a standard guy who sees his city broken, lost and desolate. The journey he takes is inspiring. First, he mourns and fasts over the city. Then he prays. Then he plans. Then he DOES something about it! He humbly approaches the authorities, he figures what he needs, he builds a team, he goes to the city, he speaks to the people, he REBUILDS THE CITY! And, when determined opponents mock, scorn, distract and threaten that work, he remains steadfast, unflinching and prayerful, his people working with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other – ready to defend the fruit of their labours if called upon. Nehemiah cared for the city. He wanted to transform it and so he set about doing so as a man of action. The city is the key strategic place to begin any great work – it has the most people, the most languages and the most influence – it dictates the culture, the media output and the politics of a nation.

I am proud to live in one of the world’s greatest cities and I’m proud to be part of a network of churches that is actively seeking to impact upon it by planting and by telling the good news. There is already some family pressure for us to opt out of the city in favour of suburbia’s sanitised comfort. However, I hope I long resist such temptation – in favour of real multi-culturalism, real community and proximity to real need… perhaps raising kids less sheltered, racist and fearful than the ones I teach! It’s in the city that the battle-lines are drawn and are visible!

People in the city do need our physical help – they need love as expressed by feeding the hungry and caring for the lost. We perhaps need to get better at that – we are a little too white, middle class and intellectual to provide much of a haven for the broken people of even Balham right now. It’s something I know several who frequent this site are very keen to address through initiating hands-on weekend community work imitating the Besom or Nehemiah Projects that already run in the area (and in which they are already involved) to care for those incapable of looking after their own homes and welfare. However, more so, we must be keen to give the gospel, as that is the thing Londoners need the most. It is not enough we be ‘good people’ in the eyes of others. Yes we must live the gospel, with love, in order that our message not be undermined but be strengthened by them seeing the practical love of Jesus in us. But we MUST also tell the gospel. Explicitly. It is up to those who hear and the will of the Spirit as to whether they respond, but they can’t respond to that which they haven’t heard!

And so too with our friends. If the past few months have taught me anything, it’s that we are fragile and that life can be threatened or cut short at any time. Therefore I do believe we should push a little harder than Debbie and Simon are suggesting. If our friends can hear the gospel from us within a relationship, then brilliant. However, it makes sense that they also hear it from those teachers best trained to deliver it, at events tailor-made for such a thing. For without hearing the gospel – that is Christ crucified in the place of sinful man so we may be saved through faith in him and repentance of that which grieves him – they will assume merely that Christianity is a meritocracy… a code for ‘good people’ to earn their way through the Pearly Gates. The gospel changes things. I have had one person this week tell me ‘I don’t like it’ and one tell me ‘It’s not fair’. That doesn’t happen when you’re discussing creation v evolution. Or atheism v theism. The gospel provokes, challenges and demands a response to the work of Christ. We must live the gospel, but we must also tell the gospel.

PS A note on Driscoll. Yes I listen to him a lot and I am thoroughly inspired by him. However, neither do I follow him unquestioningly. I am very wary of how much he speaks every week about himself; his life, his church and his family; it really is at least half of every sermon (you only really realise how much when listening through a series in quick succession!). Such a self-referential style I do feel carries with it the danger of fostering a personality cult, plus which his tangents can be more memorable than his exegesis of the passage. But he does love the Bible and he’s presenting it to thousands via the gifts that God has given him and that he has had the courage to employ. So yes I’m a (cautious) fan!

PLOTTING TO EVANGELISE

Sigh. Non-Christian mates. What to do with them?? As we prepare for Passion for Life, through Revive, through our small groups and through our church meetings, we each have to start plotting how we might turn up to those events with somebody on our arm. After all, having been given about a year’s preparation, it would be pretty lame not to. The problem is – our non-Christian mates don’t know that! Chances are, they’ll be as comfortable saying no to this ‘weird church event’ as they are saying no to all the others. But it’s important… it’s really important! Phil Allcock at Revive gave a great seminar suggesting, first and foremost, that our lack of evangelism is a lack of faith – if we really believed they’d be punished in Hell for all eternity, then of course we’d say something… just as we would if their house was on fire or they were heading over the edge of a cliff. We don’t. Because it might make us look silly. Which is us saying that looking silly is a worse prospect than is the burning in Hell for all eternity thing…

So what to do? Here are my primary ‘targets’, and where my thinking is at with each. I love them all dearly by the way…

Friend A: Media Guy.

He loves London culture and his freedom within it. Raised in a nominally Christian home, he is currently challenged to examine his beliefs, particularly in preparing to raise a child. Even so, he is against any kind of evangelism or profession of certainty, believing anyone’s views to be equally deserving of respect. He has read Dawkins but was not particularly convinced. Has agreed to read Keller as a counter-balance. Is very aware of the change in me over the past couple of years. Respects it but is frustrated by it too. Would really like me to get good and drunk with him and stop taking this whole ‘religion thing’ so seriously!

APPROACH: I will invite him and his wife to a Passion for Life event and they might well accept. In the meantime I’ll get him the Keller book with a view to follow-up discussion. This is a good time to be chatting this stuff through – the prospect of a baby has led to thoughtfulness and self-examination! The key is finding one-on-one time.

Friend B: Disinterested Guy.

He cannot believe that this world comes from nothing and co-incidence. Coming from an Oxbridge PHD scientist that’s exciting. However, neither can he believe there’s ‘some person in the sky we can talk to’. His firmly stated decision is to not think about it. Has pronounced himself ‘impossible to convert to either side’ and has refused to attend any church event.

APPROACH: Conversation is the key, with the aftermath to games of squash generally giving the opportunity. His stance is one likely to soften with time and life experience – realisation of our mortality must surely make us more likely to consider that which we decide ‘not to think about’ for now. The shutters may be down, but the implied theism of the opening sentence above nonetheless offers hope. He is very unlikely to attend Passion for Life so I have to get the gospel in there myself. At least he knows me well enough that he won’t find it too unexpected or bizarre when it happens. Knowing him he will good-naturedly sigh and roll his eyes…

Friend C: Embittered Guy

Whilst a very open, friendly and accepting chap, experience has made him very ‘anti-religion’. He has in adulthood escaped the cult offshoot of Christianity in which he was raised (y’know, the ones who come to your door!) and is thus reluctant to entertain the notion of returning to any version of that lie that left him so isolated and bullied as a youngster. Has since mid-teenagedom been very sexually active and would struggle with the idea of giving it up for even a week. It sounds trivial but we have to accept that, for many in the world, that prospect is a major stumbling block to even allowing themselves to consider Christianity!

APPROACH: Likes experiencing things, and may well come to a Passion for Life event if located in a pub! He will be there with a closed mind – but then I do believe in the Spirit’s ability to open it. Humanly, it’s hard to envisage.

Friend D: The ‘Prospect’

Raised in a Christian home by still-Christian parents, he knows that it was good for him and would like to raise his own kids in the same way. Is therefore willing to be convinced and is often to be found at church events. Even so, the exciting idea that he is ‘on the verge’ of being converted is just not necessarily true. In reality he doesn’t have faith, despite years of witness from friends and family, despite understanding the gospel intellectually and despite wanting to eventually lead a Christian home. For whatever reason, it’s just not happening.

APPROACH: Keep on trying… keep on being honest. And realise God is patient and so must we be. At some point however, practically speaking, he needs shaking from the comfort zone – perhaps an honest talking to from Perks or the like. Things could very easily go on this way for ever! (Neither is the comfort zone his alone. Whilst he is around I know I can always turn up to things like Passion for Life with a guest…) I’d like to imagine he’ll turn up to something come March.

Friend E: Hedonistic Guy

One problem with our society is that, whilst conversion is often more easily envisaged when people are brought low and desperate, our comfortable middle-class existence doesn’t lend itself easily to desperation! Yet this friend at times seems close to it. With an obsessive, impulsive personality, he is prone to quit job and home at any time to gallivant around the world, craving experience in ‘massage parlours’ and with strange unknown drinking partners. He throws around money and seeks to live life to the fullest. But the loneliness and self-loathing hits him at the most unexpected moments. He is clearly looking for something but is, perhaps for that very reason, is very reluctant to even discuss Christianity. Indeed, things got seriously weird for a while when I challenged him on the subject via e-mail.

APPROACH: I don’t know! I have been open. It was weird. It will be weird again if I raise it again. I know that’s not the worst thing, but I’m of no use to him if he drops out of touch. In reality, my unspoken witness is important. He does see me as different to his other mates and does view that fact positively. Ideally God will use that situation at some point – but I have to live up his estimation by not letting myself down and doing something stupid! I will invite him to a Passion for Life event, but it will be the most difficult invitation I have to extend…

Right, I could go on like this ad infinitum but tell me your thoughts… Any ideas? I do think conversation is the key and there’s no magic bullet. But I’d appreciate any new insight in any of the above cases.

REFLECTIONS ON GUEST ‘WEEK’

1. ON THE BIG ARGUMENT… Gender issues do get people in a pickle. More so than I realised. In hindsight… well I’m not someone whose views are utterly rigid – I’ve been wrong a million times before and I’ll change my mind on plenty of things yet. However, I will continue to look to the Bible for my authority, treating it as God’s relevant and sufficient word. That doesn’t mean I see it as a History textbook or Ikea instruction manual (thankfully, as then it really would be impenetrable), nor that I think context and literary styling should be disregarded in its reading. However I don’t believe we can skip bits, can evolve away from God’s word over time, nor that we can reach a point where we’re confident in disregarding it’s clearly, repeatedly stated principles and instructions. Everything’s there because it’s meant to be – ‘all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ as the old Ishmael song says (OK he may have read 2 Timothy 3…). Above all, I fear the consequences of increasing flexibility on this issue. Major revival, whether courtesy of Luther, the Clapham Sect or Billy Graham, finds inspiration by returning to biblical truth – that which we tend to drift from over time. Gender issues are unlikely to be the thing that scuppers us, but wishy-washy Bible reading has led many away from penal substitution, from the uniqueness of Christ, from preaching Hell and judgement… without these the basic gospel message is lost. As in so many things, seriousness over the ‘little’ issues should keep the ‘big’ ones in line.

2. ON THE LOVE OF ARGUMENT… It is very easy, when discussion breaks out, for an ‘us v them’ mentality to break out, making the tone not entirely dissimilar to that employed in numerous ‘atheist vs theist’ debates online. It was thus good to finish with Simon’s post on unity. I do think the differences matter, but not as much as our shared brotherhood (or sisterhood!) in Christ. We need to get better, in our Christian chat as in our evangelism, at relating things to Christ and the gospel – that which we share if we are truly Christians. This is something I’ve been increasingly convicted of recently. Those of us nominally bracketed as ‘conservative evangelicals’ can talk and think as if we are uniquely blessed with all answers and the ‘best’ approach to everything. This runs the danger of making us Pharisees, looking down on those who can’t so well articulate doctrine or who fall the wrong side of our view on woman preachers, the Alpha course or the Pentecost; whilst overlooking the fact their lives more loudly speak of Jesus – the saviour they love and live for. Let us never be more excited by John Stott’s latest exegesis than we are by Jesus’ death on the cross…

3. ON THE RESPONSE TO THIS PROJECT… The format of this experiment has very much favoured the Monday posts. I must apologise to Brian and Simon whose contributions went up at the end of the week. Monday posts are launched with an e-mail reaching over 100 people. Many of them click the embedded link and quite a buzz is generated. However, without subscribing to the blog via a blog reading tool such as Google Reader (and only 7 people have done that!), few people are compulsively checking back (that is the preserve of he/she with a personal investment in what’s written there) in subsequent days. Thus, by Friday of each week, the hits have been a quarter of what they were four days previous, as reflected by the number of comments. Not sure what the answer is here – there is a limit to how many emails people want to receive rabbiting on about my ultimately inconsequential blog! Can I nevertheless assure those who posted that many more people have read your work than may seem the case (most readers will never post comments). There have been 1,000 hits on the blog (exactly 1,000, as I write this. Weird…) in June thus far – the vast majority of them attributable to this project. There was a wide general awareness of what had been written when our congregation got together at Revive in Portsmouth over the weekend. I hope you feel it was worth your while because I learned from each post and I’m not alone in having done so.

4. WHAT’S NEXT? I will revert to posting my own thoughts on living in the world as a man for God (ie the normal blog). However, things will go quiet in a week or two as my second job as an A Level exam marker kicks in, meaning I work almost every hour of the day and night. If I do post during that time then rebuke me; the few minutes I can spare should be spent catching up with my wife. If I’m writing on here I’m just procrastinating and putting off my responsibilities in an ungodly fashion! Following that, in another attempt to keep things interesting, I will approach a few interesting people in positions of responsibility for a planned series of interviews (digging out my student journalist past!) to post here – looking at the challenges they face, what drives them and the advice they can offer us along the way. Thanks for your support!

Guest ‘Week’ Part 6: UNITING CHURCH

And finally… Unity is not always a word that springs to mind on this website, particularly given some of the recent discussion! In the Co-Mission Initiative the question is often which will happen first – will be abandon Anglicanism or will they throw us out?? With all this in mind, it’s a privilege to end Guest ‘Week’ with an article by my brother-in-law Simon recognising the existence and importance of UNITY in the modern church. It’s not an article I could have written and I’m therefore delighted to post it and think on it. (And apparently there is Part 2 coming soon!)

A seismic change has occurred in the church in Britain over the last thirty years, in particular. You might not have noticed it. It may have crept past you. But I think it might just be the most significant work of God we have seen since the Reformation. 

Sixty years ago, if you went into a Baptist church, the preacher would probably be preaching hell, spiritual gifts had died out 200 years after Christ and adult baptism instead of infant baptism was the most important theme. Anglican churches were sprinkling water on children’s heads and spreading incense and talking about being nice to each other. Pentecostal churches were using lots of spiritual gifts and many were saying if you didn’t speak in tongues, you weren’t a true believer. In many of these churches, sermons would contain put downs to other denominations of Christianity. The vicar (or whatever) would subtly throw in a cuss to another church, “we’re not like that other church round the corner,” and Christian identity was formed not only by what you were but also by what you were not. Your identity existed yes, in Christ, but also in your denomination, what your exact doctrine was, who your pastor (or whatever) was and how you worshipped.  

I’ve spent some time in Italy and found that things, for the most part, are still like this over there, although there are some signs of change. Apart from the Catholic Church there are four main evangelical churches, with four completely opposing sets of doctrine, some of whom do not even recognise each others’ existence as Christian churches. In Siena the four churches would regularly preach against each other: the church which practised spiritual gifts was allegedly demonic; the one which didn’t was apparently missing the Holy Spirit (they might have had the other two prongs of the Godhead). The Valdeseans were “almost Catholic” (a massive insult) and the Pentecostals wore hankies on their heads so were too strict. This made it somewhat uncomfortable for me as I liked to regularly visit all four. I kept all the negative things they said about each other in a little book and made sure I never repeated them when I visited the other churches!  

The seismic shift, which I hope will spread even to Italy from our country is this: we’re losing our denominational boundaries.

It’s not complete yet, and there are still churches opposed to each other. There are still major disputes in the church. But ask yourself this… can you recognise a Baptist/Anglican/Charismatic/Methodist church any more? There are Baptist churches which practise spiritual gifts, Anglican churches that baptise, Methodist churches that preach a powerful gospel and Charismatic churches that don’t mind if you don’t speak in tongues and would actually quite like things to be done a bit more formally and efficiently!  

I frequent an Anglican church that baptises adults, believes in spiritual gifts and preaches the gospel every week from the Bible. Unthinkable even twenty years ago! (I was taught to mistrust churches with pews and spires when I became a Christian in a school hall church).

A lot of credit has to be given to the Alpha course and other cross-church initiatives which, I believe, are doing the work of God and unifying his church. A post-modern belief that knowing God is more important than knowing things about him, that loving people is more important than understanding and that there is no invalid way of worshipping God, is the packaging for the new consensus. And it seems that perhaps people are finally beginning to see that God is big enough and broad enough to meet all kinds of worshippers exactly where they are, as long as they worship with their hearts. 

Its hard to overstate the extent of this change in just a couple of decades. The rise of the non-denominational Christian is a 21st Century thing; the believer who would rather not subscribe to an exacting set of beliefs or doctrines; who would rather not be an Episcopalian or a Lutheran, but who wants to be counted as a Jesus follower, a God-botherer, a disciple no matter where he worships and serves. This Christian knows that some believers might find one day more holy that another or find some food unclean (1 Corinthians 11), but knows he has freedom in Christ to worship without those burdens.

Inside churches things are changing too: There are very few people these days, who would condemn the use of spiritual gifts and healing. At the same time, there are very few churches now who madly try to invoke the Holy Spirit every meeting and force people to speak in tongues or fall over.

The vast majority of churches follow the doctrine of adult baptism by immersion and christening kids seems to be dying out.

Most churches believe in the truth of God-inspired scripture. There seems to be an agreement across churches on all kinds of things that once divided them. Of course this is not the reality for all churches, there are still disagreements on some non-crucial aspects of the faith, such as what to do believe about homosexuality, but looking at the broader picture of what is happening across the country, its hard not to be impressed by the similarity of Christian doctrine across the country compared to sixty years ago. A new national consensus about key doctrines of faith seems to be forming. And this can only be good news, because there is only one church, one body and one baptism. We haven’t yet seen true unity across the British church, but God has done a pretty huge work in us and broken down a great number of barriers, to enable his Church to be more like what he intended it to be. The future of the Church is service.

Guest ‘Week’ 5: SERVICE IS GREATNESS

Well, it’s certainly been lively… and there is but a short while left before Guest ‘Week’ ends and you’re left with only me. However, not yet! Because here’s Tom with an honest and Bible-fired challenge to us and to himself. To serve and to value service…

First up thanks must go to Andy for the invite to guest on his blog. The only reason I have gone for it is the readership I know he has. I would be keen to have feedback from people, as this blog post is more like the start of a conversation down the pub than a grand proclamation. This doesn’t mean I haven’t thought through what I am about to say!  I am not the most logical thinker and seem to have quite a staccato writing style. It will make more sense if read alongside Mark 10 v35-45. I am not going to quote the passage throughout this post as it is not intended to be a bible exposition. 

Over the last few weeks I have been dwelling on a passage from Mark 10 v35-45. I should be open; I have used Paul Barnett’s The Servant King alongside reading the bible. I am often like James and John, there is so much that revolves around me, I want to be first! (v37) In this passage Jesus recognises this is how the world operates but not in his kingdom (v43-44).

I have recently become aware that I respect those who have served me, this has been a voluntary reaction, it is not like I have been forced by some organisational chain of command.

So what am I going to doing with this? I am working on how I measure greatness. My assessments of people, life and achievement are often done by status cues, for me personally this is not necessarily the obvious. As in we are not necessarily going to agree on what we deem cool. In fact the word cool is not exactly cool anymore (try nang). An awful lot of my life is about preserving my status, this is not necessarily just about obvious materialism if anything I can tend to be slightly inverted in this respect.

Either way I so often get suckered into a view or way of living that does not see service as great or even cool.

I am learning to be intentional in service of others and make sure it happens. This is with the church and those outside the church. I want to build up the church and not just make it all about my own spiritual development. Jesus was intentional in his service and was trying to get the disciples to understand why he was going to Jerusalem, the cross and his death. 

I remember when studying this passage in Mark in Knowing God, Chapter 10 v35-45 became my favourite passage because I understood how Jesus is my ransom, this bolstered my confidence in Christ.  I gained a fresh appreciation of how Jesus Christ has served me. It is possible to forget or abandon this as christians but Jesus serves in a way no-one else can. I have a simple prayer that I need to repeat Lord Jesus please work in me to serve others and be willing to come in last.