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Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Discipleship in the Modern World

I will never forget the conversation.

A pastor I greatly admire was "complaining" to me that a young convert was wanting to spend time with him. That pastor had more important things to do with his time than hanging out with a young convert!

This good pastor believed that what a young Christian needed was to "come to the meetings." Twice on Sunday and once midweek - and this was all that was required of a young believer to grow into spiritual maturity.

Where on earth did this strange - and profoundly wrong -  idea come from?

From the Academy - the secular learning institution which dominates and shapes all modes of training-thinking....

The "Academic Model"
Image result for university class roomIn just the same way that we might train a historian or philosopher - stick them in a classroom and lecture to them, so we train our young believers - expect them to come to "lectures" each week.

The Academic Model has affected the church for centuries. How was the pastor trained? Aping the world, he spent endless hours in a classroom, listening to "experts" give him lectures on "Church History", "Hermeneutics" and "Systematic Theology" and he thinks that this is what all young converts need.

The pastor then becomes the expert, and the people are the students. That's it. 

This "Academic Model" often extends its influence to the rest of the week. Pastors who adopt it tend to hold "surgeries" where their "clients" / "students" can come and chat to them about their problems for an hour or so. Inviting a fellow believer into your home just for a chat or a coffee or a meal would be unthinkable: much too informal, too equal, too relaxed.

Image result for disciplesHow very different, the example and model of Jesus and his disciples!

The Jesus Model
The  model Jesus set could not be more different. Jesus did life with his twelve disciples, day in and day out, outside life, inside life, eating life, walking life - the whole of life. He taught them sometimes formally - sermon on the mount / sermon on the plain - and many times informally when an issue came up. When they lacked faith - best time to teach them about faith; when they lacked humility - best time to teach them about humility; when they lacked forgiveness - best time to teach them about humility, and so on.

They not only learnt from his words, they learnt form his life. He was close enough to them so they could see how he dealt with arrogant Pharisees, seeking Pharisees, the bereaved, idol-worshippers, errant women, and so on.

Why the Academic Model doesn't work - especially today
Perhaps - just perhaps - back in the 50s in the UK, when most folk knew what was wrong and what was right because of the heritage of Christianity in the culture - churches could get away with the Academic model. Perhaps.

No longer. Today, folk coming in from the world have no idea how to live for Christ. A couple of lectures a week will never ever suffice. What they need is the virtually-daily contact with more mature believers who can show by life as much as word what it means to follow Christ.

How many hours did Jesus spend with his disciples per week? 20? 30? And we wonder why we have so little impact on the world? 

The implications of the Jesus Discipleship Model
The implications of the discipleship model are far-reaching: Those who wish to disciple the world must be prepared to spend much time with new followers of Jesus. Sunday and Midweek is just not enough.

They must be self-sacrificing about Sundays and Midweeks, though. After saying that Sunday and Midweek Home Groups are not enough, I now say they are vital. Young believers understand so little of divine truth. They must spend as much time as they can listening to the Word. So we who disciple must be prepared to be sacrificial about Sundays and Midweeks if we want young believers to come along.

We live in a culture where evenings and weekends are regarded as playtime. If older Christians are away every other Sunday or every other homegroup so will the baby Christians (by example) and they will therefore not receive the teaching they need.

Jesus' last command needs our first attention. When Jesus said "Make disciples of all nations" he did not mean tell them to come to church. He meant spend lots and lots and lots of time with them, teaching and exampling Christ to them - just as he had done.

Only in this way will the world be won for Christ and true disciples formed.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Why Preachers Should be Readers

"When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments." (2 Timothy 4:13)

Preachers do not have to be readers....
As far as I know, apart from the verse above, there is no command in Scriptures for preachers to be "readers." By "readers" I mean people who read many different kinds of books. 

All preachers must be readers of The Book, the Scriptures. There is no short-cut or excuse or cop-out on this one. Preachers must know the whole counsel of God in order to preach it. So we must be in the Word, systematically, Old Testament, New Testament, law, poetry, prophecy, Gospel, letter.... 

...but preachers are helped by being readers
But are there good reasons why preachers should also read widely - and now I mean reading outside of Scripture?

One could, I guess, amass a wide knowledge of the world by reading posts on the Internet, watching movies, listening to people, visiting places, listening to music, and so on..... Yes, this could be the "reading" a preacher commits to. But in addition to learning about the world through these means, learning from books does the following for the preacher... 


1. Reading books fills up the well
Preachers will soon run dry if they do not read widely. Preaching regularly is like drawing out of a well - and you can only draw out what you put in. 

2. Reading widens your understanding of life-circumstances
You are only, say, male, middle-class, white, western. But you will be preaching to people from a multitude of backgrounds - reading about their lives is immensely valuable and provides illustrations that a "farmer", "tinker" or "sailor" will immediately tune into.

3. Reading books widens your understanding of your place in history
Again, you live / have lived only in a tiny say 100-year span of world history.  Those times have shaped so much about you. But perhaps the age you were born into is a comfortable age? That will for sure affect your interpretation of Scripture - believe me or not. It is helpful to read the lives and commentaries of Christians who lived through difficult times and whose writings are almost always far more enduring. One of my biggest complaints about writers like Tom Wright is that they write from the comfort of a Western scholastic tradition - and boy does it show. My guess is that much of the work of these "armchair scholars" will be forgotten before they pass away.

4. Reading corrects you
I'm talking commentaries now. When you read 5 or 6 commentaries on a given passage of Scripture you are privileged to sit in the room of 5 or 6 teachers - which God has given to the Church (in most cases).  I have often sat at the feet of Calvin, Wiersbe, Spurgeon, Keil and Delitszh and other mighty men who though (some are) dead still speak. And you soon realise that your first-pass exegesis needs correcting. Suppose you preached that sermon without ever consulting other writers? (We won't use that horrible title "scholars").

5. Reading informs you about the age you live in
We in particular live in a fast-changing society.  Reading contemporary books helps us to understand the world we live in. 

6. Reading books forces you out of your comfort zone
If you read books you totally disagree with, or books the style of which you dislike, you learn to stretch yourself where you might not ordinarily be stretched. Perhaps you love fiction, well force yourself to read fact. Perhaps you love fact, read fiction (preacher heal thyself).

On my humble journey as an ordinary preacher, now for 30 years, here is what I have learnt about reading books...

1. Read widely
I mean by this, avoid the temptation to read what you always read. In the end we are all in "traditions". And if we are not careful instead of helping us, our reading could merely confirm our prejudices!

2. Read daily/weekly/regularly
It's generally easier to read a little every day than alot on one day - unless you are the bookworm type.

3. Read balanced-ly
Not a word, but you know what I mean. Read biography, read devotional, read history, read sciency, read new, read old - all in one big cycle. Not a good idea to read one year poetry followed  by one year history... Can you imagine your preaching when it comes to the year of science? Or, worse, in the year of poems? Perish the thought!

4. Read selectively
Best not to read the "must reads" pushed at all the conferences. Let time sort out the books. The best ones will be reprinted in a couple of years; the rest - yes and that's most of them folks - will be soon gone and forgotten.

5. Read wisely 
Why read a 700 page biography of Stalin, when there's a well-reviewed 100-page one available. Your time is precious. Believe me, I've learned the hard way.

6. Read outside your comfort zone
I've said it before. Read outside your comfort/tradition zone. Read Charles Finney, read the Anabaptists (without reformed prejudice), read the Charismatics - you can see where my comfort zone lines lie.

7. Read with a pencil
I mark all my books. Then I write up a short review. Then I write a summary of the 1-3 main points I have learned from the book: how have the thoughts of this writer contributed to my worldview? What illustrations do I take from the book?  Without a pencil, it doesn't stick with me. 

So what am I reading today, by way of example? I have lots and lots of books "on the go" including the following:

  1. The Great Leveller (written by an unbeliever about the history of economic differences between the rich and the poor - shocking observation, the reformation does not seem to have had any great impact on income inequality...)
  2. Man and His Symbols - Carl Jung. Trying to understand Jordan Peterson.
  3. I will pour out my Spirit - I'm preaching a series on the Holy Spirit (tons more books on the work of the Spirit) 
  4. Madness - Roy Porter
  5. A deeper Understanding (CD)  - by the band A War on Drugs 
  6. Institutes - John Calvin, new translation by BOT - worth every penny
  7. The Rise and fall of Modern Medicine - James Le Fanu - hunting for illustrations - how about this one about repentance (meta-noia, change of mind), "The history of modern medicine begins sometime in the 1830s when a few courageous physicians acknowledged that virtually everything they did... was useless." (page 11) 
Preachers who do not "read" could easily end up preaching the same sermons every week - from any passage they preach on. But Jesus says that there ought to be new treasures in the storeroom:

"Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."(Matthew 13:52)

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Voting to Kill - the Irish Abortion Result

A remarkable result
Last Friday Ireland decided to set in motion wheels which will undoubtedly lead to the legalisation of abortion in that country, soon. Turnout was 64% with 66% of the turnout voting for abortion and 34% against.

The result was a triumph for a propaganda crusade and a tragedy for millions of people who will now be silently massacred in the one place a human being should feel most secure - the womb.

The stark biological fact is that when sperm and egg come together in the womb, from that moment onwards an independent human life begins, distinct from both parents and connected to the mother only by virtue of the fact that it requires warmth, space to grow, nourishment and protection.

What on earth happened in Ireland?

Did Ireland revolt against false religion? 
That is one real possibility. Ireland is mostly Roman Catholic and this makes the vote even more remarkable since the Catholic church to its credit is staunchly against abortion. Did all the recent scandals in the church result in weakened authority and rejected dogmas?

Was Ireland bamboozled by hard cases?
Hard cases make bad law. I heard of one case where the mother had cancer but was not allowed any treatment because she was carrying an unborn child - the commentator was enraged that the life of the child was put at a higher value than the life of the mother. These sorts of cases are incredibly rare and painfully difficult: in them, all involved should view whatever happens as a rescue mission. If two people are drowning and only one can be rescued, the other is not being killed, just one is being rescued - which is better than none being rescued. Such rescue is not to be called abortion at all, should the life of the  mother be the chosen option.

But in the case above, why wouldn't the mother freely give up her life - or perhaps a foreshortened length of life - for the sake of her precious child?

Was Ireland duped into believing false politically correct slogans?
One of these slogans was "Our Bodies, our right to Decide." On the surface it looks persuasive and conclusive. But a baby is not part of a mother, it is a completely separate living identity relying on the mother for nutrients, warmth, etc - no differently dependent than after it is born. A baby is not a wart or carbuncle, a baby is as human as any living person. Women should indeed have the right to decide about parts of their bodies such as warts and carbuncles, but not the right to decide about a totally and utterly separate human being, who by virtue of the course biology takes happens to be living inside them when it begins its precious journey of life.

Did the slogan "Equal Rights" win the day? 
On the surface it again sounds superficially persuasive: a mother's rights should be equal to a baby's rights. Until you unpack what that means. It means the mother's rights to kill her baby should be the same as the child's rights to live. The equation is somewhat unbalanced when examined in detail. How can "the right to kill someone" be made equivalent to "the right to live"?

The clever use of words?
Another tactic was the use of words. In the debate the Yesers never use the term "baby" but resort to the word "fetus." They use the word "termination" instead of the word "kill".  Psychologically this allows them to say and believe things that no one with a conscience could ever say or believe, such is the power of words.

Was it a loss of conscience? 
We live in world which has lost its moral compass. And yet there are everywhere flickers of what should be. In the same hospitals where surgeons cooly tear babies apart to remove them from the womb, parents fight tooth and nail with those same hospital authorities for their little baby to be taken to another country for specialised treatment. In the one case the parents know that human life is infinitely precious, in the other, they suppress their God-given consciences and set about to murder.

A nation with a hard heart
Perhaps most tragically of all, the vote last Friday revealed a nation with a hard heart. When Lord Shaftesbury was trying to prevent chimney boys going up the chimneys of England to clean them out, risking their lives every time,  housewives were up in arms. They had become so accustomed to their chimneys being cleaned this way, so upset that this convenient tradition would come to an end, that they opposed the bill.

It is tragically possible to develop a hard heart which no longer is able to feel for the pain of a fellow human being.

The tragedy
Since David Steel's 1967 abortion bill, more than 8 million children have been killed before they were able to see the light of day. Hitler "only" killed 6 million Jews. The comparison is outrageous someone says. Yes indeed it is: in one case it was the killing of men and women and children who theoretically could have fought back - and occasionally did. In the other case it is the murder of children who have no strength to fight back, no voice and no name.

It is nothing short of rank hypocrisy to call our nation "more civilised" than Hitler's Germany, when the murder of abortion is allowed, and of all places, allowed in our hospitals.

Lord, have mercy upon us. It is only the Gospel that can save a people. Only the Gospel that opens closed eyes and softens hard hearts. Our task is to preach it with greater passion and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Does the Bible Condemn Slavery?

A common objection
A common objection to Christianity is that the Bible does not condemn slavery. This shows, so the allegation goes, that the Bible is not a trustworthy guide to moral issues.
Roman slavery was not white-on-black

The surface of things
On the surface this allegation seems to carry weight. The apostle Paul encourages slaves to obey their masters - not to revolt. And he tells masters to care for their slaves - not release them. On one occasion he sent a newly converted run-away slave, Onesimus, back to his master, and encouraged his owner, Philemon, to receive him back - not to release him.

How do we explain this attitude to slavery?

The setting - Roman slavery
Around 30-40% of the Roman Empire, by some estimates, were slaves. Slavery in the first century was not white-on-black slavery. Anyone could end up a slave. You could become a slave through war, as the bounty of war. You could make yourself a slave to escape poverty - in which case slavery was the only option for living.

Slavery was part of the social setting and economy of the Roman Empire. If the preachers of the Gospel had preached "end slavery" they would have initiated a revolution that could have taken the lives of countless thousands, if not millions. After Spartacus unsuccessfully rebelled against the empire, 6000 slave-rebels were crucified as Rome's way of saying to slaves "Don't rebel". Encouraging a revolt would have stained the Gospel with the blood of a thousand slain.

Furthermore, the Gospel's primary purpose and message is not to change a man's outward circumstances but to put him or her right with God. The Social Gospel and the Liberation Gospel are both great distortions of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not that the Gospel in unconcerned about social issues, it's rather that Kingdom issues come first - and when they do, practical solutions to social issues follow.

The Gospel's instructions to believing slaves and masters would instantly end all the abuses of slavery and lead to harmonious and redeem the institution from the inside out. If Christian masters and slaves obeyed the apostle Paul, the slave-master relationships would become a friendly partnership and may even lead to freedom.

After saying that, the Gospel sowed all the seeds of slavery's ultimate demise.

Three seeds of Slavery's Destruction
(1) The Gospel rubbished words like "slavery" by using them to describe our old lives under Satan's power. No longer could those words be used in a positive way. And words like "freedom" were exalted by using them to describe a believer's new freedom from death and hell and sin and Satan.

(2) The Gospel raised the standing of all people, by insisting all human beings were made in the image of God. In fact one of the very first known sermons against slavery, preached by a Gregory of Nissa, sometime at the end of the 300s took up this very theme and rebuked those who bought and sold people made in the infinitely precious image of God.

(3) The Gospel taught that in Christ there is no slave or free. The Gospel taught that everyone who comes to Christ is on the same plane in God's eyes, all are his children. "In Christ there is no slave nor free."

Plant an acorn one metre away...
In the fullness of time, William Wilberforce, a Christian MP led the charge against slavery until the time came when from the early 1800s slavery was universally and forever regarded as an evil.

There are two ways to bring down a house of evil. Use a wrecking ball and JCB or plant an acorn one metre from the foundations.

The gentle Gospel chose the latter path rather than the former. The Gospel Oak spread out roots which utterly and totally destroyed the institution of slavery.