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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Bewitched By Letters (or Seduced by Degrees)

A Tale from the East
When I was a young lad, living in the East, one of the tasks my dad gave me to do was to stick address labels onto hundreds (it seemed like thousands) of envelopes which contained tracts to be sent out to an Eastern country. It's funny what children remember. I can remember two things. First, that our reward was a bottle of Fanta (a rare treat in my boyhood).  Second, how many of the addressees insisted we put letters after their names. Mr Abcde BA BSc, Mrs Fghjkl  Dip. Ed, Dr Mnopqrs PhD.

It was a way of these people gaining respect and standing in their community - if only from the postman.

In the West, we are equally bewitched by letters, education and knowledge. There is no difference in this attitude between the world and the church. Browse the websites of Bible Colleges (even the ones you might think would beat to a different drum) and all you will find is a list of the lecturers' degrees, papers and publications.

I sometimes wonder whether the unlettered Jesus would be permitted anywhere near these places - he certainly wouldn't be allowed to teach (unqualified you see). 

Why does it matter?
There is a triple tragedy in this obsession with secular qualifications. First, secular qualifications are completely irrelevant to the work of the ministry. Nowhere in the New Testament is formal education at a Bible College a requirement to serve in the greatest Kingdom of the world. I have personally yet to find any New Testament connection between a woman or a man's secular qualifications and his or her ability,  suitability or fruitfulness to serve in the Kingdom of Christ.

Second, knowledge puffeth up. People with qualifications are prone to pride - I mean they know more stuff. Why set someone up for temptation and even a fall by giving them letters after their name?

A Warning to the West
But thirdly, across this love - this worship - of education, error can pass unnoticed. If someone has great education we can easily honour them - even if they don't preach the truth.

This is what urges me to write this blog.

I recently came across two examples of premier evangelical colleges, one in the northern and one in the southern hemisphere extolling the writings of NT Wright, who has been the gateway of liberal theology into the Evangelical world. Why should evangelicals become fans of someone who sidelines the cross of Christ? What's the attraction of this new and different gospel?

Well, The Revd Professor Dr Tom Wright is a very educated man, of course, don't you see?

And for some silly Evangelicals all you need is a few initials before or after a name, be the author of some tome, and bingo, the man is a superstar.

We need to get back to the NT where nothing but character and the gifting of the Spirit matters in our appraisal of men. Instead of viewing people 'after the flesh' we then shall view them as they are, mere servants of Christ. And then, too, we won't be seduced by meaningless and worthless human qualifications.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Emerging Church (1) What is Emerging Church?

The next few blogs....
In the next few blogs I plan to highlight  the direction (and in some cases, final destination) of the loosely called Emerging Churches. The reasons for these blogs are: First, many emerging church leaders have come from evangelical backgrounds - I want to explain why. Second, the signs are that many in emerging churches are fast departing from the Gospel; we need to be warned. Third, no question, there are things we can learn from the movement.

What is emerging church (EC?)
Emerging Church is a loose affiliation of western church leaders who believe that the way church has been done in the last few centuries needs a radical overhaul. Why? Because, they argue, we live in a very different world: a postmodern world. The old ways of doing church were formulated, so goes the argument, under modernism which was the dominant (western) world-view back then. We have to re-do church under the new dominant (western) world-view which is postmodernism.

At first sight this all sounds good - we are called to be all things to all men; we are called to preach the timeless Gospel to an ever-changing world. We are convinced that the church that weds itself to any world-view will become a widow when that worldview dies.

We have no problem "re-doing church" every ten years, or as often as the changing culture demands....

....if only that was what EC was about.

But tragically there are many in the EC movement who have gone much further than merely contextualising the gospel for a postmodern age - they have capitulated to the postmodern age and become for all practical purposes postmodernists: that will be my claim. 

What is Modernism? What is Postmodernism?
Tons of debates on descriptions of both, but the essences of neither are disputed. The history of the Western world (or at least western philosophy) can be divided into three eras, or so the story goes.....

First, we have the Pre-modern which is from day zero to lets say 1700. The poor old pre-moderns: irrational, emotional and willing to believe every Tom, Dick and Harry! Poor pre-moderns thought that they could find truth by divine revelation.

The Enlightenment (1500-1800) becomes the marker for the next era called Modernism. (In some of my previous blogs I describe The Enlightenment and suggest that it should be called The Darkening, because that is what it did to human thinking). In modernism the Mind is King. Reason is everything. Unless something can be proven with human logic it isn't true or worth talking about. Out goes emotion, poetry, stories; in comes objective reasoning and cold ruthless logic.  The idea is born that human beings, (now so confident of their minds) can arrive at timeless truth The (only) surviving child of the Enlightenment is science.

And then, as is always the case, there was a great revolt against the previous thought system and in came Postmodernism, dated somewhere in the 1970s.  PoMo, a rebellion not against human reason but against the confidence placed in human reason and the imprisonment of human beings in a box of human rationality, began to question the proud claims of modernists: can you really find capital T truth using your fancy methods? Isn't truth more subjective than that, your truth versus their truth, especially since there are so many competing truth claims? Haven't  many wars been fought because one camp saying they have "The Truth" have gone to war against another camp who didn't? If you tell me you have capital T truth, you are just playing power games with me: one-upmanship.

Good and bad things about all worldviews
No worldview is 100% right, none 100% wrong. Being constructed by flawed human beings they all have their minuses as well as their pluses. The good thing about modernism is that it insists on the use of our God-given minds and says that truth can be found. The bad side of modernism is that it puts too much confidence in the ability of the mind and ignores all other routes to truth. For example, one reason people come to faith in Christ is that they see God's love at work in a community and know this must be from above. Then the Holy Spirit convicts them of sin inwardly. If you were to ask them how they came to Christ, how they knew Christ was the Way, Truth and Life, they would mention the mind as one way of knowing, but not the only way of being convinced. They would say they felt God's love from his people and experienced the powerful work of God's Spirit. Modernism's insistence on the mind as the only way of knowing, is reductionist - and dangerous. A church unduly infected with modernism will be all reason and no emotion.

And the same is true about postmodernism. It rightly insists that truth is at least in part shaped by communities (just consider the different emphases found in Christian denominations such as pentecostalists and reformed). It rightly suspects powerplays behind claims to Truth. It rightly doubts the human mind's ability to arrive at Truth. Where it goes wrong is to argue that because so often truth is shaped by community, it is always shaped by community. Just because so much of what passes for Truth is just truth, it doesn't follow that all of it is truth.

Both systems are flawed: it is fatal to buy into any world system.

Perhaps many churches did buy into modernism. For sure, today, many churches are buying into postmodernism. But that's a story for another blogging day.....

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Courage And Fear Can Go Together

Fear and Courage
When God calls us to some new work or venture for him, fear and doubt are natural. But that doesn't mean we can't be courageous as well as fearful.

Courage and fear are not the opposites they look like at first sight: we may think that a courageous man would not be fearful and a fearful woman could not be courageous. 

Fear and courage are friends.

The example of Gideon
Gideon is a great example of Fear and Courage working side by side. God called Gideon to impossible tasks. First, to destroy the idols in his own village and second to deliver Israel from the hand of the Midianites with a military imbalance  of 32,000 vs 135,000 men (which would eventually descend to a laughable 300 vs 135,000). Gideon was fearful of undertaking these great tasks.

By nature he was timid - the result of personality and true humility. But he gets on with the task anyway.

Those who are naturally timid need to be mindful of the depressive dangers of timidity. We find Gideon responding to God's call to defeat the Midianites in the depressed tones of self-doubt: "My clan is the weakest in Manasseh and I am the least in my family" (6:15) (read "I'm rubbish". Oh Dear!)

God knows our fears and makes allowances for them
But God knew and loved Gideon! God knew that though he was a brilliant warrior, he had a real tendency to fear and self-doubt. And more wonderfully still, God took this weakness into account. God called Gideon a "mighty warrior" (6:12)  and told him to fight with the strength he had (6:14) - this must have been a great comfort to Gideon, to know what God thought of his gifts, even though he thought little of them. Then God reassured him that he was with him (6:12,16) and was sending him (6:14).

God even makes provision for our fears!
Most comforting of all for a timid soul, God met Gideon's need for confirmation. God gave him a fiery sign that it was the Lord commissioning him (6:21), and twice performed a miracle on a fleece (6:36-40). Even more than that, God actually created a special sign for his timid servant - without Gideon's request. God told him that if he was fearful (he didn't have to take up this sign), he could go down to the Midianite camp where he would hear a message that would fortify his heart! And you guessed it, Gideon took up the sign!

This is wonderful care for a fearful soul.

Fear did not prevent Gideon accomplishing the mighty things he was called to do. Courageously in fear he went into battle and defeated the enemy.  Fear need not prevent us from fulfilling our calling for the Lord. 

And so to You....
What is God calling you to do? Is your heart fearful? Do you wonder if you have it in us? Do you wonder if God is calling the right person? None of these questions and emotions are unusual. God knows our fears and instead of despising us for them, he gently encourages us on to obedience.

The important thing is not our emotions, doubts or fears, but our resolution, God helping us, to obey him.