Search This Blog

Friday, 20 December 2013

What shall we think of Christmas?

First memories
My first memories of Christmas had nothing to do with presents or trees, we had none of either. Instead it is the memory of an enormous nativity pageant running across a park in Karachi, Pakistan, with real camels and real hills and a star which ran on an invisible wire across the sky, and most of all the hauntingly beautiful and worshipful words of "O Holy Night" urging us to fall on our knees and worship.....

Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt His worth

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine, oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine, oh night, oh night divine

 Since then, of course I've grown up, a little in age and a little in understanding too. Here's what I think now.

A matter of Christian conscience
Nowhere in Scripture are we encouraged to celebrate Christmas, Easter or any other festival, so if someone wants to back out of these for reasons of conscience, no issue should be taken with them. For myself, if I didn't have children, wasn't married and wasn't a pastor, I could quite happily spend those days in seclusion, away from the maddening crowd.

A matter of Western tradition
But Christmas is built into our western tradition. It is no longer associated with any of the pagan festivals it
replaced, so it is theologically-neutral and no different from celebrating the FA Cup Final, the Ashes, the Proms, or any other cultural event. It's now simply a western tradition, like Cheese Rolling: In December people put up trees, send cards, buy presents, eat a large meal with family. That's it. 

There is nothing wrong with cultural traditions that are theologically-neutral, and to jump out of them is to invent yet another tradition (the new tradition: "I don't do Christmas".) Not to celebrate is just as traditional as celebrating. 

Human nature needs seasons of celebration
There is something about human nature that needs seasons. Just as God has built into the year beautiful seasons of change, so we humans seem to need seasons. It would be a boring year without repeating annual events. So in the Old Testament God instituted for his people annual feasts, which provided wonderful opportunities for people to meet. Perhaps our need of seasons of celebration is an echo of the Garden and a hope for heaven.

So if it wasn't 'Christmas' it would be something else, and most likely something far worse....

I think there is a good case to be made for how the nativity story, still at the heart of western Christmas celebrations, has saved our culture from worse debauchery than it presently revels in. If our culture still reveled in the pagan festivals Christmas replaced; if there was no salting influence of the story of the incarnation, I wonder how much worse would be the drunken debauchery of this season.

A time for rest
In our hectic western lifestyles, it is wonderful to have a period of a few days when you know you can rest from your labours, spend time with relatives and family and with the Lord's people. What can be wrong with rest?

And the spiritual significance?
If I am honest Christmas means nothing to me spiritually. I do not particularly reflect on the incarnation more than at other times of the year. I love the rich theology of the carol-hymns, but it is not a spiritual 'high' for me. That doesn't mean it couldn't have deep meaning for other Christians, but for me, I don't feel anything.

I do think, however, as a pastor, that holding Carol Services and Christmas Day services is important. First these things say to our neighborhoods that we are not a wacky bunch of Christians. The unconverted frankly can't get their heads round a church that won't remember the birth of their Saviour, and my guess is that such an act would simply lump us, in their minds, with the JWs and every other weird cult. Second, it provides a wonderful opportunity to gently share the Good News with people who otherwise would never hear anything of the love of God for sinners.
So while I try to distance myself from most of Christmas' madness and excess, I thank God for the rest we can enjoy at this season, and I thank God I live in a culture whose mid-winter festival has been salted with the Good News of a Saviour born to save his people from their sins.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Can God Change?

The opportunity to explore
I am glad we live in an age where we are allowed to ask questions without having our heads cut off, or being excommunicated by the theological thought police. It's one of the many advantages of living in a post-modern world. (Don't get me wrong, there are more disadvantages than advantages).

In a bygone age, if you began to explore something (and every exploration begins by asking questions that can be misunderstood in and of themselves) you had to do it in secret lest you were branded a heretic and lost ye head before ye had a chance to reach a mature understanding. 

Did God change with the Incarnation?
The question I want to ask is Can God change? And in particular did he change with the Incarnation? Actually, it's a smaller question, I'm interested in. Can we say that God acquired experiential understanding and empathy with us humans by the Son of God being born as a man? I mean, while the God who knows all things, knew what we pass through as human beings before the Son of God came to earth, was that knowledge more theoretical before the incarnation and more experiential afterwards?

Can we say that since the incarnation, God understands our human plight in a way he did not before?

The reason some people might not like this is because it implies change in God, and God is, in the language of the theologians impassible (without passions [old word for emotions], without the ability to change. If he was to change, goes the argument, then he would be a different God after the change than before, and that's impossible. Why is it impossible? Two reasons, The first is Scriptural -Malachi 3:6 says "I the Lord do not change", The second is human logic, particularly from the Greeks, which states that God cannot change).

Why God is impassible, according to the theologians
The earliest theologians said God could not change for at least three reasons. (1) They were wanting to protect God from being likened to all the Greek and Roman gods who were just blown up human monsters. So God, they argued could not change as we change. They wanted to protect God from human sinful passions, and in that they were absolutely right. (2) The Scriptures make it clear that God does not change, "I the Lord do not change" (Malachi 3:6), but we need to explore what that means. Certainly God does not change in his character and promises, but that does not mean he cannot feel emotions. The Bibles says he is angry and that he laughs (Psalm 2). (3) Human logic. The Greeks thought that everything above the earth was perfect and unchangeable (for that reason they hindered astronomy for ages, the orbits of the planets are ellipses, not perfect circles for example), and there is a tendency to follow the Greeks (=follow human logic) and tie God up if you don't understand him. So, if the Bible says God cannot change and the Bible also says God can be angry (which surely implies a temporary change from non-anger to anger) it's safer to say "God cannot change" than to allow any ambiguity. We want to tie God down to our understanding. Dangerous?

Change can co-exist with no-change
But surely we can accommodate both change and no change.  No change in his character and promises, but change in the sense of angry/not angry. An illustration might help....

DC + AC?
There are two kinds of current, direct (dc)  and alternating (ac). And you can add them together. When you do, you always have the stable dc part there, never changing. But superimposed upon it is an alternating current which does change. Change and no change happily coexist.

God could be unchanging and changing at the same time. 

And surely the incarnation implies some kind of change in God. For before the incarnation God did not have a human nature, but afterwards the Son did. In the words of an old theologian, "He continued to be what he always was and became what he was not." That is somewhere in the "change" spectrum, surely.

So back to the question, Did God change with the Incarnation?
Does God understand us better now than he did before the incarnation?  I would argue "yes". Because we were made in the image of God, all the emotions we have are pale reflections of God's emotions, so God did not have to add an understanding of emotions to his experiential knowledge. But since Jesus came into a broken sinful painful world as a man, he experienced things such as physical temptations (turn those stones into bread) and physical pain, that God had never experienced before. And indeed that is exactly why he came into the world, to live our life, carry our sorrows, and ultimately to die our death.

Does it really matter if the Son of God coming to earth is 'change' or 'not change'? We can put it in the mystery category and simply rejoice that in heaven we now have a great high priest who is able to sympathize with us because he has been tempted as we are yet without sin. We can come to God's throne of grace with confidence knowing that our Great High Priest understands our plight and longs to pour out his grace and help.

In the end, as with so many of these 'debates' it is not really about head stuff, it's about simple heart stuff: because Jesus understands our sorrows we can go - even boldly! - to him in prayer.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Profound Influence of the Doctrine of the Trinity

The Foundational Doctrine - What is God Like?
There is hardly any truth (doctrine) that influences a man's religion, more than the answer to the question, "What is your God like?" Everything springs from your answer, absolutely everything. If your God is harsh, so will you be, if he is loving so the worshiper.  The inspired prophets of the OT understood this and hence their constant rebuking of the nation of Israel for running after false gods. This is how the Psalmist descirbed the similarity of a worshiper to his or her 'god' Psalm 115:

Their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands.   
Those who make them will be like them 
      and so will all who trust in them.

The Trinity
Christians worship a Triune God and that truth shapes everything about their faith. God has revealed himself as Three Persons who are God in themselves and yet who dwell in perfect unity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here it is in three steps (no theological pun intended):

There is One God. 
There are Three who are God
Yet there are not "three gods" for the Three are One

The finest simple explanation available is The Trinity by Stuart Olyott. Somehow the One God unfolds into three different Persons who all relate to one another in eternal love.

 Out of this wonderful high and Glorious Mystery flow numerous implications - here are some of them:

 Life Changing Implications of the Trinity
(1) The only way to come to God is by faith. Since God is transcendent, not only in his being (we can't understand the Trinity), but also in his works, his ways and his thoughts, we do not approach God as we do any one or anything else.  These we can understand, they are below us, we might expect to have some dominance or control over them. We are the observer, they the subject. But God is above us, and the only way to approach him is by simple Faith, as a little child approaches his or her parent. There is no access to God through proud reason.

Apply - if you want to approach God, you have to humble yourself before his majesty right at the start. For our walk with God not only starts with Faith, it continues by faith till the end.

(2) Relationship is at the heart of God. Three Persons in blessed communion with one another. We catch a glimpse of this loving intra-divine fellowship in John's Gospel, between the Father and the Son.

Apply - relationships are actually at the heart of life. If relationships are going south we feel sad, if they are good we feel happy. That's the way we are wired, made in the image of God. And that's why relationships are the top priority of our lives.

(3) We can know God because he is personal. The reason we can have a relationship with God is because relationships come naturally to him. Why? Because from all eternity he has been in relationship with himself. A non-trinitarian religion that was monotheistic would have a God who was not used to any relationships and thus could hold out no prospect of us knowing him. That is why in Islam God is unknowable. Of course. He has never had any relationships, so why would he have one with us? He wouldn't know how to!

Apply - We can know God!

(4) Love comes from God. Now we understand what John means when he says that love comes from God. Love can only exist in a relationship with another. So a God who is not triune, cannot be loving. And indeed this helps us understand why Islam's Allah is so harsh. But a God who has dwelt in eternal loving relationship becomes the source of love - the one who has poured out his love on us in the sending of his Son. No Trinity, no love. 

Apply - God is love

(5) Diversity can live together in unity. The Father is so different from the Son. The Father tells the Son what to say and do; the Son doesn't do that. The Son became a man suffered and died; the Father didn't do that. The Spirit was sent from the Father and from the Son, not the other way round. And yet they dwell in perfect unity, the Father and I are One, said Jesus. God loves diversity and declares it can live in unity.

  • in marriage, the very different male and female can dwell as one
  • in the church, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, can live as one
  • even in creation different plants and animals all live together in unity
  • in the bigger cosmos, large objects (ruled by Relativity) and small objects (ruled by Quantum Mechanics) dwell together in harmony

All of this is an expression of the glorious unity-and-diversity found deep deep within the Godhead.

Apply - accept diversity and work towards unity

Ever wondered why all Jehovah Witness churches are the same? They deny the Trinity, and without them even realizing, this denial has a deep deep impact on their church life. A one-god isn't into diversity and loves mono churches. By contrast the vast diversity of true Christian churches demonstrates the amazing Trinity which binds these churches together in love and worship:

Holy, holy holy, Lord God Almighty

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty

God in Three persons, blessed Trinity”

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tate Modern vs National Gallery

The National Gallery versus Tate Modern
One good test of an art gallery is to be found on a random day-time visit, when schools are able to bring their children to look around.

A recent visit to both the above-named galleries revealed a stark difference: there were no children at the Tate Modern.

Happy groups of children were crowded around great and wonderful paintings in the National Gallery enjoying wonderful works of art explained by animated teachers.
All over the sound of happy children.

But I did not see a single school party at the Tate Modern, and frankly I am not surprised: there was nothing worth seeing. As you go from high-falutin floor to high-falutin floor, one vacuous pretentious folly after another assaults the eye. A couple of trees here, a pile of lava there.

I even found a mirror. Yes folks, a mirror on the wall, entitled "Untitled Canvas 1965" with these words of description:

"Since the Renaissance, painting has often been likened to a window upon the world, with central perspective giving the viewer a sense of surveying what is contained within the picture frame. In a bold gesture, Art & Language turn this century-old convention upside-down by replacing the painting’s surface with a mirror. Rather than look at an image of the artist’s making, viewers are now confronted by themselves, thereby questioning a long-held notion of painting transcending reality."

Another floor described itself like this:

You must be told there is something higher, deeper and more profound in the work, because for sure there is nothing for the eye to see.

Visitors aren't fooled
But if you read the faces of  the ordinary visitors, you find they are not fooled. Sometimes you read incredulity, sometimes laughter, sometimes anger, sometimes sadness.You get the impression they'd like someone to stand on a platform in the museum and scream, "the emperor has no clothes."

There is a very good reason schools don't bring their kids here - the place would be filled with laughter, not joyful laughter but mocking derisory laughter. You can't pull the wool over the eyes of children. They'd be saying "those two trees aren't art, that pile of lava isn't art. I don't need to come to a gallery to look in the mirror."

The Tate Modern is a Tower of Babel, a monument to godless folly and a tragic reminder of just how far  our culture has moved from God, and hence moved from reason or even common sense. Our culture, having lost any sense of truth no longer knows how to distinguish between art and non-art, between what is good and what is pretentious, between what is art and what is banal, what will last and is of worth and what is ephemeral and worthless.

It is not at all surprising that the National Gallery works of art were made in a more god-fearing age, and the Tate Modern ones made in a godless age. Belief or unbelief stands behind art.

Fortunately there was a wall where you could write your comments, and so I wrote the only words that rang around my head for the brief moments I had to tolerate the tragic darkness and madness:  

Monday, 2 December 2013

The Creation-Evolution debate - all in one blog

Someone recently asked me for advice on how to negotiate the big bad (or at least big hot) world of the Creation-Evolution debate. Instead of an e-mail to one person, here goes a blog to two... 

Love before Knowledge
You can know lots of stuff, but if you don't have love, you are nothing. That's what Paul says and that's the starting point for this blog. Genuine Christians are to be found on both sides of this debate (I mean by genuine, Christians who are orthodox in their doctrine, believe in atonement and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and so on); so even if we think the other side are completely wrong (and both can't be right), we are to love one another.

The two Camps
OK, so first there are the 'theistic evolutionists'. They believe that God is the Creator of all things (you can't be an orthodox Christian without that basic tenet), but that he employed the process of evolution and the remarkable laws of nature to create. So first God used the Big Bang to bring about the basic structure of the universe, then planets formed around stars in a natural evolutionary process and finally life evolved on earth by natural processes. The Genesis account is not designed to be a historical retelling; it is more poetry than narrative.  I'll critique this view in a moment.  

There are actually many positions, but for the sake of simplicity let's keep it to two camps.

 Camp Two are the 'creationists'. They take Genesis literally and insist on a 6-day creation approximately 10,000 years ago. They critique the 14 billion year age of the universe and 4 billion year age of the earth, and critique the power of evolution to accomplish anything except tiny little changes in an organism. 

Before we critique the Camps
Some of the most important doctrines of Genesis 1-3 are these:
  1. God alone is the Creator of all things, seen and unseen (Genesis 1:1)
  2. There was a beginning to the universe (God alone is eternal, not matter)
  3. Only mankind is made in God's image (consequently there is an-almost infinite gap between animal and humans - in spite of every unsuccessful attempt to ape mankind). Mankind is therefore absolutely unique and precious, bearing the image of God. No animal compares to man in splendour and glory - something it takes but three seconds to prove upon comparison of any animal to man.
  4. God created mankind heterosexual, male and female, Adam and Eve
  5. Men and women are different, there is male Adam, and female Eve
  6. There is a divine order between the sexes, Adam was created first, Eve was created second
  7. The fall of Genesis 3 has messed up everything, most of all our relationship with God: we now hide from him and suppress the truth about him, and are in desperate need of a Saviour
Could it be a subtle tactic of Satan to get Christians to fight over the details, when it is teachings 1-7 that are really under attack in our culture today?

We are facing a tide of homosexual sin, and out-of-wedlock sin, the former being justified as 'natural' (Genesis says it's not the way God made us) the latter is being justified as the excusable spin off from the evolutionary pressure to sire as many offspring as possible in order to survive. Our law-makers are increasingly taking into account the 'rights' of animals - because we are considered a species just as they are. The same law-makers are devaluing unborn life, because it is only 'animal'.

We need to realize that the most important truths that emerge from Genesis 1-3 are not scientific ones.

Don't brothers and sisters in both camps agree on more (e.g. 1-7) than they disagree on? Let's fight the true enemy folks. 

A word about Genesis
My first instinct about the book of Genesis is to assume it is all historical narrative. That's what we have in most of Genesis, in the stories of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. But I have to acknowledge that there are indications in Genesis 1, only chapter 1, that we have here 'elevated prose' if not poetry, rather than straight historical narrative. For example, there are repeating words and phrases such as "there was evening and morning the X day". There is a similarity between days 1 & 4, 2 & 5, 3 & 6. These sorts of  rhythm/pattern indicators surely point to at least some uncertainty in how we must interpret that chapter.

A word about Science
Before we move to a critique, a word about the nature of science:
  1.  Science is governed by paradigms. The nature of the human mind is such that we cannot abide a collection of isolated facts - we must integrate them into a theory, a paradigm, a way of viewing them. We simply can't help this. 
  2. Paradigms change. But because the data base changes, inevitably the theory you come up with will be subject to change. One paradigm or theory will give way to another over time. In the 20th century, for example, two major scientific paradigms changed. Plate tectonics became the dominant way of understanding the structure of the earth (rather than the drying apple, shrinking skin idea) and in cosmology the eternal universe which never changes (the steady state theory) gave way to the Big Bang theory (universe had a beginning). 
  3. Don't buy into any paradigm. Since paradigms change, it is unwise to buy into any of them. Listen to them, appreciate them,  but you'd be a historical fool to say "this is the truth". Anyone who has read science books even a brief century old will know not to make this mistake. Think of it like this: the dots (facts) on the painting are often credible, but the joining up of the dots, the picture, the paradigm, may be seriously wrong because more dots (facts) may turn up which change that 'hand' into a  'wing'.
  4. There are two kinds of science: historical and operational, and the former MUST be led by philosophical considerations. Some people don't like this, but it's true. Historical science is all science which deals with the past. You weren't there, nor was I, so we need to make some assumptions. And guess what, those assumptions are informed by your philosophy, and in particular your assumptions about God. Example. Where did all living things come from? Let's suppose you don't believe there is a God, then you have only one source - matter plus the laws of physics plus time somehow resulted in life. Excluding God gives you no other options, except agnosticism
  5. In the area of historical science,  we must acknowledge the powerful influence of doctrine (7) above. If mankind now naturally suppresses the knowledge of God (Romans 1 &2), then we cannot expect an unbelieving science to acknowledge for one moment, the existence of an intelligent designing hand in creation. Though it may be plain to see, it will be radically denied. 
  6. Science is a western god - that's why so many people believe it. Because it has so successfully given us a thousand comforts and helps (though these have more come from its daughter technology) science has been granted the status of a "God" in western culture. All cultures worship gods, and ours happens to have a  suite of minor and major ones (other ones include Knowledge, Pleasure, Democracy, etc.). What's true of science is true of scientists: they are the high priests of our culture. One Chinese scientist was critiquing Darwin in an English university. He was surprised at the gasps of horror! "In my country, we can criticize Darwin but not the government" he said, "in your country you can criticize the government but not Darwin." Why not? Because science and scientists are the modern day gods. 
  7. The Bible and the book of nature must agree. Since both come from God,they must say the same thing. If there is disagreement, it can only be apparent disagreement, the fault is with our understanding.
Now for that critique
Theistic evolutionists.  As a general rule, I find these guys are:
  • Scientists first and Christians second. They have been trained in the scientific world, accepted all its paradigms, are good at their day jobs, but often lacking (sometimes woefully) in their theology and  in their understanding of the Scriptures. In other words, of God's two books, the Book of Scripture and the book of nature, they start with the book of nature and then try to fit the Book of Scripture around it.
  • Too uncritical of their disciplines. I guess I understand that; after all, you'll have a hard time in some departments if you swim against the tide.
  • Unable to see - or to accept -  that some things cannot be explained by natural law plus time plus chance.  Steve Meyer has done an excellent job recently, in exposing the impossibility of any natural phenomena to explain the origin of the cell and the Cambrian explosion (see his two books, Signature in the Cell and Darwin's Doubt).
Creationists, as a general rule,
  •  Are Bible people  first and scientists second. Surely that can't be a criticism?! On the one hand it isn't, and if there was a side to err on, this is the side to fall.  But according to Psalm 19, both the book of Scripture and the book of nature reveal the glory of God. We must take both seriously for all truth is God's truth, though we must recognize that the Bible sets the context for interpreting creation. Creationists don't engage seriously enough with the book of nature.
  • Try to do too much, leave too little room for mystery.  In wanting to line up the Bible and the physical world (the Bible with the book of nature)  they sometimes come up with all encompassing theories which leave no room for mystery or uncertainty. Example. Take the age of various matter on the earth, as judged by the annual clock God has placed in nature (ice cores, varves, and so on). The figure from science always comes out to be way way past 10,000. Instead of accepting any of these dates (I am here only arguing for dates that arise out of the natural annual cycle; i.e. from stuff made up of layers, each one formed over one year) creationists deny them, because they don't fit into a pre-packaged chronology. Could there be another way to deal with this apparent discrepancy? Couldn't one say "I just don't know how the Book of Scripture ties up with the book of nature on this one? I mean from the genealogies it looks as though the earth is only 6000 years old, but from the book of nature we have much higher readings. I don't understand how the two can fit together." And leave it at that. After all we don't need to know or understand everything?
Which brings me to a criticism of both camps, they are not humble enough. Both want all encompassing theories that will integrate all data. But isn't this impossible, for we are not God?  What's wrong with living with apparent contradictions if they drive us to the truth about ourselves, that we cannot fully understand it? What if they drive us to worshiping the God who does?

Where do I stand?
I am often asked this and this is how I reply:
  1. I have more sympathies with creationists, because they are more rooted in Scripture and take it with the deadly seriousness it deserves.
  2. I cannot accept any of the creation myths of modern science (all cultures have creation myths, and since we live in a scientific culture, our myths just happen to be scientific ones, but they are no different in principle than the creation myths of any other culture in history). Therefore I cannot accept the Big Bang theory as fact and refuse to accept the theory of evolution as fact.
  3. There are other and better ways to integrate the data of origins than evolutionary theory. Intelligent design is far more successful than evolutionary theory.  Micro-evolution is a good gift of God to his creatures to enable them to survive a wide variety of environments over time but it can never result in   macro-evolution. New designs require new information, and nature has absolutely no means of generating new information (all it has the power to do is to take existing information and destroy it).
  4. I simply cannot tie up the Book of Scripture with the book of nature in some areas, especially the age of the earth, and I am really happy with that incompetence.
For by it I am aware of how great God is - and how little I am.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Why no-one should disciple One to One

The One to One Method
In the history of the church, the idea of one person discipling another has arisen from time to time. Google it and you will find a movement. But is it wise?

There are times when one-to-one discipleship may be essential, for example when discipling someone in prison or in a remote location on earth where there is no church. But in all situations where it is avoidable, it is undesirable: and here is why:

(i) Jesus alone is the perfect model, we aren't. None of us reflects Jesus Christ perfectly, all of reflect him imperfectly. Jesus could disciple the Twelve on his own because he was the perfect man, but we dare not. The apostle Paul says to the Corinthian church "follow my example as I follow the example of Christ" but we find he is always with a team of believers who would be examples as well as himself - and don't forget, he is a (the?) great apostle. Though we ought perhaps to be able to say what he says (follow me...), could you in everything? Would you?

(ii) Discipling one-to-one will deform the one we disciple. What do I mean? They will pick up our weaknesses as well as our strengths, our folly as well as our wisdom. A young believer is like a bird just hatched from the egg - whatever it sees first imprints upon it. So for example, if a Christian was converted in a charismatic setting, lo and behold they will become a charismatic. If they were discipled among the "wee frees" of Scotland they'll think old wooden benches and psalmady are the norm. This is not rocket science folks. If discipled by an argumentative believer they become argumentative, if discipled by someone who never opens the Bible, they too will become a Scriptural Ignoramus. Of course, there are exceptions. Do we really want to make clones of ourselves? Only someone who is completely unaware of their own shortcomings (and sadly there are some!) would want to do this.

(iii) The church is the place to disciple converts. Why? Because it's there alone that a new convert will see something of Christ in this hand, that foot, this ear, that eye. It's only in the church they'll see more than one Body-part - capital B for it is the body of Christ they will see there. It's from Christ's power that the body grows, but it does so as "each part does it's work" (Eph. 4:16).

It is simply poor ecclesiology to disciple on your own when you could disciple in a group: that young believer needs the church, not just you.

Some Implications
Get humble! Don't think "that young believer needs me or he/she won't survive." They'll do mighty fine in the church - even without you. Get Biblical! Though they may need you in a special way at the beginning, they don't need you alone. Don't turn them into a U-clone.

Here is how I try to put all of this into practice.

Example 1 - Each week I run a discipleship class for men, most are young believers.  In that class are at least three older believers - this is deliberate, for these other brothers along with me, together, reflect Christ much better than any one of us on our own does or could.

Example 2 - When I train people in/for full-time ministry, I ensure they are seeing someone else as well as me - and I even delight (sort of delight!) when they tell me that the other person takes a different line than myself.

Our endgame is to see Christ formed in our disciples, and the only way this can be done, the only way sharp edges can wear off and new seen graces put on, is in the community of Christ's people called his body.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Bible Saves a Whole Lot of Time

'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
Some years ago I was reading the above titled book by Edward Gibbon because someone made a "this is one of those books you must read before you die" type of exhortation (beware of such claims because they are rarely true). Not far into Gibbon's big fat book of 1100 pages I gave up, totally bored. 

There was nothing new in this book  - I had read it all before (apart from the details). 

But where? 

In Bible books such as first and second Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, that's where. One emperor follows another with much the same intrigue, general wickedness and folly as all-too-many of the equally-wicked kings of Israel. Time and Place are different, but not human nature - whenever it is cloaked in worldly power.

All the important things of life are here
The Bible will save you a lot of time. It is EveryBook in one. You'll read about the full range of human behaviour and experience without having to read all the books of the world.......

       "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." 
                            (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

According to Wikipedia around 2 million books are published every year, according to Google there are around 128 Million unique books in the world. (And these stats don't take into account the vast number of research papers published each year.) Christian, you really don't need to waste your precious time with the 832 pages of the latest "Man Booker Prize" to gain a broad education of the world. Just read more of the Bible. If only Christians would read more of the Bible. (There's every genre of literature in Scripture - from narrative to poetry to unique types such as "apocryphal" and "gospel".)

Twisted Truth made straight
Another advantage of Bible reading is that truth that ought to be plain, but is now twisted by the fall, is straightened by the Word. Example: it is very plain from the physiology of men and women that a man is for a woman and a woman is for a man. It is obvious (to all human cultures in all of time) that a man is not for a man and a woman is not for a woman. It is as plain as can be that man and man or woman and woman is a deviation, a perversion (not least from the medical and psychological consequences of such relationships). But the fall has twisted human nature so that some wish to argue black white. The Scriptures settle the truth about such matters. 

The Word who simply can't be known elsewhere
A third advantage of Bible-reading is this: there we learn things that otherwaise we could not know, in any other way. There are limits to human knowledge since the fall. Living east of Eden man is out of touch with God, in the dark about a whole host of spiritual matters; most of all, how God can be known once more. In creation we read of the majesty of God and even the goodness of God; but only in Scripture do we read of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ his incarnate Word.

Most of us are woefully ignorant of the true treasure we have in our hands every time we open the Bible.

Monday, 7 October 2013

An Outsider's View of Football (Cardiff 1 - NUFC 2)

Father and Sons
Last Saturday I spent a happy day in Cardiff with two of my sons who both support Newcastle United. Due to a seating mix-up I found myself sitting alone with the Toon Army. Here goes the reflections of a football outsider.....

Question #1: Who shall I support? The first decision I had to make on the way in the car was who would I support, if anyone. My sons thought this was a ludicrous question: everyone goes to a football match prejudiced one way or the other. But why can't one watch football and enjoy every good pass and every good goal rather than just half of them? It doubles your enjoyment, saves you from a heart attack and/or  a week's depression. I can see no disadvantages at all in being an Every Team supporter. Perhaps the idea will catch on.

Question #2: Why can't I sit down and watch in peace?
These days you pay good money to watch a match sitting down - that's what those plastic horizontal knee high things are for, sitting on: they are not there merely as markers of your row position. I remember watching Wolves at the Molineux standing up in the 70s, sometimes pressed against  metal bars that ran parallel to the pitch, but then you only paid a few quid because you were standing. But could I sit down last Saturday? Not for one single blessed minute of the whole match. Why? Because these ridiculously hyper fans were standing up in front of me the whole time. I tell you of all the things last Saturday, this was by far the most annoying - standing up for 90 minutes when you've paid to sit down for 90 minutes.

Question #3: I really feel out of this from the very start: Is there no place for a newby?
It looks as though you cannot go to a football match these days unless you are a 200% one-team supporter. There was simply no place for a new guy like me to start slow and learn the ropes. I felt completely out of it from the first moment, and no-one around me cared or helped. With all this enthusiasm around me, although I was supporting Cardiff and Newcastle, I decided I'd better at least pretend I was supporting Newcastle lest the radicals read my lack of enthusiasm as secret support for the enemy. So I clapped outwardly when Newcastle did good stuff, and inwardly when Cardiff did good stuff. (Isn't it good that the movements of the heart cannot be seen by men?) But my point is, there was no room for learning. You have to be 200% from the start. But what about the people who just aren't wired to leave the blocks like Usain Bolt?

Problem #4: I wouldn't have enough brain cells to hold the Toon Army Repertoire
The most striking feature of the whole match was the unbelievable repertoire of the Toon Army. In an age where we dumb-down on memorisation because the kids won't be able to take it in, I heard 90 minutes of memorised (no-one was using a hymn book or even a toon-book) lyrics. Song after song poured forth, and with few momentary exceptions there was no hesitation, deviation or repetition.

I am told that I should be glad my hearing is somewhat diminished at the age of 53.....

Question #5: Why don't blokes sing that loud in church?
These guys (by far the greatest majority were blokes) are no Elton John's but they can belt it out. One bloke in particular was singing with a ecstatic red-faced gusto I thought he was almost in a trance and about to pass out. No joke. But why don't blokes sing the praises of God like that? You just can't blame the musicians, these guys did it without any musical aids.

Question #6: Can hands really be that expressive?
Like at Sunday School, every Toon song had its own hand actions. In one, the fans were climbing an imaginary rope, hand by hand, but really fast. In others the hands were outstretched at different angles, sometimes with a fist clenched, at other times fingers separated, at other times a single finger pointing, and many more variations on the theme. The action that I found most amusing was the reverse-honour wave. When they wanted to worship one of their own players they lifted up their hands and brought them down in a kind of bowing action. When their enemies made a mistake, they repeated the same action, but with their fingers jiggling up and down as if they were just pretending to honour them.

Question #7: Where did these guys get their tunes from?
Although I sometimes thought I was in a madhouse (not PC, but the truth, and that's what matters), at other times at a zoo and still other moments at a Benny Hinn revival meeting, I  liked the broad taste of music which ranged from the Beatles to the Kindergarten: there was music to suit all tastes, I'll give them that.

In spite of these issues I enjoyed the football (all the football), but mainly because my two boys were with me.

Any church lessons?
The enthusiasm did not spread to me, in fact it was off-putting because it left me out. Charismatics who think the unconverted will be converted by contortions are sadly mistaken. All the unconverted think is that we are as mad as the media make us out to be. And more importantly, love doesn't put people out in the cold. Love is sensitive to the newcomer, loves is not rude, it does not embarrass.

Any spiritual lessons?
I could not help but come away with a sense that I had been involved in a worship service of a kind. To be sure, some of these fans at least were in worship mode. They lived for NUFC, loved NUFC, longed for NUFC, praised NUFC and couldn't get enough of NUFC. After each of the two goals they erupted into a frenzied dance, and every time their god let them down, they sank into unspeakable misery (Me? I was happy the whole time.) 

Our hearts are idol factories, since made by God and for God we must worship something/one, and football for sure is a possible idol, among many others. One great tragedy of worshipping idols rather than God is that idols can't help in the day of trouble. Jeremiah put it in this colouful language:
                                                           "Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, 
                                                 their idols cannot speak; they must be carried 
                                                                                  because they cannot walk. 
                                                  Do not fear them; they can do no harm 
                                                                        nor can they do any good." 
                                                                                  Jeremiah 10:5

                                                 "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, 
                                                    but we trust in the name of the LORD our God." 
                                                                                   Psalm 20:7 
How easily idols can upon us creep, and before we know it, we confuse a created thing that was meant to be no more than a signpost to God, for God himself.

"My dear children" urges John, "keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21).

That requires both the careful and regular weeding of the heart (the negative) and the positive joyful delight in God whose love is better than life and who gives greater joy than the highest joys this world can ever afford (Psalm 63:3, Psalm 4:7).

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Edgy Saints #2 - Bakht Singh of India

250,000 at your Thanksgiving?
Not many people have 250,000 people attending their thanksgiving, but Bakht Singh did in the year 2000. And for good reason. He had brought the Gospel to millions of Indians over his life time as an evangelist and church planter. But what was special about him was that he did it in a uniquely Indian Way.

That made him, in the minds of the church establishment, an edgy saint.

Born in 1903 into a Sikh home he was wired hostile to the Gospel. Tragically most Indians thought the "Christian Gospel" was for the white man or the outcaste, not for the masses. This apathy towards the Gospel had been heightened by the way the imperialistic white man had treated the Indian.

As a young man Bakht Singh travelled to the West and was converted on one of his journeys. Returning to India at the age of 30 he was rejected by his parents for his newfound faith in Christ and so began his life-time's work as an evangelist and then church planter.

Starting in Karachi (then part of India) he went all over India preaching the Gospel, but with a difference....

The Gospel in an Indian Cup
...the difference? In spite of all the good western missionaries did for the Gospel in India, one negative legacy was the refusal to incarnate the Gospel into Indian culture. They brought over and imposed upon the Indian a stack of stuff they thought was Gospel (because they'd grown up with it) but which had nothing to do with the Gospel - it was mere human western tradition.

So they insisted on western hymns sung with western instruments, sitting upon western chairs, in western-looking buildings, with western Bible Colleges, meeting for the classical western duration of 1.00000 hour (not, heresy of heresies, 1.000001 hour), starting of course at the western 11.00am. No wonder many Indians rejected the Gospel - they had to become a westerner before they could become a Christian.

Like Sundar Singh before him, Bakht Singh realised from the Scriptures that you could be an Indian Christian, and needn't become a westerner to become a Christian. Out went the chairs, away went the building, in came the Indian harmonium and drums, out went the 1.00000hour service, in came the x hour service (where x is considerably greater than one), out went western ecclesiology, in came biblical all-body minsitry - and so on.

The effect? "Revivals" I am not sure whether I would call them revivals, I would call them the natural and powerful result of preaching the Gospel incarnately. The Gospel is attractive, the Gospel fits into every culture; the problem with us is that we wrap it up in so many layers of tradition, so its beauty is hidden.

His forerunner, Sundar Singh put it like this:

"Indians do need the water of life, but not in a European cup. They should sit down on the floor of the church: they should take off their shoes instead of their turbans. Indian music should be sung. Long informal addresses should take the place of sermons.." (p.179, Bakht Singh of India)

Whose really got the edges then?
Many westerners - and western-trained easterners - regarded Bakht Singh as an edgy Christian, not least because he hadn't been 'ordained' (Ordained? Where's that in the Bible? Come on?) But he wasn't and edgy saint.  He was the guy going back to the Bible.

The real "Edgies" were the western missionaries who went over to India before doing their homework, before sorting out what was Gospel and what was Tradition. If they had done that, they'd have realized that 3/4 of what they were pushing was English High Tea Tradition - which frankly is far more weird than sitting on the floor, playing a harmonium......

Monday, 30 September 2013

How do you handle "edgy saints"?

A life in tradition
If you have spent your life in "traditional church" - no offense, just observation - you are probably subliminally programmed to reject edgy Christians. This, by the way, is not such a bad thing - provided you recognise it and learn to overcome its severe restrictions.

This is how traditional Christianity tends to think: "All Christians  - at least 'proper' ones - must fall within a certain framework, an envelope engineers might say, a box others would put it. If they have edges which stick outside the box, well, they're not in your team / group / denomination / etc."

The good side to this approach is that you're not likely to be led astray: you can spot a wacko seven holy miles away, and so you stay safe.

There are some advantages to this aspect of tradition.....

The down side
The down side is that you are likely to miss many, if not most of God's most precious - and beautiful - gems. God is Creative by his very nature, expressed in - for example - the 350,000 different kinds of just beetle he has made, the  every-one-different galaxies he has created and every single human being: no two are the same.

And it is no different in his spiritual creations. Every conversion story is different, every single journey to faith in Christ - and then to spiritual maturity - differs from every other one. Every church differs from every  other church. This is to be a source of rejoicing, not sorrow. It is the cults - and every cultist tendency - who want everyone to look the same.

The mysterious Sadhu Sundar Singh
In my sabbatical work I have come across a wonderful but mysterious Christian who worked in North India, by the name of Sundar Singh. He prefixed his name with "Sadhu" to more easily reach his kinsfolk who were seeking God.

Born in 1889, Sundar's mother was very "religious". He was fortunate to go to a Christian school where he heard the Gospel (clothed in a western garb, but sufficiently the Gospel to be understood by an Indian). 

At the death of his beloved mother, when he was 14, he took a turn for the rebellious worse and in deep despair cried out to heaven one day. If God was real would he reveal himself, or by morning Sundar would throw himself under the wheels of a train.

In his grace, Jesus revealed himself that night and from that moment all seeking came to an end (Of course, because Jesus is wisdom, not to mention righteousness, holiness and redemption). He was persecuted and forced to leave home, and so, as a single man, spent the rest of his life preaching the Gospel to villagers who had no other opportunity to hear it. He tried a western-style Bible College, but (not surprisingly) found it dull and irrelevant to his work in India and left. He spent a lot of time with God on his own, with Bible in hand, and took the dress of an Indian religious man (a Sadhu) so as to reach his own people with the Gospel.

His particular desire was to reach forbidden Tibet, and so over a dozen times he braved freezing winters and dangerous mountain passes to preach the Gospel there. No wonder he was nicknamed "apostle of the bleeding feet."

Over the course of a brief life (around 40 years) he received alot of opposition, but gladly took it for Christ's sake. He even came over to the West but was appalled at the spiritual poverty of our god-forsaken lands.

One day he went on a trip to Tibet and was never seen again.....

Why I like this guy
I like this saint because he was a one-off; a real man of God who was single-minded. When I was growing up my dad would show the film of his life to his Asian Christian friends to inspire them to do great things. You can watch "Journey to the Sky" here: 

Journey to The Sky (miss out the first bits and get to the man speaking bits, move the slider to 20 minutes)

A warning about edgy saints
Edgy saints have edges by definition, and so everything they say must be tested - as with the regular guys too - tested by Scripture. (If you want to know why edgy Christians are edgy it's because they have not spent enough time with other Christians - I mean meaningful submit-to-one-another-out-of-reverence-for-Christ time. They have been on their own too much, and so some of the rough edges that  naturally get rubbed off in fellowship with the church remain.)  Sundar is to be applauded for wearing the safron robe of a Sadhu and thus gaining a hearing no one else  would ever gain. He is to be applauded for his desire to know God more and to be dissatisfied with the spiritual status quo. He is to be applauded for his single-minded mission to the lost.

We don't quite to know what to think of the mysterious tales that follow in his wake. Some of them at least, we can be sure, are the product of over-zealous disciples of his. But camel's-hair clothes, honey and locusts shouldn't put us off any saint.

Whenever there is true wheat you're bound to find some chaff.

Don't let the chaff put you off, or you'll miss some of God's most beautiful gems.  

Friday, 27 September 2013

Churches are built by preaching

Forget the academy and qualifications....
If you have read this blog before, you will know how hostile (or at least apathetic) I am to the encroachment of worldly academic training and qualifications into the Kingdom of Christ.

One reason for this attitude is that there is no connection between qualifications and day to day practical godliness: example: I read the biography of a Christian convert from Sikhism this week, who "drops it in" that she has an MA (for the wise but unlettered, an MA is a Master of Arts degree: it's one step up from a BA and one step down from a PhD). The thing is this - she is supposed to have a good education.  And yet the book reveals a woeful lack of  spiritual understanding. She may have used her mind to learn some secular subject but she certainly hasn't used her mind to understand God and his ways from the Scriptures since her conversion. Having qualifications may actually prevent a man or woman from growing in Christ, because they might proudly think they don't need to learn, because they got a what-not after their name, and the posher the what-not the less they are inclined to be learners.

Every unlettered Christian ought to be encouraged: you do not need any kind of academic training to follow Christ and to be useful in his kingdom.

...but don't forget the mind or forget godly knowledge
A profound apathy and  hostility to a worldly attitude to the academy, however, must not be misinterpreted as an apathy or hostility to the use of the God-given mind or godly knowledge. God has given us wonderful minds and we are called to love God with them. One of the most repeated accusations of bad shepherds of God's people in the Old Testament is that they lacked understanding - they didn't have the knowledge required to shepherd. We are called to grow not only in grace but in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. The very title 'disciple' means learner.

You can't grow as a Christian without knowledge and using your mind. And a major way godly knowledge is imparted is through preaching.

No church will be built without solid regular, consistent preaching
No church which puts preaching on the back-burner as a low priority activity will ever grow New Testament shaped Christians. Look at all the preaching in Acts. Look at all the teaching-letters of the rest of the NT. The NT church was built on teaching and preaching.

A church which does not value and esteem preaching will end up looking like the world. Uncorrected by the Word of God, those Christians will simply find themselves untransformed in their minds, squeezed into the world's mould.

Why have so many churches drifted towards women pastors and "even bishops"? Because the Word has not been taught and the feminism of the world has simply shaped their thinking. Why have some even drifted towards approving homosexual relationships (the very mention of such a drift should make a Christian want to throw up, because such acts are an abomination to the male-female creating God)? Because churches do not preach the Bible.

Forget a worldly attitude to knowledge, but you can't grow a church without knowledge and a church won't mature without consistent labour-intensive preaching.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

What does Jesus mean "Do not Judge"?

To judge is human
A well-known command of Jesus is "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" followed by "take the plank out of your own eye." (Matthew 7:1-6).

What does this mean, since one of the distinctive characteristics of humankind is the ability - and tendency - to use our God-given minds to assess things, events and people?

We drive with a friend and just find ourselves making an opinion about their driving technique - we can't help it. We taste new food and make a judgement  - we like it or we don't. We try on new clothes and decide they work for us or they don't. Our minds are constantly making assessments: we are wired to judge.

Jesus cannot mean that we suspend our mind's critical faculties and make no judgements ever again!

Nor can he mean, "do not evaluate someone else's behavior or beliefs". In verse 6 of that very chapter Jesus commands us not to throw pearls to dogs - a command which requires a judgement of who might behave like a 'dog' when presented with spiritual pearls. And later in verse 15 Jesus urges us to judge a person's fruit to assess whether or not they are a true or false prophet. The apostle John urges us to 'test the spirits', and so it goes on.

We are frequently urged in Scripture to use our critical faculties when it comes to both belief and character. Not to do so would quickly lead us into serious spiritual error. 

What Jesus does mean
The clue to Jesus' meaning is in his use of the carpentry terms "speck" and "plank". Jesus is referring, not to the sins we find in each other (he deals with that in Matthew 18), but to the weaknesses and foibles we all possess. We are not to spend our lives pointing these out to one another!

We all have weaknesses and foibles that do not constitute sin, but is more about poor manners, silly mistakes or bad habits. Someone forgets to say thank you. Another is always late. Someone never turns the tap off. Another's planning is always Someone is just so slow. Another is impatiently fast. This one talks forever, that one never talks at all. And so the list goes on. None of these constitutes sins, per se, they are more specks (or planks) than sins.

This is what Jesus means, when commanding us not to judge as we relate to our brothers and sisters:

(1) Avoid a judgmental spirit fullstop (because if you don't you'll get it in the neck, back). If you constantly judge others for their foibles, you will find they judge you back. It's a law of life. A wise man will allow many faults and weaknesses of others to pass by without any comment. "It is in the glory of a man to overlook an offense." (Proverbs 19:11) So if people are constantly judging you, ask yourself: is it because you are constantly judging them? And if so, stop it (!)

(2) Focus on your own foibles, rather the weaknesses of others. The only way to avoid the hypocrisy of constantly pointing out others' faults is to work on your own faults. If we worked on our own considerable planks we would scarce have time to bother with the small weakness-specks of others.

The supreme Example
Jesus' training of the Twelve gives us the supreme example. With twelve rough blokes he must have been surrounded by a thousand specks and planks.

And yet it is only "big stuff" sins that Jesus rebukes. Such as prayerlessness, faithlessness and pride.

Isn't this what love looks like?

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Why we are passionate about Home Groups / Small Groups

The R-TF Scale ("Religion" to "True Faith")
If there is a scale between "Religion" (= ritual, law, have-to-do-this, safe, do it because we always do, cold heart, distance, etc.) and True Faith, how would you know where you stood, or for love's sake, where someone else stood? What indicators would reveal whether someone was at one end of the spectrum or the other?

First and foremost would be a heart that loves God, longs for more of Him and lives for his glory, for that is the first commandment. But since the movements of the heart are impossible for anyone but the owner to know (and even there, deceitfulness prevents certain knowledge), how can someone on the outside discern where that soul stands on the  R-TF scale?

By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus. And among those fruit, says his apostle John is love for brothers: How can you say you love the God you can't see if you don't love his people who you can see? (1 John 4:20, Summers' paraphrase).

[The first letter of John is much about the cast-iron connection between vertical love (love to God) and horizontal love (love to brothers and sisters): they stand or fall together.]
The test of fellowship = the test of Love for God
So a big test of spiritual vitality is a love for the brothers. And how do we know we love our brothers? One test is that we want to meet with our brothers and sisters, share our lives with them, and carry their burdens. We understand that the church is a 'body' - that we are an ear they so desperately need and they are an eye or hand which we can't live without.

You don't see yourself as a foot walking solo down the street on your own, or an ear all on its own, you see yourself as part of a body, part of a world of other parts.

You meet with your brothers and sisters, you invite them into your home, you call them up during the week, you serve them, help them, love them, pray for them.

Test yourself
On the R-TF scale, you are at the R end of the scale if all you do is "come to church on a Sunday" without any other living, meaningful connection with brothers and sisters in the church. If on the other hand you give yourself to a fellowship group and are in your brothers and sisters' homes and hearts, it's a good sign that you have the love of God (which always manifests itself in love for his people) in your heart and you are at the TF end of the scale.

Test yourself.

The strange case of Mr. A
I once knew a man who would read his Bible and pray xhundred hours a week and be ever such a close obeyer of the commands of God. I would feel a spiritual pigmy and a godless sinner every time I visited him. He was up there and I was - I knew - down here.

Back then I thought he was a godly man - but I don't any more.

Why the change of opinion? Mr A had virtually no fellowship with other believers, he would move from one church to another (when they did or said something he disagreed with) and was for ever critical of the church.

I have come to see, over the years, from Scripture that such a man is at the R  end of the spiritual spectrum (at least towards P for Pharisee). A safe, but very dangerous place to be, because without the accountability and correction of his brothers and sisters he will continue to spiral further away from God (though he himself thinks he's getting closer to God, such is the delusion of Pharisaism).

Why Home Groups are so important
This is why, at Manor Park Church, we consider fellowship at home group / small group an essential part of discipleship. Jesus did not call twelve men to hang out with him for a sermon on a Sunday, he asked them to follow him in the grit and grime of ordinary life. And in that grit and grime to become more like Jesus.

It's discipleship - not numbers - that matter
It's another reason why we as a church have no interest in numbers. Numbers signify absolutely nothing.  A church of 500 is not one bit more impressive than a home group of 5. Numbers reveal nothing whatsoever about whether God is at work or not. Almost any church leader can get up the numbers (by a variety of methods including good preaching or its opposite, lowest-common-denominator preaching, by manipulation, by entertainment, and what not).

Strange though it may seem from a pastor - it gives me no joy when someone new comes along on a Sunday.

I hope I am polite to them and kind to them but until they are incorporated into the body, via home groups / small groups, I have no joy. Only when they are integrated into the body can we be assured that they have a fighting chance of growing in their faith, with the help of the rest of the body. I know they cannot grow listening to a sermon every week. I know there is no way I can make them grow - the notion that Christians grow by listening to preaching alone is nowhere found in Scripture (it's one of the unReformed legacies of the Reformation and one of the consequences of the church aping the academy, where you learn primarily by attending lectures - listening to stuff).

Pastors are called to make disciples - not waste their time with pew-warmers. That's strong, but it's also true.

Only when a believer is connected to the body (= only when they are serious about growing in Christ) do they give us joy. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Do we need "trained counsellors" in the church?

The Aping of the World
"Monkey see, monkey do" is the moto of all too many 'Christians'. The world appoints women leaders - so should we, thinks the Church of Wales. The world approves of homosexual relationships - so should we, says Steve Chalke et al. The list gets longer by the day.
"The Church needs professional counsellors"

One item on that list is the idea that in order to counsel someone you need "professional training". It is unthinkable that, for example, you should counsel someone going through a marriage crisis unless you have sat behind a desk and taken notes from so-called experts, then sat an exam and got yourself some letters after your name. 

This idea in the world is driven by the following secular pressures:

(1) Knowledge pips wisdom. You have a certificate which says that you crammed your head once upon a time with knowledge that equips you to help someone else: we live in a knowledge-crazy, qualification-mad culture.

BUT, what's needed when you counsel is not knowledge but wisdom. And there is no necessary connection - whatsoever - between knowledge and wisdom. I'd prefer being counselled by a godly binmen ("Technical Hygiene Operative") who doesn't even know what a BA is (or who thinks it stands for Born Again) than any letters-after-my-name 'professional'.

(2)  You'll get sued. A second driving force behind training mania is the litigious culture we live in. We dare not do anything unless we are protected by something  - in this case a certificate and insurance paid to a professional body - in case the counseled turns on the counselor.

BUT, counseling in the church is  not a legal contract between Professional and Client, it's a relationship between two saved sinners in the same family who love each other - between brothers and sisters -  who sit down to open God's Word together in a spirit of humility and prayer.

(3) No-one knows the truth anyway. Who'd want to be a worldly counsellor? All you are allowed to do is bounce ideas back to the counseled - why? Because the world frankly doesn't have a clue. It's in the dark. It does not know how a marriage should work. It doesn't know how a parent should bring up a child.

BUT, children of the light do have answers to all of the problems and questions of life. We have the Scriptures which are lamp and light, we have the Holy Spirit within us, and the experience of our walk with God.

Thank God for Jay Adams
Some decades ago ago Jay Adams wrote a helpful book, "Competent to Counsel" in which he argued that every Christian should be able to counsel any other Christian. He was and is absolutely right.

In the church we don't need a new priesthood of "professional counsellors", who so often are trained more in Jung than Jesus.

All we need is ordinary godly Christians who read their Bibles and walk with God. In the church of Jesus Christ, a counseling expert is a godly man or woman with a Bible in their hand and the Holy Spirit in their hearts. 

                   "I myself am convinced my brothers,
                        that you yourselves are full of goodness, 
                              complete in knowledge 
                                 and competent to instruct one another." 
                                                  (Romans 15:14)

 Next time you need counseling, save your pennies, and phone a (godly) friend.