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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas - More For than Against!

Annual Agony
Every year, around this time, I find myself in an internal battle, which after the years have passed, has still not been resolved: what should we do about Christmas? The fact that the battle resurfaces regularly is a sign that my heart is not settled on the issue, but the older I grow, I sense the balance of my mind is tilting more for than against. 

Christmas secular western style has virtually nothing to do with Christ or Christianity. It is simply an opportunity to indulge in excess, excess drink, excess food, excess pleasure, excess debauchery, you name it. Christians are called instead to be sober minded (1 Peter 5:8-9). I could easily live in a cave from December 24th-26th (with my family and brothers and sisters in Christ, of course, but away from the maddening crowd).

And yet, there are many many good things about this season of the year, and here are half a dozen.

First, it is an opportunity to visit friends and relatives. My wider family, for example, have an annual get together over Christmas, and it's great to touch base - in some cases the only time in that year.

Second, it's a chance to get some rest.... well kind of, anyway.

Third, it's a time for family traditions. Nothing wrong with family traditions. In our home, for example, there is a particular "Christmas" scent which we put on potpourri only in December! If we didn't roll it out we'd have a riot on our hands.

Fourth, Christians have the liberty to remember the birth of Jesus Christ in a special way. It's not proscribed, but what can be found against finding some time to remember the miracle of God made flesh, dwelling among us, identifying with our joys and sorrows ultimately to win us and save us from our sins.

Fifthly, thank God, the mid-winter celebration is not focused on some pagan myth, which would bring with it the debauchery that normally attends such pagan myths. Thank God that even today, nativity plays are still at the heart of most school Christmas celebrations. What a salting effect traditional Christmas has upon our near-pagan culture. Think of how more excessive the 'celebrations' would be without the influence of the Gospel in our land.

But sixthly, what a fantastic opportunity to share the Gospel with a lost world! Let's take this opportunity to invite people to Carol services, give them a free Gospel tract, and spend time with them, and pray that God may give them the precious gift of faith.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The glory of tradition!

I cannot believe I am writing this....
I don't know of anyone who is more against tradition than myself. I see red every time someone says "this must be done this way, because we've always done it this way." I want robust - which means biblical - arguments for doing things.

The New Testament has no traditions
The genius of the Gospel is that it can find a home in any culture in any age. And thus there are no traditions for worship in the Scriptures.

"But what about 'when you come together, everyone has a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpreation' (1 Cor 14:26)?", I hear someone ask.

If anyone thinks this verse is the last word on corporate worship traditions they are making two mistakes. The first is a failure to note the difference between the descriptive and the proscriptive. Paul is not saying, "this is how to worship", he is not issuing a command (proscriptive), he is simply describing what they do (descriptive). The second mistake is a failure to set this letter in its historical context. The first believers had no NT (perhaps a letter here or there), they had no complete and final revelation. For that reason, the church was instructed by divine revelations, as through tongues: that's why Paul includes in their tradition, revelations, tongues and intepretations. Once Scripture had been completed, the church had the complete and final word of Christ which is able to thoroughly equip the man or woman of God for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17): I don't need a prophecy to guide me today, I have God's certain Word along with his glorious Spirit. 

The requirements/principles of the New Testament
The New Testament gives us broad outlines and principles, but by the genius of the Gospel it does not give us any of the little context-specific details that mark all man-made religions, such as pray five times a day, etc.

The guidelines of Scripture are broadly and briefly that church life ought to include (there are too many verses to include here by way of justification):
  1. fellowship
  2. breaking of bread
  3. apostle's doctrine(preaching)
  4. mutual building up
  5. singing God's praises
  6. prayer
  7. disciple-making/evangelism
How these are put together, is left utterly to the culture in general, and then the leaders in specific to determine.

Enter, "tradition"
So elders then must work out how these different elements can combine in a way that honours the Lord and builds his people up. And once these traditions have been established, they ought to be open to change, but only slowly and carefully and prayerfully. Why slowly and carefully and prayerfully? Because unity is perhaps the first requirement of corporate church life: woe betide the leaders who introduce division on account of rapid change.

Tradition is a wonderful thing, it enables a specific church to fulfil its Christ-given requirements to the sheep and a lost world in a stable framework which builds unity.

100,000 traditions
All this means that there will be an innumerable number of different, but authentic church combinations of 1-7, which are all capable of building up the flock. 100,000 good traditions!

Our tradition
At Manor Park for example, we have the following tradition for the 7 elements above; we think it is a robust, biblical and a Holy Spirit directed tradition.....
  1. how do we do 'fellowship'? We have an opportunity every Sunday to drink coffee with each other after morning worship, we meet in home groups each week, we have an evening Koinonia meeting, plus other opportunities to share with one another
  2. how do we do 'breaking of bread'? Once every month on a Sunday morning, once a month at Koinonia and sometimes in a home group
  3. how do we do 'apostle's doctrine'? Preaching every Sunday!
  4. how do we do 'mutual building up'? At home groups and other opportunities to meet such as Koinonia, spontaneity opportunity is there at home groups and Koinonia
  5. how do we do 'singing God's praises? Home groups, and Sunday mornings too
  6. how do we do 'prayer'? Sunday mornings, home groups and monthly day of prayer
  7. how do we do 'disciple-making and evangelism'? Through the home groups and through numerous evangelistic opportunities that we take, whether mission to farm workers, monthly guest services, Christmas service, you name it...
We judge this by the Scriptures to be an excellent (but not perfect!) tradition, wholly suitable for the building of the saints, and faithful to the Spirit.

What if you don't like our tradition?
If someone came to us and said "I don't like your tradition", our response would be three-fold: (i) show us how it fails to fulfil the Scriptures, (ii) it's not the only way to do things, we are the first to admit, but it is our way, (iii) if you don't like it, you are unlikely to change it, unless God calls you to be an elder, so it is best to find another church: we bid thee God-speed.

For a radical antitraditionalist, that's quite some blog!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Modern Day Gnosticism - and how to counteract it

Old fashioned Gnosticism
In the days of the apostles, gnosticism, old-fashioned, flourished. At root it was a view that you needed some higher knowledge (from God, of course) to reach the high dizzy heights of the Gnostic Christian..

Poor ordinary Christians, like you and I, languish in the low plains of spiritual ignorance; if only we knew what they knew!

The root of Old fashioned Gnosticism
The root of old fashioned Gnosticism was, of course, devilish pride. I know something you don't, I'm up here, buddy, and you are down there; poor languishing saint! It really is as simple as that. A Gnostic is someone who is filled with pride, pride in what they know (or think they know). But of course, one has to hide pride, for we all know pride is a devilish thing. So a Gnostic is normally an expert in false humlity - and that's how they take in many Christians.

Modern Gnosticism
Of course Gnosticism hasn't gone away. It turns up in every church at some point or other. Folk either come in from the outside (the most common source) or arise within the church, who know far far more than that local church knows about:

  • how to worship in song
  • how to bring up children
  • how to organise church life
  • how to evangelise
  • how to read the signs of the times
  • what translation is best
  • etc., etc.

Of course they don't actually have a clue about these matters in reality, they just think they do.

The results of Gnostic influence
Gnostics always divide a church.  They normally first attack the leaders, and if there is a pastor, they attack him first. Of course, very cleverly, they realise that attacking the shepherd openly is not a wise strategy, so the opposition is subtle. Eventually, when they discover that the leaders won't buy into their gnostic myths they leave, normally in a trail of division and stumbling, including the stumbling of those who are naive and young, of course to the Gnostic's great spiritual judgement (Matthew 18:6).

How to avoid their influence
How can a church avoid the pernicious impact of the Gnostics?

All believers note this, one of the surest marks of a Gnostic is a critical spirit towards their local church. This arises out of their proud hearts. Should they leave the church they will carry the same spirit into the next fellowship too, until eventually they find themselves worshipping in a "church" of one, or one family. Another mark of a Gnostic is that they think (falsely) that God has revealed things to them in a special way. It may not be through visions, it may be through their own study of the Bible which they are convinced somehow advances them far beyond the dozens of hours which their poor leaders/pastors undertake each week.

If you are a young believer, be on your guard against anyone who speaks against the teaching you have received from your church leaders - you can be sure that such false teachers are pursuing a Gnostic agenda:

"I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them, for such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.." (Romans 16:17-18)

If you are an older believer, don't allow the Gnostics to judge what you do and don't allow them to  tie your life down with their foolish man-made regulations and laws:

"Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration o a Sabbath day.. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions...."

The high-faluten teaching, says Paul is actually, nothing more than "idle notions", that's quite a balloon popper, right?

All believers realise that, far from being closer to Jesus, a Gnostic actually has no relationship with Jesus - he is frankly self-deluded! Paul goes on...

 "... He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow." (Colossians 2:16-19) 

All believers realise, that if the Gnostics leave you, they do so because they were never actually with you in the first place. This is of course not at all surprising because if they are no longer connected to Jesus, they can't be connected to his body, the church.

"They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us." (1 John 2:19)

This last truth is a great comfort. We would be saddened if dear and real brothers and sisters left us, but we are assured by no less than the Apostle John, the Apostle of love, if Gnostics leave, they show by their leaving that actually they were never with you.

A present danger
In the Internet age where it is all too easy to confuse knowledge with wisdom, outcrops of Gnosticism should not surprise us. Let's be on our guard and press on, knowing that His Kingdom cannot fail, in spite of all Satan's attacks.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

"....but we love each other"

A "powerful" argument
One of the most common and powerful arguments used by those who advocate same-sex relationships is, "But we love one another, so how can that be wrong?" This, to them, is an unquestionable argument: how can you deny true love? Sometimes it is even given a theological twist, "God is love, so surely he must approve of any and all loving relationships."

This argument, in its most persuasive form, rules out promiscuous relationships, and asks us to focus only on same-sex couples who demonstrate monogamous commitment: what can be wrong with such a life-long committed loving relationship?, they argue.

The problem with love
The first problem with this love-argument is that in the end it must become the means which justifies all relationships where the two involved say they 'love' each other. If love is the final arbiter of the rightness or morality of a relationship, then it would be wrong to call illegal any relationship where the couple say "we love each other."

But what if the two involved are an adult and a child? You could argue that a child could not know if it loves the adult, or that the child is too young to know, but what if one day, clever arguments are found to "prove" that the child does indeed love the adult (and a child can love an adult, for example a parent)? If your only criteria is "do they love each other", you cannot rule out paedophilia. And what if the two are a brother and sister who are no longer children? We know full well that any children born to such a couple stand a higher risk of deformity, but how could you deny them the fruit of their "loving" relationship?

These simple considerations flag up the possibility that there may be a problem with "love" being the defining characteristic in determining the morality of a relationship.

It's possible for love to be wrong?
Perhaps not all loves are equal, perhaps some loves are wrong. Is that not a possibility? Is it not possible for someone who says "But I love her/him" to be actually wrong, no matter how loud their protestations? Most people reading this blog would say that an adult loving a child sexually was a wrong love, and yet it would not be difficult to find an adult who protested and said "but my love is real and genuine." Most people believe that it is wrong to fall in love with another man's wife or another wife's husband, and yet the adulterer will protest, "I truly am in love with her/him."  Most people reading this would say that love between a brother and a sister would be a wrong love.

Is it not possible for a human being to love the wrong person? If not, whence the tyranny of love?

These simple considerations show us that we all believe that some loves are wrong loves. It simply does not follow that if two people say they love one another that their love is necessarily, therefore, just by virtue of their insistence, right love.

Revelation is needed
So if love cannot be the arbiter of right relationships, since it is possible to love wrongly, what additional factor is required to determine the rightness or wrongness of love?

A good case can surely be made from nature itself. Heterosexual marriage makes a lot of sense.  A man's body is designed perfectly for a woman's body, for example. A man's body is not designed or a man's body. Severe health problems can arise from homosexual sex and from promiscuous sex. All of these facts ought to be seen as guidelines for leading us to the conclusion that an exclusive heterosexual relationship is the right one. But of course a thousand arguments will be thrown against this simple (yet sound) reasoning from nature, so where do we go next?

I do not think the world has anywhere else to go, and thus I can foresee the day when the word "marriage" will be used to cover any and every union possible, under the grand and seemingly incontrovertible banner "but they love each other". 

The Bible is clear
Christians who take all their theology (belief) and behaviour (practise) from the Bible (i.e. evangelical Christians) find very clear guidelines in Scripture. Taking their cure from the Bible is the same, they are convinced, as taking their cue from the Creator himself.  They know that in a fallen world it is quite possible for human love to fasten onto the wrong object. The now-fallen human heart can love all sorts of wrong things. "I love her" or "I love him" is no longer a guideline to propriety.
  • From Genesis 1&2 they observe that God made mankind heterosexually, and thus was designed for heterosexual love
  • From Genesis 19 (and Jude 1:7) we know that God was displeased with the homosexual sin of the men of Sodom (as he is with all sexual sin, we're not singling out homosexual sin, see Leviticus 18) 
  • From Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13 we learn that homosexual practise is an abomination in God's eyes (even though these verses form part of the civil law of the nation of Israel, they still have a teaching role)
  • From Romans 1:26-27 we learn that homosexual behaviour is shameful, unnatural and indecent.
  • From 1 Corinthians 6:9 we learn that homosexual offenders (and many other unrepentant sinners) will not inherit the kingdom of God (see also 1 Timothy 1:10).
There are simply too many statements on homosexual practise in the Bible to see it as anything other than wrong - and indeed sinful - practise.

Therefore same-sex love is wrong love.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Seek wisdom not knowledge

"Many will go here and there to increase knowledge" 

Prophecy is fraught....
I do not know if this verse from Daniel 12:4, refers to the present knowledge explosion caused by the Internet, and I'm past trying to figure those sorts of things out. Ever since I read a tract which claimed that the bar-code system was the mark of the beast, I have lost interest in (and any confidence in) trying to interpret prophecy in a specific way....

....but one thing is for sure, "knowledge" has increased phenomenally since the rise of the Internet. I put "knowledge" in inverted commas, because not all the "knowledge" out there is truth. Take Wikipedia for example. Wikipedia produces a skewed secularized version of knowledge. If you were to ask Wikipedia about the origins of western science or modern medicine, it is very unlikely that you would learn anything about the Christian soil that was essential to develop western science and modern medicine (in the latter case, the soil of Christian compassion).

The beauty of knowledge
Knowledge is a wonderful thing, it is even a form of light. To know how a virus works and to know how to avoid it can liberate a whole people from an infectious disease. Knowledge is indeed powerful. In the spiritual realm we are encouraged to grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:8), and urged to go beyond milk to meat, from elementary teachings to maturity (Hebrews 5/6).

It is worth stopping here and observing the kind of knowledge we urged to advance in, and here we are coming to nub of this blog. We are urged to grow in knowledge of Christ, which means not only knowledge about him, but knowing him better: growing in relationship with him. We are urged to grow in teaching about righteousness, which is all about distinguishing good from evil, according to Hebrews 5/6: advance in godliness knowledge/experience. And we are urged to grow not only in knowledge but in grace (2 Peter 3:8).

In the world, knowledge is about collecting facts. This guy has a PhD in XYZ and he knows alot about XYZ (normally a whole lot less than he thinks, says or boasts about). In Scripture knowledge is far more relational and ethical, it's about how much you know a Person, how much you know about godly living. 

The beast of knowledge
Knowledge, as defined by the world, the mere collection of facts, is almost completely useless in the kingdom of Christ. Indeed it can often be actually harmful. Why? Because "knowledge puffeth up" (1 Cor 8:1). Here are the two ways knowledge puffs up:

(1) Pure knowledge turns molehills into mountains
So I know tuns of stuff about one subject, and I lament the ignorance of my fellow brothers and sisters - and even leaders! Goodness gracious, why don't they realise the deal on THIS SUBJECT. Where am I going wrong? A volcanic island in the pacific ocean has become a continent in my mind. I think this is the most important subject in the world/church/etc. Why? Because I know about it!

Example: I do tons of research on Halloween and I am convinced it is a wicked festival and Christians should have absolutely nothing to do with it. But my church leaders aren't spending every sermon leading up to Halloween preaching against the evils. And then I learn, horror-of-all-horrors, that one family are sending their kids out trick or treating! So I'm through with that worldly church and I wonder if that family are converted at all (it could of course be that they are very young Christians....)

Where am I going wrong? There may be no doubt that Halloween is devilish, but I have turned a volcanic island of 1 square kilometre into a continent. How has this happened? Because I studied it for hours and hours and hours and hours and became a Mastermind on it.....

(2) Knowledge distorts the issue itself
Suppose I want to discover what translation of the Bible I should use. I spend many hours reading up on the issue and become an 'expert'.  I soon come to the conclusion that the best version is the RFV (Roy's favourite version). With the infinite pages of debate on the subject available I could prove to you (if you had the time or patience) that I was right. Of course, I would have been completely unaware that in the process of my learning, a thousand prejudices were shaping which books and gurus I consulted and which I ignored. But I am blissfully unaware of this and have now come to the conclusion that translation RFV is the best - and thus everyone should be using it. Except they don't, which makes me now suspicious of them.

The most amazing thing about the Bible is the way the texts have been preserved in such quantity and in such a manner that we need not doubt what God has said. Which translation we use is not the truth to focus on, or the debate to argue (or at least to spend much time on).  By insisting on defending the RFV I have really lost the plot: my knowledge has distorted the issue itself. 

What we need is wisdom, not knowledge
What we need is not knowledge but wisdom. Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. I have this knowledge, now how should I use it? What's the wisest way of using it? And since love is the greatest, what's the most loving way to use this knowledge?

Wisdom is the appropriate use of knowledge, wisdom is the balanced use of knowledge. Without wisdom, knowledge is useless and even dangerous.

Which brings me to my final point; knowledge should only be accumulated in connection with brothers and sisters to whom my findings and conclusions - and the effects thereof - are constantly being assessed.

"knowledge puffeth up, love builds up."

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Genius of the Gospel

One reason for confidence in the Bible
There are many reasons for having complete confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. One of them is this: when it comes to the details of "how to do church",  the New Testament is silent. Here are the areas of silence:
  1. when should you meet, day-wise and time-wise?
  2. what exactly should you do when you meet?
  3. what music, if any, should you use?
  4. what translations to use?
Human-made religions are filled with unkeepable detailed practical rules and regulations (pray five times a day and so on), but the New Testament is devoid of such details, and that is one reason for confidence that it comes from God.....

The Gospel is for the world
...for the task of the church is to take the Gospel into every tribal group in the world. This is only possible if the church, like the Son of God, becomes incarnational in that culture. If the missionaries stand outside that culture judging every aspect of it and trying to conform it to their own (cultural) standards, the Gospel will have little success.

The genius of the Gospel is that it focuses on majors and principles and says nothing about minors and details. Why? So that it can find a place in every culture and amongst every people.

Examples good and bad
I remember watching a black and white film from about the 1950s of a group of South American converts dressed in suits, hair brylcreemed, singing western songs in English to an approving church congregation in North America - you could read on the faces of the congregation, "these people are truly and properly converted!"  But this westerning of converts was an an embarrassing imposition of western-christian-culture and ways of 'doing church' on another culture.

If you go to many Asian churches in England, on the other hand, you will find Christians using Indian instruments singing distinctly Indian Christian songs (not translations of Wesley or Townend, words or tune-wise) and hearing sermons of a distinctly Indian nature (for example long and more rambling, rather than short and logical).

Our problem
Our problem is two fold. First we confuse tradition and Gospel. We think that what we do, as well as what we believe is of equal value and rightness. We forget that the NT nowhere stipulates that one must meet at 11.00am on a Sunday, nowhere stipulates we must sing hymns of a western variety to western instruments, nowhere says we must meet for an hour, and so on. All these little details are left to be worked out in the culture in which the Gospel finds a place.

Our real problem is far bigger: we don't get the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Son of God did not bring or impose the trappings of divinity upon the world, but came not only as a man, but "in the likeness of sinful flesh"  (Romans 8:3: as close as it is possible to be like us without any sin), and indeed incarnated himself into one world culture - Jewish culture. He would have been culturally indistinguishable from those around him, except for their sin. He would have dressed like a Jew, spoken like a Jew and acted like a Jew.

And we are called to reach our world in the same way.

The consequences of our confusion
The tragedy of our failure to grasp the Genius of the Gospel is that the world is so often put off by our
traditions and not by the Gospel. They are offended by ancient cultural relics in language (perhaps such as "thees" and "thous"), furniture (by pews and organs and tunes of a bygone age) and literature (KJV-like translations). They stumble over these and are put off before they have the chance to hear or see who Jesus is.

And in the end we complain that the fields are hard and stony, and we live in day of small things. While all along the problem is our refusal to become all things to all men to win them for Christ. We are more committed to our traditions than to the lost and to the Gospel.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Why Home Groups?

As our church's home groups restart for the autumn term, it's a good to reflect on why we meet together every week in homes. Here are the reasons, beginning with some recent history....

"Just come on Sundays and Wednesdays"
It is not so long ago that many evangelical churches in the West would encourage their members to come to a building called a "church" on Sundays and Wednesdays. This was all they needed, they were told, to grow in their new-found faith.

To be fair on that generation, since they had been brought up in a culture radically shaped by the Gospel, where persecution was zero and they already knew "how to live" because the Gospel had shaped culture, this advice was probably just about sufficient, even though not ideal - and certainly lacking, biblically. 

Today, with a radically secularised culture, "come to a church building two/three times of week" just will not grow the saints. Why do we need to meet together in smaller groups?

Because Jesus needed a small group
Right at the start of his ministry he chose 12 men "to be with him" (Mark 3:14). He the perfect man, the
God-man, did not think he could make it on his own but surrounded himself with twelve men, with whom he would not merely do worship, but with whom he did the whole of life. He wanted them to "be with him". We need people with whom we can "do life" and often a home group is where we find them.

Because we are all lacking
The Biblical view of an individual Christian is that of one body-part, an eye, a hand, a foot, and so on. By definition then, a single believer actually cannot function without other parts around us. Not merely around us, but functioning around us in living pulsating connection. I might lack wisdom on certain matters so I need someone who has wisdom to make up for my lack. Or perhaps I may lack knowledge and experience on other things, so I need someone with knowledge and experience to make up for that lack. I lack spiritual discernment perhaps, so I need someone who has that gift, who is that part, to make up for it. You simply can't get those functionings from a large gathering on a Sunday.

Because we all have something to give
The counterpoint to the previous point is that we all have some gift to contribute to others! They need us, as much as we need them. A small group is an ideal place to share the spiritual gift, the experience, wisdom, help, advice or knowledge we have been given. 

Because we need encouragement
In an increasingly postChristian culture we need encouragement. A few minutes of conversation over a coffee on a Sunday is surely not enough.

Because we need to be surrounded by examples
"Follow my example as a I follow the example of Christ" says Paul. How do we know what Christlikeness looks like unless we can see it in other more mature believers? As we meet with other believers we are challenged by their Christlikeness to become more Christlike ourselves.

Because we need mirrors
In their interaction with each other, the disciples revealed their own faults, such a pride, prayerlessness and faithlessness. If we have no mirrors around us to admonish us, how can our faults be corrected?

Because we need protection
A sheep on its own will be picked off by the enemy. A rumour about the local church, heard by an isolated sheep can be turned into a mighty lie by the evil one, stumbling that sheep. A sheep all on its own is thus not only a danger to itself, it's a danger to the whole flock.

A tragic legacy of the church aping the academy
One of the most tragic legacies of the church wanting to be like the world, is this legacy of big meetings in big buildings. The western church has aped the world and turned the church into an academy-like institution where all the emphasis is on learning, sermon-style. It took the less cerebral, more touchy-feely, more relational charismatic movement to restore the rightful place of the home group in the western church.

The blessings of home groups
Where they function well, home groups result in more Christlike Christians, for the emphasis when we meet in small groups is on character and grace and Christlikeness, not how much stuff you know. For pastors it means far fewer phone calls from the sheep because the sheep are looking after the sheep.

From a pastor's perspective
As a church pastor, I am deeply unhappy with anyone who joins the church until they commit to a small group, faithfully and regularly. Why? I know that their spiritual growth will be greatly stilted. And I know, that I, being merely an eye or a foot, cannot cause them to grow in Christ; pastors cannot replace the body. I know the time will come when they could be picked off by Satan. I know they are likely to be critical and negative because on the periphery of the church Satan will make them prime target number 1. I know they won't grow by coming only on a Sunday. I know that many wrong things they believe and many wrong attitudes in their hearts will remain unchallenged while they are not revealed in a homegroup setting. I know they will not grow into Christlikeness.

Spiritual growth is all I am concerned about -  I have zero interest in "numbers on a Sunday." I am only interested in those who like the disciples of old, are prepared to band together in a small group, for then, and only then, will they truly grow, not only in knowledge but in grace.

Monday, 4 August 2014

No such thing as "failure"

In the world, the word "failure" is a deadly word. "He's failed his driving test", "she's failed her exams", "he failed the probationary year", "she failed the interview", "his first company was a failure."

The very word  "failure" is meant to generate sad emotions while "success" is meant to put a smile on your face......

"Failure" is deadly because it's so terminal and hopeless: someone has set a standard of some kind and someone else has come short of the standard and as a result this person has somehow now become substandard, subhuman, whatever.

And what makes failure so difficult is that so often you just can't redo the event, it's now on your record, failure forever.

In the good providence of God what men call "failure" can turn out to be an opportunity filled with grace, an opportunity for God to demonstrate and pour grace into our lives and into that situation - no matter what it is.

The only time we ought to call a 'failure',  'failure' is when it fails God's standard - when it's a sin. To fail at marriage because we committed adultery is a proper failure, or to fail at parenting because we were deliberately negligent or violent is a proper failure. But even here, with true godly repentance, and the vast forgiveness and mercy of Jesus Christ, God can turn around these situations, pour in his grace and lead us on, to even better things. Where sins abounds grace more abounds.

But most of what we call "failure" is no failure at all in God's reckoning: it's a failure to come up to a standard established by men, not by God, and frankly in these cases we need to stop calling it 'failure' and start calling it a providential learning event.

If  we didn't pass an interview or a probationary year, we need to see these sorts of events as mere opportunities for personal growth and nothing more. God will use the experience, however painful, to glorify his name and teach us vital lessons.

Next time you are tempted to call an event a "failure" ask this question - does God view it that way? If not, no matter what the world might think, no matter what our peers might think, no matter what our families might think, change your thinking towards that event and think of it as an opportunity to learn and grow in grace.

"Many O Lord my God
are the wonders you have done.
The things you planned for us
no-one can recount to you;
were I to speak and tll of them,
they would be too many to declare."
Psalm 40:5

We can even consider it pure joy when we face these kinds of trials and disappointments, because we know they are developing vital perseverance in our characters.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Internet filters out Good Stuff

The Internet Age
You might have thought in our Internet age, that information on anything would be freely available to the world. Wikipedia and the like have done us a service in that regard.

But apart from the bias of the present (there is much more information available on the people of the last few decades than those of the past), there is also the bias of belief.

The Bias of Belief
The bias of belief is a bias which acts as a filter to what facts are regarded as worthwhile sharing and which are not. So, for example, if you lived under an atheistic regime, blogs and books about God would be suppressed.
An excellent explanation of  some of the differences between humans and animals

The filter of evolutionary theory
What many people in the west do not realise is that a widely held belief system such as the theory of evolution, imposes a very fine filter on some areas of knowledge: some really interesting stuff is simply not available to the general public.

Example: the infinite differences between human and animals
One example of this bias is a lack of information explaining the infinite differences between human beings and animals (notice, I did not say between human animals and other animals, for humans are not animals, they are in a wondeful category all on their own, a sui generis).

Try to find a book that spells out the infinite differences and you'll be hard pressed.

A scholarly explanation of the differences between humans and animals by an atheist-prophet (a man who is willing to speak up against his community)
Why? Because the world is blinded by the paradigm or world-view of evolutionary theory which says that we all come from the same source and therefore similarities are looked for only, not differences.

It takes very rare atheist-prophets like Raymond Tallis and very rare believing-authors like Stuart Burgess to point out these differences.

(But only the believing author can explain the reason for these differences- the image of God in mankind.) 

We must not think that the Internet gives us the balance of truth; all we get is filtered truth. 

Monday, 21 July 2014

One more reason to question Bible College training

In other blogs, I have argued against the usefulness of Bible Colleges for training the next generation of Christian workers. Here I focus on one additional argument against the practise: it creates minds that can't think simply.

The college trained mind
Whatever subject you train for in a college setting (with the exception perhaps of the excellent apprentice schemes for practical skills), your mind gets trained in a certain way; can't be helped.

You are encouarged to analyse, systematise, rationalise, and so on. The end product of university training on the mind, including the requirement to write essays and revise for exams is a mind that uses big words and complicated words and sentences, and often thinks conceptually.

Part of the reason for the college kind of reasoning, writing and speaking is that the people we are writing for, examined by and speak to at College have the same kinds of minds: mind reproduces mind.

Part of the reason for big words is that they are shorthand for what would be longer descriptions.

For example
So, if a College trained mind is talking about the wonderful truth that Jesus died in my place, he would refer to the "Penal Substitution of Christ."

The problem
The problem is not only that such a sentence sounds weird, it is also profoundly uninteresting and boring, because the wonderful death of Jesus Christ for me has been translated into  third party College-speak. If I was a fisherman, I'd miss this chapter out because I wouldn't have a clue what it meant. What does Penal mean for a starter? I have never once used that word in any conversation in my whole life. And I have never read it in the Bible.

The problem is that the ordinary Christian - and that's most of us - either thinks they have to become College trained to grow as a believer, or ends up not growing at all because they are choked with unintelligible college-ese.

The problem is that these guys and gals come out of College producing not sermons but lectures that pass over the heads of most. Or their preaching week by week just filters out most of society, so they are preaching to people who understand, but not people who represent society. Perhaps a few of them unlearn everything they had learnt in college, and thus become useful again.

The tragedy with 'collegese' is that because it is respected,  it's kept alive by pastors. I have been in a pastors' fraternal where they give "papers"! What? They take turns giving "papers"? No, they don't write a newspaper and share it on powerpoint, they do what researchers at universities do - give each other papers - write a talk abouts a subject and read it out to each other, and then it is often published. Why can't pastors say, "I'm gonna talk to you guys next month about the book of Job / abortion / Hudson Taylor / whatever", why does it have to be "Next month, brother X will be giving a paper entitled "The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor" (serious, that was the title of a 'paper' in a Christian theological journal in the 1980s. Can you work out what it means? Five points.).

We must train the next generation of workers in ordinary language so that the Gospel is not veiled. And that means keeping them as far away as possible from College.

Should I go to Bible College?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Women bishops and the end of the Anglican Church

The main news
Normally the atheistic BBC pays no attention to the CofE except a begrudging acknowledgement that somehow they belong to English-establishment-culture and so, like the Queen and the Proms, deserve a little air time (Editor to Junior, "I dislike it too, but it's just got to be done.")

Last night however, the BBC's main news was the vote by the ruling bodies of the Anglican Church to allow women bishops: they realised the importance, even if others didn't.

The main reason for the vote
The most important reason put forward for women bishops was that (of course not a Biblical one) the general public at large think men-only bishops an "incomprehensible" stance to take. So said archbishop Justin Welby. The general public think the church is nutters over this issue, so we must change our policy to be accepted by the world.  

Now they have changed, presumably, the world won't think they are barking mad and  will start joining them in droves. Actually, exactly the opposite will happen: watch and see.

Other ways to make yourself more relevant
There are of course other, far easier ways for Anglicans to make themselves more relevant to the general public, and all of them are connected to being a little, or a lot, more like their Founder. Get rid of those  dresses, dog collars and hats and smoke and ceremonies and flashy buildings and start looking more like ordinary human beings; that would be a good start. 

The new direction for Anglicans
Anyway, from now on, the precedent has been set - whenever the general public finds an issue "incomprehensible" according to the general public the Anglican church will seek to remove it:
  • "Virgin Birth" - incomprehensible, so it must go
  • "Divinity of Jesus Christ" - incomprehensible, gone
  • "Trinity" - incomprehensible, gone
  • "Mankind are sinners" - incomprehensible - and offensive to boot, be gone
  • "Jesus died for sinners" - incomprehensible, gone 
  • "Jesus is returning in power and glory" - Joking aren't you? the world is ending with the death of the sun, gone
  • "Repent of my sins" - But I'm not a sinner, gone
  • "Adultery wrong" - what's wrong with an innocent fling if it hurts no-one?, gone
  • "Stealing wrong" - why?, gone

The point is, if the church is following the world, where will it stop?It will stop where the world is.

In her desperate attempt to attract the world, instead of preaching the Gospel of Jesus, the water of life, the Anglican Church is using likeness to the world. 

Why it's wrong
The move is wrong, just as its predecessor - the decision to appoint women vicars was wrong some years ago - and for the same reasons. The synod doesn't like to hear these reasons because they all flow out of the Bible, and getting stuff from That Book is another image the church would like to shed.

It's wrong for the reasons outlined in my article (below). The reasons are so elementary a child could understand them. From their biology upwards, men and women are radically different. Both are made in the image of God, both are equal in dignity, but just as they have different roles biologically, so they have different roles in marriage and church, according to the Scriptures. Biology gives a clue to the fact that they have different roles: men can't be mothers biologically ("that's so sexist: we men demand equality of role in pregnancy, please"), women can't make sperm ("more sexism: we women want equal roles in pregnancy"). But it is revelation that shows us how different they really are.

The only way to make the sexes 'equal' is to remove these God-given differences (from biology upwards) and end up with a boring single gender "The androgyne".

While men are men and women are women they are different from biology to make-up to society.

And these wonderful God-given  differences have been recognised for 2000 years. As Robert Pigott, the BBC's religious affairs correspondent pointed out, men leading the church has been Christian orthodoxy since Jesus chose the 12  (

See: Biblical Roles of Men and Women

Why it won't work
This move won't work, because the power of the Gospel lies in truth and truth is always different from what the General Public think. It will also further feminise the church - plenty of blokes already struggle with the feminization of the church in other ways, so rather than bringing them in, it is likely to alienate them even further.

Wise pagans will see the move for what it is - a cynical sweetener designed to pull them in - and they won't be fooled.

Soon there will be no difference between the Anglican church and the world, at which time there will be no need for the Anglican church. 

The future of God's Church
Fortunately when God looks down from heaven he does not see man-made structures like the CofE. All he sees are individual congregations, some true, some not. And fortunately the cause of the kingdom in the UK is not dependent on the CofE or any other human organisation.

As the CofE becomes less and less relevant to the Kingdom of Christ (that is, as it apes the world more and more) may God raise up an army of church planters who will take the Gospel into the world and plant churches made up of new people in Christ, carrying with them the treasure of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone is the hope of the world.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Needed: a new UK pastors' conference for ordinary evangelical leaders?

A lot of benefit
For many years now I have been going to an annual Pastors'/Leaders' conference in London and each year I have come home refreshed, having heard the Lord speak to me, sometimes to encourage, sometimes to rebuke, always to bless.

I can remember in the first few years as a pastor wondering if someone had given the conference organisers a tip off about my last year, so relevant and encouraging were the talks to my situation. One older speaker  was a particular blessing because he had worked so hard to walk a mile in the moccasins of us young ministers.

And today, Day 1, in line with the past, has been a real blessing.

The turning point
But eight years ago something happened which made me 'wake up'. I took with me an ordinary church pastor with no formal training, no prior university education - but a very very fine pastor and preacher. I thought he would benefit, as I had. But to my astonishment he gained very little from the whole three days. He liked the people, he was in no way being critical or judgemental of the brothers he met; he simply did not know what they were on about. Their use of language, their illustrations, their style, their logic all came from another world: the university world and it completely failed to touch him.

From that moment onwards I began to put myself each year in his shoes (which ironically are also my shoes) and sure enough over the last 8 years I can see where he is coming from. Why hadn't I spotted it before? (See the end for one possible answer...)

This conference and others like it are run by highly educated pastors who preach in large and influential churches around the world. The illustrations they use are from Universities, from Law and from Cricket. In the years I have attended (well over 20) no-one has ever illustrated a talk with the pain of coming off methadone abuse or the struggle of making ends meet, or what's happening in Eastenders.

And the golden rule is this: who is on the stage reflects who comes to the conference. If it's all middle class blokes on the stage eventually it'll be all middle class in the congregation.  The problem of class has seemingly got worse over the years. For example they used to have ordinary musical instruments in the band [you know, guitar, bass, drums] but now it's just grand piano and good but rather posh singers. This means that the conference is made up of leaders/pastors who reflect a tiny segment of the UK population. There seem to be few fishermen among the throngs.

This segment of the UK population - the educated middle and upper classes  - need the Gospel to be sure, and their pastors need equipping, but now I am asking, where is there in the UK a conference for the bigger rank of ordinary pastors who have drug addicts and plumbers and mechanics and shop workers in their congregations? Whose sermons are not analytical Biblical expositions? Whose musicians include drummers and guitarists?

It's not that the conference I have been attending should come to an end. It's not that it should accommodate ordinary pastors - my guess is that the accommodation would be impossible (it ought to be possible, but I cannot see a fisherman being invited to speak, though an-almost fisherman made a guest appearance for one talk last year).

Time for change - or a new conference
It is time there was a conference for pastors who work in ordinary churches, who come from ordinary backgrounds, who serve ordinary folk, who like Wesley and Whitfield work hard at preaching to the man in the street, but unlike them, haven't got a posh education (but have been taught in the far higher and more prestigious school of Jesus Christ).

Is there such a conference already?

Would the existing conferences be willing to change (very significantly) to make their conferences attractive to ordinary pastors?

Why didn't I spot this 20 years ago?
Perhaps the problem is even more disturbing. Perhaps pastors, even though they feel the tension between what happens at Conference and what will happen next Sunday, are quite happy to go to a conference where Dr A and Dr B are speaking because it is their only link to some kind of "higher institution", "higher event", "academic institution", which gives them, in their minds, some kind of qdos in the church or world ("I'm going to a conference this week, so there, I am not just an ordinary despised pastor!")

Perhaps that's why I never realised all of this until 8 years ago, perhaps this is the reason I have been going all these years.....(ouch!)

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The marks of true greatness

Famous by numbers
In the world of the internet, it is possible to be famous without being great.

Of course it is you say.

It is also possible to seem great in the kingdom of God because you have vast numbers of followers on Twitter or your blog, or tons of friends on Facebook, or when googled your name appears as the first return.

In other words to be famous by numbers.

It is easy for Christians to fall into the trap of assessing greatness in exactly the way the world does. We ask how many downloads or how many books such and such has to his name and rank them greatest who has the mostest.

But numbers are deceitful
First, because numbers are no test of godliness. As we now know from numerous celebrities of the last few decades, fame in the world can go hand in hand with private sin in the home. Many people who grew up in the 70s and 80s watching family shows on a Saturday evening have now discovered that the hosts of these programs - men as famous as they come - harboured secret sexual sins.

Numbers don't reveal anything about righteousness, except perhaps inversely (out there in the world where sin is prized, fame may in fact be a sign of sinfulness).

In the second place, numbers are transient. Numbers only tell you who is famous today, in this existential slice of now. For all we know tomorrow their numbers may fall, so that someone we esteemed because of numbers yesterday is no longer to be esteemed by numbers today.

Thirdly, numbers, if they mean popularity, probably should be regarded as suspicious. The prophets weren't popular, the apostles weren't popular, especially the greatest ones like Paul. In their day they were hated and despised. And Jesus was not popular. Why? Because truth and popularity are inversely proportional in a fallen world: the more truthful, the less popular, the least truthful, the more popular. As a general rule, those who are prepared to speak the truth are hated in this world.

Fourthly, numbers don't reflect suffering. Those who walk in the footsteps of the despised Jesus, who take up his cross, whose lives are marked by suffering are those who walk closest to the Saviour and who are the greatest in the kingdom of Christ.

     And how many hits you get can't possibly reflect how many hits you get.

Suffering and sacrifice the real mark of greatness
The real mark of greatness in the kingdom is sacrifice and suffering, i.e. likeness unto the Saviour. These saints don't walk through the world - or, note, the church - doing what they want to do, acting how they please, but live submissive, sacrificial, Christ and others-pleasing lives.They often sacrifice what they want to the needs and well-being of others.

The ones we are to follow are those who can say like Paul:

"I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." (Phil 3:10)

They want to know not only the power of Jesus, but the sufferings of Jesus, and actually, they know a trick: that the cross always comes before the glory, and indeed is the route to glory.

Amy Carmichael, a great missionary to India, at least one point in her life wondered why someone who was regarded as great in the Christian world was being regarded as great (woudn't we like to know who this was?!).  Amy was not having a pity-party.

As she considered this person, she saw no scar, no self-sacrifice, no personal cost, just a life of "doing what I want" (sometimes, of course, wrapped up in high religious lingo). She wrote a famous poem about this so-called-great man (or was it a woman?):

Hast Thou No Scar 
by Amy Carmichael

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star,
Hast thou no scar?
Hast thou no wound?
Yet, I was wounded by the archers, spent.
Leaned me against the tree to die, and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned:
Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar?
Yet as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole. Can he have followed far
Who has no wound nor scar?

Don't worry or bother about numbers
So if you are a blogger don't worry one hoot if very few follow you. Rejoice in low numbers. For then you can have some confidence that instead of tickling itching ears you are probably speaking the truth.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Why you can't grow spiritually by listening to sermons online (alone)

An old peril now bigger
Choosing what we want to hear is a peril as old as the hills. Paul warned of those who would listen only to people who told them what they wanted to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). He was speaking to a young pastor and forewarning him that the day would come when someone would stop coming to hear him because he was offended by his teaching, and instead this person would gather around himself teachers that told him what he wanted to hear.

The end effect of neglecting the pastor's sound doctrine, said Paul, would be they would turn from the truth and start to believe myths!

Today this peril is made more real by the internet.

You can google your favourite subject and end up strolling down an infinite and narrowing corridor of ideas with which you agree. That's the point, "with which you agree." There you are, all on your own, following your own self, your own weaknesses, your own foibles, your own ideas. You following yourself. You disicpling yourself.

So if you are a judgemental type you could find some website that will condemn virtually all Christians (except yourself). If you are a lovey-dovey type, you'll find a website that never mentions hell. If you're a hell and brimstone type, you'll end up listening to "sock it to 'em bro" sermons.

No-one to correct
There'll be no-one to correct you, to point out that the corridor you have chosen is getting narrower and narrower. Eventually you end up believing myths. Stuf so far removed from the Gospel that Paul calls it "myths". Nothing to do with Jesus, nothing to do with God, nothing to do with the grace, nothing to do with the Gospel.

Why we can't grow on your own
There are five reasons we cannot grow as a Christian all on our own:

First you were never designed to learn (or do anything) on your own. God made us in his triune image and that has life-shattering, all-encompassing implications - including on how we learn. None of us have enough wisdom, experience or sense to learn on our own. It is never good for any man or woman "to be on their own" - for anything. 

Second, the image God gives to believers, is of a body, in which we are merely one part. No-one is more than a body part, eye, ear, whatever. It's actually impossible for any one body part to function without the others - at any level, including growth.

Third, we are fallen, so we all have profound imbalances. Someone who tries to grow on their own, will end up a monstrosity, with only certain areas growing and others completely neglected. A child given the choice to eat whatever he wants will end up ill, because there is something they need, which they won't eat. They'll end up with spiritual scurvy.

Fourth, God has given pastors to teach the whole counsel of God. The purpose of elders and pastors is to feed the flock a balance of the whole counsel of God, as Paul did in Ephesus (Acts 20:27).

Fifth, the Bible specifically says that growth is a corporate activity (Ephesians 4:16). The body grows, that's the unit of NT growth. The idea that we can grow in isolation from the body belies an OT  or monkish ecclesiology.

And example of growing through others
Every wise preacher consults commentaries. In this way they are not preaching what they think the passage says but listening to the collected wisdom of centuries and even millenia of faithful preachers- who of course, in turn, prayerfully asked God what he was saying. This is how we get wise - surround ourselves with a multitude of wise counsellors.

A wise preacher will deliberately buy a range of commentaries: some of his own theological bent and others of a different bent. He may even buy (or in this case better borrow, so that he does not waste money) liberal commentaries so that he can see how the pagan in the pew might be hearing that passage (a liberal is someone who approaches the Bible as one might approach Homer or Shakespeare, with no faith, no respect and no spiritual understanding - very helpful if you are preaching to pagans so that you can hear what they'll be thinking about the passage).

An example of stilted growth without others
I remember hearing about a meeting between a great Christian leader in the UK and a Christian who had been tortured for Christ over many years with many years on his own in prison, in solitary confinement. What was that Christian like? Well he had become weird. Who wouldn't become strange? In this case it was not his desire to be alone, but aloneness had twisted his personality and to some extent even his theology. The Great Shepherd of the sheep kept him in those dark years, but isolation was not an ideal place for developing doctrine or spiritual life. 

Me, my Bible and God
An indaquate method of spiritual growth is to sit in our rooms and read the Bible in splendid isolation from everyone else. Thinking we are hearing the Lord, but in fact being unaware that half the voices we are hearing are the loud voices of personal prejudice.

The very best way to grow is to listen to preaching addressed to our own community by a wise, loving and courageous pastor and through shared Bible Study with fellow believers where our prejudices and foibles - and frankly sinful and foolish ways of thinking - are constantly being exposed and addressed.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Why did Jesus come into the world in AD 0 (or was it 4BC)?

No, I won't use BCE and CE, unless you mean the C to refer to Christ, not 'common'. BC "Before Christ" and AD "Anno Domini: in the year of our Lord" are perfectly good universal and appropriate markers for global history, for Jesus Christ is the King of the Universe.

A great question 
I was asked this question in a discipleship class this week and it set our minds running. The only verse we could think of was Galatians 4:4....

"...when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that we
might receive the full rights of sons." 

from which we learn that (a) Christ came at just the right time, and (b) he had to be born under the law. Let's list some reasons from these  two knowns.

(i) All the pointers were in place
How do we know that Jesus is from God? Because he was preceded by multiple prophecies all pointing to him. One thing no human can do is to plant sign posts in history before they are born. All these Old Testament pointers show us, for sure, that Jesus is from God.

(ii) All that teaching about sacrifice sheds light on the perfect sacrifice
It was vital that the images came before the reality, the black and white before the colour, the type before the antitype. Those remarkable Old Testament sacrifices help us to understand the greater sacrifice of Jesus Christ. A male, a perfect male without blemish.

(iii) Millenia of sinfulness reveals mankind's need of a Saviour
If Jesus had come in Genesis 4, the absolute wickedness of mankind would not yet have been revealed to the world. But we have the OT record of wickedness - even religious wickedness - and we can see that there is no human solution to our problems.

(iv) Law shows up the need for grace
The law had to come before grace to show the absolute inability of religion to save us. All the law does is expose and increase our sin. Religion (=obey the law) is useless. A new scheme is necessary to know God and live for him. And that new scheme is the grace of God that has come to us from Jesus.

(v) Sin showed up mercy and love
The millenia of sin reveals the incredible love of God. Every passing century revealed more of the wickedness of mankind and made the patience and love of God to such wretches more and more amazing!

(vi) The right time geo-politically
I guess we can recognise that Alexander the Great had given the world a universal language and Rome universal roads.  This made the progress or advance of the Gospel easy. These empires thought they were serving their own ends but they were serving the Gospel of a sovereign God.

These seem to be some of the reasons Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, was born, not in Genesis 4, but in Matthew 2.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

What about all the violence in the Bible?

New and Western
A relatively new kid on the block of questions is this one. And a Western child too.
I cannot imagine many Africans, Indians or Iraqis asking  this question, because violence is just a normal part of their life and society. Reading about the violence in the Bible they are more likely to say, "What's so suprising about all this violence, we experience that every week of our lives." or "Wow, isn't this book real to life."

And yet though it's a new question and a Western one, it's worth a good answer in seven parts......

(1) Remember we're judging from the comfort of western peace
That's the first thing any Westerner needs to acknowledge. To a Westerner, any culture, contemporary or ancient, that does not have an ordered police force, justice in the courts and prosperity is likely to be called "violent" or "barbaric" or at least patronisingly "uncivilised". What the Westerner should be asking is "how come we happen to live in peace?" rather than "why do they live in violence?" Because violence has and always will be the norm in the world (any one who wants to deny or dispute this has to switch the TV on or review the 20th century - or any other century, past or future).

The reason we live in peace is explained eloquently by the Indian Vishal Mangalwadi in his wonderful book, The Book That Made Your World. In this book Vishal, who originated from India shows that the reason for Western Civilisation and all the amazing things we enjoy - including peace - is the vast influence of the Bible.

One of the most important books of our times. Violence is the norm, peace is unusual. Instead of condemning what we think are "violent" cultures, we should be grateful for our peace and ask from whence it came.

(2) The Bible is an honest book
The Bible does contain a lot of violence because it is an honest book. It does not whitewash evil like many other annals of antiquity which gloss over the wicked deeds of their heroes. (This was another thing that struck Vishal about the Bible- it was honest compared to the writings of India which glossed over the sins of their own heros).

(3) The civil laws of the OT are not final ethics
Some of the OT laws may seem barbaric to our eyes. But remember they are much better than the surrounding laws of the nations (such as the Babylonian Hammurabi Code, available free on Kindle) but in the end they are not meant to reflect final ethics - that is only found in Jesus. Remember too that Israel was mostly unbelievers and the laws reflect the need for harsh treatment to contain violent tendencies in the absence of regenerate Holy Spirit hearts. Their hearts were hard, said Jesus in Matthew 19, which is why they were allowed to divorce their wives so 'easily'. Divorce was never God's intention, but what do you do when hearts are hard? You have to limit the effects of wicked behaviour rather than try to control it.

(4) Israel was a theocracy under the direct rule of God
The only nation to have that status, and only for a short time. She could act as God's instrument of judgement as she did when she wiped out the wicked Canaanites. If we don't like this, remember God used other nations to judge Israel. There is no nation  (not even America) who can claim to be God's Nation, with the authority to judge others. This was the great (but simple) error of the Crusades.

(5) We're not meant to copy much of the evil behaviour
So many OT kings were wicked; they are not examples of what to do, they are examples of what not to do. The violence is there to serve as a warning, not a blueprint.

(6) Sometimes the problem is behind the violence
Sometimes the real problem people have is not with the violence at all, but what is being taught. God judges other nations using Israel: we don't like the fact that God is the Judge. Uzzah dies for touching the ark: we don't like this teaching on the seriousness of sin!

(7) The darkest moment is not in the OT at all
The darkest moment of the Bible is the Crucifixion of Jesus, not because it was the most violent act in all of history, but because this was an Innocent Man, because he was being blamed for our wrongdoing and because he was suffering ultimate death, separation from God - spiritual suffering. This violence was allowed by God because he loved us, and the only way we could be forgiven was if our sin was paid for in full.

For love's sake Jesus became poor and bore upon himself the sin of the world. The darkest moment thus turns out to be the brightest, for through it we may be forgiven for our sins.

If we can look beyond the violence of the Bible to this moment and recognise that it was our sins that put the holy Son of God on a cross,  and if we cna trust in this atoning sacrifice, we can find peace with God through faith in his Son.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The precious gift of faith

My grudge with the charismatics
I have many charismatic friends - whether they view me in the same light, I know not. One grudge against them is the downplaying of certain spiritual gifts and the uplifting of others. Our good friends will big up speaking in tongues, healing, words of knowledge and the like, but I have yet  to hear a single charismatic friend extol the glories of the precious gift of faith.

I guess we are all imbalanced somewhere, though I can't think.......

"Saved by grace... by faith... not of yourselves.. it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8,9)

What is the gift of faith?
Quite literally the ability to see things and believe things otherwise invisible. It is a believer's way of "knowing". The mind is one way of knowing. The world knows things through the approval of the mind. A man reads a book about flowers and his mind agrees with what he is reading, and he now knows this fact, that gardening technique. Experience is another way of knowing - we may learn the hard way something that the mind ignored or refused to accept.

Faith is a spiritual gift which enables us to know certain things with absolute certainty, but without the use of reason or experience.

So for example, we believe God created all things by faith (Hebrews 11:3). (So, if the world taught that the universe just came about by itself without God, we would not accept that belief, because we know, through the gift of faith, that God is the great Creator.)

For example, we believe in life after death. There is no way experience or reason could lead to that truth, unless you buy into NDEs,  Near Death Experiences. There are some faith-truths that are just not open to reason or experience, they are beyond the weak powers of reason and experience. That's why we need faith, because reason is so weak, not to mention fallible.

Faith is supported by reason and experience
This does not mean that reason and experience are irrelevant to faith or opposed by faith. Since God created the world, we should expect to find lots of reason-evidence and experience-evidence around us, and my oh my, so we do.  (Proper) Reason and (Proper) Experience will always support Faith.

Reason and Experience always rely on a kind of 'faith'
Critics of faith will always say that they don't need faith, because they rely on the tangible and 'more sure' methods of reason and experience for their truer 'knowledge'. But of course this is entirely untrue. All reason relies on faith of a kind, not supernatural faith, but trust (faith) in others. Take research in any scientific field. The researcher relies on (i) other people's research, (ii) the laws of nature, (iii) the stability of natural law, (iv) the present paradigm in which that science is operating; none of which he or she has the time nor ability to "prove."

A divine gift that comes through hearing
Faith - an incredible supernatural gift from God - comes through hearing God's word. This is a mysterious and wonderful thing. If we don't have faith, we need to read God's Word, listen to preaching, and somehow, mysteriously, wonderfully, God gives us the gift of faith.

And this gift is more precious than any of the other spiritual gifts God gives, because it opens the door of eternal life.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The tragedy of "succeeding" before God's time

A handful of faces
In my mind's eye I have a handful of faces and names from decades past. Of men who are no longer useful in the kingdom of God, but who once showed potential. Today they are neatly parked in cul-de-sacs of uselessness or else they have made shipwreck of their faith.

And the reason for this handful is the same: they ran before they could walk. In some cases it was foolish pride, in some cases they were encouraged by unwise older believers to run before they could walk, in still other cases they were not discipled in the early years of their Christian faith and so they discipled themselves, and imagined they could run before they could walk.

Wanting to run before you can walk
This is the first peril. Before we have any wisdom (we may have knowledge, but there is a universe of difference between wisdom and knowledge), we expect to be listened to, we expect to assume influential roles. The cause of this peril is pride -  the idea that somehow we are better / more knowledgeable / more whatnot than others.

Of course, pride dresses its ugly self up in the beautiful garb of zeal  - but in the end it is plain and simple pride. I mean Satan isn't going to allow pride to be called pride ("ooo", "ouch") is he?

Wanting to run before we can crawl is the first peril which leads some into "succeeding" (or at least wanting to succeed) before their time. And it can very easily lead to ruin. Not without reason does Paul say that leaders must not be new converts lest they get proud (1 Tim 3:6) and end up in the same pit as Satan.

The cure to this peril is to bear the yoke while we are young (Lam 3:27). Follow others, listen to others, think little - or better nothing - of our own opinions, hold lightly to our immature ideas. Do what others tell us to do. And one day when we have learnt to follow, we can be entrusted with the awesome task of leading others.

Being made to run before we can walk
An equally dangerous mistake is made by older Christians who push young babies into responsible roles - and in the process expose them to Satan's chest-puffing suggestions. It's all done in good faith - here is a famous sports star just converted or a young convert who seems to be on fire. Load them with responsibilities and give them the stage!

What a young believer needs is a few years in total obscurity, learning to grow, getting the ABCs into place, such as (- not knowledge, that is XYZ) a humble spirit, a servant heart, a teachable attitude, a Christ-like attitude.

Being left to disciple ourselves
I think of one more face of ruin - a young man who was not discipled in  his faith in the early years - and by the time someone loved him enough to disciple him, it was too late: he would not be discipled. Today Satan has him nicely parked in a lay-by troubling no-one, least of all his evil self.

This young man was self-discipled. This was in the early days of the Internet, and basically he taught himself. What happens? He picks and chooses what he wants to read. He's not going to listen to wise elders and loving pastors, he's going to listen to what He wants to listen to, capital H. And guess what? His input lines up with his prejudices and weaknesses and foibles. All he listens to reinforces all of his prejudices, which, naturally, grow, and grow and grow.

He has no-one around him in these early years to tell him, "that is error", "that is folly", "that is just plain daft", so those ideas grow and grow and eventually take over his mind. Before long his "theology" is a jumble of crazy ideas - which he thinks are of primary significance - but in point of fact and reality do not rank as secondary, tertiary or even quaternary (of fourth importance) issues.

This man is like a carpenter's apprentice who refuses to take advice from the master carpenter (that's how absurd the situation is!) He will make joints as he sees fit, he will carve as he sees fit, he will choose the wood he sees fit. Now, would you buy a chair from this fellow? Would you employ him? Would you take carpentry lessons from him?! No, no, no. I don't think so. Would you sit on his chair? I hope not.

Wherever this man was converted, they have failed to disciple him.

Is there a cure or is there hope? Only by a humbling, which God alone can do (we are never called to humble someone else, by the way; that is God's work, and God's work alone).

The Bible way to 'success'
The proper way to "succeed" is to humbly serve Jesus in our local churches, learn from those with infinitely more wisdom than us (in Scripture it is wisdom that counts, not knowledge, which is almost irrelevant to spiritual growth), obey when told to do something, and wait a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long time (i.e. wait a long time). Until God raises us up, until the elders and God's people see in us servanthood and humility and Christlikeness.

Then, and only then, can Jesus entrust us with some great great task. Not before, not for the sake of the Kingdom of Jesus, not one minute before.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Why is Satan Selfish?

That Isaiah 14 passage
We are not told much about Satan's origin, but Isaiah chapter 14 is often - and I believe correctly - thought to reflect his fall. Although it is a description of the king of Babylon's fall, interpreters have read in these verses an echo of that darker previous fall (Satan and his followers are not very original, and behind the fall of anyone filled with pride is the same old devilish pattern):

12 How you have fallen from heaven,
    morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
    you who once laid low the nations!

It's all about me
Nothing strikes us more in Isaiah 14 than all the personal pronouns, "I", "my" and "myself", seven of them:

This is what the once-glorious creature said in his heart: 

13 You said in your heart,
    I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”
15 But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
    to the depths of the pit.

It's all about number 1, all about him, all about his own concerns. This is in such stark contrast to the other-love of God, "For God so love the world."  Satan is consumed with himself and with his own concerns.

But why is Satan selfish?
But why is Satan selfish? That may seem a strange question to ask, but it is instructive. At least one reason is this: he is a unity, not a plurality. Satan is on his own, he is a unity of person, if we can credit personhood to such a twisted being.  

Satan isn't used to having to hang out with anyone else or submitting to anyone else. He is not used to talking to anyone else or taking advice from anyone else. He is not used to submitting to anyone else. He's the king of his castle. All he can think of is his own (destructive) ends.

God is a Trinity
At the other end of the spectrum (although we are reluctant to place God on the same spectrum as the evil one) is the Creator God. The true and living God is a Trinity and this doctrine has a profound effect on everything he is and everything God does. Although he rises infinitely above us in glory and majesty, and though he is beyond our thoughts to comprehend, yet we can understand a little.

From all eternity God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has had communion within himself - we catch wonderful glimpses of this intra-trinitarian communion in John's Gospel. Father, Son and Holy Spirit have loved one another from all eternity. This is why God can be called love, "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and why "Love comes from God" (1 John 4:7)

God's vision is outward looking towards a lost world because he loves already within himself. Love comes from within the Godhead.

What does this mean for us?
God made us in his Trinitarian iamge, not the ugly image of the unitarian evil one. We must trace all self-centredness, all "me-itis" to Satan. Whenever I expect  the world, my church, my family or my marriage to revolve around me or my concerns, I should recognise the orgin of  such selfishness: not the outward seeking trinitarian Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the all-on-his-own, unitarian self-seeking Satan. 

In fact here's a test: we know we are being formed into the likeness of Jesus, the one who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many, when the direction of our hearts and lives and thoughts is outward looking and filled with love divine, and when we find it easy to "submit to one another out of reverence to Christ".