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Monday, 24 August 2015

Family and Gospel - an unpredictable mixture

The Good....
Families can be a tremendous asset in the work of the Gospel. Jesus chose two sets of brothers (Peter/Andrew and James/John) among his disciples. Missions around the world have been started by brothers, and even more by husband and wife teams.  John and Charles Wesley worked together in the cause of the Gospel (though Charles complained that John was bossy - he was!), and many families have worked together in the cause of the Gospel.

...the Bad
But there is a problem with families - their love is often blind love. We tend to love our flesh and blood so much that we are unable to see a situation in our family in a neutral way. We all too easily big up small gifts and graces and play down big foibles and sins. Families cannot see a church issue objectively - if it includes a member of their own family.

Here is the heart of the problem: across close loving family relationships, not only does truth and good pass, evil and error can also pass unnoticed - or at least pass unchallenged.

The Bible illustrates this in many ways....

...and the Ugly
Adam is standing with his wife, Eve, watching the temptation proceed and instead of rebuking the serpent and protecting his wife by taking charge, he allows it all to happen. Was he charmed at Eve's clever responses to the serpent?

Solomon is so besotted with all those wives from foreign lands that he gave into their "can I have a little idol from my home country on the mantelpiece please - if you love me...." pleas and became an idolater.

Eli was unable to deal with the sins in his two wicked sons. He allowed them to serve in the temple even though they were wicked men! Surely he would have been outraged had he seen these sins in anyone else's family and would have complained if such wicked men were serving at the temple!

Barnabas was blind to the weaknesses of his cousin John Mark who was unsuitable for a church planting mission (because he had abandoned a previous mission - that's no small weakness when you're planting a new church!) and fell out over Paul over him. (Those who have ben involved in church planting know that a leader backing out damages the credibility of the whole mission in the eyes of new converts and is a stumbling block too big to handle).

Anyone who has been involved in church life will know that a large family in a church can strangle the life right out of it with "block votes" and all kinds of other political machinations: no move can be made unless the patriarch (or matriarch) approves - even though they might be blindingly wrong.

How do we safeguard ourselves and our churches against the negative sides of the family, from the blindness of our families?

1) Don't believe members of your flesh and blood family blindly. They may be wrong, totally wrong. Be discerning. Just because a member of our family says something or believes something is no reason for that to be true. Adam is blamed for listening to his wife - that was his fault. He should have corrected her, not lisetend to her.

2) If you are involved in a mission with a family member, beware of your family blind spots: no one single family can ever see an issue straight, they are simply too biased.

3) Learn to discern when your decision is shaped by family or by Gospel priorities, and at least be honest about your motives.

4) Look beyond your own family.

5) Church leaders must never give in to the demands of a family in the church - no matter who they are; the commands of Jesus must always trump the demands of a family, whatever the cost.

6) While it may be necessary to start a mission with members of one family, quickly diversify and include non-family members who will be able to see objectively.

7) It is better not to start any outreach work dominated by a single family. Jesus sets the statistic - he had no more than 2 out of 12 or 1 out of 6 - or 17% - of his disciples coming from one family. In a church plant for example, that's a healthy statistic to adopt - don't have more than 17% of the core from any one family.

One day all earthly families will be dissolved and all family blindnesses and prejudices ended. In that final and eternal family it will not be family blood that binds us and sometimes blinds us together, it will be a different blood that binds us together, the blood of the Lamb on the throne.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Lessons from Corbyn & Trump

Something is happening.....
...on both sides of the Atlantic.

People are voting for straight-talking plain-speaking "ordinary blokes", rather than smooth-talking career-minded politicians.

On this side of the Atlantic the labour party is trying to find a new leader. Three of the four candidates sound exactly the same - politically-correct, bland, polished smoothies. Standing out by a few light years is an old geyser who speaks his mind simply and tells it like it is. He "aint bovered" what the media think, he has convictions and tells it like it is. You may not like what he stands for but at least you know what he stands for. The other three might change their minds on everything, should some opinion poll come out against what they presently believe. (For all I know they may have changed their minds six times since I began writing this blog, that's only a few minutes ago...)

On the other side of the Atlantic something similar is happening. Though Mr Trump is making a thousand politically incorrect statements, he's gaining in popularity.

Why this yearning for plain speakers?
Because we are surrounded by leaders who have no convictions and only one ambition - to get votes at all costs. If they need to change a view of theirs - any view - because it is making them unpopular they are very happy to do so. Popularity leading to power is all that matters, not principles.

Our nations seem to be weary of such politicians and would prefer someone real who "aint bovered" what people think of him/her.

It is intriguing to watch how the old dogs (e.g. Tony Blair) and the establishment media (e.g. BBC) absolutely hate these guys - they are stepping all over their polished blue-swede shoes (the opposition of a pagan institution like the BBC in itself should make us stand up and listen).

And the church?
I notice that Jesus bypassed the polished smoothies of his day (Pharisees and Sadducees and the like) and choose rough ordinary blokes as his followers. The leaders of the early church were uneducated ordinary blokes, filled with the Spirit, rather than filled with Degrees. And if there is something lacking - seriously lacking - in the western church, it is leaders who come from the ranks of fishermen and tax collectors. Most of the top leaders in the Western Church today are highly educated smoothies, who, frankly, all too often sound just like one another. We look in vain for the Peters and James's.

One example: I went to a church planting conference this year "A Time to Plant." The highlight for me was a small side seminar led by Dai Hankey, a proper Welsh "fisherman" church planter. So I thought when it came to interviewing church planters in the main sessions, this Welshman would - of course - be on the stage. The conference organisers would, of course, want wide representation.  Not at all, they opted for, "he's safe for the small side meeting attended by very few, folks, but we only want safe smoothies for the big show."  

We need Pauls, don't get me wrong, I'm talking about balance, here. Can you name one single major leader in the Western church, who is just a 'regular guy' to balance the books?

No? Well then, that's the point.

And we wonder why such great swathes of our nations are untouched. They are untouched because they look and listen to the preachers of our day and think, "Those guys aren't like us", and walk away - and in rejecting a culture they don't understand, they reject the Gospel and the Christ they need. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

How the Gospel Changes Sexual Morality

Unfortunately, we can no longer dance around the subject of sexual rights and wrong in the western world we now live. We have to be plain - and sometimes this means saying things we would much prefer not saying; but if we are not plain, we will loose this generation who are being deeply influenced by a pagan sexuality.

An example from history - the Roman world of the New Testament era

In Kyle's Harper's excellent book, "From Shame to Sin" (in a Harvard University series of books) he describes the sexual code of first century Rome (the world of the New Testament):
  1. Adultery was defined as sex with a married woman - but a married man was not committing adultery if he had sex with slaves or prostitutes! And many married men did have sex with their slaves and with prostitutes, and nothing was thought about it.
  2. Women were to be chaste before marriage (at the age of around 14-16) and pure within marriage, but men could play the field in the decade before marriage (at the age of around 25) and then they could play the field afterwards - provided of course that they didn't play the field with an already-married woman. In other words there were double standards for men and women.
  3. Homosexual acts were divided into two groups - one allowed, the other not: Allowed: sex with boys or sex with male prostitutes. Not Allowed: passive sex.
The Gospel absolutely changed all of this, and soon after the "conversion" of Constantine (312 AD), this is what happened:
  1. Adultery was defined biblically - as any sex outside of marriage
  2. The standard before and after marriage was the same for both men and women: no sex before marriage and no sex outside of marriage
  3. Homosexual sin was redefined most radically: ALL homosexual acts were wrong, and that included acts between men and acts between women. What is more this sin was regarded as the one that demonstrated more than any other mankind's rebellion against God and his creatorily design.
Today's situation
In the world in which we now live, the following sexual mores hold true:
  1. After marriage, adultery and porn is OK provided you don't get caught for the former
  2. Before marriage, for both men and women, sex and porn are OK
  3. Homosexual acts are divided into three groups: not allowed: with children; sort of OK - promiscuous sex; totally permissible: sex in a long term partnership
In the face of this present (pagan) situation we must re-assert God's standards for Christian people: all sex outside of sex between one man married to one woman is sinful in God's eyes. All homosexuality is sinful and wrong. All pornography is wrong.

We're not called to judge those outside the church, but we are called to judge those within the church, and God's standard is very simple: sex is right within a heterosexual marriage, and outside of marriage sexual immorality is one of the sins which will bring down God's righteous wrath. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015


The Day I was on Facebook

Some years ago I went on Facebook - for a week or so. I must have joined near my birthday and was shocked to receive so many "happy birthdays" - clearly Facebook is programmed with the assumption that Birthdays are very important events to many people.

I left Facebook because frankly, I don't want lots of people saying "Happy Birthday" to me.

But Why?


Symptoms of  spiritual disease

For me birthdays have become a symptom of several spiritual diseases in the Western Church.

First, the love of pleasure, "In the last days... people will be lovers of themselves.... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God." (2 Timothy 3:1-5). Out there in the world, men and women get their kicks from earthly parties and so birthdays are a really big source of earthly joy; that's why so much time and money and energy are poured into birthday events. But we, surely, have more Solid and lasting Treasures and that should be reflected in the lower-key nature of our birthday events. But is this always so?

A second disease is the lack of sacrificial love for others. What do I mean? In the world birthdays are so important people will take a day off work (even if it's inconvenient for their colleagues or their company); if they have any other regular commitment to any voluntary organisation or person on that day, those can all go, because "it's my birthday and that comes first". Christians are called to think of others in all their actions, "How will this action impinge on my brother or sister? Will I discourage or encourage them if I am away? Will I build up or destroy?" The writer to the Hebrews says "Let us not give up meeting together together... but let us encourage one another" implying that our mere presence encourages or discourages (Hebrews 10:25). So if my absence from a Christian gathering or ministry - because it is my birthday - would discourage someone, then I will gladly forgo my absence for the sake of others. When we make a decision to be among God's people, what should come first in the mind of a Christian is the impact on others.

I don't know about you, but I am profoundly discouraged when a brother or sister in Christ puts a mere birthday above meeting with their brothers and sisters in Christ: it casts a shadow over the whole event. I think - and I am right to think this - "we can't matter very much to them."

The third disease is the priority of the earthly family. When we come to know the Lord, our church family becomes our main family, our true brothers and sisters, according to Jesus, because it is now our eternal family. "Who are my mother and my brothers?... whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:35). If there is a clash between meeting with our eternal brothers and sisters and meeting with our temporary soon-to-pass flesh family, that choice should be fairly easy to make.

The fourth disease is a failure of cross-bearing. "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34). In other parts of the world, our brothers and sisters are sacrificing  jobs and homes, children and some their lives for the sake of the Gospel, but for us sacrificing a birthday is a step too far! If a mere birthday clashes with Christian service or a Christian gathering we won't give up that birthday for the sake of Christ! How far we have fallen! What small tiny sacrifices we are unwilling to make!

When it comes to birthdays, count me out!

So when it comes to birthdays count me out:  because birthdays have become for me a symptom of the spiritual poverty of so much of western Christianity.

Biblically, birthdays are zero events - they have no spiritual value. When mentioned in the Scriptures they don't come out well and prove how these events can so easily become opportunities for excess. Pharaoh murdered one of his chief officials on his birthday (Genesis 40:20), Job was worried about his children sinning on their birthdays (Job 1:4), Herod murdered John the Baptist on his birthday (Mark 6:21). No New Testament letter writer ever says at the end of his letter, "by the way, do wish John a happy birthday" or "don't forget my birthday."

Perhaps when it costs us to be a Christian then birthdays will automatically recede into the far background, where they belong.

So when it comes to birthday wishes, count me out. It's my small protest against excess. 

No redeeming features?

Are there no redeeming features to birthdays? I'm not saying that. It's good to spend time with family and friends. In the Old Testament God's people celebrated festivals - we need breaks and happy events. It's a matter of balance and priorities.

Let us think Christ-like when it comes to birthdays. If our birthday or the birthday of a loved one falls on a day when we are due to meet with our brothers and sisters, or due to serve the Lord in a regular ministry, let's either move the birthday to another day or forget the birthday that year altogether. Let's be moderate about our expenditure, above all, let's fix our affections on things above.