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Posts by Anthony
18 Feb 2013
I gave a brief children's talk at our church yesterday. It went something like this...
What is this a photo of? (A rubbish dump.) Would you like to go there later? (No. Or yes!) Why not? (It smells. Seagulls are like dogs and they will eat you alive.)
Near where we live there used to be a rubbish dump. But now it looks like this:
It's a nature reserve with a play area. Would you like to go there? (Yes.) Why? (Fun, nature.)
Here's a verse from the end of the Bible:
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5, NIV)
One day Jesus will come back to the world, and through him God will make everything new. Just like that rubbish dump that is now a nature reserve, it will be like that with the whole world when Jesus comes back!
(Produce a globe with PostIt notes on.)
What is this? (The world.) What's wrong with this world? (It's got stickers on!)
(Ask volunteers to take stickers off and read what is written on the back: "death", "sickness", "famines", "wars", "selfishness", "sadness", "pain".)
For each sticker: In the world now ... But when Jesus comes back to the earth and when God makes everything new, there won't be any more X.
(Produce a separate sticker, "you and me".)
What about you and me? Sometimes we are selfish, we fight with other people, we hurt other people, and we make the world a bad place. We need someone to make us new if we will live here when God makes everything new.
There's good news in our second verse:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV-2011)
If Jesus takes away all the bad things we've done, and makes us new, then when he comes back we'll be here for ever with him, when God makes everything new. (Put sticker on the world.)
Sing a version of the Lord's Prayer by Ian Smale: when we sing "may your kingdom come, may your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven" we are asking God to make make everything new.
18 Feb 2013
Your goal in life is to be free.
Free from nature.
You were born with a particular body, into a particular family, into a particular geographical, social and cultural context, and you were brought up in a particular way.
Your goal in life is to escape from that, and to discover your true self, independent of the constraints of nature.
It's striking how many aspects of our culture can be construed as attempts to do just that.
- We assert our freedom from nature by moving away from our town (or country) of birth, and by following a career path different from that of our parents.
- We value technology because it allows us to escape from our own "natural" existence, to forge our own identity, to be whoever we want, wherever we want, with whomever we want, whenever we want.
- Money sets us free, because with enough money we can escape from where we live and be anywhere on the planet within a few hours.
- Money sets us free, because we can change our bodies so they reflect our true identity. We can even change our biological gender.
- We perceive our true identity as having absolutely nothing to do with nature (particularly our biological gender), and it is discriminatory to suggest otherwise.
- We assert our freedom to control our bodies, even to the extent that anything that might depend on our bodies for its survival must, by definition, not be another human being.
This kind of attitude finds its way into the church too. Most obviously, in the liberal segments of the church, attempts are made to re-interpret the faith as if our identity as human beings is essentially genderless. But this attitude also finds its way into the more conservative evangelical segments of the church. To pick three bees from under my bonnet:
- We tell the gospel as the good news that we will one day escape from nature entirely, to live in an ethereal, heavenly paradise.
- We find is easy to reconcile the evolutionary narrative with the biblical narrative, because it doesn't matter to us whether agony and death are hard-wired into the present created order: after all, nature is inherently evil, and we are looking forward to escaping from it when this created order is discarded in favour of something completely different.
- We see environmental concern as a distraction from the work of the Kingdom, because this present created order is of no enduring value, and because our goal in life is to escape from it.
There are philosophical underpinnings for this battle between nature and freedom. I need to delve deeper into them, but for a starting point, read about the Nature-Freedom Ground Motive, as described by Andrew Basden, based on the writings of Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd.
6 Feb 2013
Would you like a punch?
"Punch" is an example of a word with more than one meaning. It might look like this in a dictionary—and you'd better be clear which I mean before you answer!
punch n. 1 a hit or a strike with a fist. 2 a device for punching holes. 3 a drink, generally warm, fruity and alcoholic.
"Marriage" is also a word with more than one meaning. That has been the case for a long time, but until recently it hasn't been important to distinguish between the two. Here's how it might look in a dictionary:
marriage n. 1 the voluntary sexual and public social union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. 2 an honour bestowed by the state on certain relationships.
Until recently, it has been possible to use these definitions more or less interchangeably. The state would bestow the honour of "marriage" only on relationships that were "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others", and you would never meet anyone who seriously expected to be treated as married who hadn't received the honour of "marriage" from the state. "Marriage" as a union and "marriage" as an honour given by the state overlapped perfectly.
In fact, so close have the two definitions been, that probably most people think of "marriage" as having but one definition: an honour bestowed by the state on certain relationships.
But now those who hold to this double definition of marriage need to be careful to make it clear which definition they are using.
- When a church says they are running a marriage preparation course, they need to be clear that they are preparing couples to enter a union of one man and one woman (definition 1). They are not preparing the couples to receive an honour from the state (definition 2).
- When a church has a marriage service, they need to make it clear whether they are recognising the union of a man and a woman, or whether they are acting as agents of the state in bestowing on two people the state honour of being "married". Or, indeed, if they are doing both, and if so, how the two are connected. (It might be better to make a clear distinction between the two by having two separate ceremonies, as Jonathan Chaplin suggests.)
- When a Christian school-teacher is required to promote the value of marriage, he or she needs to be clear that they are required to promote the value of the legal institution of "marriage" (definition 2): the legal benefits that accompany the honour of being "married" in the eyes of the state. They are not (it seems) required to promote a particular kind of relationship, but merely the benefits of having that relationship legally recognised.
- When we use language such as "redefining marriage" or "introducing same-sex marriage", we need to be very, very clear that we are talking about marriage as an honour bestowed by the state (definition 2).
I'm convinced that most of the kerfuffle about the issue of same-sex marriage is caused by failure to distinguish between these two meanings of the word "marriage". Once we start being clear about the distinction, it might be possible to approach the issue with some sense of perspective.
We might even be able to stop (metaphorically) punching each other, and manage to "live at peace with everyone" (Rom 12:18, NIV).
23 Jan 2013
Stephen Neill (1900-1984), Anglican missionary, bishop and scholar, presents an appealing picture of Anglicanism in his 1958(*) book, simply titled, Anglicanism.
One of the things I've been trying to un-learn while reading it has been the idea that it is perfectly normal for there to be numerous churches and denominations, all formally independent of each other.
At the time of the Reformation, there was but one church—one Catholic church—in the Western world. This church was in desperate need of reform, and so great was the need for reformation that some parts of the one church took it upon themselves to enact various reforms on a local level. Other parts of the one church weren't happy about this, and made that clear. So the consequence was, not multiple churches, but still one Catholic church, albeit with impaired fellowship between the different parts of that one Catholic church (for example, the Roman part of the one Catholic church, and the English part of the one Catholic church).
It's not a familiar way of thinking, but Neill presents the history of the Church of England in that light (and charts the subsequent spread of this English style of Christianity around the world, in the global Anglican Communion).
This view of the (capital-C) Catholicity of the Church of England runs through to the final chapter, "What then is Anglicanism?". It's a pleasure to read, but whether it is as believable in 2013 as it was in 1958 is perhaps not easy to say.
What are the special theological doctrines of the Church of England and of the Anglican Churches in fellowship with it?
The answer is that there are no special Anglican theological doctrines, there is no particular Anglican theology. The Church of England is the Catholic Church in England. It teaches all the doctrines of the Catholic Faith, as these are to be found in Holy Scripture, as they are summarised in the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds, and as they are set forth in the decisions of the first four General Councils of the undivided Church. Firmly based on the Scriptures as containing all things necessary to salvation, it still throws out the challenges: 'Show us that there is anything clearly set forth in Holy Scripture that we do not teach and we will teach it. Show us that anything in our teaching or practice is clearly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it.' … [T]he faith of the Church is to be found in the Bible and in the Prayer Book; and on that faith the Anglican Churches have, in the four centuries since the Reformation, never compromised (pp.417-8).
(Was that really believable in 1958? Is it very different today? Still, it's a good ideal to aspire towards.)
Anglicanism is therefore very hard to define. However, Neill identifies various elements "on which Anglicans throughout the world would probably agree as characteristic of their own faith and experience" (p.418). I counted ten:
- "the biblical quality by which the whole warp and woof of Anglican life is penetrated",
- that "Anglican churches are liturgical churches",
- an "intense sense of continuity" with the church throughout history,
- "the Anglican insistence on episcopacy and the episcopal ministry" (but note that "Good Presbyterians who fear prelacy would be much consoled, if they could realize how little it is within the power of the English bishop to be prelatical", p.440),
- "the Anglican tradition of theological learning",
- "a general Anglican willingness to tolerate for the time being what appears to be error", recognising that "heresy trials" generally cause even greater harm,
- a "confidence in the truth that makes the Anglican Churches demand so much of the faithful",
- an appeal "particularly to the conscience", expecting people "to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God",
- "the unbroken tradition of saintliness in the Anglican Churches", which nurture people of "diligence, humility, humour, and a transcendent holiness", and
- that "From the beginning the Church of England has tried to be comprehensive", seeking to hold together "those who are agreed on the fundamentals of the Christian faith", while leaving room for "a measure of latitude in interpretation" (pp.418-426, emphases in original).
On that last point, it is worth quoting (as Neill does) from the Report of the Committee on Unity of the Church of the Lambeth Conference of 1948:
The co-existence of these divergent views within the Anglican Communion sets up certain tensions; but these are tensions within a wide range of agreement in faith in practice. We recognize the inconvenience caused by these tensions, but we acknowledge them to be part of the will of God for us, since we believe that it is only through a comprehensiveness which makes it possible to hold together in the Anglican Communion understandings of truth which are held in separation in other Churches, that the Anglican Communion is able to reach out in different directions, and so to fulfil its special vocation as one of God's instruments for the restoration of the visible unity of His whole Church. If at the present time one view were to prevail to the exclusion of others, we should be delivered from our tensions, but only at the price of missing our opportunity and our vocation (p.427).
This goal—of the visible unity of the whole Church in agreement on the fundamentals of the Christian faith—is one to which we should all aspire. But to me it is an open question whether Anglicanism (or English Anglicanism, to be more specific) is journeying in that direction. I think it might be, but it's hard to say, and it could well be said that "the Church of England is no longer defined by its confessional and doctrinal basis, but is defined much more by that caricature that Neill abhors—perpetual compromise and an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable", as Jake Belder expressed it in a recent post discussing this same book.
(*) I have the second edition, 1960, in which "No extensive rewriting has been possible" (p.8). I believe there were subsequent editions in 1965 and 1977, but I don't know whether they were significantly revised, and I can't persuade Google Books to show me…
21 Jan 2013
Great video from the Christian conservation charity A Rocha. It's a few years old (2006), but still has an excellent set of questions and an excellent line-up of contributors (two of whom are sadly no longer with us). See below for the video itself, or here's a summary:
First, John Stott (evangelical leader extraordinaire) commends the work of A Rocha. Then some questions are addressed...
Why should Christians care for creation?
- Alister McGrath (theologian extraordinaire): The world belongs to God, and has been entrusted to us by him, for us to care for it and to pass it on to those who follow us. "If God made the world, then it's something he cares for. ... If we love God, we must love what God has made. And that means other people, but it also means this environment in which we live right now."
- James Jones (Bishop of Liverpool): "Anybody who ever prays the Lord's Prayer and says to God, 'Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,' has to be concerned about their environment. That prayer is about the 'earthing' of heaven. ... We should be as concerned as God is for his creation."
- John Stott: "Dominion" does not mean a licence to destroy: it is absurd to think that God first created the earth and then gave us an instruction to destroy it. We should care for creation as God does, exercising responsible stewardship. "Christians should be in the vanguard of those who are seeking to arrest climate change, and seeking also to protect habitats where wildlife lives." We share in God's care for the environment.
Isn't "Mission" all about evangelism and saving souls, rather than saving the earth?
- Alister McGrath: (1) The gospel is about conversion of us as people, but that means a changed lifestyle, and a changed attitude towards God and towards the world in which we live. Part of our discipleship as Christians is right behaviour towards the environment. (2) Caring for creation is an act of witness. "Every time we care for the creation we are proclaiming the Creator to the world."
- Rob Frost (Christian evangelist): "To be a true Christian in this day and age you need to be committed to saving the planet." God has made us stewards of all that he has made. When people see the transformation Christian organisations such as A Rocha are bringing about, they ask why, and begin to discover that "our ecology is based in our gospel". The link between ecology and mission is very strong.
With so many pressing needs such as poverty and AIDS, isn't creation care a luxury?
- Vinoth Ramachandra (Christian lecturer and author): War, poverty and ecological degradation often go hand in hand. We have to deal with them together.
- Stella Simiyu (conservationist): The rural poor depend directly on natural resources. We must invest in the environment, for the sake of the poor.
How serious is the environmental crisis?
- Ghillean Prance (ecologist extraordinaire): Really serious. As well as changes in patterns of migration of birds and flowering of plants, there are huge extinctions of animals and all over the world, and exceptional climate conditions are happening, just as predicted by the climate change modellers.
- Simon Stuart (conservationist): "The world is certainly facing the worst environmental crisis there ever has been." Huge numbers of species are facing extinction. There is increased pollution. We are moving into uncharted territory. It's an experiment that we should never have been conducting.
Isn't the world going to be 'destroyed' anyway? Why bother?
- Vinoth Ramachandra: The whole Bible is one story, from creation to new creation. "The new creation is the old creation renewed, restored, transformed, so that every part of this creation is now filled with the presence of God. And that's the goal to which God is taking human history. So he calls us as his redeemed people to live today as if the future is already present, to live as signs of that future kingdom, which is the restoration of all things. And because that restoration includes the non-human creation as well as the human creation, our care for the non-human creation is a sign of God's coming kingdom, and in that way we are witnessing to the Lord of all creation."
How does this theology shape the work of A Rocha?
- Ghillean Prance: Christians who practise conservation do so because they believe there is a Creator, and that they should combine their faith with positive action.
- Simon Stuart: "Christian theology is based on the premise that Jesus Christ reconciles all ... things to God. ... Human beings, cooperating with Christ, can be agents in the restoration of nature—of that nature that we humans have messed up."
15 Jan 2013
Heart-warming stuff from Michael Green, presenting the good news of Jesus Christ in its rich fullness (in 18 minutes!) to a group of Christian leaders exploring the question, What is the Gospel? Enjoy!
13 Jan 2013
A bit of audience participation for the churchgoers out there...
What are the main reasons you go to church?
- To hear good teaching? (But why not stay at home and listen to sermons online or read books?)
- Because I really like the music?
- To chat with friends after the service? (But why not have an extra hour in bed and show up just in time for post-service refreshments? Or why not just arrange regular informal times of fellowship?)
- Because my church is small, and the services are like small group meetings in which everyone contributes (groups discussions, etc.), and I find that participating in them is the best way for me to grow in my faith?
- Not for my own benefit, but to welcome unbelievers who may show up, and to share the gospel with them?
- For the food?
- Reluctant and grudging obedience?
- Some other reason?
- I'm really glad I do, but I can't explain why!
Answers in the comments below!
3 Jan 2013
"I believe in ... the holy catholic church," we say in the Apostles' Creed.
So where is this "holy catholic church"?
One answer: the holy catholic church is nowhere. There is no church which is perfectly holy. And there is no church that functions perfectly as a coherent whole (cat-whole-ic).
Or perhaps better: the holy catholic church is not yet. When Christ returns, the church on that day will be perfectly holy, and perfectly catholic.
But what do we do now? Where is the church in the meantime?
The church today is becoming holy and catholic. It is tempting to choose one or the other: to look either for a holy church, or for a catholic church:
- First approach: the church should be as holy as possible. This leads naturally to a separatist kind of independency. I seek personally to be holy, and I join the holiest local congregation that I can (within reasonable practical limits). And that local congregation will associate loosely with other like-minded congregations. And as far as I'm concerned, that is the church. I am at liberty to ignore all other so-called "churches". I have no need of them. Holiness is the overriding consideration.
- Second approach: the church should be as catholic as possible. This leads naturally to the ecumenical movement. I want to identify with as many other Christians as I possibly can. So I will join a congregation of a large denomination. And within that denomination, I will seek to immerse myself in ecumenical activities. The goal is to have all people who call themselves Christians closely connected together within one "church". Doctrinal and ethical considerations are secondary; what matters is the unity of the church, and nothing should be allowed to threaten that. Catholicity is the overriding consideration.
I hope it's clear from those descriptions that I don't particularly like either approach. One's approach to church should show commitment both to holiness and to catholicity. What does this mean in practice?
- Catholicity should not be neglected. There should be some tangible efforts to love the unlovely. Perfect (or near-perfect) holiness should not be a prerequisite for Christian fellowship. Within a congregation, those who are immature in their faith should be welcomed and loved into maturity. The same is true between congregations and between denominations. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you'" (1 Corinthians 12:21, ESV).
- Holiness should not be neglected. There should be some tangible efforts to maintain the purity of the church. It should not be the case that every kind of error and vice is embraced and affirmed as being good. "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one" (1 Corinthians 5:11, ESV).
My own context is England, and the conservative evangelical part of the church. What might be the implications for me? I think the main danger within the conservative evangelical part of the church is to neglect catholicity. Conservative evangelicals tend to be strong on holiness, both of doctrine and of life, but most of these congregations seem to associate as little as they possibly can with congregations that wouldn't fit the conservative evangelical mould. And that seems to be true both outside and inside the Church of England. (Maybe I'm wrong, but that's the impression I get.) Efforts surely need to be made to express some kind of interdependence with congregations that are not (yet!) conservative evangelical congregations. This presumably means associating in a non-trivial way (more than the bare minimum possible) with congregations that wouldn't belong to the FIEC or a Gospel Partnership or Affinity or Church Society or Reform. Unless "conservative evangelical" and "Christian" are taken to be synonymous (and I don't think anyone claims they are), then a commitment to the catholicity of the church must surely be demonstrated by some kind of recognition of Christians outside of the conservative evangelical camp.
Speaking personally, I find myself somewhat drawn towards the Church of England as a result of this. It is (currently!) possible to be a conservative evangelical within the Church of England—in fact, most of the major conservative evangelical congregations in England belong to the Church of England. And being in the Church of England forces you to associate at least a tiny bit with the wider body of Christ. So if a conservative evangelical wanted to express some kind of commitment to a wider catholicity, it seems that being in the Church of England would provide a good starting point for that (better than being in an independent congregation).
Perhaps in a sense I'm saying that a greater commitment to catholicity will lead to a growth in holiness. Holiness comes as a consequence of the (catholic) church building itself up, and without some measure of catholicity, there will be very little growth in holiness. Individual Christians grow in holiness not primarily in isolation, but primarily through belonging to a local congregation. And as congregations recognise that they belong to each other, there will be a similar growth in holiness and maturity.
Comments very welcome...!
31 Dec 2012
Bloggers traditionally indulge themselves with a bit of introspection and ego-boosting on 31st December. Now, I'm no blogger (Ceci n'est pas un blog, of course), but here goes...
I've made 70 posts this year, most of which contain very little original material.
Apparently I've had 155,081 visits to this site in the past year, made by no more than 59,474 visitors. It makes me really happy to know that tens of thousands of people are clinging onto my every word... Or not. Most of those are probably robots and spam-bots, and the serious readers of this blog will have probably have read the posts through something like Google Reader—or some other method available through clicking on the "subscribe" link to the right—and these don't show up on the number of vist(or)s.
But here are some other stats that may be slightly more meaningful.
Over the year, I've had 336 clicks from Twitterfeed. Probably this captures most of the traffic to my blog from Twitter. This demonstrates my ability to deceive people into clicking on a link. Here are the top five (not that my best posts are necessarily the most-read ones; these are just the ones that caused the biggest stir at the time):
- Coalition For Marriage: an open letter to fellow Christians, 108 clicks
- Is it un-Green to oppose same-sex marriage? 30 clicks
- Why work? 22 clicks
- John Stevens on baptism, 18 clicks
- Why Christians should be environmentalists, 14 clicks
Slightly more useful would be the number of comments I've received. Most people who leave a comment have at least read a few sentences of what I write. In fact, the standard of comments left here is remarkably high, compared with the more, well, popular regions of the internet.
Bear in mind that probably almost half of the comments on my blog are my own (generally in response to comments by other people, I should add), so you might want to divide these numbers in half for a more representative figure...
Also bear in mind that the ability to write things that generate comments is not the same as the ability to write things that are worth reading. Most comments are of the "What a load of rubbish!" variety, rather than the "Thanks, I'm glad I read that!" variety.
My posts in 2012 generated a total of 253 comments. Top five posts:
- John Stevens on baptism, 31 comments
- Global warming sceptics convinced, 22 comments (one sceptic wasn't convinced!)
- A biblical case for female pastors? 19 comments
- Should infants be baptised? 17 comments
- =Coalition For Marriage: an open letter to fellow Christians, 15 comments
=Can infants be baptised? 15 comments
Plus a few comments on Facebook, which would take far too long to count up.
Perhaps what I'm trying to write is a list of my best posts, but that would require me to read them all, and I've got far better things to do with my time. Probably you have too!
Happy New Year for tomorrow, to (both) my loyal readers!
31 Dec 2012
The second half of Derek Wall's The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics (part 1) deals with the policies and practice of green politics.
Chapter 4 looks at green approaches to economics. Greens reject the dominant obsession with economic growth: "Greens believe that ever-increasing consumption is neither possible nor desirable" (p.67). This doesn't mean they are opposed to prosperity. As an obvious example, "If goods last longer, because we don't need to replace them as often, it certainly reduces economic growth but it does not affect our prosperity" (p.73). Noteworthy in green economics is the emphasis on the commons and on social sharing. This is an alternative view of ownership to the traditional views of private ownership or state ownership. Examples include co-operatives, mutuals, car sharing schemes and open-source software.
Chapter 5 gives a sweeping survey of green policies for all sorts of areas: energy, transport, waste, agriculture, animal welfare, social justice, housing, healthcare, democracy, warfare and development. A helpful taster of how green political principles work themselves out in particular contexts.
Chapter 6 looks at the practice of green politics: how, practically, can green policies be implemented? Various approaches are needed, none of which is the answer in isolation, but all of which are valuable. So, in addition to traditional political activity, the green movement is also driven by direct action, personal lifestyle changes, green approaches to business, green trade unions and a complete transformation of our beliefs and values. On this last point, "The deep politics behind both our voting decisions and the assumptions of planners and policy-makers is based on fundamental and often unconscious beliefs about our relationship to the rest of nature and to each other" (p.120).
In other words, the "green" vision for society is dependent on a deep change of heart.
29 Dec 2012
Halfway through reading the second of my Christmas present books, The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics, by Derek Wall (2010).
Derek Wall is an economics lecturer and writer (and blogger and tweeter) and a prominent member of the Green Party. His book gives a brief introduction to green politics. So far it's packed with detail but still very readable.
Chapter 1 looks at the history of the global green political movement. Wall identifies four pillars of green politics:
- Ecology: "Green politics is first and foremost the politics of ecology; a campaign to preserve the planet from corporate greed, so we can act as good ancestors to future generations" (p.12).
- Social justice: "Greens argue that environmental protection should not come at the expense of the poor or lead to inequality" (p.13).
- Grassroots democracy: distinguishing "greens from many traditional socialists who have often promoted centralized governance of societies" (p.13).
- Nonviolence: "Green parties evolved partly out of the peace movement and oppose war, the arms trade and solutions based on violence" (p.13).
All of which seem eminently sensible to me.
Chapter 2 looks at the ecological crisis. Safe to say there is one. Green politics could exist without an ecological crisis, but the crisis has led to huge growth in the movement in recent decades.
Chapter 3 looks at the philosophy of the green party. Summarising it in my own words...
- Green politics is based on the belief that everything matters. All people matter, and they all have valuable contributions to make to the ordering of society. Non-human life matters. The world matters. The ecosystem matters. "While other political ideologies have generally viewed nature as a quarry—something to be dug up and exploited for short-term gain—greens put the environment at the center of their concerns" (p.47).
- Green politics is based on the belief that everything is interconnected. Green politics is thus holistic politics. It stands in opposition to all kinds of reductionism. Human society and the non-human world are deeply interconnected.
These principles resonate very strongly with me as a Christian. All things have been made by God, all things hold together in Christ, and all things are being renewed by the Spirit. Everything matters, and everything is interconnected. (Note that I'm standing very consciously against a spiritual reductionism, which sees human souls as being the only things that really matter in the present created order.)
The rest of the book looks at some more practical implications of all this... Stay tuned!
14 Dec 2012
This guy's a legend. And this film is awesome. Seriously! The Reverend Billy is on a mission to save Christmas from ... the shopocalypse!
Pack the malls with folks with money
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Tis the season to be dummies
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Squeeze our fat in Gap apparel
Fa la la, la la la, la la la
Buy some junk for cousin Carol
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Joy to the world! In the form of goods!
Consume! Consume! Consume!
Bright plastic this and thats!??
For screaming little brats!
Take the SUV to the mall!
Take the SUV to the mall!
And buy, buy, buy, buy, buy, buy, buy, buy it all.
What would Jesus buy? Featuring the Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir!
7 Dec 2012
Jesus Christ has one body with many members. The one body is the global church throughout space and time, and the many members are the individual believers who comprise that body. In addition, there are what we call "churches", or "congregations", which are local gatherings of that one global church.
No one congregation can say to the others, "I have no need of you" (1 Corinthians 12:21). No congregation should act as though it were truly independent. Instead, each congregation needs to express its interdependence with the other congregations in some way. It needs to forego its autonomy and allow itself—in some ways—to be directed by the wider church (much as an individual believer would allow him/herself—in some ways—to be directed by the local church to which he/she belongs).
Thinking aloud (i.e., what follows could be very inaccurate!), three models of interdependence spring to mind, each of which seems to emphasise a different source of authority over the local congregation. Those three sources of authority are:
- the consensual authority of the church today,
- the written authority of the church of the past (expressed in creeds and confessions), and
- the authority of individual leaders of the church today.
Three models of interdependence within the body of Christ:
- Congregationalism (with strong and active associations), for example, FIEC, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. No congregation in the association wants to leave the association, because the association is extremely valuable (although they are free to leave if they wish to). But the bounds of the association, and its aims, are clearly defined, decided by the congregations collectively. Thus the primary source of authority over the individual congregations is the consensual authority of the church today. That is not to say it is the only source of authority. The members of the association value the past, and see themselves as following in the orthodox Christian tradition, clearly articulated in the Protestant Reformation. And the association has individual leaders who are highly respected. These may be elders (pastors) of prominent congregations who often speak at conferences, and whose voice is greatly respected within the association for setting its strategic direction. Or some elders (or "presbyters") may be set aside (or "consecrated") to an itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in the congregations of the association, and to supporting the elders of those congregations. But the dominant authority is the consensual authority.
- Presbyterianism. One difference compared with the first model is that the individual congregations are seen to be part of the wider denomination, rather than the denomination being an association of congregations. This would generally mean that individual congregations are not free to leave the denomination, in the way that self-governing congregations are free to leave an association. Presbyterian denominations also tend to have a much more detailed written standards, to which the elders (presbyters) subscribe. This tends to make the dominant source of authority the written authority of the church of the past (expressed in creeds and confessions). There is consensual authority among the various congregations, but the purpose of the various presbyteries and synods is largely to interpret the authority of the written standards of the denomination. And there may well be individual elders who are set apart (or "consecrated") to a more itinerant ministry within the wider denomination, but these people would not usually have a very prominent role.
- Episcopalianism. The name comes from the Greek word, episkopos, meaning "overseer", which is typically rendered in English as "bishop". In this model, a bishop is a presbyter (or "priest") who is set apart (or "consecrated") to an itinerant teaching ministry within a particular geographical area. Given the prominence of the bishops, it tends to be that the dominant source of authority over local congregations in this model is the authority of individual leaders of the church today. There is also the consensual authority; for example, the Church of England has a multitude of synods and councils, with considerable power. And there is also the written authority of the church of the past, for example, in the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles, although this authority may be disregarded to a greater or lesser extent.
What can we conclude from this? (Or what am I trying to encourage you to conclude by this very biased and simplistic presentation?!) It seems that there are great similarities between these three models of interdependence, but that they tend to emphasise different (legitimate) ways of expressing that interdependence. Maybe a balanced approach is needed? And maybe it's not too dissimilar to the operation of a local congregation, which would tend to have those three sources of authority: the consensual authority of the church meeting (commonly emphasised in congregational churches), the written authority of the congregation's constitution (commonly emphasised in presbyterian churches), and the personal authority of its leaders (commonly emphasised in episcopal churches)?
Of course, all of these sources of authority can be used to a greater or lesser extent. A congregational association might be very controlling, or it might be very broad and basically nonexistent. Or a presbyterian church could be extremely narrow (and prone to schism) or extremely broad. Or a bishop in an episcopal church might seek to exert too much control, or might not actually exercise very much authority at all.
In addition, there is the complexity that congregations within any one of these structures have to recognise the existence of congregations outside of those structures. An Anglican congregation cannot say, "I have no need of you," to the congregational or presbyterian congregation down the road, or vice versa (or the three-way equivalent!). So, while these structures are valuable, they are not the whole story.
3 Dec 2012
Regular readers will (both) be aware that I've been trying to get a better understanding and appreciation of baptism, that wonderful sign of cleansing and new life that Jesus Christ gave to his church.
I haven't read all of it yet, but one article I have read is by FIEC National Director John Stevens: Infant Baptism: Putting Old Wine into New Wineskins? He argues compellingly (in my view!) that baptism ought to be administered only to people who profess faith in Christ. God gave Abraham a promise, and this promise was physically enacted in the sign of circumcision, which served as a reminder of that promise (much as the rainbow served as a reminder of the promise given to Noah). The promise given to Abraham has now been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the blessings promised to Abraham are now a present reality in those who have faith in Christ. Baptism is a sign that the promise has been fulfilled, and is therefore appropriate only for those in whom the promise to Abraham has already found its fulfilment through the receiving of the Spirit. Hence baptism should be given only to believers, preferably as soon as possible after conversion. In contrast, attempts to justify the baptism of infants lead to all sorts of inconsistencies, and these are highlighted with great clarity. I was hinting towards this sort of argument in my post on Should infants be baptised?
However, there are some points later in the article that I find very difficult. Stevens' view of baptism is that it is entirely for the benefit of the new believer; it is purely a means whereby God assures the new believer of his love towards them personally. Rebaptism is perfectly acceptable, if someone is converted after they have been baptised. Even non-baptism is condoned (as long as it doesn't cause problems for the believer's conscience), since "It seems to me that there comes a point at which baptism ceases to serve any useful purpose because the appropriate time for baptism has long passed." Given this radically individualistic understanding of baptism, and its significance only for the individual believer personally, baptism consequently has no real place in the life of the church, and shouldn't be a requirement for church membership or any other aspect of Christian fellowship. Instead, the baptism that is of relevance is the baptism of the Spirit, which is entirely distinct from baptism itself. (This last distinction seems to follow from Stevens' apparent memorialist understanding of the sacraments.)
But does such a low view of baptism within the life of the church follow necessarily from the credobaptist position that Stevens has presented so convincingly? It does seem to be an inevitable consequence of attempting to hold, first, that infants not only should not be baptised but also cannot be baptised, and, second, that those countless believers who (on that reckoning) have not been baptised should nonetheless be welcomed wholeheartedly as genuine believers. But the mistake seems to be to confuse the question of whether infants should be baptised with the question of whether infants can be baptised. And this confusion seems to stem from a failure to distinguish between the outward sign and the inner reality. If we are careful to distinguish between the two, it seems perfectly possible to say that infants ought not be baptised, but that if they are baptised, then they really and truly have been baptised, and ought to be treated as members of the visible church—as long as their past baptism is accompanied by a present faith in Christ. I've tried to argue this point at more length in my post on Can infants be baptised?
26 Nov 2012
There's a purely cultural case for an "equal" (i.e., identical) role for men and women in the church. It goes something like this: For crying out loud, it's the 21st century!!!! However, I've been wondering if there might be a biblical case for female pastors (or elders, bishops, presbyters). It's obvious that some people think there is—even some people who would not be too keen on the aforementioned cultural argument (NT Wright, for example). What might such a biblical case look like?
This isn't something to which I've given too much attention so far. I've heard, considered, and accepted the arguments against female pastors that are used within my (conservative evangelical) "wing" of Christ's body. (In fact, it's pretty much a defining feature of that "wing" to take such a position.) But I want to give a hearing to the other side of the argument.
If there is a biblical case for female pastors, it might look something like the following. I'd need to do some more reading to figure out whether it's a good case (comments welcome!), but here goes…
- Those texts that seem to say that women should not preach (for example) have either been misunderstood, or are tied to the original cultural context in such a way that they do not apply today. (NT Wright makes that case, and it's not entirely fanciful.)
- The nature of the "headship" that a husband has towards his wife, and the created difference between men and women, are such that it would be perfectly appropriate, at least in some cultural contexts, for a woman to exercise the kind of authority that an elder has.
Then I think there are two possible routes…
- The New Testament pattern of church government is normative and unchanging.
- The New Testament gives evidence for a specific office of "widow", or "older woman", or "female elder", or "presbyteress", with responsibility for teaching the younger women, and this is reflected in the practices of the early church. (See this article by Robert A Morey.)
- We should at least recover that biblical office, even if we maintain a distinction between "presbyter" and "presbyteress".
- Society in New Testament times was largely segregated on gender lines. In our society, that is much less the case, so that the roles of "elder" (i.e., male elder) and "female elder" now overlap to the point that they are largely indistinguishable.
- The New Testament pattern of church government is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, and records what the church, in its Spirit-led wisdom, instituted for the context in which it arose. For example, a need arose for some people to be given responsibility for the distribution of food to the widows, and hence the church, in its wisdom, instituted a new office, which seems to be the office of "deacon" (though that term isn't used in Acts 6 itself).
- There were cultural reasons that explain why the church, in its Spirit-led wisdom, had only male elders (and similarly there were cultural reasons why Christ chose only men as his twelve disciples).
- The needs of the church in today's culture are such that there is no longer any reason to restrict the office of "elder" to men.
The argument would need a lot of fleshing out to make it compelling. Provisionally, I could probably go along with most of the points there, but I think the clincher would be the second point, regarding the difference between men and women, and the nature of the authority that a pastor exercises. What does "headship" mean? And what kind of authority does an elder have? These are questions of principle, rather than appeals to proof texts. And they are big questions...
17 Nov 2012
The Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel took place recently in Jamaica. The outcome was an urgent Call to Action. Here are some extracts:
Our discussion, study and prayer together led us to two primary conclusions:
- Creation Care is indeed a “gospel issue within the lordship of Christ”. ...
- We are faced with a crisis that is pressing, urgent, and that must be resolved in our generation. Many of the world’s poorest people, ecosystems, and species of flora and fauna are being devastated by violence against the environment in multiple ways, of which global climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water stress, and pollution are but a part. We can no longer afford complacency and endless debate. Love for God, our neighbors and the wider creation, as well as our passion for justice, compel us to “urgent and prophetic ecological responsibility”. ...
Based on these two convictions, we therefore call the whole church, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, to respond radically and faithfully to care for God’s creation, demonstrating our belief and hope in the transforming power of Christ. ...
Specifically, we call for:
- A new commitment to a simple lifestyle. ...
- New and robust theological work. ...
- Leadership from the church in the Global South. ...
- Mobilization of the whole church and engagement of all of society. ...
- Environmental missions among unreached people groups. ...
- Radical action to confront climate change. ...
- Sustainable principles in food production. ...
- An economy that works in harmony with God’s creation. ...
- Local expressions of creation care. ...
- Prophetic advocacy and healing reconciliation. ...
Each of our calls to action rest on an even more urgent call to prayer, intentional and fervent, soberly aware that this is a spiritual struggle. Many of us must begin our praying with lamentation and repentance for our failure to care for creation, and for our failure to lead in transformation at a personal and corporate level. And then, having tasted of the grace and mercies of God in Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit, and with hope in the fullness of our redemption, we pray with confidence that the Triune God can and will heal our land and all who dwell in it, for the glory of his matchless name.
The full thing is here.
13 Nov 2012
I used to be ambivalent about the church "service", preferring a less "religious" word, such as "meeting" or "gathering". But now I think "service" is spot on.
However, the meaning of "service" can be completely misunderstood.
"Service" is related to the word "serve" (I had to look that up). Christians are those who have "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9, ESV). So far so good.
Now, to serve someone is normally a matter of giving things to that person. So it's no particular surprise that we take that idea into our church "services". These are (apparently) the times when we "serve" God by giving things to him. (That's what God wants from us, right?)
So we serve God by giving him our hearts:
Come, now is the time to worship.
Come, now is the time to give your heart.
And we serve God by giving him our best:
We are here to praise you, lift our hearts and sing.
We are here to give you the best that we can bring.
And we serve God by giving him our time.
And we serve God by giving him our money.
And then we go home.
And that's why it's called a church "service", right?
No. Not at all.
A clue comes from the Book of Common Prayer, which contains "The Order for the Administration of the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion". What is "administered", or served, during the Communion service? The bread and wine. So if it is the case that someone is serving someone else in the Communion service, who, ultimately, is doing the serving, and who is being served? Hold that thought...
A second clue comes from the book of Acts, where the apostles said, "But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (6:4, ESV). Rather than serving hungry people with food, they were going to serve hungry people with the word of God. Again we can ask, when the church gathers together for the ministry of the word, who, ultimately, is serving whom?
The shocking answer is that, when the church gathers for worship, it is not a time when we serve God by giving things to him, but a time when God serves us!
Jesus himself said that he "came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45, ESV). Jesus didn't come to take from us—even "the best that we can bring"—but to give to us. He did that because God isn't the self-centred greedy God, but the generous, self-giving Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit, bound together in self-giving, overflowing love.
In fact, what God wants from us most of all as we come to a church service is for us to bring our emptiness, brokenness and helplessness and to offer those up to him, as empty vessels longing to be filled with his fullness and love. And then it is God's joy and delight to serve us, through the word and sacrament, for our encouragement and joy. That's a church service, the divine service: God serving us.
(I wonder how our "times of worship" would be different if we really took that on board?)
But when we've received those gifts of love in the church service, we will want to give back to God, out of thankful hearts. What can we give to God to express our gratitude?
"With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6–8, ESV)
A church service is not the time when we bring our good works to offer to God. That's what happens in the rest of the week, when in response to his mercy and empowered by his Spirit we offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices. And the way we serve God through the week is by reflecting God's love by humbly serving others. As Luther apparently said, "God does not need your good works, but your neighbour does."
9 Nov 2012
I can understand why someone would be zealously opposed to abortion. But it's been less obvious to me why someone would be zealously pro-abortion. I've been pondering it a bit, and this is what I think is going on.
Both sides would agree with the following:
- It is wrong to take the life of a human being
- If a foetus is a human being, then it is wrong to take the life of a foetus
- If a foetus is a human being, then a pregnant woman has no choice but to complete her pregnancy
- If a pregnant woman has no choice but to complete her pregnancy, she is not autonomous
- A pregnant woman is fully human
Then the sides go their separate ways...
- A foetus is a human being
- Therefore, it is wrong to take the life of a foetus (from 1, 6)
- Therefore, a pregnant woman has no choice but to complete her pregnancy (from 3, 6)
- Therefore, it is not necessary to be autonomous in order to be fully human (from 4, 5, 8)
- To be fully human is to be autonomous
- If a foetus is a human being, a pregnant woman is not fully human (from 3, 4, 6)
- Therefore, a foetus is not a human being (from 5, 7)
I think the reason people are zealously pro-abortion is that they are deeply offended by what they perceive to be the suggestion that a pregnant woman is not fully human. And so they should be. But that stems from a particular view of what it means to be fully human. It's the view that to be fully human is to be an autonomous individual. If a pregnant woman is forced, against her will, to endure nine months of physical, psychological and emotional turmoil, it's really impossible to describe her as an autonomous individual. And, for those who believe that to be fully human is to be an autonomous individual, this means the pregnant woman is denied her full humanity.
So, for those who are zealously pro-abortion, it seems that the issue is really nothing to do with evidence. Instead, it's a matter of what it means to be human. Either the foetus is human, or the pregnant woman is human. It can't be both.
8 Nov 2012
It's wonderful stuff—God is breaking down the walls of division between different groups of people and making one new humanity in Christ.
But personally I'm challenged. The talk was given at a conference of the FIEC: the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. Now, I self-identify (as one does these days) as an FIEC kind of person. And, like many FIEC-type people, I am prepared to travel a fair distance each week in order to be in a Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming church with other like-minded people. In other words, in order to get to a church where the message is clearly proclaimed that, because of God's grace, all the barriers have been brought down and we are all one in Christ, I am prepared to make my way past plenty of churches made up predominantly of people who are different from me—and those differences, by and large, are most noticeably differences in social background (the middle-aged and younger people in my church are mostly university graduates and their families, who have moved to York from elsewhere, with very few proper local people).
So how can I express my commitment to this gospel of God's new humanity, both in wanting to be part of a church that proclaims that gospel clearly, and in wanting to identify with those members of God's new humanity who live in my local area?
One solution, obviously, is to make sure I live very close to a church that proclaims the gospel clearly. But when that's not the case, I'm genuinely not sure what the "right" approach is. Should I support the verbal proclamation of this gospel by travelling a long distance to a church (a "commuter church") made up of people just like me, or should I support the visible proclamation of this gospel by identifying myself with a community of God's people in my local area (a "community church"), even if that church doesn't (verbally) proclaim the gospel so clearly?
Of course, I'm not the first person to feel this tension. I think the recent spurt of "church planting" initiatives aims to deal with this issue. A thriving "commuter church" in the centre of a town or city establishes a congregation in one of the suburbs or surrounding villages, either by starting something new, or by a bulk transfer of people from the central church to an existing church, typically one that is small and struggling. In that way, the "commuter church" becomes something of a "hub" for the surrounding "community churches", providing support, training, resources and teaching in a way that a smaller church is unable to do on its own. There's a lot to be said for this approach, and there are various ways it could work out in practice, either within existing denominational structures or apart from them.
6 Nov 2012
Still pondering the issue of baptism. Previous I asked, Should infants be baptised? I thought not. But there's another question, which is also important: Can infants be baptised?
There are plenty of things that should not be done but can be done. I don't think a Christian should marry a non-Christian. But a Christian can marry a non-Christian, in that if they go through a marriage ceremony, at the end of the ceremony they are actually married. There is nothing intrinsic to the definition of marriage that means that a Christian and a non-Christian cannot be married to each other, even if (in the view of many) they should not get married to each other.
But there are also plenty of things that should not be done and also cannot be done. I should not marry my laptop. It would be inappropriate for many reasons. But it is not only inappropriate: even if I went through a marriage ceremony, and voluntarily exchanged vows with my laptop before witnesses, I cannot marry my laptop. Why not? Because it is intrinsic to the nature of marriage itself that (at least) it is between two human beings. (There are further qualifications that could be added, but I'm using marriage as an illustration and want to steer clear of unnecessary controversy!)
So what of infant baptism? Is it something that should not be done, but can be done, or is it intrinsic to the nature of baptism itself that an infant, by definition, cannot be baptised?
But there is a further question may have entered your mind, if you are still reading: Who cares? Fair question.
First, all Christians agree that baptism can take place only once. Suppose someone comes to you and says they want you to baptise them, but they have been "baptised" already in infancy. What do you do? If you believe that infants should not be baptised, and cannot (by definition) be baptised, then the person has not been baptised, and it's safe to proceed. But if you believe that infants should not be baptised, but can be baptised, then the person has, in fact, already been baptised (however much you might wish it had been otherwise), and hence it would not be appropriate to "baptise" them again.
Second, your baptism (along with your faith) is supposed to be a sign to me that you are a Christian. Unless I treat baptism as having no real importance, I must form an opinion about whether you have actually been baptised, and it must, at least in some circumstances, make some difference to how I relate to you. Maybe I wouldn't want to belong to a church which was led by an unbaptised pastor? Or to be given communion—or to be baptised!—by someone who hasn't been baptised? Maybe I wouldn't want to share membership of a church with someone who hasn't been baptised? If I believe that infants should not be baptised, but that they can be baptised, then that makes things easier: I can happily share fellowship with people who were baptised as infants. But if not—if I think that infants, by definition, cannot be baptised—then it would (or it should) be difficult to share full Christian fellowship with many professing believers.
So I think it's an important question. And one that has significant implications. "Should-not-but-can" credo-baptists should refuse to "baptise" believers who have already been baptised as infants. And "should-not-and-cannot" credo-baptists should be prepared to set at least some limits to how much fellowship they are prepared to share with "unbaptised" believers. In practice I think most credo-baptists attempt to do neither. I've never heard of a credo-baptist church refusing baptism to someone because they have already been baptised as an infant, and most credo-baptist Christians are very uncomfortable with making someone's infant "baptism" a relevant consideration under any circumstances.
So what is the answer: can infants be baptised?
The Baptist Union of Great Britain would say, No:
Christian Baptism is the immersion in water into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of those who have professed repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ who 'died for our sins according to the Scriptures; was buried, and rose again the third day'.
In their definition of (Christian) baptism, not only is the mode prescribed (so that those who were "baptised" as adults but not by immersion have not actually been baptised), but it is also explicitly stated that a prior profession of faith is intrinsic to baptism itself. You may be immersed in water, and the right words may be pronounced, but that immersion of water is not baptism unless you have already professed faith. Infants cannot be baptised.
I'm not so sure. I think that confuses the sign itself with the conditions required for the sign to be meaningful at the time the sign is administered. The sign is the washing of the body with water, in the Triune Name. The thing signified is the inward washing of the Holy Spirit. Without the inward reality, the sign is an empty sign. But it is still a sign. A signpost may point to a town that doesn't exist. But that doesn't stop it from being a signpost. Similarly, a person's baptism may be an empty sign, if it is not accompanied by the inner reality. But it is still, it seems to me, genuinely the sign of baptism that the person has received.
(Similarly, baptism following a false profession of faith is also an empty sign, and there doesn't seem to be any material difference between a false profession and no profession at all.)
That empty sign may in later years become a meaningful sign, when the inner work of the Spirit becomes a reality in the person's life. If the non-existent town is later built, the previously misleading signpost will become a perfectly good signpost. It doesn't need to be replaced on the grounds that the town didn't exist at the time that the signpost was erected. So with baptism: that person who comes to faith after receiving the sign of baptism will find that the sign of baptism becomes a meaningful sign and not an empty sign. He or she will then be able to do what all baptised believers can do: look back to the sign of baptism, and look at the faith he or she has now, and take assurance from the sign of baptism that he or she has been washed by the Spirit and the new life has begun. It is the past baptism and the present faith that are important. Whether, at the moment of baptism itself, faith was already a present reality, seems largely irrelevant.
Comments will be very much appreciated!