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!
6 Nov 2012
Here are some commonly-used words and expressions. On their own, they are completely neutral. But we don't hear them as neutral, because they are about the past, present and future. And we know (don't we?) that the present is better than the past, and the future will inevitably be even better than the present...
- This is the 21st Century!
- The latest ...
- You're living in the 19th/20th Century!
- That's unacceptable in this day and age
- Modernise (we will modernise public services)
- New recipe
- Change (we promise to bring change)
Are there other "neutral" expressions that express a similar (or contrary) view about where history is heading? Feel free to comment below!
1 Nov 2012
A sermon I preached last week (21 October) at Calvary Evangelical Church, Brighton:
What is a Christian?
A Christian is someone who…
- is part of God’s big story: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing
- is an elect stranger, 1–2
- has been born again, through God’s mercy, 3
- has a hope, through God’s power, 3–5
- has faith, tested through trials, 6–7
- has love and joy, by faith not by sight, 8–9
31 Oct 2012
495 years ago today, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther spoke out against the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church at the time, by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenburg. And so began the Reformation.
Later in life, Luther wrote a song to recount the history of the Reformation. Sadly, the original recording has been lost, but in recent years it has been carefully reconstructed by scholars, and this is the result:
30 Oct 2012
Jesus taught his followers to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." The confident hope of the Christian is that this prayer will be answered. We look forward to the day when God's kingdom will be established on the earth, through the loving rule of his Son, the anointed King.
One of my favourite hymns for expressing this hope is the following paraphrase of Psalm 72, by James Montgomery (1771-1854). It's normally sung in a shorter version, with four of five verses, but here it is, as it appeared in Montgomery's own 1853 book, Original Hymns for Public, Private, and Social Devotion:
1 Hail to the Lord’s anointed!
Great David’s greater Son;
Hail in the time appointed,
His reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
To let the captive free;
To take away transgression,
And rule in equity.
2 He comes with succour speedy,
To those who suffer wrong;
To help the poor and needy,
And bid the weak be strong:
To give them songs for sighing,
Their darkness turn to light,
Whose souls, condemn’d and dying,
Were precious in His sight.
3 By such shall He be feared,
While sun and moon endure,
Beloved, obey’d, revered;
For He shall judge the poor,
Through changing generations,
With justice, mercy, truth,
While stars maintain their stations,
Or moons renew their youth.
4 He shall come down like showers,
Upon the fruitful earth,
And love, joy, hope, like flowers,
Spring in His path to birth:
Before Him, on the mountains,
Shall Peace, the herald, go;
And Righteousness, in fountains,
From hill to valley flow.
5 Arabia’s desert-ranger
To Him shall bow the knee,
The Ethiopian stranger
His glory come to see;
With offerings of devotion,
Ships from the Isles shall meet,
To pour the wealth of ocean
In tribute at His feet.
6 Kings shall fall down before Him,
And gold and incense bring,
All nations shall adore Him,
His praise all people sing:
For He shall have dominion
O’er river, sea, and shore,
Far as the eagle’s pinion
Or dove’s light wing can soar.
7 For Him shall prayer unceasing,
And daily vows, ascend;
His kingdom still increasing,
A kingdom without end:
The mountain-dews shall nourish
A seed in weakness sown,
Whose fruit shall spread and flourish,
And shake like Lebanon.
8 O’er every foe victorious,
He on His throne shall rest,
From age to age more glorious,
All-blessing and all-blest;
The tide of time shall never
His covenant remove;
His Name shall stand for ever,
That Name to us is—Love.
26 Oct 2012
Natalie Bennett has been the leader of the Green Party for around 52 days. She's travelling around a lot, and visited York on Wednesday. I managed to catch her that evening, when she gave a talk at York University.
I'm not planning on writing a summary of the talk. But, as an alternative, here's a short video about Natalie Bennett...
12 Oct 2012
I've never been a particularly frequent flyer, but I've been trying in recent years to keep my air miles low, mainly for environmental reasons. So, with the help of the magnificent Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com), I'm just back from Madrid by train. It was a journey of around 1300 miles, in three legs: Madrid to Paris (overnight 1812-0903 CET), Paris to London (1107 CET-1230 BST), then London to York (1308-1531). Total cost was around £230, but it would have been closer to £150 if I'd booked the Madrid-to-Paris leg a bit earlier. Meticulous details for prospective travellers are on seat61.com.
So what was it like? The first 90 minutes or so after leaving Madrid were truly stunning. Madrid is famously the highest capital city in Europe (if we forget about Andorra la Vella, which isn't hard), and the train passes through the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range just north of Madrid. After that, it got a bit dark, the landscape became less interesting, and the train picked up speed. I have to admit it wasn't the best night's sleep. Not because I was in a four-bed cabin, but because (as the chap on the bed opposite described it) the train ride was at times like being on a roller coaster or in a tumble drier. It wasn't that bad, honestly, but I don't sleep particularly well on trains.
The rest of the journey was absolutely fine and uneventful, and even gave me opportunity to get some work done.
25 Sep 2012
Peter Harris has done great things in the environmental movement through Christian conservation organisation A Rocha. If you can spare just 10 minutes to watch something, I think the closing section of a talk he gave in New York recently makes a very strong case for Christian environmentalism. Start at 30:30, and continue until the end of the proper talk at 41:00—or watch the whole thing if you prefer!
13 Sep 2012
These verses, from John's account of the good news about Jesus, are often taken to mean that when Jesus comes again, he will take us away from the earth, to be with him in heaven for ever:
In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14:2-3, ESV).
It's possible to read that in this sense: that Jesus will go to heaven, then at some point in the future he will come back from heaven, and then he will take us away to be with him in heaven for ever.
Clearly, the verses are very unlikely to mean that, as the testimony of the whole Bible is that God's purpose has always been for people to live for ever on the earth. So we read of "the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Revelation 21:2, ESV, emphasis added), and of the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15) and the liberation of the whole of creation (Romans 8:18-23) at the return of Christ to the earth. In the picture of the Lord's royal visit to the earth (his "parousia"), we will go out to meet him in the air on his way down from heaven to earth (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), as the Saviour comes "from heaven", to transform our bodies to be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20-21).
So what do those verses in John's Gospel mean? There are lots of possibilities, but here are some pointers.
Jesus had spoken of the temple in Jerusalem as "my Father's house" in John 2:16, so there's certainly no immediate need to think that "my Father's house" refers to heaven.
In John 14:23 (ESV), Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." Notice the similarities with earlier in the chapter: "come" and "home" (same word in Greek as for "rooms" in verse 2). I don't think this experience—of having the Father and the Son make their home with us—is one that we will experience only when we die and go to be with the Lord. Indeed, in that section of John's Gospel, this closeness of fellowship seems to be linked with the sending of the Holy Spirit.
So, perhaps this is how we are to understand those verses (original text in bold, my additions interspersed):
Let not your hearts be troubled ... because I said that I am going. I am going to be with the Father. But it is not just I who will be able to enjoy living in the presence of the Father. In my Father's house are many rooms, so you don't need to be troubled. Many people can live in the Father's presence. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? My death on the cross and my rising in glory will prepare a place for you: they will make it possible for you to enjoy life in the Father's presence. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again in a little while, both bodily, in my resurrection, and in my Spirit, and when I am risen to the Father, I will take you to myself, by sending my Spirit, so that I will be present with you on the earth at the same time as I am present with my Father, that where I am (in the presence of the Father) you may be also (in the presence of the Father, because we have made our home with you by the Spirit).
In other words, I don't think the verses are about heaven at all, or even about the second coming. But they seem to be about believers enjoying close fellowship with the Father and the Son, through the gift of the Sprit, after Jesus has died and risen again. Of course, the verses employ the image of a house with lots of rooms. But I don't think we are supposed to think about where the house is geographically (just as we're not supposed to think about what the rooms are made of, or how you get from one room to the next, or which room the Father will be in, or whether we will live in solitary confinement for ever, etc.). The Father's house is wherever the Father is present—no longer in the "Father's house" which was the temple in Jerusalem, but in the rebuilt temple which is the risen body of Christ (John 2:21), in the living temple of Christ's people (1 Peter 2:5), in whom God's Spirit dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16). We might even reflect that these verses are not so much about believers going to heaven, as about heaven coming to earth, as the Father's presence is experienced more fully on the earth through the presence of his Spirit in his people.
(Although, having said that, a lot of John's Gospel works simultaneously on more than one level, so it could also be talking about the second coming, when the "dwelling place of God [will be] with man", Revelation 21:3.)
12 Sep 2012
Thanks to Kath for pointing me to this great video summary of the Christian good news. Strikingly, it starts by explaining the Trinity. This is very refreshing. God isn't the angry perfectionist, but he is the Father, Son and Spirit, bound together by love. Also refreshing is the way that the world features in the summary. Regular readers might have noticed that I am not overjoyed when as Christians we forget about the world and think that the only things that ultimately matter are God and human souls. Not so in this summary: the story culminates with Christ's return to the world, with the dead being raised bodily, and with the world being set to rights.