» pastoral theology

Faithfulness or Fruitfulness?

Posted on by Glen in ministry, pastoral theology, union with Christ | Leave a comment

vine2It’s a question commonly posed among Christian ministers: Am I called more to faithfulness or fruitfulness?

When you realise that there can be great “ministry successes” based on “secret and shameful ways”, you start to prize faithfulness all the more.

When you see dry-as-dust ministers making no impact but claiming a justification in their plodding “faithfulness”, you might start to prize fruitfulness.

Which is it?

Three initial thoughts:

1. If the purpose of the discussion is to make ministers feel better or worse about themselves, it’s almost certainly the wrong discussion. If it becomes about managing our own egos in ministry then we’re already on the wrong footing. Too often we take sides on this one because we want to insulate ourselves from critique (if we’re ‘faithful’ but fruitless) or to congratulate ourselves (if we’re ‘fruitful’ but faithless).

2. The benefit of the “faithfulness” side is that it prioritises what God is doing in us before it considers what God is doing through us. This is good. God does not treat His children as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. The faithfulness crowd focus – or at least should focus – us on what God is up to in their own walk with Jesus before they ever consider “bums on pews.”

3. The benefit of the “fruitfulness” side is that no-one can be fruitful without abiding in the Vine. It’s possible to be a stone-hearted servant lacking any kind of vibrant relationship with Jesus. “Faithfulness” can become a cloak for “doing your duty” and all the sins of the prodigal’s elder brother come into play. The fruitfulness crowd focus – or at least should focus – on an expectant and lively communion with Jesus that just does bear fruit. It’s not the busyness of the builder, laying brick upon brick. It’s the organic growth of the branch that will be fruitful in connection with the Vine,

So it seems like both sides have good points to make: faithfulness makes me think of God’s work in me before all else. Fruitfulness makes me think of my position in Christ before all else. But in practice I find that both positions can unwittingly distract us from our true focus. The faithfulness minister can be too keen to protect their own ego when proper critique and hard questions may be in order. The fruitfulness minister can end up viewing “abiding in Christ” as a means to their real end – ministry “success”.

But if John 15 is properly in view then the faithfulness minister is directed to the true nature of faithfulness – not bricklaying obedience, but intimate communion. They are also challenged on the issue of fruitlessness – not, notice, “numbers.” But still, we should be asking about fruit. Galatians 5 fruit is a good place to start: love, joy, peace, etc… Jesus does not merely say “Plod along, the outcome is immaterial.” He said “If you make your home in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (v5)

Does this fruit go beyond character formation? Well Jesus did say that the fruit itself will abide (John 15:16). It is people who abide in Christ – not simply your Christian character. Therefore it is appropriate to ask “Are others growing in the Vine through my ministry?” No? Then something’s up. And Jesus tells you – abide in Him (v4), let His word abide in you (v7), pray (v16), love (v17) and you will bear fruit: promise. True faithfulness does result in fruitfulness.

And for the fruitfulness crowd – remember: the fruit is not the point. The Vine is. It’s easy to get convicted about our lack of fruit in ministry and to make that the reason we return to the Lord. Well praise God that something reminds us to commune with Christ. But desire for results isn’t the best motivation is it? Let’s never seek fruit for the sake of fruitfulness. That would be like using your spouse simply to have children. The truly faithful do not seek first fruit – they seek first the Lord. In Him – and only there – they are fruitful and multiply.

Original Sin: What’s not to like?

Posted on by Glen in 321, evangelism, gospel, pastoral theology, sin | 4 Comments

Original sin is a bit of a passion of mine (committed sin too but in a different way). I bang the ‘original sin’ drum in posts like these:

The Good News of Being Condemned Already

Original Sin (for the Evangelists Podcast)

The Importance of Adam

I’d love to see a proper renaissance of this teaching in our evangelism. Unfortunately Christians shy away from it for several reasons – not least a loss of confidence in the historical Adam. But let me leave that to one side and here sketch out three good reasons our culture ought to resonate with original sin and then address three dumb reasons why it really doesn’t.

Three Reasons Our Culture Should Love Original Sin

It’s holistic

We all know that we’re perishing physically. We’re born into a terminal condition called life. The Christian faces the fact that we are whole persons. We refuse to believe in a divorce between our physical state and our moral/spiritual state. We’re born perishing – that’s just a fact. There’s no need to appeal to some other magical realm where we remain pristine and virtuous. Original sin treats us as whole people – dying on the outside, dying on the inside.

It’s communal

Yes we live in an insanely individualistic age but actually the language of community is hugely prized. We’re in this thing together. That’s what original sin says: We’re all in the same boat. No use pointing at the bad folks over there. I am them and they are me and we’re all in a mess. Original sin levels the playing field and brings us together in the same place – a place of authenticity…

It’s authentic

These days authenticity plays really well. If you can fake this you’ve got it made. Well here’s a doctrine that says we’ve all got deep, deep issues. And no-one can claim an exemption. Nobody’s perfect. Here is the death of all judgmentalism – no-one has achieved a different class of moral existence. All those religious types who think they’re better than others are, beyond question, hypocrites. Original sin says we’re all the black sheep of the family, so let’s stop pretending to be ‘on the side of the angels.’

Having said all this, here are Three Reasons Our Culture Hates Original Sin

We think we’re immortal (The myth of limitless potential)

Modern westerners are in complete denial about our creaturely limitations. We spend our lives seeking to avoid and reverse our mortality. Actually we don’t face our physical perishing so it’s no wonder we can’t face our spiritual perishing either.

We think we’re islands (The myth of individualism)

For all our talk of community, our doctrine of humanity is thoroughly individualistic. I might like to get together with others, but it’s my personal desire here that’s important. I’m a community kinda guy. That’s how roll. When the community starts making claims on me, I cool off big time. When you start telling me of my corporate identity and responsibility, I’m likely to get pretty offended.

We think our decisions make us free (The myth of choice)

It’s so incredibly stupid and enslaving and obviously untrue but we are captivated by the idea that we create our own identity through the exercise of our personal choices. I know, I know – the multiplication of choices mostly ends up paralysing us (see, for eg, this TED talk on the Paradox of Choice) but still the mythology persists. And the  slogan “it’s your decision” is so overwhelmingly persuasive it seems impossible to counteract.

But…

Let’s keep holding out the holistic, communal, authentic side of this message and let’s keep chipping away at the delusions we tell ourselves: that we’re immortal; that we stand alone; that we create ourselves. Let’s point out our mortality and our limits. Let’s highlight the failures of individualism. Let’s spotlight the slaveries we bring on ourselves precisely when we make our bold choices.

And all the while, our goal is not to burden people under the conviction of sin but to awaken them to the reality we all face. The whole point is to wake up the world to the obvious: we’re sick. To embrace this truth is not our damnation, it’s our salvation. For Jesus did not come for the healthy but the sick. He did not come to call the limitless, individualistic self-creators but only original sinners.

Thingamy-Jiggery-Pokery

Posted on by Glen in faith, grace, pastoral theology, prayer, preaching | 18 Comments

the-thing-movie-poster

We’re always making a thing out of things that aren’t things. There’s a technical term for this but I’m just going to call it thingification. The name’s not important. What is important is that it’s ruining your Christian life. Let me show you how with reference to 6 things that are commonly thingified.

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Grace is not a thing.

“Grace, Grace, Grace” we sing. And I think “She sounds awesome, I wish I could meet her.” But I can’t meet her because there’s no such person. There’s only Jesus who is given to me by the Father apart from any desert of my own. That’s grace. But grace is not a thing. Grace is the gift of a Person and if I want to know more grace I need to train my eyes on Jesus. Then I’ll see how freely He’s given. At that point I have an experience of grace, but my experience won’t be of a thing but of a Him. (For more see here).

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Faith is not a thing.

“We’ve got to have more faith” we cry. And so we check the little perspex window on our heart to see if the faith pilot-light is flickering strong. Oops, looks like it’s going out. Quick, turn the faith tap to maximum. But  how? What is faith? Again, it’s not a thing. Faith is to recognise and receive Jesus (John 1:12-13). He has been graciously given, therefore we trustingly receive Him. But faith is not something we dredge up out of our inner spiritual life. If you want “more faith”, don’t look for faith – look to Jesus. That’s how faith comes. (For more see here).

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Prayer is not a thing.

“I need to work on my prayer life” we say. And we mean it. But so often what we mean is “I need to improve at this spiritual discipline because my lack of proficiency reflects badly on my stature as a Christian.” Or maybe we want to improve because we want to “improve our relationship with God.” In some ways this motivation is even worse because it pictures “my prayer life” as the thing that connects me to God, rather than Christ. Then it becomes very important to focus on “my prayer life” but as something quite separate from focusing on Christ our Mediator. So we force ourselves to go to the prayer meeting and hear someone pray: “Please may God bless this work…” And we think, “Huh? I thought we were praying to God? Are we? Or are we performing a thing called prayer in front of one another?” Perhaps the pray-er does manage to address God but then mixes up the Persons. At that point you have to ask: Has prayer become a thing that we do. Should it not be an enjoyment of our adoption before the Father through union with the Son in the joy of the Spirit? But so often, don’t we find that prayer becomes a thing we must get right. And a thing that stands between ourselves and communion with God? (For more see here).

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Bible Reading is not a thing.

“I must read my Bible” we vow, “every day, come rain, hail or shine.” Well alright but why? Another spiritual discipline to master? A duty to tick off the list? If we manage it, is there not a sense of “Phew, job done!” But what if “Bible Reading” isn’t a thing in the Christian life. What if Bible Reading is simply how the Father speaks His word to us in Christ and by the Spirit. What if Bible Reading is not a thing we need to get right but a word in our ear from our gracious God? (For more see here).

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The Sermon is not a thing.

“What did you make of The Sermon” we ask each other after the service. Suddenly The Sermon is a thing – a thing in between the preacher and the congregation. It’s a production that we then pass comment on. And from the preacher’s point of view the same thingification can happen: “we prepare and deliver a sermon” rather than “herald God’s word to a congregation.” Unfortunately this thing arises in between preacher and people – a thing that will be dissected and focused upon by both sides. But really there is no such thing. There’s only God’s word coming down through the preacher’s lips. There’s only a congregation hearing the voice of the living Christ. The Sermon is an artifice. It is not a proper object of our attention – only the Christ which it proclaims. (For more see here).

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Discipleship is not a thing. (Updated)

“The church has woefully neglected discipleship” they lament. We all give a hearty ‘Amen’ then we look in our Bibles for the word “discipleship” and, shock horror, it’s not there. The word “disciple” is certainly there, but discipleship? No, the Bible is not interested in disciple-craft. Jesus does not want us to be good at the art of following Him. He just wants us to follow Him. Yet, might it be that discipleship is one more concept that takes us away from Jesus Himself and makes us dwell on a thing in abstraction from Christ? It’s worth considering. (For more see here).

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What do you think? And are there other aspects of the Christian life we thingify?

#HeForShe and the Spectre of Spectrums

Posted on by Glen in apologetics, culture, gender, pastoral theology | 15 Comments

Emma Watson and #HeForShe are still trending strongly after her speech at the UN

TRANSCRIPT OF SPEECH

The essence of #HeForShe seems entirely praiseworthy. Gender equality is everyone’s issue. It has to be.

I subscribe to @EverydaySexism on Twitter and am constantly shocked by the abuse that women are routinely forced to endure at the hands of men. It disgusts me and it makes me triply resolved to teach men what real manhood is – not degrading or objectifying women, but honouring them. It seems obvious to me that a woman’s greatest hope of liberation and flourishing is for the men in her life to learn self-control – especially sexual self-control – and for those men to empower and bless the women in their lives. In other words it seems obvious to me that the cause of gender equality is advanced precisely where men are taught to be what men are supposed to be – sacrificial, Christ-like servants who will die for their women. Call me naive but I think a return to the Bible is a woman’s best hope for equality.

For this reason I take #HeForShe to be a well-intentioned move in the right direction. Of course it’s easy to be cynical about the zeitgeistiness of it all – a young, 20-something celebrity calling us to click on the latest website – but we can forgive it that. I think the goal is noble.

But then those goals become completely undermined by a couple of other commitments evident in the speech. At one point she says: ““It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.” Hang on a minute. I’m all for opposing gender stereotypes – which Watson does well in the speech – but let’s not oppose the distinctness of gender itself.

Emma WatsonThe irony is that undercutting “he”-ness and “she”-ness with a single spectrum will not turn out well for the cause of women’s liberation. If I am positioned on a spectrum according to my personality type, my preferences and my actions, then who will protect “an end of the spectrum” and on what basis? Spectrums get dominated – they always do – and they get dominated by the strong over the weak. Do women really want to abandon the particular protection of a given identity – one which they can proudly claim as “born that way” – and adopt a spot on a sliding scale?

As an example – you could make an argument for abolishing a men’s and women’s draw at Wimbledon. Why have these ‘opposing ideals’ – it’s a spectrum after all? You could spin this as an argument for equality, couldn’t you? “Let every tennis player identify simply as a tennis player and let their tennis speak for itself?” What would happen at Wimbledon? Men would win and women would be utterly squeezed out. The spectrum does not favour those who are weaker physically nor those who have historically been oppressed. The spectrum will only exacerbate inequalities and force the weak to fight a losing battle to be honoured.

The greatest example of this in the speech came at 4:52

I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body

It prompted the first and loudest bout of applause. It was chilling to me to see a talk on equality garnering such enthusiastic support for the oppression of the weak. What a travesty for women to applaud the ‘rights’ of the strong to eliminate all those little girls, simply because the strong can. 

I hope though that we can see how this pro-choice slogan fits perfectly with a ‘spectrum’ mentality. Richard Dawkins identified the chief problem with the pro-life position as ‘The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind‘. Dawkins insists that we not think in binary catergories – life or non-life – it’s all on a spectrum. The status of the child in the womb is not on an on-off switch but on a dimmer. We must be pragmatic about when we accord the child the right to protection.

In other words, it’s a spectrum. With this spectrum it’s very obvious that there is a strong end and a weak end but, crucially, it’s down to those at the weak end to prove themselves worthy of honour and protection. This is where it heads when we don’t have God-given categories like ‘life’, like ‘man’, like ‘woman.’ Without these givens (and hear the word grace in the word ‘given’) we must earn and prove everything.

“He For She” is a great idea. But it’s completely undercut if you make “He” abandon his “He”-ness and “She” abandon her “She”-ness. These have been given to us, not as ‘opposing ideals’ but as a complementary pairing. We are called, in all our distinctives, to a one-ness of love and mutual respect. #HeForShe works. #SHEEEHEEEESH does not. The spectrum is a spectre – it’s the tyranny of the continuous mind.

Praise God

Posted on by Glen in pastoral theology | 8 Comments

Blown AwayYou may know that Emma and I have three little ones who are with Jesus (for more read here). But today we can announce that we have a fourth little one who is with us – in utero at any rate. It looks like this little one might see the light of day! In other words, we’re pregnant! But I put it like that because, well, that’s kinda how pregnancies are it seems: incredibly precarious and surrounded by uncertainty and death. But that’s where the life and hope is.

We’re taking a while to get used to the “life and hope” stuff – this pregnancy has been ‘touch and go’ at many points and Emma and I have been stuck down some very deep pits in the past. We’re also aware that we have travelled with many other couples through childlessness and the news that we’re pregnant will, understandably, be received by some with grief as well as joy.

These sorts of things always seem to get missed off the Facebook Status Updates. And that’s probably why we’ve mainly avoided Facebook during struggles with childlessness. Those status updates aren’t wrong – simple expressions of “We’re pregnant!” aren’t wrong – but it’s struck me powerfully today that they’re by no means the full story. And it’s worth giving space for that full story at points.

All that being said, now is a time for rejoicing. And as we allow others in on our news, you help us find our bearings. Now is the time to say “The Lord has been good.” And you have no idea how good He’s been! Not many years ago I thought I’d have to bury my wife, now we’ve got a nursery to decorate. The Lord is so good!

So with the bigger story in mind, and in fellowship with one another, celebrate with me what God has done:

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
 They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
 He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
 for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.” (Psalm 107:4-9)

 

Church is Heavenly

Posted on by Glen in church, pastoral theology | 11 Comments

Daniel Rowland“I like this tune,” I said to my translator above the noise of the choir, “What are they singing?” He almost had to yell: “This is a very popular hymn in Malawi. It’s called Just because you go to church doesn’t mean you’re going to heaven.” “Oh” I said, watching the choir dance up and down the aisle, singing the chorus for the 50th time. Someone slid into church late, hoping to go unnoticed. He failed. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but some of the singers seemed to direct their words pointedly at the late-comer:

Just because you go to church doesn’t mean you’re going to heaven.

Well, it’s true. And certainly you can understand the urge to sing it where nominal church attendance abounds. But it doesn’t really capture the dominant note of the Bible. You see the Bible, more often than not, speaks of church as heaven.

“You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (Hebrews 12:22-23)

Because you’re going to church you are going to heaven. You see that’s also a biblical truth – a central one. I don’t mean that every church-goer is guaranteed paradise, I mean that – right now – church is paradise. Forget the final reckoning for a moment, church is heavenly – that’s the overwhelming witness of the Bible.

Daniel Rowlands, one of Wales’ mightiest preachers, would watch his congregation walking to church on a Sunday and remark: “Here they come, bringing heaven with them.”

That’s the emphasis in the Bible. And yes, some who came to Rowlands church may be in hell right now. But not because they didn’t taste heaven in church, they did (Heb 6:4-8). Everyone did – that’s what church is. 

There can be an unhealthy preoccupation among evangelicals with distinguishing the visible church from the invisible elect. We’re always looking past the tangible concreteness of our actual brothers and sisters, gathered around the word, the bread and the wine. We want to say “Yeah, whatever, those are just externals. The real issue is down deep in your soul.” And so we encourage the spiritually serious among us to be deep-soul-divers, trying desperately to plumb their own depths. All the while it’s church – in all its ordinariness – which actually does the deep work in us. The word exposes and heals us, the bread and wine nourish us “deep down”, our brothers and sisters en-courage us in ways that nothing else can.

Church is heavenly. Whatever heaven we seek which is not intimately tied to church might just turn out to be a false spirituality. I fear that – in that false sense – there are some people so heavenly minded they’re of no churchly use.

 

Counselling and the Church

Posted on by Glen in pastoral theology, psychology | 5 Comments

2104bf27cee12d1f1387d06961bf536cShould Christians see non-Christian counsellors?

This is a question that divides evangelicals, sometimes sharply. But perhaps it’s not the question to ask. At least not first. Perhaps the better question with which to frame the discussion is this:

Where (if anywhere) might counselling fit into Christian discipleship in the life of the church?

Here we’re dealing with first things first. Healthy, well-balanced living is a matter of  Christian discipleship – learning Christ and letting His reality shape all our thinking, feeling and behaving. The context for that discipleship is the body of Christ – the church. Think of Ephesians 4: there is incredible maturity and growth available in the renewal of our minds (v14-32). But the context for it all is the local church (v1-13). I say local because you cannot imagine Ephesians 4 happening in some “invisible church.” Our growth happens in community with others where our church leaders exercise their word gifts (v11-13). The local church is the place where lives are put back together.

So where does counselling fit in? Well it certainly can fit in. There are areas of expertise that a counsellor might have that may not be covered by your local church. There can be many reasons you might want to talk to someone with wisdom and experience from beyond your own context. But the heart of the issue is this: the counsellor must not become a de facto Pastor. Whatever counselling is sought, it would probably need to be self-consciously time-limited. It will certainly need to be talked and prayed through with people from church (whether friends or pastoral leaders). But if that’s happening then seeing a non-Christian counsellor for a limited time, regarding a limited issue and with local church prayer support is a viable option – certainly it is if your Pastor thinks so.

The real problem, it seems to me, is having a counsellee looking to a counsellor as a Pastor – a shepherd of their soul. Unfortunately though, this happens all the time. And the problem is not limited to counsellors. So many want their soul’s deepest needs to be met through celebrity online preachers, through parachurch ministries, through conferences, through GOD TV, through the latest Christian paperback. This is the problem, and you’ll notice it’s a problem even if the spiritual shepherd being sought is Christian. Even if their doctrine is completely orthodox, the problem remains.

On the other hand, consider this scenario. Let’s imagine the person you love is falling into a big black hole called anorexia – this is Emma’s and my story. In that case there will be professional help available  – not always very much, not always very helpful and not always very easy to access. But nonetheless there will be opportunities to access care from beyond the local church and, most often, beyond an explicitly Christian context. What should you do?

My advice: take everything that’s offered with both hands, but pray through it with folks from church. Christ and His people really do have the answer to eating disorders but there’s also wisdom out there about the nuts and bolts of battling it. Through it all, church should absolutely maintain spiritual oversight and care but church should also acknowledge where others have useful expertise. The problem comes when Christian leaders equate expertise with soul care. In that case leaders who feel “out of their depth” in terms of expertise will hand over their people wholesale to the experts.

This happened to Emma and I several times. We would go to Christian leaders with our problems only to be told they were “too much” for them to handle. This was understandable – they were “too much” for us too! But instead of maintaining soul care while delegating specific expertise, they washed their hands of both.

The greatest help we had, beyond the Lord’s own intervention, was a Christian couple who admitted frequently their own inadequacy. They had no idea about eating disorders but every Monday night they opened up their home and we talked. Emma could speak about the professional help she was receiving and we prayed together. Very simple. Very profound. And it was all possible because these Christian leaders did not consider their limited knowledge to limit their ability to care.

Can non-Christian counsellors be helpful? Of course. Can they be unhelpful. You bet. But the need to find “an answer” to the counselling question betrays a deeper problem – we feel like the counsellor, whether Christian or not, is the answer. We treat outside helpers like alternative shepherds when really they’re just vets.

For my money the real issue is dethroning the counsellor from the position of Pastor. Once this occurs, their doctrinal orthodoxy is still important, but less so. You see shepherds can bring in vets to help the flock. And those vets may be a brother, or they may be from a different tribe. That’s of secondary importance. Whoever the vet is, the real issue is that the sheep know the voice of their Shepherd and the continued care of their God-given undershepherds.

Picking the places of honour

Posted on by Glen in pastoral theology | Leave a comment

burgundyA Parable (Which May Just Have Happened).

Once upon a conference, an unknown speaker gave a talk to a small seminar grouping. Let’s call him the Little Fish.

Later the Little Fish listened to a moderately well-known speaker at a larger seminar grouping. Let’s call him the Big Fish.

After the seminar the Little Fish spoke to the Big Fish and shared his appreciation of the Big Fish’s ministry. The two spoke for a good 5 or ten minutes but as they left the seminar room together the Big Fish spotted the Biggest Fish.

The Biggest Fish was the plenary speaker for the whole conference, and there he was, waiting for an elevator. Immediately conversation with the Little Fish was cut short.

“Hello Biggest Fish.” said the Big Fish. “Are you off to dinner? Can I join you?”

The Big Fish and the Biggest Fish entered the elevator. The Little Fish smiled and walked on alone – praying forgiveness for any times he’d done the same.

 

Focus on the Family?

Posted on by Glen in culture, pastoral theology, sex | 9 Comments

1991, THE ADDAMS FAMILYRecently I stirred the hornets nest with “I choose not to be straight”. I then followed it with “Why go after straight Christians.”. Here’s my last sexuality post for a while. I think.

This morning I was visiting a church (not in Eastbourne). The man leading the prayers said “Lord, we thank you that you love us all here this morning, whether we are young people, parents or grandparents, your love is for everybody.” I looked along my row. There was a woman in her 30s with Downs Syndrome. She’s out. What about her carer? I might be wrong but I don’t think she fit the bill. And there’s me. I’m out of the club too. Pretty much the whole front row was disenfranchised by that categorisation of “everybody.”

And so let me bang this drum one more time… In the current clashes between church and culture over sexuality, it’s the church that really needs to repent. This is not just an application of 1 Corinthians 5:12 – although that text should be tattood on the inside of our eyelids. Neither is it the call to refocus attention from gay marriage  onto ‘our own heterosexual marriages.’ Actually there’s every danger that focusing on ‘heterosexual marriage’ is itself part of an unbiblical vision of sex and sexuality.

Travel back in time to the first century – you are now surrounded by many competing visions of sex, marriage and the family. In lots of ways you could characterise the Empire’s vision as more conservative than the Christians’. The message of Jesus and the Apostles crashed down into that world like an asteroid. But it didn’t merely confront the sexually liberal, it also led to liberalisation of the marriage laws from Constantine onwards.

Biblical ethics were not seen by the Greco-Roman world as particularly pro-family. Actually the high honours given to singles by the bachelors Jesus and Paul (Matthew 19; 1 Cor 7) were massively threatening to the contemporary culture. It was unheard of in the ancient world to say: “You don’t have to get married, in fact it’s better if you don’t.” That was almost seditious. The culture was all about family. Matrimony is about finding a mater – a mother – for your heirs. If there had been a pagan pressure group advocating for the sexual ethics of good citizens they’d probably call themselves something like “Focus on the Family.” The Christians seemed to be doing something different.

You see biblical sexual ethics confront the licentious and the conservatives. The bible offers the world something radical – a way of life that is not about experiences and romantic love but neither is it about securing progeny. Here are a people who see a future for the world that is not tied to their offspring – it’s tied to Christ. And so Jesus says:

‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’ (Matthew 19:11-12)

Can we accept this? Can we accept this ordering of things with a clear privilege for those who embrace singleness? Or will we simply be known as those who privilege the family and hetero-normativity? Are we going to sit with this unbiblical categorisation of the world (Straight / Gay / Bi / etc) and insist on converting people to our end of the spectrum? Or are we seeking to convert the spectrum itself?

This was brought home to me when Paul Blackham wrote his wonderful article for this blog: “Legal recognition of marriage and the Way of Jesus.” It’s a fantastic piece about participating in the revolution of Jesus (including his revolution of sexual ethics). This revolution will occur not by lobbying parliament but by living out the way of Jesus in local churches. It was received very well except for two sentences:

Jesus’ preference is, of course, that we don’t marry at all and are able to say ‘no’ to all our sexual desires and give all our passion and desire to the life and work of the Kingdom of God.  Yet, if any of us cannot do that, there is this one possibility of a totally exclusive, lifelong, sacrificial marriage between a man and a woman.

Nothing else in the article caused as many questions as that statement. Some thought it was an unfortunate blunder that prevented the post being shared more widely. But I wonder whether our resistance to that paragraph (which seems a pretty decent summary of Matt. 19 and 1 Cor. 7) reveals our blind spots. We think of the bible as challenging pomo-sexuality, we don’t think of it as challenging the unrivalled pre-eminence of “the family.” But it’s both. And those who use the Bible to challenge the former while capitulating to an idolatry of “the family” are open to the charge of hypocrisy.

More than this, they’re closed to the riches of a truly biblical view. I really appreciate spiritualfriendship.org as a place that explores what is neglected when “the family” is idolized. Ron Belgau describes the purpose of the site like this:

Growing up as a gay teenager, the only messages I heard from the church were negative. Most in our culture—including many Christians—uphold romantic and sexual love as the most important form of love. But God forbade the sexual and romantic love I desired. Was I just to be left out in the cold?

[I’ve been helped] to see that obedience to Christ offered more to me than just the denial of sex and romance. Christ-centered chaste friendships offered a positive and fulfilling—albeit at times challenging—path to holiness.

Through groups like this, gay Christians are proving a tremendous gift to the church. We should all have been exploring the meaning of true friendship but some of us were too busy romanticising romance. These guys have been forced to wrestle with something every Christian should treasure: spiritual friendships beyond questions of sex and marriage. But if the whole church does not recover these categories then we’ll all be the poorer for it.

It seems to me that these guys – even those who identify as “gay Christians” – are not capitulating to the world’s view of sexuality (side B Gay Christians aren’t anyway). Surely it’s “Straight Christians” who are in greatest danger of adopting the world’s categories – for they have never come to question their own default prejudices.

In my view, the best of all worlds involves abandoning entirely the “Gay/Straight” labels but perhaps such revolutions lie down the track. In the meantime it’s folks like those at Spiritual Friendship who are most likely to recover what Jesus (and Paul and David and Jonathan) have been offering to the world – deeply connected discipleship that is beyond the erotic. It’s true that we may have missed the glory of this through distractions about sexuality (and the sexualisation of all things). But another distraction might well have been an overblown focus on the family.

I’m not saying family is not vital. I am saying that Scripture upholds another calling – celibacy – even higher. And if we aren’t tuned into that I suggest it’s because our sex ethic is not as Christian as we might imagine.

Christians who take a conservative view of Scripture (and I’m one of them) must do more than proclaim the biblical sex ethic. And we must also do something else than simply “upholding Christian marriage” in the face of redefinition. We must let the Bible confront both sexual liberalism and cultural conservatism. We must see both as errors to be repented of. If we don’t, we will lose our gay brothers and sisters, we’ll isolate our singles even further and we’ll be blind to the riches of true discipleship that transcends these culture wars.

How Not To Read The Bible

Posted on by Glen in bible, pastoral theology | 1 Comment

praying otterA semi-imagined conversation

— Right.  Bible reading.  Here we go – Speak Lord, your servant is listening.  Ok, Matthew 11:28.  Jesus said “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”  Ok, good verse.  Well said Lord.  Now let’s get down to business.  What’s this verse really saying…  Well of course “rest” is theologically loaded.  Right from the seventh day of creation we see eschatological perfection modelled in Sabbath….

— Glen!

— Speak Lord, your servant is listening.

— You’ve already said that.  And I’ve already spoken…

— … Oh indeed you have Lord and now I’m allowing your word to inform and shape my theological precommitments that I might be transformed by the renewing… Well you know how the verse goes.  Anyway I find it fascinating that you say v28 right after v27 when you declare the trinitarian, christocentric dynamic of all revel…

— Glen!

— Speak Lord, your servant is listening

— Are you?

— Well trying to.  That’s why I’m deploying all the hermeneutical tools in my considerable arsenal.  It allows my whole theology to be shaped by these concepts…

— Concepts?  Glen, have you actually come to me for rest today?

— Well…  My plan is to get a properly nuanced theology of rest in place.  And once I have this understanding I imagine the experience of rest will sort of, I don’t know, umm….

— Glen?

— Speak Lord your servant is listening

— Maybe later…

 

 

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