Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Building Blocks (2)

To pick up where we left off...

4.  Prayer.  I struggle with corporate prayer, to be honest.  I find it hard to feel involved if someone is leading prayer from the front; I find it hard to feel like I'm really praying if I am leading prayer from the front; I find it hard not to slip into a fairly mindless ritualism with liturgical prayers.  Still, I think the gospel demands it, as our common response, our speaking to God in reply to his speaking to us.  I am not sure how it can be well done.  One thing I think we should steer clear of over-using is the 'time of private reflection'.  We can pray by ourselves at home; in the church, let's pray together.  I think I favour a mix of brief, front-led prayers, with occasional liturgical prayers.  Either way, I'd like them to be well written, and not extempore.  (I do not always keep this rule myself, and I always regret it when I don't).

5.  Confession of faith.  Our culture, both inside and outside of the church, is riddled with subjectivism and relativism.  In that context, perhaps more than ever before, we need to be responding to the gospel by declaring our faith together.  It doesn't matter so much how it is done, but I would favour having two 'creeds' - one would be the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed, which would help to remind the church of its catholicity, and the other would be a local creed, which would express the truth as it particularly needs to be said in the context within which that church finds itself.  We could alternate between them.

6.  Some expression of community.  It matters that our Sunday worship be primarily on the vertical dimension; that we lift up our hearts, and that we expect God's blessing to come down.  It is right that we go to church to meet with God.  But we do it with other people, and they are the people into whose fellowship we have been called when we were called into fellowship with Christ.  There is a danger here that this becomes tokenism, and an excuse for not being community in the rest of the week - just offering a sign of the peace on a Sunday.  Still, some sign of fellowship, something which deliberately orients us for some part of our time together towards each other must be a useful primer for the rest of life.  It may just be that we incorporate the coffee time into the service, rather than just leaving it as the no-man's land between 'Amen' and first gear (not my phrase, but I like it).  Perhaps we eat together on a Sunday more regularly.  Perhaps we restart the tradition of the Agape feast, and incorporate the Lord's Supper into a fellowship meal.  Something like that.

7.  The Lord's Supper.  We take bread and wine together.  I'd have this every week; it should be at least a couple of times a month.  At the level of straightforward obedience, it's a Dominical command.  It is also the most profound way we can reflect on the gospel together, and the most profound way we can feed on the gospel, taking it into ourselves in a way that will shape us for the rest of life.  In the churches I'm most familiar with, the Supper often feels like something tacked on rather than central, like we're doing it because we know we're meant to, but we're not sure why.  I'd like to see it more central.  I'd also like to have less words around the Supper.  We talk a lot in evangelicalism, and it would be nice if there was this one things that we could do simply.  I don't see that much more beyond the words of institution (with a very light fencing of the table) needs to be said.

I'm out of things.  Anyone got any more?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Building Blocks

What things should take place when we gather to worship?  If I am a service leader sitting down to prepare, what are the ingredients which I have to combine into an order of 'service'?  Here are a few things:

1.  A sermon.  If the gospel isn't preached and applied, it isn't Christian worship.  Of course, the gospel can be preached from many starting points - as many and as varied as the multiple witness of Scripture - and applied into many situations - as many and as varied as the lives of all the congregants.  But it must be preached, both as a theological and a practical necessity; the former because the gospel alone is the foundation of our approach to God in worship, and the latter because we need the gospel for daily living.

2.  Scripture reading.  My own feeling is that the gospel demands of churches in my context that they ramp up the amount and quality of Scripture reading involved in their gatherings.  We live in a time when the basic storyline of Scripture, and the content of particular Scriptural texts, are generally not well known within the church, and completely unknown outside it.  That leaves God's people vulnerable to being misled from the pulpit, because they are not equipped to weigh up what is said.  It also leaves them ill-prepared for personal devotional study of the Bible.  My own preference would be for two or three decent length readings from Scripture, besides the passage which is being preached in the sermon.  We need to be saturated with Bible.  In particular, my own feeling is that it makes good theological and practical sense to open our worship with Scripture, a role for which the Psalms are very well suited.  Theologically, it reminds us that God initiates, and the first thing we do is hear; practically, it prepares our hearts and gets us into the right frame of mind for worship.

3.  Singing.  Scripture is full of singing as the right response to God's saving action, whether that is at the Red Sea or in the church.  I worry when Christians won't sing, or don't sing enthusiastically.  Partly this is just related to my experience - having been in church all my life, I stopped singing as a teenager, and only resumed when I was converted, so singing to me is associated with new birth.  But then, singing is associated with new birth in Scripture as well!  At the most basic level, joyful hearts open singing lips.  There are some people, I know, who are worried that music is emotionally manipulative, and are concerned about getting carried away emotionally.  That is possible, but I think it is far less of a danger than a cold, emotionless worship.  Music, I am convinced, is amongst other things given to stir up the emotions in us which are appropriate to the gospel.  In the sorts of churches I generally attend, I can't help feeling there is not enough singing, which concerns me because it doesn't reflect a gospel heart and a gospel aesthetic.  Let's sing more.

Some more tomorrow...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Joyful worship

In theory, I don't see why Christians can't gather to worship at any time on any day of the week.  In certain contexts, where Sunday is a normal working day, it may be necessary to meet regularly on a Saturday.  However, Sunday morning has the advantage that it is resurrection morning, and that sets the tone.  Every Sunday is a little Easter, and therefore every Sunday gathering to worship is a celebration.  A few observations:

1.  It seems appropriate that we have a Sunday Celebration rather than a Sunday Service.  The former reminds us that our primary purpose is to come together to rejoice in what God has done for us in Christ; the latter sounds like we are coming together to do something for God.  In fact, it is our celebrating on Sunday that will empower our service Monday through Saturday.

2.  The appropriate tone of Christian worship is always joy.  Even when the subject matter of the sermon, or the theme of the day, is something dark - perhaps mourning over sin, or the suffering of death - it occurs within the bracket of joy because it happens on Sunday morning.  We live this side of the resurrection, and we know a joy that puts all sadness in its place.  The structure and content of our meetings together should reflect this.

3.  Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of joy and its expression, least of all a misplaced concern for reverence.  Yes, our approach to God must be in awe and reverence, but too often this is a front under which under which worship is turned into a sombre exercise.  Does our worship encourage and display joy?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Worship Old and New

An important distinction that is drawn by most advocates of the Reformed Regulative Principle in one way or another is that between worship under the old covenant and worship under the new.  It is hugely important that this be kept in mind, but equally important that it not be over-emphasised.  For some Reformed theologians, the discontinuity and difference between the two forms of worship is such that musical instruments, which play a large role in the OT, are forbidden in NT worship.  This is, of course, an example of the Biblicism which I have suggested is an illegitimate use of Scripture.  Nevertheless, it reflects an important issue.

Here, as generally when thinking about the continuity and discontinuity between OT and NT, it is important to remember that we are dealing with one covenant under two dispensations, which finds its centre and unity in the person and work of Christ.  When it comes to worship, Hebrews 9 is useful on this.  The validity of the OT ritual was derived from its conformity to the action of Christ in the mode of foretelling.  The tabernacle/temple, all the festivals and fasts, and even the sacrificial system are all based on him, and serve to announce his coming in advance.  The need for foretelling being past, this mode of worship has also passed away.

So NT worship is to form the other half of the diptych, with Christ himself as the hinge.  Where on the left we have Christ foretold, on the right we have Christ remembered.  Both are forms of proclamation and of celebration; they are just in different tenses.  That will alter the form, but not the essential content of Christian worship.

Perhaps the most essential point to be made here is that we judge all these things from the centre; that is to say, we decide what NT worship looks like, and how it relates to the ritual of the OT, with reference to Christ himself, and his gospel.  We don't judge based on our preconceived ideas of what must be enduring (or what must not be enduring) in OT worship itself, or on our preconceived ideas of what the new spiritual, truthful worship ought to look like.  Rather, we seek in everything to look to the hinge which holds old and new together, and in which they both find their goal and meaning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gospel Worship

Following on from yesterday's post, my preference for the Reformed RP does not actually mean that I agree with it.  I think it expresses an important principle; namely, that God is worshipped as God chooses to be worshipped and not otherwise.  Exegetically, this could be supported from several very frightening instances in the OT.  In the NT, it is underlined by Jesus' discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well, which moves the focus away from the right place and ritual, on to the right heart and attitude.  Most fundamentally, the NT insists that true worship is offered through Jesus Christ the mediator.  We need to be careful not to misread this; the implication is not that because Jesus Christ is our mediator, we need not worry to much what we do in worship since he will make it good.  (This is a parallel error to assuming that because Jesus Christ is the saviour we ought not to be too bothered about sinning.  That is to say, it is an example of using the gospel truth that the sinner is justified to support the hideous untruth that the sin is justified).  In fact, we should take the general truth which controls Christian behaviour and apply it to worship: because we live (and worship) in and through Jesus Christ, our lives (and worship) must correspond to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Our worship must be shaped by the gospel.

The issue I would take with the Reformed RP is that it is unduly Biblicist.  That is to say, it assumes that the gospel, as witnessed in Holy Scripture, will always demand and evoke the same response, and that this response is itself set out in Scripture.  I think the internal evidence of the Bible is against this view, at both a surface and a deeper level.  On the surface, it is clear to me that the NT does not intend to give a manual for worship, and nowhere claims to prescribe the structure or content of our gathered meetings.  (As an aside, it is ironic that the chapters which come closest to doing this - the instructions for use of gifts in 1 Corinthians - are substantially laid aside by most advocates of the Reformed RP!)  At a deeper level, Scripture presents a gathering in of a diverse, multi-tongued people, each bringing the firstfruits of their own culture in worship.  It does not tie itself to first-century mediterranean forms, and nor should we.

The proper role of Scripture in relation to corporate worship, in my opinion, is that our worship is to be shaped and controlled by the gospel which is witnessed and proclaimed in Holy Scripture.  (In other words, the role of the Bible as a regulatory authority moves one step back in the process, from regulating the worship service directly to regulating the understanding of the gospel which in turn regulates the service).

This does not set the Church free, as in the Anglican model, to derive ceremonies and rites which are considered to be "indifferent, and alterable".  Rather, it sets the Church free to ask the question: what does the gospel demand of us in worship, here and now?  This will, of course, lead to alterable forms and actions.  But they are altered by the demands of the gospel, not the will of men.  In this way, our worship will be guided and ruled by the gospel of Christ, and therefore by Christ himself.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Regulated Worship

What should we actually do on a Sunday when we come together?  Historically, Reformed churches have upheld some form of the regulative principle (henceforth RP).  To quote the 1689 (Baptist) Confession - "But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God has been instituted by Himself, and therefore our method of worship is limited to His own revealed will.  He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men...  He may not be worshipped by way of visible representations, or by any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures" (my emphasis).  In other words, when we come together we may and must do only what God has commanded, in the way in which he has commanded it.

Historically, of course, the main target was initially Romanism, and then by 1689 Anglicanism.  The preface to the Book of Common Prayer declares that "the particular Forms of Divine worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein, [are] things in their own nature indifferent, and alterable" (my emphasis).  Here is a different understanding of the regulation of worship, as made explicit in Article 34: "IT is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word" (my emphasis).  Where the Reformed sets forth a positive RP (only what is commanded), Anglicanism holds a negative RP (anything that is not forbidden).

What the two versions of RP have in common is that they are seeking to have worship that is regulated; that is to say, worship that is ruled.  Our approach to God and the service which we offer him is not to be derived arbitrarily from our brains.  We are not free to do as we please; rather, we are free to do what pleases God - which service is true freedom.

As an aside, it interests me that there is a parallel here with the differences over church government which exists between Anglicans and Reformed.  The Reformed insist that there is one Biblically mandated way to organise and run a church - although they will disagree over whether this is a Presbyterian or Independent model.  The Anglicans, on the other hand, will tend to say that no such Biblical model is given, and that within certain bounds churches are free to organise and run themselves as they see fit (with the proviso that catholic tradition should play a major part in the decision making process).

My sympathies are with the Reformed vision for regulated worship.  What we may do is what we must do; we are free to do what we are commanded.  As with the question of church government, what is at stake is our understanding of how Jesus rules his Church.  To my mind, the Reformed RP makes it far more clear that Christ is active in the rule and direction of the churches here and now by his word and Spirit.  Not only in doctrine, but in the liturgical actions that we take together on a Sunday, we are to be moved and directed only by him.

Having said that, I have some questions to put to the Reformed RP, which will end up meaning that I disagree strongly with the letter of it.  But of that, more later.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sunday Morning

The vital importance of Sunday morning is pretty easily lost amidst a flurry of very valid concerns and very important truths, pastoral and theological.  "All of life is worship", so what need is there to have this short period of time fenced off  from the rest of the week and allocated for 'worship'?  "Church is more than a Sunday service", so why place so much emphasis on coming together once a week?  "What really matters is relationship to God and one another", so why have this relatively formal time of liturgical action and listening?  "Our mission is to be in the world as a witness", so is there any sense in making this gathering together of the 'already-ins' the focus of our church week?

All this stuff matters.  But Sunday morning matters more, for two reasons.

Firstly, Sunday morning tells us how we are doing.  It is all very well, and indeed it is absolutely vital, that I commit to worship God with all my life.  But the very all-inclusivity of the target makes it hard to know if I'm hitting it or not.  How joyfully can I sing on a Sunday morning, when I'm gathered together with God's people?  That is a barometer of how joyfully I have been living for Christ throughout the week.  I see this as in some ways parallel to the Sabbath command in the OT.  All my life should be lived resting in God, but it is how I treat this one day which tells me whether that is happening or not.  (Incidentally, reflecting on this is causing me to reconsider my general opposition to Christian Sabbatarianism, but that is a thought for another day).

Secondly, Sunday morning tells us who we are.  If our worship is Christian worship - if it is focussed on and shaped by the gospel - then it will in turn shape us.  We need the gospel story constantly dripped into our lives, and this happens most of all on Sunday mornings.  Yes, we need daily Bible reading, but Sunday morning is where the action of worship in the setting of the gathered people of God brings the gospel home.  This is not just about the sermon; it is about everything that we do together.

There is a circle here, or perhaps a mutually reinforcing dyad.  As Sunday morning reveals how I'm doing, it also shapes me to do better; as it shapes me, it reveals to me how my life is corresponding to the gospel story.  The point of both movements is to lift my eyes to Christ.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow morning.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Marriage, etc.

Those who move in Christian circles can hardly fail to have become aware of the Coalition for Marriage, a pressure group seeking to prevent the government from giving legal sanction to homosexual marriages.  I imagine even if you don't move in such circles, you will have heard rumblings in the media.  I have to say, I find the Coalition off-putting.  It is partly the slightly shrill tone with which they pronounce their warnings, and partly it is the sorts of arguments they use - the argument from tradition, the slippery slope argument (and I quote: "If marriage is redefined once, what is to stop it being redefined to allow polygamy?"), and the 'rest of us' argument ("Same sex couples may choose to have a civil partnership but no-one has the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us").  These are not good arguments.  But the whole thing has got me thinking more about what I think.

Firstly, I don't think government or anyone else can define or re-define marriage.  Human sexuality is not something which is given to us to define.  It takes its definition from creation, and ultimately from the gospel.  I do not uphold 'traditional' sexuality or morality, or 'traditional' definitions of marriage, but I will hold to gospel definitions.  The Biblical witness makes it plain that marriage derives its existence and its meaning from the union of Christ with his Church; moreover, it is clear to me, on the basis of this witness that only lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage devoted to Christ's service or celibacy devoted to Christ's service adequately point to this spiritual union of Christ and Church - the former as a picture of what the union is like, the latter as a symbol of the over-riding importance of the union.  That is where my definition of marriage comes from.

Secondly, because this definition is rooted in the gospel, I do not and cannot expect people who do not believe the gospel to accept it.  I don't think it is wise for Christians to fall back on arguments from sociology or tradition in order to support their view of marriage, which if it is of value at all is derived not from tradition or sociology but from Christ.  That will make it harder for us to make the public case, but then I wonder whether that is my job as a disciple.  Is there any way to make the case for marriage other than preaching the gospel of Christ?

Thirdly, I find myself looking to draw a line between issues where I can believe a thing to be wrong, but not want to legislate, and issues where I think we must campaign for legislation.  For example, I think it is desperately wrong, hugely damaging, and ultimately leading to hellfire to blaspheme.  I do not think, however, that anyone should legislate against blasphemy (and such antiquated laws as remain should be repealed).  On the other hand, abortion - I think we should do everything possible to make this illegal in almost all situations.  The difference is that if I campaign for legislation against blasphemy, I am really only campaigning for my right to live in unoffended, unchallenged comfort; whereas if I campaign against abortion, I am campaigning for the right of another human being to live.  Where does the marriage campaign fall?  Do I think the government's plan are ill-advised, ungodly, and ultimately a reflection of sin rampant in our society? Sure I do.  But is it the sort of thing that we ought to be campaigning against, or the sort of thing that should prompt us to preach Christ and his grace, and to pray much more?  I think I incline toward the latter, although the issue is certainly complex.

Fourthly, I think we Christians need to be ready to suffer on this front, and we need to be ready to do it well.  The race analogy keeps cropping up - saying that gay people shouldn't be allowed to marry is like saying that black people shouldn't be allowed to ride in the front of the bus.  As a Christian, I can't accept the analogy; Biblical anthropology stands against it.  But I can understand where it comes from, and it has a certain rational (and a great emotional) force.  We will be hated for what we say, or at least what we say will be hated.  How we react will matter.  Here is a question: what rights of gay people and couples could we stick up for?  How could we try to bless people whose lifestyles and choices we reject?

Fifthly, we are equipped with three ultimate weapons which will make a difference in this situation, and they are all prayers: agnus dei, kyrie eleison, and maranatha!

Monday, March 05, 2012

"Philosophical Theology"

The scare quotes are to indicate that I don't think there is any such thing.  Permit me to make a couple of remarks.  They are not all that well thought through yet, but perhaps you'll bear with me and even make helpful suggestions.  It is my blog after all.

1.  The best philosophical argument for the existence of God is the ontological argument.  It is the best, not only because there is something rather elegant about it, but primarily because - if it were valid - it would actually show that God exists with the degree of certainty which every theistic religion demands of its adherents.  Sadly, there is no such thing as a valid ontological argument.  If anyone tells you otherwise, I permit you to chide them gently.  Try not to extend this into scoffing.  Be nice.

2.  I am increasingly convinced that probabilistic arguments for God's existence have, as well as their failings to persuade anyone as far as I can tell, the major failing that they are actually blasphemous.  Let me put it this way: if Christian Theism is true, it is impossible that anything should exist on the supposition that Christian Theism were false.  If we say of any thing, 'does this not make it more probable that God exists?', we are doing one of two things (or most likely both).  Either we are moving God into the class of things which may or may not exist - a class which contains all things other than God already - and in so doing denying Christian Theism, or we are actually meaning something more like 'does this not make you feel more like God exists?', in which case we are appealing to subjectivity in a way which makes me uncomfortable.

3.  If the existence of God is a philosophical question, not one of the Biblical authors ever thought to address the issue.  Scripture is full of history; it is full of God proving himself in his words and deeds.  It contains not a word of anything we might recognise as philosophy.  I do not think Christians should be relying on a methodology which the Biblical witnesses, inspired by the ultimate Witness, saw fit to completely neglect.  For us, it is history or bust; resurrection or atheism.

5.  "Philosophical Theology" generally wants to appear rational and sensible in conversation with the outside world.  This desire may be well motivated in many, although I know that in my own period of chasing the no-god of natural theology that for some at least (i.e. me) the driving force is pride, and a desire to avoid the offence of the cross - which is foolishness to those who are perishing.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Tertullian on the flesh

Here is Tertullian, with Genesis 2:7 in his mind, writing against Gnostics who devalue the flesh:

"Let me then pursue my purpose, which is to do my best to claim for the flesh all that God conferred upon it in creating it, the flesh which then gloried in the fact that this poor clay had come into the hands of God, whatever they are, and was happy enough at the mere touch...  Think of God wholly occupied and absorbed in the task, with hand, sense, activity, forethought, wisdom, providence; and above all, that love of his which was tracing the features.  For in all the form which was moulded in the clay, Christ was in his thoughts as the man who was to be; for the Word was to be made clay and flesh, just as at that time earth was fashioned into man."

The emphasis is, of course, mine; the thought is beautiful, don't you think?