Thursday, July 30, 2015

The church in the storm

The church is called to be distinctive and open in its relationship with the wider world. Distinctive because it is a community of people who ultimately no longer belong to the world (meaning not at all the physical and spiritual creation, but the world-system as it stands with its philosophies and institutions) but to Christ. Open because it is a community of people who cannot help but stand in solidarity with the world, because they are sinful people caught up in the same rebellion against God which characterises the world, and because in Christ their mission is to present to that same world the message of reconciliation.

As the culture of the world around us shifts from indifference to the church to outright hostility, maintaining both of these characteristics is going to become more difficult. There is a storm coming.

There are those churches who represent the 'old' conservative evangelicalism. They are reformed in doctrine, conservative in style. They speak a different language. They tend to be creationist, and to a greater or lesser extent rejectionist when it comes to contemporary culture. They see themselves as a persecuted minority, though this doesn’t necessarily bother them. They expect nothing from the world and ask for no favours. They are on the outside and that's probably okay with them.

These churches will survive the coming storm. Their challenge is to remain (or for some of them, to become) open to the world. The temptation to huddle together and entrench is always there.

The 'new' evangelicalism has made much more of an effort to stay in touch with the world. It generally thinks positively of culture. Churches in this stream show an interest in apologetics, and run film and book clubs. They seek to eliminate any non-essential barriers to participation in church life. They try not to be unnecessarily weird. They engage with politics. They appeal to the world not to shut them out of public life.

Life in the storm will be hard for these churches. I fear many will go under. Their right desire to be open to the world will leave them shipping water. They will lose their distinctiveness. If any are to survive, they will have to be prepared to be on the outside; if they are to thrive, they will have to go there with a willingness to keep on engaging and keep on taking hits.

It is time for judgement to begin with God's own household.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Towards a Christian Liberalism

Taking up my own challenge, I've been thinking a bit about how one might construct a theological basis for political liberalism.  Obviously this won't be of much interest to those who see no need for such a basis.  And I should say that I am not quite sure I would claim this as my own view.  It is just some thoughts in process.

1.  The departure point for all Christian thinking about politics is 'Jesus is Lord'.  This is both a factual statement - he simply does rule over all things, whether anyone acknowledges it or not - and a polemical statement - he, and only he, truly rules.

2.  As both a factual and a polemical statement, 'Jesus is Lord' is a positive statement with a negative implication.  The positive statement is to do with Christ: he really reigns and rules.  The negative statement is to do with everyone and everything else: they do not reign and rule (in the same sense).  So 'Jesus is Lord' is both a description, advanced in the face of opposition, of Christ's sovereignty, and a delimitation of the spheres of all other powers.

3.  If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  Caesar can be and must be honoured and obeyed, but this is for the Lord's sake, not Caesar's.  We should be clear here that 'Caesar' for us today includes both demos and despotes, the people and the politicians.  Caesar does not have ultimate sovereignty.  The 'will of the people' (whatever that means) cannot convey or carry such sovereignty.

4.  In particular, Caesar is not Lord over the minds and consciences of people.  Since Jesus is Lord over all, and over each individual, nobody else is Lord.  This does not mean overthrowing all order - Caesar is still to be obeyed in his sphere, family order is still to be followed, in the workplace there will always be hierarchy - but these things are dramatically relativised.  As soon as they step over into areas of conscience, they transgress.

5.  Since Jesus really rules, any attempt by human beings to put his rule into practice through the political sphere is tantamount to blasphemy.  It must include somewhere within it the idea that he does not currently rule, that he is not sovereign, and that he needs us to establish his rule for him.  But he does really rule; it is unnecessary and even sinful to try to bring in his rule through political power.

6.  Since the Jesus who is Lord is the Creator, there is a common good which can be served by politicians.  Even amongst people with wildly differing views of what 'the good' is, there will be sufficient common humanity (which exists after the image of Christ...) for leaders to be able to identify and strive towards some goals which are genuinely for the good of all, and for which good arguments can be made.  So within the limited sphere allowed to human leadership, there is positive good to be done.

7.  Since the Jesus who is Lord is a Servant, Christian leaders should seek to serve - and in particular to serve those who oppose them.  Therefore Christians should be at the forefront of developments for the good and freedom of those with whom they disagree.

Possibly more to come...

Monday, July 20, 2015

Liberalism is about disagreeing

Poor old Tim Farron.  A couple of days into his new job, and already he is under attack for holding orthodox Christian beliefs.  Specifically, he is accused of holding illiberal views on homosexuality, something which is deemed ironic for a leader of the Liberal Democrats.

But this is what liberalism is all about.  Tim Farron has his Christian faith, and appears in general to accept the ethical conclusions that flow from that.  It is fair enough to ask whether you want someone with those convictions representing you, but before anyone leaps to conclusions it is worth asking 'what does Tim Farron do next?'  Does he try to legislate his convictions?  Does he advocate that anyone who disagrees with him should be pilloried and driven from public life?

No, he doesn't.  Because he is a liberal, and liberalism is about what happens when you disagree.  It is about working out what the common good looks like when we don't have a common worldview.  As such, it seems to me that it will be an increasingly important part of our political landscape going forward.  And Tim Farron, as someone who holds a minority worldview, could be well placed to revive liberalism's fortunes after the crash at the end of the coalition.

As an aside, I think personally this is very difficult.  I flinch when I read Farron quoted as saying 'this is my private faith' - really?  It is your private faith that Jesus is Lord of all the universe and all people in it?  But then, I don't know how exactly I would tackle this.  I'd like to see the interface between Christianity and liberalism worked through a bit more, but then that was hardly likely in the Guardian...

Those who are accusing Tim Farron of illiberalism should show where in his behaviour he has been illiberal; instead they have simply decided that anyone who doesn't agree with the majority opinion on sexuality or faith is inherently anti-liberal.  So there's the real irony: there is nothing more illiberal than insisting that a particular set of views, particularly minority views, is beyond the pale in public life, and yet this is being done in the name of liberalism.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Am I a Christian?

I've been trying to think of a single passage in the NT which addresses people who are troubled by this question.  I haven't come up with any yet.  Anyone else got any?  If not, how did it become a live question for many people in our churches?  As a rule of thumb, I think that if our teaching and preaching and theologising is causing people to ask things which the teaching and preaching and theologising of the prophets and apostles did not cause them to ask, we should take stock and ask whether we're getting it wrong.

This question has been sparked by a series of articles about children (sort of starting here) which has made me think about my own children.  They haven't yet asked me is they are Christians, and I kind of hope they never will.  It's a question which inevitably takes our eyes off Jesus and sends us into spirals of introspection.  (Do I have faith?  Is my faith genuine?  Am I growing or backsliding?)

I guess if they ever ask I will counter with 'did Jesus die and rise for sinners like you?' and leave it at that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


One of the things I return to again and again in the Christian life is the relationship between the objective and the subjective.  It crops up in lots of places.  For example, how does one think about a sin committed, and the feeling of guilt that follows?  Should I say 'well, objectively, the sin is forgiven, so move on'?  Or should I say 'subjectively, this guilt is appropriate and should be felt'?  When spiritually depressed, should I say 'objectively, God is no further from you than he ever has been', or should it be 'subjectively, God has withdrawn himself and you need to work through that'?  This same sort of question will arise when we ask about how to read providence, or how we would answer someone who asked if they were a Christian.  In theological history, both routes have been taken, and various balancing acts have been attempted between them.

Perhaps a key touchstone here, and a good way to start thinking clearly on the subject, is with those church ceremonies commonly called sacraments - baptism and the supper.  Take baptism, for starters.  An emphasis on the objective in baptism will tend to lead to infant baptism - because baptism is not about the subjective state of the recipient so much as the objective promise of God.  In baptist circles, meanwhile, there is a tendency to make baptism about my subjective decision to follow Jesus - and in some baptist circles this emphasis has gone so far as to suggest that rebaptism is appropriate if a baptised person later decides that at the time of their first baptism they did not really believe.  Similarly, in the supper, we take bread and wine - the objectivist emphasises the real presence of the Lord, and the fact that all those who partake feed on him; the subjectivist has no interest in the emblems themselves except in so far as they awaken faith in the risen Christ.

I've been thinking about this again, and here's where I am currently.  I think the pastoral approach which downplays the subjective in favour of the objective can be dangerous, because it makes a person's Christianity distant from their own experience.  It does not take seriously what is happening now, or how the Christian feels or thinks today, and consequently can drive a wedge between the objective truth of the gospel and the subjective lived experience of the Christian - and that actually means driving a wedge between the Christian and Christ.  On the other hand, so emphasising the subjective that the objective recedes into the background is also dangerous.  It leaves the Christian lost on a sea of their own subjective impressions and emotions.  And so in that way it breaks the cord which tethers them to Christ.

So here is a bit of 'third-way-ism', starting with the sacraments.  In baptism, there is nothing but ordinary water, and a bit of getting wet.  In the supper, there is just ordinary bread and wine, and some eating and drinking.  These are just normal, everyday things.  But in the context of the worship of the church, they are lifted up into contact with the objective truth of the gospel, and so our subjective experience of them is changed.  It is not that they become anything different (objectively), but neither is it that our (subjective) experience of the action is the all-important thing.  Rather, it is that these emblems, in this context, are lifted to become more than just emblems, and therefore our subjective experience is lifted to become participant in the objective story of Christ.

Back to the Christian's sin and feeling of guilt.  This is, at one level, just a normal human response to something we've done.  But it is possible to view this subjective experience in the light of the objective truth, and to see our working through of guilt and repentance in this instance as a participation in the bigger story.  My daily repentance is lifted into contact with Christ's death and resurrection, and therefore becomes a part of the story of the reconciliation to God which he has accomplished.

The point is that instead of separating the objective and subjective (which effectively separates the Christian and Christ), or of over-emphasising the one or the other, I want to see and understand my experience, and the experience of others, as occurring in the context of the big story - which is to say, in the presence of the crucified and risen Christ.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Still too strong

I've been spending a lot of time in 2 Corinthians in the last few weeks, and have been struck and refreshed again by the gloriously good news that God delights to use the weak and incapable. But I've also been thinking: it's more than that. God uses the weak and incapable because they are the only people fit for his purposes. Only a clay jar can display God's glory, because only a clay jar is weak enough to make it clear that the container has no glory of its own.

You could learn the same lesson all over Scripture. Gideon is a prime example. He cannot take 32,000 people into battle; he cannot even take 10,000. Otherwise Israel might say 'my own hand has saved me'.

Sometimes I feel desperately weak. Sometimes I think our churches are desperately weak. But I wonder if we're still just a bit too strong - too capable in ourselves to display God's glory.

So I find myself praying: Lord, weaken us where we are strong in ourselves, so that we can be strong in you.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015


Here is the definition of extremism drawn up by Her Majesty's Government, with the aim of forcing schools to recognise and report extremist influences on children:

Extremism is "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs".

Here are a few quick comments on some words and phrases which I'd like to see nailed down a bit more firmly (on the assumption that we can't just ditch the whole thing, which would be my preferred option!):

British - who is "in" and who is "out" when we use this word?  Given that the British isles are home to a multiplicity of cultures, both ancient and more recent arrivals, can any sensible definition be placed on this?

values - this is a slippery word.  Does it just mean "things that I or we consider valuable/important", or does it imply some relation to a wider 'value system' and narrative?

including - in this context, that has to mean 'including, but not limited to', which raises huge issues about what else might count as a 'fundamental British value'.

rule of law - this could so easily be used to quash legitimate protest against specific laws that it's terrifying.

individual liberty - just ironic, considering how utterly contrary to individual liberty this whole process is.

respect and tolerance - these words both need serious definition.  Will we still be able to criticise other worldviews?  Are atheists to be required to 'respect' my worldview even though they are convinced it is delusional?  Am I to be required to 'respect' theirs even though I think it is demonic?  And as for tolerance - I can tolerate lots of things whilst believing them to be desperately wrong; but only if tolerance is understood to mean basically 'put up with'.  I would like some assurance that I am not going to be required to celebrate what I am convinced are erroneous and deathly views.

All in all, this particular venture into establishing a category of thought crime strikes me as dangerous, poorly thought through, and socially destructive.