Apr 23, 2014

Towards the end of last year, Joel Willitts published a few posts on the blog he co-authors with Mike Bird about his move to a mutuality/egalitarian viewpoint with respect to gender roles in the church. He noted, 'I’m finally willing to come out and nail my flag on the mast of the “Mutuality” (Egalitarian) position.’

Willitts unpacked the reasons why he made this shift in his thinking in the three posts, which, on the whole, make for interesting reading. What I found most interesting, however, was the conclusion at the end of his final post on the subject:

In the end, I could be wrong on my interpretation of the data of the texts. They are difficult. And I’m willing even still to leave the question open, although I’m quite confident there will remain a deadlocked until Jesus returns. I believe there is no high ground in this discussion when it comes to the evidence. So, in large measure I’ve decided that I just don’t want to be on the “limitation” side of this debate. When I stand before God, I would rather have committed the “sin” of wrongly interpreting very difficult passages and be for women in ministry, then to be for the limiting interpretation of the passages and commit the “sin” of restricting the role women can play in the church.

I don’t think I have ever heard an argument like this used in regards to matters of practice in the church, and I couldn't help but think that this sounds similar to that oft-quoted idea that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. It would be interesting to know if Willitts would use the same reasoning to argue for any other issue. For instance, would this apply to the type of music we use in worship? What about lay presidency at the Eucharist, or paedocommunion?

Moving away from the particular issue he applies his argument to here, I do find myself somewhat sympathetic to Willitts’ line of thinking. I also recognise, however, that it could be terribly misapplied to a range of issues. Willitts is careful to say that he chooses to be for the ministry of women because he believes the relevant Scriptural texts are difficult; others could claim Scripture lacks perspicuity on matters where it is actually clear (the current debates on sexuality and marriage are a pertinent example). If this line of reasoning is going to be employed, then, it must be done so very carefully after thorough exegetical and theological work has brought the matter to the point where conclusions are a matter of conscience. However, that being said, we then come to passages like Romans 14-15, which seem to encourage restraint for the sake of conscience, and I wonder how Willitts would reconcile that with his wish to be on the side of not limiting the role of women in ministry. Perhaps he would suggest that an arrangement something like we have in the Church of England, which makes special provision for those who, based on their reading of Scripture, cannot accept the ministry of women, is the best way to deal with disagreements on these matters of practice.

In the end, this would be a very interesting conversation to have. I am not interested in addressing the specific issue of women in ministry, but Willitts' line of reasoning and whether or not it is legitimately employed in determining our practices in the church. If you have any thoughts on this, please do share them below.

Apr 19, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 13-19 April 2014.

  1. Why Resurrection People Remember the Dead – This is a great post on the hope we have in Jesus of death's final defeat: "Practices like [visiting the grave of a loved one and remembering them] are not simply a salve for individual grief. Rather, they help us corporately align ourselves with God's battle against death, Satan, and sin. They reach into the past, embrace the memory of the dead, and rush forward in hope for a day when we are united with the historic community of faith in renewed bodies at the final resurrection. As often as we proclaim the Lord's death and sing the word Maranatha in church, we join with heaven's protest against death's grip on all creation and cultivate a longing for God's victory to be complete."
  2. Evidence for the Resurrection – Every year around this time, posts on the historicity of the resurrection appear online. This year, Ian Paul has put together a helpful post on the subject.
  3. Churches “Pandering” to Millennials? – A good post on why changing the message of Christianity to attract the attention of especially younger people never works, but what we do need to think about is what it looks like to hold on to the gospel while meeting people where they're at.
  4. More Muslims May Be Coming To Christ in Iran Than Anywhere Else – These kinds of reports are always very interesting and encouraging. This article notes, with echoes of Tertullian, "According to Open Doors the harsh treatment of Christians by the regime is only fueling the flames of church growth."
  5. The Gospel of Jesus' Wife: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore – You may have heard all the recent stuff about a new papyrus fragment that says Jesus had a wife, and I guarantee you won't find a better response to it than this one from Fred Sanders.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Apr 15, 2014

One of the significant things Albert Wolters discusses in his book, Creation Regained, has to do with the nature of sin, and the way in which it is parasitic in nature. After discussing the goodness of creation, he talks about sin's relationship to creation. He writes,

Sin introduces an entirely new dimension to the created order. There is no sense in which sin ‘fits’ in God’s good handiwork. Rather, it establishes an unprecedented axis, as it were, along which it is possible to plot varying degrees of good and evil. Though fundamentally distinct from the good creation, this axis attaches itself to creation like a parasite (57).

Wolters goes on to say that sin does not exist on its own, but only exists as an "alien invasion of creation." It takes what is good and distorts it. I was thinking about this last Sunday as one of my colleagues preached on Revelation 21. He noted the language of "no more" that stands out in the passage, and the promise of the new creation where there is "no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Rev. 21:4). It struck me that this "no more" language fits with the way Wolters talks about sin. Something that now is – the brokenness of the world – will be made no more. And so the great hope of redemption is not for us to be removed from a broken world, but for the broken world to be healed, for the parasite itself to be removed from God’s good creation. Wolters continues,

The original good creation is to be restored… This restoration means that salvation does not bring anything new. Redemption is not a matter of an addition of a spiritual or supernatural dimension to creaturely life that was lacking before; rather, it is a matter of bringing new life and vitality to what was there all along (71).

This is what Jesus achieves through his death and resurrection. By conquering sin, which has distorted every part of creation, he liberates the whole of creation from this parasite. What once had been will be no more. To paraphrase Sam Gamgee’s question to Gandalf, everything sad is going to become untrue. Or as Tom Wright is fond of saying, Jesus will set the world to rights again.

One of my favourite lines to sing at Christmas is from the hymn, Joy to the World, which makes this notion of redemption so clear:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

That is the hope guaranteed to us because of Easter.

Apr 12, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 06-12 April 2014.

  1. Everything You Hate About Advertising In One Fake Video. This Is Amazingly Real – This is quite amusing, but also insightful into the tactics advertisers use to get our attention and play on our desires.
  2. Law, morality and difficult loveMartin Davie looks at the recent change in marriage law here in the UK and how we ought to respond as Christians. He talks about the need for 'difficult love', saying, 'Love is not the same as unconditional affirmation. Love means valuing every single human as someone made in the image and likeness of God and for whom Christ died, and acting in a way that gives expression to that value. This frequently means challenging people about their behaviour so that they can change where necessary and so become more fully the people God intends them to be.'
  3. The Archbishop, Gay Marriage & Violence: What are the issues? – The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, made some very interesting (and provocative) comments in a radio interview last week about the whole issue of same-sex marriage and the repercussions of our actions on the wider Christian world. In response to those who thoroughly misunderstood Welby and charged him with a sort of 'moral blackmail', Andrew Goddard here helpfully unpacks Welby's comments and the significant ethical issues he was raising.
  4. 7 observations & 3 challenges for Newfrontiers – Here's an interesting post from Phil Whittall, a Newfrontiers leader in Sweden, on the current state of Newfrontiers and what they need to think about to move forward. I think Newfrontiers could become a big player in UK evangelicalism in the near future. They've got an increasing number of really thoughtful leaders, they are growing, they are just getting on planting churches all over the place, and in general, there is just a lot they are doing that is encouraging.
  5. Death Before the FallAlastair Roberts has a very thoughtful post here on what is an interesting and tricky question. I think this is one of the most helpful things I've read on this question.
  6. Why Can’t My Son Receive the Eucharist? – Here is an interesting article about recovering the practice of infant communion. It comes from a Roman Catholic perspective, but is an interesting appeal to the historic practice of the Church.
  7. The Freedom to Love – This is a helpful post on why we need to stop buying into the notion that love equals sex. We need to recover the idea of robust, intimate, loving relationships that can function fully without sex. This, as a result, could be one of the ways we can help people who choose celibacy for the sake of faithfulness to avoid isolation and loneliness.
  8. Inescapable BloodPeter Leithart has a very interesting post on the theme of blood in Matthew's Gospel. He writes, 'Jesus’ blood is inescapable. Everyone...is going to come under the blood of Jesus, one way or another. It is going to be charged against those who conspire to kill Jesus, or it is going to be the blood of the covenant, shed for the forgiveness of sins, for those who turn to Jesus. Either way, the blood will be on you and your children. Those who try to remove it, throw it away, wash it off – those are the ones who are doomed. Those who receive Jesus’ blood will have robes of white washed in the blood of the Lamb.'
  9. Church attendance manual (1): arriving late – The often-witty Ben Myers is at it again with some suggestions of how to act when you arrive late to church, depending on what tradition you belong to. This is fantastic.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Apr 5, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 30 March-05 April 2014.

  1. On the Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage in England and WalesAlastair Roberts offers a helpful and thoughtful response to the recent changes in marriage law here in the UK.
  2. God Save us from our Answers – This is a great post on the need to ask questions, and avoiding the temptation to always assume we know the answers already. That often means we are trying to fit Jesus into our ready-made answers as well. But the author writes, "If sin means one thing, it is that I am fluent in the language of self-deception; that I am ready to speak and live as if 'I know' too quickly. Like the resurrection, the truth so often emerges as a holy disruption. And as George Hunsinger says: 'Grace that is not disruptive is not grace.'"
  3. The "Response Book": A Few Reflections on a Uniquely Evangelical Phenomenon – Here is a really interesting post on why evangelicals devote way too much time and attention to addressing and responding to non-evangelicals they disagree with, and what that communicates about evangelicalism.
  4. Facing the Canon with Archbishop Justin WelbyCanon J.John hosted an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, a few weeks ago. It's a good, wide-ranging and enjoyable interview.
  5. April 3, AD 33 – Some evangelical scholars have argued in this interesting piece that this is the exact date Jesus died.
  6. ‘Catching Sleep’ & Catching the Spirit (Or, a Note on the Phenomenology of The Spiritual Disciplines) – The title of Derek Rishmawy's post says it all, I suppose. If we want to be faithful in practising the spiritual disciplines, it begins with the right posture.
  7. Selfish SalvationUri Brito posts a thought-provoking critique of the paradigm of salvation portrayed in John Bunyan's classic, Pilgrim's Progress.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Apr 3, 2014

Any discussion of the Eucharist necessarily involves a discussion of symbolism, and particularly about the relationship of the bread and wine to the reality they symbolise. In his book, Heavenly Participation, Hans Boersma discusses Augustine’s understanding of the symbolism of the bread and wine, and the ecclesiological significance of partaking of the Eucharist:

One of the most interesting lines in [Augustine’s] Sermon 227 says the following about consuming Christ’s body and blood: ‘If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive. You see, the apostle says, We, being many, are one loaf, one body (1 Cor. 10:17).’ The comment sounds innocuous enough, but it contains two fascinating elements. First…Augustine says…: You become the body of Christ; you become what you eat…

…What [else] did Augustine mean when he said, ‘You are what you have received’? …In the second part of his statement, the Bishop of Hippo quotes the apostle Paul: ‘The bread is one; we, though many, are one body.’ This is a quotation from 1 Corinthians 10:17. The NIV translation renders verses 16b and 17 as follows: ‘And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.’ The word ‘body’ occurs twice in this passage. The first time, it refers to the eucharistic body. (‘Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?’) The second time, it refers to the ecclesial body. (‘Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body.’) Of the three bodies frequently referred to in the Great Tradition (the historical, the eucharistic, and the ecclesial), Paul takes the last two and places them right beside each other. Actually, he does more than place them beside each other; he links them together. He maintains that when, by faith, we share in the one eucharistic body, the Spirit makes us one ecclesial body. As Augustine would put it, we become what we have received. Or as de Lubac famously phrases it, the Eucharist makes the church (114).

This is very interesting. I think that were someone to ask me what makes the church, what makes the body of Christ, I’d be more inclined to say that it is baptism, because it is in baptism that we are united to Christ and incorporated into the people of God. Then again, I may want to take one step further back and say that God makes the church as he gathers his people in through the saving work of Christ.

Perhaps I am misunderstanding Boersma and Augustine (or just Boersma's reading of Augustine), but it seems to me that to only speak of becoming the body of Christ when we partake of the Eucharist is reductionistic. Certainly the Eucharist is key to the life of the church, and is, among other things, an expression of our union with Christ and with one another, but Scripture refers to the church as an objective reality apart from its gathering around the Lord’s Table. Along with the Reformers (for example, as in Article XIX of the 39 Articles), I would certainly affirm that the Eucharist is an identifying mark of the of the true church, alongside baptism and the preaching of the Word, but I'd be hesitant to say that it actually makes the church.

These are just some initial reactions. Thoughts?

Apr 1, 2014

Our church was built in 1833, and up until recently, featured pews that had been installed sometime in the 1860s. Last summer, we reordered the church so that we would face the south wall, removed the pews, and purchased several hundred chairs to be used in their place. The results were fantastic, and many of our parishioners have noted that the change has made the building feel like a whole new church.

Before the changes to the building were completed, I would sometimes hear people comment that they weren't particularly in favour of the changes because they preferred 'traditional' church buildings. That is an interesting comment because pews can hardly be considered traditional – they only date from about the time of the Reformation. As preaching became more central in the worship of Protestant churches during the Reformation, pews were installed so people could sit and listen. Yet, for the all that was achieved in the Reformation to re-involve the people in the act of worship, Aidan Kavanagh, in his book, Elements of Rite, makes an interesting remark about how pews actually hinder their involvement:

Pews, which entered liturgical place only recently, nail the assembly down, proclaiming that the liturgy is not a common action but a preachment perpetrated upon the seated, an ecclesiastical opera done by virtuosi for a paying audience. Pews distance the congregation, disenfranchise the faithful, and rend the assembly (21).

It is clear that, for the sake of argument, Kavanagh is making some rather strong assertions, which may not be true of every church that has pews – indeed, I would not say that this was characteristic of our church before we removed the pews. Nonetheless, there are a lot of benefits to removing pews from churches, benefits we have really noticed in our own church. From the perspective of the preacher, it has brought the congregation much closer, and enables a great deal more interaction with the hearers. When we sing, we can now see those around us and across on the other side of the church, which encourages us. We can easily spot who is worshipping with us, which, amongst other things, enables us to notice visitors and to welcome them. It makes the space much more flexible and usable for different purposes (some of the recent photos on our Facebook page illustrate this well). And our sense of being a family gathered around Scripture and the Lord's Table is much more real as we actually, in a more literal way, circle in around these things.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. And while that sense of wanting to preserve something that has come down to us from previous generations can be healthy in the right context, in others it can have detrimental effects. When it comes to ministry, we always have to be willing to give up what our aesthetic sensibilities might prefer for the sake of the gospel. If our buildings don't serve the mission of the church, they need to be changed.

I realise this raises a number of other issues, not least whether we should spend significant amounts of our resources on buildings, but that is perhaps a discussion for another time.

(HT: Kate Boardman)

Mar 29, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 23-29 March 2014.

  1. A Reformation TimelineSteve Bishop posts a timeline of the Reformation that he found in a recent book he read. Thankfully, it doesn't begin in 1517, although it still does begin with Luther!
  2. Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are – Here is a thoughtful piece from Peter Ould on the whole question of sexual orientation. With so much damage caused by things like reparative therapy, he encourages people to go ahead and accept their orientation. This isn't what needs to change. For Christians to be faithful in the area of sexuality, the question is not about orientation, but about practice.
  3. Dostoevsky the LiberalPeter Leithart observes that Dostoevsky, through the character of Ivan Karamazov, attempted to make the strongest case against Jesus he could. Leithart notes, though, that Dostoevsky can't solve the problem he poses because his Jesus is a liberal Jesus who offers no hope.
  4. God Become Man: Towards a Richer Theology of the Incarnation – This is a good post on why the idea of 'incarnational theology/ministry' can take our eyes off the wonder and the significance of the incarnation of Jesus.
  5. 8 Reasons to Be Anglican – Here is a good summary of what is at the heart of Anglicanism. I resonate deeply with this, and it largely sums up why I am an Anglican.
  6. Talking about worshipSteve Jeffrey notes the tendency in some evangelical circles to refuse to speak of 'Sunday worship' or the 'Sunday service', preferring to speak instead of a 'gathering'. He points out that there is really no warrant to do so.
  7. How to Memorize Entire Books of the Bible – Memorising Scripture is a beneficial practice for all Christians, and certainly something God's people have done all throughout history. Memorising entire books may seem to be quite a challenge, but the method recommended here is really quite simple. It just takes commitment.
  8. Listening to StoriesPeter Ould says that those of us seeking to help others be faithful to the biblical paradigm of sexuality need to begin to put our money where our theology is and actively reach out to help people. And that begins with listening to the stories of those who struggle with these things.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Mar 27, 2014

There is a repeated conversation that takes place between my wife and my three-year-old son, which I regularly overhear when I am working in my study. My wife will tell my son that when his room is tidy, he can come downstairs, and leaves him to get on with the job. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, she will call up to him, 'Is your room clean?' to which he usually replies, 'Yes!' When she then says she will come and check to see if he has satisfactorily completed the task, he quickly runs back into his room amongst the mess he hasn't even begun to touch, and starts throwing toys into the toy box.

My son is a liar. Perhaps it's harsh to state it so bluntly, but as they say, one thing you do not need to teach a child to do is how to lie. They come by that quite naturally. And the reality is that the ease with which we lie is not something we grow out of. Lying very much characterises the world around us – the media is biased and loaded with cover-ups, history is rarely offered to us as uninterpreted facts, even our own friends and family fail to be entirely truthful. It is interesting that, in spite of all this, people get very offended if you accuse them of being a liar. But that just goes to show how bent we are towards lying. When others point out our tendency to lie, we even lie to ourselves about our tendency to lie, refusing to acknowledge what is characteristic of all of us. You are a liar, and so am I.

The Dutch theologian, Jochem Douma, in his book on the Ten Commandments, makes these observations in his discussion on the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16):

Evidently we have a hard time being honest. Even if we have never given false testimony in court, we still catch ourselves gossiping, judging rashly, and twisting another person's words. Even the slanderer finds a ready audience. His words are like tasty morsels; they slide down easily to the inner recesses of the heart (Proverbs 18:8; 26:22). Lying or believing lies both come easily for us.

The verbal inflation rate is high and a lot of verbal counterfeit enters circulation. So we need a variety of methods to verify what we are saying. Everything needs to be documented with invoices and receipts. Licenses, customs officials, speed checks, and tax inspectors are all proof positive that we need a network of supervision because we compromise the truth very easily. We are not inherently trustworthy (321).

The tendency to lie is something that is rooted very deep within us, and it goes back right to the beginning. The fall into sin came about through the twisted words of the father of lies (John 8:44), and ever since then we have been prone to chase after lies and run from the truth. Our propensity to lie and misuse our tongue is such clear evidence of our sinfulness, and can do such damage, as James points out in his extended reflection on taming the tongue (James 3:1-12).

So what can be done about it? Douma writes,

No cure for this ailment exists other than radical conversion. That is how deep lying lives in us. In our conversion, we must put off the old nature; but in that same context Paul says that we must put away lying and start speaking the truth (Ephesians 4:22-25).

We can do this only through the grace of God's liberation. Also above the ninth commandment stands the preamble: 'I am Yahweh your God, who has freed you from Egypt, the house of slavery.' This is not self-redemption, which enslaves us to the lie; rather, this is liberation by Yahweh, who rescues us from bondage to lying. Jesus Christ says, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life' (John 14:6).

Now we begin walking a different path. Through redemption in Christ, we known God as Father and our neighbours in Christ's church as our brothers and sisters. We may not lie anymore; we do not need to lie anymore. For the troubles we used to have in lying to safeguard our own lives against the wiles of 'the gods' and other people need not continue when we live with Christ. Self-denial replaces self-preservation. Speaking the truth leads us down a safe path, even though lying quite often seems to be safer. It is because we so rarely really lives by faith that we often want to rescue ourselves from our difficulties by lying.

…To quit lying is a tremendous challenge. Lying lives deep. We struggle not simply with a vice, but against our entire old nature caught in the net of lying. We must wage this struggle in the faith that only by speaking the truth will we live safely before God and among our neighbours (323).

Although we live in a world where it's often very hard to get the truth, truth is at the very heart of Christianity. When we receive new life in Christ and are transformed by the Spirit, we become a truthful people. As my son grows in his faith and love for Jesus, I know he will become more truthful. And that should be the case for all of us who who are united with Christ.

Mar 25, 2014

Included in the pile of books I've read recently was Hans Boersma's book, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, which is essentially a plea for a return to a sacramental view of reality that re-unites the natural and supernatural, or heaven and earth, something he argues has been separated in much of modern thinking. For a solution, Boersma looks especially to the mid-20th century nouvelle théologie movement, associated with theologians like Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Jean Daniélou, all of whom sought to recapture this sacramental view of reality that had characterised what is known as the Great Tradition, the name Boersma uses to refer to the broad consensus of theology and practice amongst the church fathers and medieval theologians.

Because it is the context he is writing from and into, Boersma's argument is largely directed towards evangelicals. Much of the book is an attempt to demonstrate how evangelical sacramentology would benefit from looking to and being informed by the nouvelle théologie movement. Given his perspective and influence, it is unsurprising that, to make his case, he directly critiques evangelical sacramentology at various points throughout the book. With regards to the Eucharist in particular, he makes the following comment, which essentially sums up what he perceives to be the main weakness in the general evangelical understanding of this sacrament:

The overall attitude of evangelicals continues to regard the Eucharist…as belonging to the well-being (bene esse) rather than the very being (esse) of the Christian life… If our connection with God is primarily an external or nominal one, rather than one that is real or participatory, there is little room for what traditional theology used to call sacraments or means of grace. According to such an understanding, one may still celebrate communion because it is an 'ordinance' of God that regulates our common life together; but the Eucharist will hardly be regarded as a sacrament that participates in the life of Christ and thus as something that mediates to us the life of the triune God (105).

Though I don't find Boersma's overall argument entirely persuasive, I'm sympathetic to the point he makes here. I was talking with someone recently about how evangelicals generally value the practice of church discipline, which usually involves, amongst other things, cutting off an unrepentant sinner from participating in Holy Communion. We wondered aloud whether, given the Zwinglian tendencies in evangelical sacramentology, this action really accomplished anything. It might be unpleasant to be kept from participating in an act of remembrance that everyone around you is taking part it, but surely discipline becomes a much bigger deal if you are cut off from something that actually contributes in a very real way to your growth in grace and maturity, and to the deepening of your union with Christ.

I suppose this is one of the enduring questions with regards to the sacraments – what does it really mean for them to be a means of grace? What do they actually do? We are perfectly happy to talk about Scripture as a means of grace that effects real transformation in the lives of people, so why would we not expect the sacraments as means of grace to do something as well? I am just thinking out loud here, but I believe these are questions that more evangelicals need to face head-on.

©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.