Blogroll: God Gold and Generals
I read blogs, as well as write one. The 'blogroll' on this site reproduces some posts from some of the people I enjoy reading. There are currently 6 posts from the blog 'God Gold and Generals.'
Disclaimer: Reproducing an article here need not necessarily imply agreement or endorsement!
Wesley, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Moody, Billy Graham?
How about a quartet of women you will have never have heard of: Mrs Fenne, Mrs Norton and two Mrs Unknowns?
One day this happened to a young man in their town who happened to walk by as they "evangelised" (the account is lightly modernized by me)
"This morning as I went through (the town), intent upon my work, it was my lot that I should pass through one of the streets that are near the High Street. There sat three poor women in the sun, and as they talked in the doorway I heard some of their speech. I went near to listen; but it was talk as I never dreamed of ever before! They spoke of a new birth, of how God had worked in their hearts to show them their lost state, of how they were once under the curse of God for their guilt and iniquity; and then they spoke warmly of the loving-kindness of God in giving His dear Son to die for them, and how they had been led to trust Christ, and found in Him peace and rest for their souls. I thought: that is what I much want, but how I obtain it I knew not.
Then they talked of how God had visited them and refreshed them; and said one (Mary Fenne was her name), 'I remember God now once when I was so upset, because the Sheriff's man seized my kettle and lace-pillow for the church tax, I walked in the dark by the river bank, and, as I watched the dark waters that swept under the bridge near the black prison, I remembered the river that Ezekiel saw, and I thought that its healing waters came even to my marshy and barren heart. It rose upon me, the sweet mercy and comfort of Jesus, until I felt that it mattered little what men took from me, so long as they left me Christ and His Divine grace and mercy. Oh, but I was strong in Him, and I felt His sweet comfort come down in my poor heart, and I felt as if I must shout to the clouds and trees of the gladness that burned like fire in my bones. Talk of happiness! There was never such joy dancing round the Maypole as filled me then.'
'Yes,' said a wrinkled and worn old woman called Mrs Norton, 'that's right! I have known depths of sorrow, but they have been times of deep delight to my soul. When my husband died of the wounds he received in battle, my soul rested on God, and I felt my faith grasp His sweet, strong promises; and look ...though I have but a penny per week to call my own, I would not give it up with the love of God to be the great Earl of (the town) himself!"
The listening man goes on 'They spoke as if joy made them speak; they spoke with such pleasantness of the bible, and with such appearance of grace in all they said, that they were to me, as if they had found a new world...yes, it seemed to me as if they were in another world far above me; but when they talked about their temptations, I thought I knew what they meant, at least in some degree. Yet they declared that they had often got the victory and all through the Word of God. I thought this is all news to me. I was struck dumb by their wisdom, yet it was sweet to me, like the droppings of the honeycomb. And when I opened my mind to them they made no mock of my distress, nor did they make light of it, but invited me come the next day to talk to their teacher, one Dr. Gifford, and by God's grace I went to him....(later) the state and happiness of these poor people at (the town) was, in a kind of a vision, presented to me, I saw as if they were on the sunny side of some high mountain, there refreshing themselves with the pleasant beams of the sun, while I was shivering and shrinking in the cold, afflicted with frost, snow and dark clouds: I thought also, between me and them, that I saw a wall that went round this mountain, now through this wall my soul did greatly desire to pass; concluding, that if I could, I would even go into the very middle of them, and there also comfort myself with the heat of their sun"
What an impact these four poor women made on the world! For as some of you may have known or guessed the town was Bedford, England, the year was around 1654 and the man was John Bunyan whose book "Pilgrims Progress" is probably the single book outside the Bible which has had the greatest impact for spreading the Christian message.
Alexander Whyte writing on this says this (again lightly modernized by me)
"The husbands of those four poor women were away at their work, their children were off to school, their beds were all made, and their floors were all swept, and they all came out as if one spirit had moved them, and they met and sat down on a doorstep to enjoy for a little the sun. And they plunged immediately into their inexhaustible and ever-fresh subject, which was God and their own souls. And even when the young tinker came along with his satchel of tools on his shoulder and stopped and leaned against the doorpost beside them, they did not much mind him, but went on with the things of God that so possessed them, "I have been thinking a great deal about that great talk on John 3" said one; and she went on to tell some of her thoughts to the other three. And as she went on, the young tinker standing beside her had never before even heard that there was a John 3. Not one syllable did he understand more than if she had been speaking in Hebrew. Another woman then said that all the time when was doing up the house that morning her scripture had been a passage out of Paul. “But God,” she repeated quoting Paul, "is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead: ” And then one, who had a kind voice, made her contribution to the conversation in a few selected verses out of Psalm 51. “Therefore,” says Bunyan, “I should often make it my business to be going again and again into the company of these poor people, for I could not stay away. And the more I went amongst them the more I did question my condition.”
Another day as he was again passing by, he saw again the same poor women occupied with the same things of God. " 'Since last we met,' said one lady, 'my constant song has been that faith is the gift of God.' And another answered her with the story about the man who said, 'Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.' And then the third woman took her New Testament out of her pocket - it was so old that it was ready to fall to pieces if she but turned it over. But she soon found the epistle she was looking for, and she read it until the Apostle himself could not have read it better … 'By these things,' adds Bunyan, “my mind was now so turned that it lay like a horse-leech at the vein, and was still crying give, give. Yes, my mind was now so fixed on eternity, and on the things of the kingdom of heaven, that neither pleasures, nor profits, nor persuasions, nor threats could loosen it, or make it let go its hold.”
From this page of John Bunyan we learn this: what and where is the true Church of Christ on the earth. The true test of a true church is its fruit. Those three or four poor women were the true tests and the true seals of a true church of Christ in Bedford."
As the Bible says "Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name. ‘On the day when I act,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him."
How do we tell others? It should be so natural. Anyone can do it. All we need to do is talk about the Lord. All we need to do is love the Lord and love his word. We should be like these four ladies in Bedford basking in the sun of God's Son and people who are shivering in the cold and frozen to the bone by this sad world will come by and hear us and think, like Bunyan, "I'd like to sit in the sun, too".
There has been a lot of discussion on social media about the role of para church organisations. (That’s a Christian organisation outside a church).
Some of my friends have argued that they are unbiblical and should be abolished, other friends admit that they may be biblical but operating so badly in aggregate that they need radical reformation (which might be verging on abolition)
Now what’s quite true is that para church organisations are not mentioned in the bible. But on the other hand nor are church buildings, denominations, theological colleges, full time paid pastors and many other things we take for granted
What seems entirely biblical to me is that local churches should cooperate with each other to achieve common goals. The first example of this is Acts where within a few weeks the church realise that the leaders need to appoint deacons so that the Apostles are not distracted from the ministry of the word. This is in response to complaints that what we might call administration (a biblical gift) of charity is not being handled correctly. Now some may say “ah, well that was the local church”. Given the size of the church by then and the difficulty in meeting in one place under persecution it seems very unlikely that this was the case.
Even it was, it's clear from later in Acts that there were various mechanisms and means to coordinate local church activities. Paul is continually telling the various churches to pray and care for each other and work together. There is a common bond. For example in 1 Corinthians Paul says “To the church of God that is in Corinth…called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” Or in 2 Corinthians Paul is organising a collection (what we might call now a mercy mission) and involving and "co-ordinating" various people and different churches
So a para church organisation, I suggest, should be biblically simply a way of allowing local churches to cooperate on issues where this makes sense. A church organisation or denomination (most obviously historically the Roman Catholic Church) is another way of doing that and in fact many para Church organisations are closely linked (especially in the USA) to large denominations like the Southern Baptist’s . In the U.K. however evangelicals tend to be either in very small denominations, or in larger ones where they disagree with the leadership on many important issues, or in many cases they are simply independent of any denomination.
Thus my second argument is that para church organisations are to serve the local church and to do such things that it makes sense for churches to do together. The idea that every local church can do everything on its own is not only unbiblical but plainly illogical. Just to take one example close to my heart - Christian book publishing. I guess in theory each church could decide independently to publish what books it wanted and see if anyone would buy them. This would obviously be wildly impractical and also would quickly run into the very issue of early Acts: the elders hardly have time to operate a publishing operation and run the church and teach the word. J Mack Stiles writing on this says that para church organisations main function is to protect the local church - protect it from being distracted from its main task.
What’s gone wrong then? Why such opprobrium against para church organisations?
Lots of complaints are levelled against them:-
1. Para church organisations are often not accountable to local churches or even ignore or fight the local church .
2. Para church organisations sometimes perform the functions of a church.
3. Para church organisations drain the people, money and energy from the local church: they are too influential.
4. Para church organisations are especially damaging when any of the above happens cross border
5. There are too many para church organisations, often with overlapping aims.
Let me take each in turn. The marks reflect my view of how correct these statements in aggregate are for the UK. Of course this analysis are based on my own and friends experience, I am not pretending they are definitive. I also suggest some possible solutions.
1. 9/10. This is in my view the major weakness we see - but I think the reason we face this issue is not just the responsibility of the para church organisations themselves - it's a two way street where there are also issues with local churches.
Para church organisations can easily acquire a momentum of their own, and ignore the needs and guidance of the local church. They can in fact fail to be accountable to anyone at all and operate pretty much as they wish. The obvious answer is to increase the accountability to the local church - for example by having trustees who are elders or play other roles in the church. Trustees in general should and can robustly challenge the staff and independently ensure that the organisation does support the local church. The challenge I have seen for para churches is two fold
a) which local church? In England the general decentralised and individualistic approach of evangelical churches makes it hard to form a partnership. We sometimes feel we are living in the last verse of Judges.
b) its difficult convincing busy elders or pastors to devote enough time to undertake this task. Again, as in Acts I can see that their main task is ministering to their church. But to find qualified (or even unqualified but willing to learn) people to act as trustees I have found in general difficult. So if local churches are indeed underrepresented it’s often not in my experience for want of trying by para churches
2. 3/10. A few para church organisations have overstepped the mark (eg by performing functions that are the responsibility of church such as communion) but in general I would say that in my experience the relationship can be symbiotic. Let me take an example the word 121 - an evangelistic tool which I have found very powerful. We train people almost exclusively in the context of the local church where we are invited. Once people start doing the evangelism with a non Christian friend the obvious next step is to get them to come to church. Now in theory each local church could develop and publish their own evangelistic material but it’s surely much more effective for a central para church organisation (which by the way grew out of and is accountable to one main church - St Helens Bishopsgate ) to do this a servant of the church. If we look at church planting organisations, they aim to start churches - which then become self governing over time. Its a bit like planting seedlings - once they are ready to be planted they are pt in place but you need a nursery to germinate the seeds in the first place.
The solution where this does happen I believe is to teach the centrality the local church which is the biblical cornerstone: there are various generally agreed key marks of a church and If a para church organisation starts adopting them it should desist - or actually become a church. J Mack Stiles writes "The church is the God-ordained local assembly of believers who have committed themselves to each other. They gather regularly, they teach the Word, celebrate communion and baptism, discipline their members, establish a biblical structure of leadership, they pray and give together. Certainly the church may do more, but it is not less than this. On the other hand, parachurch, by definition, is less. That is, parachurch ministries have only a narrow slice of the church’s responsibilities and prerogatives..... The church has a unique and high ministerial calling that stands above all others: the right teaching and preaching of the Word. So when the many good things begin to encroach on the primary task of the church, the parachurch can take that good ministry onto its own shoulders and so protect the church."
3. 7/10 There is some truth in this though if you could fix the "ownership issue" this wouldn’t matter so much, as the local church would be owning and driving the organisation. Para churches are in particular prone to employing manipulative or misleading fund raising techniques in an effort to cover their costs. This is wrong. The Christian should in the first place support their local church and then thereafter if they have spare cash, other organisations. It’s also true that some para church organisations have had an undue influence on the overall life of the church. A recent contentious example of an influential para church organisation- which led to some of the above debate on social media - is Iwerne/Titus Trust which runs camps for public school pupils. I don’t intend to go into this issue here but I think the feeling that these camps in the past created an informal network of influential people within Anglican conservative evangelicalism has some truth. That wasn’t necessarily all bad but it did have the unfortunate side effect at times of excluding those from without this group such as women, people from working class or state school backgrounds and ethnic minorities.
I would suggest the solution is to be careful not to allow such para church organisations to acquire a “life of their own”. There should be networks ( that’s my argument from the bible above and the alternative is isolation ) but such networks should consist of and be governed by local churches. An example of what I have in mind would be the FIEC which links likeminded local churches.
4. 10/10 I would say that this is the biggest problem. If it’s dangerous when we allow para churches to drift away from accountability to local churches within their own country and culture, then it’s far worse in other countries. We all know horror stories of where exactly this has happened. Maybe the best way to illustrate this is when it happens to you as documented by the brilliant “Wee Flea”, David Robertson https://theweeflea.com/2017/11/03/how-not-to-be-an-american-missionary-in-scotland/
I quote from his account of American Christians in Scotland “I can get any amount of missionaries, teams and groups who feel ‘called’ to minister in Edinburgh or St Andrews, but never have anyone volunteering to go to Cowdenbeath or Kilmarnock. Why? Part of it is a mistaken missiology which comes from the notion that if only we go to the city centres, reach the middle classes and the leaders, then there will be a trickle down effect. For various reasons I think that is worldly thinking and never works. But another reason for this attitude is just sheer snobbery...If Americans want to come and help with the Church in Scotland maybe they would be better asking us what they can help with, not telling us what we should be doing?...there is an enormous pressure on the missionary to be seen to be successful. Those who are funding you demand results – that means bottoms on seats. It means numbers. In order to be able to report home that God is at work through you and therefore people should be supporting you, you need to highlight the growth and the numerical increase. For that to happen in postmodern Scotland the easiest way is to go to an area where there are a significant number of churches (which you consider to be pretty dead) and poach.”
The truth is that we (English or British) tend to do exactly the same in other people’s countries as our American friends do in ours. The answer is not to stop cross border and cross cultural work (and David Robertson is very keen to stress that) but genuinely do it in service of the local church. As he says missionaries say that they do that but very often this is only lip service and in practice especially cross borders (and cross culturally in our own country) there is a real risk of doing what we like .
5. 10/10. Again this is spot on. There are many very similar organisations with very similar aims which is inherently inefficient and confusing. For example, a few years ago I went to a meeting about training pastors to preach and just in the U.K. there were at least 20-30 such organisations at work (including mine). They tended to be heavily focused on Africa and especially the old Britain colonies in east Africa while other parts of the world received much less help. Add in similar focused organisations in the USA and the number could easily be past 100. The answer is not one big mega organisation- bigger charities are even more prone to some of the endemic problems described - but some rationalisation is long overdue. I have to say having seen various efforts to combine evangelical charities that it’s hard work and inertia and a wrong kind of conservatism tends to dominate (“Change? Why do we want to change? things are quite bad enough already” as Queen Victoria supposedly said. ). the result is confusion and inefficiency.
In conclusion what makes a good para church organisation?
- Genuinely and humbly serving the local church by doing activities which make sesent o be done in co-operation
- Accountable to local churches
- Not becoming a church: or starting churches and letting them stand on their own.
- Not creating a network that begins to have an undue influence on the local church
- Aware of what can go wrong: theological drift, money and secular techniques, tribalism which hinders co-operation with other similar organisations.
In troubled times we need the power of God in the lives of men and women sent by Him to inspire and lead us. Such, I have to say I was convinced, having read his amazing life story, is Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi, who as the subtitle says is truly on "the front line." By this, I mean the city of Jos, in Plateau State Nigeria. Jos is in the centre of Nigeria and its continually central the news for inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence. But we have to be more specific, for as the Archbishop explains, Jos was in the past a peaceful place where a majority Christian population enjoyed warm relations with the Muslim minority. But the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as the book notes long predates 9/11 or Boko Haram. In fact it was around 1980 that the first impact of Islamic extremism, fuelled by money from the Gulf, began to be noticeable and it was as long ago as 1987 that many Christians were killed by Muslim extremists in Jos, hundreds of churches and properties were burned, including the Archbishop's own house which was not only burned but actually blown up. Virtually everything he owned was destroyed and he carries around the ashes of his house to this day as a reminder of that. His wife, Gloria, asked him "Ben, you are a preacher and you preach that heaven and earth will pass away?" "Yes," he replied. To which Gloria said "Then it has to start with you, otherwise people will not believe it. Material things are gone, so what? Lets go"
Worse was to come. Over the next thirty years, he and his wife were to experience horrific violence at the hands of extremists, who twice, in particular, attacked and assaulted them in his own home. Once when he was away in London and could only listen helplessly as the killers viciously and savagely attacked his wife, once when he was there. The second time the assailants battered down the door and forced Ben and his wife into their bedroom where they were going to kill them both. "Please let me pray before you kill me," said Ben, praying that it would just be him killed and not his family. Then he knelt down and started reading Psalm 23 "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil". He and his wife closed their eyes and laid prostrate, praying and awaiting death at any time. They could hear footsteps going backwards and forwards and he braced for the bullet, yet eventually, after a long time he next thing he heard was his son saying: "Dad they are gone".
What was his reaction? To love his enemies, to promote peace, to redouble his faith and his willingness to be sacrificed for Christ. "Lord, no more fear," he said the first time " I'm going to be an unrepentant preacher, an apologist for the gospel of Jesus Christ". Additionally, as the leader of the Christians in Jos, he urged Christians not to retaliate, in fact, to literally "do nothing".
He says" I preached what I learned: I knew that when I die it will not be at the hands of useless men. I will die when my time is right and not before, but I must use the time I have well, it left me with an urgency to do every ministry, every good work, every sermon, vigorously and strategically without wasting time or resources". (As someone with incurable cancer I feel this equally strongly. )
One might well wonder where the authorities were doing, for these attacks took hours and constant frantic calls for help were made to police and army, without any response. Whether this was through staggering incompetence, corruption or outright support of terrorism, the answer was nothing. The book hints that the last as the most likely rationale.
Bit its not only a book about the front line of the struggle with Islamic fundamentalism. It's the well-written story of his life, growing up in Plateau State, his childhood, his time in the army, his finding his inimitable wife Gloria, who was initially very suspicious of this self-confident young man who dressed like James Brown. The book in places is very amusing, his wife is certainly an amazing character, even though (shockingly) she didn't first of all appreciate his Labrador!
The other part that's maybe easy to overlook because of the above is the way that he revitalised the completely hopeless diocese that he was placed in charge of, first as Bishop, then Archbishop. One thinks of African churches as full and vibrant but in Jos Anglicanism was dying on its feet. The Anglican church in Jos and Plateau State which was corrupt, riven by tribal disputes and riddled by freemasons and other secret societies. Ben started by clearing away all the mess of committees, obfuscation, and malfeasance, simply going back to basics. What the new youthful Bishop focused on was rural evangelism, bible teaching, good theological training, church planting (nearly 500 to date) and caring for the poor, especially orphans. He and his wife have currently around 50 orphans, many of them orphaned through the continuing ongoing violence, and over the years hundreds probably thousands have gone through their house. His wife takes in literally anyone, the Archbishop jokes that if Satan himself turned up at his house Gloria would take him in (and then put him to work). Reading the book it is like a mixture at times of Charles Spurgeon and George Muller!
Now he has a new job as General Secretary of Gafcon. As he stresses, this is not, as English bishops often accuse him, about hating LGBT people, and in fact he intervened to save persecuted homosexuals in Nigeria who were threatened with death, as well as promoting Muslim-Christian peaceful relations with those Muslim leaders who were as shocked as he was at the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Gafcon is about this he says: "I want the church to be awakened in its responsibility to bring the gospel to the world, to faithfully proclaim Christ to the nations...to reach out to those whose voices are not being heard, who wonder 'who cares?' The presenting issue within the Anglican communion as he correctly identifies is the authority of Scripture, for "if we refuse to uphold the authority of Scripture we no longer have a mission
So what does he have to say to us in England for the book ends with a letter to various countries, including our own. He is grateful (ironically perhaps) for the legacy of education and good government and above all Christianity brought by those long dead colonialists. Today he sees England needing many things: youth evangelism, bible literacy, reading the bible for ourselves, strong families and above all prayer and a boldness in being willing to stand up for the gospel.
"I want to ask Christians in the UK to remember the histories of their parents and grandparents, who laid down their lives to take this same gospel to all the world. We must rise to that gospel, live that gospel, preach that gospel. I would plead for Christians in the UK to get on their knees to pray..you must carry that gospel with your whole heart to your children, to your relatives, to your friends to everybody...inevitably when you do that suffering will come your way. Do not think that you will be insulated from this way of suffering. Christians around the world are suffering for this gospel: why should it pass you by? One way or another it's coming..but it is better to know you ate suffering for the gospel than to suffer for no gospel".
For those of us who have better things to do than follow the increasingly heated internal debates of American evangelicalism, the phrase “social justice” may not ring many bells. Within the US though we might go as far as saying there are “social justice wars” occurring within evangelicalism. Last year for example the well known American evangelical leader John MacArthur launched a statement criticising the “social justice movement” and this in turn generated much comment for and against his views . You can read about the background to this debate above. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-christians-know-social-justice/
In turn this social justice debate has tended to get caught up in the politically polarised left vs right “culture wars” in the USA with some (but by no means all ) evangelicals identifying strongly with President Trump despite his clearly un Christian personal life. Some have attempted to justify this by calling him “Cyrus” like the pagan Persian ruler who allowed the Jews to rebuild the temple. If Trump for example is pro life goes the argument we should turn a blind eye to his personal peccadilloes.
What about us evangelicals in the U.K.? Specifically conservative evangelicals like me who might have some concerns that the concept of “social justice” itself is unbiblical?
Firstly, I think it’s absolutely impossible to read the Old Testament without being struck by Gods concern for what the article rightly calls “biblical justice”. This justice wasn’t just calling individuals to repent and seek personal righteousness, but was also concerned with calling Israel and especially its Kings to collective righteousness. Of course today we don’t live in a theocratic monarchy. Yet when we look to the New Testament we also see a large amount about “biblical justice”. For example, the way in which we are to treat our fellow human beings. Some books such as James have quite detailed teaching in this area. James for example points out how wrong it is in church to favour the rich over the poor. we could also note that Karl Marx wasn't the first writer to see the distinction between the oppressers and oppressed! (Not that I am a fan of Marx I hasten to add!)
One thing that’s often overlooked is that the Christians concern for others should start (but not stop) with fellow Christians. A very often misused verse is from Matthew 25 when Jesus talks about helping the “least of those.” But the context clearly shows that Jesus has in mind other Christians. “The least of these” is not therefore a general manifesto to some kind of social justice campaign to call the church to meet the needs of the poor. Rather, biblical justice must start with helping fellow Christians- above all those in persecution for their faith - but should and must go on from there to also care for all our neighbours, Christian or not. The Good Samaritan being one of Jesus’s most famous parables.
Secondly, the phrase (and even more its cousin “social gospel”) have been misused. This has been noted for example by Pope Benedict who said
"Therefore, it is claimed, we must now move towards "regocentrism," that is, toward the centrality of the Kingdom. This at last, we are told, is the heart of Jesus' message, and it also the right formula for finally harnessing mankind's positive energies and directing them toward the world's future. "Kingdom," on this interpretation, is simply the name for a world governed by peace, justice, and the conservation of creation. It means no more than this. This "Kingdom" is said to be the goal of history that has to be attained. This is supposedly the real task of religions: to work together for the coming of the "Kingdom." They are of course perfectly free to preserve their traditions and live according to their respective identities as well, but they must bring their different identities to bear on the common task of building the "Kingdom," a world, in other words, where peace, justice, and respect for creation are the dominant values. This sounds good but...on closer examination.the main thing that leaps out is that God has disappeared; man is the only actor left on the stage. The respect for religious "traditions" claimed by this way of thinking is only apparent. The truth is that they are regarded as so many sets of customs, which people should be allowed to keep, even though they ultimately count for nothing. Faith and religion are now directed toward political goals. Only the organisation of the world counts. Religion matters only insofar as it can serve that objective. This post-Christian vision of faith and religion is disturbingly close to Jesus' third temptation.".
The fact though that some ideas are misused doesn’t make the basic concept itself wrong. If we feel the term “social justice” is too loaded and too near to the label “social gospel” which was an late 19th century attempt to create a gospel rather along the lines that the Pope was critiquing above, then I suggest we use the term “biblical justice” instead
Thirdly, another objection that I’ve heard raised is that biblical justice “ is not the church's job”. There is a book which I have read and generally enjoyed by Kevin De Young called "The Mission of the church” which makes exactly that point. He quotes Gresham Machen who said “The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin...that there is a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that he has revealed himself to us in his Word and offered us communion with himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth...are as the dust of the street. An unpopular message it is—an impractical message, we are told. But it is the message of the Christian church. Neglect it, and you will have destruction; heed it, and you will have life."
Now actually I agree with that. The mission of the “church” gathered is precisely as proposed . But the point that De Young’s otherwise helpful book misses is that the dispersed “church” is composed of millions of individual Christians and that those individuals can and should be acting as salt and light. The church “gathered” should focus on its mission of salvation, but I suggest the the church “dispersed” should focus also (not instead) on this wider mission of biblical justice. The two principles are not one or the other but rather that the growth of the church by people being converted fuels in turn a search for biblical justice. This also means that we mustn't stop at an individualistic one time "conversion experience" Christian life, where the world can go to hell in a handcart and we don't care because we are going to heaven. You can see that in some debates about creation care. We need also to teach about sanctification, part of which is the realisation that we have a responsibility to proclaim the gospel and to make disciples. As Christians become more Christ like their love and concern for their friends must grow, both in evangelism and biblical justice
If we look, of course that’s exactly what happened in evangelical history. If we take the c18th and the early part of the c19th there was a tremendous revival in the church which both caused and was itself strengthened by the search for biblical justice. From a low ebb in the early c18th, the gospel was preached and many churches revived through evangelistic preachers like Wesley and Whitfield. This movement of people coming to faith in Christ in turn began to generate a profound search for biblical justice, which reinforced and not hindered the revival.
The obvious example would be John Newton and William Wilberforce. You can read more about Newton here. https://jsjmarshall.blogspot.com/2019/07/book-review-john-newton-by-jonathan.html
Newton was a converted slave trader who became an Anglican vicar. Firstly, when he became a vicar Newton deliberately went to a very deprived area, Olney in Buckinghamshire. Newton at Olney and elsewhere ceaselessly cared for the poor: here for example is a modern paraphrase from one of his letters
“First, keep yourself from frivolous purchases. For a clear conscience, give a penny to the poor for every penny you spend above living at a barely decent standard. Second, tell your friends who are well off that even though you love them very much, prudence and greater responsibilities leave nothing for their mere entertainment. Jesus identifies with the poor and needy, and would you prefer them over Him (see Matt 25.40)? Isn’t Luke 14.12–14 part of God’s Word, yet even Christians generally ignore it! Of course it is not a sin to entertain our friends, but if we are not in some ways supposed to give preference to the poor, what in the world did Jesus mean by what He said?”
Newton's role in fighting the slave trade is well known. He both encouraged Wilberforce not to give up his Parliamentary career in favour of becoming a vicar as well as campaigning himself against the evil trade. His appearance, as an ex Slave trader, before a Parliamentary commission investigating the slave trade proved pivotal. Defenders of the trade argued that treatment of slaves was relatively humane. Newton’s testimony showed this for the tissue of lies it was.
At the same time, John Newton also was a major encourager to both what we would today call pastors and evangelists and to those promoting biblical justice. He founded the Eclectic Society which promoted and helped pastors and missionaries. One of the people whom Newton “mentored” was a young William Carey who is regarded as the father of the modern missionary movement. Yet another person whom Newton “mentored” was the young social reformer Hannah More who was to dedicate her life to philanthropy and social reform Whats perhaps less well known about Newton is that it took time for him to realise the evils of the slave trade. After his dramatic conversion in 1748, he continued to work as a slave trader for 6 years. When he stopped in 1754 it was because he suffered a stroke not because of any qualms of conscience. It was only in 1780 that he began to have serious doubts about the morality of the slave trade and it was only in 1788, aged 63, that he first published an attack on the slave trade. In short it took Newton time to realise that something generally accepted by pretty much everyone in society was wrong and that he needed to campaign against it. An obvious example today would be abortion. Conversion isn't the be all and end all of the Christian life, its the beginning, and every day we need to walk more closely with the Lord and learn to see the world as he sees it. To preach the gospel and to care about our fellow human beings are mutually reinforcing not contradictory. In conclusion, John Newton was an amazing preacher and evangelist who brought thousands to faith. He was equally passionate about “biblical justice” not only in the slave trade but across a range of evils. The two are not in opposition, but are both part of growing in grace. As we come to faith (which is the starting but not the ending point) we should be discipled and thereby sanctified. As this happens, we will become bolder in sharing our faith and bolder in pointing out and campaigning against and doing what we can to address practically the evils of society. May we be so today. In my next blog on this topic I will look at whether some other Christian ideas and "wars" are crossing the Atlantic, at what is meant by "cultural Marxism", at how Christians should think abortion and refugees and how we should practically help churches seeking to reach deprived areas.
I’ve been struck recently by how much the secular world and the Bible has to say about truth. I have a few blogs coming on this.
Writing in the FT this weekend Robert Armstrong writes about the famous French historian Marc Bloch who was executed by the Nazis 75 years ago. Bloch chose for his grave a simple Latin epitaph:
Dilexit veritatem — “he loved the truth.”
Armstrong writes “An odd pair, love and truth. We generally think of the subjective and the objective, the scientific and the emotional as opposites. The point of Bloch’s life, what he tried to do with it, was a weaving together of the two....Putting Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon was unarguably a spiritual achievement as well as a scientific one, an example of what unity of purpose can achieve. But the barriers that Nasa had to overcome were objective — of great distances and the cold of space. What Bloch confronted at the end of his life was less objective and more complex. He had discovered that his country, in spirit, had fallen terribly short of what he knew it ought to be. Many of us in America and in the UK will see some parallels, strong or weak, to our own time. These need no spelling out. It is enough to note that Bloch met these challenges with an absolute insistence on truth and an unqualified and encompassing love of his homeland. It is a combination that seems as strange and heroic today as a visit to a distant and unknown world.”Bloch expressed this combination in his famous (for historians anyway!) book “Strange Defeat” which covers the fall of France in 1940. Armstrong writes “The book maintains a harmony between two elements that appear at odds. It is, first, a pitiless indictment of a failure to think and act on the part of France’s military elite... He thought that love of country was essential to national health, and that it was consistent with — demanded — vigorous interrogation of all the facts”. Christians are called to unite those two great qualities of love and truth which are often seen as opposed. For example if we think someone’s beliefs or lifestyle are wrong (ie untrue) then if these untruths matter, we should tell them. If a friend believed that their car brakes worked, but you know that they didn’t and they were about to drive away, you would tell them that very clearly. You wouldn’t worry about upsetting them by worrying about a reaction like “How dare you tell me my brakes don’t work! I just bought the car: are you saying I’m an idiot?”
The same logically must be true if we think someone’s beliefs or lifestyle are leading them away from God.
Liberals tend to overcome this by arguing in the words of a famous liberal book “Love conquers all”. What exactly is meant by love in those kinds of arguments isn’t always clear: sometimes it’s implied that love demands that we “love unconditionally” and this includes not saying what we regard as true as it may be “unloving” and cause offence. This ignores the obvious need (like the brake example) to tell truth which may offend precisely because it’s "unloving."
But often we evangelicals tend to be good at the truth part and not so good at the love part. Bloch managed to harness the truth and love together but we tend to struggle to do this. We can very easily be full, even bursting to tell the truth, and yet communicate that truth in a self righteous and condescending way that either is, or comes across, as unloving. We can so easily be sitting in judgement on the other person and saying to them explicitly or implicitly “ I’m better than you”. We want to express love and truth but we end up often instead expressing moralism which repels people.
So how do we do that? There can only be one place to go and that’s the Lord. There was the same problem in 30 AD as now. The Pharisees were perhaps the “evangelicals” of the day and preached moralism (that’s maybe a bit harsh, but they are exactly the danger we evangelicals need to avoid). Jesus came with a very different agenda “For the law was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”. If we want an example of how this worked in practice we can look repeatedly in John.
Jesus continuously refers in John to the need to find the truth
“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
He promises that the Holy Spirit will direct us to truth
“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.”
Speaking the truth will ultimately cost Jesus his life because his courage in telling the truth will provoke tremendous opposition from the religious establishment.
Yet what’s amazing and should be salutary for us is that this ultimate truth bearer was also the ultimate love giver. Look for example at how he deals with the Samaritan woman in John 4. Here is someone with every conceivable kind of untruth in her world view. Here is someone with a lifestyle so shockingly immoral that she is even shunned by her neighbours. Yet see with what love, kindness and tenderness the Lord deals with her, refusing to be sidetracked but always bringing her back to the ultimate truth, the truth that really matters, the truth that will endure for all eternity. That truth is this “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”
The Lord also deals with her sin so lovingly. He doesn’t ignore her sin, but nor does he pass final judgement on her, for this is not the day of judgement, this is the day of grace. It is striking to me that he points out her sin by pointing out the truth of what she says “The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” He keeps hammering in the importance of finding truth “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
But he hammers away not with judgement but with love. What a a wonderful example to us!
What might this marriage of truth and love look like for us?
1. Genuinely love our non believing friends. Genuinely care for them, genuinely listen to them, genuinely seek to understand and help them. If we have the truth but not love we will be as the bible says utterly useless. We will repel people from Christ, not draw them to him. Dont give them the message, which we can easily do that we think we are intrinsically better than them for by nature we are just the same, if not worse.
2. Genuinely give truth to our friends. Equally useless is to love out friends but not tell them the truth. We would be like an oncologist who sees that their patient has cancer but does not tell them so they can be treated. We can also disagree with our friends (eg about sexuality) and still love them. In fact the more we disagree the more we need to love I suggest.
3. Be open to receive the truth as well as giving it. I will come back to this inanother blog, but in that sense we are not like Christ, for God knows all truth and we don’t. It’s much easier to tell others the truth but much harder and requires humility to receive truth from others.
4. How do we find truth? Again “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” We cannot find truth outside Jesus Christ. How do we find the truth about him? Through the divine word, especially through the four eyewitness accounts. If we struggle, as we will, to blend truth and love, we can mix “the perfect recipe” if we share God’s word. In particular I suggest through reading John’s gospel 121 with our friends.
Last week I attended the opening of the new OCCA building at Oxford. The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, to give it its full name, does an amazing job equipping Christians to share our faith and also reaching non believers in an effective way. It’s part of the global RZIM ministry. Everyone can benefit from their marvellous work.
Some Christians can be a bit sceptical of apologetics as being over intellectual and cerebral and this can certainly be a danger. But I have found that OCCA tailors its content to reach every different part of society and culture.
Another objection I have heard is that apologetics isn’t as important as evangelism (or isn't "the gospel"). Some apologetics can its true be "pre evangelism". But I believe the two are really two sides of the same coin. The Bible, including the example below, shows this. By understanding the culture we are enabled to reach the culture with the gospel. We dont vary the message but we must vary the means that the message is proclaimed by.
So as part of the event we were invited to join the OCCA Summer School and hear some of the talks. I was particularly struck by Jo Vitale who gave a superb and thought provoking talk on how to reach in the West, Gen Z, which is people under the age of 25.
Like all cultural analysis, inevitably some of the observations are generalisations but behind generalisations should be truisms and I believe this is the case here. Some of the data below is worldwide although I am not sure to what extent this cultural analysis is true everywhere. I would suspect it’s most relevant in North America and Europe.
What characterizes this group?
- Digital natives for whom it’s extremely natural to be on line.
- Yet paradoxically (or because of this) they are also the “Loneliest generation”. Lonely but also looking to be collective in thought. a paradox.
- Online rather than face to face with peers; there has been a 40% drop in friendship in this age group 2000-2015.
- Entrepreneurial, want to work for themselves and own their own business. Self starters, highly motivated but not necessarily to make as much money as possible. Foodies.
- Sexually everything goes “be true to yourself” is the motto.
- Very keen to better the world eg improve the condition of sexual minorities and environment “What is good for me is good for everyone”.
Tim Keller has pointed out that faith of young evangelicals being affected by their peers views eg beliefs such as substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone are seen as too individualistic
Heroes are people like Greta Thunberg or Malala.
Religious view tends to be “None of the above”. More atheistic or agnostic but typically more the latter
32% of world population fall into this group though personally I believe the above analysis is more correct for the West than the whole world.
Paul in Athens met people with world views such as new age and naturalism which are similar to those held today. All beliefs were welcome then, a syncretistic age,.
Paul three times looked around and considered the idols. We may want to retreat a la Benedict option but Paul doesn't: rather he goes on the offensive, but before he does that he has first to understand what was going on in the culture. The synagogue was his comfort zone, though of course even that was fraught with danger at times. But he left that familiar territory and went out into the big wide world to proclaim the gospel.
An example today could be how we approach digital media. We can tend to see social media as dangerous as narcissistic and distracting. And it may be so. But if we want to speak we need to understand what the culture is like so we can speak truth to it.
Paul was very distressed by idolatry
Today we are faced various types of belief
“Scientism” worship of science
Hedonism eg pornography: 25% internet searches are for pornography. Average age of first exposure to pornography for boys is 11.
Technology has been designed to deliberately be addictive. Sean Parker one of the early investors in Facebook said “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains
In the last 15 years there has been a 27% for boys 50% for girls increase in depression
Rise in Folk magic, witchcraft activism.
Humanist idolatry: we worship ourselves and our ability to solve everything. 'Imagine' by John Lennon could be the cultural theme song
“If there is a God how can I bear not to be him” Nietzsche accurately captured the worship of self
At the same time this belief in our own abilities leads to optimism that society’s problems can be solved
Paul’s reaction is outrage: he feels this because he loves God. Our primary motivation should be our love for God. Otherwise we will end up frustrated. But of course flowing out from that love we also need to love our friends and family.
What does Paul do?
Firstly he finds common ground and builds a bridge to their beliefs
Leads his hearers over the bridge to God and he can do that because he understands his audience. Acts 17:24.
Today in the same spirit we might start with the question such as “On what basis do we assign value to another person? Why doesn’t might make right? If we are all animals why should we worry about "me too"?”
Steve Turner's dark poem "The Conclusion" sums up the logical conclusion of thinking we are machines or animals.
that when all's
her to my
for future use
and she cried.”
Genesis 1:27 by contrast says that humanity is made by God and made like God and made for God. The very equality our society longs for has been created by Christianity. The very concept of “Injustice” is based on Christian values.
We must be confident that the gospel has fruit. As it does with Paul. While some scoffed, some wanted to hear more and some came to faith.
Some additional thoughts from me:
If there are a few takeaways from all this I suggest it’s these
1. We may feel like simply condemning the culture around us - and there is much to condemn - but Paul doesn’t do that. He loves God and loves the people around him and finds a way to reach them. The image of bridge building is helpful. Bridge building isn't at all about syncretism, which is hardly something Paul could be accused of, but making a connection with our friends and family "where they are at", making them think, understanding and loving them and then transmitting truth across that bridge. One thing I have found amazingly useful to build that bridge is chatting to people 121 about the Bible. In our culture everyone has a story and I have found people are often very willing to hear mine. The fact that many people know nothing about the Bible can be a good thing as it comes to them with an immediacy and power because it’s new and fresh. As it did of course to Paul.
Also if we are wondering at this point "what about and how do we communicate the need for repentance and the problem of sin to people who have no concept of this?" then I have found the Gospels so much better than me at explaining and convicting about this. The classic is John 3 and 4 and how Jesus deals with a very "religious" person and a very "unreligious" one.
2. We should be making sure we communicate using media that Gen Z consumes. Podcasts and video are much more likely to reach them than anything else. If we offer the Bible, as we must, it needs to be in an accessible format that is easy to digest. The gospel truth doesn’t change but the means we communicate it certainly must. The Reformers were innovative and experimental in their methods and in fact the whole market for printing was created by the Reformation.
3. We need to educate in particular Christian young people in the cultural assumptions of the world they live in and equip them to understand but not absorb the culture. The church if it was a lifeboat seems to lurch between two extremes: either afloat in the sea and deliberately opening up holes in the boat to allow the cultural water in - result the boat sinks. Alternatively, because we are afraid of this, the boat ends up pulled up on dry land as we are worried we will sink. The result is that the boat doesn't sink but nor can it reach those drowning. We need to make sure that our young people especially can interact with the culture, analyse it, build bridges to people in it, without in any way letting the sea in. Francis Schaeffer was excellent at this when i was a teenager and OCCA/RZIM is excellent at this today