An update on the diversity of Christendom

One of the effects of the current political landscape in the USA has been to highlight the diverse attitudes and stances that exist within the various churches in the country.

Depending on your news sources, you may not fully appreciate that there is a vast range of positions within Christendom on issues of politics, social justice, ethics, and the relationship between a believer’s duties as a citizen of the state and as a follower of Jesus. Even with agreement on certain beliefs, there may still be a diversity of opinion on how exactly those beliefs should play out in the world and in our daily lives.

Here’s a perspective that hasn’t had much play in the media, courtesy of Trinity’s Portico. Enjoy!

An Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham from a “Small Church” Pastor

God doesn’t have a plan for your life

…at least, not the way you think.

Often, when someone experiences a personal setback, the “encouragement” given to them by well-meaning Christians is: “Don’t worry, God has a plan for your life,” or, “It’s all part of God’s special plan for you.”

God certainly has a deep desire for you to be reconciled to him, but usually when people talk about “God’s plan for my life” they mean that there are very specific, very human milestones that God has laid out for them to reach and achieve during their time on this Earth. And I don’t think that idea is Biblically grounded.

This is not God's plan for your life. Continue reading

Infallibility: a user’s guide

I received the following piece via email from the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.

I didn’t write it, but I think that it is a useful discussion of what the Catholic concept of “papal infallibility” actually entails.

.

—————————————

Raymond Perrier.

Infallible? by Raymond Perrier

Infallible must be one of the most misunderstood terms in Catholic vocabulary.  Reflecting on the Papacy of Benedict XVI we can remind ourselves what Papal infallibility is and most importantly what it is not.

Continue reading

Lawsuits among believers

In 1 Corinthians 1-6, Paul admonishes the church in Corinth because church members have been suing each other. In this age of incessant litigation, it’s a passage with a great deal of application.

Here’s how it reads in the NIV:

“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court — and this in front of unbelievers!”

Continue reading

Book Review: Healing is a Choice, by Stephen Arterburn

Healing Is a Choice

Ten Decisions That Will Transform Your Life & Ten Lies That Can Prevent You From Making Them

.

by Stephen Arterburn

Published by Thomas Nelson, paperback edition

. Continue reading

Desecrating the Temple: The challenge to literalists

I really think that those who endorse a “plain reading”, strictly literalist interpretation of the Bible are missing out on some of the most awesome stuff that God has given us the Scripture. Let me give a bit of background to explain what I mean:

I was recently asked to preach on Mark 13, in which Jesus describes the end times (and also some more imminent times). It’s a complex chapter and I’m not going to try and unpack all of it here, but I was particularly struck by his description of the Temple desecration. Jesus starts by saying that the Temple will be destroyed, torn apart block by block, and also says that the fulfillment of this prophecy will give the listeners confidence in what he tells them about the end times. The destruction of the Temple will happen soon, in the lifetimes of his listeners, and then they will know that what he says about his second coming is also true.

So why do I say that this is a challenge to a literalist reading of Scripture? Well, let’s look at what Jesus says. He warns the listeners to flee from the destruction, and he does it using these words:

Continue reading

Revisiting the Law

Recently, I’ve been reading through the Old Testament. I haven’t read the latter books of the Pentateuch for a while, so it was an interesting experience. The Pentateuch makes up the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and also comprises the Jewish Torah. This collection is also referred to as the Books of the Law, which is what Jesus is talking about when he mentions “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g. Matt. 5:17, Matt. 7:12).

Genesis and the first half of Exodus are largely composed of narrative, but from that point on there are indeed large chunks of detailed instruction from God which dominate the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And when you hear people talking vaguely about “all those crazy rules and stuff in the Bible”, it’s generally the last three books of the Pentateuch that they have in mind. So as I worked my way through these books, I was expecting to find an endless list of obscure and arbitrary prohibitions.

In contrast, I was delighted at just how sensible all the laws are. But there are a few important things to bear in mind as you read them.

. Continue reading

Doing a little mythbusting…

Hard to believe that in such an intellectually advanced age there are still some who cling tenaciously to the notion that “Jesus was not a real historical figure”, but apparently the light of education has still not penetrated all the deep corners.

Should be unfortunate enough to find yourself accosted by denialists, you may find this essay series by James Hannam useful. Hannam writes in his introduction:

.

“The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind…

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references,  2) the alleged similarities to paganism, and 3) the silence of St. Paul.”

.

Hannam deals with each of these contentions in a highly readable and well-researched series of essays. Read the rest of Is Jesus Christ a Myth? here:

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

.

Hannam holds degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University, and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. (You can also read more from him at Quodlibeta).

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

A theoretical faith

.

Strength in diversity

At my church we’re currently hosting a cricket tournament.

Basically, a few friends were bored in the wet and cold winter months, and decided to convert the church hall (which was already carpeted) into an indoor cricket facility. One thing led to another, and suddenly we were hosting a tournament with 10 teams from all over the city and had sparked a community of over 100 people (and probably a dozen nationalities) who get together up to three times a week to hang out and play some friendly (but very competitive) cricket.

Which got me thinking about denominations.

Continue reading

Sex and science: Discuss

Sex and science: we need to talk about both. And not just on this blog – we need to talk about them in church and at home, too.

Both sex and science are hugely powerful and important. Both have the potential to be wonderful, or to be terribly destructive. Responsibility and maturity are needed before we can safely handle either.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach our kids about sex, or science for that matter. Interest and curiosity (in both areas) are aroused from a young age, so let’s rather start the discussions early. Parents and pastors need to be willing to engage openly with both subjects.

But we need to be honest about both. Eventually, kids are going to grow up and engage with the wider world, and the wider world is drenched in both science and sex.

.

Choose your perversion

.

Continue reading

Anne Rice and hypocrisy in the Church

The media has been all aflutter over the past weeks about the announcement by novelist Anne Rice that she’s “quitting Christianity, but not Christ”. As Rice posted on her blog:

“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than … [C]hristianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

In short, it seems that Rice is frustrated to breaking point with hypocrisy in the Church.

Here’s the thing, though:

Jesus also hates the hypocrisy of Christians.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry he had a great deal to say to the scribes and the Pharisees, the “church leaders” of the day. Here’s Jesus as reported in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Mt 23:1-3, NIV)

Jesus’ strongest condemnation was reserved for those who teach the truth but fail to live it out.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Mt 23:27-28, NIV)

Let there be no mistake: Jesus has no time for hypocrisy within the Church.

At the same time, Jesus instructs us to live a life delineated by firm principles. There are concrete instructions about correct behaviour as well as about correct motives and attitudes. And yet, the Bible teaches us that we are all flawed and will fail to meet theses standards. Jesus is compassionate towards those who struggle to live according to God’s will for their lives. But the vital step is accepting that we ourselves are flawed.

I suspect that anyone who has been involved with Christianity has had experience of hypocrisy. But I suspect that anyone who has been involved in any human affairs has had experience of hypocrisy. If we set ourselves any sort of moral standards at all, we will fail to meet them. Perhaps George Thorogood had the answer to hypocrisy: start off by claiming to be “Bad to the Bone”, and you’ll never fall short of your standards.

But these are not the standards that Jesus asks us to aim for.

I’ve been involved in the Church for a couple of decades, including several denominations and several countries. I’ve seen people failing to live up to their own teaching. More to the point, I’ve seen people failing to live up to Jesus’ teaching. (Shocking revelation: I am one of those people!)

But I’ve also seen a great number of people trying to live up to Jesus teaching. Sometimes they do a pretty good job, sometimes they do a terrible job. They’re never perfect, but they keep trying. They also keep admitting that they have failed and ask God’s help to keep trying.

This attitude of humility is perhaps the key to avoiding hypocrisy. Jesus didn’t rebuke the scribes and the Pharisees for failing to live up to God’s law: he rebuked them for pretending to do so.

Perhaps the most succinct expression of humility and acknowledgment of our own fallen nature came from the inimitable G. K. Chesterton. When invited by The Times newspaper, along with several other prominent authors, to write an essay on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?”, Chesterton replied with a letter:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton

This is the essence of humility. It is an open admission of our failings, with no excuses or self-justifications. (Incidentally, Chesterton did later write a full-length essay on the subject, which I highly recommend).

As the apostle John writes:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:8-10, NIV)

I understand Anne Rice’s frustration with hypocrisy in the Church, but I choose to respond differently. I remain within the Church, and if I feel that it has strayed, I will attempt to correct and support it from within.

More importantly, I recognise that I can also be hypocritical and corrupt, and I rely on my brothers and sisters in Christ to correct and support me in my walk.

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Serious, not fanatical

Living a good and/or Christian life

Modelled behaviour

.

Modelled behaviour

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”

The line above is oft-quoted and, I believe, captures elegantly a fundamental truth of Christianity. Rather than a mechanism for personal improvement, the Christian doctrine of Grace states that we are fundamentally unable to meet God’s standards through exemplary living.  Oh sure, there will be improvements in our characters as our relationship with Christ deepens. But such improvement must be measured from the baseline of our personal starting point, not an arbitrary societal average.

As Timothy Keller writes in The Reason for God:

“The mistaken belief that a person must “clean up” his or her own life in order to merit God’s presence is not Christianity. This means, though, that the church will be filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally and spiritually.”

Keller later makes a related point:

“It is often the case that people whose lives have been harder and who are “lower on the character scale” are more likely to recognise their need for God and turn to Christianity. So we would expect that many Christian’s lives would not compare well to those of the non-religious.”

This got me thinking about models of behaviour. (Hey, simulation modelling is what I do – it’s not always easy to separate work from the rest of life!)

If we assume that:

1. Christianity is true

2. Relationship with Jesus improves our character and behaviour

…but also that:

3. Spiritually and emotionally broken people may be more willing to recognise and accept their need for God’s grace.

…then I believe that we can arrive at a theoretical model which accounts for much of the observed behaviour in the Church. I see Christians who are broken and unethical, but I also observe Christians who are magnificently good, generous and loving. All of these are consistent with this framework.

Of course, I don’t for one second imply that this proves anything, and my belief that Christianity is true is totally unrelated to this line of reasoning. But I do think that it has a certain amount of explanatory power for the observed state of the Church – and for my own status as both a flawed human and a follower of Christ…

Emerging Heresy

It makes a change to be considering heresy in its original context. I mean, usually when I call someone a filthy heretic it’s because he has claimed that consoles are a better platform for gaming than PCs, or something equally worldly. (Yes, disputing Lord of the Rings as a work of genius and towering pillar of literature would also earn you that kind of label). But it’s perhaps symptomatic of the extent to which we can get caught up in the material world that such labels begin to lose their power.

Fortunately, we no longer live in a society where mob rule determines the heretical and reserves the right to burn at the stake those found guilty, but the reasons that this is a good thing are not necessarily obvious. Let me clarify – mob rule is bad, and killing people is bad. People taking their human desires and prejudices and justifying them in the name of God is definitely very bad. But taking spiritual concerns seriously enough that you are driven to rage and passion by them is not necessarily bad. Jesus didn’t sigh and shrug at the money changers in the temple, he stormed through them, overturning tables and driving them before him. (He didn’t act violently towards them either – note that restraint does not exclude passion).

On to the real meat of the question, though – what of our emergent heresy? It’s tricky to judge, really. We would be foolish to cast out and ignore two millennia of theology which pre-date us, but at the same time, there’s a fair amount of chaff (not to mention goat poop) mixed in with the wheat in the history of Christianity, so to emerge (or even diverge) from certain aspects of the established church is perhaps desirable. But I feel that the emergent phenomenon which I see around me is not one of leaving things behind, but rather embracing more. I see an increased appreciation for things which tend to fall outside the mainstream consideration – creativity, primal cultures, alternative expressions of worship and the real potential of the information age. It is not so much exclusive as inclusive.

Of course, we must be careful what we include. And there is certainly wisdom and caution required in this. Mostly, there is a need for guidance from God in this. Remaining close to God and being led by Him through the wilderness which we are now exploring, no journey can be heretical. But we need to stick close – we are in a land where many paths look similar, and only some are good to walk upon.

It’s like on the borders of the old maps, where the unknown lands were simply marked with “Here be Dragons” – there truly are dangers lurking in the intellectual wilderness. But God is the ultimate dragonslayer – stick close, and no harm shall come to you.

This post is part of a synchroblog:

Aratus – The Gender of the Creator and Face forward
Cobusvw – Conversing with the heretics
FakeExpressionsOfTheUnknown Who’s Heresy
Liquid Light – Coming out a heretic emerges
Mike Smith – Emerging Heresy
Nic Paton – The Lif Cycle of Heresy and The Blessings of Heresy
Roger Saner Towards a heretical orthodoxy
Ryan Peters – Calling the “H” word and dropping the “H” bomb
Steve Hayes Cult
Tim Victor – Confessions of a heretic

All in agreement…

Yesterday we were playing drums and generally getting lost in rhythm and worship, and we started using a wooden whistle from the Rio Carnival – the sort that would normally be blown, in the words of one participant, by “a bronzed bikini-clad Brazillian beach babe”. And we were discussing the focus of our developing tribe, finding common ground and starting points of reference – foci on which we agreed and would like to build. In the discussion was a strong emphasis on the openness to inclusion (where appropriate, d’accord) of cultural elements and practices which may not necessarily fall within the accepted pantheon (if you’ll excuse the pun) of Christian traditional activities.

Of course, a Brazillian carnival would not necessarily be the precise cultural exercise that would would try to include. But at its core, it is a celebration and festival involving dance, music and good food and drink, which are surely elements of any culture. Indeed, are these not elements which are central to our humanity?

“That whistle is an instrument of the Devil!” thunders the preacher, pounding his fist on a large bible with a black leather cover. Sweat glistens on his brow, his face is red and contorted with passion. “It is made for a grotesque festival of lust and godlessness, a feast of destruction and sin!” he cries.

But Satan has no instruments of his own. All things are created by and ordained by God. And all people, of all cutures and nations, are in with God if they want to be. “the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, ‘All nations will be blessed through you’.” (Gal 3:8)

Thus it is not the whistle, or the food, or the person which is inherently wicked and perverse, but the practice and use to which it is put. And so why could we not put the same instruments to a different purpose? If the very body of Mary Magdalene, for instance, which had been entirely dedicated towards ungodly purposes, could be redeemed and made acceptable to God, is it so hard to believe that we could use a carnival whistle in worship? I mean, Christmas is pretty much a pagan festival, but the church certainly tries its hardest to extract something Christian from it…

Of course, there are certain caveats to this, as further mentioned in Galatians, where Paul exhorts us to be pure in our intent. “If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.” (Gal 1:10) But with that in mind, it’s all potentially useful for the sacred. Paul himself was an example of an instrument of wickedness reworked to divine purpose, which he points out later in that letter. Much of his text expresses concern for those who have come to know God, and yet still fall back into ways of ritual and law, where they should be exploring new freedom and joy in their faith, unbounded by petty restrictions of culture and tradition. He goes so far as to call the Galatians “foolish” and “bewitched”, in their habit of returning to routine and legalistic forms of worship, rather than following the spirit of their faith.

Anyway, enough with the heavy stuff. The point is, if you want to do your thang in worship by dancing naked in the desert while banging a drum, you go do that – just don’t try to impress anyone with it. Oh, and take some suncream.

All in agreement?