I recently talked a little about Vicky Beeching’s book – Undivided – and why I think it is dangerous for the church. I stand by what I said there – but, at the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and I think there are reasons to be grateful to Vicky Beeching. In particular, I think the book exposes the truth in two ways:
1. It exposes the truth about people.
One of the things which has really come home to me over the last month is the lack of depth and theological understanding in the UK church. It is pitiably weak in certain quarters.
Vicky’s story is a powerful one, for sure – but in a church which knew the Scriptures and the gospel, it wouldn’t have made a dent. My heart weeps for the many faithful Christians who will read this book and be swayed by it. Why are they swayed? Because they do not know the Scriptures deeply enough. This has something which I have hitherto only suspected – but Vicky’s book has brought into painfully to light.
There’s an intriguing moment at the end of John 6:
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.’
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t dilute his teaching to make it easier for people to follow him. The words he speaks are “full of the Spirit and life”. If you want to follow him, you must follow it all – or it will be worth nothing. Vicky Beeching’s book – and the question of gay marriage in general – exposes people for who they really are: are they followers of Jesus, who take up their cross and follow, however hard it may be? Or will turn back and no longer follow him at this point?
Joshua said to the people of Israel as they entered into the Promised Land: “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Josh 24:15). We are at the point where the church has to choose whom it will serve – the gods of equality, sexual liberation and personal fulilment – or the God of the Bible. It cannot be both.
That said, if people do not know the Scriptures deeply enough, then they do not entirely have themselves to blame:
2. It exposes where the church has gone wrong.
If the church had been teaching the faith as it should have been, there would be no problem. I’ve been realising, however, that the church has not been teaching the faith – in particular, I think the church has failed in catechesis: teaching a basic systematic understanding of the faith. This is where I think many evangelical churches fall down – they preach the Bible week by week, which is vital, but neglect other things which are vital. I talked about this a little when I started my New City Catechism series.
In particular, I think the church has lost the understanding of sin that was so key at the Reformation: the idea that sin is pervasive and infects everything – our desires, our minds, our wills, everything. Too often people have a fairly weak view of sin as ‘bad things we do from time to time’. Children are often taught that kind of understanding to begin with, but sadly it seems that many adults never move beyond it. I know this from personal experience – I think for many years I saw sin as being something I did rather than something more fundamental, a matter of the heart. As Jesus said in Mark 7:21 “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come”. We’re not sinners because we sin – we sin because we are sinners. Because our hearts are wicked and corrupt, we bring forth the fruit of sin.
Recently in our church we’ve started using Order Two communion – the order in Common Worship (the standard CofE liturgy) based on the Book of Common Prayer. The confession has generated a bit of discussion, and it struck me that it’s the understanding of sin which is under question. (I should say that I minister in a conservative evangelical church which has had a strong Bible-preaching ministry for forty or more years!) I’m not saying this to criticise the church, but rather I think it illustrates that even among solid evangelical churches there has been a failure to adequately teach the faith which can leave believers exposed when error comes in. If people are rocked when they read Vicky Beeching’s book – or, more personally, when a close friend or family members ‘comes out’ – then it shows the church has not properly equipped them.
We as a church have often focussed so much on the ‘nice’ bits of the faith – worship and praise, the love of God, etc – that we’ve neglected the important doctrines of sin, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, hell, etc.
One of the things I’d like to see – as an Anglican – is a revival of the theology of the Book of Common Prayer. I honestly think the church wouldn’t be in half the mess it is if the prayer book had been retained as the staple diet of the church – or its theology, at least. Common Worship (released in 2000, which almost every church uses now) waters down so much of the gospel content that you can bend it to almost any theology. In our midweek communion service we’ve been using Order Two for nearly a year now – and it’s like balm to my bruised soul: I am free to be just exactly who I am before God – a sinner who is saved by grace, nothing more, nothing less. Hallelujah!
My wife had an interesting perspective on this – she grew up on Common Worship (or its precursor) – and didn’t really understand communion. She made the comment to me that the communion service suddenly became much clearer when using the Prayer Book style service. The BCP communion preaches the gospel in a way that Common Worship doesn’t.
What happens now?
I think there are reasons to be grateful, and reasons to be confident. Now that Vicky Beeching’s book – amongst other things – have exposed the truth, we can do something about it. I feel that for too long in this country we’ve been muddling along as a church, saying a few nice ‘Jesus’ things where appropriate but staying in the shallows, theologically speaking. That won’t work any more.
What this country needs is a revival, and a revival will not happen without people who are committed to living out Jesus’ teaching in every area. People who are willing to take up their cross and follow him. People who are willing to stand up and be counted.
This has been the case before in previous generations – as I mentioned when I talked about the hymn O Jesus I have promised. It can be so again. I think God often allows these things to happen to purify the church – to turn halfhearted people either out of the church, or move them to obey him in a more wholehearted way.
A wholehearted church can make a big difference – I was encouraged earlier today to read Ian Paul’s post on revival – Christianity eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire by growing at around 3.42% per year. That’s not a huge amount – and yet it changed the course of history.
So what practical difference should we make as a church? Many things, of course! But in practical terms, in broad brush stroke terms, what I’d like to see is:
- Pastors and teachers who are trained properly and able to teach their congregations the faith. I only realised the value in theological training after spending three years at theological college – I’m so glad the CofE made me do it, otherwise I’d probably have said “I’ve got the Bible, I’ve got a commentary… now let me at it! No need for this academic stuff!” Any church serious about growth needs to invest in the quality of its theological education. Putting down deep roots into the Scriptures and theology are essential for surviving testing times – and only people who have those deep roots can help others to gain them.
- A revival of catechesis – as I’ve already talked about.
- A renewed commitment to church planting. I am heartened that so many churches seem to be talking about church planting at the moment. I was talking to someone recently who said that the best way of reaching people is by planting a church – if the church in the UK is serious about reaching the unreached, we need to be serious about planting new churches. I was taught at college “Growing churches are church planting churches” – and I think this is true. The UK needs more churches.
Above all, we should have confidence in the glorious truth of the gospel – that we have a God who saves sinners, and even today is still drawing men and women to himself. I was reading a book yesterday – Matt Lee Anderson’s book on questioning – and in the chapter I read last night he said that the purpose of questioning is to fasten our minds on the truth. There is an objective truth out there, and we are only deluding ourselves if we deviate from it. This is what our society is finding out the hard way is it tries very hard to write out the fact of God’s truth. We as Christians know God’s Word, his truth, and we should be confident in proclaiming it as we know it is the way that God transforms lives and societies.
I finish with the words of Paul to his protege, Timothy, his charge which I look to to describe my ministry and I think are appropriate here:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather round them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
A few years ago we preached through 2 Timothy, and it struck me then that it is one of the most prophetic books in the Bible – it describes our situation exactly in the church at the moment. And yet, the solution is the same: preach the gospel. Let’s have confidence in doing just that.