Philip North and the sham of good disagreement

It seems that there are some within the Church of England who like to make a big noise about ‘good disagreement’ when it suits them, but aren’t really committed to it. The sad case of Philip North over the last few weeks has exposed that. (If you don’t know any of the background, you can read about it on the BBC).

Many articles and analyses have been written about this subject, so I won’t waste my words here but get to the point. Good disagreement means more than simply ‘I will tolerate your presence so long as I never have to put up with you and I get my way all the time’. Most of the concerns around Philip North’s consecration as bishop were to do with ‘equality’ – ‘how, given the church’s march towards equality, can we have a bishop who doesn’t ordain women?’

The problem is, this does not take into account the views of Philip North (and others like him) on equality. Although he is coming from an Anglo-Catholic perspective – and I would differ substantially from him on many points – his objections to women priests and bishops would be based on similar ground to mine (as a complementarian): a Biblical anthropology of male and female, founded on Genesis 1-3 (which I talk a little about here) and explained further in the rest of the Scriptures. The point is not that we do not believe in equality – the point is that fundamentally our views of equality must be in submission to what God thinks equality is.

And herein lies the problem. Martyn Percy, and others, have a particular view of equality. Philip North, and myself, and others from our respective constituencies, have a different view of equality. That’s the thing. We disagree. Good disagreement requires disagreement, right? You can’t then go and say “well, seeing as my view is the correct one, we should ban anybody who has the opposite view…” That’s not what good disagreement is supposed to mean!

When the women bishops legislation was introduced in 2014, it was passed by synod with five guiding principles. All clergy in the CofE should agree with these principles. The basic idea is that the CofE has reached a “clear decision” that women can be ordained priest and bishop, and that all clergy should accept that decision – women ordained as such are lawful office holders – but the last two points say this:

  • Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and
  • Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

The language of ‘mutual flourishing’ is important: as I understand it, this means “we disagree, but we don’t want to stifle the minority and give it every opportunity to flourish.” I don’t see how that fits with the hounding of Philip North. By all accounts he is committed to mutual flourishing and working with people who he had disagreements with – those who have worked with him in Burnley say that he is committed to women’s ministry. Philip North seems to understand good disagreement. I’m not sure his vocal critics do.

It seems to me that ‘good disagreement’ is a phrase which a lot of people like to use, but don’t really want to live with its consequences. Good disagreement means appreciating that other people might disagree with us quite fundamentally on some issues. When the CofE has formally gone down a road of good disagreement on this issue, what hope do we have when many clergy reject it?

Preaching and communication: Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount

Over the last few weeks I’ve been spending a bit of time in Matthew 5 preparing for various sermons. As well as being struck by how rich the Sermon on the Mount is – you could easily do a sermon series on the Beatitudes, for example – I’ve been struck by how profound Jesus is as a communicator. Jesus is a wise, learned and skillful communicator – he communicates deep truths in a way which we can understand.

I think there are lessons to be learned here for preachers – not least myself! Here are a just two of the things I’ve found to learn from with Jesus’ preaching, I’m sure there are many other things you could say.

Use positive and negative examples

Several times Jesus uses this technique. We are to be salt and light – salt, in the sense of being distinctive and preserving and preventing decay, and light, in the sense of doing good deeds. We are to avoid taking revenge but positively love our enemies. The negative – what we are to avoid doing – coupled with the positive – what we should do.

How often in my sermons do I only focus on one or other of those? I think it’s very helpful to have both together. What bearing does this particular passage have on my life? What should I not be doing? And what should I be doing instead? Christians sometimes have a (not totally undeserved) reputation for being ‘Thou Shalt Not’ people. But we need to hear both the negative and positive side: our vision needs to be transformed.

How do we turn away from our sins, and what do we turn to instead? I think this is helpful to think about as a general rule in sermon preparation.

Use (several) everyday examples

Jesus used salt and light as an example. Everybody knows what salt and light are – it makes it easy to understand his point. Jesus illustrated complex, abstract points with simple, concrete things. I think this is a big challenge for me: I like to deal in fairly abstract ideas, it’s a lot harder to ground them in reality. This is one of the things Chip and Dan Heath say in Made to Stick. George Orwell wrote about this as far back as 1946 in “Politics and the English Language”. People can latch on to things which are concrete and specific, ideas and concepts can be harder to grasp.

The other thing is, Jesus often illustrates with several practical examples. In the passage I’m preaching on Sunday morning (Matthew 5:38-48), Jesus says: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – before giving no less than four practical examples of what that might look like.

One fairly short principle, followed by lots of very practical application. Quite a difference from my sermons.

Although we often focus on the content of Jesus’ teaching – rightly, of course – I think it’s good sometimes to take a step back and look at how Jesus taught. It’s something I know I need to bear in mind each time I preach. Am I showing people what obedience to God would look like – positively and negatively? And do I help ground what I’m saying in regular, everyday experience?

The CofE: A house divided against itself?

cofeThe Church of England has got itself into a complete muddle. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years. The latest fiasco is ‘GS 2055’, the document which sums up what the Bishops have come up with after 2-3 years of ‘shared conversations’. Unsurprisingly, the document has pleased nobody. Although it does uphold Canon B30 – that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman – it is somewhat ambiguous about pastoral practice. You can read a good analysis of the document from Martin Davie on his blog. He is one of many commentators who have written about the report, so I’m not going to talk about it here.

What I do want to do is take a step back and question whether the whole idea of trying to please everybody is possible. It reminds me of this episode from the gospel of Mark:

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.

Mark 3:22-27

People were accusing Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus answers them by giving them a logical objection: how can Satan drive out Satan? If Satan’s kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand. This is, of course, obvious: any nation, organisation – any group whatsoever – divided against itself is doomed to fail.

Although Jesus’ remarks were in a different context, I think it still applies in the context of the CofE today.

Let’s consider the two ‘sides’. Some believe that opposition to ‘equal marriage’ is wrong, even evil. In fact, you could say that some believe that opposition to ‘equal marriage’ is the work of Satan. The only reason people would oppose it is sheer bigotry and prejudice – evil.

On the other hand, some – including myself – believe that the Bible clearly teaches marriage is between a man and a woman, and anything else is false teaching. False teaching which comes from Satan (see 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, for example).

So: in the red corner, we have people who believe that marriage should be offered to same-sex couples equally, and withholding it is evil. In the blue corner, we have people who believe that the definition of marriage should not be changed, and that any attempt to change it is evil.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The church has to choose what it regards as evil. Christians should hate what is evil (Romans 12:9). It is simply impossible to have two groups within the church who think the other side are actually evil and agents of Satan. It is not possible to walk together. The GS 2055 document is trying its hardest to maintain a traditional line on marriage while being as accepting as possible of those with the other view. But that’s just not possible. The document hasn’t satisfied anyone, because what it is trying to do is a logical impossibility.

How has the church managed to get itself into this position? The CofE seems to have lost its concept of holiness and righteousness. The attitude seems to be that God doesn’t really care about sin. “God’s all about love, he’s basically a nice sort of chap. He’ll probably let you into heaven.”

This is not the gospel, and this is the crux of the issue. At our chapter meeting the other day we were talking about the Church Growth Research report. One of the interesting things about that report is that there is a deafening silence when it comes to theology. It talks about everything else, but nowhere does it actually say what the gospel we should preach actually is.

Rather than spending time trying to do the impossible and reconcile two logically opposed groups, Synod would do far better to spend some time contemplating what the gospel actually is. It might help to spend some time thinking about some of Jesus’ words from the Mark’s gospel:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell 

Mark 9:44-47

Jesus tells us that sin is such serious business that it is even better to enter life maimed than be thrown into hell. Jesus came to save us from our sins (Matthew 1:21). Perhaps if the CofE really took this teaching to heart, it would be in a better position to evaluate what God considers to be evil.

The New Monastics

coptic_monksThe New Monastics: not, as you might have imagined, a pop movement from the 1970s and 80s, but something which is happening in 2017 in the Church of England. Earlier today I noticed a post on Twitter announcing that the Diocese of Leicester were looking for a Prior of a ‘New Monastic Community’. This follows on the heels of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Community of St Anselm, which I believe has been going a year or two. It seems there is a general feeling in the CofE (and the wider church) that monasticism is a good thing and is what is needed in the church right now.

I find it somewhat ironic that this is all happening around the 500th anniversary of the reformation: Martin Luther had himself been a monk before becoming unhappy with issues in the church and posting his 95 theses. Luther was critical of the monastic lifestyle, as were his fellow reformers such as John Calvin.

I think it would be worth revisiting some of these arguments: it seems to be becoming a bigger issue in the church than it was in recent years, and it’s good to think these things through rather than simply assuming the status quo is correct.

Monastic communities are comprised of people who have in some way withdrawn from the world in order to focus on God and spiritual things – for example prayer, worship, Scripture, etc. Many monastic communities down through the ages have been ascetics, in that they have put aside earthly things (possessions and physical pleasures) in order to focus on spiritual things. It’s somewhat difficult to talk about ‘monasticism’ as a whole because there have been different expressions of it down through the years with different rules.

I have a number of issues with monasticism and I find it troubling that the CofE in particular seems to be going down this road on this anniversary of the reformation.

1. The ‘higher life’

One of the main presuppositions with monasticicm is that it is a higher or more spiritual kind of life than the kind regular people have. Taking oneself away from the concerns of the world so that one might focus on the Lord. In some ways I think this sounds eminently sensible and laudable, but for that exact reason I think it needs to be challenged.

In our home group, we’ve just started looking at Genesis 1-12. We’ve been discussing what it means for God to be our Creator – to have made a creation which is ‘very good’. Throughout history many people have tried to make out that the body / the world are bad things in some way – that we need to get past that to the real spiritual business. This is a kind of dualism – body = bad, spiritual = good, and it has no place in Christian theology.

One of the implications of God creating a good world is that we have to affirm the goodness of creation – fallen, yes, but good. This means that there is nothing more godly or spiritual about putting the bins out, changing a nappy or working at a desk than reading the Bible or praying. Mankind was created to be in relationship with God all the time. Paul said these words in Colossians 3, addressed to slaves but could equally apply to any employees now:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 1:23-24

“It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – those are amazing words, aren’t they? Think about the work that you do – ultimately it is not your boss, but Christ who you are serving.  Similarly – God has given us things to do in life: families, jobs, friends. God is sovereign over all things and we serve Him by being godly families, workers, and friends.

Monasticism has a certain appeal – getting away from normal life to be more spiritual. But I think it is dangerous precisely for that reason: it tempts us to get away from the bits of life where God does call us to be spiritual. God asks us to be spiritual in our normal lives, all of it – there isn’t a time when we’re not called to be spiritual! Day by day, hour by hour. As Paul says in Ephesians 6:18, “pray in the Spirit on all occasions”, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray continually.” Our whole lives are to be lived as an offering of thanks and praise to God, not just the spiritual bits.

2. Spiritual Growth

Closely linked with #1 I think is the idea that real spiritual growth happens when you get away from normal life and come instead to the spiritual life (even if temporarily). I also think this is one of those ideas which has a certain appeal but must be treated carefully.

The Bible never envisions spiritual growth happening (1) in isolation from normal life; (2) in isolation from the church community. One of the points of the Community of St Anselm’s Rule of Life is sanctification – the process by which the Holy Spirit works in us to make us more holy. I think the idea is that to take a year out to pray and devote oneself to the Lord in a particular way will help with sanctification. I’m not convinced by this.

One of the epiphanies I’ve had over the past few years about marriage is that marriage is designed to teach us to become more holy. If you’re married you are confronted by your flaws almost every day – especially when children are involved. You can’t live a selfish life and have a good marriage. The thing is, this is what you might call ‘active’ sanctification – you don’t have a good marriage by taking a year out from your spouse in order to devote yourself to prayer. You have a good marriage by asking for the Lord’s help day by day to help you overcome your innate selfishness – depending on him as his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Sanctification happens in normal life. Walking in step with the Spirit, being transformed by the renewal of our minds – these are things which happen as we walk with the Lord in our normal, every day lives. Michael Horton wrote a book called Ordinary a couple of years ago which I found really helpful on this and is well worth reading.

3. Community

The New Testament never envisages a Christian outside the church. Such a thing does not exist – believers are simply part of the church, and the responsibilities that entails. Being part of a church congregation is not an optional extra for Christians – something I try to impress upon families who come to us who want their children baptised! Christians have a responsibility to meet with their fellow believers and not to give up (Hebrews 10:24-25). If you read through the letters in the New Testament, you will see that the phrase ‘one another’ comes up again and again. Christians have a responsibility to one another – to encourage, teach, look after, befriend, and so on.

And the church is (also) the place where spiritual growth happens: as we hear teaching about Christ, hear the Word of God, pray, speak the gospel to one another, we become mature. A few weeks ago I was listening to a talk by Glen Scrivener on evangelism through the local church. One of the things he said really struck me – evangelists can often be very hard on the church with people saying things like “The church is going to miss the next big move of God in the world.” His reply? “The church is the move of God in the world.” The church may not be perfect, but it expresses the wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10).

How does this relate to monastic communities – surely, the point is, they are communities? Sure. But what worries me is that they are new communities – taking people out of existing churches and forming a new community, new church, of likeminded people. I’m not sure this is how the church is supposed to be: the church is supposed to be comprised of all believers, not just a small subset of them.

When I was at theological college, I really valued my time there and all the conversations we had which you wouldn’t have in ‘normal’ church! But, at the same time, we were required to be members of a church outside the college – the college community was a bubble, and we were very aware of that. The college community had many strengths, but it was important to be part of church in its fullness.

I appreciate this is not an issue confined to monastic communities – there are some churches which would suffer from the same kind of problems – but I’m not sure of the wisdom in intentionally creating such a community.

4. Outreach

Every Christian has a duty to play a part in the great commission – to make disciples of all nations. I’m not sure that a community which is taken out of the world is going to do a good job at fulfilling that. The community of St Anselm talks about serving others – this is a good thing. But the message of Jesus requires us to do more than serve others in practical ways – we are to proclaim the good news of the gospel, to call people to repentance and faith. Are we to leave the world (1 Corinthians 5:10)? Or are we to call people to follow Jesus wherever we are?

Conclusion

I don’t believe, given these reasons, that monastic communities are a good thing. I think it would be very hard to justify a monastic community from the Bible – the standard picture really is church more or less as we know it today.

I want to proclaim to people in Great Clacton – and wherever else I am a pastor – you can serve God where you are now. You can grow as a Christian where you are now. There is nothing less spiritual about an ‘ordinary’ life – in fact, that is precisely where God has put us in order to serve Him.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:17

Hymnology: Away in a manger

I’m going to level with you right of the bat: I’m not a fan of Away in a manger. It’s too romanticised, too cute for me. I think I did like it as a child, but as an adult – not so much. However, I have an issue with the carol itself which is beyond merely a matter of style – I think it flirts with heresy. The offending lines are these:

The cattle are lowing
The baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

What’s the problem with that? I know a little about babies, and I know that babies do cry. Quite a lot. There’s nothing wrong with crying – in fact, if a baby didn’t cry you’d be more worried. What I don’t like about this verses is that it suggests that Jesus was somehow not a ‘real’ human baby – he wasn’t a proper baby, he was some kind of ‘super-spiritual’ baby. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I do remember wondering as a child whether this implied that Jesus was different to other children.

The idea that Jesus was not a real human being is an ancient one, and it is a heresy known as doceticism (from the ancient Greek dokeo, which means to seem or appear – Jesus only appeared to be human). This is a very early heresy – in fact the apostle John writes about it in 1 John 4:2-3 – “This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” Evidently some in the church John was writing to were teaching that Jesus had not come ‘in the flesh’.

So I’d like to use the opportunity to outline why it’s important that Jesus Christ came as a real human baby and not some heavenly apparition who just happened to look human. Irenaeus, a Bishop of the early church, wrote against doceticism. Here’s an except from one of his writings – Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching:

The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death. […]

Now, if He was not born, neither did He die; and, if He died not, neither did He rise from the dead; and, if He rose not from the dead, neither did He vanquish death and bring its reign to nought; and if death be not vanquished, how can we ascend to life, who from the beginning have fallen under death? So then those who take away redemption from man, and believe not God that He will raise them from the dead, these also despise the birth of our Lord, which He underwent on our behalf, that the Word of God should be made flesh in order that He might manifest the resurrection of the flesh, and might have pre-eminence over all things in the heavens, as the first-born and eldest offspring of the thought of the Father, the Word, fulfilling all things, and Himself guiding and ruling upon earth. For He was the Virgin’s first-born, a just and holy man, god fearing, good, well-pleasing to God, perfect in all ways, and delivering from hell all who follow after Him: for He Himself was the first-begotten of the dead, the Prince and Author of life unto God

I appreciate this is not a simple passage and takes a little getting your head around. But I think the argument is quite straightforward.

The reason Jesus came was to save mankind from sin and death and to give life. Now, if Jesus wasn’t born – a genuine human birth – then he did not die a genuine human death. If he didn’t die, then he didn’t rise again, and if he didn’t rise again then he has not destroyed death. If death is not destroyed – then how can we gain eternal life?

Jesus had to become like us in order to save us. That’s the whole point. Jesus had to take upon himself human flesh to bring human flesh to God. Athanasius makes a similar point in On the Incarnation – only a man could identify with mankind and be united with them; only God could bring people to God. In Jesus, the God-man, fully man and fully God, we have the only one who is able to bring mankind to God.

So, this Christmas – and, indeed, all year round – it’s good to rejoice that Jesus was really and truly God, and really and truly human. One carol which does do a lot better in this regard is Once in Royal David’s City (apart from having a quibble with the line ‘Christian children all must be / mild, obedient, good as He’…):

For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

Jesus Christ was really human, like us. He knew tears and smiles, he can sympathise with us. This is the message which this beautiful video picks up on:

Responding to false teaching: Lessons from 2 Peter

A BibleI’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst evangelicals recently. I encountered it most recently in this blog post by Baptist minister and theologian Steve Holmes. This is how he puts it (you’ll have to read the full blog for the whole context):

No, I know Megan and Bill, I know that they call people to believe in Jesus. They are leading people on the highway to heaven (even if I presently think that they are fairly seriously wrong on at least one aspect of the nature of that highway).’

Sola fide. I have to stand on that. Because the Blood flowed where I walk, and where we all walk. One perfect sacrifice, complete, once for all, offered for all the world, offering renewal to all who will put their faith in Him. And if that means me, in all my failures and confusions, then it also means my friends who affirm same-sex marriage, in all their failures and confusions. If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.

Steve puts it well, and I believe it’s an increasingly popular perspective. The argument seems to be that although traditional marriage is the correct interpretation of the Bible, other people teaching that same-sex marriage is right is not a really serious business. It’s not a salvation issue, certainly. So although Bob may believe strongly that the Bible teaches marriage is between a man and a woman, he doesn’t think Alice – who teaches that marriage is between two people regardless of gender – is not saved.

Personally I believe this is a disturbing trend, as I said at the beginning. I’ve already outlined on this blog why I believe evangelicals cannot agree to disagree on this issue, and I stand by what I said back then. But I’d like to add to that a little. Not long ago I worked through the book of 2 Peter with Peter H. Davids’ Pillar commentary. I’d like to share a few insights from 2 Peter which might help shed some additional light on this issue.

2 Peter is written in response to false teaching and false teachers. It seems that false teachers were teaching that the final judgement was not coming – perhaps it had already happened – and therefore there was no need to live a holy and righteous life. Because there was no final judgement to look forward to, there was no need to worry about restraining our sinful desires now.

Let’s take a quick tour of the letter to analyse what Peter is saying.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (Chapter 1)

God has given those who believe “everything we need for a godly life”. What does that look like? It is to “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”. Participating in the divine nature is a strange phrase. I believe it means ethically – participating in the divine nature by increasing in goodness and love (Peter talks about God’s goodness in v3), in contrast with the corruption and evil desires in the world.

So the purpose of the Christian life is to add goodness, knowledge, self-control etc. (vv5-7) to faith, so that Christians will not be “ineffective and unproductive”. But, we are warned, “whoever does not have them is short-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”

So – a cleansing from past sin does not give us licence to sin in the future. Here, as we see in many places in the Bible, salvation by grace does not mean freedom to indulge our sinful desires. One of my go-to passages about grace and right living is Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions…” The Hebrews 10 passage I referred to in my post about why we can’t agree to disagree also takes the same line: wilfully continuing to sin after receiving knowledge of the truth means all we have to expect from God is “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God”.

Peter continues in chapter 2:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

There were “false prophets” among the people of Israel – you can read about them in Ezekiel 13, for example. What did they do? They led the people astray – they said “peace, when there is no peace”. They prophesied out of their own imaginations. In particular, they led the people to worship false gods and did not see violations of God’s ethical commandments as being a problem. Peter says that, as there were false prophets then, there are false teachers “among you”. These were the people who denied the final judgement, who denied the need to live self-controlled and upright lives – and Peter says “their destruction has not been sleeping”. It’s possible that these false teachers even claimed that the Lord was ‘sleeping’ – that they would not receive the recompense for their wrongdoing. But Peter turns the tables and says that it is their destruction which has not been sleeping. What does he mean?

…if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

To hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgement – this is what Peter is talking about. And this is “especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh” – those who indulge in their sinful desires rather than restraining them.

The chapter finishes:

17 These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. 18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.’ 20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.

For such people – false teachers – “blackest darkness is reserved for them”. Why? They “entice” people escaping from the world back into sin (echoes of Jesus’ words in Mark 9:42?). Note that he uses the phrase “lustful desires of the flesh” – quite possibly having in mind sexual sin, it was as common back then as it is now. Sin is slavery (John 8:34), but if the Son sets us free then we shall be free indeed. To turn to Christ is to turn away from sin, to repent of evil desires and be freed from them. Yes, we know that anyone who claims to be without sin deceives themselves (1 John 1) – but sin is not a cause for celebration, but rather mortification and turning to Christ. These false teachers promise freedom but deliver slavery – just as Satan does. It shows who they are really working for (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The worst thing about this passage is, I believe, that false teachers are leading people to hell. I think this is the implication of Peter’s words here – that it is actually worse for people who have begun to turn away from sin, only to be misled by a false teacher and turn their backs on the way of righteousness.

False teaching is that serious. It simply cannot be tolerated in a church, a denomination, or any Christian organisation.

Peter closes out the letter by looking forward to the day of the Lord, which will “come like a thief” – unexpectedly. What does that mean for believers?

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Peter closes off his argument: because there will be a day of judgement, because there will be a day of wrath, because there is darkness reserved for the unrighteous – we ought to live “holy and godly lives”. God is not mocked. We look forward to the day when righteousness will dwell in the new heaven and earth. We look forward to the day when we will be righteous, and see the Lord face to face. We yearn for the day when sin is no more.

How can those who long for such a day continue to live in sin in the present? It’s impossible! Romans 6:1ff – we have died to sin, how is it possible to continue in it?

And, if this is the case, how can those in the church – thinking particularly about the Church of England but applicable more broadly – stand by and do nothing when the CofE is openly contemplating changes its teaching on matters of marriage?


I appreciate this post has gone on a bit (about 1600 words at this point!) but I’d just like to offer a few more brief reasons why I believe sexuality in particular isn’t something which we can disagree on.

  • I have rarely, if ever, encountered someone who is orthodox on everything except the nature of marriage. This could be because in order to affirm same-sex marriage you have to twist the Bible virtually out of all recognition (as I try to explain here). Interpreting the Bible wrongly in one area will lead to interpreting it wrongly in others – especially on a serious and core doctrine such as marriage.
  • As John Stott pointed out in The Cross of Christ, “sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards. Its essence is hostility towards God.” Sin is not something which God simply shrugs his shoulder about – it is something which Jesus Christ needed to die for to bear the wrath we deserve. To continue in sin wilfully is not simply being wrong or mistaken – it is an act of aggression against God. If same-sex sexual activity is a consequence of our idolatry (Romans 1), then I think this is applicable in particular. God cannot simply overlook such hostility towards him.
  • Bible teachers should be held to a higher standard – James 3:1. Someone who holds the wrong opinion on marriage ‘in the pews’ is less of a danger than false teachers, who can mislead many. This is why I believe that the apostles were so hot on false teaching, and why I believe we must be today. So someone ‘in the pews’, so to speak, might hold the wrong opinion on same-sex marriage – but at least they are not misleading many others. I believe it is appropriate to instruct them gently (2 Timothy 2:25-26). But those who are responsible under God for shepherding Christ’s flock which he bought with his own blood will be held to account. When the day of the Lord comes, I don’t want anyone’s blood on my hands (Acts 20:26-27).

Brexit. Trump. Where do we go now?

Isn’t it strange that over the last six months or so, the nations of the USA and the UK have both had major votes which have exposed massive rifts within the country? I don’t want to draw the comparison between Brexit and the American election too closely, but the parallels are fascinating. In both cases the voting was close, and yet in both cases the winning side was seen by the losing side as lacking moral legitimacy. In other words, both Brexiters and Trump supporters are seen as ignorant, bigoted, racist, etc.

Whatever you think about Trump or Brexit, it is undeniable that the USA and the UK are now divided countries. Where should we go from here?

From a Christian perspective, I think it’s interesting that both of these events have happened in close proximity. They have many similarities – most importantly, perhaps, they both exposed an underlying reality about the division in their countries. How should a Christian understand this? How should the nation understand it?

The USA and the UK are both nations which have a long Christian heritage. Former Prime Minister David Cameron once said, fairly recently, that the UK was a Christian Country. And yet, over the last few years, many things have changed: our countries have drifted increasingly from traditional Christian morality. In particular, of course, in the last few years both the USA and the UK have enacted Same-Sex Marriage – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For example the government are talking about sending Ofsted into religious contexts to combat ‘extremism’ – including (potentially) Sunday Schools. The USA and the UK have both moved well away from a traditional Christian understanding of the world, which I talked about after Brexit.

I believe Trump and Brexit are a ‘warning shot’, so to speak: God wants us to know that the USA and the UK – and other countries – cannot guarantee their good fortune and position within the world. Personally I believe that the success of the UK and the USA have largely been down to its Christian influence – I believe that the Christian faith truly does create community cohesion and knit society together in a way that nothing else can. We have been sailing on the back of that for some time now – but if we depart from the Christian faith, our status may well be taken away as well.

Recently I studied Joel – a very short book in the Old Testament – and the second chapter contains these verses:

‘Even now,’ declares the Lord,
‘return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.’

Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
and leave behind a blessing –
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the Lord your God.

 I believe these are words for the UK and the USA right now. ‘Return to me’, says the Lord. Remember who it was who blessed you so richly. Remember your roots. Don’t turn away – turn back to the Lord, and He will relent and bring blessing once again.

If we continue as we are, I suspect we will not continue to enjoy our privileged position in the world. God can humble nations as well as individuals. But if we turn back to the Lord, perhaps we will see real change for the good.