Some thoughts on “The Poor”

philip-north
Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, who criticised the Church of England for not caring for the poor

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about “The Poor” (apologies for the quote marks, I’ll explain why in a minute). Clacton, where I’ve been for the last three years, is not a rich area – according to the Church Urban Fund, the parish of Great Clacton ranks 892 out of 12,599 parishes nationally for deprivation. This is something which I’ve been mulling over for a while. Then, the other night I watched Professor Green: Living in Poverty, which was looking at the issue of child poverty in the UK (it’s worth watching, by the way). And today, I read that Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, has criticised the Church of England for abandoning the poor.

I don’t pretend to have any special insights into “The Poor”, but I offer here a few thoughts which I hope might prove useful to some.

“The Poor” are not an alien species

A month or two ago I got round to thinking about being in a more deprived area, and wondered – of the people I know round here, who are “The Poor”? And it made me realise two things: (1) I probably know people who would come under that label (people don’t usually talk much about their finances, of course); (2) they are not different to me.

People sometimes talk about “The Poor” as if they are other, as if they are different, as if there is a class of people called “The Poor” and they are on that side and we are on this side. We all know, of course, that the reality is much more complicated with shades of grey (the government have started using a Multiple Deprivation Index, for example, which takes into account seven different factors). But I think it’s easy to talk about “The Poor” as if they aren’t us, which is silly, because the poor are ‘us’. This is why I started out putting “The Poor” in scare quotes – because this is how I think it gets talked about a lot of the time.

I don’t think it’s wrong to talk about “The Poor” – Jesus did – but it’s important to remember to always have in mind that the reality is somewhat more complicated.

Housing is really important

One of the things that struck me about the Professor Green programme was that housing is really important. If the place where you live is secure, then you can cope with a lot. (There was another programme recently called “The Week the Landlords Moved In” which showed something similar).

When I was growing up, my Dad became the pastor of a small independent church in a Suffolk town. Although I didn’t really know much about it at the time, he was receiving a very low wage – far less than the national average. In fact, my Mum told me years later that sometimes she didn’t know where the next meal was coming from – she had to count every penny and make the most of everything. However, I always had what I needed (clothes, food, etc) – we never went without the essentials as a family. And I think the biggest reason for that is my parents did actually own the house.

People talk about a housing crisis in the UK, and unfortunately it’s those in the lowest income bracket who suffer the most because of it.

Family / marriage is really important

Another thing that struck me about the Professor Green programme is that of the three families he talked to, in two of them the Dad had abandoned them and in the other (as far as I could tell) the parents were not married. It’s not really surprising – when a family breaks down and splits up, it becomes very hard to manage. How can a single Mum be expected to bring up three children and work to earn enough money to support them?

I talked a little about this in my last post, but it should be deeply troubling to all of us that marriage is becoming exclusively a preserve of the wealthy. I did a little (and very non-scientific) experiment recently: when we were visiting my Dad, we took our daughter to the local park. It’s in a fairly nice middle-class kind of area. I made a point of looking around to see how many people were wearing wedding rings – lots of them were. Most of the parents were not that young – i.e. probably waited a few years to get married and then have kids. In contrast, in Clacton, the picture is very different – lots of younger parents, not very many of them married. This is backed up by the research – according to the Marriage Foundation:

There’s a growing Marriage Gap: 87 per cent of high earners (over £43,000) marry; only 24 per cent of low earners (under £16,000) marry. The rich get married (and stay together); the poor don’t.

Family breakdown causes huge problems, particularly for those on the lowest incomes. I’d suggest that if the government (and the church) want to do something for the poor, they could do a lot worse than promoting marriage.

Mental health and isolation

Two other issues which I noticed in the Professor Green programme. Firstly, mental health: all three of the families involved had someone who suffered from some sort of mental health issue and was unable to work. Mental health is becoming a massive issue – which is why the young royals (William, Kate and Harry) came up with the Heads Together campaign.

Secondly, all of the families involved seemed to be suffering in isolation: I didn’t see many friends or family members helping out. This could, of course, simply be a matter of what they filmed / included – but it did strike me that none of them seemed to have anyone they could really call on for help. (And isolation probably doesn’t help with the mental health, either).

“Good news to the poor”

What can we say about this from a Christian perspective? According to Luke’s gospel, when Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth, he quoted this passage from the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus applied these words to himself, as the one who was anointed by God. But in what sense does Jesus proclaim ‘good news to the poor’?

Some people say that Christians should seek to serve the poor by transforming unjust structures in society – by calling on the government to build more houses, by creating more jobs, by giving out food and money to those in need etc. I’m sure all these are good things.

But what the Bible says our root problem is, fundamentally, is not unjust structures in society or lack of money but sin. The sin which separates us from God, the sin that separates us from our neighbour.

This is what came home to me as I was watching the Professor Green programme. Sin – failing to do what God wants us to do – was at the root of pretty much everything. Think about family breakdown: God has designed family life in a particular way, and yet we think that we know better and decide to improve on it. Sure, those women whose partners walked away from them weren’t can’t be blamed for their other halves walking out – but at some point in the past they had to decide to get together with them, to have children, etc. This is not trying to blame the victim, but simply to say that our choices have consequences.

Housing is also affected by family breakdown: if a family no longer lives together, two houses are going to be required rather than one. In the programme I mentioned about landlords, one woman said that she and her ex-husband were home owners – until they split up.

What about isolation? I was struck afresh recently by how the New Testament never envisions an isolated Christian. In other words, in the Bible, Christians are always part of the church – never separated from it. Christians are called to meet and share their lives together. In an ideal church – and no church is even close to ideal, but some are closer than others – people’s needs should be looked after and everyone loved and cared for. Jesus famously said: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). In those programmes, I often wondered what it would have been like if the people featured were actually part of a church family.

And finally – mental health. What does sin have to do with mental health? I think it has a lot to do with mental health. I don’t think that God takes all our problems away (physical or mental) in this life, but I think things are often more bearable when walking with God and walking in His ways. Augustine said in a prayer in his Confessions, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless above all things until they find their rest in you.” When we are living in right relationship with our creator, when we are living in accordance with the ways He has given us to live – these things are a big deal and make a huge difference.

The best news is, of course, that Jesus died for our sins: Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for our sins so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. Jesus sends His Spirit to us now, one who will walk with us and transform us day by day. We have hope, we have joy, we have the “life to the full” (John 10:10). Christians have been adopted as children of their loving heavenly father, and can trust that all things work together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

This is why the gospel is good news for the poor: because the poor have the same problem as anyone – only, perhaps, the problems for the less well-off are more acutely felt because they don’t have the resources to be able to escape the consequences of sin so easily.

Which brings me to my last point.

We are all “The Poor”

Back where I started out: “The Poor” are not different – in fact, in God’s eyes, we are all “The Poor”. Jesus once wrote to the church in Laodicea:

You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.

This particular church thought they were rich because they had material wealth – but they were poor towards God. They were poor in spirit – but they didn’t realise it! When Jesus began the beatitudes “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), he meant people who realised their own spiritual poverty before God. Why are they blessed? Because those who recognise their own poverty are able to receive from God’s riches.

Recently at church we sang James Seddon’s hymn “Go Forth and Tell”, and was struck by the verse:

Go forth and tell where still the darkness lies;
in wealth or want, the sinner surely dies:
give us, O Lord, concern of heart and mind,
a love like yours which cares for all mankind.

“In wealth or want, the sinner surely dies”. This is absolutely true. Whether someone is a millionaire or doesn’t have a penny to put to their name – in God’s eyes both are equally sinful, equally poor, equally needing the gospel. The only question for both is: will you accept your spiritual poverty and come to the Lord Jesus, who proclaims good news to the poor?

Let’s fix education and the country

LockeEducation1693Let’s fix education and the country in one blog post. Simple, right?

Oh, hold on a moment. Not simple. That’s the one. Still, it’s a subject worth thinking about. Over the past few weeks I’ve had a couple of thoughts about what might improve education (and, over time, the country). I know that education isn’t always the answer, but it does make a difference and it’s important to think about what we teach children.

I hope that my two suggestions here are worthwhile and make good sense, however I welcome any feedback / comments / suggestions.

Idea 1: Political philosophy

“Political philosophy” makes it sound a bit grander than it really is. What I’m getting at is – teach children what the differences are between different political parties. For example, what drives the Conservative party, and how does that differ from the Labour party?

I was talking to a friend the other day about this, and both of us (who’d been through the education system about ten years apart) said that we had never really had any teaching at all on different political parties / ideologies. It’s taken me to the age of 33 to begin to understand the different political parties and where they’re coming from. Surely it would have been helpful to have some info when I was at school?

This is what I don’t understand: the government expect us to vote – but we don’t get given any information to help us make that choice. In my case, I started out simply by voting for who my parents voted for, because I didn’t know any better. What would have helped a lot is some understanding of the ‘big picture’ of where the different parties were coming from – election leaflets will often focus on one or two issues, but that doesn’t really give you much of a picture of where they’re coming from.

We live in tough times, politically – there is a huge amount of division in the country. If younger people were encouraged to think for themselves about politics, rather than simply sharing memes on social media, I think this would help a lot with understanding ‘the other side’.

One of the interesting things about the last election was that younger folk mostly voted for Labour – the older the voter, the more likely to vote Conservative. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one reason is likely the use of social media. If I based my voting decision purely on the memes I saw on Facebook, I’d probably have voted Labour too.

All parties want to attract younger voters. I think a good start would be to encourage young people to understand the difference between political philosophies and make an educated decision, rather than simply relying on messages that get sent out on social media (which are, shall we say… not very balanced). In retrospect, I would have really valued this at school – why not make it part of the curriculum? I feel this would be a good start at helping people who are on different sides of the political spectrum understand each other a bit better. Facebook tends to divide – why not use the schools system to bring together?

Idea 2: Marriage and family

At the moment schools / the government seem willing to bend over backwards to help a small minority of people (transgender / ‘genderfluid’), while at the same time being unwilling to help a huge number of young people who are affected by family breakdown.

If you don’t think that family breakdown is a huge issue, have a read through the Marriage Foundation website.

Some of their key facts:

  • If current trends remain as they are, any child born today in the UK has only a 50/50 chance of being with both their birth parents by the age of 15.
  • Cohabiting parents make up 19 per cent of all couples with dependent children, but account for half of all family breakdown.
  • Nearly all parents (93 per cent) who stay together until their children reach 15 are married.
  • Parents who are married before they have a child are far more likely to stay together.

And the list goes on.

The point is, it is beyond question that marriage brings with it many benefits – to individuals, to children, to society. And yet, when I was at school at least (and I don’t know what the experience of other people is) – we weren’t really told any of this.

We were taught a little about the biology of sex, we were taught about reproduction – but we weren’t taught about marriage. It was simply assumed that we’d learn about it from elsewhere.

I appreciate that the government is in a bit of a bind here, because every time the promotion of marriage is mentioned (it gets talked about from time to time) some people get very angry. Many people don’t like the implied criticism of their life choices, which is understandable. But the statistics are clear for all to see. The facts do not change just because some people find them inconvenient.

My suggestion would be simply to teach this to young people without bias: let them look at the statistics for themselves, let them analyse what the marriage foundation (and others) have to say – let them think critically about it.

When I was a teenager, and it seems still today, ‘received wisdom’ (i.e. what everyone else is doing) is – you get together with someone, sleep with them, move in with them, have kids, and then – and only then – if you’re really committed, you get married. I think this is basically the wrong way round, demonstrably so, and perhaps if a few more children were exposed to this kind of thinking it might help them to make better – or at least more informed – choices.

So, those are my two suggestions for sorting the country out. It all boils down to letting kids analyse and think critically about issues without fear of getting the ‘wrong’ answer. Give them the information they need. Maybe, just maybe, it might help a little to bridge some of the gaps which have opened up in our society.

Thoughts on ‘The Strange Death of Europe’

I’ve just finished reading strangedeathofeuropeThe Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray. It’s not an easy read – it deals with an issue which we as a Western society do not want to talk about (immigration) – but I think it’s important to deal with these issues.

If you want to listen to him talking about the book and its main ideas, you can find a few interviews on YouTube such as this one.

I don’t want to review the book as such – please read it for yourself – but off the back of it I wanted to mention a couple of thoughts I had while reading it.

The main thing is: what gives a society a sense of identity? I think this is a hugely important question which is often overlooked in the UK. You have a group of people living together in a town. How can they get on with each other? You could list a few things: common language, jobs, values, etc. Values are important – we have to value certain things in order to get on with each other.

The government recognised this when it created “British Values” (which are, for the record: democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, and respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and those without faith). Those are all apparently British values which all children are being indoctrinated in – sorry – educated about at school.

The thing is, being taught about British Values at school doesn’t really give us a sense of identity, does it? It’s just “the way we do things round here” – without a coherent system of thought to back it up, they’re meaningless. This brings me to the question of religious identity.

In the past, this country has largely been held together by a broadly Christian worldview. It has permeated the monarchy, our government, our laws, our national institutions (such as the BBC), and of course an established church. Now this is all rapidly being demolished for a new secularist world where there is no place for religious belief. The best the government can come up with is some rather vague and not particularly convincing “British Values”.

Then Islam enters into the picture. The secular world simply has no idea how to respond to Islam. For most secularists, religious is an irrelevance. They seem to think most religions are more or less the same – they believe in a different ‘sky fairy’ but they’re pretty much the same (I talk about that more here). The problem is, religions are not all the same. British Values have nothing to say to someone who is a convinced Muslim.

Tom Holland did a documentary recently for Channel 4 called Isis: The Origins of Violence (at the time of writing you can still watch it on 4oD). In it he interviewed a Muslim (can’t remember who it was but it was someone important) who said that Western laws were not good because they did not come from God. He sincerely believed that Islamic laws were best because they were given by God and not man. (This is also the man who was somewhat evasive about condemning violence.)

How do you convince someone that our laws are good in those circumstances? 

It seems to me the only way is to actually demonstrate that our laws actually do come from God – from the Christian God, ‘the God who is there’ as Schaeffer put it. Secularism simply has no answer to orthodox Islam, it is impotent in the face of it.

What’s interesting about Douglas Murray’s book is that he identifies the problem (the decline of Christianity in the West) – but at the same time he believes that it is impossible to believe in Christianity now due to 19th century higher criticism (much of which has now been discredited).

I believe that the only ultimate solution to the problems we face – both personally and as a society – is the Christian faith. This is the social glue that helps to bind us together. This is the foundation of our society, the foundation of our morality and laws. This is the only way Western society can survive. My prayer is that God might send another revival as in the days of Wesley and Whitefield, or the Great Awakening in America. It has happened before, it can happened again. Lord, have mercy.

Is Pentecost a reversal of Babel?

pentecost I am writing this on Pentecost Sunday, where the church remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early church (recorded in the Bible in Acts 2:1-13). One of the significant aspects of this story is that the apostles were enabled to speak in other languages – as verse 4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The commentators on this passage often refer to Genesis 11 – the Tower of Babel incident, where the languages of the people were confused and people spread out over the earth. It is often said that Pentecost is a reversal  of the curse of the Tower of Babel. At Babel the languages of the people were confused, at Pentecost people the Spirit enables people to break the language barrier. Simple.

… or is it?

I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. This interpretation would imply that languages and differences between cultures were sinful and a result of the curse – but I don’t think this is the case. Let’s take a closer look.

Putting the Tower of Babel into context

In Genesis 10, just before the Tower of Babel incident, we have the so-called ‘Table of Nations’ – an account of what happened to the descendants of Noah. The last two verses of that chapter – just before the Babel account – say this:

31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

32 These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.

So, prior to the Babel incident, Genesis is already talking about clans, languages, territories, and nations. This suggests to me that the dividing up of humanity into nations is not a result of the Babel incident, but something which God intended to happen as mankind filled the earth and subdued it (Gen 1:28). The idea is that God didn’t want humanity simply to sit around in one place and stick together, but to fill the whole earth – and cultural expressions were simply a part of that plan, including language. Diversity in this way is something which brings God glory.

So what was going on at Babel?

Good question. I think a close reading of the Babel text actually agrees with this interpretation.

The passage starts: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” It’s interesting that it starts in this way, given that we’ve just had the Table of Nations which talks about different languages! But we’ll shelve that for now. The people moved eastward and then: “they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’”

This is interesting for two reasons: (1) they wanted to make a name for themselves; (2) they wanted to avoid being scattered over the whole earth. Why do you think the people wanted to avoid being scattered? I believe this is because ‘scattering’ is what God wanted them to do, as we’ve just seen. The people’s sin was wanting to stick together rather than carry out God’s plan – to spread out and diversify across the earth.

When the Lord comes down and confuses their language, the end of the incident is described: “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” So God scatters them, despite the intentions of the people. God’s will prevails, even though the people are against it.

This is what I think, then, is going on in this passage:

  • God designed mankind to spread over the whole earth. Cultural differences and diversity are a right and good part of God’s plan in creation.
  • In the Tower of Babel, mankind decided to unite together and make a name for itself out of pride rather than scattering as God intended. The sin of Babel was mankind coming together for the wrong reasons and the wrong ends.
  • God therefore confuses the language (something which would have happened anyway if the people had been obeying God), and the people scatter as he intended.

So – the Babel incident is God’s way of ensuring that mankind did what He originally intended, and spread across the earth. Seen this way, the curse of Babel is not that the languages were confused – rather, God confused in the languages in order to accomplish His purposes.

I think this fits best with our experience – I love seeing Christians from other cultures worshipping God in their own ways. Of course, in every culture there will be elements that deny the gospel – all cultures bear the mark of the Fall – but in many ways each one contributes something unique to displaying the wisdom, power and glory of God.

How does this affect Pentecost?

Under this reading, Pentecost is not so much a simple reversal of the curse of Babel. We’ve seen this from Genesis, but there are a few reasons within the text of Acts 2 which lead us to this conclusion:

  • The passage makes clear that it is “God-fearing Jews” who heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. The curse of Babel (if that is indeed the right phrase) was something which applied to everyone.
  • People heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. It wasn’t the case that they could all understand one language, on the contrary, the Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in different tongues.

If we look further afield throughout the New Testament, we shouldn’t forget the wonderful vision of Revelation 7: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Instead of these ethnic / linguistic differences being obliterated, they are apparently still there at the end. They of course do not cause any division, but God’s glory is shown not in conformity but in the diversity of all the nations worshipping him in the unique ways that they can bring.

When Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”, he doesn’t mean these differences are obliterated – rather that they don’t matter any more, because unity is not in race, language or culture but in Christ Jesus.

How should we understand Pentecost?

This is, of course, the million dollar question. Something that struck me today as we were hearing the readings again is that mankind at the Tower of Babel did two things wrong: (1) they tried to create unity by earthly means; (2) they tried to use that unity to deny God. At Pentecost, however, (1) unity is created by heavenly means – unity-in-diversity; (2) that unity is used for God’s purposes. Pentecost is God’s answer to Babel, of sorts – but not a reversal of the curse.

Hymnology: Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken

Although I don’t normally pay attention to such things, last weekend Pippa Middleton married her fiancé James Matthews. (I was only taking an interest because the wedding was conducted by the former vicar of our parish here in Clacton!) Apparently they had four hymns during the service, one of which was Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.

This hymn is one of my favourites, written by John Newton – he who wrote the much more famous Amazing Grace.

The hymn itself is a little hard to understand if you’re not well-versed in the Old Testament and the wider story of the Bible (it is chock full of references), and this is why I thought it might make a good hymn to consider here. I won’t attempt to go through each reference, but try to show the bigger picture.

The most important thing to deal with first is: what is the city of Zion? Zion in the Bible is another name for Jerusalem – the city of God, the place where God dwelt with His people and where they worshipped Him. The temple was the earthly place to show that He dwelt with them there. Hence the words of the hymn: “He whose word cannot be broken [ref. John 10:35] / formed thee for His own abode.” So God formed Zion as the place where He would dwell with His people.

In the New Testament, we are told that ultimately this finds its fulfilment not in an earthly city but in the new creation (Rev 21:2) – where those who believe will dwell with God forever. All Christians are on their way to this heavenly city, a picture which John Bunyan elucidates in The Pilgrim’s Progress. This is fundamental to understanding the hymn.

The book of Hebrews really develops this theme. This is what it says in Hebrews 11:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Abraham lived “by faith” – he lived in a tent because he knew by faith that a greater dwelling was coming – as the author poetically puts it here, “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” What happened to Abraham in some way foreshadows the Christian life. Just as he lived by faith, because he was looking forward to something greater, so too the Christian lives by faith.

And this explains the third verse: “Round each habitation hovering / see the cloud and fire appear”. This is a reference to the exodus, where the people of Israel were led by cloud during the day and fire during the night. What relevance does this have to us? The Bible portrays the Christian life in some ways as a ‘new exodus’ – Christians are on a journey to the Promised Land – not on this earth, but the new creation. God protects and leads His people today just as He did in that first exodus. (The hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ also picks up on this theme).

All of this leads to the conclusion, my favourite lines of the hymn:

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion’s children know.

The book of Hebrews makes clear that this world – what we can currently see and touch – is far from all there is to life. In fact, Christians are members of a far greater kingdom – a kingdom which “cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28). All the pleasures of this life are passing away – they are simply “pomp and show”. The only ones who have “solid joys and lasting treasure” – cf. Jesus’ words in Matt 6:19-21 – are “Zion’s children” – i.e. Christians, those who believe and trust in the Lord Jesus.

When I heard that this was sung at Pippa Middleton’s wedding, I have to be honest – I did feel it was a little ironic. The wedding itself was pretty lavish and cost a lot of money – the cynical part of me wonders if it might even be described as “boasted pomp and show”. However, I don’t want to comment on their faith – who knows, perhaps they knowingly chose it for exactly that reason.

Anyway, I hope that this helps to explain a little of the theology underlying such a wonderful hymn!

This is part of my hymnology blog series.

On not understanding Tim Farron

Tim Farron
Tim Farron (Source)

The latest thing which has prompted me to put pen to paper, so to speak, is Tim Farron. Specifically, his hounding by the media over whether he believes homosexuality is a sin. You can read some of the comments many media types have made in this Telegraph article, including Owen Jones labelling him an “absolute disgrace”.

The most interesting thing to me has been people’s reactions: some people have joined in with the shouting, but many have been more reticent. I think many people have been uncomfortable with the way that the media have gone after him for his personal views – why bring down a good man when his actions speak well of him? I’ve read two articles defending him, one by Jennie Rigg (chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems) and one – not surprisingly – by Brendan O’Neill. (I’m sure there have been others, I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed by various other people online).

The gist of their defense is: whatever Tim Farron’s personal views may be, in parliament he is a champion of LGBT rights – his voting record is excellent. In fact, according to the first article I mentioned: “He has said to me personally that when poly marriage is made legal he wants to be the first on the invite list to our wedding.”

So, Tim Farron is not a homophobic bigot. Right?

Hmmm.

I want to make a couple of points here.

Firstly, I don’t think Tim Farron should be labelled a ‘homophobic bigot’ or anything like that regardless of his voting on LGBT rights. These days the words are thrown around casually, but because someone disagrees with same-sex marriage does not make them a homophobic bigot. The traditional Christian teaching is that sex outside of marriage (that is, the lifelong union of a man and a woman) is wrong. This has been the understanding of our country for many hundreds of years. This is not homophobic or bigoted, it is simply believing what the majority of the world has always believed about marriage. If Tim Farron believes that, why should it not affect the way he votes?

It makes me uncomfortable that people seem to be saying “It’s OK – he’s one of us really. He may believes things in private, but at least he votes the right way.”

This brings me on to my second point. I simply don’t understand Tim Farron’s position here. If he does indeed believe the traditional Christian teaching about marriage and sex – why is he voting the way that he does? One article about Tim Farron says the following:

For Tim the liberal principles of tolerance and acceptance are essential. He never got in to politics to impose his morality on others but instead to be a witness and to carry out God’s call of loving our neighbour. (Source)

According to this article, Tim thinks that ‘loving our neighbour’ is what it’s about, not about ‘imposing [our] morality on others’. That sounds good, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: It is not kind or loving to our neighbours to allow them to enter into sin.

One of the realisations that I’ve come to about sin over the last few years is that sin is not defined simply arbitrarily (i.e. sin is a set of moral rules which God just made up out of thin air to stop us having fun.) Sin is not loving God and not loving our neighbour. It has a bad effect on us and other people – it’s always the worst path we can take. Think about the ten commandments – adultery, for example. Adultery is not a loving thing to do. It wrecks homes, it destroys marriages, it does untold harm to children. It’s pretty obvious why that’s in the ten commandments, isn’t it?

And so, as a Christian who believes in the ten commandments, I don’t want my neighbour to commit adultery. Not because I think that makes them a Christian, but because I love them and want the best for them.

My understanding is that politics is about the common good – what is best for us as a country, and the citizens of that country. As a Christian, I have a particular idea of what the common good looks like. I believe God made us, and God knows what is best for us. I believe Christians, if they are to be consistent, should seek to be shaping society according to that ideal. Of course that doesn’t bring anyone into the Kingdom of God, only the preaching of the gospel can do that, but it is part of our calling to love our neighbour.

Same-sex marriage is, of course, one of the major areas at the moment where Western society is out of step with the church. I don’t understand how any Christian can be pleased about same-sex marriage. I can understand there may be a case for things like civil partnerships, but marriage – no. (I’ve talked about marriage before several times, see for example What is Marriage part one and part two – for a look at the harm it causes see a book released in 2016, Jephthah’s Children: The innocent casualties of same-sex parenting).

The point is, it seems to me to be double-minded to have a ‘private’ morality and a ‘public’ morality. Either something is sinful / immoral for everyone, or else it is not. I cannot impose my morality on other people, but Christians believe that what is moral is up to God – and He most certainly can and does ‘impose’ morality on everyone. Christians cannot be moral relativists: there is one God, and one morality for everyone. I believe Christians have a duty not to be silent on matters like this – not to hold a view in private but say another thing in public. (How else could we be salt and light in the world?)

So that, in a nutshell, is why I cannot understand Tim Farron.

Mike Pence, the Billy Graham rule and the gospel

Billy Graham

[Jesus said:] ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

If you haven’t seen the news this week, the internet has been astir with the news that Vice President of the US Mike Pence follows the ‘Billy Graham rule’. Basically, to avoid temptation, he takes measures to avoid being alone with another woman, or being at a social function with alcohol involved where his wife is not present. The rule is named after Billy Graham, with which it originated. (See the link above for more information about the history of the rule).

It’s been interesting to look at the responses. Some people have ridiculed Mike Pence on a number of fronts – how, in this day and age, can a man not have a business lunch with a woman (for example)? On the other hand, some Christian folk have stood up to defend him and commended him for taking steps to protect his marriage. Marriage breakdown is a huge issue, and it’s right to be concerned about it.

Personally, I have mixed feelings. As a Christian, I believe we should be concerned with sexual purity – both within and without marriage. Hebrews 13:4 puts it starkly: “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” I’ve argued before that sexual sin is serious business – and I stand by what I said then. However (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I believe the Billy Graham rule is misguided.

Let’s start with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount that I quoted to begin with. “You shall not commit adultery” – one of the Ten Commandments. You’d think that one would be a relatively straightforward one to keep, right? Either you’ve slept with someone you’re not married to, or you haven’t. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Jesus makes the commandment far beyond what we do with our bodies – he extends it to include our minds as well. Any man who has ever looked at another woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (And, of course, this applies for women too – lust is not an exclusively male problem).

Jesus was here was speaking against the Pharisees – those who believed that they were righteous because they were almost fanatical about obeying the law. Jesus said shortly before these verses, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v20). The message is striking: what God demands of us is moral perfection – a perfection that we cannot achieve by following the Law. The Pharisees made a big show of obeying the law, they probably had laws (way beyond the Ten Commandments) about what you were allowed to do and not do with women around. But Jesus says, no – the righteousness God requires is an internal righteousness – one which goes to the heart. The heart is where evil springs from – the heart is what must be changed. We cannot impose righteousness on ourselves by rules – only God can change our hearts.

I’ve recently been reading Colossians, and these verses sprang to mind:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Paul here says that there are rules in the world which people follow, rules that – although they have an appearance of wisdom, actually ‘lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence’. I think this is what’s going on with rules like the Billy Graham rule. Those who follow these rules appear to be doing something wise, appear to be taking appropriate precautions – but actually the rules themselves do not have any value in preventing sin. (I wonder how many people who followed the Billy Graham rule have fallen into sexual sin?) It would be perfectly possible, for example, to follow the Billy Graham rule and yet be addicted to pornography. The outward appearance looks very different from the inward reality.

So how should we live in the way that God wants us to? More than that – how can we? This is what Paul addresses in Galatians 5. I won’t quote all of it, but the summary is this: there are two ways of living – either according to ‘the flesh’, or according to the Spirit. The flesh means our natural desires, our sinful state where we desire what is contrary to God’s will. This, of course, includes sensual indulgence. But Paul’s genius is that he extends this to include legalism as well – that is, living by a set of rules. If we live by a set of rules, we may appear to be godly – but we are simply fooling ourselves. The only way to live a godly life is to live by the Spirit of God, to live a life of love as we are transformed by the Spirit, as we walk in step with Him.

The problem with laws – legalism – is that it only focusses on the ‘Thou shalt not’. How can I, as a man, love my female neighbour if I have a law which prevents me from getting to know her?

In fact, as I hinted at above, legalism may in fact exacerbate the problem. If a man believes he’s doing OK because he’s keeping the Billy Graham rule, and yet spends a lot of time fantasising about women he’s not married to, then he’s simply fooling himself.

A personal anecdote…

I’d like to put some flesh on what I’ve written above by sharing a little of my life story. I wanted to share how this has worked out in my own life, and how I believe my experience shows that the Billy Graham rule is not correct.

I spent a lot of my time at theological college was spent worrying about adultery. I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t strong enough. We often heard and talked about stories of pastors who had failed in this way, and how it wrecked their ministries and personal lives. I spent quite a bit of time in prayer asking God to help me!

I also tried to steer clear of getting ‘too close’ to a woman – especially any woman I found attractive. Although I didn’t consciously live by the Billy Graham rule, I think subconsciously I followed something like it: it was very rare that I would ever have a one-on-one private conversation with a woman. However, I still didn’t feel ‘safe’ – I still didn’t feel like the laws I lived by would help me.

Fast forward to today: God has indeed answered my prayers and changed my heart. I feel like I have a whole new perspective on the world. It’s too long to go into here (maybe another blog post… or a book…) but I have come to believe that God has designed men and women for each other – not just within marriage – and intends men and women to be friends. This is exactly what Joshua Jones argues in Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical gift of male-female friendship.

As I said above, the problem with the law is that it stops with ‘Thou shalt not’. Christians, on the other hand, are called to do more than that: Christians are called to love one another. Peter says “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22), and I believe that includes love across the gender divide. Sexual sin is a horrible thing – but I have come to believe that one of the best antidotes we have to sexual sin is healthy relationships with those of the opposite sex.

Clearly, more needs to be said on this – and the Forbidden Friendships book is a good start – but this is a blog post and I don’t want to go on forever. The ‘in a nutshell’ of all this is that I am much more open to forming good friendships with women and believe that this actually (1) fulfils better the great commandment (to love God and our neighbour) (2) better equips me to combat sexual sin.

Conclusion

I applaud anyone who takes sexual purity seriously. Our culture seems to value fidelity a lot less than in days gone by. Mike Pence is honestly trying to protect his marriage, I believe he is sincere, and should be commended. I also think it’s not right to jump to conclusions about what someone does and does not believe – I don’t want to critique the man, only the rule itself at face value.

However, I believe that the gospel calls us to a more radical heart transformation. The gospel calls us to love, not simply to avoid 50% of the population of the world because we might be tempted to sin. The Pharisees were using their laws to get out of their obligations to love their neighbour. We may laugh at them, but our human hearts are tempted to use the law in the same way.

I’ll leave the last word to the apostle Paul:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

… Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:13-14, 24-25)