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

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).

The Bible and (same-sex) marriage: Cutting through to the root issue

Marriage
Image by Sabtastic

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have blogged quite a few times about marriage, and in particular same-sex marriage. You can see my previous posts under the “marriage” tag. Anyway, it seems we are still talking about marriage: the debate has simply moved from society – where same-sex marriage is now a reality – to the church.

General Synod recently spent a few days finishing the two-year-long ‘Shared Conversations’ process in which the CofE has been trying to find a way forward on same-sex marriage. As part of that, a number of books have been released and a number of people have written quite passionately in support of changing the church’s current teaching. These include ‘Amazing Love’ by Andrew Davison (reviewed here and here), as well as ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth’ by Jayne Ozanne (reviewed here and here). What is notable about both of these books is that they claim to be orthodox Christian, Biblical accounts of why we should change the church’s teaching.

If you read the books, and look at the discussion it generates on Ian Paul’s blog (and elsewhere), the discussion often focusses on peripheral issues. It can be very difficult to digest what is actually going on and get to the heart of the issue. I’ve had an interest in this issue for a long time now, and I wanted to write to try and outline the issue at the heart of why I believe marriage can only be defined as the lifelong union of a man and a woman.

It’s easy to get lost in the details, but to my mind you can boil down the issue to one basic root issue, which is this:

What does the Bible say positively about marriage?

It is sometimes claimed that Jesus said nothing about same-sex relationships; however, he did say something about marriage. The Pharisees asked a question about divorce, and he replied with this answer (this is from Mark 10):

‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied. ‘But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

So when Jesus was asked a question about marriage, he goes back to creation – he takes us back to Genesis 1-2 and to God’s original intention for mankind.

What does this teach us about marriage? Marriage was intended from the very beginning of creation to be a permanent relationship (hence why Jesus gave this answer to a question about divorce) – but he also says that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. In marriage, with apologies to the Spice Girls (and to you for putting that thought in your head), two become one.

Some people claim that Genesis 1-2 is only about a covenant commitment – that the male-female character of marriage is purely accidental. But given Jesus’ words here – the male-female nature of marriage comes across more clearly than being a lifelong union, doesn’t  it? If you argue that the male-female nature of marriage is purely accidental, then so is everything else about marriage from Genesis 1-2.

And this is the issue. Marriage becomes entirely what the reader thought it was before they looked at the Bible.

Jeffrey John once wrote a book “Permanent, Stable, Faithful” in which he argued that same-sex marriage was in accord with the Bible – so long as those relationships exhibited the three values of permanence, stability and faithfulness.

The thing is, where do those values come from? As we have just seen, the Bible doesn’t say “marriages must be permanent, stable, and faithful”. Let’s take permanence, for example: the Bible doesn’t say “marriages should be permanent”, but it does say, “a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. So permanence is only defined in the context of a male-female relationship.

Similarly with faithfulness. The Bible says, “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb 13:4). But what is meant by faithfulness? Faithfulness, again, is defined in the sense of not becoming “one flesh” with another man or woman (1 Cor 6:16 – it’s interesting that when lawyers were drafting same-sex marriage legislation, consummation could not be defined and so was left out). Faithfulness is, to put it bluntly, not having sex with someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse.

Some people define faithfulness as ‘not sleeping with someone else without telling your partner’. In other words, ‘open relationships’ can embody faithfulness – depending on how you define it. I can well imagine someone who had such a view reading Heb 13:4 and it fitting in with their preconceived ideas – because they had an idea of what faithfulness was rather than letting the Bible define it.

This brings me to my final point. When you abstract your understanding of marriage from what the Bible actually says, marriage can become virtually anything. Almost every argument for same-sex marriage would also work for, say, polyamorous marriage. Or incest. Or ‘open’ relationships. Or time-limited marriages. And so on: the point is that it’s up to you and how you want to define it. Not the Bible.

That’s the root issue here: either we let the Bible be God’s Word and define what marriage is, or we crowbar the Bible into supporting same-sex marriage and opening the door for virtually anything. Don’t be fooled by fancy words, follow the logic and see where it leads you.

‘Change or Die’: is the church doomed?

A BibleA popular line of argument these days is that the church must either change or die. More specifically, the ‘change’ to happen must include being affirming of same-sex marriage. Vicky Beeching wrote this on Twitter a few days ago:

Today many predict that #LGBT inclusion will ‘split the Church of England’. Perhaps it will just follow the same #womenbishops trajectory. (Link)

One thing’s certain: the Church cannot afford to move as slow on #LGBT as it has on #womenbishops. Otherwise there’ll be no under 20’s left.

Young people see Church on the wrong side of moral justice when it’s against #LGBT inclusion. If we want them in the pews, change is needed.

It’s unfathomable to kids my niece & nephew’s age that the Church isn’t fully inclusive of #LGBT Christians. It’s not even a debate to them.

This is a fairly common argument – for example, at the end of 2014 there was an event called “What future for the Church of England?” From reading reports of the event afterwards, it seems like most of the speakers basically said the church needed to stop being so mean to LGBT folk or else it was going to die.

But does this line of argument stand up to scrutiny? I don’t think it does, for two main reasons.

1. It ignores God

This is my biggest problem with the argument. If God has created marriage as being between a man and a woman, then it doesn’t matter what society believes: this is God’s world (Ps 24:1 – “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof”), and the church must proclaim God’s words rather than whatever happens to be in vogue in society at the time.

I’m sure Vicky Beeching is correct in that there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church is not affirming of same-sex marriage. But then, there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church believes we are all sinners and need to repent and believe in the gospel. There are people who think the idea of God becoming man and dying on a cross is a contemptuous idea. We do not give up on these because society finds them strange, distasteful, or even immoral. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29, NLT).

However, even if this particular teaching of the church is deeply unpopular within society, there is no reason to suppose that the church will die: those who come to the Lord will always find that with Him is “life to the full” (John 10:10). God’s will for our lives is the true vision of human flourishing. God is the one who calls people to Himself, and people will find that a life lived in obedience to Him will always be worth it – whatever the cost. If God has indeed said it, then if the church proclaims it – some will listen.

Now I appreciate that some in the church (including Vicky Beeching) don’t think that God created marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. However, surely the important question is not what society thinks but what God thinks: we shouldn’t base our theology on what society thinks of it, but rather on what God thinks of it! No Christian church should ever do otherwise. Whether society finds a teaching of the church acceptable or not is really irrelevant to the question of whether the church should teach it: all that matters is whether God has said it.

2. It ignores all the evidence

My second problem with the “change or die” line of argument is that it ignores the evidence from a number of places:

Firstly, it ignores the historical evidence. The first-century Roman empire was a pretty diverse place in terms of sexuality. Not so different from today, really. The traditional Christian ethic of marriage would have sounded just as bizarre in that culture as it sounds today. And yet, Christianity grew and grew. Clearly, being out of step with culture wasn’t a problem for them.

Secondly, it ignores the evidence of churches today. If you look round at the church today, most of the churches that are growing are theologically conservative. In my limited experience, the churches I know which preach the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – and hold to the traditional teaching on marriage – are generally not dying out. In fact, the ones I’ve been part of often have good numbers of children and young people. If the traditional teaching on marriage really was a barrier, you would expect all of those churches to eventually die out. That is not happening as far as I can see.

Thirdly, it ignores the evidence of other countries. There are other churches in other countries who have approved same-sex marriage. For the purposes of the Church of England, the best comparison is probably the Episcopal Church in the USA. The ECUSA is currently “near collapse“. The church is shrinking (it lost a quarter of its attendance since 2003), and it has been embroiled in about $18m worth of litigation against former Episcopalian churches which have chosen to leave. Of course, the situation of the ECUSA is not the situation of the Church of England – but does what  happened in the USA give us any confidence that something similar won’t happen here?

Given all of this, I think the “change or die” argument is wrong and I hope that it soon disappears. For me, as someone who believe the Bible is clear about marriage, I think actually the reverse is true: if the church does change on marriage, it will be a disaster. The more the church begins to look like society, the less people will want to go: on the other hand, if people are meeting with the living God, nothing will be able to stop it.

Just what is a Priest anyway?

PriestOn Sunday afternoon I was ordained Priest in the Church of England. Up until a few years ago, I would never have used the word ‘priest’ to describe myself. What changed? And what is a priest anyway?

A few years ago, whenever I heard the word ‘priest’ the main vision I had was of a figure from the Old Testament (such as Aaron), someone who served in the temple and made sacrifices for sin and so on. Now, all of that – the sacrificial system – was done away with in Jesus. He is the sacrifice for sin, the sacrifice which all the other sacrifices foreshadowed. So, to my mind, ‘priest’ was something of an anachronism: although Christians are described as a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) – I believe in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ as they said at the reformation – I don’t think there are priests today like Aaron.

So why does the Church of England use the word ‘priest’? I think this is where we may have to do a little bit of digging for the etymology of the word. According to the online dictionary:

Old English preost probably shortened from the older Germanic form represented by Old Saxon and Old High German prestar, Old Frisian prestere, all from Vulgar Latin *prester “priest,” from Late Latin presbyter “presbyter, elder,” from Greek presbyteros

Now this is where we get in a bit of a muddle. The word translated ‘priest’ in the Bible is kohen (Hebrew) or hiereus (Greek). But the English word ‘priest’ apparently derives from the Greek word presbyter – which is used in the New Testament, and is translated ‘elder’. For example, Paul writes to Titus: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town.” The New Testament elder is somewhat different to the Old Testament priest: the New Testament (and the early church) never described ministers as priests in the Old Testament sense. So, which one is the Church of England actually referring to when it talks about ‘priests’?

The answer is in the title to the ordination service liturgy: “The Ordination of Priests, also called Presbyters“. If you read the liturgy itself, ‘presbyter’ is also used several times just to make it crystal clear. So the CofE makes explicit that it sees the ministry of a priest as being that described in the New Testament of a ‘presbyteros’ – an elder.

So we end up in the slightly confusing situation where I am ordained ‘priest’, and yet not in the Old Testament sense. I am a priest in the general sense of all Christians (‘the priesthood of all believers’), but I am also a priest in the specific sense of being ordained presbyter. Unfortunately the English language has managed to get itself into this situation and I’m not sure there’s an easy way out. But I hope this post manages to shed a little light…

The Bible: “That’s just your interpretation”

A BibleOver the past few weeks on Facebook, I’ve been in a group discussing (what else?) sexuality and the church. One of the themes that comes up again and again is the issue of interpretation: we all interpret the Bible differently on this, and there is no way of judging between different interpretations, so we may as well just give up and agree to disagree now. Now this is a topic I’ve blogged on before, but I’d like to return to the issue because of the way it comes up so frequently in discussion.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts and observations having participated in these kind of discussions for a while now. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me to see that I don’t believe there can be many valid interpretations of Scripture on this issue (as well as many other issues).

1) What are the logical consequences of “that’s just your interpretation”? Can we say, for example, “but that’s just your interpretation” about any interpretation of the Bible? Does that mean that every statement in the Nicene Creed is simply an interpretation, and that other interpretations are available? Does that mean the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be thought of as an orthodox Christian church – after all, they simply follow a different interpretation of Scripture?

Additionally – where does “that’s just your interpretation” actually end? Are we free to hold an atheistic interpretation, for example? Who draws the lines? It seems that the “that’s just your interpretation” argument can be deployed anywhere against anyone, for an alternative interpretation can always be found – irrespective of whether it’s a good or bad interpretation.

With respect to the specific issue of sexuality – the traditional view of the Bible is that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others. If the traditional interpretation can be challenged one one area (man and woman), could it not also be challenged in other areas (e.g. could marriage be between two or more people, or could faithfulness be redefined?) I think claiming “that’s your interpretation” is actually shooting yourself in the foot: as soon as you do that, you open the door to someone else saying the same to you for whichever cherished beliefs you hold about marriage. There’s no rejoinder, because “that’s just your interpretation”.

Once you reduce the Bible to being a matter of someone’s opinion about interpretation, it seems to me that it’s open season on Biblical interpretation and you can simply interpret the Bible any way you like to suit you.

2) What does “that’s just your interpretation” say about God? Following on from the last point – what we think of God will determine what we think of the Bible and the way it speaks to us. I believe that God, as the one who created us, is able to communicate with us in a way which we will understand. I believe that God is able to speak clearly into our situation, even our situation today. How could God’s statutes be trustworthy and “make wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7) if it was impossible for us to agree on their interpretation?

One of the things which irks me most about the “that’s just your interpretation” argument is that it essentially seems to deny the fact that God might want to say something to us. God’s authority becomes simply human authority (you think God says that, but I think God says something different). Surely this negates God’s authority: if everything that He says is open to interpretation, in what sense can He be said to communicate with us? God’s voice becomes dependent on the interpretation of the one listening to it.

3) The strategy of the “that’s just your interpretation” group. I apologise for using the word ‘strategy’, which implies that this is something done purposefully. What I mean is that often those who advocate for “that’s just your interpretation” often use a particular line of thinking, even if they don’t do so intentionally.

So, rather than trying to advocate for another interpretation, they simply point the finger to a range of interpretations and say “there! there are a lot of options, take your pick. Clearly the traditional interpretation is not the only one on the market.” You can see this happening on Vicky Beeching’s “What does the Bible say?” blog post, to name one example. She doesn’t outline one particular interpretation which she thinks is most plausible: she simply points out a number of books which outline different interpretations. This essentially shuts down discussion (it’s not making an argument, it’s just referring to other people who have made arguments as if their arguments are conclusive).

To use an analogy, this would be like me saying that Jesus Christ was not eternally begotten of the Father and referring to works by Arius of Alexandria, the Watchtower Organisation and so on in order to prove my case. “Oh, there are lots of arguments for Jesus not being the eternal Son of God. Take your pick”. This would be bordering on dishonesty because it hides the fact that those arguments have been refuted for a long time by people such as Athanasius, Augustine and countless other theologians. Despite the number of people who argued against the eternal Sonship of Christ on the grounds of Scriptural interpretation – the church has simply not found their arguments to be persuasive (rightly, in my opinion).

4) Not all interpretations are equal. By that, I mean that not all interpretations of Scripture are correct. For example, Jesus himself refuted, corrected and relied upon interpretations of Scripture (Matt. 22:29-32; Mark 12:35-37; John 10:34-39 for example). It seems that there are better and worse interpretations of Scripture. Following on from the point above, it’s impossible to talk about different interpretations without actually dealing in the specifics. Some interpretations of Scripture are better than others – i.e. some are more faithful, explain the Biblical evidence better, fit in with the context, and so on. It’s hard work, but I believe that it is possible to compare different interpretations and come to a reasoned, defensible and persuasive decision on which one is best. We are not without tools to help us in this task.

In conclusion, my big issue with “that’s just your interpretation” as an argument is that it closes down discussion. It seems to essentially validate “my” interpretation while invalidating “your” interpretation (in the sense that you’re not allowed to hold that an interpretation of Scripture should be binding) – all done without actually looking at the specific interpretations and attempting to judge between them.

If I were to be cynical, I would suggest that the arguments about Biblical interpretation were more to do with people trying to cling onto Biblical authority: the only other option is admitting that the Bible got it wrong, which is a bridge too far for many people – even if there are some who go down that road. Walter Wink, for example, says: “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.” (‘Homosexuality and the Bible’).