Vicky Beeching – Undivided: The power and danger of stories

I’ve mentioned Vicky Beeching a couple of times on this blog, most recently discussing whether it’s right to say ‘Change or Die’ about the church.

Yesterday she released her new book, ‘Undivided’, which is her story of how she’s ‘come out’ as gay and Christian, and learned to embrace her sexuality.

As I’ve started with the YouTubing now, I thought I’d do a little video about why I think we should be wary of making the jump from her story to changing what the church has always believed about marriage.

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‘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.

Review: The Plausibility Problem

The Plausibility Problem by Ed ShawI’ve just finished reading The Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw. The book is subtitled “The Church and Same-Sex Attraction”, and I can understand why that might immediately put people off: surely, we don’t need yet another book on the church’s view of sex? And this is exactly the reason I wanted to write this brief review: in my view this is one of the most important books to have been written on the subject – it is not what you think it is!

The real strength of the book for me is the fact that it doesn’t deal with traditional / revisionist Biblical arguments (although they are treated in two appendices), but rather seeks to outline how evangelical churches have made the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality implausible by a number of ‘missteps’ in the past few years. In other words, the problem which traditional Biblical churches face is not what they believe about sexuality – it’s how that teaching can be plausible in today’s society. Too often in today’s churches, the orthodox Biblical view of sexuality is seen as implausible because the church has lost focus on a number of other important teachings. These are what Ed Shaw labels ‘missteps’.

These missteps are:

  1. Your identity is your sexuality;
  2. A family is Mum, Dad and 2.4 children;
  3. If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay;
  4. If it makes you happy, it must be right!
  5. Sex is where true intimacy is found;
  6. Men and women are equal and interchangeable;
  7. Godliness is heterosexuality;
  8. Celibacy is bad for you;
  9. Suffering is to be avoided.

In all these areas, Shaw demonstrates how evangelical churches have often bought into cultural assumptions or perhaps not taught the full Biblical picture in a certain area. For example, I found his chapter on being “born gay” helpful: he argues that evangelical churches who argue that being gay is simply a ‘lifestyle choice’ are detrimental to the cause – it is in fact irrelevant whether same-sex attraction is chosen or not, and arguing that it is chosen will do nothing but alienate those for whom it is not a choice (or is experienced that way).

In my opinion, the area of sex and sexuality is shaping up to be the biggest area of contention between the church and the world and what Shaw outlines in this book is absolutely vital to enable people to make the move from the world to the church. It is no longer enough to simply teach what the Bible says about sex and sexuality – our church must regain its hold of teachings which have perhaps been under-emphasized in recent years.

I heartily commend this book to anyone who has an interest in the church – especially to anyone involved in church leadership in any capacity (including things like PCCs and so on). It is sorely needed, a real word in season for the church of today.

The Church’s Mission: What’s the point?

Is this how most people imagine missionaries?
Is this how most people imagine missionaries?

I was recently asked to contribute a piece to the “Mission Matters” magazine in our church, a magazine looking at mission in the local area as well as the wider world. This is what I came up with.

One of the privileges and joys of training at Oak Hill was training alongside those who were leaving for the mission field in other countries. I have friends from college who are now in, or shortly to move to, countries which span the globe. They are ministering amongst a whole variety of cultures and religious beliefs – Islam, Buddhism, the Orthodox Church – all sorts of different contexts. So I thought this time for Mission Matters it might be worth going back to basics and asking: what is it that really motivates them to give up their lives here, leave friends and family, journey hundreds or thousands of miles, and invest many years into learning a different language and culture? What could motivate someone to plough years of their lives into a country with little return, even under active persecution? In most of the countries I mentioned, for example, even in countries which are not actively hostile to the gospel the number of Bible-believing Christians is a tiny fraction of the population. Why would anyone do such a thing?

The book of Acts is a great place to go to when thinking about the mission of the church. Let’s first turn to the story of how the early church got going after Jesus’ ascension.

In Acts 1, just before Jesus ascended, he said to his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This is one of the most significant verses in Acts: Jesus said when the Holy Spirit came, the disciples would “receive power”. What would they receive power to do? “be my witnesses” – to proclaim boldly the message of salvation in Christ. And this message was not just for a small group of people in a small corner of the world, this is a message which was to go “to the ends of the earth.”

This is exactly what we see happening in the rest of Acts – the Word of God, the gospel, goes out into Judea and Samaria. Then, in Acts 10, we see the gospel being brought even to the Gentiles. The message spreads further and further from Jerusalem, further and further away from the Jewish context where it originated. This same process, of reaching those who have never heard of Jesus, continues today. It is the mission of the church, as received from Christ: to reach even to the ends of the earth with the good news of salvation.

Let’s look at one more passage from Acts, where the apostle Paul goes to one of the major cities of the time – Athens. In Acts 17:16, we read: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” In those days, the Greeks liked to have a god for every occasion – as Paul walked down the streets he would have seen statues of many different gods. The worship of idols there was pretty obvious! But have we changed all that much today? In Romans 1, Paul talks humanity in general and says that all of us have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” Paul here is not saying that all of us explicitly worship images – but rather, every single one of us has exchanged worshipping the Living God for worshipping a lie. The natural state of humanity is to worship the created rather than the Creator. Every single culture, every single person on the planet, is an idolater in some way. How that looks in practice will naturally vary in different times and places – in the ancient city of Athens the idolatry was obvious. In our modern Western culture, people are perhaps tempted to worship money, sex, or power – anything which is a substitute for God.

So how does Paul deal with this situation in Acts 17? Does Paul say, with much of our current culture, “let’s celebrate diversity! Let’s rejoice that these people are worshipping God in their own way!”? Absolutely not! He is “greatly distressed” that the city is full of idols and he says to them:

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)

The almighty and living God, the only God of heaven and earth, who does not dwell in temples made by human hands but gives each one of us life and breath, commands us to repent and believe in the good news. Each of us must turn from the idols we worship to worship Him, so we will receive a good verdict on the day when he will judge the world with justice by his risen Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This message of good news is not limited to a small group of people – it is for everyone, whatever their culture, creed, language or nation. It is a message for us here in the West, it is a message for all those countries my friends have gone to, it is a message for all those countries we support and remember in prayer. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1 ESV)

This is the message that motivates us as we look around the world. The same message that gets my friends out of bed in the morning also fires us: our God has good news for all people. Let’s pray that God would send workers out into his harvest field, both at home and abroad, and let’s pray that God would keep bringing people to him in repentance and faith.

Our loving heavenly Father, we thank you for your message of good news for all people. We thank you that your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We thank you that you send out workers into your harvest field, and we pray that through them you may bear much fruit. Please bless all those we support at St John’s and St Mark’s, give them confidence in your glorious gospel, and may they always fix their eyes on you. Amen.

 

Thoughts on the Church from 2 Timothy

A BibleIn our evening services at church, we’ve been preaching through 2 Timothy. It’s an absolutely wonderful book and I do commend it to you – especially if, like me, you are involved in Christian ministry in some way. As we’ve been going through it, I’ve been reminded time and again how Paul predicts pretty much the exact state of the church in this age – and, really, in every age. I’ve come to believe that 2 Timothy is actually one of the most prophetic books of the Bible, to my mind Paul absolutely nails it.

As I’ve prepared to preach on various passages I’ve picked up a few insights which I thought might be worth sharing with you today.

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Is Atheism enough to sustain a ‘church’?

According to the news today, the “Sunday Assembly” has split. For those of you who don’t know, the Sunday Assembly is a church-style service, only it’s run by atheists. This is the vision from their website*:

The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrate life. Our motto: live betterhelp oftenwonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.

Lots of ink was spilled over this when the assembly first started – I didn’t contribute at the time, but having heard this news I have a few thoughts. In particular, I do wonder whether an atheistic assembly is destined for failure.

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Why is the church obsessed with sex?

ChurchIt’s a legitimate question: if you’re an outsider, it looks like the church wants to talk about nothing else at the moment. One obvious answer to the question is that sex is the area of our culture which rubs up most obviously against the traditional Christian understanding – hence the clashes. In previous years there have been others, this is just the most obvious one for our society.

But why, to continue the question, is the church so obsessed with its traditional view of sex and sexuality? In other words, why can’t the church just get with the programme? Why can’t the church just change its mind? One of the commenters on a previous blog post here asked me why I couldn’t just shut up about sexuality. Why is it such a big issue?

The answer to that is essentially this: the debate about sex and sexuality within the church is a debate about the nature of God. It has massive implications. That might seem strange, but allow me to try and explain.

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