Sanctification: The next big debate within the church?

exchange-of-ideas-222787_640For the first few hundred years of the church’s history the big debate within the church was the nature of Jesus Christ – who, exactly, was he in relation to God? This is where the doctrine of the Trinity came from – as theologians debated and discussed God’s revelation of himself in the Bible. Similar debates have happened through the years. Around 500 years ago, at the time of the Reformation, the debate was about justification: that is, whether justification was sola fide – by faith alone – or whether we co-operated with God in our salvation through good works.

I think we are entering into another debate within the church – this time in the area of sanctification. Sanctification is a theological word which basically means the process by which we become holy – becoming more and more the people who God wants us to be, setting aside sin and increasing our love for him and others.

So why do I think this is going to be the next big debate within the church? Allow me to explain with a particular example.

Earlier on today I watched a video by John Piper:

The video talks about how we should ‘flee youthful passions’ – we should do what we can to avoid things which are sinful, and even things which would cause us to sin. (I should add at this point, I have nothing against John Piper and have benefitted from his books and videos – I am using this video because I think it’s a good example of a wider issue in many churches). Many churches might preach a similar message. What’s the problem with that?

As I see it, there are a few problems:

  • It locates the source of the problem as external to us. This is a problem because we know that the source of the problem is our hearts, from which sin flows (e.g. Mark 7:15). If I see an attractive woman and look at her lustfully, the problem is not with the woman – it’s with me. The problem is our hearts need to be changed, not our circumstances.
  • It’s a self-centred way of looking at sin: it’s about fixing myself, rather than loving God and loving others. Of course, if we sin we will harm others – but I think the Bible calls us to more than avoiding harm!
  • Following on from that – it focusses on ‘stop it’ as a solution to sin – stop thinking the bad thing, stop feeling the bad thing, stop doing the bad thing. It doesn’t think about what we should do instead. So when Paul talks about ‘fleeing’ evil desires – what should we flee to?

All of this has come home to me as I’ve been thinking about my other Friend Zone project. Recently I reviewed Aimee Byrd’s book Why Can’t We Be Friends?, which is subtitled Avoidance is not Purity. As I read that book, and as I’ve been thinking about the issue of friendship between men and women, it has struck me how our understanding of sanctification has become deficient.

Too often I think Christians are so fearful of sin they don’t want to do anything! I was born and raised in evangelical churches, from a Christian home, and yet I think I spent many years of my life scared of sin – scared of just the kind of thing that John Piper talks about in the video. It’s only come home to me in the last few years that we are not to avoid doing what is right out of fear! I think Christians should have more confidence in God, who “has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).

I believe that our understanding of sanctification is what lies behind much of the debate in the church at the moment around sexuality and particularly same-sex attraction (e.g. the evangelical criticism of the Revoice conference – see a few thoughts I wrote, for example). I don’t want to offer any particular position on that here, other than I think there is an area which could do with further discussion and thinking about what the Bible does and does not say.

The root of the problem seems to be whether we think of sanctification as primarily about stopping doing / thinking / feeling wrong things, or whether we think of sanctification primarily about the transformation of our desires to orient them to love rightly.

You can hear my thoughts about sanctification in this sermon I preached from Galatians 5:13-26 (see below), but if you’d like a book recommendation to explore it further I can think of nothing better than Sinclair Ferguson’s book Devoted to God (as well as his previous book The Whole Christ, which is also well worth reading).

Debates in the church are not necessarily a bad thing: I think the Reformation was a good thing and led to much good fruit. I pray that any upcoming debates on sanctification in the church will lead to more light, and lead the church to grow in holiness and love for the Lord and his people.

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Does social media stifle debate?

Social MediaHas it really come to this in our society? Has it really come to the point where we seem utterly unable to believe that someone can hold another opinion on a difficult issue without believing that they are a moral monster?

It started out two or three years ago with same-sex marriage. The media loved to portray everyone who disagreed with the redefinition of marriage as a bigot, pure and simple. Real debate was stifled, because any argument for traditional marriage had to be ruled out a priori – because, you know, it’s bigoted.

Then, more recently, a debate on abortion at Oxford University was shut down because a rather militant group of people (via Facebook) decided that they were going to cause trouble if the debate went ahead.

And then we came to the general election. One of the things which has really got to me over the last few weeks is the way that the Tories have been constantly vilified and accused of more or less being morally bankrupt. Not just that, but if you believe most of what is put on Twitter, the only person who would vote for the Tories is someone who cares nothing for the poor, someone who essentially has no moral compass and deserves nothing but contempt by any right thinking person.

Many people have spilled ink writing about the rights and wrongs of this – for example this article – so I will try not to rehash old ground.

Instead, I think it is worth reflecting on just what it is that is making our society so hostile to opposing views. How has it suddenly become normal in our society, a society which prides itself on free speech, to demonise whole sections of people and even make them scared of speaking out? (Witness the phenomenon of the ‘shy Tory’). Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about politics, and as I’ve been considering I’ve been coming more and more round to the conservative way of thinking (material for a future blog post, perhaps). The thing is, I would actually genuinely hesitate before expressing that particular view on Twitter or Facebook, mainly because of the amount of hatred and bile spewed at the conservative party by what seems like the vast majority of Twitter (certainly I don’t recall seeing many pro-Tory posts – although perhaps that’s to do with the people I follow).

It seems to me that social media, rather than encouraging debate, is actually stifling it. I’m not sure as to why that is, but I think there might be a few reasons:

  • I think Twitter and Facebook enable ‘herd mentality’ to kick in. It’s very hard to express a dissenting opinion when everyone around you is expressing a particular view. Especially when that view is portrayed as being crazy, immoral, ridiculous, and so on.
  • Twitter and (to a lesser extent) Facebook also make it very easy to find like minded people. The problem is, what you end up with is basically conversing with people who agree with you. You don’t have to converse with anyone you disagree with apart from the purposes of shouting abuse at them. OK, this is a caricature, but is it that far removed from the truth? I don’t really see much actual engagement on Twitter between those of different political persuasions, it’s simply people who already agree with each other slapping each other on the back. Rather than trying to understand where the ‘other side’ are coming from, it is simply assumed that they are wrong and acting out of selfish / immoral / absurd motives (etc). This is quite probably because of the following point.
  • The 140 character limit of Twitter makes it very hard to express much more than a soundbite. This is very unfortunate, because it seems that what spreads well in soundbites is usually a watered down version of the truth (i.e. one side of an argument) without any nuance or a chance for qualification.
  • Following on from this – I think misinformation spreads very quickly on Twitter. Over the past few months, I’ve seen graphs and statistics that say all sorts of different things about our country and economy. Some of them say that things have improved,  some of them say that things haven’t. Some of them portray the Tories in a positive light, some of them  don’t. I think a big part of the problem is the way you cut the data – the way you interpret it. (The old adage about lies, damned lies and statistics comes to mind). But what I think tends to happen is that the statistics / graphs which support the prevailing notion (i.e. that the Tories are evil) tend to get retweeted a lot, whereas the statistics and graphs which might show something different don’t get shared as much.

A few months  ago I thought about the dark side of social media when it came to the Top Gear Patagonia Special. And the longer time goes on, I see more of this kind of thing going on. I’m wondering whether social media might actually be having a detrimental effect on our society in general.

I don’t think that social media itself is a bad thing, but I do feel that the way it is set up – especially Twitter – makes it very easy to ignore other opinions and simply to convince oneself that one’s opinion is correct with all the accompanying self-righteousness. Although all this was and is possible without the help of social media, it simply exacerbates the issue.

So if this is a problem, how do we solve it? I think one of the biggest problems with the stifling of debate is the lack of understanding and empathy for opposing views. It seems to me that social media would be a lot better if people took some time to seriously understand the view they were criticising before criticising it. If it could be understood that on some issues different views can be held with complete integrity, and those should be respected. Perhaps this is a simply unrealistic dream in this day and age – but I think as we see the effects of this stifling of debate play out more and more in society, perhaps people will realise that actually we need understanding rather than polarisation and demonisation.