Thursday, 6 April 2017

How Socially Distinctive are Conservative Evangelical Churches?

Conservative evangelical churches have a strong focus on the Bible's authority and the need for solid teaching. That's a wonderful and necessary foundation for a healthy church. But what I'd like to see in conservative evangelical circles is a greater commitment to manifesting the Kingdom in a distinct social form.

To my mind, networks of conservative evangelical churches can appear as bureaucracies dedicated to propagating sound doctrine whilst implicitly maintaining middle-class lifestyles. The bureaucratic element is partly fostered by the acceptance of business-like structures and procedures, i.e. advertising a salaried position for a new minister who will be formally interviewed alongside other 'candidates', the congregation voting on church matters in Annual General Meetings, a board of trustees set up to gain charity status, and so on. To differing extent these developments are understandable. But as far as lifestyle goes, there are three main areas of greater concern that I have:

Firstly, such churches will maintain Biblical gender roles, but implicitly accept our contraceptive culture - or even now accept working mothers and children in the hands of paid strangers, in contradiction to Paul's instructions in 1 Timothy and Titus. The purpose and rationale of Biblical gender roles being for the good of the family and the church is therefore denuded, making conservative gender roles appear as an arbitrary restriction. It is rarely picked up that 'The woman will be saved through childbearing...' is a highly significant part of Paul's argument in 1 Tim 2, linking fertility to male/female, father/mother roles and purposes in the family and church: if the roles are distorted in either sphere, this suggests it will lead to deception and death - the two things a wife and a given society will be saved from by the wife carrying out her role rather than by delaying or denying it. The negative consequences can be seen in our broader society in the suicidal below-replacement birth rate of Europe. Does the church witness to a different sort of society, one set up for multiplication rather than subtraction, and for the most effective education and care of children towards holiness and God's truth by those that truly love them? 

Secondly, there is the issue of riches. The challenge of Jesus is stark: 'don't store up treasures on earth' (Matt 6:19); 'woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation' (Luke 6:24). A challenge to us all, of course - but are conservative evangelical churches really committed to something that looks different to those around them in terms of wealth and possessions? Is this taught on without softening the blow?

Finally, there's a sense in which our nation's societal, economic, political and cultural apparatus is not seen as the Babylon it is - as all systems outside the church must be - but a sort of neutral tool that works just fine, if the government would only knock off the abortion and LGBT propaganda. But this outlook may be at the root of the above problems, in that the church is not fully grasped as the city of God, the unique place of salvation in a very dark world. It is easy then to be caught off-guard, to see ourselves as part of 'the Big Society' rather than a society unto ourselves - part of another project in some sense rather than living wholly by our own story and logic.

I am not seeking to trash conservative evangelical churches: I gravitate towards such circles myself, and I think they have the best possible basis and potential to live in truth and holiness. The question is whether we will take the abundant resources we have and seek to manifest the Kingdom of God in a much more powerful way - a way which demonstrates not only a distinct philosophy and doctrine, but also a truly distinct way of life.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Purgative Incorporative Atonement

The atonement was indeed penal in that Christ was punished for our sins. But to see the punishment as only or primarily the satisfaction of a legal code is to propagate a half-truth at best. The purpose of the death penalty in Old Testament law was as much to purge the sinful, corrupting presence of the errant Israelite for the good of the wider community as it was to meet God's just requirements.

The picture given by a gospel framed exclusively in the usual terms of Penal Substitutioanry Atonement is one of distance from the cross: the believer looks on from afar as Christ is crucified for the forgiveness of their sins so they can be admitted to paradise after death. Sanctification and church participation become secondary doctrines to be bolted on to this picture, or even overlooked entirely. Unholy easy-believism and an individualistic 'personal relationship with Jesus' often result, and the resurrection goes unmentioned as it is, strictly speaking, unnecessary for salvation within this schema.

But the picture given in the New Testament is not one of the believer's distance from the cross, but one of the closest familiarity: it is stated several times that believers are crucified with Christ, that they must take up their cross daily and die to their selves with Christ so that they may be raised with him by the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit into a new life. Christ was punished for our sin, yes, but this punishment also involved the purging of our sinful selves with him - he was sent outside the city to die, just as the scapegoat bearing the sins of the Israelites was sent outside the camp. For anyone else, this would end in nothing but condemnation and death, but as Christ never sinned, he could bear the contagion for the purposes of its destruction without being eternally destroyed himself - God never lost sight of the fact that Christ had not committed sin himself and so could raise him from the temporary condemnation needed to purge our sin.

The appeal of talking about atonement in terms of our unification with Christ is manifold. For one, it makes our sanctification and newfound obedience to God inseperable from the atonement: our sinful selves are killed off with Christ so we may be forgiven and raised into a new way of life. The resurrection becomes a necessary part of our justification and salvation as we would be left dead on the cross without it. Even ecclesiology becomes an integral part of the picture: the atonement involves baptism into Christ's body in his death and resurrection and therefore baptism into his saved society, the new Temple of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ - the church. The church is therefore the exclusive society of new creation life whose distinct social vision and witness cannot be neglected.

Finally, this means that the atonement is inescapably eschatological, in that it prepares us for and speaks of when the creation will be fully purged of all evil and sin. The choice is stark: either we appropriate through faith Christ's authority and power to purge our sinful selves through his sacrifice and remake us as he wishes us to be, or we ourselves will be purged from the New Heavens and New Earth so that we may not corrupt the next world as we have corrupted this one.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Why is the Family so Important?

Placing a heavy emphasis on the need for strong, traditionally-structured families for the good of society could lead to a charge of idolatry: is there not a danger that 'the family' is seen as the saviour of mankind, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ?

It is true that close families can work to pull people further away from God's purposes: that is why Christ says that, if necessary, our love for family members should seem like hate in comparison to our love for Him. But if, as the Scriptures inform us, marriage speaks of Christ's love for the church through the husband and the church's love for Christ through the wife, then the family is of the utmost importance as a witness to the ultimate salvation of the world - as pictured by the New Jerusalem descending 'as a bride' at the dawn of the New Heavens and New Earth in the book of Revelation. To distort or mar marriage and the family life that ensues is therefore to distort, mar, and attack God's good salvation purposes in general.

In light of this, issues of sexuality and fertility must be thought about with the utmost care as to what certain practices may signify or fail to signify theologically. This is something even those called to be single are to think about and teach correctly on, as Jesus and Paul demonstrated themselves.

The failure to do this well will hurt not only the church, but also the world that Jesus seeks to save through the church's witness - a unique witness that must speak of everlasting faithfulness, trusting obedience, and abundant new creation life if it is to be truly effective and transformative.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Jeremiah 29:1-14 and the Church's Witness

'Seek the welfare of the city' is the phrase usually pulled out from Jeremiah's instructions to the exiles in Babylon as something to inform the church's mission. It's often used to justify material provision for non-Christians through social action, sometimes with socialistic overtones due to the resonance with 'the welfare state.' But it is my conviction that this imperative must be seen in light of Jeremiah's other instructions, which are rarely mentioned or applied in a similarly contemporary way. What follows is an attempt to do this, using the instructions as a springboard for reflection on how the church - conservative as well as liberal - needs to present a more singular witness to God's ways in the modern world.  


Firstly: 'Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.' 

It's striking that God's first instructions to the exiles are not directly ethical, but material. Despite being under the authority of the Babylonians, the Israelites are to maintain a certain level of self-sufficiency: they are to build their own houses, and are to grow at least some of their own food. The last item has obvious Edenic connotations, and perhaps served as a reminder of the agrarian nature of Israelite society even in the midst of the urban environment of Babylon.

The challenge to the church in this is, I believe, to think harder about how we can be a more self-sufficient community that minimizes reliance on a secular state, non-Christian businessmen, and non-Christian money lenders. Perhaps due to the overly 'spiritual' nature of standard gospel messages (crudely, 'Believe that Jesus died for you so you can go to heaven'), material structures and systems are not seen as having much or any effect on our Christian walk and witness. But the words of Proverbs 22:7 should be kept in mind: 'The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.' Material factors such as debt and financial dependence can shape our future plans and goals, perhaps away from God's purposes for us.

This is not to say that borrowing is necessarily sinful: Jesus does not condemn those who wish to borrow in Matthew 4:42. But what would it look like if the church truly pursued the mutual provision that Acts 2 speaks of? It would effectively have its own economy - one informed by mutual care and love rather than self-interest - and would therefore be that much more of a distinct society unto itself that is less reliant on mortgages, welfare, and products from secular institutions and states.

To return to Jeremiah: it will never be possible for God's people to be fully self-sufficient under a Godless authority. The cost and complexity of modern life makes it incredibly difficult to carry out an Acts 2 vision to the full. But the church community should seek to be self-sufficient in some way, whether in in growing some of our own food, or larger ways in how we help with each others' financial needs. Then the church's witness as a society run bon the basis of love will speak all the more powerfully in a wider society dominated by greed and ruled by those who do not seek what is truly good.


Secondly: 'Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.'

Another strikingly material concern. The call for fertility is fairly pragmatic on one level: just as in Egypt, the need to increase in numbers and to marry within the covenant community was necessary to avoid corporate death by extinction or absorption. But such concerns do not belong only in the ancient world. The plunging birthrates of indigenous Europeans is being worried about even by secular officials. At averages of less than the 2.1 children needed to simply replace ourselves, it is clear that indigenous Europe is a dying culture - a culture of death rather than of life.

But is the church any different? Of course, through no fault of their own, some couples are not able to have children - but it remains the case that Christian family sizes are not greatly different from those of our wider culture. There are various reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is the church's embrace of a contraceptive lifestyle, where sex and procreation are usually separated. Instead of following the creation mandate to 'be fruitful and multiply' - trusting in God's decisions as to how many children we should have and when they should be born, thereby demonstrating a right use of sexuality - we are being occasionally fruitful and subtracting. This has had dire consequences in making various forms of sexual perversion that are not procreative seem plausibly acceptable, as Alastair Roberts explores in his excellent article here.

That the church is not the witness to new life and fruitfulness it should be - that it does not accept God's full blessing - is a tragedy. It is perhaps thought that the imperative to 'make disciples of all nations' detracts from or even nullifies the creation mandate. But the New Testament still speaks of the task as being a crucial part of the church's mission: 'Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control' (1 Timothy 2:15). In context, this involves being saved from Satanic deception by the woman taking on a role not meant for her: through accepting her role as a child-bearer, the married woman can avoid this danger. How sad that our culture has become one where women are often made to feel they are not accomplishing anything unless they also have a non-domestic career, or are 'oppressed' if they devote themselves to the task that God has for them.

So the question is, will the church present a different vision? Will Christians join our culture in seeing children as commodities to be delayed, planned, manufactured, and counted to fit in with our chosen lifestyles? Or will we see children as gifts from God, each one created by Him for a unique purpose, to be received with thanksgiving? Although the people of God are no longer defined by bloodline, if we 'raise [our children] up in the way they should go,' and they do not reject the training, we can trust that they will not depart from it, and the church's witness and size will only be increased further.


I'm fully aware that, were any church to pursue the sort of vision outlined above, it would soon be labelled a cult. But perhaps that would mean that it would indeed be a community that presents a genuinely alternative way of life to that which the world has to offer. Further on in Jeremiah's letter, God speaks of how, when the exiles obey him and seek Him with all their heart, he will dramatically restore their fortunes. I trust and pray that this can happen for the church when the power of the gospel demonstrably transforms all aspects of human life. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Nature of the Damned

Hell is not a pleasant place to think about. Although we are not to pronounce on anyone's final destiny, as - unknown to anyone else - Jesus may reveal himself to them in their last moments, the thought of loved ones potentially suffering in such a place is hard to bear, especially if their behaviour is generally pleasant in this life. Could such punishment really be justifiable for such people?

It's worth considering the words of Jesus in Revelation 21:8: 'But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.' These people are still marked by their identity as those who reject God and His ways: their hearts will still be against Him even beyond death. As such, I think it will become very clear to those who are in the New Jerusalem that those outside need to be kept away. With all the providential restraints and learned manners of this life gone, they will be clearly dangerous, and even animal-like, as 2 Peter 2:12 suggests: as such,  it will not be possible to pity them.

Hell remains a fearsome concept. But I trust that, when it comes to it, it will be absolutely clear that those who reject Christ really do need to be separated from God's people, for the good and safety of the New Creation.

Herem in the Old Testament

The practice of Herem by Old Testament Israel - the destruction of all men, women, children and property of enemy tribes - has long been a point of controversy for Christians and those who denigrate the Bible. How is such destruction, commanded by a supposedly loving God, to be understood?

It must be said, firstly, that imitation of such practices should not be carried out today. Apart from the fact that the Church, God's new covenant people, are instructed to 'make disciples of all nations' rather than destroy them, there is also the real risk that, if Herem were to be carried out in the mistaken belief that God had commanded it, a terrible and damnable sin would have been committed. As the Bible is the Christian's only ultimate and sure authority, the Biblical accounts of God commanding Herem are the only instances that can be known to be truly of God's right will. The possible consequences of carrying out similar acts today are too terrible to ever be confident that God has truly commanded it again.

But how are the accounts found in, for example, Joshua and 1 Samuel 18 to be explained, when little explicit justification is given within the texts themselves? Even if the commands were hyperbolic, as some suggest, they still suggest general destruction.

Some opt for utilitarian explanations: those other tribes were clearly antagonistic to Israel, and so it was a pre-emptive attack to protect Israel in future. In this view, even the children of the tribes posed a danger for the future and therefore had to be eliminated. The use of Herem was common in the Ancient Near East as a pre-emptive strike to perturb future attacks from any number of enemies through the use of such fearsome tactics - this, too, could be part of the picture for Israel's use of the same.

But despite such suggestions, which may indeed contain some truth, it may still be asked if God couldn't have found another way to defend His people without the use of such drastic measures. Which is why, ultimately, I think that the purpose of such commands has to be explained in light of their 'aesthetic impact', for want of a better phrase. This is what happens when you oppose God and His people, these stories say: it will result in the destruction of all that you hold dear, including your family and your possessions.

Such a sober picture still holds as a solemn warning for today, even if the destruction of the wicked and determinedly sinful will take a different form in this age and in the age to come.

Friday, 2 September 2016

The Place of the Family in British Politics and Economics

Reading about the history of rural life in Britain in tandem with Old Testament law brings up some interesting connections, largely revolving around the place of the family in two disparate cultures.

It is notable that some of the crimes most severely punished in ancient Israel were those that attacked the stability of families: adultery received the death penalty, while various incestuous and other sexually perverse relationships required banishment at the least. This is indicative of how important the integrity of the family is to God, that transgressors of the basic divinely-ordained social structure would receive the most drastic punishment.

But the family also played a key role in the economy - not just in being a particular group which an individual might want to leave an inheritance to, but in being a decisive shaper of Israel's economy. The year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is often used as a justification for socialism, but a closer reading reveals that part of its concern was to return tribally-inherited property and land to those who had lost it or lent it. The interests of private families were therefore placed above the interests of both individual capitalists and any State plans for general redistribution.

Such an outlook has never really taken definitive root elsewhere. Although land and property were closely associated with familial ties in Britain, the feudal system ensured that many had no land of their own, but were in perpetual servitude to those who did. This concentration of land in the hands of a wealthy elite was only exacerbated in succeeding centuries as various acts of enclosure worked in individual capitalists' favour, culminating in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as many were driven from their lands and into the cities to provide manpower for the new urban industries.

I have no wish to present pre-19th century rural life as a lost golden age of innocence. Life was harsh: poverty meant literal starvation, rather than lack of luxuries as it does now. But much of that suffering was caused by the increasing ownership of land in the hands of wealthy elites who could treat their tenants as they wished.

For land to be exclusively family-owned is, perhaps, to increase the chances of society being formed and run through the bonds of familial love, rather than capitalistic self-interest or socialistic engineering and control. Indeed, the major fault of both free-market capitalism and socialism is that neither are decisively shaped by the natural family: it is the self-interested individual consumer/producer/capitalist in the first arrangement that is the fundamental unit of society, and the mechanistic State as the true family of all in the second.

The loss of subsistence farming and family trades only exacerbates the problem, as families become evermore dependant on secular bureaucracies and corporations that therefore have increasing power over their lives. The social-welfare funded 'benefits class' have little incentive to work, as with low-level or no qualifications they would much earn less for themselves and their families than if they remained on welfare. More broadly, work in the form of a family trade or on family land is no longer naturally 'there' for them anymore - modern man has been so estranged from the land under his feet that almost all people must rent it off others, or take out a mortgage that places them further under the power of the banks until they pay it off.

The dangers of such a society are clear, not only in the dubious processes at work in the supply of mass-produced food. More significantly, if the state deems a family's way of life to be a threat to official ideology, the father's work or welfare could be terminated and his children taken away. Such has already happened to some degree in the West, and it's not hard to believe it could be carried further in future.

Creating a family-based economy in our broader society is not the task of the church. Only a society where people have accepted the heart-changing power of the gospel would be able to resist the corruption of such an approach, or resist turning the family into an idol. But I believe such a vision is what Christians should seek to live out in however greatly limited a way, confident that our witness to what is good matters to God even in the midst of an overwhelmingly Babylonian age.