Thursday, May 19, 2011
There ought to be no embarrassment then at the existence of a group like the Anglican Church League. They can and have played their part in the good operation of the fellowship of churches in Sydney. They have often done the hard work of convincing people they need to be involved in diocesan affairs in order to ensure its proper, open and effective management. Whereas in other dioceses power congeals in a mysterious way around the bishop, encouraging active participation in the political workings of the Sydney diocese aids in the distribution of power and the involvement of the laity.
Even conceding that politics is a necessity within denominational structures, it is imperative that those who engage in such a process act in such a way that the name of Jesus Christ is honoured. How could this be done? I offer seven principles as a beginning. First: a godly church politics proceeds on the basis that the quality of the means matter more than the delivery of the ends. It refuses to accept the ‘whatever it takes’ mentality of politics in the secular sphere. This is because church politicians ought to recognise the sovereignty of God in practice as well as in theory. The Christian life itself is not about managing outcomes, but about conducting oneself in a manner that testifies to the God in whose hand those outcomes lie. The principles for conducting church politics can surely not differ markedly from this. This principle relates especially to a view of time. Christians understand time itself as being in God’s hands, and so are not concerned when a certain decision takes decades to get right. I have heard people complain: ‘we’ve been discussing this issue since the 1970s!’. To which I feel like replying: ‘Is that all?’ The Anglo-American apologist Os Guiness writes:
Means either serve our ends or subvert our... ends. I often hear the little phrase, "Whatever it takes . . ." The pragmatic comes before the principled and that is always counter-productive. Principled ways of doing things are more effective in the long run. They are not only right. They are wise.
Second, sanctified Christians are still weak and still sin, and so godly politics ought to pursue mutual accountability as a matter of priority. The trouble with having a great cause is that it is too easy to imagine that the sanctity of the cause transfers onto those who share in it. The child abuse scandals in churches across the denominational divides have spread because of this naivety. But a properly Biblical theology of sin recognises that Christians still share in the weakness of the flesh. Article XIX of the Thirty-Nine Articles is quite clear on this:
And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated, whereby the lust of the flesh…is not subject to the law of God.
Proceeding on the basis that everyone ought to be answerable takes a good deal of effort and slows down the process. But people become addicted to power like they become addicted to pornography; and the consequences can be just as devastating, even when there is no malevolence of intent. In practice, this means ensuring for example that the same people aren’t serving on committees at several levels of the church’s administration. I would urge the synod to consider limiting the terms that people can serve on diocesan committees - including and especially the Standing Committee - to nine years, unless they have an ex officio position. Introducing new faces to the system would increase the health of the system by increasing accountability and access.
Third, a godly church politics ought to seek the inclusion of women as well as men, and the young as well as the old. The worldly tendency is for denominational structures to be dominated by older laymen and the predominantly male clergy who have a professional interest. The process becomes profoundly alienating to women simply by dint of their reduced numbers. And yet even evangelicals with a complementarian view of gender relations do not have a hierarchical view of Christian fellowship. By not reflecting its own diversity of membership in these decision-making bodies, the denomination is only operating on half its cylinder power. The response to this is not tokenism or the introduction of quotas, but rather a determination to change among those who operate with the church-political sphere.
Fourth, a godly church politics should seek to make structures and processes accessible to those who are disadvantaged by: lack of mates, lack of legal knowledge, lack of rhetorical skill, or ethnic background. The elaborate legal structures and procedures of the synodical process in Sydney are legendary. I have spoken with intelligent professionals who have been on the synod for a number of years and who still feel completely alienated by the process. It may not be possible to simplify the process itself. But the unwieldy process clearly disadvantages those who have to engage with it but do not understand it. What’s more, the process disadvantages those who are alienated from the clusters of friendships that have naturally developed over many years.
Fifth, a godly church politics ought to seek to overcome the paradigm of winners and losers. The system is set up, like most democratic and legal structures, to promote adversarialism. Synods of several hundred people can only express themselves by saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – and inevitably more people will say one as opposed to the other. Christians ought to be able to see themselves and their fellowship as not governed by or framed by such a process, however. But the adversarial process produces wounds in the losers that take years to heal if at all. It also promotes in the victors a vulgar triumphalism - that those who opposed this or that decision are suspect, or disloyal. But the political process isn’t the basis for our union – Christ is. In the end I think the remedy for this ongoing problem is that the denominational fellowship needs to find other ways to express itself – perhaps by the institution of a separate conference or event.
Sixth, a godly church politics ought to prioritise persuasion over results. It would be possible, with sufficient numbers, simply to steamroll the synodical process with only a token amount of debate and airing of views. One synod member has spoken to me of the feeling that decisions are all pre-fabricated before the synod actually meets, meaning that most of the members actually have no real input into the decision. The trouble with having a single party like the ACL so dominant is that the real decision-making is in effect reserved for those who have access to the ACL – and the ACL is far less accountable and open than the synod is. The ACL and other active church politicians ought to have as a priority the need to facilitate open discussion of the important issues before the synod in such a way that all synod members can have input into them. The gospel itself is a gospel of persuasion, no coercion; this ought to be reflected in the manner in which we conduct our church politics.
Seventh, a godly church politics ought to beware the temptation to use spiritual language as an instrument of coercion. Spiritualised and quasi-pious language can be used as a means to silence dissent or to manipulate the church political process. By calling the decisions of synodical governments ‘Spirit-led’ in effect bludgeons those who disagreed with by implying that they countered the Spirit. Interestingly, it was through the Spirit in Acts 21:4 that the Tyrean disciples urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem – something he felt his divine calling had compelled him to do – which is to say, the Spirit may come down on both sides of a question! ‘Speaking the truth in love’, from Ephesians 4:15, has become code for ‘if I speak what I think is the truth, however bluntly, then it will by definition be loving’.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
I The Doubting Believer
Perhaps to our contemporaries doubting seems more authentic than believing. There’s a certain credibility to being a doubter; an apparent courage and honesty to scepticism with its brave face set towards the unknown.
But it strikes me that doubt is an often unacknowledged state of life among Christian believers and that it can be a matter for despair and even shame. It strikes me also that, for many students, College itself can be a place in which doubts arise with a force that completely knocks us off balance. It was certainly my experience that this was the case.
There are many Christians carrying on a silent struggle with doubt. In fact, there are many Christian leaders wrestling with doubt. Often, we find it difficult to share this with others. Sometimes this is because the nature of the doubt itself is hard to articulate. But mostly, this is because in a community which is supposed to be a believing community – that’s its very identity – to admit to doubt is to strike at the very core of what the community is. So, there is an element of shame associated with having doubts. There’s the feeling that I’ll be letting people down if I acknowledge these uncertainties.
The shame prevents us from being honest about our doubts, and so people are isolated in them. But worse – the Christian community still operates with a definition of doubt that is chiefly intellectual. Doubts must be, the thinking goes, problems with the propositions of the Christian faith. I am struggling, we imagine the doubter saying, with believing in the virgin birth. And so our remedies for the problems of doubt are chiefly intellectual. Trouble believing in the resurrection? Well, here is some more proof that it occurred. Doubts about the Bible? Here’s an article to read proving it is the word of God.
Doubt is a complex condition that involves a mixture of intellectual difficulties, existential and personal problems, and the possibility of sin. There is not then a straightforward and simple cure for doubt.
But like suffering, doubt is an experience that Holy Scripture knows. The Word of God itself acknowledges that it is a word that will be doubted as well as believed – and indeed that it will be doubted by those who also believe it.
And so we are well advised, I think, to drop some soundings into the pages of Scripture in our quest to understand doubt and how to live with and through it. And so my intention is to engage with three Biblical characters who doubt: today, Abram and his wife Sarai in Genesis 16; next week, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 11; and lastly, Thomas Didymus, the doubter, in John 20.
II Impatient doubt
Our first doubter, is Abraham - or rather our first doubters are Abram and his wife, Sarai, for they are certainly in it together.
At the point at which I want to dip into his story, in Genesis 16, we find that Abram and Sarai are still childless. And the strain is starting to tell:
Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, "The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her." Abram agreed to what Sarai said.
Childlessness is of itself heart-breaking enough. But in these circumstances the disappointment and frustration must have been acute. Why? At seventy-five years old, Abram was not interested in moving to the Gold Coast and playing a few rounds of golf. He had sold up and moved everything had to a hostile territory.
And of course it was all on the basis of the word of God that came to him as we have it reported for us in Genesis 12:1-3: the promise of a land, a people and the protection of a blessing. Now ten years on, they have very little to show for their investment.
And though Abram had shown faith in moving from his home in Ur, he had also shown a tendency to want to take matters into his own hands. Immediately in Genesis 12 we find him engaging in an act of self-protection, as he deceives Pharaoh about the true identity of his wife – an episode that he will astonishingly repeat in Genesis 20 with Abimelech.
In Genesis 15, Abram engages in a round of parleying with the Lord in which he demands from him more assurance that the promises are in earnest. Even as he accepts God’s word in 15:6 – that verse which is so important to our NT reading of Abraham – Abram turns around and demands from God more concrete evidence (in 15:8): O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?
And what he receives as an answer is the extraordinary drama of the making of the covenant in the gloom, with its bizarre and bloody ceremony, and its terrifying vision of the determination of the Lord himself to make God on his promises.
Isn’t that enough?
Well, no. When chapter 16 opens we discover that it has now been ten years since the move to Canaan, and for all the fiery words in the night there is still no baby. And so Sarai comes up with a plan.
It is, I think, too easy for us to write Abram and Sarai off as silly and faithless. We forget what exactly is being asked of them at this point. The promise was deeply personal, because it involved the human bodies of this aged couple. This was a matter of the nitty-gritty of human reproduction. And they must have known, as they saw their bodies fade, and weaken and slide towards death, that the likelihood of any child arriving in the course of nature was now extremely remote.
And what did they have to show for that decade of waiting? They had two words from God, and even a promise sealed in the blood of animals. But what was that worth? Was this promise empty? Anyone can make promises and seal oaths. Was in fact the case – and it must have crossed at least Sarai’s mind – that Abram had simply been deluded when he heard the voice of the Lord? And when she thought about the small print of the contract, Sarai could remember that it had specified that the heir to be expected was to be ‘a son coming from your own body’- that is, from Abram’s. No mention had been made of her as a necessary sharer in the promise. And so, her plan seems reasonable enough. Indeed, as she says ‘The Lord has kept me from having children’. If she has no children as yet, is it not that the sovereign Lord has not merely a bit slow about delivering on his promises, but is actually himself keeping her from having children? Is there not the feeling that God is being somewhat perverse in this plan?
As I said, it is too easy for us to stand over this pair of doubters and to approach them from the high moral ground. But I think the text itself doesn’t want us to be such unsympathetic readers. Scripture refuses to let us have a cheap shot at Abraham and Sarah. What God promises them is, on any reasonable account, unlikely.
And don’t we too know this kind of doubt?
We have more in common with this couple than perhaps we realise. Their doubting is characterised by impatience at God’s timing on the one hand, and bewilderment as to his methods on the other hand. It is not doubt as to God’s existence, nor even doubt as to the goodness of his final plan for things, but doubt as to his chosen methods. I don’t doubt God, but I do know the weakness of human flesh, particularly my own, though I am pretty sure of the grubbiness and weakness of other human flesh as well.
What can God mean by making such fallible and broken vessels the channels through which his plan for redemption comes to the world? It seems perfectly plausible for God to be a transcendent and independent being who is mighty to act and whose word becomes reality even as he says it. But when he gets entangled in human affairs and even binds himself to the performance of human bodies – even rather embarrassingly, in the bedroom – then it is that the realist and the pragmatist in me says, ‘couldn’t he do it better?’ It’s as if his sovereignty works in theory, but not so well in practice.
This is the strange nature of this kind of doubt – it is a doubt that actually begins with doubt of ourselves as fallen creatures and weak bodies and grows into a doubt against the God who would interact with such creatures as we are. It’s the perverse reverse of Calvin’s idea that the knowledge of ourselves goes hand in hand with the knowledge of God: doubt of ourselves as the possible instruments of God’s work in the world leads inexorably to doubt of God himself.
III Giving God a helping hand
It is not as if this doubt of God is unreasonable or idolatrous, as other forms of doubt may be. This kind of doubt is merely a preference for the possible over the impossible, for the likely over the unlikely. It is a pragmatic kind of doubt.
But the temptation that comes with this doubt is to try to secure God’s promises for him. That’s what Sarai tries to do of course by presenting the Egyptian Hagar to Abraham as his bedmate. She exchanges the impossible for the possible. At least Hagar is still ovulating, after all. Sarai gives here to Abram as a wife, not merely as concubine – there seems to be no suggestion that some kind of lustful desire in the 85 year old Abram is being quenched in the curious arrangement. But even so, the methods are questionable. We’ve seen this couple alter their marriage arrangements before, and it hasn’t been exactly honourable.
Sure enough, Hagar becomes pregnant. Is this finally a tangible result that goes beyond a mere word from God? Has Sarai’s scheme been a success?
But we see almost immediately that the outcome is miserable for all three adults. Hagar’s scorn of her mistress is met by Sarai’s mistreatment and Abram’s apathy. Though Hagar had been given to Abraham as a wife, she never stopped being a servant. Had Sarai realised the impropriety of her actions and regretted them, that she so resented Hagar even while she was carrying the precious baby?
The temptation to shorten the gap between promise and fulfilment is there for us, as well. Our impatience with God’s timing and our frustration with his methods can lead us to want to speed it all up a little. There are times when we know an outcome that God clearly wants and explicitly promises could be reached more quickly and effectively if only we were allowed to choose the methods. We could surely grow the church more quickly than it is growing if we preached the gospel as message of personal improvement. We could certainly protect our denomination from false teaching more effectively if we were able to engage in dubious political tactics in order to get the result we want. If I slander the character of a person who is an opponent of the gospel, then I protect the gospel, don’t I? If I engage in dishonest rhetoric from the pulpit so that people can believe the truth, am I not justified? Do not God’s ends justify any means? God is sovereign – but can’t I help it along a bit?
IV God’s arm will not be twisted
The irony of Sarai’s story is of course that though Hagar’s baby is not the baby of the promise to Abram, her baby becomes the recipient of his own promise. God does not allow Hagar to become the hapless victim of the schemes of Sarai. She is met by the angel of God in the wilderness and hears from him a promise that is strikingly similar to the promise Sarai hoped her offspring would receive:
"I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." (Gen 16:10)
But she has not gained Abram and Sarai’s promise. This man, ‘a wild donkey of a man’ will not be the nation through whom all nations are blessed. Quite the opposite: he will live in hostility to his brothers. He stands as a sign that the history of Abram and Sarai’s children will be filled with conflict and struggle before the plan of God is complete.
What the narrator ensures that we see is that God’s promising is not thwarted by Sarai’s attempt to hi-jack it. The baby Ishmael, who looks like he is a jigsaw piece from another puzzle that just won’t fit in easily anywhere, is in fact the vehicle for God’s work, but in a new way. God will not be trapped by the letter of his promises, it turns out. His arm cannot be so easily twisted. But at the same time, Ishmael is still the son of Abraham and Sarah, and God has not forgotten him.
We cannot create the conditions under which God will act. He is not like Baal, whose prophets thought they needed to cajole him into action by dancing and cutting themselves. We long for revival to come to this city and to our nation, don’t we? Has not God promised that his word will not return to him empty? Can we not create the conditions under which God must surely appear in mighty salvation? If we held more all-night prayer vigils, would we surely not unleash him to do miracles? God is not a latent power that we can use like a spell. And yet that does not make him weak, or untrue to his own word. It is just that his word is not beholden to ours’. We should be less surprised that God is so surprising. And perhaps this is the path out of our doubt about his readiness to act and about his curious methods: would a God we could so easily predict be God? As Paul explains it in 1 Corinthians 1-3, the gospel of Jesus Christ just does not conform to human expectations about how divinity should act.
It turned out that for Abram and Sarai, God was waiting until the most impossible moment before he would deliver on his promise. Both Abraham and Sarah in turn would laugh when they heard this promise again, knowing how old they were. There aren’t too many people in Scripture whose response to the voice of God is laughter, are there? It had got the point of comedy as far as they were concerned.
But the joke was on them. When the baby was born, he was given the name Isaac, which means ‘he laughs’, because, as Sarah would say ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me’. That wasn’t to be scoffed at.
V God’s impossible possibilities
The story of Abram illustrates for us that faith is not heroic. It might seem strange that the New Testament presents doubting Abraham as an exemplar of faith. In Romans 4, his faith is offered as the great outflanking manoeuvre in the historic pattern of God’s justification of his people – he believed, and his faith was credited to him as righteousness. In Hebrews 11, he is listed in the roll call of the faithful forerunners of those who now believe.
But in being an example of faith, Abraham is not a hero of faith. Faith is not some virtue like courage which deserves credit by being righteousness. Biblical faith is a hearing of the word of God as the word of God. Now this word of God is always spoken to us in the midst of a life in which it is contested and disputed, and even flatly denied. It is a word about ninety-year old women having babies, or bedraggled slaves becoming great nations, or about the dead coming back to life. There is always with this word of God that we receive another way of looking at it. As word about the future, as a promise, it never comes to us as a completely fulfilled word. There is always a gap. And so we should not be shocked or dismayed when our questions start to fill that gap: how is God going to bring his word to pass? What is God’s plan in this bleak circumstance? Why are so few people responding to the gospel at the moment? What proof can I have of God’s commitment to his promises? This side of the end of all things, Christian faith will always be attended by these questions.
So why believe? In his shambolic way, against all hope, Abraham believed, though the evidence of his body ‘as good as dead’ contradicted the promise he heard. Why?
Because the character of God has its own inner logic. The word of God rings true to who God is as he reveals himself to us in the history of salvation. It is the evidence of what God actually does that compels us to believe. The truth that we receive when we belief is not deducible in the ordinary sense, or calculable, or even possible as we recognise it. It does not follow natural laws. But it is consistent with the miracle that there is something rather than nothing. Abraham was ‘fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised’.
There was another woman for whom pregnancy was an impossibility. Not this time because of old age or infertility, but because of her virginity. When the angel’s word came to her, she rightly asked ‘how can this be, since I am a virgin?’
The angel’s reply contained the single theological truth that we need to cling to in the face or our own sinfulness and death, and in the face of the impossibility that these can be overcome by any strategy we can devise:
Nothing is impossible with God.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
These descriptions of the future of humanity may be religious or materialist. However, in neither type of story is the other possibility adequately described. The progressivist narrative (‘epic’) cannot account for the brute historical fact of human recidivism. The apocalyptic vision (‘tragic’) is deeply misanthropic, and in denial about the remarkable achievements of human beings. Both story-types are forms of an idealism which into which the actual human experience must be squeezed without remainder – which explains why they are currently in unresolved combat.
We can illustrate this from a reading of UK author Zadie Smith’s 2000 novel White Teeth. Smith’s rich, sprawling, picaresque narrative of late twentieth century London is a telling description of life in a post-colonial Western city, where human identity is being re-shaped in the multicultural melting-pot. The novel humorously presents and critiques several competing futurisms – religious, political and scientific. For Smith, human destiny is not something we have a lot of say over. We may have small prisms of choice, but for thoroughly postmodern Zadie, to claim to have a uniform explanation, whether it be religious or rationalist, flies in the “teeth” of the hilarious that is happening all around us. In the words of those other misanthropes Radiohead: “we’re all accidents waiting to happen.” We are after all, victims of the random. The best future humans, for Smith, are those that don’t succumb to some fanatical programme for change, but just love. Smith’s answer to the tension between ‘epic’ and ‘tragic’ stories is ‘comic’. For her, Adam is a clown.
What then of ‘theology’? In a sense all of these narratives are ‘theological’, whether explicitly so or not. A Christian theology, however, presents a point from which both kinds of narrative may be subject to critique. Much of Smith’s critical vision finds itself endorsed from a Christian theological point of view. However, Christian theology tells a story of its own (‘gospel’) about the future of humanity. Adam, in this story, is redeemed by the second Adam.
As Irenaeus of Lyon observed, the New Testament compresses the story of humanity into the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which took place by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 4:17) that is the type of our destiny, sown in dishonour and raised in glory. Having made reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth, Jesus of Nazareth is the exact radiance of God’s being, the image of the invisible God. Remarkably, the transformation was won from within the human sphere, by a man in the likeness of sinful flesh.
Monday, May 09, 2011
On Saturday morning we drove to Strumica, about 150 klms from Skopje. Strumica is a town of about 50,000 people surround by villages and farms, and behind them (as everywhere in Macedonia) mountains.
On Saturday I spoke at the Evangelical church in Strumica on 'The Christian Life'. There were 30 or so present including a group that had driven an hour from the town of Stip.
In the evening, I gave my 'Martyrdom and Identity' lecture to an audience of about 60 in a local hotel. There was an interview organised beforehand with the local TV station. I was simply asked 'why are you here and what are you talking about about' - to which I said some things about the death of Christ and its implications for life today!
We stayed overnight in Kosta's family's home in a local village and woke up to fields of poppies, free range chickens and the clip-clopping of horse and carts.
I first went to preach at the church in the village of Monospitivo - which is actually the parent church to the one in the much larger town of Strumica. We sang Amazing Grace and Great is thy Faithfulness in Macedonian. The number gathered was larger than I expected - and the welcome was warm. The pastor suggested that Sydney and Monospitivo might be made sister cities...!
It was then off to Strumica for the 11am service, where I preached once more - the last of my speaking engagements in Macedonia.
The afternoon afforded time for a quick look at some natural wonders, before we journeyed back to Skopje. There had been a small earthquake while we were away!
Tomorrow morning I begin my trip home to Sydney. Almost home!
Saturday, May 07, 2011
On Wednesday night, the Balkan Institute for Faith and Culture held an event at a centrally located venue in Skopje at which I spoke on 'Martyrdom and Identity'. Professor Ljubomir Cuculovski of the Philosophy department at the University very kindly agreed to be a respondent to my paper. We then had a very interesting and pleasant discussion with those present, in which Macedonian Orthodox, Protestant, and more secular views were aired and respectfully engaged with. There were upwards of 50 people there). This event has been perhaps most representative of what the BIFC is about.
On Thursday, I had an interview with a journalist from the Macedonian government television station. It is the middle of an election campaign here, so that she was able to slot us in was an answer to prayer. I was able to speak about Christian martyrdom and to underline the importance of the person and work of Christ. The programme will appear soon.
I then went to preach at the Thursday evening church service at the Evangelical Church. I preached on Jesus's work to defeat the works of the devil, from 1 John 3:8.
Today, Friday, Kosta and I were interviewed by a young documentary film maker who is trying to produce a film on the importance of love for religious traditions. Her first question? 'What is the basis for your belief?' We had a really interesting discussion on whether love is God (as opposed to God being love).
I then held a seminar on 'Research Methods' for the BIFC. This was an open invitation once more. This time the venue was the BIFC's offices in Skopje. Seven people attended, from Orthodox, Protestant and other backgrounds. We were able to talk about the importance of scholarly research actually serving others and not being just an end in itself.
It's off to Strumica in the east of Macedonia this weekend for more lectures, seminars and sermons!
Thursday, May 05, 2011
From there I went to a meeting of the student group Egzodus and spoke on 'The word of God is not in chains'.