The definition of harm


I was reviewing our Safeguarding policy yesterday and came across this sentence in the ‘definitions’ section:

Abuse is the maltreatment of a child or vulnerable adult by inflicting harm or failing to prevent harm where there is a duty to do so, including cases of neglect.

I hope no-one would have a problem with that definition; and protecting the weakest in our churches from harm must be a vital priority for us.

But it occurred to me that this definition leaves us with a significant problem. What is the definition of ‘harm’? One might have thought that was obvious, but the increasing madness of secular morality has rendered it anything but.

Secularism operates with a basically Gnostic view of the human person: that who I am is not really to do with my body but with a ‘spiritual’ me fundamentally disassociated from my body. This may sound odd, since secularism is proud of its basic atheism and disbelief in spiritual realities. But this is far from a true description of how secular thought does, in fact, operate. The absence of the Christian God from this worldview in no way stops people believing in transcendent realities; human beings, made in the image of God, are not capable of not believing in transcendent realities. Secular people identify the real ‘me’ as an entirely transcendent, non-bodily thing: a creation of my own, constructed Facebook-profile-style out of the building blocks of my feelings, desires, inclinations, preferences and choices. (My body may be an important part of this identity, but only if I so choose; my physical race and sex can be part of my identity, but they need not be. That is up to me). Behind the façade of secular atheism is an absolute belief in the deity of individual freedom; and it is this deity which creates the version of ‘me’ that really matters.

For secularism, therefore, this transcendent, self-constructed ‘spiritual’ me is the real me. And therefore, to criticise any part of this self-constructed identity is a harmful assault on my very person, just as much physical assault on our bodies is. Indeed, somewhat more so; which is why schools and universities are now expected to support the absurd idea that to say that a boy cannot be a girl is harmful and destructive, while physically to stunt bodily development with drugs, or surgically to mutilate the genitals, is not. This is also why so many young people today consider criticism of their opinions as an attack on their very selves. Our theology always defines our morality, and a corrupt theology (which is another name for idolatry) leads to a corrupt morality. ‘Harm’ in a secular worldview is defined by that worldview’s god; so to suggest that individuals are not free to construct their own identity and live according to it is, for those living by that worldview, the most harmful thing that there is.

Christianity has, of course, a diametrically opposed view of harm. The thing that truly harms us is already inside of us (Mark 7:14-23). For our problem is sin, and it is this which Jesus came to save us from, as his very name tells us (Matthew 1:21). Individual freedom is not our deity but the very heart and definition of sin. Self-construction is not the basis of true being but the root of idolatry and the destroyer of true humanity. For we are not souls (self-constructed or otherwise) who inhabit bodies, but we are bodies and souls, as much one as the other, and made as this integrated whole by the God whose image we are. And both body and soul have been deeply infected and corrupted by sin, such that our desires are disordered, our identity as God’s images has been falsified, and our bodies are in bondage to death.

And so at the heart of the Christian gospel is that Christ came to redeem us, to restore us, body and soul, to be his true images. And redemption comes by one route only: repentance from sin, and faith in Christ. Christ’s call to repent is a call to surrender our self-constructed identities, to abandon our man-made idols, deny to ourselves the fulfilment of our desires, and submit ourselves, body and soul, in faith and obedience to our God and his Christ.

Which means that what Jesus calls repentance is an almost perfect example of what secularism calls harm. The ‘me’ of our neo-gnostic secular world, in keeping with all of sinful mankind, is a false version of me; and Christ says that it must die. We have to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Follow him to death, that is, for it is only when the false version of ‘me’ which I have lived by is laid in the grave with Christ that he is able to raise me to new life. This is what baptism is about; it is what the whole of the Christian gospel is about (Romans 6:1-14). Christ indeed wants to ‘harm’ what sinful human beings consider themselves to be; indeed, he wants to kill it. Nothing less. ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel’s will save it.’ (Mark 8:35). ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

So if we would preach the gospel, we cannot and we must not avoid what our hearers will consider harmful to them. Just as what Christ calls harm is what Secularism calls salvation, so what Christ calls salvation is what Secularism calls harm. We must preach that the destruction of what we consider to be ourselves is the essential prerequisite to truly becoming yourself, which is to be remade by Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is what repentance and faith means, nothing less. If any of us is to enter life, then according to Jesus there is no other way.

Back to our Safeguarding policy. If we leave ‘harm’ undefined we expose ourselves to a catastrophic misunderstanding of what we are saying. Indeed, simply preaching the gospel to children may well be considered a form of abuse. How, then, shall we define harm? Here’s my suggestion for our Safeguarding policy:

Harm means the damaging of a person’s wellbeing according to the standards of human flourishing set out in the laws and wisdom of the Bible; and therefore inflicting harm means acting in ways opposed to the self-sacrificial love and gospel call of Christ to repent and believe in him. For the avoidance of doubt, to call a person to repentance from sin or sins, being integral to the loving call of Christ for the redemption of sinners, cannot be considered harmful; conversely, to affirm a person’s temptations, sins and false identities as if they were good and wholesome is harmful in the most profound ways.

We need to get this right in our policies, but let’s not leave it there. Let’s call out a fundamentally false view of what is harmful. Let’s warn our churches and our world of what is truly harmful. Let’s be prepared to be accused of doing harm by preaching the gospel. And most of all, let’s believe and proclaim Christ’s glorious rescue of our souls and bodies from the devastating and eternal harm of sin.


A Bible Overview for Advent

Advent CalendarHere is a Bible Overview that we’ve used for the children at our church, divided into days for an Advent Calendar. In our family we cut out the first three columns of this and put the slips of paper into an advent calendar (along with some chocolate – that’s optional!). This year we’re going to have a chart for them to stick the slips of paper to each day. We also keep a printout of the whole thing for us as parents to refer to.

The idea is that each verse is summarised in a single word. Each day, practice saying all the words you have done so far. We add an action for each word (make up your own) to make it easier to remember. By Christmas Day your whole family will have learned a summary of the whole Bible.

Most days have one verse and one of the summary words, some have two.

If you want this in an easily-printable PDF format, click here: Bible Overview Advent Calendar

Date Word Verse Explanation Extra Bible verses if there’s time
Cut out these three columns to make slips to put in an advent Calendar These columns are to help parents with explanation
Dec 1 God Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God already existed. He always has and always will; no-one made God. Genesis 1:1
  Creation John 1:3 Everything that exists was made and stays around because God made it and keeps it. Genesis 1:1
2 Man Genesis 1:27 God made man (men, women & children) in his image – to be like him, to know him and to love him. Genesis 1:26-28
  Garden Genesis 2:15 The first man was given a garden to look after by God – and told to do it God’s way Genesis 2:8, 15-17
3 Snake Genesis 3:4 The snake told the first man and woman that God’s rule was bad and they should decide what to do for themselves Genesis 3:1-5
  Sin Genesis 3:6b Adam disobeyed God and ate the fruit God said he must not Genesis 3:6-7
4 Curse Genesis 3:19 God punished the man and the woman for disobeying him: from now on life will be full of pain, and they will die Genesis 3:14-19
5 Covenant Genesis 17:7 God began his great plan to put the world right again by making a covenant with Abraham. His family will be God’s special people, and through them he will save the world. Genesis 17:1-8
6 Slaves Genesis 2:23 Abraham’s family – now called Israel after Abraham’s grandson – became slaves in Egypt. Exodus 2:23-25
  Free Exodus 3:8 God rescued his people from being slaves, so that they could worship him. Exodus 14:21-31
7 Law Exodus 20:2-3 God gave his people his laws to teach them how to live for him Exodus 20:1-17
  Tabernacle Exodus 29:46 God saved his people so he could live with them and know them Exodus 29:43-46
8 Prophet Deuteronomy 18:18 If the people were to belong to God, they needed someone to tell him what God said: they needed a prophet, like Moses Deuteronomy 18:15-18
9 Priest Hebrews 5:1 They also needed a priest, like Aaron: a man who would take away their sins through sacrifices Exodus 28:1; Leviticus 9:22-24
10 King Psalm 2:6 And they needed a king, like David, to rule over them using God’s laws 2 Samuel 7:11b-16
11 Idols 1 Kings 11:4 But the people of Israel worshipped idols instead of the real God, who had done so much for them 1 Kings 11:4-10
  Split 1 Kings 11:11 God punished Israel by splitting the nation in two: Israel in the north, Judah (ruled by David’s descendants) in the south 1 Kings 12:1-20 (16-17)
12 Destroyed 2 Kings 17:18 The northern kingdom abandoned God totally and God punished them by letting the Assyrians destroy them 2 Kings 17:6,7,14-18
13 Exile 2 Kings 24:20 Judah was wicked also, and so God sent them into exile in Babylon 2 Kings 24:10-16
  Kingdom Daniel 7:14b While in exile, God promised his people that he would soon establish a new kingdom with a new, perfect king Daniel 7:13,14
14 Jesus Matthew 1:21 Jesus is God’s Son – God with us – and he is the one who will save the people from their sins Matthew 1:18-25
15 Perfect 1 Peter 2:22 Jesus lived a perfect life, keeping all of God’s laws, always 1 Peter 2:22,23
16 Cross Galatians 3:13a Jesus died to take away the curse of sin, because he was cursed in the place of his people Matthew 27:45-50
17 Alive Matthew 28:18 God raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord over everything Matthew 28:1-10
18 Heaven Hebrews 1:3b Jesus went up into heaven, where he now rules at God’s right hand Acts 1:6-11


Holy Spirit Acts 2:33 Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on all who believe in him, to change them to trust him and love him Acts 2:1-13
20 Gospel Acts 2:39 The message about Jesus is now spreading all over the world, so people can be saved by him Acts 2:36-41
21 Church 1 Peter 2:10 Anyone can now join Abraham’s family and know God through Jesus – this family is now called the Church 1 Peter 2:4,5
22 Return Acts 1:11b Jesus will come back one day soon, to bring an end to evil and reign forever 1 Corinthians 15:20-26
23 Resurrection John 5:28 Jesus will raise everyone to life again; Christians will rise just like Jesus did, with bodies made new like his John 5:28-29
24 Judgment Matthew 25:32 Jesus will judge everyone, according to what they have done, which will show whether they trusted him for salvation or not Matthew 25:31-46
25 New creation Revelation 21:5a God will then make everything new, and there will never be anything bad or sad ever again, ever. Revelation 21:1-4



Responding to fifty years of abortion: Addressing the whole issue

This is a slightly edited version of an article I originally posted in 2015. The original can be found here.

Fifty years since the passing into law of the Abortion act on 27th October 1967, the necessity of Christians protesting about the appalling barbarity of a society which kills its children has not decreased. Abortion is infanticide, pure and simple. The millions of victims over those fifty years were boys and girls, human beings, whose human lives have been ended, whose human hearts were stopped, each one of them an image of God. God forbid that those who love him and for his sake love the truth should ever be silent about murder on such a scale.

Nevertheless, I want to urge that as Christians we speak about this in a way which connects rightly with the larger picture of what is going on in a society that permits such things. Those who advocate for abortion do so because of their belief in ‘women’s rights’. That has two very important implications, which mean that it is inadequate for us to limit what we say to ‘abortion should be banned’. Of course it should, but there is more going on here.

First, when we say that, they will hear us say, ‘Pregnant women must keep their unwanted babies to term’. Well, yes, they should, but that is less than half of the issue. For as Christians we want to say, no-one should ever conceive an unwanted baby; if you don’t want a baby you shouldn’t be having sex. And that applies equally to both men and women. We aren’t saying ‘women shouldn’t have control of their bodies’, nor are we just saying ‘women shouldn’t conceive children irresponsibly’. We aren’t saying anything uniquely about women at all. What we are saying, because it is what the Bible says, is that neither a man nor a woman should ever act in a way which might result in the conception of the child unless both of them are verbally, morally and legally committed to bringing the child up. Which is of course simply a description of marriage. Marriage is a covenant that, before a man and a woman share a bed, they will remain together and raise the children their bodily union will, barring medical problems, produce. To believe in marriage is to believe that children should only be conceived – that people should only allow even the possibility that children might be conceived – where there is a prior, lifelong commitment of both the potential mother and the potential father to care for the resulting children. Of course that has been ignored in the recent redefinition of marriage on both sides of the Atlantic, but it remains integral to what marriage is.

In other words, infanticide – whether pre-or post-natal – is the inevitable consequence of a society which wants to allow sex outside marriage, or worse, redefine marriage out of existence. If we want sex without commitment to be mothers and fathers, it’s going to mean killing the babies. When we point out the horror of what goes on in our hospitals and abortion clinics, that is what we need to be saying. A society that despises marriage is a society that will end up destroying its children. We have ended up doing such things because we have abandoned the idea that sex requires responsibility; and sexual responsibility means marriage, faithfulness within it and celibacy outside of it.

Which leads to my second point. Saying you believe in ‘a woman’s right to choose’ is not, if the words are taken literally, saying very much. No-one advocates for forced pregnancies. No, what is really meant is ‘both men’s and women’s right to have sex and still choose’. Now, why is that considered a right? Because the belief in sexual freedom – that I have a perfect right to do what I want sexually – has attained the status of deity in modern secular culture. The freedom of the individual from any moral constraints, bar those actions which would impinge on the similar freedom of others, is the most ultimate moral value that there is in the modern west. Nothing may trump it. To deny it makes a person a bigot and an outcast. Nor does anything underlie it; it does not depend on some other, more ultimate, authority; it is the ultimate moral authority. It is simply a god which the modern West believes we must worship at all costs. And that is why, when faced with the barbaric, damnable butchery of prenatal infanticide, the majority of our society will not be moved. Idols demand sacrifices, and when people really believe that their idols are, in fact, gods, there is nothing – not even the lives of their own children – they will not sacrifice to them.

That is what is going on with abortion in Western countries. We have come to worship our freedom so much that it leads to this. So if we would cry out against the evil of killing these children, we need to cry out against the god on whose altar they are sacrificed. Freedom is not an ultimate good; it is not an ultimate anything. It is not a god. As a society we are worshipping a falsehood, and one which leads to such a practice as this. There is one God, and one God only, the Holy Trinity who made himself known to us in the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to be saying, as we speak of the unspeakable wickedness of abortion, that the root of it is that we are worshipping the wrong God. And the true God, who has made himself known to us in the person of Jesus Christ, does not require us to sacrifice our children for him. He sacrificed himself for us.

Can Christianity harm you? More than you could possibly imagine.


The Christian Union of Balliol College Oxford has been banned from the Freshers Fair because of fears about the impact Christianity could have on the lives of freshers. It sounds like they’ve been doing an excellent job.


Balliol College Oxford JCR, the body that represents students, has reportedly banned the college Christian Union from having representatives at this year’s ‘Freshers’ Fair’. The reason given was the fear of ‘potential harm to freshers’. Cherwell, the Oxford student newspaper, reported the president of the JCR as explaining that ‘Historically, Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.’

So is Christianity damaging? The implication is that Christianity has an agenda which will, if permitted, ruin your life. Isn’t that a little overblown? Surely Christianity is something warm and welcoming, which comforts, encourages, and affirms people?

Well, yes it is. More profoundly so than anything else in the world. It is not for nothing that one classic statement of the Christian worldview, the Heidelberg Catechism, begins with the question, ‘What is your only comfort in life and death?’. Christianity – knowing as our Father the one true God through his son-become-man Jesus Christ in the power of his Holy Spirit – is the sweetest, most glorious, most welcoming comfort that this world affords.

But that doesn’t mean that Christianity won’t harm you. When the Balliol JCR observed that Christianity has the potential to damage the lives of freshers, they are demonstrating that they have really heard something of what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. Given that the Christian Union’s aim is ‘giving every student in Oxford University the chance to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ’, it sounds like they are doing an excellent job.

Because Jesus brings comfort, peace, joy and contentment not by affirming what we already are, but by nothing less than destroying what we already are and making us new from the bottom up. Jesus came to ruin our lives, so that he can then rebuild them. Here’s what he said:

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34-36)

Jesus calls people to follow him. And following Jesus is not a comfortable thing at all, for he is going to Jerusalem where certain death on a cross awaits him. What he calls people to do is to accept the destruction of our lives, just as he did.

The Balliol JCR president apparently realises that this is what Christianity requires of some people. When he hears that Jesus requires those who identify as LGBT to surrender their desires and their identity, in such a dramatic way that it will feel to them like he wants to ruin their lives, he has not misheard. Jesus does require that of them. But he is wrong to think that this demand is limited to some ‘marginalised groups’. Jesus demands it of everyone. All, without exception, must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him to death.

Why? Because although Christians must follow Jesus to the grave, they don’t stop there. He had just announced his full future itinerary:

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)

Jesus was going to die, and then rise again to new life. It was planned and deliberate. And he did it so that we can follow him. He would surrender his life here so that he could be raised to a far more glorious life the other side of the grave. And he call us to follow him, through death, to share his resurrection life. To leave our old selves dead in the grave and to become the wholly new poeple that he will make us.

That is his call to everyone, all human beings the world over, Balliol freshers included. Jesus wants to give us new life, real life, resurrection life. But for that to happen we need to die. The route to life is the destruction of life as you know it.

For we are not, naturally, beautiful snowflakes in need of protection and preservation and celebration. We are, rather, a desperate mess of mistaken ideas, distorted desires, damaged faculties, and false identities. So Jesus came to redeem us; to destroy what we currently are and to remake us as true likenesses of God. That’s why he didn’t just announce good news; he said everyone must ‘repent and believe the good news’.

To repent is nothing less than to accept the destruction of your life as you know it. We have to surrender all the ideas we had about reality. We have to give up on following the desires of our hearts. We have to stop believing that our mental and emotional faculties are intact and dependable and to be valued as they are. We have to walk away from all the things – racial, emotional, sexual and intellectual – on which we previously hung our identity. In sum, the whole complex of what I thought made me ‘me’ has to be surrendered and left behind as we follow Jesus on the road to the cross. He asks for nothing less than the total destruction of what we are. We have, he said, to lose our life for his sake, if we want to find it.

And when we do that, we find that the other side of this death lies life. Real life. Resurrection life. Whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s will save it. That is what Jesus came to do for us. Here is the apostle Paul:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Jesus redeems. He sets us free from the destruction sin has worked on us and in us. He delivers us from the guilt of our past and the hopelessness of our present. When we surrender what we thing we are, he makes us into what we were always meant to be. Here there is true comfort. Here there is true satisfaction. Here we find our true identity. Jesus gives us a new heart, to love other people truly, to love his laws, which previously we despised, and most of all to love him, who made us for himself.

That is why Christianity offers a comfort, peace and welcome like nothing else on earth. Let’s see the answer to that first question of the Heidelberg Catechism:

What is your only comfort in life and death?

A: That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

It is only in the entire surrender of our lives, body and soul, to the rightful possession of the living God are we able to enter into his glorious redemption and eternal loving care.

Can Christianity harm you? More than you can possibly imagine. Because Jesus came to destroy us in our proud belief in ourselves, so that he can remake us as true images of, and the treasured possessions of, the living God, forever. Lose your life for his sake and the gospel’s, and you will find it.


Ordaining Elders: Evangelism, Part B


It’s not possible for Christians to be unconcerned about evangelism. The gospel of Jesus is good news: and Jesus presumed (for example in Matthew 25:31-32, which I’ll be preaching from this Sunday) that the whole world would in time be in a position to answer for how they had responded to him. So Jesus’ church has a duty to make sure the whole world knows of him. The church is the family which has been raised to new life by her risen Lord. So if we’re part of that, how could we not want to see the same happen to other people, all over the world, starting on our doorstep?

For that reason every church must have proclaiming the good news of Jesus as a top priority. Just as it was for the apostles in the book of Acts. But interestingly, as Paul and Barnabas finished the first ever deliberate missionary journey, at a place called Derbe deep in what is now Turkey, they clearly did not consider the job done. This was despite the spectacular success of their mission; many people had become Christians. But instead of simply heading home (quite a short distance), they returned by the same looping roundabout arc by which they had come, despite it adding hundreds of miles, and great danger, to the journey…

The whole article is on the Trinity Church York Minister’s Blog.

An open letter to the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP

justine-greening pink news.jpg

I have today sent the following letter to the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP.


The Right Honourable Justine Greening MP

Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities

27th July 2017


Dear Ms Greening

In your recent speech to Pink News you said that there are ‘too many pockets in our country where LGBT rights are seen as something that are a mistake.’ Your military metaphor implies both that you wish to identify these ‘pockets’ and, having done so, to eliminate them. As a Christian minister, serving at a Presbyterian church in York, I would like to offer our assistance in the first, while it is my duty to dash your hopes of the second. Let me explain.

The Church of Jesus Christ is certainly opposed to LGBT rights (please do not be misled by the General Synod of the Church of England on this, which is entirely out of step with global and historic Christianity on this and many other matters). But we are far from being a secretive ‘pocket’. We are not hard to locate. We remain the largest group of people on earth who share an understanding of reality. We do not operate in secret; We are a visible and public presence in every town and city in the country. We are committed to the welfare of all around us, Christian or not. We work tirelessly for the good of individuals, society and the nation. Moreover, we absolutely welcome scrutiny of everything we do. Our services are open to all and there is nothing that delights us more when anyone wishes to visit us to observe or enquire into what it is we believe and why. Finding us should not prove a problem for you. I personally would like to extend an invitation for you to visit our church in York whenever you like, and I am quite confident that any of my fellow-ministers (of whatever denomination) would say the same.

But as to your hopes of eliminating us – for you believe that we are a ‘pocket’ of which there are ‘too many’ – I’m afraid that I must disappoint you. Yes, we do believe that LGBT rights are a mistake. And we are not going to change our minds, for at least three reasons.

First, because we have a greater view of history than you. You told Sky News on 24th July that ‘It is important that the church, in a way, keeps up and is part of a modern country’. You clearly believe, along with many secular people, that trends in ‘modern’ society have a universal moral force which all people must submit to. To us, giving such significance to trends in public opinion in one part of the world in one tiny period of history is tragically narrow-minded. We serve the Son of God, whose arrival on earth in human flesh was planned from before the foundation of the world; towards whose return to judge the world history is inexorably moving, as God has proved by raising him from the dead; and who is right now calling all people to join the Kingdom of God, in which we are saved from our corrupt hearts and transformed by the Holy Spirit into people fit to serve the living God. That being the case, we are hardly going to abandon God’s standards to fit in with the whims of this or any other human society.

Second, because we have a greater view of love than you. ‘Greater love has no man’, said our Lord, ‘than that he lay down his life for his friends.’ And that is exactly what he did. He laid down his life on the cross in order to save us from the twisted loves of our own hearts and the judgment that we deserve from God as a result. By his death he set us free, to know God and to love him and each other. And in so doing he defined for us what true love is: giving up ourselves for the sake of others. That includes, though it is far from limited to, giving up on following our sexual desires. That is why sexual love for Christians can only ever be in the context of the unbreakable vows of marriage, in which a man seeks not his own pleasure but the good of his wife and children, and a woman seeks not her own pleasure but the good of her husband and children, unconditionally, for life. Indeed, biblical law is an interconnected working-out of what sacrificing self in the service of others is all about. It is about what true love means in every area of life. In contrast, the secular (which includes LGBT) view of love is one which demands others lay down everything and anything for the sake of my sexual pleasure. It reduces love to following the urgings of our genitals, no matter what the social cost to those around us, and especially to our children. When it speaks of love for others, it appears to extend to no more than encouraging them to do the same. Forgive us, but it is from that miserable view of love and all its horrible consequences that our Lord Jesus died to save us. We are hardly going to abandon his infinite love for the sake of your version.

And third, because we worship a greater God than you. The entire LGBT movement – indeed, much of the ‘modern’ society you want us to ‘keep up’ with – and to which we are a ‘pocket’ of unwelcome resistance – treats ‘freedom’ as a sort of deity which demands our unconditional obeisance. Thus you believe that there is no value higher than the freedom of each individual to do, and to be, whatever he or she wants to do and to be. You even ascribe this idea of ‘freedom’ a quasi-creative power to define reality, as we now see in the matter of ‘Transgender rights’, the next area in which you are intending to ‘keep on pushing’, to quote your speech to Pink News. Apparently the freedom to define ourselves now trumps physical facts, and a person’s mental state or act of will has a power to determine reality itself. But of course it does not, and to expect us to acquiesce in this nonsense is simply asking us tell lies about a person’s sex purely on the basis of that person’s supposed freedom to think it. That is also called bearing false witness. Forgive us, but we have it on a much higher authority that we are not to do that.

For we serve not an imagined deity of personal autonomy but the living and true God, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who has made himself known through Jesus Christ. He is not a faceless principle who demands obedience no matter what the cost, but he is infinite, eternal, wise, powerful, holy, just, good and true. He is a Trinity of persons eternally united in love. He made us in his image and he made us for himself. He has acted in unfathomable love towards us in the Son becoming flesh and suffering, dying and rising in order to save us. He has united us to his Son by his Spirit so that we have become his children and call him our Father. This is the one true God. This is our God. It is to him we owe our lives. It is he who saved us from our destructive desires. It is he who has forgiven us all our sins. It is in his service that we live. It is his laws he has taught us to love. We are hardly going to abandon him for the sake of the blind, faceless and destructive principles of secularism.

And so, there are I’m afraid no circumstances whatsoever in which you will be able to eliminate this ‘pocket’ of resistance to LGBT rights and the agenda of secularism. Call us bigots, legislate against us, deprive us of our jobs, throw us to the lions if you wish. But you will never make us embrace your view of history, accept your version of love, or serve your secular deities. The church of Jesus Christ is not so easily overcome. You would therefore do well to form policies that recognise both our continued existence and, more importantly, the reality of what God has made known in his Son. It is that reality on which Britain itself as we know it was founded. You serve as a minister of a Monarch who affirmed all the Christian truths I have outlined above at her coronation. It is therefore not us who are out of step with what it means to be British, but you.

I urge you to come and visit one, perhaps many of our churches, to find out what Christianity is, who our Lord and Saviour is, and why we love, trust and follow our God in the way we do. We will be delighted to welcome you.

Yours sincerely


Rev. Dr. Matthew PW Roberts

Minister, Trinity Church York

A congregation of the International Presbyterian Church


Why Pelagianism matters (including for the Church of England)

Pelagius CofE

At last week’s C of E General Synod, Synod member Jayne Ozanne presented an argument for her motion for the C of E to ban ‘gay conversion therapy’ which began with these remarkable words:

‘The Bible teaches us that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps.139.14), and that we should praise God’s gift of our creation. Thus, our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate. The biblical concern is not with what we are but how we choose to live our lives, meaning that differing sexual orientations and gender identities are not inherently sinful, nor mental health disorders to be “cured”.’

What is remarkable about these words is that they identify her position openly and unequivocally as Pelagianism, an ancient heresy of the church. What is even more remarkable is not that the motion at General Synod carried (with some significant amendments), but that the bishops of the Church of England – which still claims to be part of the church catholic – ever allowed it to be presented at all. But it was presented, and it did carry, so all who are concerned for Christian Orthodoxy in England need to be aware of what happened here. And to understand that, it is necessary to understand what Pelagianism is and why it matters.

In many ways the Pelagian controversy of the 5th century AD is the defining controversy of the Western church. The church’s condemnation of Pelagius and his doctrine set the course for the entire understanding of salvation for Latin Christianity, and furthermore the Reformation 1000 years later was in large measure reacting against a resurgence in Pelagianism in the mediaeval church. For 1500 years then, Christian orthodoxy has seen the teaching of Pelagius to be entirely antithetical to the gospel. It is not too much to say that it is in the contrast with Pelagianism that the true nature of the Christian gospel is most clearly seen.

What was the controversy about?

The controversy started because Pelagius, a British monk, read the ‘Confessions’ of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and was alarmed. He was alarmed because Augustine taught that God not only gives moral commands to us, but he gives us the ability to keep those commands, which we could not have done otherwise. And, reasoned Pelagius, that would mean that by nature we are unable to keep God’s commands; in which case why bother? And so, he began to teach, we are born entirely able to keep God’s commands. The issue is whether we decide to do so or not.

In other words, the controversy was about human nature. It boiled down to, what is the status of human nature at birth? Pelagius taught that we are born innocent, entirely capable of keeping God’s laws. Augustine, in contrast, insisted that we are born with ‘original sin’. That is, sin is at birth already hard-wired into us, because we have inherited the corruption of nature that Adam brought upon us. So Pelagius said that we are born with nothing wrong with us; Augustine that we already desire to sin at birth. Pelagius said men become condemned through their free choices, because we are only condemned for what we do; Augustine said that we are born condemned, because we are condemned for what we are. Pelagius’ position was neatly summarised by his phrase ‘Evil is not born with us, and we are procreated without fault; and the only thing in men at their birth is what God has formed.’[1]. Augustine’s position is that ‘the fault of our nature remains in our offspring so deeply impressed as to make it guilty.’[2]

Why did this matter?

Because Augustine saw what Pelagius did not: that Pelagius’ teaching utterly changes the nature of Christianity. For Pelagius, Christianity is a religion of moral self-improvement. Since there is nothing wrong with our nature, the gospel is merely a message about how to improve our behaviour. To that end God provides a law in the Bible and a wonderful example in Christ. And that is all he provides, because it is all we need. With some solid encouragement, some moral direction, and a model to follow, we can all get on with being good as God requires. And of course God will reward us if we do.

But the problem with this is, as Augustine laboured to point out, is that this is not the gospel found in the Bible at all. The Biblical gospel from beginning to end is not about self-improvement of what we do but redemption of what we are. The law kills, says Paul, precisely because moral self-improvement is entirely beyond us. We are corrupt creatures in need of rescue. God’s grace does not consist in calling for us to run faster from the side of the track, for we are prone on the ground with crippled legs, entirely incapable of leaving the blocks. God’s grace consists of lifting us to our feet, remaking our useless muscles and sinews, and causing us to run a race we never could have run left to ourselves.

So Augustine says things like,

‘For that which God promises we do not ourselves bring about by our own choice or natural power, but he himself effects it by grace.’[3]

‘In order, indeed, that we might receive that love whereby we might love, we were loved while as yet we had no love ourselves.’[4]

‘By such grace it is effected, not only that we discover what ought to be done, but also that we do what we have discovered, – not only that we believe what ought to be loved, but also that we love what we have believed.’

Before we can do any good, we must want to do good. And since only deeds done out of love for God are genuinely good, we must love God before we can do any good. But we do not naturally love God. We are born loving self and that self-love expresses itself in any number of godless lusts. What we naturally are is incapable of good.

And so God by his grace, through the redeeming work of Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit, transforms our hearts so that we love him and so are able to begin to do the things that he commands. In the words of the Confessions that offended Pelagius so much, Augustine prayed ‘You command continence; grant what you command, and command what you will.’[5] The gospel of Christ is that he transforms the hopeless mass of corrupt desires which is the human heart so that not only is the guilt of our nature and our deeds forgiven through our faith in Christ, but our very nature is changed. This message is so much at the heart of the entire Apostolic witness to Christ’s gospel that it is hard to find anywhere in the New Testament where it is not either right at or only just below the surface. But John 3, Romans 6-8, Galatians 5, Ephesians 2, 1 Peter 1-2, 1 John 4 would be good starting points.

And that, of course, is a gloriously better gospel than Pelagius’. Because the heart of man is very corrupt. All sorts of dark desires lurk within me. I sin because I want to, and as long as I want to I will keep on sinning. That is the problem with mankind from beginning to end. That is why we are born and live under the condemnation of God. And Pelagius’ gospel offers no help with this situation at all. Being told that I’m capable of good is no help at all if I know that, deep down, I am not. If you do have a natural desire for a particular evil thing – say, drunkenness, or riches at the expense of others, or popular admiration, or illicit sexual pleasure, or revenge or anything else  – then heaven help you. Except that heaven will not help you. You’re on your own.

And of course, nor is it any help if my love for evil is such that I don’t even realise how evil I am. We have all met people who see nothing at all wrong with the utterly odious attitudes, habits and appetites they live by. Pelagianism can do no more than advertise to them a product that they will never in a lifetime have any desire to buy. What is more, every true Christian knows that that is exactly what we once were. If it weren’t for the grace of Christ I would never have seen myself for what I really am. I was a slave to the world, the flesh and the devil, until God in Christ made me alive (Eph 2:1-5).

Pelagianism, the C of E, and LGBT

Now, back to the Church of England General Synod. Consider Jayne Ozanne’s statement that ‘The biblical concern is not with what we are but how we choose to live our lives’. That sums up Pelagius’ position perfectly. Then consider Ozanne’s claim that because we are fearfully and wonderfully made (which we are) therefore ‘our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate… meaning that differing sexual orientations and gender identities are not inherently sinful.’ She might as well have quoted Pelagius: ‘Evil is not born with us, and we are procreated without fault; and the only thing in men at their birth is what God has formed.’  She assumes, along with the whole LGBT movement, that the natural desires of our hearts are pure and good. That nothing found in human nature can be wrong. God must have put it there. So it must be good.

But the Biblical concern absolutely is with what we are. And the biblical diagnosis of the human condition – the problem that God sent his Son to save us from – is exactly the corruption of human nature which we are born with. If being born again, as Jesus says we must be, is not about what we are, then what is? If it is not a description of the hopeless condition in which we are born naturally, then what could be? So all Jesus’ apostles bear witness to the same thing.  ‘O wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’, cries Paul (Romans 7:24). ‘According to his great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’, says Peter (1 Peter 1:3). ‘If anyone is in Christ’, says Paul, ‘he is a new creation. Behold, the old has gone, the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The gospel from beginning to end is about resurrection: God raised Christ from the dead so that he would raise all those who are his from the dead to. So that what we are would be made new, both on the inside (now) and on the outside (when Christ returns) (2 Corinthians 4:14-16).

Being a thoroughly Pelagian argument, those LGBT campaigners who claim to be Christians must therefore assume a Pelagian gospel. They assume we are capable of moral self-improvement. They believe the function of Christianity is to help us see what is good so that we can get on and do it. That is why Church of England liberals see what they are doing as a moral crusade; they are implementing their version of the gospel. Of course Theological liberalism has always been Pelagian since its 19th Century inception. What we are seeing now is the fruit of that.

It’s worth seeing that today’s Liberals are working out Pelagius’ principle in a way neither he nor the older Liberals did. Pelagius looked at God’s laws and said that we must be born capable of doing them. Today’s neo-Pelagians argue that because certain desires are present in people naturally, therefore they can’t be against God’s law. It is a logically demanded consequence of Pelagius’ views.

Some Conclusions

  1. The issue before the Church of England – and all denominations deciding where to stand on LGBT issues – is not a matter of ‘how to interpret a small number of specific texts’, as the Anglican Bishop of Manchester wrote last week. It is a matter that goes to the heart of what the gospel is. Thankfully that decision and its implications was pretty well mapped out in the controversy of 1500 years ago. If the C of E wishes to decide, after 1500 years of church condemnation, that Pelagius was right after all, then it both needs to say so honestly and it needs to recognise that it is adopting a fundamentally different gospel to that which it has subscribed to up till now.
  2. The Pelagian controversy shows us that a gospel which denies Original Sin is a gospel that offers absolutely zero help from God with the desires of our hearts. So we must see that, for all its talk of love, tolerance and inclusion, those who advocate for acceptance of LGBT lifestyles in the church hold to a gospel that has no power to save sinners. It would have left David a slave of his lusts, Zaccheus a slave of his money, and Paul still breathing murderous threats against the church. It is a gospel that has nothing to offer the man addicted to pornography, the married couple who cannot stop arguing, the alcoholic who cannot make himself sober, the proud man who loves attention, the broken teenager who just wants to hurt herself.
  3. Orthodox Christians engaging with this issue in their denominations need to make quite explicit that this is what it is all about. It is not merely about failing to call sins sins, nor simply about ignoring parts of Scripture, serious though those things are. It is about replacing the gospel of salvation from the guilt and power of sin with another, miserably inferior one. That needs to be stated and spelt out at every opportunity.
  4. The neo-Pelagian move is one which has some frightening consequences. If the discovery that a desire is naturally present in some human beings means that it cannot be sinful, then an awful lot of other evil things are going to have to be declared not to be sinful as well. Sexual immorality, theft, murder are only the first three of the list of things Jesus said come out of the heart of man (Mark 7:20-23). They originate inside us; which means that they were there are our birth. If the neo-Pelagians are right, they are ‘a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate’. It’s not hard to see where that will lead. There is no perversion of human desire – sexual or otherwise – that is not ultimately justified by this argument.
  5. British Evangelicals need to examine our own history for how deeply Pelagian we have often been ourselves. Far too often we have assumed that the gospel is merely about forgiveness of our guilt and forgotten that it is also about redemption from slavery to our sinful desires. This is shown most clearly in how easily we accepted the idea that somehow those who are tempted by homosexual lusts have a different identity to the rest of us; that the category of ‘sexual orientation’ is in itself a valid one. But at root this corrupt desire is no different to any other. Sin is a natural condition of our hearts, and it merely manifests itself in different sorts of desires; greed in some of us, sexual lusts in most of us, pride in all of us. We have proudly assumed that others are slaves to sins while we ourselves never were.
  6. And British Evangelicals need urgently to re-acquaint ourselves with the past engagement of godly theologians with Pelagianism. What we are facing here is nothing new. The church confronted fundamentally the same error before. Augustine is clearly the most important figure here, although the Reformed writers of the 17th Century (John Owen’s Mortification of Sin would be a classic example) deal with many of the same issues in a more pastoral vein. We will see our way much more clearly if we stand on the shoulders of our forefathers.

We were dead in our transgressions and sins. God raised us up with Christ made us alive in him. He has delivered us both from the guilt of sin and from its power. That is the Christian gospel. Let us see the Pelagian alternative for what it is, and oppose it with all our might.




[1] Augustine, On Original Sin, ch. 14

[2] On Original Sin, ch. 44

[3] On the Grace of Christ, ch. 31

[4] On the Grace of Christ, ch. 27

[5] Confessions 10.29