Ordination: Do we believe in that?

ordinationYesterday afternoon was a great occasion at Christ Church Derby: the ordination of Joel Kendal as a minister and elder. Joel is the new minister of Christ Church Derby, taking over from Jonty Rhodes who is moving in a few months to Leeds to begin a new church, Christ Church Central Leeds.

So what is an ordination? Like many evangelicals, I for years thought that it was nothing: a bit of Church of England archaic nonsense, a hoop for ministers to jump through to get into a job, but nothing more. It’s fair to say that the Church of England ordinations I have witnessed did nothing to dislodge that idea. But more fundamentally, we evangelicals believe in the priesthood of all believers, don’t we? So therefore there is no difference between ministers and everyone else. What, then, could ordination possibly mean?

Well, absolutely we must believe in the priesthood of all believers. Jesus Christ is our great high priest, and in him all believers are priests. We, the whole church, are a royal priesthood, as Peter says (1 Peter 2:9). But believing in the priesthood of all believers does not mean we believe in the eldership of all believers. The fact that it is manifestly against the Bible to consecrate ‘priests’ in the church of Jesus Christ does not mean that there are no biblically-mandated offices at all.

Because, quite clearly, there are. Eldership, as a distinct office in the church, is found repeatedly in the New Testament. In the book of Acts, the critically important Council of Jerusalem is a council of the Apostles and elders (Acts 15:2,4,6,22). Paul appointed elders in the churches he had established (Acts 14:23). His farewell address at Miletus was to the Ephesians elders (20:17); Paul quite plainly sees them as having a specific ministry of overseeing the flock (20:28), thereby demonstrating that elders, overseers (=episkopoi, from which we get the word ‘bishops’) and shepherds (which, via latin, has come into English as ‘pastors’) are all the same people. Also, very significantly, Paul is clear in 20:28 that it is the Holy Spirit who has appointed these men. It is therefore not simply a man-made ministry but a God-appointed ‘office’: a role planned and designed by God for certain men to fulfil for the good of his church. The pastoral epistles are written with this office particularly in mind. The whole purpose of Titus being in Crete, is to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5); the purpose of the letter is to assist him in doing this. 1 and 2 Timothy are full of this. The office of overseer (1 Tim 3:1) is a noble task, and it is a God-given one; that is why an overseer must (3:2) have certain qualifications. There cannot be God-given stipulations for who may occupy a man-made function! Peter, finally, speaks to the elders and identifies them not only as different from the rest of the church but also as shepherds and overseers of the flock, under the chief shepherd Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:1-5).

Ephesians 4:11 is particularly instructive here. Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists and Pastor-Teachers are gifts from Christ to his church to bring her to maturity. The Apostles and Prophets are the bearers of the New Testament once-for-all revelation of God in Christ and his gospel (Eph 3:5). Opinions differ on exactly how the understand ‘evangelists’, given that the word is not elaborated on elsewhere in the New Testament. But Pastor-Teachers are beyond question the same as the elder/overseer/pastors found throughout the New Testament. They are not a man-made invention but men whom the Lord Jesus himself has given to the church with the specific, defined task of caring for her, overseeing her, teaching her and ruling her on his behalf. Christ has delegated his ruling authority over his church, in part, to the men who occupy the office of elder in the church.

So what is an ordination? It is the point at which Christ confers this office on a man, gives him the authority to fulfil it, and charges him to discharge its duties. It absolutely does not move him closer to God, increase his righteousness, or give him greater access to God. What it does is give him new duties and responsibilities over the church, and give him a delegated authority from Christ to proclaim the gospel and to govern the church. It is an authority which he must not abuse, hence the great and weighty vows he must take about how he will use it. It is an authority which is strictly limited according to God’s word. But it is a real authority which he must not neglect and the church must not refuse to recognise (1 Peter 5:5). It is an authority, and a duty, to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments according to the word of God, for the good of the church.

Ordination to this office is itself described in the Bible, accompanied by the sign of laying on of hands. So Timothy was not to neglect ‘the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands’ (2 Tim 1:6). This gift, in the context of 2 Timothy, is not some mystical ability but must refer to the duty of his office to proclaim the gospel and govern the church without being ashamed of it. Paul referred to it also in 1 Tim 4:14, where he refers to the ‘council of elders’ who ‘laid their hands’ on him. Laying on of hands demonstrates Christ laying on this man the duty, responsibility, and delegated authority to discharge the office of pastor/teacher/elder.

Why should a church submit to the teaching of its elders (provided they do not transgress God’s word, of course)? Why should they accept their authority in governing the church? Why should they allow them, and not others, to make decisions about who teaches, what they teach, and who will be baptised and admitted to the Lord’s table? The answer is that they know that their elders have been ordained to the office by Christ. Equally, why should a minister labour to preach the word faithfully? Why should he get up in the morning when no-one will check that he does so? Why should he keep going when the work is tough and the people are ungrateful? Why should he keep proclaiming the gospel without fear when the world, and perhaps the church, are against him? Why should he go through the awkwardness of telling people that they ought to be baptised, or that they cannot eat the bread and the wine, when it would be much easier to say nothing? Why risk the offence of those in front of him when he says things which he knows some of them will hate to hear? Why proclaim a gospel which has led countless ministers before him to their death, and may do the same to him? Because he has been ordained by Christ crucified and risen, before whom he made his vows and in whose name the elders of the church have laid their hands on him.

So ordination is of immense significance for the church. Praise God for the ordination of another minister yesterday. Let’s pray for Joel. May God bless him, enable him to discharge the duties with which he has charged him, and use him for the church’s good and God’s glory.

Christian freedom under threat? A tale of two freedoms…

ashers

Is our freedom as Christians under threat? From the news in the last week, and from the reaction of many Christians, the answer would seem to be pretty unequivocal: yes it is. Unless the judgment in the Ashers Bakery case is overturned by the Supreme Court, or there is a change in the law, it now appears that Christians may be required by law verbally to express support for the rightness of homosexual relationships, on pain of losing their livelihoods. As in the days of the Emperor Diocletian, Christians will now apparently be forced to make sacrifice at the altar of a god whom they do not and will not worship. As in the reign of ‘Bloody’ queen Mary, those who refuse to assent to something to which they do not assent will be made, by the force of law, to pay the price.

And yet the freedom of Christians is not at all under threat. Not if, by ‘freedom’, we mean what both Scripture and historic Christian theology has meant by that. Not if we understand what true freedom is.

Freedom, in the Reformation, was a big thing. The Reformation happened in the midst of a society thick with legal coercion: from the church of Rome, which demanded conformity (under threat of purgatory and damnation) to all sorts of practices not found in Scripture and alien to the Christian gospel, and from the various governments of Europe, which in various ways used civil punishments ranging from fines through imprisonments to death to compel conformity to the church.

And yet the Reformers never complained that their freedom was under threat. Rather, they understood ‘The freedom of a Christian’ as the freedom that Christ himself has brought from the curse of the law, from the power of indwelling sin, and from the threatenings and coercions of the Roman church and the civil government. The Christian is free because Christ died to set him free. He is free from God’s curse on his lawbreaking, because Christ bore the curse for him. He is therefore free from the threat of judgment for his sins. That means he is free to pursue righteousness and holiness without fear of God’s wrath at his inevitable shortcomings in doing so. And it means he is free from the fear of man. This is Romans 8: who can separate us from the love of Christ? ‘Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?’ No: The pope may threaten hell, and the magistrate may threaten penury, prison or the stake, but the Christian is free to follow Christ because Christ has made him free. No man can take away our certain hope in our King. No man may enslave us.

What’s more, Christ has set us free from our own sinful desires. This in many ways goes to the heart of what Christian freedom means. We are no longer slaves of sin. Our exodus liberation is from the tyranny of our corrupt desires which dwell inside us. This is Romans 7: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’. We are no longer slaves to our desires. Christ has set us free, free to love our God, free not to sin where previously we had no weapons in our armoury to resist it. Free to be what God designed humans to be, free to be God’s true images.

So in this sense the freedom of Christians is not the slightest bit threatened by the current disastrous drift of law in the British Isles. It is precisely because we are free that we will never need to submit to the increasing threats used to compel our conformity to the reigning doctrines of sexual licence. Yes, we may lose our court cases, our jobs, our social respectability. We may go to prison. But we will do so cheerfully because we are free to do so. We serve a higher master, and his blessings – now and for eternity – cannot be removed by man. That is the freedom Christ has won for us.

Now, it is often assumed that these two freedoms – the freedom of a Christian, and the idea of ‘free speech’ or ‘religious liberty’ – are the same thing. Many Christians have seized on the comments of Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay rights campaigner, as supporting our cause. But this is not merely short-sighted, it is a very serious mistake. For the secular doctrines of freedom are not a version of the Christian doctrine but its very opposite.

Before the enlightenment, Christian authors never conceived that ‘freedom’ was in any sense a moral absolute. And for a very good reason. There was another word already in their vocabulary for the idea that human beings should be free to say, and to do, whatever they chose, with no regard to higher authority. That word was ‘sin’. For that is what sin is: it is a belief in human autonomy, that there is nothing worse for a human being than in having God tell us what to do. Secularism, rooted in the atheist doctrines of the Enlightenment, exactly inverted Christian ethics on this point. Far from being the root of human evil, human autonomy was now to be considered the highest human good. Sin was rebranded; now it would be ‘freedom’, and under that rubric made the foundation of a whole new ethics. Civilisation and the moral character of a society was to be judged not on its conformity to the law of God but on how much it defended the absolute freedom of men and women to believe, speak and act as they choose.

It is part of the tragedy of the history of the last 250 years that generations of Christians (with of course some notable exceptions) have not noticed the inversion in the word ‘freedom’ that this entailed. Christian freedom is freedom from ourselves and our desires, won for us by God in Christ, so that we might obey his laws. Secular freedom is freedom from God and his laws, won by us, so that we might follow ourselves and our desires. The social revolution of the last 50 years are just the working out into law and mainstream public opinion this inversion of the meaning of freedom that philosophers adopted 200 years earlier.

The lessons for us are twofold. First, we need to stop thinking that secular ideas of ‘freedom’ – the ideals of free speech and absolute religious liberty – are our friend. They are not. They are in fact the enemies which are fighting against us. The more we appeal to them, the more we strengthen the secular zeitgeist which hates Christianity as an immoral restriction on the freedom of the individual. If we fight the spirit of the age with the weapons of the age we are in fact affirming the rightness of the age. If we win this battle this way, we lose. Ashers bakery was not right to refuse to promote gay marriage because of a ‘fundamental’ principal of free speech. There is no such principal in God’s universe. If there were, the serpent in the garden of Eden did nothing wrong! They were right to refuse to promote gay marriage because those Christ has set free from sin are free to obey God and not man. God is God, whatever the courts might say. That is what the McArthurs, to their credit, said outside the courtroom.

And second, we need to stop thinking that our freedom – real freedom – is in any way under threat. The law can revile us, it can fine us, it can deprive us of our jobs, it can throw us to the lions – but it can never remove from us the freedom to live righteously which Christ won for us at Calvary. There may be dark days ahead for Christians in the British Isles, but they will be temporary. And Jesus Christ will build his church, the church of those whom he has set free to serve him, in true righteousness and holiness, both now and in the new creation forever.

Lloyd-Jones and Stott: an evangelical false dilemma

This week marked 50 years since the two giants of mid-20th century English and Welsh evangelicalism, John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, famously clashed at the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals in London. There have been useful articles written to mark the occasion, including one from an independent church perspective here and one from an Anglican perspective here. I would like to provide another, Presbyterian angle on what happened and the effect on the church particularly in England since.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the event was a gathering of leaders of evangelical churches from all denominations. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, minister of Westminster Congregational Chapel, had been asked to speak on church unity. John Stott, rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, was chairing the meeting. Lloyd-Jones delivered an address which called for evangelicals to leave their denominations which they shared with liberals and unbelievers and unite in a single ‘fellowship, or association, of evangelical churches’. Such was the power of his call that Stott felt obliged, despite the fact that as chairman, this was not his role, publicly to rise to his feet and refute Lloyd-Jones. The effect was a deep rift between Anglican and Independent evangelicals which lasted decades; some would say, even to this day.

The heart of Lloyd-Jones’ case is found in the following paragraph in his address:

‘… so often, we have neglected the doctrine of the church altogether. So the charge that is brought against us by members of the ecumenical movement and by the liberals has always been: You evangelicals are not interested in the church, you are only interested in personal evangelism. I am here to say that I am afraid that there is far too much truth in that charge. And it is because we have faced our problems in terms of movements and societies, instead of facing them at the church level.’

The words I have put in bold are Lloyd-Jones’ central point. Evangelicals are only ever interested in movements, not in the doctrine of the church. That is, while we believe passionately in the unity of Christian believers (how could we not, if we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ?), we have been terribly resistant to applying that to our understanding of the church. And this is because, he says, we are terrified of falling out over it (One might observe that, on that point at least, he was proved right within minutes of sitting down!). And so we only ever express our gospel unity in the vague and non-committal form of parachurch movements. But this, he argues, is surely wrong: what a travesty that liberals, who have no unity in Christ whatsoever, because they have no faith in the real Christ, are seeking a church unity while we, who are united in Christ are utterly averse to it.

On this front, Lloyd-Jones was surely right. His deconstruction of the two classic arguments of Evangelicals in the Anglican, Methodist and (then) English Presbyterian churches for staying in – that it is ‘a place in which a man can fish’ (‘Is that a church? Does the church consist of people who are unconverted and who need to be converted’), and that they are not tainted by the unbelief of their leaders (‘you cannot justify that honestly in terms of your “independence”… you cannot dissociate yourself from the church to which you belong’) – is masterful and unanswerable if we have the most basic grasp of scripture and, simply, language. And the lamentable situation in which Christian unity is incapable of transcending movements of no more structural solidity than a pressure group, fan club or mutual interest society is, surely, lamentable indeed. Christ clearly envisaged more; evangelicals, of all people, should be able to see that.

It needs to be said that on this matter Stott’s public refutation of Lloyd-Jones’ arguments entirely failed to engage with the point. The argument that there is no pure church in Scripture, and churches in the New Testament are a mixture of true and false believers, is irrelevant. This is neither a justification for sharing a communion with false teachers, nor does it address Lloyd-Jones’ powerful point of the absurdity of having a higher level of unity – an ecclesiastical one – with those with whom we have no fellowship, while restricting our unity with those with whom we have deep and eternal fellowship in Christ to the far lower level of informal parachurch organisations. The same might be said of his argument from history. Neither engaged with Lloyd-Jones’ central theological point at all.

And yet it appears to me that Lloyd-Jones invited exactly these responses by a serious inconsistency in his position. Here are his words elsewhere in the address:

‘These (i.e. atoning, substitutionary death; physical resurrection; the person of the Holy Spirit and his work) are the doctrines which are essential to salvation; there is the truth that is to be preached, the message which is the first of the true marks of the church. And a church, surely, is a gathering of people who are in covenant together because they believe these things. Not only do they believe them, but they are men and women who have experienced their power. They are men and women who are born again and born of the Spirit, and who give evidence of this in their daily life. Surely that is the evangelical view of the Christian church.’

Lloyd-Jones may have thought this ‘surely the evangelical view’, and he expounded it at length on other occasions. But Presbyterians would respond that this is in fact partly biblical but partly seriously unbiblical. Absolutely, the content of the gospel is indeed a mark of the true church. But to move from that to saying that the church consists of those who believe them, who have experienced them, and who are ‘born again and born of the Spirit’ is a non sequitur, and more importantly, contradicts what we find in Scripture. The church, from Abraham onwards, has been a family. At the very least that means it contains children who are being instructed and taught in the faith, and whose experience or otherwise it would be hard to comment on. More theologically, we cannot see election; we are simply not able to identify those who are truly born again. God knows that, and we do not. If that were not the case, what would be the need of preaching to the church? Why the exhortations to endure, the warnings against falling away? Preach outside, by all means, but if those inside are all elect there is no more to do. But of course that would be absurd. The church is always a mixture of believers and unbelievers. Note, this is not the same thing as saying a mixture of true teachers and false teachers. The teaching of the church must be faithful and true. The purpose of church government is to hold ministers and elders accountable for their adherence to the faith once delivered to the saints. The elders of the church are obliged to make a credible profession of the one true faith a requirement for church membership. But the church cannot be construed as a gathering of the elect; this is not the case in either the Old Testament or New Testament. The existence of preaching, exhortation, warnings against apostacy, and church discipline in the church all show that it cannot be that.

In fact, this aspect of Lloyd-Jones’ view of the church – that it is a gathering of the truly converted – makes his own appeal to unity at a church level impossible. Because such a view of the church cannot see there even being a church where there is no gathering. So any unity at a supra-congregational level must by definition be one merely of voluntary association; of a movement, we might say. That indeed is the conviction, quite consistently, of those who hold to Independent church government. But to call for unity at the level of church, not just movements, is to presume that the church does have some identity which transcends the physical gathering of a number of converted people. There is therefore, to my mind, a crashing contradiction in the penultimate sentence of Lloyd-Jones’ appeal, in which he expressed his hope that we might look back on this time as an opportunity which

‘…made us face our problems on the church level instead of on the level of movements, and really brought us together as a fellowship, or an association, of evangelical churches.’

The problem with this is that a ‘fellowship’ or ‘association’ is a ‘movement’, not something ‘at the church level’. Lloyd-Jones displays an incompatibility between the instincts of his Presbyterian background (desire for unity at the church level) and the theology of the gathered-elect church which he clearly held to.

And so on that front Stott’s refutation was absolutely right. He heard Lloyd-Jones’ appeal as a call to a pure gathering of the elect which he knew to be both practically impossible and theologically unwarranted. Ironically, it could be argued that it was his belief in unity ‘at a church level’ which drove him to disagree with Lloyd-Jones! For had his call been heeded what would have resulted would have been a mere association, and not an ecclesiological unity at all. And so Stott concluded, as his followers have done ever since, that his appeal had to be dismissed as a whole in favour of working within the Anglican structures as the only alternative.

And thus was set up a classic false dichotomy. Stott and the Anglicans saw, quite rightly, that pure-gathered-church independency is not only impossible but unbiblical. The letters to the seven churches would never have been written as they are if it were correct; the entire book of Acts is suffused with the interconnection of churches at a level far deeper than just a parachurch movement or association. Lloyd-Jones and the independents saw, quite rightly, that formal-church-communion-with-false-teachers is not only unbiblical but self-contradictory. You cannot claim independence from those you are bound to by your church constitution, practice and your ordination vows; and thus to remain in such a communion, and for men entering ministry to go on making such ordination vows, is a violation of every New Testament verse on false teachers. Thus each was right – and each, quite wrongly, assumed that the only viable alternative to the other position was his own. And this false dichotomy has remained a defining feature of evangelicalism in England to this day. If I see the unacceptability of Anglicanism, I must be an independent; If I can’t embrace independency, I must be an Anglican.

The tragedy which Presbyterians see here is that national-church episcopacy and gathered-church independency are not the only options on the ecclesiological table. But in England in 1966 it seemed like that, and for many evangelicals in England it still does. This tragedy is particularly hard to understand, for the alternative and, to our mind, manifestly more biblical doctrine of the church is hardly a closely-guarded secret. It is possibly the majority view among orthodox protestants in America and much of Western Europe, it is all but universal north of the border in Scotland, it was the mainstream view in the continental Reformation, and it received its clearest historical exposition in the standards written in, and named after, a building not 200 yards from where Lloyd-Jones and Stott had their disagreement! It is the Presbyterian view, found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the church is a covenant family.

We can summarise this view as follows:

– The church is defined by God’s covenant made with her in Christ. As all through the Bible, the covenant is made unilaterally by God, and we are required to respond to his promises in faith. In making his covenant with us God has constituted us as his people, one family, bound to our one Lord by his one gospel of his death, resurrection and return

– The church as a family has a real identity even when she is not gathered. There is a real unity between believers, and a real connection between churches, even when they are not physically together. For the same reason, there is a real communion with our forefathers who went before us and with our children who will come after us. The church is a family where our children are counted as part of the family, and are instructed in and urged to believe the faith of the covenant family into which they have been born, and brought up identified as Christian people.

– The church as we see her – public and visible – is the same church as God sees in his eternal decrees, yet we do not see her edges the way God does. The church is the context wherein it is possible to have faith, in which we are constantly called to believe the covenant promises made to us in Christ, and in which discipline is to be maintained to exclude open unbelief; but we overreach ourselves and bring on our heads all sorts of pastoral problems if we believe we can identify the elect. God sees election; we can only see profession of faith and public manner of life. So the church is not a pure church, for that awaits the return of the Lord. But she is a place of pure doctrine, where the teaching of the faith is to be clear, unified, public, and enforced.

– The bonds of fellowship between churches are therefore real, solid, and accountable. Accountability means not a mere association but fellowship with teeth. It means the power to choose, ordain, discipline and dismiss ministers. It means pooling resources to finance new churches and support weak ones. It means that ministers and elders are themselves men under authority; the authority of the ‘council of elders’ who ordained them, whose authority derives from Christ himself. The church cannot and must not tolerate false teaching, and false teachers must be driven from the church. The church is defined by the gospel, and the councils of the church are to uphold, preserve, teach and proclaim that gospel.

It is a tragedy that for so many Evangelicals in England, the existence of this view of the church has remained so unknown. If there is a particularly sad effect of the Stott-Lloyd-Jones debacle then this is it. As one wise, elderly Anglican clergyman confided in me as a young man just starting in ministry, ‘Biblically there is no answer to Presbyterianism… if I had had the opportunity, I would have been a Presbyterian. But in England, it just has not been an option.’

But this need be so no longer. It is of course true that we will continue to need ‘movements’ and ‘associations’ to show what unity we can at a sub-church level. We need them because differences over exactly this question of the nature of the church persist. For that reason, may God bless Regional Gospel Partnerships, and other parachurch bodies such as Affinity. Furthermore, for Independents who are theologically committed never to rise above the ‘association’ level of unity – quite properly, given their view of the church –  I am delighted that organisations such as the FIEC exist to give a loose connection between churches rather than none whatsoever.

But surely, 50 years on, with the horrific effects of secularism unfolding around us in a manner neither Stott nor Lloyd-Jones could have imagined in 1966, it is time to heed what Lloyd-Jones got so right, and with which Stott, in a real but different way, concurred: we should indeed ‘face our problems on the church level instead of on the level of movements’. But to do so will require not a gathering-of-the-elect nor a communion-with-false-teachers but a covenant-family view of the church; that is, a Presbyterian ecclesiology.  Presbyterian churches are still few and far between in England, but they are multiplying as more and more people realise that evangelicals in our country have been living a false dichotomy for fifty years; and that the glorious unity of the church means real, covenantal unity in Christ and can be wonderfully expressed, as biblically it should be, in the formal and organic union of the church as a covenant family. In embracing this, believers in England have the opportunity to rediscover what vast numbers of our brothers and sisters in Reformed, orthodox churches all over the world have long understood as part of basic evangelical Christianity: the unity of the church in the gospel, as Christ prayed for and as the scriptures urge us to, is, can and should be expressed in the nature of the church herself. The more we do so, the more we will find our witness strengthened, our fellowship deepened and our understanding of the gospel enriched. May God speed the day.

‘My sexuality is part of who I am’ – the gay bishop and the gospel

I want to offer two comments on the ongoing disaster in the Church of England, one about the circumstances of this bishop’s life and one, more serious, about the nature of Christianity itself.

First, it appears that the conservative wing of the church have been somewhat blindsided by the language of ‘gay but celibate’. When this language was first adopted as the official position of what was allowed of clergy a number of years ago, it was assumed by conservatives (with some relief) that what this meant was that it was acceptable for the clergy to experience homosexual attraction but not acceptable to follow through on it. That is of course correct; all Christians are tempted by the desires of our flesh, of all sorts; godliness consists not in whether we are tempted but in whether that temptation is resisted.

What they apparently did not foresee was the way that phrase has in fact been applied, as demonstrated in this case: that it is fine for a man (or woman) to live in a pseudo-marriage with a same-sex partner, provided that it is claimed (contrary to all appearances) that the relationship is not sexual. This is, to say the least, stretching credulity; does anyone really believe this to be true? If a man in my church calls a woman his ‘girlfriend’ and entertains her in his room for the night, I am not inclined to believe his protestations of chastity. Moreover, the Bishop of Grantham describes the relationship as ‘faithful’. What could this possibly mean if the relationship is not sexual? I am faithful to my wife because I make love to her and to no-one else. ‘Faithfulness’ (in the sense of exclusivity) as a category simply does not apply to non-sexual friendships.

Of course we could never know whether the bishop is telling the truth, much as it might be somewhat naïve to take it at face value. But that is beside the point. We are told by God in Scripture to flee immorality, to give no opportunity for the flesh, to pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin. At the very least his domestic arrangements are a dramatic failure to do any of those things, and to expose himself to temptation in a drastic and constant fashion. If sodomy is a serious sin (as the Bible is so clear it is, and as the C of E still officially maintains) then for a man who confesses himself tempted by it to do anything other than flee as far as he can from it and lead himself not into temptation – as he, if he is a Christian, should pray daily that God would do for him – is itself a moral failure of a very serious kind. If a man confesses to me that he is strongly attracted to a woman who is not his wife, I do not pat him on the back if he says that, while they regularly spend the night at each others’ houses and refer to themselves as ‘partners’, they never actually have sex. He is either lying, or deliberately putting temptation in his (and her) way, or, most probably, both. Neither is, of course, remotely compatible with being a man who can be an example to the flock.

It seems therefore that the only course for evangelicals in the C of E is to cry foul; ‘gay but celibate’ is not a good enough definition of an acceptable lifestyle for any Christians, clergy included. ‘Recognising the sinfulness of all sexual sin, homosexual activity included, and living in a way which demonstrates diligent fleeing from it and avoidance of temptation’ would be far better. The archbishop of Canterbury’s failure to insist on that in this case is of course a matter of the gravest concern.

 

But second, serious as this matter is, it is not in my view the most serious thing which is going on here. For that, we should consider the bishop’s words in his BBC interview. Twice he said, ‘my sexuality is part of who I am’; and used that as the basis for justifying his lifestyle. He has conducted his ministry, he said, ‘as a gay man’. And in saying that he demonstrated a total failure either to understand, or to believe, the Christian gospel.

Because the gospel is about how God, in Christ, rescues us from who we are. At the heart of Jesus’ message is that evil begins, not outside of us, but within us; it is from the heart that all evil springs. That is why Christ’s mission is one of rescue, of opening blind eyes, of softening hard hearts, of enabling us to see our hearts for what they are, so that abandoning our love of self we will flee to him to save us from what we are and transform us into what we are not. Jesus’ death on the cross was precisely to atone for who we are; to take away the corruption of our flesh, to crucify it along with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). Jesus’ was raised from the dead by the Father so that, as the risen crucified one, he could give life to the dead. For we were ‘dead in our transgressions and sins’, ‘carrying out the desires of the body and the mind’ until ‘God raised us up with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:1,3,5). Christianity is about the risen Christ saving us from who we naturally are.

But the liberal wing of the C of E, as exemplified in this case by the bishop of Grantham, takes ‘who I am’ as being something fundamentally good. Because I find a certain sexual desire in my heart, it must be right for that desire to be fulfilled. More than that, to accept that ‘gay’ is a valid identity marker for a Christian is to accept that we are defined by the desires of our hearts. But the whole nature of the Christian gospel – Galatians 5:16-24 would be a classic example – is that while we might have been defined by our desires before we were Christians, Christ has saved Christians from them. Our identity is no longer in our lusts and passions, it is in Christ. They no longer define us; he does. ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’. In the place of the works of the flesh we are given the fruits of the Spirit.

And so – and this cannot be emphasised too strongly – the divisions in the Church of England are not over the rightness or wrongness of certain sexual acts, nor even over the definition of marriage. They are mere symptoms. The division is over what the gospel is. For a century and more the liberal wing of the church of England has been redefining Christianity as being essentially an exercise in moral self-improvement; we are by nature good, albeit with some problems, and Jesus’ function (and the Bible’s too) is to have set us an example and given us moral ideas and inspiration for how to improve ourselves and our world. In that century Liberalism has shown itself quite willing to amend the moral example and ideas it sees in Christ according to the prevailing winds of the culture, from Victorian moralism to wartime nationalism to today’s liberalism. That is of relatively minor significance; what matters is that it is a version of Christianity which is essentially Pelagian, a belief that human nature is fundamentally sound. Who we are is definitively good, our natural instincts, desires and capabilities are to be valued, and God merely offers his help to our programme of self-improvement.

Over against this stands historic Christianity. Which is, fundamentally, about redemption. That is, that God in Christ has come to do for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. He has come to save us from sin, as his very name tells us (Matt 1:21); which, as the entire New Testament demonstrates and teaches, includes both the guilt of our sins and the power of our sins. Christ died to save his church from the wrath of God. And along with that, he died to save them from the enslaving power of sin. What we naturally are is glorious, for we are the images of God; but also so drastically twisted by sin that for our desires to do anything other than lead us to condemnation before God’s throne, they need to be first overcome and redeemed by the miraculous work of the Spirit in our lives. Being a liar is part of who I am; being an idolater is part of who I am; being proud and self-centred is part of who I am. And at the heart of the gospel is that the eternal Son of God became flesh, lived a righteous life, suffered and died and rose again in order to deliver me from who I am. So let me say: my sexuality is part of who I am too. And I, like everyone who has encountered the grace of God in Christ, I am eternally grateful to him for having delivered me from who I am, my sexuality included. For my sexual desires, like those of every human being, are twisted from their God-given function in marriage towards all sorts of destructive ends. And it is only by the grace of God that I have been delivered from slavery to them. ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Romand 7:24-25)

So the height of the tragedy of this case is that this bishop – and countless others like him in the Church of England – has apparently never known the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ stands ready to save us all – including him – from who we are, and from God’s righteous judgment upon who we are. Christ gave himself up to death in order to deliver all those who will come to him from the slavery that our passions and desires are to us. Christ commands all of us, this man included, to repent of our sins and believe in him. And he promises to all who do that, although it might feel like plucking out our right eye and cutting off our right hand, that nevertheless it is the entrance into an eternal life of freedom from sin and enjoyment of God himself that infinitely outweighs what we have lost. No-one who has experience what it is to be delivered by Jesus Christ from what we naturally are could possibly want to cling on to it, or be identified with it, any longer.

If the conservatives in the C of E want to stand firm on this, that is what they need to be saying. It is the gospel of salvation from sin which is at stake here. And that is Christianity itself.

Naked Attraction: Secular love laid bare

There’s a new reality TV dating show. Naked Attraction apparently – I haven’t watched it, and nor will I – gets contestants to choose who they want to go on a date with based simply on their appearance, from the neck down, with no clothes on.

This show sums up a secular view of ‘love’ perfectly. If we want to see what relationships have come to mean in a society which has abandoned the worship of the Christian God in favour of a worship of the self, we need look no further.

A romantic relationship is boiled down to a single factor: does this person meet my requirements for giving me sexual pleasure? Love has become as purely about self as that.

CS Lewis wrote in ‘The Four Loves’ of the error of saying a lustful man ‘wants a woman’. ‘Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus.’ In this TV show the wisdom of Lewis’ words is perfectly demonstrated: is this person’s body the necessary piece of apparatus for the experience I am looking for?

The mainstream press had plenty of comment on the crass tastelessness of the show, but has been unable, it seemed, to find anything morally objectionable about it. That is telling. For this show simply strips down to the core what the secular view of love, which now prevails over British society, is. It is about finding someone who is the necessary piece of apparatus for my needs, physical and emotional. That is why in a secular world we no longer have spouses, we have ‘partners’, associates whom we remain with as long as it suits us and no longer; that is why everyone must be free to seek whatever sexual experience they happen to desire; that is why it is inconceivable to the secular mind that anyone should stay with a ‘partner’ who is no longer fulfilling his or her needs.

And so ‘love’ has become reduced to a form of two-way prostitution. I want a certain sexual-emotional experience; and I am prepared to pay for it with the currency of the sexual and emotional favours I can provide. And conversely, I will prostitute my body to another provided he or she pays me with an adequate physical and emotional satisfaction in return. And if at any point the price is no longer right, I will withdraw my own wares from the market.

This is where post-Christian secular society has ended up. Free and equal love is not love at all. ‘Naked Attraction’ strips it down to its logical end-point, its essence in perhaps its purest form. If you have, if you are, the apparatus I want, and if the apparatus of my body is a fee you are prepared to accept, we have a deal.

There is an alternative to this miserable circus of self-gratification. It is love – Christian love. Which could not be more opposite. A love which is founded in another man who was stripped naked – in his execution. Jesus, by his death, defined true love as being a sworn promise of total self-sacrifice for another with no condition whatsoever attached. Real love is unconditional surrender of self.

Which is why, in the sexual realm, true love means marriage. Marriage is modelled on Jesus’ relationship with his church: his bride for whom he laid down his life, for whom he endured all the torments of hell, in order to rescue, restore, treasure and beautify her. So marriage means making vows, vows of absolute self-sacrifice, of total self-denial for the good of the other, with no conditions attached. Vows which are made before any favours have been received and which are unconditional on any favours being received.

The hideous ugliness of atheism’s attempts at love is, it seems, daily more clearly on display. Our pornographic culture has stripped it bare for us and exposed it for what it is. In Jesus Christ and his Church the exquisite beauty of real love is displayed and found. Christians have never had a better opportunity to proclaim the good news of God’s love in Christ; non-Christians have never had a better incentive to come and find it.

The Gospel and the Rainbow

With the General Synod of the Church of England meeting this weekend to engage in more ‘shared conversations’ about sexuality, the relationship of the LGBT movement to Christianity will once again be in the headlines. The fact that this is presented by the Church of England as a discussion amongst Christians assumes that this is a question on which Christians may legitimately disagree, a matter of secondary importance, something which does not bear on the very nature of the gospel itself.

This is, perhaps paradoxically, affirmed by the tendency of conservative Christians to speak of the issue as being fundamentally about the authority of Scripture. It certainly is about that of course, and Scripture is perfectly clear on the matter. Yet framing the discussion in this way almost inevitably makes it appear that this issue is simply a question of the interpretation of a limited number of biblical texts. And once something is considered to be ‘a matter of interpretation’, then it is virtually defined as being of secondary importance.

But this would be a mistake. A parallel may be drawn with the Arian controversy of the 4th century. Arius and his followers argued that Jesus was not himself God, but was the first and greatest of God’s creations. Arius and his followers had an impressive list of Biblical texts to appeal to to back up their position. Now, with the perspective of a millennium and more of hindsight it is perfectly clear that their reading of these texts was false, and the arguments based on them do not stand. And yet at the time it was not sufficient for orthodox Christians to argue simply on the question of the exegesis of the texts which specifically address the issue. To do so made the issue look like it was merely a matter of tricky interpretive questions on a limited number of texts.

Famously, the debate was eventually settled (principally thanks to Athanasius) not merely by careful examination of texts on the eternal deity of the Son, but by asking how the gospel of salvation from sin by Jesus through his death and resurrection would fit with an Arian account of who Jesus is. And when that question was asked, the issue became abundantly clear. A Christ who is less than God could not redeem and recreate God’s creations; the death of a Christ who is less than God could not save a single sinner. If Arius is right, the gospel is destroyed. So that before anyone could accept Arius’ version of Jesus, that person must already have abandoned (or perhaps simply never embraced) the gospel that lies so plainly on every page of the Bible. It is not a handful of texts on the eternal nature of Christ which opposes Arius; it is the very nature of the gospel itself, as we find it from Genesis to Revelation.

Here is the key to dealing with the LGBT issue. We must see how the gospel of salvation from sin by Jesus through his death and resurrection fits, or fails to fit, with the assumptions of the LGBT movement.

The gospel of Salvation from Sin

For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven. So says the Nicene Creed. Jesus came to save us. What did he come to save us from? Jesus’ very name tells us (Matthew 1:21): he came to save his people from their sins.

Now there are two aspects to this: he came to save us from the guilt of our sins and from the power of our sins. First, the guilt of our sins: our lawbreaking leaves us facing the wrath of God on the coming day of judgment, and the heart of the atonement is how God has propitiated his wrath towards us through the willing sacrifice of his incarnate Son. God forbid we should ever allow that to be displaced from its central importance in the gospel.

But Jesus also rescues us from the power of sin. As well as rendering us guilty before God, sin exerts a control over human beings such that we are driven by our corrupt, sinful natures to sin. Sin is a corruption in the heart, a twisting of our hearts’ desires, before it ever is expressed in actual sinful actions.

Consider Jesus’ words:

For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these come from within, and they defile a person (Mark 7:21-23)

Jesus came to deliver us from this inner corruption of our hearts. Again, he says

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’. (John 8:34,36)

Our problem, according to Jesus, is that sin has enslaved us. It is a slavery that operates at the level of our hearts: we want to sin, to do the wrong thing. Our desires have been taken captive by sin and twisted so that our hearts are turned and hardened against God. It is enslavement to our own desires that Jesus came to save us from.

This lies at the heart of how the Apostles’ expand the gospel in the epistles. Paul writes

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

(Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)

Our deadness – our total inability to help ourselves, and our inevitable destination of death and divine judgment – is caused by living ‘in the passions of our flesh’. Again, our problem is with what we want to do. We carried out the desires of the body and the mind.

And that is the problem Christ came to rescue us from:

…[you] were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:21-24 ESV)

Our old, pre-Christian life, our natural self, was one of corruption through deceitful desires. James says the same (James 1:14-15; 4:1-3). So does Peter (1 Peter 2:11). So do John and Jude (1 John 2:16-17; Jude 7). But Christ has redeemed us: he came to rescue us from our sinful desires, by cancelling the debt of sin we owe to God, and then by transforming us into God’s own likeness by the work of the Spirit.

Now it needs to be pointed out that this is no minority opinion or denominational distinctive. I write as a Presbyterian, and a member of the Reformed tradition of theology. But while this tradition has been particularly concerned to give due weight to this aspect of the gospel, it is nevertheless the case that every theological tradition from the birth of the church onwards has held it to be essential. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Arminian, Anglican and Baptist theologians have all understood that our rescue from the sinful desires of our human nature is absolutely essential to the gospel. Anglicanism emphatically affirms it in Article 9 of the 39 Articles. These traditions have differed – sometimes dramatically – over the depth and extent of the problem, the means by which Christ delivers from it, and how we are to address it in our own lives and the life of the church. But on the belief that our natural desires are a major part of our problem, from which Christ has come to deliver us, they are all united. The only alternative to that is Pelagianism, the belief in the essential goodness of human nature, which has been recognised as a heresy by all.

LGBT and the gospel

Once we have seen this, the relevance to the LGBT movement is obvious. The central meaning of the colours on the striped flag of the movement, and the ever-growing string of letters in its preferred acronym, is that sexual desire of every slant and hue is both legitimate and good. Furthermore, it holds that our sexual desires define us: a person is gay, or lesbian, or queer, or whatever, because what a person desires sexually to do or to be is his or her identity. And that identity is one which is so integral to personhood that to deny or suppress it is to strike at his or her very self.

The LGBT movement is, if you like, a gospel: our natural desires are good, society has forced us to suppress them, and we can now be set free from that and all else that would restrict us from fulfilling them. The Christian gospel, in contrast, is that our natural desires are at the heart of our problem; and Christ came to set us free from them through his atoning blood and the re-creating work of the Holy Spirit. Two more entirely opposite gospels could not be imagined.

The belief that, when a person desires a certain sort of sexual experience or fulfilment, that desire must be assumed to be good and its fulfilment must be allowed, is indispensable to the LGBT movement. And that same belief is absolutely impossible for a Christian to accept. To do so would require a complete negation of the entire Biblical concept of Sin and Christ’s rescue from it. Therefore, before someone can accept the fundamental premise of the LGBT movement, he or she must either have abandoned the gospel of salvation from sin as held all through history by the church, or simply never held it in the first place.

For Christians know that far from being good, wholesome, and identity-defining, our desires are exactly our problem. My heart is a mass of warped desires and lusts, sexual and non-sexual. Before I became a Christian, I probably considered some of those desires essential to my identity. But Christ has delivered me from that; he has forgiven me for the darkness of my heart and the things it has caused me to do; and through his Holy Spirit given me a wholly new love for Christ in the strength of which he has taught me, and equipped me, to deny myself and put to death my natural desires. In doing so he has given me a whole new identity in Christ. No Christian can consider himself ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or any other of the LGBT identities, for every Christian knows that he is defined no longer by his desires but by Christ. Plenty of Christians experience sexual temptation, of course, in all sorts of forms; and as Christ taught us, we pray daily not to be led into them and to be delivered from them. We certainly no longer define ourselves by them. Our Lord gave his life upon the cross to save us from doing that.

This is why the Christian gospel is such vastly better news for those in the LGBT movement than that movement’s own gospel. True life is found not in an endless pursuit of satisfaction of desires, far less in finding our identity in their fulfilment. It is found in turning our backs on them and submitting ourselves, body and soul, to the life-giving love of Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. That is what Jesus meant to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. He calls us to put our old selves to death, and in refusing to indulge the things we crave, and instead throwing ourselves upon his mercy and into his service, we find God raises us with him to an infinitely sweeter, richer, more human life. It might – it probably will – feel to us at first that we are cutting off our hand or plucking out our right eye. But it is better to do so and then enter life, as those who trust Christ most surely will.

Indeed, the rainbow itself, appropriated (in straightened and truncated form) by the LGBT movement as its flag, makes this very point. The Genesis account makes it clear that the reason why God’s gracious covenant not to flood the world again was necessary was because of the evil of man’s heart (Genesis 6:5; 8:21: 9:12-16). It is a promise of God’s patient forbearance in the face of the warped desires of our hearts, and the coming day when there would be a sacrifice which would deal with sinfulness of men in a way that saves them rather than, as the flood did, destroys them. The rainbow proclaims the deliverance from our desires that Christ will bring, not the miserable lie that life is found by letting our desires define us.

And so there is nothing less at stake here than the very nature of the Christian gospel. If God was wrong in the Old Testament in his verdict on the human heart; if the angel was wrong in giving the incarnate Son of God the name Jesus; if Jesus was wrong in his assessment of what he came to save us from; if the apostles were wrong in their description of the gospel once for all delivered to the saints; and if the church has been wrong about salvation from the power of sin all through her history – then rightness of the LGBT agenda, and the whole libertarian sexual ethic of our wider society of which it is a piece, may indeed be accepted. But not, however, otherwise. We may embrace the striped flag of the LGBT movement, or we may embrace the cross of Jesus Christ. But we cannot embrace both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abortion, marriage and idolatry: speaking rightly about abortion

Over in America, the undercover videos from Planned Parenthood (despite being largely ignored by the British media – the outrageous killing of Cecil the lion being, of course, far more significant) have thrown a spotlight on the barbarity which abortion is. They have demonstrated in a particularly compelling way that abortion is infanticide, pure and simple. These are boys and girls, human beings, whose human lives have been ended, whose human bodies have dissected, bagged and sold.

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.