Sunday, 20 May 2018

Pentecost and the royal wedding sermon

Today is Pentecost. It's the day Christians remember among other things, that by his Spirit God works in believers what they cannot work in themselves. Coming to faith in Christ they are recreated to do good works (Eph 2v10) and made a new humanity (Eph 2v15) who can now live in true love (Eph 3v16-19) as a foreteaste of the perfect love and righteousness that Christ will bring about at his return, when he makes all things new (2 Pet 3v11-13). And so to yesterday's royal wedding sermon.

Facebook has been alive with enthusiasm. And I get that. I felt moved too. At one level I suspect this was because of the passionate talk about Jesus to offset the sleep inducing tones of the British clergy (someone please tell them how to smile and be personable). At another, I suspect it was because our expectation of these events is so low, and this guy spoke about the redemptive love of Christ! Finally, I think this enthusiasm reflects the fact that as Christians we heard what was said through Christian ears. So when we heard of the power of love, we thought of the love Christ works in those who trust him - the love of the Spirit given to all who've sought his forgiveness. But (and I really hate feeling the Eeyore) I'm certain the millions who listened in didn't hear it that way at all.

I've read the sermon online to be sure of what was said, and what it seems to proclaim is the gospel of try harder. It's hope, it's good news was that we, everyone, can bring about a new creation if only we will love one-another more powerfully. Just consider this paragraph: "Cause when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well, like we are actually family. When love is the way we know that God is the source of us all. And we are brother and sisters, children of God. Brothers and sisters, that's a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family." Think now on how the sermon ends: "Dr King was right: we must discover love – the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world."

What's heard then is quite simple: "Let's try harder." What's heard is that, whoever we are, whatever we believe, we are able to do for ourselves what in truth only Christ can do.

Now it's possible Curry may not have intended that. But he is the head of a liberal denomination and this is the gospel of liberal Christianity - the gospel of our secular age. Yet this is not the true gospel. The true gospel is about Christ's remedy for the fact that we can't change the world by trying harder. The true gospel addresses the fact that no matter how hard we think we are trying, strife and poverty and racism continue because we don't (and can't) love as we should love. The gospel is therefore honest about sin. And by being honest, by speaking about the unpalatable stuff, the gospel gives true hope - real, practical hope to Harry and Megan, and to all couples who find in marriage that they can't love as they have promised to love. It proclaims that Christ alone can and will change the world, that he is returning to make it new, and wonderfully, generously, graciously calls us to share in that. The gospel is about God the Son in love pacifying his Father's right outrage at how unloving we are, and then transforming those who come to him so they can start to love with his love as children of God. That's the gospel.

Michael Curry's sermon was great rhetoric. And because those of our age are drawn more by the medium than the message, God may well use it to draw people towards Christ. But to my mind his message was at best unclear on the gospel, and at worst intentionally so.

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Wednesday, 20 December 2017

A middle way on spiritual gifts

This year the publication of Sam Storms book "Practicing the Power" seems to have reignited debates over spiritual gifts. And this remains a live issue in churches. Ours is a day in which Christians experience a variety of church fellowships and this naturally leads to questions about the practices churches may differ on. What expectation should we have of the more supernatural gifts such as receiving prophetic revelations or insights called words of wisdom or knowledge, being used in healing or other miracles, praying in a supernatural language known as “tongues,” or discerning whether someone is influenced by demons or the Holy Spirit? Although this is not the place for detailed examination of what these gifts actually are, two views seem prevalent in considering the extent to which they should be expected.

The majority historic view is known as “cessationism.” It holds that the more miraculous gifts seen during the time of the New Testament ceased with the ending of the apostolic age. They point out that the New Testament tells us that such things were “marks of a true apostle” (2 Cor 12v12), intended to bear witness that their message was from God (Heb 2v3-4) as the “foundation” on which the church would be built (Eph 2v20, 3v5). Because the foundation is now laid and Paul was the last apostle (1 Cor 15v8), cessationists argue, such things have now ceased.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century a view known as “continuationism” has became increasingly dominant. It is the view of Christians who call themselves “charismatics” after the Greek “charismata” (meaning "gifts"). They hold that the more miraculous gifts of the New Testament should be sought and expected to the same extent today as they were then. They point out that the New Testament tells us that the entire “last days” between Jesus’ ascension and return is to be marked by “prophecy” and “signs and wonders” (Acts 2v17-21), and that “prophecy” and “tongues” will only cease when the Christians sees God “face to face” (1 Cor 13v8-12) which is when Christ returns. Because such things continue, continuists argue, we should expect them as much today as people did then.

To our mind there are two problems with both views. First, neither does justice to the compelling arguments of the other. The fact is that scripture does seem to teach that the miraculous gifts were marks of apostleship and in some sense foundational, but also that they characterise the last days in which the Spirit is poured out and so can be expected to continue to some extent.

Second, neither acknowledges the realities of the church’s experience. Cessationists accept that God might grant revelations or performs miracles or impress something on a believer, but stress that we cannot expect such things as the norm. But what makes something normative? If these things are taking place regularly, surely it is more honest to accept that to at least some extent the gifts do continue. Not doing so, not only fails to do justice to the nuances of the Bible’s teaching but can keep Christians from praying for or acknowledging genuine works of the Spirit. However, that is not to say continuists have it. Their problem is that contemporary experience just doesn’t fit what we read of in the New Testament. It is certainly not the norm to see limbs grow and the dead raised. And this needs acknowledgement too. Otherwise Christians and churches assume they are somehow failing when they don’t see such things. Moreover, it can lead them to claim the gifts are in evidence when they are not because of the desire to feel God is at work as he was in the first century. For example, whereas the model for NT prophecy is that of the OT (Num 12v6, Acts 2v17) meaning that it comes predominantly by vision or dream and with accuracy, continuists claim anything God spontaneously brings to mind for others is prophecy. And whereas “words of wisdom” or “knowledge” (1 Cor 12v8) in the wider context are most likely the ability to speak out the wisdom of the gospel or knowledge about God and his moral will (1 Cor 2v6-7, 8v1-7), these are now said to be the speaking out of whatever is impressed upon you about others. Again, whereas biblical healings are almost always definite, immediate, physical and total, today slow, partial and inner healings are all celebrated as miraculous, and the vast majority who are not healed are rarely acknowledged.  

All this leads our view to be midway between the two. It might be titled “contractionism” because it argues that the gifts do continue beyond the time of the apostles but in a more limited sense. It seeks to do justice to the fact that the age of the apostles was unique and so marked by a powerful outpouring of the miraculous in order to authenticate these men and the message they carried as the foundation for the church. But it also seeks to do justice to the fact that the wider need of the gifts has not ceased. Although no Christian expects God to be revealing the gospel or its implications by prophecy now we have the New Testament, there may still be famines the church needs a prophecy for in order to prepare (Acts 11v28). Likewise, there are still sick people in need of healing, prayers that might be said in tongues, and unbelievers who by witnessing the miraculous will consider the gospel the church proclaims. This view protects us against a failure to seeking such things from God, but also against assuming failure unless the book of Acts is in evidence today.

From principle to practice
What then for the way ahead? Quite simply, it is to get on with the priorities of church life with a longing prayerfulness for God to grant by his Spirit whatever gifts are most needed for the upbuilding and witness of the church – but to do this with a clear understanding from scripture as to what these gifts actually entail, and an eye out for how the Lord might be giving them. If someone has a vision-like experience or vivid dream in which they are convinced God is revealing something, they should talk to their elders as it may be a prophecy for the church. If someone is sick, the elders should pray expectantly for healing (James 5v14-15), but any who sense a particular compelling to pray should also do so, but communicating that although healing may be given it is not actually promised. If someone feels moved to pray out in an unknown language at home, they should freely do so, and if in church, only with a conviction that someone has been given an interpretation of it (1 Cor 14v27-28). If someone is convinced the Holy Spirit has given them an impression, compelling or picture as guidance or insight for themselves or for others, they should not describe it as a word from God as this is not how scripture portrays it – rather they should consider it as no more than God’s possible leading.

The key objection cessationists could make to this is that claiming prophecy continues to be accurate and authoritative undermines the sufficiency of scripture. But this is not so. Scripture claims to be sufficient for making us wise to salvation and training us in righteousness. All agree that prophecy revealing these sort of truths was foundational and has ceased. The sorts of prophecies that can be expected are therefore more circumstantial. If, for example, a prophecy is given that warns of a coming famine, there is no challenge to scripture in saying this is accurate and authoritative. But it would certainly need to be if the church is to take it into account in the decisions it makes.

The objection continuists might make is that in practice the contractionist view will simply allow churches to continue without promoting spiritual gifts. The response here is simply that bad practice doesn't negate the truthfulness of a matter. All churches are responsible for understanding the Bible's teaching correctly and acting accordingly as they consider is best.

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Thursday, 26 October 2017

Abortion contravenes the very values our society cherishes most

This Friday marks fifty years since the abortion act. During that time 8.7 million abortions have taken place within the UK – around 200,000 a year. To get some perspective, if all those babies had lived, that’s the equivalent to the combined population of Scotland and Wales.

Of course whether or not a woman can have an abortion is deeply significant for her. It’s her future that will be impacted if a baby is born. The choice to abort is therefore seen as critical to gender equality – to the woman maintaining her rights over her own body and her freedom to fulfil her potential. Moreover, if she is unable to have an abortion legally, she may seek out an illegal and potential dangerous one.

But when one considers it, this defence of abortion is filled with tragic irony.

Abortion undermines equality.
It is profoundly discriminatory. Many still baulk at the sex-selective abortion, but you cannot consistently deny the woman’s right to abort according to the gender of the child if you have just affirmed her rights over her body and her freedom to fulfil her potential as she wishes. Yet sex-selective abortion usually is one that discriminates against girls and so against women.

However, abortion doesn’t only discriminate according to gender. Abortion discriminates against those with disability, downs syndrome and even a cleft palate, as babies with these conditions are aborted and so unable to contribute to society.

Abortion breaches rights.
A free society is one that always has to balance what it calls "rights," with some curtailed so that others are upheld. Yet abortion is deeply individualistic, disregarding the communal aspects of having children. The rights of wider society to benefit from the child even if he or she suffers from a disability is rarely considered. But many have experienced how enriching it can be to learn how to accept and care for those who struggle because of disability. And what of the rights of wider family to the child that has been conceived?

Of course the major right to be considered is the right of the baby itself - it’s right to life and to protection from harm. It is not simply a part of the women’s body. Whether one is ready to accept the foetus as a person or not, it is certainly an individual entity being readied for independent life and personhood. From conception it has its full 46 chromosomes and entire genetic makeup. Its sex is therefore determined, as is its future growth to some extent. The mother may not want a baby, and the pregnancy may even have arisen from abuse, but the fact is that from the beginning this developing individual is at his or her most vulnerable, entirely dependent on the mother for protection. There is nothing “pro-women” in a woman’s choice to abort such dependents. Pregnancy brings responsibility. And where a mother chooses to continue the pregnancy despite the potential harm or difficulty it might bring her, she is doing something extremely noble. To love is to give up one’s rights for the good of others, especially those in need.

Abortion does harm.
One in three women will have an abortion during their lifetime. Yet many who have, speak of profound regret, guilt and despair at what they’ve done. We might also consider the harm the acceptance of abortion does to our cultural mindset – to how we view children or life, and to how it encourages sexual promiscuity with all the psychological and emotional fallout that can accompany it. But the greatest harm is surely done to the babies themselves. By eight weeks they can respond to touch, implying sensitivity and possibly pain. At twenty weeks they can experience pain more intensely than adults as their pain system is established but its modifying component isn’t. It is in the light of this that we must consider how exactly abortions are carried out.

Medication is used for those early in pregnancy. Pills are taken to end the life of the baby and cause the uterus to expel it. However, 90% of abortions of up to twelve weeks into the pregnancy are not conducted in this way. Rather, they involve a suction tube that may be used to first kill and dismember the baby, before sucking its various parts out for disposal. And what of the 42,000 babies aborted each year after twelve weeks? They can’t come out as easily, and so have to be crushed to death and broken apart with medical tools in order to be extracted. If still later in the pregnancy, contractions have to be induced to expel the baby which will either die in the process or be given a drug to ensure it does. Sometimes it is extracted by surgery.

Pro-abortion websites sanitise all this. They speak of the “pregnancy” being removed not the “baby,” and with little detail about what that involves. But the facts speak for themselves. Abortion wreaks great harm at every level.

A better way.
Debates will no doubt continue as to the appropriateness of abortion when the mother’s life is in danger or the baby could end up severely handicapped. These are currently the only legal grounds for abortion beyond 24 weeks in the UK, although there is much controversy over how these requirements are interpreted. Nevertheless, the vast majority of abortions are not carried out for those reasons. And so even before one considers biblical wisdom on specific cases, we can see that abortion in general is harmful, discriminatory and oppressive.

The sexual revolution is not delivering on its promises. Unrestrained sexual freedom is leading us down a dark path. We need a better way. We need to acknowledge that the inconsistency of our society over abortion reveals just how wanting the secular worldview is. If God is removed and the individual is the final arbiter of right and wrong, there is no ultimate restraint on the strong over the weak. And whilst the strong may self-righteously affirm their opposition to inequality, oppression and the denial of rights, they are quite prepared to turn a blind eye to such things when their personal comfort and freedom is in jeopardy.

Jesus displayed real outrage at this sort of hypocrisy, at those who thought themselves moral whilst trampling on the weak. And the apostle Paul's words are particularly apt: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2v1).

This is serious indeed. Though state-sponsored and generally accepted, abortion is something our society’s own standards judge is wrong. Yet it could be argued that there is more legal protection and anger over the destruction of property and wildflowers in our culture than there is over this mass destruction of human life.

One cannot but think that history will judge our generation terribly for its complacency over abortion. But we must remember the greater judge, turning to him in Christ for his mercy.


[ This article has not been written to address the sensitivities surrounding abortion. If you have had an abortion or been party to one, please be assured that if you seek God’s forgiveness in Christ you have it – and with it peace and healing with respect to the past. Know too that within his church you will find welcome, acceptance and support as you seek to live the new life he calls us into. ]

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Friday, 8 September 2017

Scientific facts about Homosexuality and Gender Dismorphia

I have been doing some study on transgender issues and been pointed to an edition of “The New Atlantis” journal, which outlines some of the scientific conclusions to date on both  gender and sexuality. It is a non-partisan and non-religious journal that seeks to make public up-to-date research so that people are properly informed.

Because there is so much misunderstanding fed to us through media and social media, I’ve included the entire executive summary below. It only takes a few minutes to read, but is important for us to be aware of for when our views as Christians are challenged, or when we have to talk about these things with our children.

Obviously the issues themselves are incredibly complex and should be handled with extreme compassion, but whilst acknowledging things aren’t always as cut and dried as below, the science is important.

You will note that the three great myths on these issues are without basis:

1)    The first myth is that people are born with a homosexual orientation or gender disconnect. This is often given as a reason why such feelings should be accepted and embraced, but this assumption is “not supported by scientific evidence.” (That's not to say there aren't elements of non-biological causation that might influence someone's development from an early age).

2)    The second myth is that people’s feelings in these areas are fixed. This is also given as a reason why such feelings should be seen as defining and embraced. Otherwise, we are told, people will never be able to experience intimate relationships or be their true self. In truth, both experiences are to some degree fluid, with many (I should stress not all) children growing out of them as they get older. This means that the way many children in particular are encouraged to act on such feelings is deeply concerning. Ironically, it is that which could work against their proper development and identity.

3)    The third myth is that those experiencing homosexual orientation or gender dysmorphia will only be fulfilled if they embrace their sense of who they are. The fact is that both groups are far more likely to experience mental health issues, depression and suicide. So this is not necessarily the case at all. Again, this shows how serious it is when children are encouraged to make these things so defining.

The Executive Summary
Some key findings:
Part One: Sexual Orientation
● The understanding of sexual orientation as an innate, biologically fixed property of human beings — the idea that people are “born that way” — is not supported by scientific evidence.
● While there is evidence that biological factors such as genes and hormones are associated with sexual behaviors and attractions, there are no compelling causal biological explanations for human sexual orientation. While minor differences in the brain structures and brain activity between homosexual and heterosexual individuals have been identified by researchers, such neurobiological findings do not demonstrate whether these differences are innate or are the result of environmental and psychological factors.
● Longitudinal studies of adolescents suggest that sexual orientation may be quite fluid over the life course for some people, with one study estimating that as many as 80% of male adolescents who report same-sex attractions no longer do so as adults (although the extent to which this figure reflects actual changes in same-sex attractions and not just artifacts of the survey process has been contested by some researchers).
● Compared to heterosexuals, non-heterosexuals are about two to three times as likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse.
Part Two: Sexuality, Mental Health Outcomes, and Social Stress
● Compared to the general population, non-heterosexual subpopulations are at an elevated risk for a variety of adverse health and mental health outcomes.
● Members of the non-heterosexual population are estimated to have about 1.5 times higher risk of experiencing anxiety disorders than members of the heterosexual population, as well as roughly double the risk of depression, 1.5 times the risk of substance abuse, and nearly 2.5 times the risk of suicide.
● Members of the transgender population are also at higher risk of a variety of mental health problems compared to members of the non-transgender population. Especially alarmingly, the rate of lifetime suicide attempts across all ages of transgender individuals is estimated at 41%, compared to under 5% in the overall U.S. population.
● There is evidence, albeit limited, that social stressors such as discrimination and stigma contribute to the elevated risk of poor mental health outcomes for non-heterosexual and transgender populations. More high-quality longitudinal studies are necessary for the “social stress model” to be a useful tool for understanding public health concerns.
Part Three: Gender Identity
● The hypothesis that gender identity is an innate, fixed property of human beings that is independent of biological sex — that a person might be “a man trapped in a woman’s body” or “a woman trapped in a man’s body” — is not supported by scientific evidence.
● According to a recent estimate, about 0.6% of U.S. adults identify as a gender that does not correspond to their biological sex.
● Studies comparing the brain structures of transgender and non-transgender individuals have demonstrated weak correlations between brain structure and cross-gender identification. These correlations do not provide any evidence for a neurobiological basis for cross-gender identification.
● Compared to the general population, adults who have undergone sex-reassignment surgery continue to have a higher risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes. One study found that, compared to controls, sex-reassigned individuals were about 5 times more likely to attempt suicide and about 19 times more likely to die by suicide.
● Children are a special case when addressing transgender issues. Only a minority of children who experience cross-gender identification will continue to do so into adolescence or adulthood.
● There is little scientific evidence for the therapeutic value of interventions that delay puberty or modify the secondary sex characteristics of adolescents, although some children may have improved psychological well-being if they are encouraged and supported in their cross-gender identification. There is no evidence that all children who express gender-atypical thoughts or behavior should be encouraged to become transgender.

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Thursday, 6 July 2017

To the praise of his glorious grace

Loving seeing this as God's great goal in studying Ephesians in a 1:1. Some brief notes below:

It structures chapter 1v3-14:

v3 every spiritual blessing

1) v4-6 chosen and adopted in Christ for the praise of God's glorious grace
2) v7-12 redeemed and predestined in Christ for the praise of his glory
3) v13-14 included and secured in Christ for the praise of his glory

It dominates Paul's prayer in 1v15-23

1) v14-16 thanking God for how the Ephesians are already being to God's glory as a new humanity living in faith and love
2) v17 praying that they would know God and so know how glorious and gracious he is
3) v18-21 praying that they would know the immensity of his grace in their future inheritance and God's mighty power that is sufficient to overcome death and evil

v22-23 all because Christ is over all things so that the church would be for God's glory as it has begun to be through Christ filling it with his power, life and rule just as he is in the process of filling everything with those same things

It lies behind the whole book

1) 2v1-10: This power has been expressed in the transition of believers from death to life that in this age and the age to come God's grace in Christ might be expressed by their living as new creations
2) 2v11-3v13: By this means humanity are united in Christ that God would be glorified for his wisdom even before evil rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms
3) 3v14-21: For this reason Paul prays that by Christ's power believers would know and display Christ's love so that God would be glorified in the Church as it is filled with his fullness

4v1-6v23 then details what this should look like as they put on Christ whether in individual acts or as spiritual armour

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