Monday, 23 July 2012

Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of God.

Although we are all called to exercise practical generosity, there are some areas of Christian service that can thwart our availability for others. We can frustrate the development of a person's  primary gifting and ministry by assigning them elsewhere. When the apostles were called upon to resolve the omission of welfare support for Greek widows, they said: ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables’. Instead, they assigned the responsibility as a separate task for deacons (Acts 6:1)

Today, Anglican evangelism is dominated by deacon outreach. Of course, 'daily ministrations', such as food parcels and welfare missionaries are important to the church's work. Nevertheless, they should not be confused with evangelism: publicising Jesus' victory of over sin and death and warning the world that we must now, through Christ, find refuge from that great day of mankind's eternal reckoning.  Of course, at the same time, scripture reminds us: 'therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers' (Gal. 6:10). Also, 'do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.', (Heb. 3:16). These offerings are to be organised in accordance with each person's means: 'On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.' (1 Cor. 16:2)

All of these are worthwhile practical expressions of our commitment to the God who cares for the poor. These endeavours also enhance the credibility of the gospel. Nevertheless, there is an abiding notion that the Anglican church should engage in these acts of public charity and community-building without explaining, in the context of performing those charitable acts, the importance of 'repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 20:21). 

Some would have us believe that evangelism is better expressed through the silent witness of our good works before the consciences of unbelievers. They are partly right. Those in positions of authority are best won to Christ by quiet exemplary conduct. Nevertheless, that conduct is still a backdrop to the central message that must be preached. Paul asks rhetorically: 'how, then, can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?' Of course, they can’t. The church has a duty to declare the gospel beyond the confines of the edifice to the whole community!

The reasons that I hear advanced for neglecting the overt preaching of the gospel outside of church premises is that it's focus on the after-life reward and punishment is too far removed from the practical needs of society, a turn-off, inappropriate, ill-timed and best directed towards those who eventually attend church and express a desire to discover more. They will likely be pointed towards an Alpha course to be run in a month’s time. Anything to evade responsibility for delivering the gospel to an unwelcoming audience.

Underlying all of this is a fear of rejection. You can sense that many Christians wrestle with the unpalatable thought that we might be treated with scorn and misunderstood (much the same as Christ was). We hate to bear the painful epithets of secular contempt: ‘holy roller'; 'he claims he’s found God', 'she’s too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good'; ‘his head’s in the clouds’. Yet, slander was the very experience of Jesus Himself and the apostles as they proclaimed the Kingdom of God. Andrew Lloyd-Webber captures this slur perfectly in Jesus Christ Superstar. Judas follows up his accusation that, ‘all your followers are blind, with too much heaven on their minds’ with the fearful warning, ‘and they’ll crush us if we go too far!’

Yes, there were miraculous conversions, but by and large, the gospel demanded a level of change that most found intolerable. It was met with a slanderous smear campaign aimed at undermining the early Christians’ public standing and credibility.

The reluctance to speak informally of Christ as the only means of deliverance from the coming judgement is also an inverted form of arrogance. How could we believe that our own paltry charity efforts (so minuscule when compared to God permitting His body of incarnate deity to be beaten, spat upon, exposed and executed) could somehow be a better witness than to recount what Christ suffered Himself?

So why is there such reticence about the saving work of Christ?

1. Christian charity has become a PR exercise, the focus of which is winning secular acceptance of the human organisation, rather than its spiritual head, Jesus Christ.

2. Offence caused by mentioning the gospel of heaven contradicts efforts to make church members appear more likeable and practically minded to secular outsiders.

3. Many lay church members are not taught to explain their faith and lead others to Christ. In relation to evangelism, they are taught to lead others to church services.

4. The path to lay involvement in evangelism is far too formalised. Discernment before ordination, while an important means of scrutiny, has become obstructive.

5. Christian faith has been reduced to a code of organisational affiliation and loyalty.

6. There is no defining moment of moral transition that would publicly underscore the importance of being born again.

7. There are very few testimonies of radical conversion that would inspire those who have strayed far from God.

8. Churches are looking for a particular type of pragmatic problem-solver who is more inclined to rely on professionally acquired skills and connections and intelligence than on divine guidance and intervention.

9. Loyalty to a church leader's favoured approach and priorities is valued more highly than loyalty to the approach and priorities of the early church.

It's a tall order, but change these factors and we might yet have a church that can radically change the world for God and for good. The pathetic alternative (for those who hope to avoid the cardinal offence against secular morality of demanding repentance) is to continue to invite the neighbours to yet another parish social!

Monday, 9 July 2012

Happy Families!

I've been reading an article about how families with IVF babies have had to combine traditional ideas about kinship with novel ways of developing a common bond with the new child. It may help to ask ourselves what makes the church into a real family. That’s what most of us want from a church: a sense of permanent belonging, that we’d be missed if we left for good.
1. Affirmation of Resemblance
People accept that, not only do we inherit natural characteristics from our parents, but that many of these are easily discernible. We often say, 'he has his father's nose', 'she has her Mum's smile'. In a broader sense, an accent or physical trait may even give away our national heritage. Do we discern and affirm divine family resemblance when we see it? Do we behold and affirm what we see of the living God in each other? Are the natural and spiritual gifts of some easily dismissed as peripheral, or suspect, while others are encouraged to thrive? Is it easier to relate to an inner circle?
2. Family Narrative
A family narrative involves a series of memorable common experiences that were shared and recounted throughout the family. It might be something as simple as a shared meal, a medical crisis, or a holiday.  'Remember when your Dad and I took you and your sister to Brighton?' Suddenly, all the memories of that great summer holiday come flooding back. Each relative adds a part of that story that wouldn't mean a thing to outsiders. It refreshes the common bond of kinship between them. The early church's narrative was marked by a commitment to suffer with Christ, knowing that they would reign with Him in eternity. Out of that common experience, the challenge that the early church faced was to build a kinship that would resonate with both Jews and Gentiles: the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the transformation of the gospel. The dynamic narrative that we see in the Book of Acts captured their imagination and wrote a new story of God's love on their hearts. It overcame their cultural and ethnic differences. COGS members need to participate in a commonly owned narrative about what God is doing in the church. Every member needs to have a stake in that narrative. One that reinforces a sense of common purpose and invites full participation of all members. Christ himself said: ‘For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother‘ (Matt. 12:50)
3. Exchanging Confidences, Knowing Vulnerabilities 
Family members will share confidences that they'll not share with outsiders: Uncle Festus' nervous breakdown last year; Auntie Kitty's 'friend' who spent the vacation with her in Provence. If we are unwilling, or feel it to be unsafe to share confidences with anyone in church, it means that the extended family support will be thwarted. In contrast, Paul says, 'Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ' (Gal. 6:2)
4. Effortless Acceptance and Goodwill.
Children generally don't have to make a great effort to be liked by family. They are welcomed at every get-together with words like 'my you've grown since I last saw you'.  How often do we say anything encouraging about each other's Christian maturity? Although there is a place for rebuke, family members should generally be proud and supportive of each other. They typically boast to outsiders about each other's accomplishments.
Compare this with the experience of new employees. They spend their first few months on probation. It takes a long time to establish the organisation’s trust. They cannot contribute fully until their loyalty and competence has been thoroughly vetted. Their role is always in danger of being made redundant. Is your experience of church hierarchies, one of welcoming parents, or cautious supervisors?
So, unless we discover and affirm the valued contribution that each of us can add to the church, many will feel under-appreciated. As with Jewish circumcision in the early church, if we constantly vet all new members and make them jump through too many hoops, they will lose heart.
In contrast with this, St. Paul, the former enemy of Christians and whose conversion was initially viewed with suspicion, was soon warmly accepted as authentic. The result was that the apostles extended to him the 'right hands of fellowship' (Gal. 2:9) to spearhead the mission to the Gentiles. They knew that Paul had already almost lost his life for sake of spreading the gospel.
In summary, let us agree to:
1. Affirm the godly resemblances in each other more than our superficial differences
2. Build a family narrative through the impact of full participation for all
3. Know, share and openly commit to help each other's weaknesses
4. Affirm and reassure the newer members of their gifts as much as the longstanding members.
Hope this is a blessing.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Ordination of Women

Those who oppose the ordination of women claim that their view is scriptural. They refer to Paul’s insistence: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.’ (1 Tim. 2:12)

Yet, if this is an absolute, why does Paul also say, ‘And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.’ (1 Cor. 11:5)? So women did pray and prophesy publicly and this conditions Paul’s instruction to Timothy. Philip, the deacon and evangelist, had four young daughters who prophesied (Acts. 21:9). Prophets would encourage congregants with elated expressions of thanksgiving for God’s covenant faithfulness and His supernatural subversion of worldly merit. They would instruct, warn and encourage devotion to Him and each other in the face of recent and predicted challenges. These are all the hallmarks of any great sermon.

It is unfortunate that the office of the prophet is not as publicly recognised as that of the evangelist, deacon and elder in today’s church. If anything, the need for prophetic discerning admonition has only increased. However, if the prophet was a recognised church appointment, rather than treated as an ad hoc ministry, would those who oppose the ordination of women then welcome the participation of prophetesses? Or would they produce scripture to support the notion that the prophetic gift had died out. I suspect that it would be the latter because of the historic Protestant focus on centralised pulpit authority. On any given Sunday, one person becomes the unchallenged voice directing the church: evangelist, teacher and preacher rolled into one. It’s a concentration of church authority that is unbiblical and opens the door to the possibility of unprincipled thought manipulation.

The early church liturgy (derived from the synagogue) involved three principal components: the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the formal explanation of the text and an open discussion. When he limited female participation, Paul meant the second component, the formal discourse that was typically delivered by a learned male elder. Even when Paul and Silas travelled to Pisidian Antioch, it is unlikely that they would have delivered that component (Acts 13). More probably, they would have been invited to participate in the reasoned discussion that followed. This principal part of first century synagogue liturgy, the word of encouragement as a part of reasoned group discussion, is now largely missing from modern Christian liturgies. In Berea, the disciples were commended because they ‘were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.’ (Acts 17:11)

Whereas Paul and Silas expected questions and intelligent counter-arguments, we are expected to silently listen to the ‘private interpretation’ formulated by each licensed minister, who expects to promote his/her views without a public post-sermon discussion. The result is that few lay members can discern heresy without the aid of a minister, or reason on behalf of their faith skilfully and convincingly. Scripture memorisation is lacking. The church is reduced to a platform for promoting an orthodoxy that avoids impromptu public scrutiny, far less exposure to external criticism. To thoughtful outsiders, it seems like little more than formulaic mind-control. Explaining the Christian faith is now better learnt from books on Christian apologetics, rather than through the dynamics of a short post-sermon group discussion.

Liturgy should adapt to accommodate open reasoned discussion, rather than the usual unquestioned 40 minute monologue. Post-sermon Q&A sessions, twitters and discussion forums should be buzzing with queries and insights. Instead, the congregation trundles home, knowing that, even if questions are entertained on a one-to-one basis after the sermon, passive consensus is generally preferred to any public vocal expression of their critical thinking faculties. Equally, home study groups can often refuse to entertain reasoned intelligent counter-arguments. Especially, when a controversial opinion can be relegated due to the tightly monitored discussion schedule. How many times has a thoughtful contradiction been either subjected to thinly veiled ridicule, or brushed aside with a remark like, ‘We really must move on!’? It may not be intended as dismissive, but it achieves the same end: the teacher’s zealously guarded status and all of their preconceived agendas remain unassailable.

When Peter and John were arrested by Temple guards and interrogated before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4), their lack of formal training was noted. In spite of this, they performed a prophetic role in challenging the majority view. Peter declared that Paul’s knowledge of the Law and Prophets and the revelation given to him regarding the deep truths of salvation therein were exceptional: ‘He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.’ (2 Pet. 3:16)

Nevertheless, the unschooled apostles held the same status as the educated ones. They were all witnesses to the power of Jesus’ resurrection. There was a respectful fraternity without priestly elitism.

We all know that, at that time, adult women would have had little opportunity to devote to the study of the Torah. Paul’s comparison of the first-century situation with Adam and Eve is valid in that the gender disparity in knowledge mirrored the sequence of creation. Paul did not demand that moral insight is to be gained second-hand through men for perpetuity, but he did argue for a disciplinary authority in the church that did not contradict male authority within the Christian family. Just to ensure that he was not misinterpreted, he explained gender interdependence: ‘In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.’ (1 Cor. 11:11)

If a woman could become a recognised prophetess in the early church, gifted women can and should attain a recognised role in the ministry of the modern church. Nevertheless, both genders in Christian ministry would do well to encourage a liturgy that involves public lay participation in a reasoned discussion of the Word. A fifteen minute Sunday post-sermon Q&A session would be a good start. Social media can also be utilised.

In contrast, to deliver a message and then lack the time, inclination or resources to discuss, debate and refine the impact of a sermon straight afterwards in a post-sermon church forum undermines the very purpose of anyone appointed to a position of church oversight. It’s a formula for oppressing our God-given thought faculties and encouraging moral puppet-mastery over the laity. And who wants that?