Friday, 26 June 2015

Legalism: What Does Grace Say to Legalism?

Judge's BenchLegalism is defined by Chambers Dictionary as “strict adherence to law…the tendency to observe letter or form rather than spirit, or to regard things from the point of view of law.” It also helpfully illustrates the definition with a reference to the opposing doctrines of salvation by works and salvation by grace. I do like The Chambers Dictionary and commend it to you.

But what is wrong with keeping the law? Surely as Christians we believe in being law-abiding? There is certainly enough in the New Testament about obedience to authorities. We are instructed, “obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph.6:1); obey your earthly masters with respect” (Eph.6:5); obey your leaders and submit to their authority” (Heb.13:17) and we are reminded “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good” (Titus 3:3)

The Challenge of Legalism

When we witness to those with a legalistic bent we are often challenged with these and similar texts. Sometimes we are accused of antinomianism, “being emancipated by the gospel from the obligation to keep the moral law, faith alone being necessary” (that’s Chambers again)

Of course, if we were antinomian in our teaching and practice our prisons would be full of Christians. In some parts of the world Christians do find themselves imprisoned and worse but for entirely different reasons. The folly of legalism is highlighted in Matthew 19:1-12 as Jesus answers what his interrogators think is a difficult question. It had certainly exercised the best Jewish minds for generations. Moses said:

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes here a certificate of divorcement, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord” (Deut.24: 1-4)

Legalism insists on formulaic answers to such questions; answers by the book that go into incredible detail covering every eventuality. In Jesus’ day there were two schools of thought. The scholar Shammai taught that “something indecent” meant marital unfaithfulness. Hillel emphasised the words “who becomes displeasing to him”and taught that if she did anything he didn’t like, such as burning the toast, it justified divorce.

You see, that is the trouble with legalism, not that law is a bad thing but that we always put ourselves in the place of God and make it mean what we like, or what seems right to us. In our everyday lives we are often very sure of what are our rights and what are other people’s obligations. Legalism isn’t at all fair in its judgements. Jesus’ answer cut right through this tangle of opinions and interpretations by appealing to the purposes of God.

The Challenge to Legalism

Someone following either the school of Shammai or Hillel might feel justified, righteous and superior for having nailed it, but neither was right, although Jesus clearly took the side of Shammai over Hillel. Divorce, he said, was granted because of sin. God, whose purpose and ideal from the beginning had been that the two would be one, graciously accommodated his purposes to circumstances because of sin that caused damage to people. The Pharisees had asked the wrong question. They wanted to know what was permitted or forbidden when they should have been asking what was the purpose of God.

They asked when and under what circumstances disappointed and hurting people should separate. They should have been asking how broken relationships can be mended and people healed from their hurts and disappointments. It is a stark and frightening insight into what they cared about, and what we care about when we address these life issues from the point of view of legalism.

Jesus preached the standards of the kingdom which see citizens as servants who seek each other’s good and the heart of God in every matter. Of course Christians believe in and practice obedience but from a heart changed by the miracle of the new birth, not from a list of statutes, permissions and prohibitions. Where do we find and how do we follow these standards of the kingdom that speak so eloquently of obedience yet offer citizenship not to the obedient but to the believing? As Jesus taught Nicodemus:

I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (Jn.3:3-6)

The Answer From Grace

We are saved into the kingdom by the miracle of rebirth. We take hold of and begin to understand the will of God and the standards of the kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit. The regenerate person has a renewed mind (Ro.12:12), has the law set in their minds (Heb.8:10;10:16) and has the mind of Christ (1 Cor.2:16)

In our witness we teach truth, correct doctrine, and bring understanding. We are not, like Shammai and Hillel, simply interpreters of the Bible but offer to people nothing less than new birth, renewed minds, the mind of Christ in all matters pertaining to the kingdom,

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.

And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.

For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor.2:12-16)

This article appeared in the April 2015 Reachout E-Newsletter. You can read more on legalism on the Reachout website in Robin Brace’s article  ‘Moving Away From Legalism’

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

This is Holy Week

Holy week is that time between Palm Sunday and Easter Saturday when we remember the last week of Jesus' earthly life. Customs of all kinds have grown up around this special time. Observance of Holy Week can be traced back as far as the latter half of the 3rd century. Abstinence from flesh is commanded for all the days of Holy Week, while for the Friday and Sunday an absolute fast is commanded.

In Jerusalem Christ's crucifixion is commemorated as the cross is carried along the Via Dolorosa (the way of suffering) of Jesus.

On Palm Sunday palm branches are waved as the story of the triumphal entry is re-enacted in church, usually by the children. Christians will often be seen carrying crosses made of palm leaves to remember the palm branches and to remember the cross.

These crosses are kept by some for a year and then burned to provide the ash for the following year's Ash Wednesday. (The ash was placed on the heads of participants at the beginning of Lent to the accompaniment of the words, 'Repent and believe in the gospel,' or, 'Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.' It is a sober reminder of our mortality and of our dependence on God’s grace in a world that spends fortunes trying to be eternal youthful)

Maundy Thursday is derived from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos"; "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you" It is a time when we remember the servant heart of Jesus, how he washed the disciples' feet. In some churches foot washing is still taken very seriously. The Maundy Money handed out by the Queen of England on this day is a substitute for foot washing.

Good Friday was know as the Great Sabbath and was strictly observed, a watch being kept until Sunday in the expectation that Jesus would return on Easter Day.

Preachers will take the time in this period to challenge their congregations over their commitment, and ask them about those times when they have been unfaithful to Jesus, or been hypocritical in their faith, and call them to repentance.

The apostle John describes the triumphal entry like this:triumphant-entry

'The next day the great crowd that had come for the feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,


Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'

Blessed is the King of Israel!''

John 12:12-13

The word Hosanna comes from Psalm 118, sung as a song of thanksgiving for the Lord's steadfast love in delivering his people. It describes a festive procession into Jerusalem after some great deliverance and takes the form of a liturgy, a call and response, and begins:

'Oh, give thanks to the LORD, His steadfast love endures forever!

Let Israel say,

His steadfast love endures forever.

It goes on:

'Out of my distress I called on the LORD;

The LORD answered me and set me free.

The LORD is on my side; I will not fear.

What can man do to me?

The Lord is on my side as my helper...'

The word Hosanna comes from the same root as the Hebrew for 'to save' the same root from which we get the name Jesus, which in turn is the Latin form of the Hebrew Joshua/Yeshua, which means 'Jehovah will save.'

Psalm 118 is the psalm Jesus and his disciples sang on the night he was betrayed, before they went out to the Mount of Olives. Imagine singing this in anticipation of such utter betrayal and abandonment.

Verse 19 of this psalm reads:

'Open to me the gates of righteousness,

that I may enter through them

and give thanks to the LORD

through which the righteous may enter.

I will give thanks, for you answered me;

you have become my salvation.'

The gates of righteousness, the gates of the Holy City, Jerusalem, where only the righteous may enter.

'When Jesus entered Jerusalem,' we are told by Matthew, 'the whole city was stirred and asked, 'Who is this?'

'The crowds answered, 'This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.''

That, I suggest, is a dangerous question; who is this? To take an interest in Jesus is a risky business and today we don't fully appreciate perhaps how risky. Do we want the gates of righteousness opened to us, so we may enter through them, into the New Jerusalem, and give thanks to the LORD? Think carefully before you answer.

Jesus challenges our worship

cleansing-templeThe first thing Jesus does on entering the city, we are told, is go to the temple.

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.

'It is written,' he said to them, 'My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.''

Jesus challenged the pale, empty, and avaricious pretence of worship in his Father’s house. He challenges our worship today. He seeks those who are true worshippers, who worship God in spirit and in truth. Are we fulsome in our worship, or do we too often simply go through the motions? If we want the gates of righteousness opened to us we must be prepared to have the tables and chairs turned over in our lives. We must be prepared to give an account of our worship. Jesus challenges our worship.

Jesus challenges our fruitfulness

After spending the night in Bethany Jesus returned to Jerusalem and on the way, we are told, he cursed a barren fig tree:

Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it and found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, 'May you never bear fruit again!' Immediately the tree withered.'

It is possible to  look fruitful, like that tree, rich in foliage, but to be otherwise barren in our Christian lives. If we want Jesus in our lives, if we want the gates of righteousness opened to us we must be prepared for Jesus to seek from us more than foliage, more than tradition, more than form, to expect from us fruitful lives in his service. Jesus challenges our fruitfulness.

Jesus challenges our promises

It is in this Holy Week that Jesus tells the parable of the two sons:

'What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.'

And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind and went.

And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go.

Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.

For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.'

As Christians, as members of a church, we enter into covenant relationship with God and with each other. By word and by action, we make promises to go and do the will of God, not our own will. If, like the first son, our promises are empty we will not see the kingdom. If we want the gates of righteousness opened to us we must be prepared for Jesus to test our resolve to do the will of God. This is what it means to be a Christian. Jesus challenges our promises.

Jesus challenges our faithfulness

Finally, Jesus challenges our faithfulness. In the parable of the tenants he tells of a landowner who planted a vineyard and rented it to some farmers.

‘Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.

And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.'
And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’
They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.’

If we want the gates of righteousness opened to us we must be prepared for the owner of the vineyard to return at any time, ‘like a thief in the night,’ and be prepared to show ourselves faithful stewards of his vineyard, true to our covenant promises, fruitful in his service, and fulsome in our worship.

'When Jesus entered Jerusalem,' we are told by Matthew, 'the whole city was stirred and asked, 'Who is this?'

'The crowds answered, 'This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.''Murillo_Bartolome_Esteban-ZZZ-Crucifixion

This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.

As that week began, the crowds shouted Hosanna!

By the end of that week the crowds were shouting 'crucify!'

What will you shout?

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Strangers in the World

The apostle Peter’s first letter is addressed, ‘To God’s elect, strangers in the world.’ Does it feel like that to you? If you are a Christian do you find yourself out of step with the world? The world, of course, is familiar to us. We know how it operates, we engage with it, and we negotiate our way through it in our every-day lives but, ultimately, Peter seems to be saying it is alien to us. In his second letter to Christians in Corinth the apostle Paul insisted, ‘we regard no-one from a worldly point of view,’ and goes on to describe Christians as, ‘Christ’s ambassadors.’ (2 Corinthians 5:16&20)

As ambassadors, we may be adept in the arts of tact and conciliation, speaking the truth with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15) yet we never lose sight of where our duties lie, of who has first call on our loyalties. As Paul makes clear, we don’t look at things by the standards and values of the world, but by those of the one we now represent. We are to represent his interests in the world, ‘God making his appeal through us.’ (2 Corinthians 5:20)

Sometimes it can feel as though we are overwhelmed by the world, and we find it easier to ‘go with the flow.’ Perhaps that is why Peter writes as he does to ‘God’s elect…throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,’ in other words scattered among the nations and in danger of being overwhelmed. That is one of the pitfalls of representing one country, or one business from one country, to another; going native. Sometimes called ‘clientism,’ or ‘localitis,’ it is when a representative comes to regard the people and officials of the host country as ‘clients,’ when he or she defends the interests of these ‘clients’ as though they are the employers

Of course, in many respects, this can make life, at least in the short term, easier. The people with whom you have to do every day seem somehow easier to get along with once you see things from their point of view, while the people you represent seem distant and out of touch with the way things are, ‘on the ground.’ Ultimately, however, as Peter reminds us, we are, ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ (1 Peter 2:9)

We do things God’s way, see things God’s way, and we describe things as God’s ambassadors, however diplomatic we feel we need to be. Peter reminds us that we are ‘chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and the sprinkling of his blood.’ (1 Peter 1:2) It is no accident that we find ourselves ‘strangers in the word,’ for God the Father has chosen to make us citizens of a heavenly kingdom. He has done this by a work of the Spirit that sanctifies us, prepared us for that citizenship and calling, and he has given us the work of obedience to Jesus Christ. Our ways now are as alien to the world as are the world’s ways to us.

This means that only other Christian believers properly know and understand what it is to be chosen, an ambassador for Christ, sanctified, and striving to obey that call. Only other Christians fully appreciate what it means when we obey Jesus and reject the world’s self-centred-ness. Such a course is alien to the world and ever has been. Just like those early Christians, first in Jerusalem, then scattered across Asia Minor and ultimately the world, we finally have each other in this world because the rest simply don’t ‘get it.’  Paul writes in his first Corinthian letter:

‘This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things  that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgements about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgement: For who can know the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 2:13-16)

Think of it! We even have a different ‘language’ we speak, ‘expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words,’ a language the world considers unintelligible, foolishness. We have the mind of Christ with which to discern and make sound judgements concerning the affairs of his kingdom, and a language in which we express that kingdom business. But remember that, ‘it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe’ (1 Corinthians 1:21) Our speaking, acting, and doing are not futile, for those who believe may come to know that language, to have that mind, to be ambassadors of the one who chose them, just as once we did. The question is, are we speaking the language of the God who chose us, uttering spiritual truths as we go about kingdom business? Or have we fallen victim to clientism, speaking the language of the world that is so familiar to us?

The world doesn’t speak our language, doesn’t know or accept Christ, and is proving increasingly hostile to his kingdom and rule. It is surely up to us, we who have the mind of Christ, who speak the language of spiritual things, to stand together in advancing the work of the kingdom entrusted to our care in this generation, and for the benefit of the next.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Ghost of my Wife (Do You Believe..?)

Last night I saw the ghost of my wifeMike and Ann

in the lawless hours

when decent folk sleep

something roused me and made me aware

of somebody moving

a foot on the stair.

In that paralysed, half-sleeping, half-waking time

when you just have to move

but you can't, though you try.

Then a constable's whistle, the sound of swift flight

made its way to my ear

in the dead of the night.

'I must go and see, see if all is secure,'

but I lay there pinned by

half-sleeping, half-waking.

Then a knock at the door of the chamber once still

strengthened resolve

and I rose from my bed.

'Who are you?' I cried, 'Who are you,' again

the door slowly opened and

the spectre stood there.

'Who are you?' I cried, 'Who are you,' once more

as she held out

a flask of silver and black.

Silver and black the colours she wore,

Not showing her face

as, insistent, she came.

Silver and black, splendid and terrible,

insistent I take it

the flask that she bore.

I called out, more earnest, 'My husband!' she cried

my wife, now behind me

on our bed by my side.

I turned, and again, and the vision was gone

that woke me so late

weaving argent and ebony.

Now, as I sit in the pale morning light

sleepless, reviewing

events of the night

there's a step on the stair outside my door

my spine stiffens and I,

fearing once more

to waken her twice whisper in fright,

'Who are you

that spirit who troubles my night?'

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Do You Know Who You Are?

Have you noticed that some people go through this life with a clear idea of who they are and what they are about? Others go through life not knowing who they are, just going from one day to the next, one situation to the next, frequently surprised by the demands life places on them.

When I was a young man I signed up to a government scheme designed to train people in various trades and skills that might give them permanent employment. Five days a week, for six months, I went to a large industrial unit that had been divided into ‘sections,’ each section dedicated to a different skill. There was carpentry, stone-masonry and bricklaying, vehicle maintenance, and more. Even some of the staff in the offices were brushing up on their skills.

It was a useful place to work if you had any practical problems. After a weekend of Destroy-It-Yourself, these different sections would get their visits from people seeking advice and guidance on whatever project they had in hand. Both trainees and instructors might, at some point, wander into an adjacent section with a question, a cry for help. They would seek out the instructor and, if that person wasn’t there, the most senior trainee, who was bound to have some ideas.

I worked in the painting and decorating section. One day two instructors walked in and asked to see our instructor. He was away from the section so they asked for the senior trainee. I had seen this happen many times but I was not prepared for what happened next; everyone pointed at me! The two men walked over and explained their dilemma. A wall had been demolished making two rooms into one, an arch had been constructed and they wanted to know how to wallpaper around the arch.

As they spoke I gathered my thoughts. I took them over to a chalk-board and explained, with diagrams, that there were two ways of doing it, depending on the aesthetics, and they had to choose. I had done it! I had instructed instructors. It must have worked out since they didn’t come back and complain. But, until they came over and spoke to me, I didn’t know I was the senior trainee on the floor. If the subject had come up in conversation I might well have realised, and said, ‘I suppose that’s me.’ But I had failed to realise the full implication of what I was until I was faced with the challenge of being what I was.

We can be like that in our Christian lives. You attend church, listen with interest to sermons, participate in small group discussions, and settle into a Christian routine. You don’t know it, but you are becoming increasingly competent in Christian ways. One day someone suggests you might want to take on a responsibility at church, perhaps teaching, or a leadership role. ‘Who, me!’ You are stunned that someone should think of you in that way. You don’t know who you are and face the challenge of stepping up, or stepping back.

Or someone in work, or at the school gates, begins a conversation about religion, asks serious and thoughtful questions. People know that you go to church and all eyes turn on you, as though you might have something to say. You know you should be able to say something sensible, even wise, and you are faced with the choice; step up, or step back.

Where are you in the course of your Christian life? Maybe you have just started the course and right now you are not that senior trainee. God has so much to show you, to teach you, and perhaps you will be able to step up sooner than you think. Maybe you are along some way on your course, you are enjoying the journey, not thinking too far ahead. Maybe, like me, you are at a place where it is no longer theory but you haven’t realised it. It might be a formal invitation to lead. It could be a less experienced Christian looking for a spiritual friend. It could be an opportunity to share your faith, listen with sympathy and counsel with wisdom.

Others are looking to you now, so what will you do?

Do you know who you are?

Monday, 12 January 2015

Everyone Wants to be a Reformer

There is far too much individualism in the church today and not enough loyalty to the body, with all its faults and failings. I sigh when I hear yet another conversation peppered with, 'the trouble with the church.' The trouble with that statement is that you are talking about yourself when you say it. It is ironic that people will insist that the church is 'the people, not the building,' but then stand apart, as though they are not part of that people, and say, 'the trouble with the church.'

I have lost count of the individuals I know who appear to be waiting for the church to catch up with them. These are often the ones who go off on a tangent, start a church in the bottom of a skip, or up a tree, or some such place, and then land on a town or city and, without so much as a nod to what is already there, upset the established community with their 'anointing.' Then, sadly, they don't go where the need is greatest but where the takings are richest.

Everyone, it seems, wants to be a Reformer, with the church, in their minds, bent to their particular way of looking at things as they start again, again, again. Like Petrocelli's house (that dates me) their church is all foundation and no superstructure, all fundamentals, no discipleship and growing. I have friends who have come out of cults and who look back with regret at what they were caught up in, yet look forward with reproach at the church that doesn't quite fit with the model of church in their imagination. But its the only place they will find that church, in their imagination.

The church is a saved people, not a correct people. We are not always right, we are right with God because of Christ.

Have you been hurt? Felt rejected? Join the club, we all of us who have been around long enough know about the 'happenings' in church and have felt that way too. I have been defamed, lied to and lied about, misunderstood, looked on with suspicion, and even driven out of one church whose members still treat me with contempt because of the lies of a leader. I have punched the wall, screamed at the sky, and reproved the offenders in my time. But one thing I find, the church is God's plan.

It includes some right clowns, numptys, and downright mischief-makers, but it is God's plan. Even among those who seem like they pretty much have it together, there are blind spots, prejudices, compromises, phobias, fears, and failures. There are 'heart Christians' and 'head Christians,' those who insist on one form of church organisation over another, and those who seem beyond organising, those who steam ahead without a thought for the effect they have, and those who are so timid they would never grow if they weren't discipled and led..

Leaders are the best and the worst of us all. They are due double honour the Bible tells us, and they do sterling work that goes mostly unnoticed and unappreciated. They are also clay vessels, like the rest of us. From their position of leadership, they can hide their failings behind pulpits, agendas, and programmes. They can make enormous sacrifices for the good of the church, and they can demand unreasonable loyalty when what they need is love and friendship in their frailty. They disappoint us mostly because we expected too much of them in the first place.

I am reminded of two things about the church. Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, and Paul, for all the trouble 'the church' gave him, wrote of her with affection and pride. At a time when every religious story seems negative, and every negative story, turns people against Christians, we should be proud of the church, fiercely defending her, being honest about her faults but vocal about her virtues. She is the people I meet every Sunday morning, the eyes I look into as they look back at me searching for assurance and hope, the encouragers and those seeking encouragement, the sacrificial servants of the saints, the quiet workers, house group leaders, Sunday Club teachers, evangelists and door-knockers, welcomers, deacons, elders, preachers, teachers, friends and helpers who care so much they make a difference.

If we stopped looking at the church as an institution, which is not what I mean when I used the word established, and started looking at it as one church with many facets, and those made up of flawed, broken, sinners, then we will learn to exercise more patience, have more ambition for her. In all that, there still must be guardianship and correction, challenges to error, and restoration to truth, but it is family business and leaving the family helps no one.

My point (see previous post Not Another Church) stands, in that the church is established in an area and those coming in should have the Christian decency to talk to those 'established' churches, while those 'established' churches should do all they can to encourage any legitimate initiative to to further the work of the kingdom. There is a good model to follow in Acts 15.

I was asked recently what lessons I had learned from leadership.

I have learned that just because I think something is a good idea doesn't mean God thinks it is. Some problems could be solved simply by realising that one thing.

I have learned that God speaks through the leadership to the church and through the church to the leadership. We are in this together and when we walk away (and I have had my moments) we simply disqualify ourselves from that process and end up justifying our non-involvement by insisting that God speaks through neither because the world and his wife are apostate; but he speaks through me and my mates at the bottom of this skip where we are starting again without all the fuss of accountability.

I have learned that local church is the hope of our families, friends, neighbours, community, city and world. Here is where God speaks to us and through us to everyone else.

I have learned that its hard to let go of my own cherished ideas, to serve a bigger cause by putting unity above the flavour I prefer. But no one said it would be easy, on the contrary, we have been sufficiently warned. Christianity is not for wimps that's for sure. What was said is that it would be worth it.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Not Another Church!

MegaphoneThey were standing on the street corner handing out leaflets, and ‘preaching’ to passers-by. Their dark suits, white shirts, and conservative ties made them easily identifiable. I went over to speak to them. Declining the offer of a tract, I assured them that I was already a Christian and had just come over to say hello. I told them the name of my church and they told me they were with a local Brethren congregation.

“Have you been involved in some of the city-wide inter-church initiatives?” I asked, already knowing the answer I was likely to get. They hadn’t heard of it and looked puzzled at the idea that there should be any initiative beyond that of their own church.

A friend had a similar experience in the city. Seeing someone handing out Christian literature he, like me, went over for a chat. The man had come to the city from a Brethren congregation in the south of England.

“Are you working alongside the Brethren churches in the city?” my friend asked.

“Are there Brethren churches here?” was the response. In other words, these two groups, both from the same denomination and tradition, apparently knew nothing of each other’s existence. You might say this is typical of these particular believers and there is, indeed, an unhealthy exclusivity about Brethren churches. But this failure to acknowledge other churches is not, by any means, confined to them.

One of the questions that come up in conversation with my Christian friends is, why do groups come into our city to establish churches where we already have so many? Why don’t they go to areas outside the city that desperately need churches? And why do these incomers target the areas of our city that are already well served by established and, it may be said, well-heeled congregations? Why don’t they go to the areas where the need is greatest?

It might be argued that there is something symbiotic about the whole business.Go where the success is and you will be more likely to succeed. It certainly can cause bad feeling, leading to charges of ‘sheep-stealing’ as a new congregation benefits in part from the disaffection felt by some in an established church. It also encourages church-hopping, where those who find the long-term challenges of being part of a Christian community too much, and the attraction of a new start irresistible.

So why do ‘incomers’ take it for granted that the place to be is where everybody else is already established? Is it simply laziness? Is there a conscious attempt to begin by plundering the congregations of other churches? I think it is more basic and more troubling still. There is an attitude prevalent across Evangelical and Charismatic churches that says God is moving in our day, but he is only moving in and through us, through me and mine.

There has been, in my almost thirty years as a Christian, a catchphrase trotted out every time any innovation is introduced and challenged in the church, from guitars in Sunday services, to exercising the more spectacular spiritual gifts, to claims of prophetic anointing; ‘God is doing a new thing.’ It has become a trope in some circles, even a test of orthodoxy. In light of it almost anything may be instituted as from God, and Christians dare not question the new thing God is doing at pain of being regarded as dead in their tradition.

It is this attitude, this high-handed approach, I suggest, that motivates the churches that seek to establish themselves where there is ample Christian activity. Its not that they don’t see other churches, nor that they don’t appreciate the need outside and in other parts of the city. Its that they perceive a need where churches are already established because they judge these churches as somehow falling short, of not being the answer the new church is just bound to be because, in them, God is doing a new thing.

With this attitude they fall back on that other old saw, ‘We must get back to first century church!’ It is a model of church that is more real in their imagination than ever it was in this world, but its what they are determined to achieve anyway. It as though they have never read the New Testament and never seen the problems prevalent even in the first century. I am reminded of the saying that ‘the good old days,’ when they were happening, were known as ‘these trying times.’

Having decided that the rich, actually well-served, area of the city is in need of saving from itself, they view it as virgin territory, a mission field. They convince themselves that everyone there should be pleased that this group of pioneer Christians should choose to turn up here, pitch their tent among us and bless us with the message they bring, and with the innovations they insist are better than our bad habits and dead traditions.

There is a naivety about the whole business, certainly, but we must not be sentimental about it. It is damaging to the body of Christ, a threat to the unity in the Spirit that Paul calls for, and it creates and perpetuates bad feeling between churches. Because, make no mistake, if this ‘new thing’ survives, becomes established, especially if it moves from community centres to a permanent building,from a mission-minded group to a mature Christian congregation, others will come after them and despise them as much as they once despised others, seeing in the now established church dead tradition. They will, one day, find themselves asking the questions addressed here and perhaps fail to see the irony.

Paul writes to the troubled Corinthian church, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” (1 Cor.11:19)

Factions are regrettable, deplorable, but they do serve to test us and distinguish those who are faithful to God’s purposes. This is not, however, an endorsement of factions in the church. In his letter to the Philippian church Paul writes of the view mature Christians should take of things, going on to say, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 3:15-16)

The writer to the Hebrews cautions us against laying foundations where they are already laid (Hebrews 6:1) and Paul writes:

‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather it is written, “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.”’ (Ro.15:20-21)

There is a troubling trend in the 21st century church that sees Christians despise anything and everything that is ‘established’ and go off to follow their own Christian way. ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ they insist. But you do! Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, but to ‘be a Christian’ you have to be part of the wider Christian community, be churched, part of a growing group of believers. This individualism is singularly unbiblical, spiritually unhealthy, largely uncalled for, but all-too-often encouraged by churches that set themselves up over and against established churches in the name of innovation, novelty, and some ‘new thing’ they imagine they alone have got hold of.

If you are coming to our city you are most welcome, but don’t seek to establish what is already here. Rather, put your weight behind what is already established. If you do see a need then have the courteously to meet and share your vision with other church leaders in the city. Maybe you can work together with them, benefit from their experience, gain strength from their support. Best of all, go where the need is greatest, where the Word of God is not well established. There is a mission field outside our large conurbations, as well as in the poorer areas within them. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.