Saturday, May 24, 2014

Why we are wrong to make a shibboleth out of gay marriage

(For those who don’t know their Bible so well, a more contemporary synonym for "shibboleth" might be "litmus test")

A recent piece in Christianity Magazine observed very astutely that the current discussions within the church about gay marriage have escalated to the point where the issue is being used to determine whether someone is really an evangelical – that is, a Christian who holds the Bible to be the highest authority over and above their own experience, reason, or church tradition. I am myself an evangelical Christian and am very much concerned with the struggle for the heart of evangelicalism, or as I would see it, the battle to retain a biblical focus in the face of creeping erosion by secular ideas from inside and outside the church. But I think we are wrong to make gay marriage a strategic battleground in this campaign.

Why? Firstly, because the Bible doesn’t make a big issue out of homosexuality (Jesus doesn’t see fit to mention it once). There are a few references to homosexual practices in the old testament, and a few in the new testament, but only in passing. It's hardly a defining feature of the Christian faith, and I know that even within evangelical circles there are different opinions on homosexuality which result simply from questions of hermaneutics (i.e., the question of how we read the Bible given that we believe in its authority).

Secondly, because it’s an issue that’s irrelevant to most people – in particular, to those who are almost entirely attracted to the opposite sex. For anyone who is "straight" to make a big deal about what it means to be gay and a Christian can only be seen as focusing on the speck in your neighbour’s eye to cover up the plank in our own; it smacks of rank hypocrisy.

Thirdly, because it panders to our secular culture and press’s obsession with sex. People want to portray us as obsessed with sex. In reality we ought to be less obsessed by it than the secular public. The media loves to portray Christians as people who are always talking about homosexuality because that hides the far more important and more challenging messages we should really be talking about.

Fourthly, because when talking about homosexuality, there is a risk that our right desire to read the bible honestly is coloured by a natural but wrong human tendency to react negatively to anything that is different from us. I suspect that a lot of the recent discussions have been more influenced by this fear of the strange than by what the Bible actually teaches, and I think we would be far better on concentrating on issues where we can be clear that our thinking is being influenced by good rather than by bad.

And there are probably more reasons than that. But I am an evangelical and as such I am committed to holding on to scripture against the tide of compromising ideas. So after a modicum of thought I would like to propose three different topics that I think are far better suited for examining the question of whether we genuinely want to let the Bible change us or whether we are really closet liberals taking the bits we like but bowing to societal pressure and ignoring scripture when that suits us. My trio of shibboleths are therefore:

1. Divorce and remarriage. Unlike homosexuality, Jesus did teach on this subject and his teaching is pretty unambiguous. He explained how his teaching related to the Old Testament teaching on the subject and why the latter fell short of God’s standards. We can discuss details of exactly when and why divorce and remarriage are permitted by the Bible, but for most of us who are married Jesus does not leave us even the tiniest bit of wiggle room.

2. Immigration. Throughout the Old Testament the people of Israel were taught to welcome and look after the alien, and not to put up barriers to people who wanted to come into the nation in order to meet God. Jesus himself was both a migrant (who fled to Egypt) and of partly immigrant blood (Ruth the Moabitess). The spread of the Gospel in Acts was only possible because of the Roman Empire’s relatively open borders and the free movement of Jewish Christians fleeing persecution in Palestine. And after the day of Pentecost true faith no longer belongs to one nation but belongs to people of every nationality (as promised by God to Abraham and reiterated throughout the Old Testament). There is no place in Biblical Christianity for immigration control.

3. Pacifism. For the first three hundred years of the Christian church it was utterly obvious to everyone that Jesus’ teaching was completely incompatible with the practice of war. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and Paul’s letters reiterated this in that we should repay evil only with good. It was only when the Christian faith was compromised by being assimilated into the hierarchy of the Roman empire that this teaching began to be watered down.

In all three cases the role of Christians should be to hold government and / or ourselves to account. I’m not saying we should campaign for new laws to try to enforce our views on others who do not claim to follow Jesus. That would be a nonsense and would be pretending a false gospel of works rather than the Gospel of Grace that Jesus shows us. (I personally think this Gospel of Grace is under attack by both sides in the current debate about homosexuality and Christianity – but that’s another story.)

These are all three issues on which society takes a radically different view. They are all issues where many Christians would argue that practical considerations, compassion, common sense, call it what you will, would dictate another approach. They are all issues were many of us settle for compromise and put the Bible to one side. In short, they are issues that cut to the heart of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian in today’s world.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Who are your heroes?

I am increasingly seeing the word hero used to refer to those in the armed forces. The logo of Help for Heroes appears everywhere. I’m sure they do good work among ex-service personnel, and I have no doubt these people need help – the numbers of ex-army in particular who end up homeless, in prison, or with mental illness, is simply shocking. But the assumption that people in the armed forces are inherently worthy of the title ‘hero’ seems to be to be a serious travesty.

For a start, while they certainly do a difficult and sometimes dangerous job, are they any different in that respect from the police, or coal miners, or those who working A&E? Do we automatically treat them as heroes?

It also begs the question of what we find truly heroic. Is it heroic doing your job, risking your life, to look after your friends, your country, your people? Sometimes. But they’re doing a job they have chosen, doing what they are told, looking after their own friends. At the end of the day, they sign up knowing that, should the situation arise, they will have to kill or be killed. As Jesus simply said, ‘all who draw the sword will die by the sword’ (Matthew 26:52b).

Far more admirable, in my opinion, are those people who have the bravery to stand up against their friends, those with the moral courage to stand alone in the face of public opinion and approbation, those with the strength of character to refuse to do what they are told in full knowledge of the consequences. People like my aunt, who as a young school child refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. Like my grandfather who refused to go to war in an era when serving in the military was not an option. Like my grandmother’s cousin who married the man she loved despite the fact that he was Japanese, this was just after the war, and they had to drive all the way across the country to find a state where such a marriage was even legal. In the forces you fight with your friends beside you. It’s much harder to stand alone, and I respect anyone with the bravery to so, even if I don’t actually agree with them.

And that’s the kind of heroism I aspire to. That’s why so many of my heroes are uncomfortable characters, why during the Olympics I had a photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on my desktop. That’s why I’ve rarely been so proud of my son than when his reception teacher commented that he was the one child in the class who was willing to question her when she said something he thought wasn’t right – and why I’ve rarely admired a teacher more, because she said this as a point of praise. That’s why I’m writing this on Remembrance Sunday, the day when the country unites to worship and glorify figures of violence while I still long to praise the God of peace.

And there’s another kind of heroism that, in all this praise for military figures, gets forgotten. We can easily praise those who are heroic by doing exceptional things in exceptional circumstances. But it’s too easy to forget the every day heroism of people for whom even waking up at the start of the day and still being there at the end of it is an act of heroism greater than I can ever comprehend. Those suffering bullying or abuse, chronic illness, depression or other mental illness. No-one will ever sing their praises for what they do, but they deserve it far more than most people with guns and uniforms.

So pardon me if I don’t follow the line of Help for Heroes. I have heroes of my own who are far more deserving, and in far more need, of my help.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Enemy Within

The Truth is rarely palatable.

Over the past few decades evangelical churches in America have been systematically infiltrated by people peddling a right-wing political agenda that is utterly anti-Christian. The vast swathe of teaching both by Jesus and the Old Testament prophets on social justice has been concealed and its outworking derided as “communist”; despicable and utterly unbiblical teachings such as the “prosperity gospel” with its false identification of material wealth with God’s blessing, and the ridiculous idea that taxation is theft (directly contrary to Matthew 22:15-22), have been introduced in their place. The churches’ voice on “moral issues” has been narrowed to a select handful of areas which have no personal impact on the wealthy individuals driving the right-wing agenda and about which Jesus had nothing or next to nothing to say, while the vast majority of His teaching on the matters that are closest to God’s heart have been swept under the carpet. It is just as Jesus said: “You blind guides, you strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24)

Clearly this is a bad thing because it has led to Godly people being duped into supporting bad politics. But it is far worse because it has led to compassionate people outside the church being fed a false (and utterly unattractive) view of God. It’s hard to find anything that is more despicable and more condemned in scripture than driving people away from God by painting such an utterly false picture of Him.

This has become all the more apparent in the recent presidential election in America. During the campaign respected Christian speakers keen to endorse the Republican Mitt Romney were even willing to sideline the divinity of Christ (having previously been utterly outspoken against the Mormon faith). In its aftermath the Evangelical Christian commentator and worship leader Vicky Beeching was vilified for daring to say that she was pleased that Obama won.

Well no more. As with the “confessing churches” during 1930s and 1940s Germany, those of us who truly follow Christ must not allow ourselves to remain a silent minority. It must now be a priority for all Christians to expose these evil teachings and preach against them.

But we should not be preaching against individuals. People are never the enemy, only the battleground. We should be preaching the words and deeds of Jesus, allowing his light to illuminate the darkness that has engulfed so many churches.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19). That is the message Jesus proclaimed at the start of his ministry, and that is what America needs to hear from Him now.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

So we finally have a government ...

I love the tradition of the speech on the steps of Downing street. Even coming at the end of probably the most exciting week of politics I've ever seen, Tuesday's two examples were no anticlimax. I found both Gordon Brown's and David Cameron's speeches quite moving.

Of course the best speech of this sort ever delivered came from Jesus (Luke 4:16-21):

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

This is the vision against which I measure every government, and every time I see a new prime minister speak outside that shiny black door I am looking to see to what extent their policies and values match with what Jesus said at the start of his ministry. Of course, none of them ever meet the mark. But sometimes, as this week, I find echoes of Jesus' words, they never meet the mark; but sometimes, as this week, there are echoes every time I am disappointed, but sometimes there are the odd parallels, and this week was no exception.

What was particularly interesting this time, though, was that the speech was more than just David Cameron's agenda for the country; it contained references to things that until a week ago were anathema to most of his party and clearly came from his Lib Dem coalition partners.

And that's the great thing about coalition government. After days of negotiations - and oh, how I'd have loved to have been able to watch those 24/7 on the TV - the two parties have put together a package that cuts out the extremes of both sides in the aim of being more broadly palatable. Out go the inheritance tax cut (hoorah!) and the scrapping of Trident (shame). For once we can see how two groups of people with apparently radically different views can put aside their differences and come up with a common agenda. Are you watching, Israel and Palestine?

Like most people, I suspect, I find this isn't the government I really wanted; but neither is it the government I most feared. And perhaps that is more important.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

I Went To Vote

I went to vote yesterday. I took my son with me, partly because the polling station was at his school, but also because I wanted him to see me doing it because it’s important.

Everything I heard on the radio suggested that we citizens have become so thoroughly disenfranchised with the system, what with all the scandal over MP’s expenses etc, that none of us would bother.

And in the evening, since it was sunny and my son was at Beavers at church, which was also being used as a polling station, I took a book and sat on the church steps and read, and watched the people coming and going.

What I saw was a beautiful thing. Couples walking along hand-in-hand clutching their polling cards. Whole families with young children coming out together. Fathers and sons heading off to vote together for the first time. Groups of young people voting with their friends. People of all sorts, all colours, all ages. All of them smiling, all of them proud to be part of something. Just like me.

So whatever you read this morning in the media, a media that seems to be escalating its war against the politicians to ever more extreme levels, don’t believe a word of it. Real people are still going out, quietly, in their millions, to vote for a system that they not only believe in but are fiercely proud of.

And deep in the bowels of Westminster, of Brussels, of our councils, among the spin doctors, the media hacks, and the moat-cleaning duck-island building spivs, there are still people who are in public office for no other reason than that the want to help run the country and make it a better place. Long may they continue.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Since getting up at 2am to watch the US election results, I've been strongly reminded of Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.
Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust,
who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, O LORD my God, are the wonders you have done.
The things you planned for us no one can recount to you;
were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.

In fact I've been seized by the desire to listen to U2's version of that repeatedly. If you look back at what I wrote this time four years ago you'll probably understand why.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day

So, US election today.

I read in all the media that the Republican party are relying on evangelical Christians to get the vote out for their candidate.

Well, don't believe everything you see on the news. I am an evangelical, bible-believing Christian myself, and I urge anyone out there to go out and vote for Obama.

Jesus' heart is with the poor, the outcast, the alien. I pray that America's Evangelical Christians (and everyone else) will think about that as they vote today.