Fallen Idols

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I have a confession to make. For many years now, I have been a fan of comic book narratives. Since childhood, I have been fascinated by Superheroes, who generally inhabit entirely implausible, larger than life story lines populated by tawdry, one dimensional characters serving as tenuous plot devices. I am a veritable pseudo-expert on the thin line separating Science fiction from fact, having whiled away thousands of valuable hours watching programmes such as Michio Kaku’s Physics of the impossible, and reading books like The Science of Superheroes. Even to this day, I can get caught up daydreaming about alternate universes, time travel, supernatural occurrences, real life superhumans, unexplained phenomena, and how quantum uncertainty points to a complex, multilayered reality far beyond the capacity and limitations of modern science.

Consequently, I’m a sucker for any compelling popcorn flick which is centered on (any of) the above themes. Inevitably, such cinema requires a momentary suspension of disbelief, and enables a vague sense of escapism from the confines of a mundane, material existence. I realise that the plots are often paper thin, the acting is generally wooden, underlying worldview(s) thoroughly absurd and unbiblical, moral compass way off due North, portrayal of gender roles frequently reprehensible, and so forth. Living in Cambridge ensures that one is given frequent reminders of the less than intellectually satisfying nature and content of Hollywood blockbusters. One of the most amusing, recent illustrations of the yawning chasm separating my love of comic book narratives from the kind of cinema enjoyed by a typical Cambridge intellectual, was a brief conversation I had with (some very lovely) friends who both studied at the university. I was left collecting the proverbial tumbleweeds when I admitted to being a fan of the Batman trilogy by Chris Nolan, in response to their comments about how much they loved Japanese Art House films. The brief silence was almost palpable.

By this stage, you’re probably wondering where all of this is going. Well, I’m not entirely sure, but consider this a foretaste of a more in depth post I’m thinking of putting together in response to the recent Mark Driscoll/Brian Houston/Hill Song controversy. More specifically, this current post relates to the lone protestor called Natalie Collins, aka “God Loves Women”, who braved the O2 arena in London during the Hill Song conference to stand in solidarity with those affected by the Mars Hill meltdown. In a nutshell, I think that there are compelling lines of convergence between the stand Natalie took against a well oiled, male dominated, consumer oriented, evangelical industrial complex, and numerous comic book narratives. Heroes invariably appear to have the odds stacked against them when facing seemingly invincible foes whilst polarising public opinion, and are frequently cast as the underdog in a prize fight that for all intents and purposes, is virtually impossible to win.

You see, as I think about the relationship between Western Mega Churches, the problem of Patriarchy, Feminism, Consumerism, marginalised voices, the “Dones”, and so forth, I’m reminded for some reason of the recent Batman vs Superman trailer. It’s perhaps an unhelpful parallel to compare a brave, lone woman standing up to unhealthy mindsets propagated within Western Evangelicalism (particularly with reference to patriarchal misogyny) and two fictional male characters, who arguably embody the quintessential archetype(s) of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Nihilism aside however, and poorly construed stereotypes notwithstanding, similar biblical parallels can be found in the David vs Goliath, and Gideon narratives (1 Sam 17, Jud 6). Thus, believe it or not, there is a biblical precedent for going against the grain and engaging in direct prophetic confrontation with dominant power structures, cultures, and prominent figures (to say nothing of Moses, Deborah, Elijah, Esther, the major & minor prophets, Jesus, or Paul). For the sake of defusing the gender stereotypes represented by Batman vs Superman, let’s imagine that in this current post we’re considering a similar, metaphorical face off between Bat(wo)man and Superman.

So what am I saying? Well, not much of substance yet. I’m merely sharing random collections of thoughts which are at best a precursor to a longer, more considered post. I’m giving you an insight into the imaginary, contemplative world of a stay at home Christian father (for the Summer holidays at least) who is taking note of the latest episodes in the Evangelical soap opera. However, as I observe and dialogue with an increasingly broad variety of Christians who are experiencing  mutual dissatisfaction and disillusionment with institutionalised, branded, supermarket Christianity (to borrow/steal a term from Natalie Collins herself), I’m starting to wonder if something bigger isn’t afoot.

I sense a nascent movement gaining momentum, traction, and a measure of ‘progressive’ interconnectedness (pun intended). I see formlessness giving way to an ’emergent’ shape (2nd pun intended). I hear a cacophony of diverse tongues blending into an intricate symphony of contrapuntal motion verging on harmony. In short, after years of reservations, polemic, suspicion and doubt regarding the integrity of what some call ‘progressive’ Christianity, I’m finding myself feeling uncomfortably at home amidst people who adopt this label. Now, I know that labels have limits and can be disastrously unhelpful, as one of my former lecturers points out in this excellent post. I’m also beginning to realise that the fragmentation of global Christianity won’t be solved by taking arbitrary sides in the Evangelical culture wars, so often characterised by internecine fighting.

Nevertheless, I’m coming out of the theological closet and admitting that I lean ‘progressive’ (whatever that means) in numerous areas. As regards gender roles, I have embraced an egalitarian perspective for biblical reasons, which presumably plants me firmly in the ‘progressive’ camp. In others, I’m unabashedly ‘conservative’ (whatever that means). I am of course, still a work in progress and hopefully subject to change. The thrust of all of this is simple; I am tentatively suggesting that one of the critical theological disputes that can and must be solved prior to the completion of the church’s great commission, is the issue of gender roles from a Christian perspective.

This, I submit, will almost certainly involve standing with the minority voices of our sisters against a veritable Goliath of an opponent: the root cause of Patriarchy itself, which is sin resulting in a fallen world wherein men rule over women (Gen 3:16). Thankfully, Jesus has something to say about this. The idols of Western Evangelicalism are both falling and fallen. I intend to add my own relatively obscure, inconsequential voice to the developing conversation, in the hope of bringing such idols to their knees. Jesus also had something to say about power dynamics, empire, wealth, influence, marginalised voices, non-violent resistance, and his coming Kingdom. Something tells me that supermarket Christianity might be buying into (amongst other things) the wrong aspects of this list. If Superman represents the consumer Christian mindset deceived by (amongst other things) the same narrative of power that crucified Jesus, this raises serious questions about how we classify heroes, villains, and controversial celebrity pastors like Mark Driscoll.

If it comes down to it, I think I’d rather stand with Bat(wo)man. This doesn’t necessarily make Superman the enemy, but it does require a choice from us. Where do you stand?

Audience Participation?

A recent online discussion regarding the concentration span and intellectual capacity of blog readers was sparked by Alastair Roberts, who posted this tweet in response to critics of a 5000 word blog post by Matt Lee Anderson on the Mere Orthodoxy site:

A number of people (myself included) immediately challenged Alastair’s comment for a range of reasons, which caused him to attempt to negate criticism via the repeated use of an ad hominem argument (i.e. blame the readers). The wider point raised was how to improve the standard of public discourse, which seems reasonable enough. For the record, I do greatly respect Alastair, and am very grateful for the ongoing, considered contribution he makes to a broad range of discussions. I would generally agree with his contention that those who are able to do so (and are bereft of any genuine reason why they cannot, i. e. Work/Family demands, dyslexia, etc), ought to make a concerted effort to engage well with online content prior to expecting any meaningful interaction with the author(s). Nevertheless, one of several sticking points for me during our brief exchange was the notion that only “informed” participants (i. e. Highly intelligent, well read, time rich) had any “right” to interact with online public conversations, such as those conducted between bloggers like Alastair and Matt.

*see update at end of post*

Doubtless, I could very easily write 5000 words about this topic, why I disagree, the inherent problems such an attitude to critics poses, and so forth. I could (perhaps should?) undertake slavish research prior to doing so, such as visiting local university libraries (I live in Cambridge so there are substantial resources available to me here), sift through peer reviewed academic articles, discuss the issues with other academics, spend long hours wandering alone through the Fens in a state of rabid contemplation, etc. Such an endeavour would probably beef up my blog post, strengthen my burgeoning academic credentials, fortify my argument by enabling me to appeal to innumerable, renowned thinkers, and in all likelihood cause my job, wife and baby boy to forget who I am (resulting in personal and financial ruin). My beard would also, very likely, get significantly thicker, greyer, and more terrifying (who has time for personal hygiene when there are books to be read?).

Unfortunately, I have neither the time, energy or wherewithal to do any of these things at present. Should I ever progress beyond my MA, it is possible that I may be presented with the luxury of funded doctoral research, in which case such an attractive, erudite lifestyle may become temporarily possible. In the meanwhile, I thought I would share an interdisciplinary perspective from my experience as a trained musician.

I have spent the better part of two decades learning, studying and practising the guitar. I possess a number of instrumental certificates proving that, on paper at least, I am a highly qualified and capable instrumentalist. I also have an undergraduate degree in Music, and twelve years of experience as a player and teacher since my graduation. When it comes to music, and the guitar in particular, I really am a bona fide “expert”. I view all of this as a gift from God, and know that I am also merely one lone figure amongst the countless hordes of similarly capable musicians out there. In other words, for all of my skills, I am nothing special or unique. Many better, more well known players exist.

Now, to my point: when I go out into the real world and play live music in a wide variety of different formats and settings, regardless of how well I play or how well prepared I am, some people dislike what they hear. Many simply don’t care about the music I play, and even go as far as to complain (to the musicians and/or the venue) that the music is happening in their presence at all. Others feel the need to wander up to the band, mid performance (depending on the venue), and ask for requests (ostensibly they would prefer their request to what we are playing). Still others decide that they ought to give advice to the musicians about their playing, compare them to other artists and/or cite perceived influences, for instance saying something along the lines of: “you guys really sound like {insert tawdry artist here}”. The warning I received from my guitar tutor prior to embarking on my move to Cambridge was simple, and proved to be true: “Just remember, some people will hate what you do, regardless of how ‘good’ it is musically. Learn to live with that”. Yet here is the crux of the matter for me: Play in Public, expect to interact with the Public.

Many, many people who have accosted myself and other musicians over the years and offered their thoughts have been disastrously “uninformed”. They have no formal musical training, don’t listen widely, and in some cases appear to lack any respect for skilled musicians at all. Of course, some are the exact opposite to this, and are very well informed. You just never know what you might get; each gig is different. Yet can you imagine what would happen if, for every ignorant, opinionated buffoon I encountered, I responded to their comments with:

“Sorry, you don’t have the right to talk to me, sit down and shut up whilst myself and the band give you a musical education, oh and do your best to be grateful for it too! If you want to talk music with me go and get yourself a decade or so of lessons and a degree, then come back to me. Thanks.”

I suspect the Police and the paramedics would be the next people involved in the discussion. Either that, or the band would be making a somewhat swift move toward the fire exit, gear in tow. The bottom line is this: Dare to play in the Public square? Don’t be surprised by what you find there.

Now, arguably the rules of engagement are somewhat different for writing than they are for music, yet does the average punter see things this way? If a person consumes the album my band puts online (which costs time and money to record, produce, rehearse etc) and makes derogatory comments, complains that the tracks are too long (admittedly, they are!), etc.. do I discount their views because they are “uninformed?”. I may do, yet one thing surely remains consistent: whatever I put out on the world wide web is immediately subject to public scrutiny and interaction, whether I like it or not. Is this ideal? Perhaps not. Are all the comments received fair or valid? Probably not. Should I take the rough with the smooth and deal with it? Is written content qualitatively identical, or at least equal to auditory content insofar as Jane Public understands it (as she consumes it via some kind of i-Prod-like device)?

Yes. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to put it out for public consumption. Simple. Such is the digital age we currently inhabit. As much as I hate to be the one to shatter our collective delusions of grandeur, I thus contend that blogs are no different to garage band demos, or well written and refined albums, at least not in the eyes or ears of the wider public. Telling them that they are stupid and need to try harder to appreciate the content we present to them is, quite frankly, asking for trouble and/or a waste of time. It is almost guaranteed to change absolutely nothing and alienate any potential audience immediately. I would strongly advise against such a strategy. If we want to raise the level of public discourse, we who provide content to the public must raise our game and learn to understand our audience. We must develop content that, on its own merits, both captures and retains the attention of the wider public. They owe us precisely nothing.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

M

*Update* Alastair helpfully clarified his somewhat more nuanced position in the comments section below. He describes it succinctly in the following way:

My underlying point was that participation and being informed must be related. Having conversations in public is a way for people to become informed and to increase their participation.

Whilst I don’t disagree with this statement in principle, I don’t think it works so well in the warp and woof of reality, as it is perhaps a little idealistic. Where I have misrepresented Alastair in any way, I apologise. This was not my intention. Unfortunately, I still think much of this discussion boils down to differences over public perception vs the original author’s intentions/ideals. I fear that the beleaguered reader/author relationship once again rears its ugly, postmodern head, leaving a trail of ambiguity in its wake.

A Dangerous Gospel?

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It’s hard to express in meaningful words what I’m feeling right now. I’ve spent good portions of the past two years working hard on my writing from an academic perspective, and anticipate doing so for several more years to come, God willing. I’m having to challenge myself to relearn how to think, analyse, evaluate, discuss, argue, explore, research, write, cite, justify, edit, and present both my own ideas and the ideas of others in a deliberately reflective, self-conscious, and critical way.

Theology is unnerving. Engaging critically with deeply held, cherished, personal beliefs is a potential minefield wherein both student and recipient (of said student’s evolving beliefs) are rendered vulnerable to, amongst other things, ‘cognitive dissonance’. Leon Festinger, working within the field of psychology, coined this term to describe his theory of how an internal conflict arises within a person when they are faced with inconsistencies between their own beliefs and actions. David C. Vaidis helpfully summarises the theory this way:

It suggests that inconsistencies among cognitions (i.e., knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, oneself, or one’s behavior) generate an uncomfortable motivating feeling (i.e., the cognitive dissonance state). [1]

Festinger himself states that:

The dissonance might exist because of what the person has learned or come to expect, because of what is considered appropriate or usual, or for any other number of other reasons. [2]

So far, so vague, and you might rightly ask: So what?

Creativity requires risk. For a Jazz musician, the process of improvisation may be undergirded by countless unseen hours of training, preparation, and planning, so as to appear effortlessly spontaneous and innovative. Yet beneath it all, surely, there must be a spark of wild, raw, edgy, boundless, irrepressible passion driving the practitioner relentlessly forward into their sudden outbursts of unrestricted beauty and freedom? A lioness does not learn to hunt by playing it safe. Neither did Jesus demonstrate the Kingdom of God by presenting an eloquent, well proof-read philosophical treatise on how to start a global religion.

On the contrary, Jesus Christ demonstrated what an authentic human life surrendered to God truly looks like: himself. The Gospel of his life, death, and subsequent resurrection represents the very turning point of history, of which he now declares himself Lord and Saviour. What is more, having already sent his original disciples out in groups to follow in the footsteps of his earthly lifestyle by proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven (His Kingdom no less), healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, driving out demons (and all of this for free), he then commands these same disciples to teach all subsequent disciples to go and do likewise (Matt 10:5-15, 28:18-20). In so doing, Jesus’ Gospel of foregiveness from sin, hope, reconciliation, deliverance from evil, renewed purpose, and much more besides, promises a destiny defined by a glorious relationship with God via his Spirit. Transformation and renewal is thus made possible for individuals, families, communities, institutions, cities, nations, and potentially the entire globe. This is good news, and global transformation is really just the beginning of a much wider cosmic realignment. The expansion of Jesus’ Kingdom and peace will have no limits (Isa 9:7).

The mission of the Church, and by extension the Christian, is thus aptly summed up as follows: ‘Freely you have received, now freely give’ (Matt 10:8); Take the Gospel across the globe, and tell everyone about Jesus. Share the good news of his Kingdom in both word and deed. Simple enough, right?

Hang on, cognitive dissonance?

Good question. I’m glad you asked. I get cognitive dissonance frequently. I’ve had it for years, even as a Christian. I routinely feel as though the radical lifestyle Jesus both describes and demonstrates throughout the Gospels must be attainable, yet often seems curiously absent from my own experience. I am persuaded that his example of the truly human life is not mere mythology, or religiosity, but rather the very pulsating heartbeat of the divine nature waiting to explode forth within us, as we worship the one true King with our entire lives. God is no trickster, setting up his children to fail miserably as they attempt to pursue unreachable goals. No, I can neither believe nor justify such a depiction of God based upon the way Jesus portrays him in Scripture (e.g. Matt 7:10-11, c.f. Luke 11:13).

Perhaps tellingly, the record we have doesn’t show Jesus explaining how to undertake the task of spreading the gospel (miraculous deeds included) in much, if any detail. Presumably, some degree of uncertainty, adventure, and risk is inevitable. Yet if scaling Mount Kilimanjaro six years ago taught me anything, it’s this: God is real, and reaching the summit of a seemingly impossible endeavour is accomplished one step at a time. You have to start by moving your feet.

Recently, I met someone who has very much begun moving their feet in pursuit of God. Without giving too much away, I left our brief encounter challenged, inspired, contemplative, and with a familiar sense of cognitive dissonance. It’s always good for a Jesus follower to meet another person who has a very similar calling to themselves, is pursuing it wholeheartedly, taking it seriously, is filled with faith, passion, determination, and an aura of liberty in Christ as they share testimony upon testimony of how God is working in their life. Such an encounter lifts the weariness of academic study, and reminds me why I am pursuing it in the first place. I was shown once again by them that ‘as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another’ (Prov 27:17).

You see, when I read the Gospels, and consider the implications of a lifestyle truly modelled on Jesus, I am convinced of three things. Firstly, such an existence is a dangerous business, must encompass failure as well as success, is bereft of comfort zones, and requires outrageous faith. There is no map, and the job description is, well, terrifying. [3] Secondly, it is the only life truly worth living in the remains of a fading world order, and particularly amidst the ‘detritus of Western civilisation’. [4] Thirdly, and finally, however such a lifestyle manifests itself in different contexts, it will in all likelihood not be coherent with many contemporary expressions of Church. I shall therefore close by suggesting what a dangerous gospel is, by taking a brief cue from apophatic theology in defining it by what it is not. [5] Without further ado:

A dangerous gospel is not seeker friendly, consumer Christianity. Neither is it legalistic, rigid fundamentalism. Nor is it ‘charismatic chaos’, or new age spirituality. [6] It most certainly is not a gospel of social action, ethical living, high/low church liturgy/formlessness, dead ritual, or moral majority political activism; It bears no resemblance to the ‘religious right’. A dangerous gospel is not synonymous with conservative Evangelicalism, ‘progressive’ Christianity, Pentecostalism, The Anglican Communion, Eastern orthodoxy, or Roman Catholicism. In fact, it isn’t confined to any tradition, denomination, culture, ethnicity, historical epoch, or geographical location. Neither is it embodied by sustainable development, liberation theology, or gender equality. I could go on, but you get the picture (I hope). Not all of these and other such examples are necessarily wrong, or bad in and of themselves. Some are very much worth pursuing, have much to offer, and may even be a consequence of the Gospel. They may even be the means by which we receive the Gospel. This does not however, make them the Gospel.

A dangerous Gospel can lead to cognitive dissonance. Unless of course, you are a Christ follower who never feels hypocritical, always practises what they preach, and lives a lifestyle that looks very much like Jesus’ own did. If, like me, you persistently fall short of this seemingly impossible divine standard of living, dare I challenge you to join me in believing that there must be more? Can you be brave enough to imagine a future wherein you begin to experience, live in light of, embody, and share Jesus’ Gospel in unexpected, innovative, transformative, and miraculously powerful ways?

Or is it just me that yearns for a life less ordinary?

J

1. Vaidis, David C., Cognitive Dissonance Theory, Oxford Bibliographies, 2015.

2. Festinger, Leon, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press: 1957, 13.

3. For instance, imagine an updated version of Ernest Shackleton’s advert requesting explorers for his legendary, and yet ultimately lethal Antarctic expeditions: ‘Men & Women (added to reflect biblical equality) wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success.’ Additionally, consider the apostle Paul’s job description of what the life of a biblical apostle looks like in 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, and 2 Corinthians 4:24-29.

4. See: Vanhoozer, Kevin J., One rule to rule them all?: Theological Method in an Era of World Christianity, in Ott. Craig, and Netland, Harold A. (Eds), Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic: 2006, 108.

5. Apophatic or ‘negative’ theology is a way of defining God by what God is not, e.g. God is not powerful, as the word ‘powerful’ is woefully inadequate to describe God’s power, which is inexpressible. See for instance, this dictionary definition, or theopedia entry.

6. See: MacArthur Jr., John F., Charismatic Chaos, Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Publishing House: 1992, 14, etc.

When should we baptise children, and why?

Two recent events have led me to think about the subject of infant baptism afresh. Firstly, I attended an Anglican christening service and was struck by the remarkably coherent logic of the ceremony. The child is not expected to make a verbal declaration of faith for obvious reasons (i.e. being unable to speak!), and so the parents instead effectively ‘dedicate’ their offspring to Jesus. They essentially make declarations on their child’s behalf until such time as said child is able to decide what they think of Jesus for themselves. In many ways, this is analogous to process of ‘dedication’ (minus the ritual sprinkling) undertaken by modern, Pentecostal-Charismatic Credo-Baptism adherents, such as myself. We generally prefer to delay baptism until the child is old enough to make a verbal declaration of faith in Jesus, and understand what they are saying.

Secondly, I read this post by Andrew Wilson on the Think Theology blog, which highlighted a position I had never heard of before, wherein baptism is directly connected to church discipline. He quotes an article by Joe Rigney on the Desiring God website, who describes his understanding this way:

When they are baptized, they will come under the church’s authority directly. Then the church will have the responsibility to correct and discipline them for their sins. Thus, in my view, we should wait to baptize until children are ready to assume that mantle of responsibility.

Wilson agrees with Rigney’s distinction between ‘mature and immature professions of faith’ without endorsing the connection to church discipline. Notably, Rigney ends his article by claiming that his view is consistent with what he calls ‘the biblical witness about the requirements for baptism and congregational church government’. Despite this contentious statement, the only biblical text Rigney cites in support of his view is Galatians 4:1-2, which he uses as a proof text to buttress his distinction between maturity and immaturity. In fairness, Rigney admits that whilst ‘relevant’, this text is not ‘a direct argument for withholding baptism till adulthood’, and that his article is not ‘a full biblical defense of this distinction’.

Nevertheless, in a spirit of generosity, Rigney’s exegesis is one of the worst examples of proof texting I have seen for many years. Paul’s wider discussion in Galatians 4 is in the context of a candid rebuke of the pursuit of the flesh (i.e. works of the Jewish law from the Hebrew Bible) instead of Christ crucified and the Spirit as a means of salvation (e.g. Gal 3). It says nothing about the literal distinction between adults and children with regards to salvation, never mind baptism.

In fact, Paul is writing metaphorically by describing (adult) believers as children now that they have been redeemed from spiritual bondage, and even goes as far as to say that a redeemed believer is ‘no longer a slave, but God’s child‘..whom ‘God has made…an heir‘ (Gal 4:3-7, emphasis mine). Rigney’s shoehorning of the distinction between heirs and slaves in Galatians 4:1-2 into his own distinction between adults/children, and mature/immature ‘professions of faith’ as regards baptism doesn’t work. At all.

Which brings me to my main point. Grown men can bluster and bundle together as many bold rhetorical statements about the biblical witness to X and Y as they like, but for any so-called ‘biblical witness’ to genuinely hold water, it has to pass the ultimate litmus test: Jesus. [1] How does biblical literature depict his view of whether or not the church should restrict children from accessing the new covenant relationship with him? As I’ve been pondering this, I keep being reminded of some niggling verses, one of which is described by another theologian called Patrick Schreiner as ‘a favorite passage of Presbyterians, and a thorn to some Baptists’ (Matt 19). They are worth quoting in full:

‘Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.   Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.’ – (Matt 19:13-15 NIV)

‘People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.’ – (Mark 10:13-16 NIV)

‘People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” –
(Luke 18:15-17 NIV)

Clearly, the ongoing conversation between Baptists, Presbyterians, and other denominations as regards infant baptism is not going to go away anytime soon. Schreiner himself describes the more recent online discussion between Wilson, Rigney, Jonathan Leeman, and Mark Jones as being something of a ‘little dust storm’, for which Schreiner does not have a ‘final word’ to offer. Quite right. Neither do I. Yet I would immediately point to the parallel verses cited above as compelling evidence that Jesus commanded that our children be unimpeded from ‘coming to him’. What are our denominational distinctives in this area as Credo-Baptists, if not impediments?

What is more, whilst Paul only mentions baptism twice, he does appear to equate it with, or at least explicitly links it to circumcision, and yet goes further in saying that ‘in Christ’ circumcision is ‘not performed by human hands’ (Col 2:9-15). What place then, for adult intervention in the salvation of children, or their adoption into the new covenant relationship with God? Furthermore, Paul’s expansive discussion of the Spirit/Flesh antithesis in Romans arguably adds clarity to this idea. When he makes bold statements such as ‘a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit and not by the written code’, proponents of withholding baptism from children ought to at least pause for thought (Rom 2:28-29). Also, if baptism is in some way the new circumcision, or at least directly linked to it, let us not forget that Jewish law insisted that infants be circumcised after eight days (Gen 17:10-14, Lev 12:3). Presumably, they hadn’t yet made a ‘credible’ or ‘mature’ profession of faith in God?

After all, if physical circumcision itself is merely a ‘sign’ and ‘seal’ of the righteousness brought about by faith, then surely it is faith in, and relationship with Jesus, instigated by him via the Spirit, that corroborates a person’s salvation, infants included (Rom 4:11)? Given the tail end of Paul’s admonition to the Colossians to eschew dead rituals for their own sake, should we not ponder the extent to which our doctrinal hobby horses are potentially legalistic (Col 2:16-23)?

As Rigney rightly admits about his own use of Galatians 4, the thorny passages from the synoptic gospels don’t directly apply to infant baptism. Yet if any texts do make a compelling case for demolishing the distinction between ‘mature and immature professions of faith’, arguably, it is these ones. Paul certainly pushes back against arbitrary distinctions whereby baptism may or may not be the new circumcision, yet unquestionably connects the two; he also makes it clear that human hands are not responsible for the heart change involved therein. Perhaps more importantly, would I withhold my own baby boy from coming to Jesus merely because he can’t yet articulate his desire and reasoning to me in a linguistically and intellectually elegant way?

I think not. If nothing else, Jesus gives me cause to seriously reconsider my own theology of baptism. As for church ‘discipline’ (whatever that means), do we not lovingly discipline our children? Furthermore, am I really so proud and foolish as to think that God cannot challenge and rebuke me through one of his (and/or my) children?

A certain talking donkey springs to mind (Num 22:27-30).

M

1. I realise that this is a massive oversimplification, and runs the risk of implying that I adopt a ‘canon within the canon’ approach, also described by Andrew Wilson and Derek Rishmawy as the ‘Jesus tea strainer’. For the record, this is not how my theological method operates, although Jesus is described as the end goal or telos of scripture (e.g. Luke 24:27, 44-49, John 5:39). A fuller treatment of this topic is way beyond the scope of this short blog post.

40 Questions for Christians arguing over the Redefinition of Marriage

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I am late to the debate and in all honesty, I find the whole conservative vs progressive Christian exchange increasingly hard to stomach, or take seriously. As I have written about previously, I just do not think it is very fruitful or healthy to constantly dwell on the so called ‘culture wars’ between conservative and progressive Christians (whatever those labels mean!). If nothing else, the predictable and stale rhetoric is wearisome.

Disengaging from the fray entirely seems ignorant however, since these conversations are happening anyway. So, in the spirit of these posts by Kevin De Young and Matthew Vines, (Clickable) I thought I’d add my own voice into the mix. To be very clear, I am speaking here entirely to those who self identify as Christian, and who are engaged in the debate already. Without further ado, here we go:

#1 Do you love Jesus and consider him your Lord and Saviour?

#2 If yes, how do you routinely demonstrate your love for him?

#3 Do you agree, on the basis of various biblical passages, that ‘loving Jesus’ requires something more than mere mental or verbal assent? [1]

#4 If not, why not?

#5 If yes, does your desire to argue with others (for instance via social media/blog posts) regarding contentious issues such as the redefinition of marriage demonstrate your love for Jesus?

#6 If so how?

#7 Have you received any formal theological training (See footnote)? [2]

#8 If not, do you agree that it might be wise to do so prior to venturing your own dogmatic assertions regarding sensitive topics?

#9 Either way, do you feel that you have exhaustive knowledge of biblical literature, and the ancient literature contemporaneous to it?

#10 If yes, how much biblical/ancient literature have you memorised in the original languages, taking into account textual variants?

#11 If none, have you at least regularly engaged with all of/a range of said literature in translation?

#12 Either way, how do you go about interpreting the text(s) in question? Which (if any) methods do you consciously make use of?

#13 If none, do you think there are any subconscious methods which you utilise when engaging with biblical literature?

#14 Do you know what ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘groupthink’ are?

#15 If so, how do you consciously try to compensate for confirmation bias/group think when arriving at your own/agreeing with other interpretations of biblical literature?

#16 If you answered ‘no’ to #14, are you willing to learn?

#17 Do you think it’s fair to say that all readers/hearers, including scholars/pastors/church leaders etc, come to the biblical text with presuppositions?

#18 If not, why not?

#19 If so, what are some of your presuppositions, and how do they inform your understanding of the Bible?

#20 How aware are you of church history, tradition, denominational distinctives, and the current diversity of opinion regarding what constitutes ‘sound doctrine’ from the perspective of global Christianity?

#21 To directly quote a biblical text do you think you are generally ‘quick to listen, slow to speak’, and have managed to ‘tame’ your tongue? [3]

#22 If so, how many conservative evangelical Christians, or Christians of other persuasions who hold traditional views on marriage, have you sat down and respectfully listened to regarding their views on marriage over the past 12 months?

#23 By the same token, how many LGBT affirming Christians/Christian supporters of the redefinition of marriage have you sat down and respectfully listened to regarding their views on marriage over the past 12 months?

#24 How many people (Christian or not) who self identify as LGBT have you sat down and respectfully listened to for any reason, and particularly regarding their views on marriage/sexuality, over the past 12 months?

#25 What do you think the ‘gospel’ means from a Christian perspective?

#26 How did you arrive at your conclusion to #25?

#27 Based on your understanding of the gospel, do you think a modern ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ view of sexual identity is the primary focus of the gospel?

#28 If so, why?

#29 If not, why not?

#30 How do you think Jesus defined marriage (if at all), based on the record we have of his own words? [4]

#31 How do you think Jesus defined the requirements of being a disciple (if at all), based on the record we have of his own words (See #3)?

#32 How is your contribution to this heated debate regarding the redefinition of marriage informed by #30 and #31?

#33 How does your own life demonstrate/match Jesus’ requirements of his disciples?

#34 Would others, who either know you well and see you regularly, or don’t know you but follow you on social media, agree with your self-assessment based on #1, #2, #14-16, #20-24, #32, and #33?

#35 Do you think Jesus’ love is demonstrated when progressive Christians demonise traditional marriage supporters?

#36 Do you think Jesus’ love is demonstrated when conservative Christians demonise supporters of the redefinition of marriage?

#37 Do you think that basically, you are generally right and others are wrong?

#38 If so, do you think the world would be a better place if everyone thought as you do?

#39 What do you think Jesus makes of this kind of heated debate (which includes this blog post), and your answers to all of these questions?

#40 Do you think the watching world is compelled by the vision of church/Christianity it sees during debates like this one, in terms of how believers of different theological persuasions, backgrounds, and traditions love each other? [5]

M

1. e.g. Matt 5:2-48, 6, 7:1-27, 9:10-13, 10:32-39, 12:46-50, 15:10-11, 16-20, 16:24-28, 18:1-9, 15-20, 19:3-12, 16-30, 22:36-40, 23:1-12, 25:31-46, 28:18-20, Mark 3:31-34, 4:21-25, 7:14-23, 8:34-38, 9:42-50, 16:15-18, Luke 6:20-49, 8:16-21, 9:62, 11:28, 12:22-34, 13:24-30, 14:25-33, 16:13, 18:15-17, 24:45-49, John 3:16-21, 3:35-36, 4:22-24, 7:37-39, 8:12, 31-32, 47, 12:25-26, 14:15-21, 15:5-8, 10, 12-17.

2. A friend helpfully challenged me on this, so I wanted to clarify: I’m not suggesting that this is essential for developing an understanding of scripture, or forming a valid opinion of your own. Rather, I’m suggesting that it is advisable, prior to dogmatically asserting an interpretation as being self-evident/clear (or worse yet a ‘fact’), to pursue theological training. I would humbly suggest that this is even more important if you are asserting an opinion in a public/group setting, or on social media.

3. James 1:19, 3:1-12.

4. Matt 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12.

5. John 13:34-35.