Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) and Amorphous Affiliations; Part 4: ‘(Post) Evangelical Anglican Wimberite’?

*Links are highlighted.

This is the fourth and final post in a series wherein I attempt to explore the nature of my evolving Christian faith. In part one I sketched a vague backdrop of my own experience of (re)embracing Christianity, and by proxy Western Evangelicalism, as an adult convert. In part two I expanded upon some of my formative encounters with the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, and reflected upon how they began to shape my journey as a new believer. This post also dealt with the significant influence of pastor Bill Johnson and Bethel Church, Redding, upon my inherited outlook and understanding of a distinctively pentecostal-charismatic spirituality. Following Johnson’s endorsement of Donald Trump at the apex of the recent US election, I finally arrived at a place where, after much soul searching and reasoned reflection, I felt that I could no longer self-identify with North American Evangelicalism.[1] Rather than continue to glibly accept the label ‘Evangelical’ as a descriptor of my faith, I decided instead that “simply ‘Christian’ will have to do”.[2] In my most recent post, I grappled with the reality that I am therefore now some kind of ‘post-evangelical’, and very briefly discussed the relationship between ‘Evangelicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism(s)’In closing, I considered to what extent I had unwittingly absorbed ‘fundamentalist literalism’ within my emerging understanding and experience(s) of the Christian Faith; Having reflected upon this at length, I have decided that the time to jettison this particularly unhealthy influence is now long overdue.

As an unintended consequence of engaging in some critical reflection upon my own faith tradition, I shall now delve into a book by the Anglican theologian Martyn Percy called Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism, before sketching my currently ‘amorphous’ affiliation to both the Vineyard movement and Anglicanism (broadly conceived). I stumbled across Percy’s (albeit, somewhat dated) book in one of my recent charity shop raids, and simply could not resist its ephemeral allure. Given that he focuses almost exclusively on John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard Church movement) throughout his study, it seemed uncannily relevant to my present circumstances. Alongside Percy’s work, I have also selected a number of other resources which provide useful insights for ongoing reflection upon my deepening relationship with the Anglican Tradition whilst being part of the Vineyard movement.[3] 

John Wimber: A ‘Sophisticated Fundamentalist’?[4]

Writing in 1996, Percy described Wimber as a ‘pre-eminent contemporary fundamentalist in the revivalist tradition’.[5] Having set out his own (highly nuanced) fivefold understanding of the characteristic marks of ‘fundamentalism’, Percy identifies four key reasons why Wimber was a useful and important figure to study at the time. Firstly, ‘his appeal is international and crosses denominations’, which of course means that Wimber has been particularly influential upon the UK Anglican church.[6] Secondly, ‘Wimber fits well with [Percy’s] fundamentalist criteria’, particularly as regards ‘the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy’.[7] As such, [Wimber’s] fundamentalism makes ‘such a fascinating case study’ because he expected ‘his followers [to be] actually experiencing and promoting ‘signs’ of God’s presence’.[8] Thirdly, Percy describes ‘Wimber’s fundamentalism [as] a tendency’ consisting of a desire for ‘the spiritual renewal of the Church’ by way of ‘propogating a whole host of phenomena’ such as ‘spiritual gifts’, ‘signs and wonders’, ‘healing’, ‘prophecy’, ‘deliverance’, and ‘speaking in tongues’.[9] Finally, Percy notes that:

Wimber’s ‘particular theological methods, with their tactile emphasis, form the basis of his social organisation in all its distinctiveness, as well as characterising his opposition to other belief systems. [10]

Thus:

Analysing his work will highlight how this form of fundamentalism offers a complete interpretive framework for participants in which their understanding of God, the self and the world is formed through the words that are used and the experiences and behaviour that are valued.[11]

Whilst Percy’s critique focusses primarily upon Wimber’s written and recorded works, he has visited Wimber’s conferences in order to ‘experience first-hand how Wimber and his followers operated in their preferred context’.[12] At the very least, this ought to mitigate against those who might be tempted to dismiss Percy’s criticisms as being solely ‘academic’ or detached from lived realities. As one might expect from a thinker of Percy’s calibre, his subsequent observations are acutely insightful.

Power Play?

One of the most troubling, sobering, and yet strangely reassuring aspects of Percy’s thesis is his analysis of power as a ‘principle of coherence’ for his interpretation of John Wimber’s theology and praxis. [13] As he puts it, Wimber’s ‘insistence that the power of God is by nature a visible, tangible phenomenon’ means that Wimber ‘locates power in God’s activity’, which necessarily excludes ‘other avenues in which God’s power might be manifest’.[14] This is particularly (and notably) the case with respect to the lack of any sense of a revelation of God in ‘failure, sickness, or powerlessness’.[15]

Power, in the sense that Percy describes it, ostensibly results in individuals and even entire congregations, denominations, and movements becoming subject to a crass, authoritarian hegemony which lays claim to a divine mandate for exercising emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and functional oppression. Such a hypothetical worst-case scenario is surely more anti-Christ than Christlike? Or do Jesus’ words about the nature of Christian leadership (read: servanthood) not apply to pentecostal-charismatic leaders like Wimber et al? (E.g. Matt 20:24-28, Mark 10:41-45, Luke 22:24-30, 1 Pe 1:1-5). 

Indeed, Percy notes the significant issues and power dynamics that arise when influential leaders claim to speak for God:

…in Wimber’s churches ‘words of knowledge’, reputedly supernatural in origin, are used to persuade, convict, and transform individuals in order that they might respond to God (Power Evangelism, 47). Although there is some biblical precedent…the problem with Wimber and his followers’ use of words of knowledge is that they frequently do not permit a free response, or constitute an invitation. They can be tools for persuasion, alteration, and coercion.[16]

Percy goes on: 

So the speech of God for Wimber, here in words of knowledge, is a notion of the power of God that competes with the freedom God has given in creation, ultimately quashing it…this view of power has an implication for church communities, though it is masked in authority structures. Some of Wimber’s followers… believe in what they call the recovery of the ‘Ananias and Sapphira scenario’ amongst their churches (Acts 5:1-11). Followers who resist or lie to leaders are…lying to God, and are therefore immediately liable to the power of God in the form of judgement… Thus, the room to respond to a word of knowledge is severely restricted…[17]

I find Percy’s observations strangely reassuring since they have confirmed my own latent concerns with evangelical and pentecostal-charismatic power language and dynamics. I am disturbingly reminded of my own experiences of church and para-church settings wherein presentations of Christianity seem to be replete with words like ‘power’, ‘revival’, ‘victory’, ‘breakthrough’, and relentless triumphalism twinned with fundamentalist certitude and saccharine sweet positivism. All of these sinister platitudes are typically expressed in both song and sermon alike, wherein the latter is proclaimed by untouchable ‘anointed’ leaders bereft of accountability. I get profoundly uncomfortable when I ponder the reality of these situations routinely playing themselves out on any given Sunday. 

Unfortunately I have seen, imbibed, and thoughtlessly regurgitated the kind of prosperity driven power language that Percy describes all too often. Reading his initial critique of Wimber is thus unsettling, to say the least. Therefore, to the extent that any evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic spirituality becomes conflated with an imbalance of power within the Church, my instincts are to resist and reject such practices as being wholly inconsistent with Jesus’ Gospel. For the Vineyard and those sympathetic to/influenced by the movement, any legacy of John Wimber’s theology and praxis that equates to a power play must be jettisoned just as quickly as similarly toxic elements of Evangelicalism, or indeed Fundamentalism(s).

None of this is to say that every aspect of the baby that is Vineyard theology needs to be thrown out with the evangelical bathwater of course. Discernment must be balanced with faith; at least as far as I am concerned. Nor is it merely the evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic movement(s) that need to beware of the misuse of power within their ranks; all denominations and expressions of Christianity are arguably flawed and ridden with sinners like you and I. Power must be kept in check and brought to the foot of Jesus’ cross, even (especially!) in more well established traditions and institutions like the Church of England. Friends, the grass is never greener, and I’m sure that I’m already preaching to the choir on that front. 

Anglicanism?

Amidst all of this lengthy, verbose, meandering diatribe (of sorts) against aspects of Western Evangelicalism, and the pentecostal-charismatic movement(s) in particular, one could be forgiven for asking the question (as a friend of mine did recently): So what? Why has this faith-shift of yours led you to embrace the Anglican tradition?

Good question. The answer is undoubtedly more complex than I can realistically articulate. However, since that is the very purpose of this blog series, I shall attempt to do so anyway (however ham-fistedly). Firstly, as various commentators have noted, Anglicanism is a ‘broad’ model of church indeed. Within the Church of England alone, numerous contrasting theological emphases somehow manage to coexist despite the inherent tensions such diversity necessarily brings. As Stephen Hunt puts it: 

There exists under the same umbrella theological liberals, conservative Evangelicals, Charismatics, the New Age fringe, not to mention a few agnostics and a handful of committed atheists.[18]

Indeed, I would suggest that the usual (somewhat arbitrary) approach of dividing the Church of England up into three streams, such as Conservative Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic (Liberal & Conservative!), and Pentecostal-charismatic, does not do justice to the lived realities that Anglicans encounter on a weekly basis within their own parishes and dioceses. 

Nevertheless it is clear that even from a cursory view of the tradition that British Anglicanism is, daresay it, refreshingly complex. It is for this reason amongst many that I have felt uncharacteristically drawn towards the Canterbury trail; there is room for a post-evangelical, pentecostal-charismatic thinker like me to feel oddly at home alongside a wide range of misfits. Within the confines of the English steeples, theological astuteness is not necessarily frowned upon as detrimental to one’s faith. Unity really need not equate to uniformity.

Re: Baptism?

As I have written about previously, my first formative encounter with Anglican liturgy was at the church service I attended back in the summer of 2015, wherein some friends of ours had their baby baptised (or christened for hardened credo-baptist folk!). Since then, I have come to realise that there are in fact solid, biblical reasons for embracing infant baptism as a Christian. For starters, Jesus rebuked the disciples for attempting to hinder little children from coming to him despite their youth (Matt 19:13-15). Whilst I have neither the time nor the space to address this more thoroughly here, suffice to say that I have moved from my prior theological convictions in this particular area. Consequently, the floodgates have opened for me to begin being immersed in the richness and depths of the Anglican tradition. After all, if I can accept their model of baptism, why not other aspects of Anglicanism? 

Liturgical Robes

As peculiar as the simile may read, I have found that a more consistent exposure to the liturgy at our local Anglican church has been akin to the comforting sensation of snuggling up inside a warm winter garment on a freezing February afternoon; indeed, for me it has felt remarkably reminiscent of a woolen blanket or even some kind of thick, pleated robe. It is almost as though liturgy has insulated me from the worst effects of my disorienting faith-shift, as if the tradition itself reached through the annals of history to envelop me in a protective cocoon and keep me from falling away.

I have discovered that there is something powerful (yet not coercive!) about reciting words which are saturated by the scriptures, and which have been passed on by our ancestors in the reformed faith as a gainful deposit for future generations to orient themselves God-ward. Reading aloud the ancient ecumenical creeds, confessing our common trinitarian faith, engaging in corporate repentance, intercessory prayer which isn’t simply a free for all of hapless babbling (punctuated by dubious tongues speech and/or overly frequent repetitions of the word ‘Just’, ‘Father’, and ‘would you’), and having moments of silence to reflect and humble ourselves before God are all elements of any given Sunday at our local church that resonate deeply within my soul. 

When I consider the hyped, multimedia saturated, rock concert aesthetic of many contemporary Evangelical churches I have attended, the distinct lack of all of the liturgical features I have just described seems glaringly apparent. Some might counter by comparing ancient liturgy to a dead form of obsolete ritual. Yet having been on both sides of the aisle, I would now beg to differ.

The centrality of the Eucharist

This factor is definitely the most stark contrast I can think of between independent evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic churches, and the Anglican tradition insofar as I have experienced it thus far. Every time I go forward with my family for communion at our local church, I rediscover the significance of sharing the Eucharist with my church family. The bread and the wine are not mere accoutrements of an outdated and sterile religious system, they are in fact the very body and blood of our crucified Lord and saviour.

Jesus promised to manifest himself to the disciples via the spirit, and this is surely something that pentecostal-charismatic types such as myself yearn for during sung worship; a genuine encounter with the spirit of the risen Lord. Yet in communion, we can not only encounter the Lord’s real presence (communing with God, and others), we can in fact partake of Jesus’ body and drink his blood, which scripture claims has the power to cleanse us from all sin and even grant us eternal life (1 Jn 1:7, c. f. John 6:53-59).[19] 

I have found myself profoundly affected by the simple rhythms of partaking in the Eucharist on a regular basis in an Anglican setting. Whilst I do not think that God’s presence is in any way restricted or even bound to the communion wafers and wine such that either a) God must manifest Godself this way, or b) God cannot manifest Godself elsewhere (particularly during sung worship, for instance), I have had what I might describe as ‘powerful’ (though not coercive) experiences during the Eucharist.

Sometimes, collapsing to my knees at the Lord’s table is all I can muster after a challenging week! Thanks be to God for grace and mercy!

A Via Media?

Some final thoughts include my relatively long-standing affinity with the notion of the great via media within the Anglican tradition; the middle road between two opposing extremes. I use this term as much in the philosophical sense of moderation as I might in the way some Anglicans have used it to define the tradition in the following terms: 

The term via media when used in reference to the Anglican tradition generally refers to the idea that Anglicanism represents a middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.[20]

For me, the via media means (amongst other things) that I am no longer faced with binary questions such as: Am I a Vineyard person, or an Anglican one? Pentecostal-charismatic, or sacramental/Anglo-catholic? Conservative evangelical, or liberal progressive? Credo-baptist or reformed such that I embrace infant baptism? Such dualistic thinking is quite simply untenable for me now. The simplest answer to such questions for me would thus be: Well, yes.

I might therefore suggest that it is entirely plausible for one to reconcile aspects of the Vineyard movement with historic Anglicanism, particularly where responsiveness to the Spirit is concerned. Quite how one might go about doing this on an individual basis, or even a corporate and/or institutional one remains to be seen. However, as Hunt suggests:

The structures of the Anglican church are sufficiently pliable to allow for considerable adaptation of Wimber’s ministry. The church provides ministry for both Charismatic Evangelicals and the pastorally minded.[21]

Doubtless, my own journey shall continue unabated. Perhaps I shall be able to merge my pentecostal-charismatic spirituality with the Anglican tradition in a relatively straightforward manner. Time will tell.

In Sum

So, what to make of all this? It would appear that I am indeed some kind of odd, hybrid creature; a post-evangelical Anglican Wimberite who is attempting to learn how to do academic theology at Master’s level whilst raising a family and earning a living. I might frame my present state of mind as follows:

I am therefore in pursuit of a revived, renewed, and reformed pentecostal-charismatic spirituality, twinned with an irresistible tug towards ancient tradition, which seeks a reasoned via media between the innumerable false dichotomies of our current 21st century context as regards faith, religion, and spirituality. In so doing, I submit that to be truly Christ-like is to be willing to eschew power and one’s own self interests in an act of reckless, worshipful, wanton abandon toward God and in so doing learn what it means to love the other; particularly the ‘least of these’ (Matt 25:31-46).

Without further ado…

M

End Notes:

1. By proxy, this has also involved a concerted effort to consciously distance myself from Bill Johnson’s/Bethel’s particular brand of charismatic theology, which has necessitated a deliberate, self-imposed moratorium on my prior tendency towards voracious media consumption (particularly Christian pop-rock songs and recorded sermons by Bethel). Additionally, to cite Johnson does not lay the blame for my own emerging faith shift away from Evangelicalism solely at his feet; many other white male pastors (E.g. Wayne Grudem, although he later recanted) endorsed Donald Trump, and this particular issue was (for me at least) very much a case of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to refer only to Bill Johnson and the Trump phenomenon as the catalyst(s) for my own disillusionment with Western Evangelicalism.

2. See the conclusion to part two.

3. Full disclosure: For any readers who may be unaware, I am currently part of a new Vineyard Church plant in Cambridge, and have engaged with some of Wimber’s written works at length. I have a great deal of natural affinity for the Vineyard movement’s approach and emphases. Consequently, I do not approach this topic lightly, or as a dispassionate, detached observer. On the contrary, I am involved, and to a large extent personally invested in many aspects of Wimber’s ‘tendency‘ towards an experiential faith, Church renewal, and so forth. Nevertheless, in light of my previous post about ‘fundamentalisms’ and controlling people (see conclusion to part 3), the central thrust of Percy’s analysis is one I take very seriously: the use, misuse, and potential abuse of power.

4. Percy, Martyn, Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996, 13.

5. Ibid, 14.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid, 15.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid, 16.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Percy, Words, 23.

17. Ibid, 24.

18. Hunt, Stephen, “The Anglican Wimberites”, PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 1995, 114.

19. This is, in many ways a disastrously naive interpretation of Johannine theology as regards the body and blood of Jesus. Nevertheless, it sprung to mind as I wrote so I felt led to include it (make of that what you will).

20. See <http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/doctrine.aspx&gt;

21. Hunt, Anglican, 116.

Toward A Theology of Encounter

 

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*Warning – This post contains my first attempt at serious academic theology -* 

As I have frequently reminded my readers on here and elsewhere, much of my attention over the past two years has been focused on Master’s level study. Since I have just finished the taught part of the MA, and expect to spend my study time over the next twelve months attempting to write a dissertation, I thought that I would share a few of my better MA papers here. So, without further ado, for the very interested, here is my first MA assignment (long since submitted and graded) which deals with theological method (a major focus of my MA program). Enjoy!

Comments are, as ever, most welcome. Please credit me as per current UK/US Academic citation standards/expectations if you decide to share and/or cite any of my work (not that I’m expecting that mind you, but you never know!). I hope this brief paper gives you an insight into my efforts to develop my thinking as a trainee theologian, stimulates conversation(s), and blesses all who take the time to engage with it!

M

Planting a Vineyard

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This is more of a personal news update aimed at friends and acquaintances than an overtly theological post. If you were expecting the latter, you shall simply have to wait as I am about to undertake two second year MA assignments in the next few months. Almost all of my ‘theological’ focus shall thus be aimed at those, at least for the time being.

To cut a very long winded saga short, as many of you will doubtless already be aware, our family has decided to take a leap of faith and join a brand new Vineyard church plant here in Cambridge. Our new pastor (pastorette?) is an inspiring, faith-filled follower of Jesus called Lauren Fearn. She has responded to God’s call and has a fresh vision and heart to see Jesus’ Kingdom being established here on earth; for people who don’t already know Jesus to encounter him and have their lives transformed by his loving grace. For some vague context and an insight into how I’ve personally been feeling about my own spiritual walk over the past year, check out my previous post around the theme of Cognitive Dissonance. Needless to say, we’re very excited to be a part of this emerging story and already we’re seeing fruit despite Cam Vineyard only being *officially* active as a new church plant for all of a month.

For us as a family, it almost feels like we’ve been on a very long, winding road which has finally led somewhere that feels like ‘home’. As much as anything, for me personally it also makes so much sense given my increasing affinity with the Vineyard approach to spirituality, theology, values, ecclesiology, and church planting (to which I also feel called one day). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt welcomed or well shepherded at our previous churches; we’ve experienced a lot of God’s grace, and been privileged to enjoy fellowship with some wonderful people, and direction from Godly leadership throughout our spiritual journey so far. Perhaps most importantly, we also are deliberately not in pursuit of the perennial illusion of that mythological perfect church, wherein the living is easy, the coffee is properly brewed, and the grass is always greener. Yet, in my reckoning, there’s a world of difference between calling and comfort (although one could, at times, be comfortable within one’s calling). So, although the road less travelled seems to be the one that currently lies before us (church planting is a risky business), I’m very happy to unashamedly say that we’re extremely glad and grateful to have been shunted onto the right track (for us that is) by Jesus.

For over nine years now, I have seen my life gradually shift and transform through my own experience of, and relationship with Jesus Christ. I say that in the most genuine, honest, and unqualified way that I can; I can’t necessarily prove to anyone that Jesus is alive and rescues people from seemingly hopeless circumstances, but that is quite literally how I would describe my own encounter(s) and experience(s) of/with God since late 2006. As I write, I’m reminded of that simple faith that awakened within me when I first heard the essence of Jesus’ Gospel message, and how brilliantly it was summed up by a line from the first Matrix movie:

Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. (Morpheus)

Jesus is recorded as saying something very similar in John’s Gospel:

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”  When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”  They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”  “Come,” he replied, “and you will see…”
(John 1:35-39 NIV Emphasis mine)

Therein lies the beautiful mystery of the invitation to get to know who Jesus is, and how his Gospel changes everything. Come, and you will see.

If you’re curious, why not come along to see for yourselves? Check out our church website for more information, or you could drop me a line in the comments below.

Love to all!

M

Trajectories: Branded Religion vs Incarnational Diversity

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Global brands, popular music, and evangelical Christianity are products of cultural flows (Appadurai, 1990) that facilitate interaction between the “global” and the “local,” in What Roland Robertson (1995) has referred to as glocalization. [1]

For various reasons, I have had cause to consider this uncomfortable topic in recent weeks. It is perhaps entirely fitting for me as a musician, evangelical Christian, and budding theologian to reflect critically upon my own experience of how Western Evangelicalism appears to have been influenced by business principles, and marketing in particular. The above quote from Thomas Wagner’s article takes a sober look at how strategies from the sphere of commerce have proven to be highly ‘successful’ at growing a local Church into a global brand. In this case, Wagner focuses on none other than Hillsong, whose substantial organisational growth has been well documented in recent years, and has in some cases been met with suspicion and criticism.

Brand Identity & Sensory Experience

Wagner uses the example of Hillsong to argue for the drawing together of ‘the experience of brand, music, and religious discourse as a gestalt “Sound”.’ [2] As he notes, the Hillsong brand is ‘inextricable’ from the music they produce, which he claims is the driving force behind their growth as a globally recognised brand. Wagner cites (and provides strong evidence for) the manner in which Hillsong ‘focuses on the consistency of its product’, via standardisation and homogenisation, as a key factor which has enabled them to have an ‘outsized influence on both the Australian and global Christian sonic (and theological) landscapes (Evans, 2006: 87-109)’. [3] In other words, thanks to a savvy marketing strategy and meticulous brand management, the Hillsong “Sound” has proven critical in ensuring that they punch above their weight as a megachurch.

Another important aspect of how Hillsong have achieved this resides in the way they have fused the experience and ‘social imagination’ of congregants in diverse local contexts to ensure that they ‘realise the meaning of the brand as they engage with…its music’. [4] One fascinating feature of this phenomenon was the testimony of a member at Hillsong London, who claimed that their Church’s rendition of the Hillsong “Sound” was typically faster and louder than their Australian counterparts. In reality this was not the case, as songs were played to a metronome at standardised tempos in both contexts. Nonetheless, despite being familiar with both Australian and European versions of the Hillsong brand, the interviewee in question described a different, subjective experience of each context. Participants in this global brand identity thereby contextualise, and relativise their own individual (and presumably corporate) interpretation(s) of the “Sound”. [5]

If nothing else, such a startling example demonstrates the fickle nature of human perception, proving the axiom that reality is fiendishly complex. To what extent can we, as interested observers (in this case of a megachurch context), trust our senses when the perspective we experience is prone to subconscious bias? To ask the most troubling question from a believer’s point of view, are we (Christians) experiencing an authentic encounter with divine reality (i. e. The presence of God, manifested via the Spirit)? Or are we plummeting into the shallow depths of brand driven, consumer-oriented euphoria, which bears an uncanny resemblance to mass hysteria (or perhaps a U2 concert)? Questions of ambition and integrity rise to the surface of such stagnant pools, wherein a conflict of interest between promoting a brand, and the pursuit of authentic biblical Christianity is a genuine danger.

It’s All About (Jesus’?) Mission

My intention here is not to critique Hillsong per se, but rather the model of ecclesial homogeneity that the process of such branding inflicts upon any church. As Wagner points out, efforts to develop a distinctive European sound by Hillsong London were abandoned in favour of standardisation. Instead of nurturing a unique, contextual “Sound” with London based musicians and songwriters, Hillsong Sydney decided to retain control over the aesthetic and artistic direction of the music. Innovation was quashed by centralisation. [6] For the Hillsong brand, uniformity trumped unity amidst diversity. Game changers need not apply.

This leads me to wonder if Jesus’ mission is being best served by ever expanding, glocalized megachurches. Does it follow that Jesus’ mission entails building a global brand like Hillsong, which ‘listed earnings of $64 million in 2010, with total assets of $28.7 million and income from conferences of $6.7 million (McMillan, 2011)’, whilst operating under the auspices of a charitable (read: Income tax exempt) organisation? [7] A very pertinent article with more up to date, albeit unverified financials was printed this month, here.

One could perhaps legitimately posit divine favour as the source of Hillsong’s explosive growth and healthy financials. However faithful or sceptical one may be, this remains a distinct possibility. One could also offer the suggestion that cohesive branding sells, and business can be a rather blunt instrument. Whatever the case, if homogeneity is an effective ingredient within a successful branding campaign, is the underlying motivation for pursuing said campaign, a desire for participation in Jesus’ mission to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth? If so, is the overall strategy effective at achieving it’s intended purpose? The better angels of my nature would like to believe that the answer to these questions is yes; in which case, homogeneity for the sake of building a brand is arguably justified. On the flip side, naivety is endemic within polite, white, middle class, Western Christianity. Cultural blindspots are always the hardest to see; subcultural ones even more so. What if building a brand detracts from Jesus’ mission, or worse yet, misses it entirely? A word of caution to any ‘thriving’ Christian ministry is hauntingly summed up by Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church in Revelation:

‘You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.’
(Rev 3:17-18 NIV)

Riches are by no means a sign of Gospel faithfulness, integrity, or clarity of vision clothed in the garments of purity before a holy and perfect God. Jesus makes it very clear that his people must not assume that abundance and numerical growth in various areas is synonymous with his direct provision and blessing. That is prosperity theology, and as he boldly states, this is fool’s gold.

A Moment of Clarity

To be very clear, I have no desire to repaint every large church with the same brush. Building a megachurch or movement based on homogenous branding isn’t necessarily a sign of divided loyalties, or divine favour. I have no doubt that many large Christian organisations can, and do produce a substantial amount of fruit for Jesus’ Kingdom purposes. I have certainly experienced tremendous blessings, particularly via spiritual and emotional healing through large, well branded church ministries. I celebrate churches that strike a balance between the rock of consumerism and the hard place of confronting contemporary culture with the Gospel call to repentance. No two churches will be exactly the same. In reality, many would be hard to define in terms of where they might fit on a spectrum between pursuing Jesus’ mission, and ending up off course and in the wretched condition that matches the above diagnosis of the church in Laodicea. So to avoid singling out any specific churches which may have inspired this article, let’s consider a purely hypothetical, caricatured, worst case scenario type of example of any congregation which chooses to adopt the Hillsong model, and label it church ‘X’:

The Church ‘X’ Factor

Combine the fruits of aggressive ambition, causality, market forces, branding, and a blinkered theology similar to neo-papal infallibility when it comes to Charismatic Christian leadership, and you have a potent cocktail for flawed ecclesiology and missiology. Numerical growth, both fiscal and human, can quickly be seen as evidence that church ‘X’ is on the right track. Questioning the leadership and strategies of such large, influential congregations is seldom encouraged. In any case, senior leadership in such contexts often operates within a top-down, hierarchical framework which makes them relatively inaccessible. Far from shepherding the flock, and being aware of any stray individuals who are leaving the proverbial 99 behind (Matt 18:12-14, c.f. Luke 15:4), senior pastors of megachurches like church ‘X’ function more like CEOs with a business mindset, wherein the growing masses of people constituting the church’s membership becomes a sea of nameless anonymity. Faces that fit the brand are quickly encouraged to rise through the ranks and occupy key positions as ‘leaders’, whilst the misfits and unlikely candidates are not considered photogenic enough to fit the emerging picture.

Thus, rather than polish the rough diamonds into shining, the ‘awkward’ folk (who might just be the hidden pearls that Jesus has gifted to a given congregation) are left wondering how, where, and if they can squeeze their square pegs through the round, branded hole. Meanwhile on the other side of such an impassible portal, an army of yes men awaits those who might offer informed dissent, ready to quell any unrest. The brand grows, whilst the disillusioned leave. Church ‘X’ is succeeding at building something, which may or may not be consistent with Jesus’ mission, but at what cost?

Incarnational Diversity

The revelation of true divinity within the person and work of Jesus Christ is the most stunningly unfathomable, holistically liberating and existentially challenging event in the history of the created order. One of the many remarkable passages of Scripture which points us to the inherent mystery of Jesus being God ‘incarnate’ (literally: ‘enfleshed’ or ‘in flesh’) is found in Philippians 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8 ESV emphasis mine).

There are so many things that have been (and could be said) about this short segment of the Bible. Reams of scholarly literature already exist providing detailed exegetical, hermeneutical, lexical, philological, and theological insight into the range of potential meanings to be found therein. My purpose here isn’t to delve into this turbulent miasma, since that may have to wait for a future research project. I do think, however, that Jesus’ incarnation has plenty to say to the subject matter in question, as it shows us how much God values the reality of our very messy humanity. More specifically, it shows us how Jesus eschewed opulent glory in favour of the simple and authentic humility of being present amongst us in the raw, uncensored warp and woof of life as a relatively poor 1st century Jew, who was not initially held in high regard by his contemporaries.

As the Old Testament prophetic imagery often associated with Jesus puts it:

‘…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’
(Isa 53:2 NIV)

Quite the opposite in fact:

‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.’
(Isa 53:3 NIV)

Indeed, as the gospel narratives show us, Jesus was not recognised for who he truly was. Instead, he was maligned, betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, flogged, beaten, and crucified to death by his own people who were in collusion with the Roman Empire. [8] So, it is fair to say that Jesus’ own branding campaign and marketing strategy had adverse consequences. He isn’t portrayed as being particularly image conscious or keen to impress the religious and civil authorities of his day. Instead, he deliberately undermined the dominant cultures of the ancient near Eastern context into which he chose to manifest himself, showing no deference to either the Messianic expectations of his own people, or the power structures of Empire. No light shows, loud music or metronomes here for his triumphal entry as King; just donkeys, palm leaves, blood, sweat, tears and Truth.

Jesus’ Motley Crew

Jesus stooped to conquer his enemies, choosing instead to intimately associate himself with the unclean, outcast, morally suspect, and marginalised people of his time. He embodied authentic, unfeigned love for the lowly and downtrodden, whilst frequently rebuking and condemning religious insiders for their pretense and compromised loyalties. Worldly success was apparently not part of his game plan, since his Kingdom is not of this world (e.g. John 18:36). Yet despite his subversive intent, Jesus took time to be with people in person. He chose to honour and make time for those whom society had forgotten, despised, considered untouchable, and deemed to be of no material benefit to maintaining or building the status quo. [9]

What is more, at no stage did Jesus or the early church in Acts seem concerned with preserving aesthetic homogeneity for the sake of cultural accommodation within their evangelistic strategy. The first Christians didn’t mimic the world around them by presenting a sanitised version of the gathered church wherein only the prominent, privileged, well educated, photogenic, young and ‘gifted’ (using the term gifted in a narrow, worldly sense) members formed the vanguard of Jesus’ Kingdom driven mission. Rather, the early church was a ragtag bunch of common, uneducated, uncouth miscreants (see Peter & John in Acts 4:14), reformed fundamentalists (Paul in Acts 7 & 8), tax collectors (Levi in Luke 5:27-32), formerly demonised women (Luke 8:1-3), sorcerers (Acts 8:1-9-25), Roman soldiers (Acts 10), and other, generally unlikely candidates.

All told, Holy chaos might be a better way of describing life with Jesus’ original crew of misfits than the kind of well planned, branded stage shows being disseminated by Hillsong/church ‘X’. The early church were more a band of sanctified rascals led by the unpredictable wind of the Spirit, than they were an army of affluent social climbers hell bent on ‘changing the world’ with skinny jeans and self-help sermons. I doubt the apostle Paul felt any need to keep tickling his congregations’ ears with a fat feather of prosperity theology, relentless positivism (read: hear no evil, see no evil..), cinematic visuals, surround sound, and visiting stand up comedians dressed as gospel preachers  who charge a princely honorarium for their rendered services. I should say at this point, that I have no issue with talent, skinny jeans, Gospel contextualisation, big worship meetings, loud music, large congregations, or well produced multimedia content in the pursuit of global transformation per se. I do however have a problem with the glorious incarnational diversity of Jesus’ Kingdom people being overridden by a callous branding strategy, in a way that misses the diverse Gospel nuance of the vision presented in Revelation 7:9-10:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
(Rev 7:9 NIV)

Jesus’ Kingdom revolution promises us that ‘many who are first will be last’, and that those who desire to be great amongst his people must be servants, with childlike faith (e.g. Mark 10:13-14, 31,35-45). Such words ought to make us question how we choose which faces fit with our particular style of church, and what our choices say about our value systems.

I could go on of course, but for the sake of brevity I shall end by asking the obvious question(s): Do our churches model brand driven homogeneity verging on elitism, or Kingdom driven humility where the usual suspects don’t end up taking centre stage? [10] Does the well marketed, expensive, slick, consumer-oriented, comfortable, pop-music driven brand epitomised by the Hillsong model look like Jesus? Would church ‘X’ sum up his strategy?

Following on from this, a final question linking back to the title: What can discerning believers do when confronted with the reality that their own church may be heading down a broad path, wherein their trajectory has far more in common with Hillsong/church ‘X’ brand, than the narrow, Kingdom-oriented life modeled by Jesus? Assume that divine favour must be at work, as the branding builds momentum? Remain indifferent and carry on, business as usual (pun intended)? Stay and fight for change, or run and trust God for the details? Another option? What do you think?

Personally, I would tread very carefully indeed.

M

1. Wagner, Thomas, in Stolz, Jörg, & Usunier, Jean-Claude, Religions as Brands: New Perspectives on the Marketization of Religion and Spirituality, Ashgate Publishing Surrey, England: 2014, 59.

2. Ibid, 60.

3. Ibid, 62.

4. Ibid, 64.

5. Ibid, 65-67.

6. Ibid, 67-70.

7. Ibid, 62.

8. e.g. Matt 13:53-58, 26:1-27:55, c.f. Mark 6:1-6, 14:1-15:40, Luke 4:16-30, 22:1-23:49, John 7:25-31, 11-19:30.

9. e.g. Matt 8:1-13, 28-34, 9:9-13, 18-34 12:9-14, 15:21-28, Mark 1:40-45, 5:1-34, 7:24-37, 10:46-52, John 4:1-44, 5:1-17, 7:53-8:11 etc.

10. I realise that this is a massively oversimplified contrast, which may in fact be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, I think it’s a question every church should routinely wrestle with.

A Dangerous Gospel?

dark-curve-forest-rails

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.

40 Questions for Christians arguing over the Redefinition of Marriage

black-and-white-people-bar-men

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.

Restoring our confidence in the Bible? (A matter of integrity)

blur-old-antique-book

We can use the Bible as a reliable moral and spiritual guide in our 21st century globalised world.

It happens often. Over coffee, in bars, trains, planes, automobiles, during conferences and after church services; People of all ages and backgrounds across the world are engaging in conversations whilst being faced with the same dilemma: The Bible.

Fact and/or fiction? Moral or immoral? Literal and/or allegorical? Genuine, accurate revelatory account of the truth about who God is, or not? The question burning in so many hearts and minds is: can we trust the Bible?

The issue is not confined to scenarios involving Christians and non-Christians. On the contrary, any church with even a vague connection to western culture and mass media influence is forced to wrestle with seemingly conflicting perspectives on what constitutes scripture, how to read and interpret it, and what (if any) relevance it has with regards to engaging popular culture in a scientific, information rich age. For many Christians, the strain is too much and they have capitulated to the seemingly relentless, spiritual and cultural pressures seeking to replace their diet of biblical truth with outright lies and compromise.

Sadly, the uncertainty of the world is sweeping people away with a mixture of ignorance and information overload. It is impossible to avoid the coming storm already facing the church. The only fitting question then, is how will she respond?

Steve Chalke has recently presented a position paper which (as I’m sure any savvy reader will have already noticed) I have attempted to slavishly paraphrase in my response to his thoughts at the start of this post. I have read both abridged and full versions of his demands for every church to adopt his “open Bible principles”, in order to be considered as having “an authentic approach to contemporary biblical literacy”. You can find both original articles here.

On the basis of my (admittedly limited) understanding of his argument, he has appealed to a broad range of ideas to justify his position. This is how I initially interpreted a selection of them which stood out to me (I realise that I may have unfairly caricatured his reasoning, and these points are in no particular order):

1. Due to difficulties and tensions in the biblical text (particularly the Old testament), and various historic misuses of it we should question the trustworthiness of the Bible and assert our superior, collective modern intellect(s) and perspective(s) over it. In other words we should blame the Bible for our lack of understanding and project the mistakes made by our ancestors onto the biblical text.

2. Locating the ultimate authority of whether or not to accept, and how to define biblical truth within individual church communities (rather than within the text itself).

3. Giving preference to human reasoning (even if it is at odds with the Bible) and prevailing cultural forces over and above scriptural truth.

4. Questioning the authenticity of the biblical canon (and therefore the authority of the Bible) based upon differences (which are not overly significant doctrinally) between the biblical canon recognised by Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches.

5. Asserting that biblical revelation is ongoing and that the canon is effectively not closed.

6. The Bible is a giant conversation, and therefore its authority and witness is subjective and relativized.

7. Doctrine bears no relevance towards salvation, and defending doctrinal positions is divisive, ultimately leaving an unhelpful legacy.

Presumably, the stance he takes (and demands that any “serious” reader of Scripture must take) is under girded by his affirmation that “we do not believe that the Bible is ‘inerrant’ or ‘infallible’ in any popular understanding of these terms”.

Due to this statement, amongst others, it is with a heavy heart that I must respectfully, and wholeheartedly disagree with the majority of Steve Chalke’s “open Bible principles”, his definition of scripture, and the implication he makes that to anyone who “wants to take the Bible seriously” must align with his perspective. I reject that assertion, the presuppositions which underpin it, and the authority it attempts to take over my perception of Scripture.

Whilst I acknowledge and respect Steve Chalke’s ongoing humanitarian work, particularly with regards to fighting against trafficking and ministering to the poor, I cannot with good conscience accept his conclusions with regards to Scripture. I wish him no ill will, or animosity. I have no desire to disparage or demonise him. I also do not entirely disagree with every point he has made in this article, particularly with regards to pursuing a Christo-centric approach towards discipleship, and showing grace and patience towards those whom we disagree with in theological matters.

Needless to say that this article, and the general thrust of Steve Chalke’s push away from a biblical model of sexuality (see his recent article called “a matter of integrity” here.) has left me feeling profoundly troubled. Where he is calling for dialogue, I fear that what is needed instead is genuine, loving, Christlike correction.

I am afraid to say that I believe Steve Chalke, and others who uncritically endorse these open Bible principles and are attempting to push them on the wider body of Christ as a necessary pretext for dialogue, are in danger of sowing more seeds of division than they realise. I fear that they are pushing in a direction which presents a very real danger of leading them (and others) away from the historic centre of Christian orthodoxy. I am concerned that unless they prayerfully, humbly repent of the direction that they are heading in, that they will end up in a state described by the apostle Paul, whereby they have “made shipwreck” of their faith (1 Tim 1:19).

Rather than restoring our confidence in the Bible, I also fear that this article and the implications it has going forward for the wider body of Christ, will actually lead to increased confusion regarding the biblical text. I would humbly submit that many of these open Bible principles have the potential to cause further erosion of our confidence in Scripture. I cannot see how this will be a positive step forward in the ongoing conversation surrounding the nature and veracity of the Bible.

A friend kindly pointed out to me that Steve is arguing for a consistent, patient and gracious strategy with regard to our hermeneutics (what the Bible means for us today) as we interpret Scripture in community. Whilst I would agree with this in principle, I am not persuaded that the ‘open Bible principles’ which Steve has outlined in his paper will lead us toward this laudable goal.

If anything it seems to me that the thrust of this paper is attempting to override sound exegesis (what the Bible was likely to mean for its original audience) with Steve Chalke’s particular understanding of hermeneutics. In other words if something seems not to make sense to us now, from a postmodern, Western cultural perspective (such as the coherent sexual ethic communicated by the Bible, to believers in their original contexts) then Scripture must be wrong and we should redefine or disregard its teaching on that topic. I fear that the logical end result of this trajectory is that ultimately, Scripture will no longer be our final authority in all matters of faith and practice.

A further aspect of Steve’s argument which my friend graciously pointed out to me, was that Scripture is not “the word of God”, Jesus is. Whilst this sounds compelling, in reality, it is a false dichotomy. True, Jesus is described in John’s gospel as being “the Word of God”. The original Greek word in this context is ‘logos’. One of the various meanings we can infer from ‘logos’ is “a word which, uttered by the living voice, embodies a conception or idea” (Strongs Greek). If this is what is meant when Scripture defines Jesus as the word of God, then he embodies a conception or idea spoken by God. I don’t think many Christians would disagree with this.

Unfortunately for Steve’s argument, Scripture is also defined as being “the Word of God”, by Jesus himself (Luke 8:11, 21, 11:28, Mark 7:13, Matt 15:6). In fact, we find that the same Greek word being used in John’s Gospel to define Jesus is also used in each of these examples to define Scripture. Thus, both Jesus and Scripture are defined as the word of God. I would tend to side with the apostle Paul when he the uses the phrase “the whole counsel of God” as a definition of the complete, unabridged gospel message running through all of Scripture, which points to and finds its fulfilment in Jesus (Acts 20:27).

Therefore, to pit Jesus against Scripture is not consistent with Jesus’ own teaching (Matt 5:17-20). Whilst there is undoubtedly a distinction between Scripture as the revealed word of God, bearing witness to Jesus as “the word of God”, it’s simply not true to say that Scripture is not the word of God, because Jesus is also described as the word of God.

If we’re being intellectually honest, this area of study and tension is a massive one, which cannot be easily dismissed or resolved by Steve’s short point defining Jesus as the word of God, and Scripture as a historical collection of texts which have been deemed sacred purely on the basis of their acceptance by specific communities. The implication that we can redefine Scripture in this way, thus voiding the authority of passages we find difficult or uncomfortable, provided that we love Jesus, seems to be at odds with Jesus’ own words and definition of Scripture. I would tentatively lean towards a ‘both/and’, rather than an ‘either/or’ scenario when it comes to defining Scripture or Jesus as the word of God.

As a fledging theology student I feel under qualified, preoccupied, and too inexperienced in ministry to write in any greater depth on this specific matter. Those whom God has called to do so can answer Steve Chalke’s paper more directly and thoroughly. Instead, I shall end this post with some thoughts which sprung to mind when I read his paper recently. In true dialogical, discursive fashion, I thought I would simply let the Bible itself, as it were, answer some of Chalke’s statements. So, without further ado:

Steve Chalke:

“Honouring scripture is never to insist on unanimity in understanding it.”

1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

Romans 16:17 ESV:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.

Steve Chalke:

“.. The result of all this is that – just like Wilberforce – we may sometimes come to a developed, or even different, view from some of those contained in the canon of scripture.”

2 Timothy 4:1-4 ESV

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. [Emphasis added).

Steve Chalke:

“The biblical texts are not a ‘divine monologue’; where the solitary voice of God dictates a flawless and unified declaration of his character and will to their writers, whose only role is to copy-type. But nor are they simply a human presentation of and testimony to God. Rather, in my view, they are most faithfully engaged with as a collection of books written by fallible human beings whose work bears the hallmarks of the limitations and preconceptions of the times and the cultures they lived in, but also of the transformational experience of their encounters with God.” [Emphasis added].

“It is through an acceptance of the humanness of our sacred text, rather than a denial of it, that we discover God’s inspiration.”

2 Peter 1:21 ESV

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Steve Chalke:

Rather than placing our primary emphasis on immoveable statements of faith and defending doctrinal positions, we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the continuous task of honouring and grappling with scripture in community and with God.

2 Timothy 1:13-14 ESV

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Steve Chalke:

“Biblical interpretation is not finished, rather it is the ongoing, open-ended task of all those who take its text seriously and authoritatively.”

Galatians 1:6-9 ESV

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Those are my current thoughts. Comments are welcome.

M.