The Genius of Wrong

33-4-the-genius-of-wrong-custom-106x106Once in a while I come across something that makes me think again about what’s important in Christian ministry. This article, The Genius of Wrong, made me think again about what church and ministry are supposed to be about. The challenge of making disciples of Jesus Christ must be one of the main things that every church accepts. Rather than just registering “decisions” for Christ or “conversions” to Christ, the New Testament sets us the goal of “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). That disciple-making goal must remain, and take precedence in the life and ministry of the church and its leaders.

I have included the entire article below.

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All or nothing

1224304578452_1No one can fail to be impressed with Euan Murray’s muscular approach to the Christian life. He seems to bring the same strong, uncompromising approach to his Sunday observance as he does to playing in the front row of the Scottish scrum. Even though he would be first choice for this week’s Scottish team to meet Argentina in the Rugby World Cup, he has chosen not to play because the match is being played on Sunday. I love his line:

“It’s basically all or nothing following Jesus. I don’t believe in pick ‘n’ mix Christianity.”

That kind of sentiment is an accurate reflection of the kind of commitment that Jesus required and would have approved of: “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

It’s also a contemporary reminder of a point which was made very eloquently by Deitrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship. One of the most quoted parts of the book deals with the distinction which Bonhoeffer makes between “cheap” and “costly” grace. Bonhoeffer defines cheap grace as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

Or, even more clearly, it is to hear the gospel preached as, “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” The main defect of such a message, says Bonhoeffer, is that it contains no demand for discipleship. In contrast to this is costly grace:

“Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Bonhoeffer argues that as Christianity spread, the Church became more “secularised”, accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society. In this way, “the world was Christianised, and grace became its common property.” But the hazard of this was that the gospel was cheapened, and obedience to the living Christ was gradually lost beneath formula and ritual, so that in the end, grace could literally be sold for monetary gain.

But, as Bonhoeffer describes it, there was, within the church, a living protest against this process in the form of the monastic movement. This served as a “place where the older vision was kept alive.” Unfortunately, “monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate”; the commandments of Jesus were limited to “a restricted group of specialists” and a double standard arose: “a maximum and a minimum standard of church obedience.” This was a dangerous state of affairs for, as Bonhoeffer points out, whenever the church was accused of being too worldly, it could always point to monasticism as “the opportunity of a higher standard within the fold – and thus justify the other possibility of a lower standard for others.” So the monastic movement, instead of serving as an incentive for all Christians, it became a justification for maintaining the status quo.

All of this changed at the time of the Reformation through Martin Luther, says Bonhoeffer, when he brought Christianity “out of the cloister”. However, he believed that subsequent generations had again cheapened the preaching of the forgiveness of sins, and this has seriously weakened the church.

“The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organised church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.”

We have to say that authentic Christianity which claims to be consistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ is not a “pick ‘n’ mix” Christianity in which a disciple can pick the blessings and privileges of a life in fellowship with Jesus and avoid the painful decisions and hard choices. Following a crucified Christ means that we, too, are called to bear a painful, often bloodied, cross.

We may disagree on some of the details of Christian discipleship, and may have different views on what Christ wants us to do, or not to do, on the Lord’s Day. But men like Euan Murray are fully persuaded that their Christian discipleship requires them not to become slaves to their sport so that it is allowed to have the primary place in the way they use their time. In that area, as in every other one, Jesus Christ is Lord. It’s all or nothing. And that is a message which Christians, and the world of unbelief, needs to hear.

I still hope that Scotland win on Sunday.

Training Resource Centre

img_0784Today I had the honour of re-opening the old Principal’s House at Union Theological College as a Training Resource Centre.

Irish Presbyterians have always had a reputation for being builders. We like to build churches and halls and manses. Unfortunately that reputation has been a bit dented in recent years, not least because of the demise of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. Money and resources have been restricted and those who have served as Moderators of the General Assembly in recent years have had many fewer new buildings to open than previous incumbents.

You can imagine, then, my personal disappointment when a dreadful fire engulfed the almost-completed project in November 2009 and scuppered all the plans for the official opening of the TRC during my moderatorial year. It was one of the events that I had quickly written into my diary for January 2010, and I was very sad when that event didn’t materialize. So I was hugely delighted and honoured to be invited, in the current moderator’s absence, to be involved in this opening ceremony.

One of the interesting questions which has arisen following the PMS debacle is “What should the Presbyterian Church in Ireland be involved in? What are the legitimate concerns and interests of the General Assembly?” And of all the activities and projects that the General Assembly needs to maintain and nurture, none is more important than the training of its ministers and the discipling of its members.

Many of us who have been in ministry for a while have taken our cues from what Paul says in Ephesians 4. We believe that our job is to “prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up”. We believe that God has given pastors and teachers to the church for this very purpose.

I hope that as a denomination ministerial training and Christian discipleship will receive an increasingly high profile in our activities. Our church, and the wider Christian community in Ireland, needs ministers with the intellectual ability, the practical skills and the personal qualities to lead God’s people into effective Christian service and ministry. Unfortunately, the old 80-20 principle applies. 80% of the work in our congregations is done by 20% of our members. Many of our members need to move from being passive listeners to being active servants.

In order for that to happen, we need ministers who are effective preachers, sensitive pastors, and strategic leaders. That is a high standard, and a comprehensive calling, and that is why a rigorous and challenging programme of theological education and ministerial training needs to be maintained and enhanced.

In a comprehensive study completed a few years ago, a Duke Divinity School research team concluded that healthy and effective churches were the result of the ministry of healthy and effective ministers. It is one of those conclusions that many ordinary church members may have accurately predicted without the need for much research. But maybe it needs to be acknowledged and acted upon in a more intentional way. Whatever else our General Assembly does, it needs to encourage and enhance the training of its ministers. Without effective ministers, our congregations will remain ineffective and powerless.

In addition, ministers and elders need to be given the resources to see their congregations trained and motivated for Christian service. And these goals are promoted by the facilities provided  in the Training Resource Centre.  It is our prayer that all who work and study there may benefit from the new facilities and may be enabled to fulfill their God-given job description of preparing God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up.

Preaching the Bible

imagesOur local radio phone-in programmes often take calls from Christian people who claim that their views have a basis in the teaching of the Bible. When given the opportunity, they sometimes say that certain behaviours are sinful and have been prohibited by the Scriptures.

The common response from the radio presenter is, “So then, Mr Christian, if you believe the Bible forbids certain practices, why do you eat bacon or seafood? Or why do you wear clothes that have been made from more than one type of material? Aren’t those things forbidden by the Bible as well?” It seems like the presenter has played a logical check-mate and exposed the inconsistency of the Christian who claims biblical authority for his views.

Even if the Christian caller to the radio programme had the ability to answer the presenter’s questions, the sound-bite of the talk show does not allow for the development of a reasoned argument. Serious, complex issues like the nature of the Bible are often trivialised. The result is that most listeners are left thinking that Bible-believing Christians have no answers to these questions.

What many people fail to understand is that the Bible is not a flat book. It has contours. There is movement and development within the Bible. Not all of the Bible applies uniformly to the Christian or to our society today. But that does not mean that we jettison or ignore parts of the Bible, especially the difficult parts of the Old Testament. Rather, we read of all of the Bible as Christian Scripture understanding that biblical revelation is progressive, organic and redemptive.

The Bible is a single story with a single Hero. Even though it spans many thousands of years and involves many personalities and participants, the individual stories are all threads woven into the pattern of a single tapestry. For me, coming to an understanding of this holistic way of reading the Bible was like finding hidden treasure.

One of the main reasons why many devout church attenders may be stumped by the clever interviewer’s questions is that they have never been taught how to read and understand the Bible for themselves. It is a constant challenge for those of us who preach regularly to explain how a particular passage or story fits into the overall flow of redemptive history and what it means in our lives today.

Well-known Bible stories are often misinterpreted, even by preachers. The story of David and Goliath is not primarily a story about how we can slay the giants in our lives. Nor is the main application of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee simply that He is with us in all the storms of our lives. These stories must be placed within the context of the single, great story of redemption. They have a purpose way beyond the details of our individual lives.

This is one of the main lessons that we have been trying to teach in a course organised by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for suitably-qualified and interested members of the church. It is known as the Accredited Preachers Scheme, and following a pilot scheme earlier this year, a new course of study will commence in the next few weeks. Hopefully this course will provide the denomination with a new human resource in the form of gifted people who can preach from the Bible in an accurate, clear and cogent way.  Participants will be encouraged to think carefully about the nature of the Bible, and especially about the unity of the Old Testament and the New in the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

For those who are interested in pursuing these issues, there is a very helpful bibliography by Dane Ortlund which can be read here. Many pastors and lay preachers will benefit from the insights offered by these books, and will be able to help their listeners understand that there is an intelligent answer to the questions people ask about the Bible.

Jesus had two dads

the-21st-gay-pride-parade-in-belfast-cityThe “Jesus had two dads” placard at this year’s Belfast Gay Pride parade has provoked a strong reaction from some conservative Christians. Some people from the gay community claim that it was simply an attempt to use wit and irony to make a point. Many will say that its immature mischievousness, bad taste and theological inaccuracy has done little to promote an intelligent debate on the issue of the adoption of children by same-sex couples, and has only resulted in many orthodox Christians looking the other way. Gay Christians might be ashamed and embarrassed by the placard, just as some orthodox Christians might not be totally enthusiastic about the fundamentalist protest.

So it raises the question: Is it possible for there to be an intelligent conversation between gay and straight people on the issue of human sexuality and the adoption of children by same-sex couples, other than by displaying mutually-offensive placards and shouting abuse at each other?

The gay lobby faces a difficult (and many would say, impossible) task when it comes to persuading orthodox Christians about the validity of their lifestyle. The Bible clearly sets out God’s will for us in the area of our sexuality, namely, that intimate sexual relations are only legitimate and meaningful within the context of the covenant of heterosexual, monogamous marriage. All other sexual relationships are sinful and wrong. And it goes further in that it specifically prohibits homosexual relationships and describes them as a sign of godlessness within a society. No wonder many Bible-believing Christians stand open-mouthed when they hear of Christian denominations taking steps so that openly gay people are allowed to hold leadership roles in the church.

Those who advocate the ordination of women in the church have had a difficult task in making the Bible’s clear statement “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” to mean the exact opposite of what it says, “I do permit a woman to teach and have authority over a man”. “A” must, by means of some clever exegetical footwork, come to mean “non-A”.

The gay lobby has faced an even more challenging assignment. They must demonstrate that behaviours and patterns of family life which the Bible calls immoral and sinful are actually God-honouring. Black must be called white. Clear biblical statements must not only be excised, but re-written to say the opposite.

Some have found the task of providing a biblical foundation for a homosexual lifestyle so impossible that they have resorted to the argument which we heard at this year’s Church of Scotland General Assembly, “We know better than the Bible”. For such people, the legitimacy for homosexuality, and for gay Christian leadership in the church, must be built on a foundation other than the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture. For orthodox, confessional Christians, that is an impossible position for us to take. But maybe we need to explain with greater clarity why we believe that planting our feet on any foundation other than the Bible is a dangerous and perilous place to stand. Our gay neighbours need to listen and feel the weight of our argument.

What is clear is, that whatever our orientation, we all struggle in the area of our sexuality. Sexual sin is not just a problem for those who experience same-sex attractions. In this matter, ‘there is no one righteous, not even one” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10, 23). It is level ground at the foot of the cross of Christ.  It is there that all sinners, whether gay or straight, need to see that they are guilty before God and unable to save themselves, and that there is only One who can be their Saviour. The conversation and discussion between gay people and orthodox Christians needs to begin with that recognition of our common sinfulness and our shared need of a Saviour.

Ironically, maybe it’s here that the offensive placard has a role to play. If the theological background of the placard’s claim that “Jesus had two dads” can be accurately unpacked and become the starting point for our conversation, then we might make some progress in our discussion. After all, God’s Son was born into a human family precisely because we sinners needed a Saviour and Redeemer. It is only through Him that we spiritual orphans can be adopted into God’s family and know Him as our Heavenly Father. Then we can begin to talk together about how we can live so that we please and honour our loving and gracious Father.