May 242014
 

voting count

As the political parties respond to the local election results and as we wait to find out what happened in the European elections, we have an opportunity to think about how we engage with our society uk council electionsand with our elected leaders.

A couple of books I have been reading recently provide some interesting insights regarding the nature of government and the responsibility on Christians to engage politically, socially and in many other dimensions.

In Creation, Power and Truth, Tom Wright speaks about God’s desire for the world he had created to be ‘ordered and structured’ and how God calls human beings to be his agents and representatives in it. Within the story of creation and redemption, Wright (p60) suggests a three-stage process:

  1. That God does intend the world to be ordered and, in his time, he will achieve this
  2. Until that time, not wanting the world to descend into chaos, God uses ‘human authorities, even when they don’t acknowledge him’ to bring some degree of order and structure
  3. That God’s people have a ‘vital calling’ to speak truth to those in power and to remind them of God’s purposes and plans

His ideas provide a way of positioning ourselves – in relationship to God’s plan and current power structures – and challenging us as to whether we are fulfilling our role as “consciences to the powerful”.

We see many examples of this sort of role in the Bible with:

  • Prophetic voices in the Old Testament challenging the king and his actions – such as Nathan with David in 2 Samuel 12:1-12, Elijah with Ahab in 1 Kings 18:18 and Isaiah with Hezekiah in Isaiah 39:3-7
  • Jesus speaking to the authorities of his day – criticising the religious leaders in Matthew 23 (and elsewhere) and challenging the Roman authorities to think about the reality of power in John 18:33-38
  • The early disciples recognising that their primary responsibility was to God and that they were prepared to challenge those in authority on that basis – Acts 4:18-21

But for many of us, the extent of our involvement in the political life of our society extends to exercising our democratic right to vote.

In his book, The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann speaks (pp330-331) about five ‘vicious circles of death’ which feed upon themselves and each other:

five interlocking circles

  1. The circle of poverty – which affects so many in so many different ways, individually and within and between communities
  2. The circle of force – where those who suffer poverty are often dominated by those in power
  3. The circle of racial and cultural alienation – as people, and groups, are robbed of their identity and treated as objects to be manipulated and exploited
  4. The circle of the industrial pollution of nature – where we exploit and abuse the wonders of God’s creation which we were called to steward and care for
  5. The circle of senselessness and godforsakenness – as people lose all hope and sense of purpose as a result of how they are treated

Some of these have been highlighted in the recent election campaigns, they are all things which are seen and experienced continually and we look, among other things, for those in positions of power and authority and influence to do something about them.

But Moltmann doesn’t stop at articulating the problem, as he sees it, rather he goes on to offer suggestions as to how these interlocked, vicious cycles can be broken to bring freedom

five broken circles

He calls (pp332-335) for a society where:

  1. Economic sufficiency and social justice are available to all so that people can be liberated from the circle of poverty
  2. Each person is able to participate in the process of decision making so that they are no longer subject to the forceful control of others
  3. Each person is recognised as valued and important so that the issues associated with alienation are addressed
  4. Nature is seen not as an object but our environment where its needs are understood
  5. People experience meaning and satisfaction which (Moltmann argues) can only be found in the indwelling presence of God

While some would argue with the specific details of the solutions Moltmann outlines, I think that the type of society for which he is calling is one that many of us would aspire to. But what are we to do?

I suggest two things:

  1. We heed the encouragement of Paul to Timothy to pray for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
  2. We take seriously the responsibility (advocated by Wright) to hold our leaders to account, to point out to them where their rhetoric, actions and objectives are not in line with the sort of society advocated by Moltmann, and to suggest where there are better ways of discharging their responsibilities as God’s stewards

 

 

 

May 012014
 

A news bulletin has just been published regarding a barrister lying to the police in a case they were investigating.

lying barrister

And it brings up the question of the relationship we have to the truth. Is speaking truthfully something which we are passionate about, is it something which is our normal practice or is it a tactical choice depending on the situation we are in.

I still remember the shock of being told – many years ago – by a colleague that he was planning to lie to our customer in the meeting we were just going into. He felt it would produce the best result and that was all he was interested in.

We see many instances of lying in many different forms:

  • children to stop themselves getting into trouble
  • friends to avoid being embarrassed over some action they are now ashamed of
  • company representatives to try and get an advantage over a competitor
  • advertising statements which mislead or misrepresent in order to attract
  • politicians as they seek to defend a particular position
  • criminals trying to avoid conviction
  • partners to keep secrets from those they love
  • parents to their children as it is sometimes easier than telling the truth

We tell ourselves that it is socially acceptable and understood, we comfort ourselves with the idea of a “white lie” but what do we lose in the process?

When Jesus was talking to his followers about whether it was right to take an oath he challenged people with these words:

Let your word by “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”

There is a sense here of reliability, of confidence, of trust in what someone is saying. If we know someone who consistently means what he / she says and speaks the truth then we are more likely to believe them and our relationship can be strengthened as it is built on solid foundations.

Jesus said of himself:

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6b)way, truth and life

Jesus was the way to God because he was the truth of God and the life of God – and he came to impart these to his followers.

When Jesus was on trial before Pilate he spoke about the importance of truth and that he had come to proclaim it:

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37)

He acknowledged that he was a king, he also spoke about his reason for coming into the world was to testify about truth. The implication, surely, is that his kingdom, his realm, is one of truth.

The challenge here for Christians, for those who are seeking to live as citizens of his kingdom, is whether we are prepared to live “on the side of truth” in the big things and the small things of life.

What would it mean to us, what would it mean to our country, if we were more consistently prepared to do so?

 

Apr 302014
 

In a statement in the House of Commons today, the Home Secretary announced that the powers for police to “stop and search” are to be revised.

theresa may

This follows the revelation that up to a quarter of such searches may have been illegal – which contributes to the, sometimes uneasy, relationship between the police and some groups of society.

With policing in this country being based on the consent of citizens, a good and healthy relationship between the police and citizens is essential and the sort of behaviour referenced in this report and statement can seriously undermine it.

In a totally different context, in a country which was overrun by a foreign power, Jesus called on his followers to act in an amazing way towards those who had authority over them.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. (Matthew 5:41)

Here Jesus was referring to the power which the ordinary Roman soldier had to compel anyone to carry his equipment for one mile. And Jesus was saying that, instead of resenting it, they should be willingly prepared to do so and even go beyond what was expected of them.

This verse occurs in a passage where Jesus is advocating a different way of living (Matthew 5:38-42), a way which seeks to defuse tension, reduce hostility and introduce peace and goodwill. A tall order but one which Jesus develops as he calls on his followers to

love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5:44b–45a)

It is in living this way that we emulate and follow the example of God.

Jesus demonstrated this model of generous forgiveness as he was being nailed to his cross and called out to his father to forgive those who were treating him so badly:

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34a)

In this article I am not advocating that the police should be above the law nor that it is right for them to behave as the report to which the Home Secretary refers suggests.

What I am reflecting on is that we will all find ourselves badly treated in many different ways, and by many different people, and it is our responsibility to determine how we will react and respond.

Am I prepared to follow Jesus in the way he calls me to?

 

Apr 292014
 

One of the news items today is a report on the UK economy showing that it is thought to have grown by 0.8% in the first quarter of 2014.

uk economic growth

 

This is seen as a positive thing with the Chancellor welcoming the news but warning that

the recovery could not be taken for granted

The shadow chancellor acknowledged the positive growth numbers but is concerned about the fact that

millions of hardworking people are still feeling no recovery at all

There is a sense that things are getting better, at a macro-level, but that for many people things are still as they were or worse. Underlying the opinions expressed is the premise that economic growth is a good thing which is something that we have become so accustomed to that it is accepted as a fact – and I don’t know enough about economics to know whether it is really true. Interestingly, on the same day, an article was published asking whether wealth has made the people in Qatar happy. According to this article, Qatar is now the richest country in the world with the average per-head income exceeding £60,000 per annum.

qatari wealth

The article itemises many of the benefits which the Qatari people enjoy but there is a sense of something valuable having been lost. At the end of the article there is a quote from an American anthropologist who has lived in Doha for a long time:

Have some sympathy for Qataris. They’ve lost everything that matters

That, admittedly, extreme example does raise questions about the challenges to a society associated with economic growth – though few would suggest that the economic hardships we have been experiencing over recent years have been helpful. But are there different indicators that we should use to assess the health of a nation? In what we now refer to as the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus calls on his followers to make a choice as to whether they are going to pursue earthly treasure or are they going to seek to serve God and do the things which are important to him (Matthew 6:19-24). And he presents his listeners with a stark choice, arguing that they can’t do both:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be not serving two mastersdevoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

And to get an idea of what serving God is like we can look at Jesus’ “manifesto” at the start of his public ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Jesus was there for the marginalised, the poor, the neglected, the oppressed. If we are seeking to follow him then these should be our priorities as well, and how well we deliver against these should be a mark of how our society is doing.

Apr 282014
 

This is the first post in a series looking at what following the example of the Jesus who suffered for us could mean to our country. (For the context to this, please see the post which introduced this series yesterday)

I said that I would reflect on one of the top news stories of the day and, unfortunately and sadly, there are two stories today which relate to how people have been abused and mistreated. In one the victims were women and girls, in the other it was boys in a school. Both stories (one is reporting on a verdict, the other relates to an ongoing investigation) refer to people in positions of power exploiting that to take advantage of others.

When we look at the life of Jesus we see something very different.

In Matthew 19:13-15 there is a story of parents seeking to bring children to Jesus so that he might bless them and pray for them. His followers try and stop this (presumably thinking that Jesus had more important things to do) jesus and childrenbut Jesus intervenes and makes it clear that children are very important to him, and to God’s kingdom, and blesses them.

In a society where women were very much second-class citizens, Jesus spends time speaking with them (e.g. John 4) and defending them (e.g. John 8:1-11). They were included among his group of followers (Luke 8:1-3) and were witnesses of his resurrection (e.g.  Matthew 28:5-6).

We see Jesus healing the sick, speaking to the oppressed, giving comfort to the suffering and raising the dead.

In these, and other, situations we see Jesus seeing each person as important and valued and special. And this is hardly surprising as each one was made in the image of God. I love the story where two blind men are brought to jesus and blind manJesus, and Jesus, not presuming on what they want, asks what he can do for them (Matthew 20:29-34). What a great demonstration of the way in which Jesus treated the vulnerable with dignity and respect.

Jesus had power and authority on a scale that those in today’s news stories couldn’t imagine but he didn’t use it for his own ends, rather he laid it aside and came into this world to be a blessing to those in need. The apostle Paul spells this out in Philippians chapter 2 where he speaks about Jesus:

  • Sharing in God’s nature and being equal with God (Philippians 2:6)
  • Being prepared to leave that behind and live as a servant (Philippians 2:7)
  • To be obedient to God even when that meant him dying on a cross (Philippians 2:8)

and in Philippians 2:5, Paul calls on the Philippian disciples to have the same attitude as Jesus did.

And so the question which this raises is how do we relate to other people in general and, in particular, how do we relate to those over whom we have some form of authority?

The model of Jesus is one of love, respect, care and service. The question I need to reflect on is how I follow that example in the relationships which I am part of.

And what a difference would it make if this model was lived out in our neighbourhoods, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our families, in our churches, in our legal system, in our government, in our media and wherever people engaged with others.

 

Apr 272014
 

When David Cameron included the phrasedc and church leaders

our status as a Christian country

in his Church Times article on 16th April 2014 I wonder if he expected the debate it generated.

56 people put their names to an article in the Telegraph objecting to this characterisation and “the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders”. They recognised the contribution made to our society by many Christians but claimed that it was wrong to single out this particular group when those of different beliefs provide equal contributions.

Representatives from some other faith groups seemed to be relaxed about what the Prime Minister had said with the Hindu Council UK saying it was “very comfortable” with it while the Muslim Council of Britain said the UK “was a largely Christian country”.

Some of the Prime Minister’s colleagues came to his defence talking about our Christian heritage and the way Christian values have contributed towards the “ethics of our society”.

The BBC came up with a “matter-of-fact” analysis looking at the arguments for and against this claim looking at numbers of those who claim to be Christian on the census vs the numbers who attend church and a range of other indicators.

The Archbishop of Canterbury joined in the debate and talked about the way in which our laws and values

have been shaped and founded on Christianity

He also argues that the influence of Christianity “has enabled us to be welcoming to other faiths” which is one of the points made in the Prime Minister’s original article.

The thing that I find strange, and deeply disturbing, is that in none of these articles – as far as I can see – is there any mention of Jesus!

In fairness to Mr Cameron his article was actually about the Church of England, not Christianity itself – it’s title was

My faith in the Church of England

but I still find it bizarre that the ensuing debate could omit to mention the person on whom the Christian faith depends.

The Prime Minister’s article speaks about the good things which Christians do (while recognising that this is shared by those of other faiths and none), the help which faith can be in times of difficulty, and that this faith can encourage people to help others. It’s as though if people behave in a particular way we can apply the label “Christian country” in the same was as we call ourselves a “democratic country” because of how we govern ourselves and a “capitalist country” because of how we we manage our economy.

And if that’s all it is I don’t think its a particularly helpful label and I agree with a post by David Criddle (written months before this current debate) where he speaks against

 imposing the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ or ‘Christian values’ on society

But what if it were a label which meant something more significant? What if we reclaimed the meaning of the word “Christian”?

Maybe surprisingly, the word only appears three times in the Bible – Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16.

In the first we find that this title was applied to the disciples (followers of Jesus) in the church in Antioch, in the second it was addressed to a follower of Jesus who was in chains for what he believed and in the third it talks about the very real expectation that Christians should be prepared to suffer for their faith.

And this is very consistent with the words and actions of Jesus as he talked about how he was going to suffer and be killed (Mark 10:33-34) and how he called on those who chose to follow him to be prepared to take up their own crosses (a sign of suffering and shame) and to follow his example (Mark 8:34).

In his book “The Crucified Christ”, Jürgen Moltmann makes the powerful statement that:the cross

Christian life is a form of practice which consists in following the crucified Christ, and it changes both man himself and the circumstances in which he lives (p.25)

and he goes on to say that:

The assimilation of Christianity to bourgeois society always means that the cross is forgotten and hope is lost. (p.58)

It strikes me that in the debate I summarised above Moltmann’s warning (in the second quote) has come true in the understanding of many people and society in general, and that if we are serious about the question of Christian living we need to seek to “follow the crucified Christ”.

What Christian distinctives would the rest of our society see if all those who have committed themselves to following Jesus took this challenge to heart? I know it would change how I see things and how I respond to different situations.

To help me reflect on this further, I plan to take one news item over each of the next five days and think about how  I should engage with it from the perspective of a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus who was prepared to suffer for me, and calls me to be prepared to suffer for him.

I’ll select each item from the BBC’s UK News website  (which recently added a report on  comments from the former Archbishop about this country now being “post-Christian”!) and post some thoughts and reflection here.

 

Apr 172014
 

A readily accepted principle of law is that “ignorance is not an excuse”

(There’s an interesting discussion of this, and some of the implications, at the Heritage Foundation website outlining the basis for this principle and being ignorant is no excusesome of the issues associated with it. As the article points out, it would be ridiculous if someone could claim that they didn’t know murder was wrong and so escape punishment. Although it does recognise that when laws speak about things which are not “inherently wrong” this principle gets a little more difficult to follow.)

And there are probably “border-line” cases that we could all think of. If I deliberately went out to steal money from a bank I would do so just knowing that this was wrong (even if I didn’t know the exact legal statute which made it unlawful) whereas if I was prosecuted for speeding on a road where the speed limit signs were hidden by overgrown trees I might feel that being found guilty was a little unfair.

But, in general, most of us accept that this is a valid and reasonable principle. And it is a long-standing one.

In the Old Testament, as God outlines the ways in which his people could receive forgiveness for breaking his laws it is clear that the provision made is for those sins which are unintentional (Leviticus 4:1-35). Numbers 15:27-31 spells out the different implications for unintentional and defiant sin with the first carrying the possibility of atonement and the second resulting in them being cut off from God’s people.  But in either case there is a recognition that wrong was committed – even if unintentionally – and this needs to be dealt with. Ignorance wasn’t an excuse.

In the New Testament, we see this distinction between unintentional and intentional sin being removed, with the promise of all sins being forgiven as we confess them and seek forgiveness based on the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross

the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7b–9)

But there is still the requirement on us to recognise our failing and to ask for forgiveness.

But, in preparing for Easter, I was reflecting on the words Jesus spoke from the cross and it struck me that – for a brief moment – this principle was suspended in an amazing way. As Jesus is crucified, he calls out to his father asking him to forgive the soldiers who are ignorant of the crime they are committing.

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 23:34a)

For the soldiers it would have been a routine task on an ordinary day. A man had been tried, had been convicted, had been condemned to death and the crosshad been handed over to them by their superiors in order for them to carry out the sentence. Something they would have done many times before and something they would do many times again. Even on this occasion they were crucifying three people together. They didn’t realise that the one in the centre was different – that the man they were crucifying was God-in-flesh, the Son of God who had taken on humanity and was walking among them.

What danger were they in, what punishment were they due as they treated God’s well-beloved Son so shamefully? From their perspective it was an unintentional sin – they really didn’t know what they were doing – but there was no thought in their mind of needing to seek God’s forgiveness and so they were exposed and vulnerable.

And in the midst of all that was going on, through the pain and anguish which Jesus was experiencing, very much aware of the awful agony he was about to endure, Jesus reaches out in love and mercy and compassion and calls on his Father to hold back from judgment and punishment and to forgive. What an incredible demonstration of the love of Jesus as normality was suspended and forgiveness was sought on behalf of those who had no awareness that anything they were doing was wrong. They were not required to carry out a sacrifice to receive forgiveness, the request of the Son to the Father was sufficient.

Jesus knew that a sacrifice was just about to be made, as he willingly gave himself for the sins of the world including the sin of these soldiers who were instrumental in his death and it is as though he is adding this specific sin to all the others which he would bear and carry.

This Easter as we reflect on all the things which Jesus accomplished, let’s rejoice in the love which he demonstrated and the love which he continues to extend to each one of us.

 

Apr 042014
 

newsLast week, Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph commenting on climate change and the issues it causes 

He was writing as Chairman of Christian Aid and called for action to be taken to “stop subsidizing the degradation of the planet.”

The evening before the article was to be published I was watching a late night news show which included a “review of tomorrow’s papers” where this article was discussed. I was interested when the show’s host asked his two guests (fellow journalists) whether it was appropriate for the church to be commenting on this sort of issue. (Technically, he nearly asked – he was interrupted before he could complete the question!)

In this post I’m not particularly trying to answer the question as posed but rather to reflect on the fact that it was asked in the first place.

In a country which prides itself on free speech why is it appropriate for someone in the media to question the right of anyone to comment on any issue they are interested in? And in this particular case, another media organisation was publishing the article so they clearly thought it was appropriate.

And why does someone in the media think that two other journalists are in a position to adjudicate on whether it was right for Rowan Williams to be commenting? And it seemed to be less about him as an individual but as a representative of the church.

And it’s not just this occasion – we frequently hear people in the media questioning the right of “the church” to speak out on particular issues.

In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of the church speaking out regarding issues in our world. It is part of our responsibility in seeking to bring to fruition the prayer of Jesus about God’s kingdom coming to earth as it already is in heaven. So I believe it is right and proper for the church to engage in these sorts of questions, just as it is important for us to be properly informed before we do so.

But this has got me thinking about the role and impact of the media. Having an independent media with the mandate of investigating, reporting and commenting on what is going on is of fundamental importance in a free society and something which is to be cherished and defended.

But when, and if, that media appoints itself as judge and jury on what other people and organisations are able to say then, I believe, there is real cause for concern.

 

Mar 262014
 

The problem

Have you ever had a non-Christian friend (or “non-friend”) come up to you and say something along the the biblelines of “Your Bible says XXX which clearly can’t be true and so it can’t be trusted”? Or maybe you have read something in the Bible and have struggled to reconcile it with your experience of life and understanding of how things work.

Some common examples of this include:

  1. Science has disproved the Bible so we can’t rely on what it says about God or anything else
  2. The Bible makes statements about every-day life which are demonstrably untrue
  3. The Bible contradicts itself so we can’t trust it
  4. The Bible says things which may well have been true when it was written but just doesn’t relate to our society or culture today

There are many possible responses to these sorts of questions – such as:

  • If the Bible says something it must be true and so, even if we don’t understand it, our experience and our view of other things must be flawed – which might be ok for us but doesn’t really help in debate and discussion with those people who don’t “believe the Bible” to start with
  • The Bible is there to provide some general principles but we shouldn’t take it literally – which may help to get round some of the issues but can leave us, and others, unsure of what we actually can reliably depend on from the Bible
  • There are some passages which we can’t depend on but everything else is fine – which results in a cut-down version of the Bible which is probably different for each of us and undermines the overall authority of the word which God has given us

I was prompted to think about this last week when in conversation with a friend of mine who was looking into the question of how we understand and interpret the Bible. I was reminded of the importance of recognising the “genre” or “type of literature” of different passages and that it is only when we do this that we get a fuller appreciation of what the Bible is saying and how it should be understood. In effect, the importance of treating the Bible on its own terms as opposed to how we might want to read it.

We are used to dealing with these issues in everyday life – we know what to expect when we are reading novels, science reference books, biographies, emails, song lyrics, letters, newspaper articles, history books and blogs but we often fail to recognise that there are many different types of literature in the sixty-six books which make up our Bible (and often different types within particular books).

So, taking the examples above, how would this understanding of genre help respond to the critiques and comments which we, or others, have as we look at what the Bible says?

Science and the Bible

There are a range of these types of issues which come up – ranging from the fairly trivial to those which have caused much heated debate and disagreement.

At the fairly trivial end of the spectrum is the objections people make to the statement of Jesus when he talks about the sun rising (Matthew 5:45) resulting in comments such as

Science has shown that the earth goes round the sun and therefore the Bible can’t be trusted

This ignores the fact that the point of what Jesus is talking about isn’t planetary motion but more the way in which God treats people impartially. It also ignores the fact that, even today in general conversation, we are highly likely to talk about the time when the sun will rise. It is a standard expression, not intended to be a scientific statement.

Much more challenging, and more hotly debated, are discussions about how everything started and the bible and scienceidea that science has explained how the universe came into being and life (in all its forms) has developed, that this contradicts the biblical account of creation (particularly in Genesis 1-2) and so the Bible can’t be trusted.

People take differing positions on this – from believing that the Bible should be treated as a science text book and that all the conflicting discoveries are flawed in some way, through seeing the Bible’s creation account as a statement about the identity and purposes of God to saying that it shouldn’t be taken literally anyway. An example of some of the issues which need to be considered can be seen in a recent post (“Was Adam an historical figure?“) looking at questions around Adam and Eve. I’m not suggesting that I agree with everything in that article but rather that the questions raised are some of the things which need to be considered as opposed to just treating everything in the Bible as a statement of historical fact.

Statements which just don’t seem true

An example of this would be Psalm 12:7

   “You, Lord, will keep the needy safe and will protect us forever from the wicked,”

And we can look at many situations in the world, and sometimes in our own experience, where the needy aren’t kept safe nor protected from those who would seek to harm them – and so it is easy to claim that this promise isn’t true.

But if we look closer we see that this Psalm is a  prayer to God for help, not a statement from God as to how he will behave in each and every situation.

Contradictions in the Bible

Again, there are many instances which people point to.

There is the interesting example of Proverbs 26:4-5 where two seemingly contradictory statements contradictionsappear side-by-side:

   “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” (Proverbs 26:4)

“Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:5)

And it’s easy to look at these and see that they are taking extremely opposite positions – but this ignores the fact that the book of Proverbs is asking us to think about how we live and, in this case, recognising that it is appropriate to behave in different ways in different situations.

Much more challenging are questions which are asked about the four Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus and the seeming contradictions which appear there.

One example of this would be the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus with:

  • Matthew having “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matthew 28:1)
  • Mark having “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome” (Mark 16:1)
  • Luke has “the women” (Luke 24:1) who are later identified as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the others with them” (Luke 24:10)
  • John just has Mary Magdalene (John 20:1)

All accounts have Mary Magdalene present but there are differences regarding who else was there.

But this shouldn’t cause us a problem if we think about these accounts being a form of biography with information gleaned from different witnesses (which even today is recognised as resulting in mixed messages) and material carefully selected and presented to tell a particular story. Rather it should encourage us to look more deeply at each account and try and understand what the different writers are trying to communicate.

Relevance, or otherwise, of the Bible

We can look at statements from the Old Testament about how God’s people were supposed to live including references to mixing seeds in fields, not making clothing from two types of material or “clipping the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:19-27) or statements in the New Testament regarding the role of slaves (Ephesians 6:5-8) and claim that these are of no relevance today and hence the entire Bible is irrelevant.

These are easy statements to make. It is much harder to look carefully at these passages and understand the context in which they were written, the reasons for what was written and the underlying principles which they teach which may apply to us today.

The challenge for Christians

I suggest that it is unreasonable of us to expect our non-Christians friends, the media or society in general to understand the different genres which we find in the Bible.

But, if we believe that the Bible is God’s word revealed to us, then surely it is reasonable to expect that we would be prepared to do the hard work to understand what it is saying on its own terms and, from that base, work through the questions which are raised either from our own study or by questions from others.

Mar 192014
 

A couple of days ago I was reading an article by NT Wright (published in 2002) where he makes a challenging assertion:

The very existence of the church is an affront to the principalities and powers in general (Ephesians 3:10) and to Caesar in particular, because here within his empire is a growing king-spadesgroup of people giving allegiance to a different lord—as Luke says, to ‘another king’ (Acts 17:7). The church, through its exodus-shaped life (1 Corinthians 10:1–13), is also a revelation of the true God. Paul’s strong pneumatology, which he does not retract in the face of muddle, sin and rebellion in the Corinthian church, ensures that he sees the very existence, let alone the obedient life, of the church as a vital sign to the world of who its rightful God and Lord now are.

N. T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 246.

In this article, as he frequently does, Wright is making the point that the gospel message of Jesus as Messiah and lord is a direct challenge to Caesar who was, himself, claiming to be the lord of the world.

In Paul’s day, the communities of people who believed in Jesus were relatively small and could have easily been dismissed as politically insignificant but this didn’t prevent Paul proclaiming his message that the man who was crucified by the Romans had been brought back to life, demonstrating the validity of his claim to be Messiah and Lord, and that his authority was supreme.

Over the centuries those belonging to the Christian church were persecuted, the Christian church became the state religion of the empire, the church became a powerful political organisation and then – in most countries – its influence declined. Now, in some countries Christians are oppressed, in others the church is part of the establishment, in others the church is free to exist and worship but isn’t seen as significant in public life.

If Paul were still writing and speaking I think he would be accused of making the same claims – in whatever context he found himself – that there is another king and that this king is Jesus (Acts 17:7). And I think that one of the challenges facing the church today is that we have allowed ourselves, in many cases, to forget that this claim is true and that it should powerfully affect all aspects of our lives. And, as a consequence, we are not being the positive influence for good that our contexts need us to be.

What difference would it make if each of us who are follower of Jesus recognised the authority of Jesus over our lives, if we were prepared to leave everything and follow him, if we were prepared to submit our desires and goals to what he wanted?

What difference would it make if all our churches fully recognised that Jesus is king, that his agenda is agendawhat is important – not ours – and he invites us to be part of his mission in the world instead of us inviting him to be involved in ours?

What difference would it make if each of us and each of our churches recognised that Jesus is king in our schools, in our workplaces, in our communities? And that he calls on us to be his representatives in those places and among the people who live and work there?

What difference would it make if we recognised our responsibility to speak out and act against those things which are wrong and unjust in our nation when those things go against the authority and kingship of Jesus?

salt and light

Jesus, famously, called on his followers to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Commenting on the idea of being salt, the late John Stott said this:

God intends us to penetrate the world. Christian salt has no business to remain snugly in elegant little ecclesiastical salt cellars; our place is to be rubbed into the secular community, as salt is rubbed into meat, to stop it going bad. And when society does go bad, we Christians tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not rather reproach ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat for going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is: where is the salt?

John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture (The Bible Speaks Today; Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 65.

There is much more to be said about the role of those who have chosen to follow Jesus in how we can recognise, proclaim and demonstrate that Jesus is king – whatever our society would tell us. And I hope to pick this up again in later posts. But, probably more importantly, I hope to continue to work out what the lordship and kingship of Jesus should mean to me and what part I can play in being salt and light in his world.