Monday, September 15, 2014

How Baptist Are You?

The other day I had to do a short talk about being Baptist at a youth service. Of course I laboured the point that we need to be Christian first and always express our differences with other Christians with humility, respect and love. But I structured the talk around the following metrics as a way for folks to see how important Baptist distinctive were for them. It was a fun way to have the discussion and get them to think about their own beliefs. Afterwards I wondered about turning it into one of those annoying facebook quizzes or putting on the church website.



How Baptist are you?

(0=don’t agree, 1=don’t care, 2=I like the idea, 3=I agree with this, 4=this is important, 5=this is essential)

Credo/Believer’s Baptism Only (vs paedo/infant)            0 1 2 3 4 5

Baptism by Immersion Only  (vs sprinkling, etc)               0 1 2 3 4 5

Soul Competency/Liberty (vs church, govt, family)           0 1 2 3 4 5

Salvation by Faith Alone (vs religion, good works, etc)   0 1 2 3 4 5

Scripture Alone Authority (vs tradition, hierarchy, etc)     0 1 2 3 4 5

Congregational Autonomy (vs hierarchy, etc)                     0 1 2 3 4 5

Priority of Evangelism and Mission                                   0 1 2 3 4 5

Totals
0-7 =  Definitely not a Baptist
8-14 = Vaguely Baptist Compatible
15-21 = Luke Warm Baptist
22-28 = Strong Baptist
29-35 = More Baptist Than John


What was your score? 
How could I make the test better? 
What have I missed out?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Newbiggin on the church in via

The church, therefore, as it is in via, does not face the world as the exclusive possessor of salvation, nor as the fullness of what others have in part, the answer to the questions they ask, or the open revelation to what they are anonymously. The church faces the world, rather, as an arrabon of that salvation - as sign, firstfruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole . . . It must therefore live always in dialogue with the world, bearing its witness to Christ but always in such a way that it is open to receive the riches of God that belong properly to Christ but have to be brought to him . . . It will continue to change as it meets new cultures and lives in faithful dialogue with them. 
Newbiggin, Open Secret, 1995, p180
Let me know what you think :-)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Newbigin, Mission and the SSM Debate

One of the authors who never fails to stimulate my thinking is Lesslie Newbiggin, I'm currently reading The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Towards the conclusion of a long and nuanced discussion of the relation of (cross-cultural) ethical issues to Christian conversion Newbiggin states,
As a learning community that can only press forward from partial to fuller understanding of the Father's reign, the church will know that it cannot impose it's own ethical insights at any one time and place upon those whom the Spirit calls into its company. It must always press on toward fuller obedience but at the same time proclaim Christ as Lord and beyond its own faulty obedience, and expect and welcome the correction of those whom the Spirit calls into commitment to Christ. (p140, rev. ed. 1995)
His argument is in relation to cross-cultural mission and how missionaries (presumed western) impose ethical requirements upon new converts (presumed non-western). It is a convincing argument and I found no fault in his logic, but the only example he gives is polygamy. The story (possibly apocryphal) comes to mind of the African convert who is told by a missionary that as a Christian he cannot have more than one wife, so the faithful new Christian goes home and kills the four other wives that he is not allowed. A horrible result and if true reveals as much about the missionary's obsession with sex than the Bible's teaching against polygamy (try and find some).

My question, and I don't find an easy answer, is how this might relate to our western context in NZ where we have been increasingly (and rightly) taught to consider evangelism in western countries as cross-cultural. In a sexually permissive 21st C. western society is same sex marriage parallel to polygamy in 19th C. Africa? Is the gay community an unreached people group that needs to be allowed to establish it's own ethical convictions in relation to the gospel without the colonial imposition of standards from Christendom? Certainly that might provide a way out for the current Baptist Union discussion, to view the small number of churches accepting SSM to be frontier mission churches where the rules need to be looser. But that feels a bit difficult to swallow, after all even if we categorise the gay community as an unreached people group (I don't know if we should or how they might feel about that) it is one thing to permit ethical flexibility among marginal groups coming into faith it is another thing to have established churches preside over and facilitate the ceremonies that confirm people in that behaviour.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Narcistic Pastors

I've just finished reading Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter L Steinke. He has three slim  books published by the Alban Institute on different aspects of how emotional system and group psychology give insight to situations faced in churches, all are essential reading IMHO. This book has, as a postscript, an essay entitled "People of the Charm" on the subject of narcissistic leaders (not always the pastor!) in churches. A very brief and rough summary,
  1. Churches/public ministry naturally attracts those with a narcissistic.
  2. A narcissistic leader requires followers to feed their narcissism, the followers in turn need the leader's certainty, approval and reflected importance creating a self-reinforcing, self-sustaining and self-protecting circle/system which is very hard to challenge.
  3. A natural outcome of the "circle of charm' is a polarisation towards those not in the circle and a loss of objectivity hence why this syndrome is so destructive to churches.
  4. Churches often focus on the short term benefits of narcissistic leaders (strong leadership, growth, etc) rather than the long term less public issues (loss of other leaders, spiritual abuse, eventual scandal) which make them less likely to take effective action in good time.
It is a great essay and should probably be read carefully by every church pastoral search committee. I just want to add some of my own quick reflections at this point.

Steinke notes that narcissism is generally a product of insecurity. The pastoral role is one that naturally generates a great deal of insecurity: The multiplicity of different tasks and skill sets required makes it very unlikely that any one individual can do everything well; The experience of being employed by a lrage group of people rather than (as in most jobs) having just one boss to report to; The unlimited nature of ministry meaning the job is never finished and no matter what you do achieve there will always be a sense of needing to do more; The fact that all these could be remedied by a healthy spiritual life but that being a pastor is often detrimental to our spiritual walk; all this adds up to making narcissism, even for those of us who feel unlikely candidates for it, a very real temptation as an escape from a near constant feeling of inadequacy.

Secondly, the very real and unreflective pressure (at least in most evangelical churches) for results over principle and success and glamour over holiness and integrity means that we are unlikely to see the end of pastoral scandals, burnout and church splits. Deeply discouraging in one way but in another there are concrete ways we can positively influence the systems we are part of, as a pastor the cultivation of personal and structural honesty, accountability and vulnerability is essential (even though people often interpret it as you complaining) and as congregation members loving and objective interaction with pastors about issues of concern and weakness can help keep them off the pedestal. On a larger scale I would love to see a cultural movement within the western evangelical subculture towards holiness and integrity over success and image, if only I had enough success and enough of my own hair to be an influence! ;-)

Let me know what you think, :-)

PS are you impressed how I got through this entire post without mentioning Mark Driscoll?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Polanyi and Tolstoy on Emotion and Truth

A current area of increasing interest and usefulness for me, personally and professionally, is the role emotions play in our perception of and ability to encounter reality and relationships. In my reading this week I came across two quotes from very different authors in very different books that both give expression to the reality distorting potential of emotion. (I think there is also a reality revealing potential to emotion but that is for another time) And then I found another good one as a searched for a source for the Tolstoy quote. Suffice to say I am increasingly convinced that theology, epistemology, pastoral praxis and even exegesis that doesn't take a full (and yes I mean more than cursory) appreciation of emotional factors is only doing half the job. Let me know what you think. :-)


I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.
Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? opening to ch 14, 
Translation from: What Is Art and Essays on Art 
(OUP, 1930, trans. Aylmer Maude)
This is the characteristic structure of what I shall call a dynamo-objective coupling. Alleged scientific assertions, which are accepted as such because they satisfy moral passions, will excite these passions further, and thus lend increased convincing power to the scientific affirmations in question - and so on, indefinitely. Moreover, such a dynamo-objective coupling is also potent in its own defence. any criticism of its scientific part is rebutted by the moral passions behind it, while any moral objectives are coldly brushed aside by invoking the inexorable verdict of its scientific findings. Each of the two components, the dynamic and the objective, takes it in turn to draw attention away from the other when it is under attack.
Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp229-230

The way scientists try to convince people is hopeless because they present evidence, figures, tables, arguments, and so on. But that’s not how to convince people. People aren’t convinced by arguments, they don’t believe conclusions because they believe in the arguments that they read in favour of them. They’re convinced because they read or hear the conclusions from people they trust. You trust someone and you believe what they say. That’s how ideas are communicated. The arguments come later.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Scot McKnight on Inerrancy and Truth



While we're on the subject Scot McKnight has also penned some useful thoughts about how the inerrancy debate tends to frame scripture unhelpfully,

Inerrancy is a disruptive child in the theological classroom. He or she gets all the attention of teacher and students. A biblical view of inerrancy demotes it under the word true, all as part of God’s choice to communicate efficiently and sufficiently. When the word “true” governs the game it’s a brand new, healthy game. Good teachers know how to handle disruptive children.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Tilling on Evangelised Notions of Truth

The old blogging football of inerrancy is being kicked around a bit at the moment and as part of that discussion Chris Tilling whips up a quick primer on truth for those who might be interested. I especially liked this bit:

Hence, a Christian grasp of the Truth of scripture will recognise and express, at the very least, the relational nature of Truth, that discipleship and obedience to the gospel is a factor inherent to Christian Truth, that it remains penultimate, and patient, trusting in God in Christ, waiting for the eschatological presence of the Triune God.

Let me know what you think, or better yet pop on over to Chris' blog and let him know.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Not harmed by venom or poison?

In one of the assorted and contested endings for Mark's gospel there is a famous claim that those who believe in Jesus will pick up snakes and drink any deadly thing without coming to harm (Mk 16:17). Of course this verse is what has given rise to the snake handlers found only in the USA. As that ending of Mark is of dubious authority I had always been happy to consign it to the file marked "nutter fodder."

I noticed (and isn't it always funny how you can read something a hundred times without noticing something that now seems obvious!) today that a very similar thought crops up in Luke 10:19, this time snakes and scorpion will be trodden on (I think I had always read that figuratively as the language of the pericope is one of spiritual warfare) and the promise is that "nothing will hurt you." (Which is cross-referenced in my NRSV to psalm 91:13 a messianic psalm used in Luke 4 to tempt Jesus.) So is there a genuine possibility that Jesus taught his followers they could handle snakes and drink poison?

Apart from the story of Paul and the viper in Acts 28 I can't think of anywhere else in the NT that this theme crops up again. In Acts 28 the story suggests that Paul is under special protection rather than all Christians can expect to walk away unharmed from a viper attack. So I think I am right to subsume Luke 10:19 under the figurative or spiritualised references to snakes found in the rest of the NT and to continue to treat Mark 16:17 as dubious and snakes as hazardous.

When in doubt go with 1 Cor 10:9, to paraphrase: "don't put the Lord to the test in case you get eaten by a snake!" To me snake handling seems to be inviting this verse to be fulfilled. :-s

Let me know what you think :-)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Did Moses invent Secular Government?

As I understand it, correction invited if I'm wrong, it was standard in the ancient world for the highest religious offices to be occupied by those also in the highest political offices. That is there was no way to separate the religious and the secular authorities. I was struck today as I read Numbers 27 by vs20-21, Moses has prayed about his successor in leadership and God replies that Joshua will be that successor,
You shall give him some of your authority, so that all the congregation of the Israelites may obey. But he shall stand before Eleazar the priest who shall inquire for him . . . before the Lord
Up to this point Moses had been both the leader of the Israelites and the one responsible for mediating God's voice to the people. Here Joshua is set up as leader but only some of Moses authority is passed on to him, and the rest presumably passes to Eleazar, a separation of church and state, of religious and secular power. This also presumably sets the scene for the prophetic interaction with the kingly office that occupies much of the subsequent OT - the idea that the leader of the people is not supreme but can guided and if necessary called to account by a separate religious institution.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Apologetic Preaching

Jonathan Robinson is talking about apologetic preaching on the Kiwi-Made Preaching blog.

Why not pop over there and tell him what you think?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Communion and Emmaus



I wont be the first to point out the Eucharistic nature of Luke 24:13-35. Compare especially 24:30 with 22:19. Again the function is pedagogical rather than mystical. There is no need ask how Jesus is present at the meal, because he is literally present. Instead the Eucharist reveals to Cleopas and Co. that Jesus had been with them all along. The broken and blessed bread was a sign that pointed them towards the reality of Christ's presence. Jesus was only especially present in the breaking of the bread because the two disciples became aware of his presence. If Jesus is truly with us and has promised never to leave us what need is there for the elements of communion to be anything more than a sign that give us the grace to receive, believe and awaken to the reality of God-with-us in Christ?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The hidden children: some half baked thoughts about communion

A couple of the morning's scripture readings coincided with some thoughts I've been having around children and communion recently.

Exodus 12:26-27 makes it clear that one key function of the passover meal is pedagogical. To pass on the story to the next generation.

The accounts of the last supper are generally thought to be accounts of a passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples and thus show Jesus as instituting a new passover with himself as the sacrificial lamb whose blood brings his disciples from under the threat of death into freedom. And so, despite the angry cries of the sacramentalist, a key part of communion is also pedagogical ("do this in remembrance").

The discussion about who is the greatest in Mark 9:33-37 reveals that in the middle of a conversation with the 12 Jesus is able to lay hands on a little child. Suddenly rather than a group of men standing around Jesus we think, well, who else is there? It is noted by Luke (8:1-3) that there was also a group of women who followed Jesus around. What about whole families? What about children? Or is this child just a resident of the home they are at?

Anyway this sudden appearance by a child makes me wonder if children are hiding in other accounts of Jesus' life, not least the accounts of him celebrating passover with his disciples, at least some of whom may have had families to share passover with. Is it likely that a group of men would have celebrated this family feast without their families? That is certainly the way I have always assumed it was until today. 

If there were children present at the institution of communion would that affect your view of whether children are allowed to partake at your church?

Let me know what you think :-)

Is there a parachurch in the Gay Marriage Debate?

If you have been following the excitement generated by World Vision (USA)'s announcement that they would now hire those in same sex marriages and their almost immediate capitulation to evangelical protest I think you would see a good case study of the current dilemma facing the Western church.

What I found most striking was World Vision (USAS)'s belief that they could make such a change with being seen to take a side in the argument. Instead WVUSA thought this move was a,
"very narrow policy change" should be viewed by others as "symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity." He [the WVUSA president] even hopes it will inspire unity elsewhere among Christians.
and that this was merely
solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor."
It is only after the hostile aggressive and immediate response from the evangelical church (USA) that the decision is then viewed as as taking a position on a biblical and theological issue.

What can we take from this. Firstly I think we need to realise unity has its limits.  Unity is a positive but if stretched too far we inevitably end up losing someone. Growing inclusivity will always exclude those whose exclusivity is being challenged. As John Crosby said of the Presbyterian Church USA,
"We have tried to create such a big tent trying to make everybody happy theologically. I fear the tent has collapsed without a center."
Inclusivity is not an absolute value for Christians. It is for our society and often for reasons that Christians can and should support. I want to live in a society that is more inclusive of different cultures and abilities. But I am also comfortable with exclusion. I exclude people all the time in order to maintain the integrity of the church. I exclude those who are divisive. I exclude those who will only be included if I pander to their every whim. I exclude those who pose a significant threat to the physical or spiritual well being of the church. If I didn't practice exclusion there soon wouldn't be anyone to include anyway.


Secondly, the idea that you can defer theology because you are focussed on doing good deeds is totally bogus. There is no "parachurch" that exists as a non partisan service provider to the church which can ignore the issues that are dividing churches. The guys who supply our toilet paper or pens may or may not be Christians and so I am not concerned to check their theological credential before I hand over the money for services provided. But those who are reaching the poor with the good news of Jesus in this other countries on my behalf need to be sharing historic orthodox Christianity, for the same reason I do not give money to the Mormons to support their efforts.

Let me know what you think :-)










Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Changing my mind about Same Sex Marriage and the BU

It is always nice to get the opportunity to prove my commitment to an open mind and being open to reasoned persuasion. As always this is me thinking out loud and I reserve the right be wrong or change my mind in light of a much better argument. :-)

My initial strong and vocal opposition (not just on the blog I also discussed this publicly and privately at a BU pastors conference last year) to excluding baptist churches and/or pastors who affirmed SSM was triggered by two factors, 1) a desire to see us defined positively around issues of unity rather than negatively around those we exclude, 2) a lack of principled rationale on why this issue should be a defining one for our movement.

The concern for legal protection and denominatinal reputation are pragmatic secular reasons and while worthy of some attention should not be the driving force for our actions.  Especially when it comes to something as drastic as dis-fellowshipping a church.  The principles on which we act need to be theological - doing the right thing is always the right thing whether or not it is prudent in the secular scheme of things. Lyndon Drake in a baptist magazine article has also articulated a pastoral concern, however censuring pastors of other churches who teach something that we may be detrimental to the health of our flock is hardly practical, and so again we are making a special case for homosexual marriage without showing our working.

I haven't changed my mind about any of that, and I'm deeply opposed to making such major decisions based on fear or pragmatism. Instead I've realised that those like Rhett who want to see a more confessional unity in our movement are right, even if I haven't been satisfied by their reasons. What I can't accept is that such confessional unity would be around a single issue and especially not this one.

To my mind there are some deep questions that are currently not being addressed in our back and forth on the issue and that we need to find answers to in order to proceed to a solution.
  1. Why do we make this the issue we divide over when no registered pastor has to take an exam on their understanding of the Trinity? There is no good answer to this that I can find.
  2. Women in leadership is just as significant an exegetical and theological issue and affects a larger number of people. So if we are going to start excluding churches for one thing, why not the other?
  3. What I have found really distressing as I've followed the debate is how little understanding of the theological and biblical reasoning behind previous policy changes there is. How is it possible that many in our denomination allow women in leadership and divorced people to remarry when they clearly are under the impression this is forbidden by biblical teaching?

Sexual ethics have historically been important boundary markers for the church and the church was birthed in a culture when homosexual love between men (though not women) was accepted, affirmed and even honoured at least by some parts of society.  In some ways the world has gone full circle and the need for clear boundaries is more important than ever. In todays climate of over sexualisation of just about everything and everyone, a distinctive Christian ethic needs to be well worked out, not just a jumbled collage of knee-jerk reactions. For theological, missional and pastoral reasons clarity and certainty in sexual ethics are becoming increasingly important.

I think we do need a greater and stricter confessional unity in the Baptist Union. But I would not be able to support one that is solely based around the issue homosexual marriage. So I would argue we need to start from the foundations. Develop a robust Trinitarian statement of belief (instead of the half baked back of an envelope statement that currently serves) and a clear and definite ethical framework within which complex issues can be worked out properly. Part of this would be the development of a comprehensive sexual ethic that was based in the teaching of Jesus (Mark 7:1-23) and the NT, not the purity codes of Lev 15, etc. This would need to include educating every registered pastor and making sure as part of the registration process that they understand and abide within that faith statement and ethical framework.

Once we know what framework we are working within as a BU then it is fair to ask all churches and pastors to opt in. And those who don't then dis-fellowship themselves. This would hopefully remove the need for witch-hunts and heresy trials, which surely no one wants to see. At the moment so much has been assumed about what NZ baptists believe and what we stand for. Yet our current statement of faith does not mention the Trinity or the resurrection, to name but two significant omissions! We really need to agree as a union on what we believe before we start excluding those who don't believe the same as us. Otherwise we just have mob rule.

The truth is it has suited most of us that things are so free and easy in the BU, we've been happy enough not be tested by others on our understanding of doctrine and not to do the hard work of working out our theology and ethics together. Could this be a new season for us as we realise we do need to hammer this stuff out and not just leave each other to our own devices? Would we commit to this process even if it looked likely that we would lose more churches than just the tiny number of possibly pro SSM ones? I don't know, but I'm game if you are.

Let me know what you think :-)