Archive for February, 2012

Giving sex for money

Posted: February 29, 2012 by deadfliesmike in General

Any Christian critique of peoples ‘private’ sexual practices, must recognise that they are attacking one of the few ‘freedoms’ people feel they have left.
Contemporary freedom is this:
‘We won’t question what you do in the bedroom,
You don’t question what we do in the boardroom’

Christians have to recognise just how much public space (both physical and metaphorical) has been handed over to the marketplace. Money has grabbed such a hegemony on public moral discourse, and has taken over every consideration of how we might live together, that there are few if any ways of speaking and acting against it. Our public arena is in neither sense ‘free’.
If the church attacks the privatised sins of sexuality, without a full and thorough attack on the morality of gain, it is simply seen to be part of this removal of freedom (indeed, it takes the blame while the marketplace gets off scott free).
However, if the church lives in proligate freedom from the hegemony of money, we can perhaps also call people out of enslaving sexual patterns too (not least the ones propogated by the market).

What might this look like?

Well, in the current climate, we ask say, homosexuals, to imagine a different vision of human flourishing, one that isn’t (simply) about desire and fulfillment, but is shaped by God and his kingdom and may well mean the painful curbing of desire.

Why then do we find it so hard to turn to (well just about anything in our society) and command them to find a new vision of human flourishing that isn’t based on gain, but is shaped by God and his kingdom and may well mean the painful curbing of gain? Why is it we can apply eschatology to the bedroom, but not the boardroom, snce Jesus said, invite the poor and lame and crippled and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. Could we with a straight face say to a multinational corporation, “Forget about your quarterly earnings, invest in the poor so that you would be repaid at the resurrection”? And if not, why not?

Alright, so you won’t get a post like this every week here at The Grit, don’t get to like it too much.

But there are heaps of things I love about the Sydney Anglican Diocese – which I am part of. Here are some of them:

* RBS Hammond

* Biblical Theology. Where else in theworld do the churches have such a commitment to telling and hearing and thinking the Bible story?

* It’s not hierarchical. Not in practice. The administration is very hands off, there’s heaps of freedom. That’s rare and precious. Great attitude to the role of Diocesan leaders.

* Flowing from that, Diversity. Seriously. Different styles, different ministry approaches and structures, different ways of expressing the faith, different languages, co-existing and tolerated. There’s more diversity out there than you think.

* Its keenness for mission. I love that.

* The parish system. An awesome mission structure. We take responsibility for reaching our whole city, our whole diocese.

* We like church planting. Or at least tolerate it!

* Connected to those two, we’re simultaneously supporting/valuing the parish system, and also being flexible about it to make sure it doesn’t limit gospel ministry opportunities. And that results in messy structures. I love it that we do that.

* Deep breath: we (mostly) don’t encourage women to head up congregations. We allow it. They do it. We ordain women for ministry and leadership. All good. But we recognise that women as ‘senior ministers’ is not ideal. Even though we cop so much flack for it. I appreciate that. I think it’s the right stance, and it’s in line with what most people in our churches think.

* SweatCon – a conference dedicated to encouraging local leaders for gospel ministry in the churches of Sydney’s south west

* The EU at Sydney uni: some of the guys I admire most got their grounding in the gospel there. (I see this as part of the Anglican scene)

* Dan Webster, fighting the good fight at Revesby Anglican Church. He’s a hero.

* We don’t have lots of assets we’re sitting on. I like that!

* Andrew Cameron, one of our ethics dudes, who stays calm and treats people as humans even if he disagrees with them

* The Moore College class of 2009 – an extraordinary bunch of guys. I love and admire them.

* Richard Gibson, the best lecturer, teacher and inspirer I had at college. He also helped me be a less boring preacher.

* My rector Campbell King, a truly humble man

* The Diocese has produced scholars Bill Dumbrell and Peter Bolt. Check out ‘The Faith of Israel’ or ‘The Cross from a distance.’ Gold.

* It doesn’t support Fred Nile. (Please don’t tell me it supports Fred Nile!)

* Did I mention RBS Hammond? He’s the real hero of the Sydney church story. If I could be one fiftieth of him, I’d be thrilled. In fact, if the whole diocese was achieving what he achieved single-handed, I’d be happy. (to find out more, click here)

Yes, alright, you can go ahead and add to this with your favourite things that I haven’t mentioned.

Buddhist practice contextualised – from Nuria

Posted: February 27, 2012 by J in General

This is a response to the previous post, ‘Can I still do Buddhism?’ emailed from our friend Nuria, who has extensive mission experience in Asia.

J’s questions relate to the issue of “contextualization”, an area missiology which tries to come to grips with the interplay between the Christian gospel and culture.

In thinking about whether a particular cultural belief or practice, you need to be a good exegete of BOTH the bible and the culture – you want to think about the cultural practice biblically.

One of the contextualization gurus (David Hesslegrave maybe?), says that as we think biblically about cultural practices, we will generally find that they fall into one of four categories:

  1. The practice is biblically neutral – the bible has nothing to say about it.
  2. The practice is already in line with biblical teaching so there is no need to change it.
  3. The practice is not in line with biblical teaching (eg. it is underpinned by a worldview that is at odds with the bible), but it is possibly “redeemable” (eg. maybe the practice can be imbued with new, biblically compatible meaning).
  4. The practice is clearly at odds with biblical teaching. People who want to follow Jesus need to reject this practice.

Given the above, let me have a go at outlining what this might look like for the Buddhist meditation example Jonathan has raised.

Meditation and a Buddhist worldview

The practice of meditation seems to be underpinned by the following philosophical tenets:

  • God does not exist and he did not create the world.
  • the physical world is bad
  • life in this world is marked by suffering
  • suffering happens because humans love the evil physical world too much and try to “grasp” or “hold onto” it tightly
  • when humans try to grasp onto the world, they get stuck to the world and stuck in a cycle of birth and rebirth that perpetuates the cycle of suffering
  • the goal of life is to escape the cycle of rebirth by learning to stop grasping onto this world
  • meditation is a way of learning to let go of the world in order to help a person attain the desirable state of nothingness (leading to “Nirvana” in Buddhism, which results in an end to the birth/rebirth cycle).

Analysing Buddhist meditation against a biblical worldview:

Things that the bible teaches that are incompatible with Buddhist philosophy (this not trying to be an exhaustive list):

  • God exists.
  • God created and rules the world.
  • God’s world was created good.
  • Humanity sinned by rejecting God as the ruler. One of the results of human sin is suffering. *God’s judgement on sin is death.
  • There is no cycle of reincarnation.
  • The good news is that God, in Jesus, has embraced our sinful, suffering world and suffered and died in our place for our sin, completely breaking sin’s power. God has raised Jesus to life and offers us the opportunity to enter into Jesus’ resurrection life and into an eternally restored relationship with God.
  • The goal of life is not to “let go” and escape into a state of nothingness but to embrace Jesus as Lord and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to learn to live in fellowship with God and others, looking forward to the full consummation of God’s kingdom – life in fellowship with him and each other forever in the new heaven and new earth.

Possible compatibilities between a biblical worldview and Buddhist philiosophy:

  • Ecclesiastes (ch 1-3 especially) teaches that the quest to extract “gain” (יִתרוֹן / yitron) out of life in this physical world can be a task that is intangible, hard to grasp hold of (הֶבֶל / hebel – the word the NIV translates “meaningless”). It can be an elusive task, like trying to chase after the wind.
  • This MAY be similar to the Buddhist idea that suffering results when we love the world too much and try to grasp hold of things in this world.
  • HOWEVER, contrary to Buddhism, Ecclesiastes teaches us that the world was created by God (eg. 12:1). We should embrace and enjoy life as a good gift from God, but not grasp hold of it in the quest for gain (eg. 2:24-26, 9:7-10).
  • AND Ecclesiastes says that the key to life is to fear God and keep his commands (eg. 12:13-14) cf. Buddhism which teaches that there is no God.

Where does this leave J’s questioner?

If the above analysis is correct, it seems to me that the Buddhist philosophy that underpins Buddhist meditation is fairly fundamentally opposed to biblical teaching.

However, there is something Ecclesiastes-like about what Buddhism teaches with respect to not trying to find yourself by grasping onto the things of this world.

Using the categories outlined in section 2 of the table, perhaps it is possible that the practice of meditation, in and of itself, may be “redeemable”.
Maybe the example of pagan Christmas trees, ‘redeemed’ by Christians, helps us here. For the guy J has been talking to, perhaps it is helpful to explore:

  • is his practice of Buddhist meditation constantly invoking the (unbiblical) Buddhist worldview outlined above, or is he really just using a breathing technique that helps to clear his mind or calm down?
  • are there Christian meditative practices that would be just as helpful for this person but would not invoke an unbiblical worldview? (Like Mike suggested).
  • if it’s just a breathing technique (or equivalent), is it really necessary to call this “Buddhism”? Wouldn’t it be better to say “I’m a Christian (or I’m a follower of Jesus) and I do deep breathing to calm down sometimes”? If this person can’t say that, does that mean there is more to his practice than just a meditative technique after all?

Can I still do Buddhism?

Posted: February 26, 2012 by J in Discipleship, Mission

“If I follow Jesus, what about my Buddhism? The Dalai Lama says I can have both. He tells me not to let go of my Christian background now that I’ve got into Buddhism. What do you think?”

That’s the question for today, folks.

What should I tell this man? He says his Buddhism is largely about relaxation techniques, and about teachings of peace and compassion towards all people. Does he need to give up that connection to be a Christian?

I think he understands Christ’s claim to uniqueness. But how absolute is that claim? How compatible is it with these Buddhist practices and teachings?

Some wisdom from the excellent Grit readership please!

The Great Leadership Challenge

Posted: February 23, 2012 by J in Theology

I find myself thinking about leadership challenges and power struggles, lately. In particular the leadership challenge mounted by Satan. Reading Genesis and Luke, I’ve been thinking about the role of the evil one, the Satan, in world history. And I think I’ve identified one of those structural things where the whole drift of my thinking doesn’t mesh well with the Scripture story.

I think I’ve always seen it as essentially a challenge to God’s position as sovereign. Milton’s Paradise Lost, and all that. Satan seeks to rule heaven itself. Challenged God, lost, was cast out into Hell with the angels who followed him. That sort of thing.

Well, not sure how much of that might be true, and how much folk-mythology. But it strikes me that as a contender for God’s throne, Satan is a bit of a fizzer. I mean, for one thing, he’s created. The most fundamental distinction in the universe, between Creator and creation – and he’s on the wrong side of it. Wrong, that is, if you want to be God.

No, I can’t see that Satan was ever going to mount an effective leadership challenge against God. Kind of like my basil plants attempting a coup and taking over our house. Just not likely in the nature of things.

As I read Scripture, it dawns on me (slowly), that the real leadership challenge was directed at US. We are the ones Satan is contending with for rulership of the world. We were given that role, but he has usurped it. From us.

That was always the challenge, right from the start. It was the serpent vs Adam and Eve. It was Adam and Eve’s offspring who was supposed to crush the serpent’s head. But Adam’s heirs always prefered to fight against God (cf the name ‘Israel’: ‘he wrestles with God’) – we had the wrong adversary all along. And so, not knowing our rightful opponent, we always got crushed instead of doing the crushing.

For a long time the evil one seemed to be winning every bout hands down. It was like the old days of the America’s cup yacht race:  theoretically anybody could win, but when Alan Bond came along as challenger with the Australia II, the US had won it every time since 1870. In practice it was always the same outcome, every challenge: Satan – 1 , Adam and family – 0.

The amazing significance of Jesus’ incarnation and his life and death and resurrection is not so much that God could defeat Satan. No surprises there! God could surely have flicked Satan out of existence any time he pleased. It’s still glorious and worth celebrating when God does conquer his enemies. But if I’m reading it rightly, the amazing, unexpected, world-changing thing about Jesus was that a man stood up to the evil one. He repented of our habit of fighting against God (his baptism), and got on with the job of wrestling with the real adversary (in the temptations in the wilderness). And Jesus defeated him. He took back the leadership. He entered the ‘dominion of darkness’ and started turning it into his own kingdom (cf. Colossians 1:14).

John, Mark and Luke portray the Jesus story as one of conflict with the demonic powers. They all see that conflict coming to a head in Jerusalem at the passover, as Jesus faces the final challenge of the cross – and emerges victorious: “It is finished!”. The Father, as a good umpire, raises the hand of the victor through resurrection.

Now a man is on the throne again. The leadership challenge has been settled decisively, once and for all: ‘The kingdoms of this world are becoming the kingdom of God and of his Christ’ (Revelation 11). Not just the victory of God, but of God and his appointed man. And not Jesus alone ruling: Jesus as the Christ, as our representative. And because Jesus, we also. We are invited, indeed called, to take up that rule again, in him. “Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world?” (1 Corinthians 6). Here judgement is a leadership role, much like governing. It involves taking charge and setting things to rights, restoring right order in the creation. The good news is, that is once again mankind’s destiny:

if we endure,
we will also reign with him. (2Tim. 2:12)
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev.5:10)..

Once mankind is restored in Christ, our future is one of leadership again:

They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev 22:5)

And that leadership over creation will bring about its final restoration. When we ceded control of the world to Satan, we left it in the hands of a destroyer. But Jesus took back the reins. He restored the whole created order by undoing the original cause of its distress: the fall of man from his role as leader.

Would it be pushing things too far to suggest that the great question of world history was not, who will conquer, God or Satan? It was ‘who will conquer, man or Satan?’ And that question has been answered finally at the Cross. The demons will not always have free rein. In Jesus, mankind conquers at last, reclaims his ancient birthright, and begins once again to rule as God appointed him to.

Praise God for his Son, the man, King Jesus!

Occurs to me that Sydney is the ideal place for the kind of experiment I (and possibly Wellsie) am suggesting (see previous post): re-centring the church around the gospel story as the basis of its unity and identity.

Why? Because Sydney is the natural home of biblical theology. We have a fifty year tradition of reading the bible in this way, listening for the stories, the themes, the flow, etc. We have a sense of the Scriptures as a unity, and that unity is a narrative unity. The bible tells one big story. Which, using the term in its broadest sense, we might call ‘the gospel’.

We have even made efforts to rejig our theology around the story. Think Graeme Goldsworthy etc. There’s been a lot of hard work done to instil this into our thinking, and it’s worked. That stuff feels pretty natural for us by now. It gets taught at the colleges. It gets taught to our kids.

We’ve never given the meta-narrative or biblical theology the place I’m suggesting, as the unifying core of our community life. But we have taken it on as, shall we say, a string in our bow. It’s one of the strands of thinking about our faith that has achieved a prominent place in the weave, as particularly significant for us Sydney churches.

Perhaps it’s not a very well integrated strand. Maybe it’s existed alongside other approaches to the faith, other ways of reading Scripture, which it should have been allowed to challenge. But it’s there, and it’s not weak.

Who then is in a better position to storyify their churches, than we are? I reckon we can give the story of the gospel the central, integrative role in our church identity that I’ve been describing, without having to introduce anything that new or different. My guess is that the people in our churches will like it, will take to it like a duck to water.

Anyone up for it?

Solar sys.jpg

Is it possible for us to find a stronger unifying idea or story – stronger, that is, than ‘we believe in the authority of Scripture’? (see previous 2 posts)

It may be possible, but I wonder if the definition of ‘us’ might change if we achieved it?

Wellsie has suggested ‘united with the world in wretched sin, united with the world as mysterious recipients of God’s grace, and united with Christ by his Spirit?’

That’s not that different from what I had in mind. Let’s go with that for a bit, see where it gets us. There’s a few things worth saying about it:

First, it’s a story. Our sin and misery, a gift from a gracious God, redemption through his Son and Spirit.

A story gives a powerful framework for unity and community: everyone thinking and living in broadly the same direction. A sense of shared future.

Second, it’s personal. We’re not coming together around an abstract idea (like ‘authority’ or ‘the 5 points’), we’re gathered around someone – God, the Father, Christ and the Spirit. In other words, it’s a centre that’s relational from first to last. Belief in the Bible may imply relationships, or it may not. But embracing this gospel story of God’s Trinitarian action towards us, certainly means connecting with God at a personal level. This adds an extra dimension to the strength of the unifying centre. The kind of strength that comes not just from conviction, but from loyalty, and even love.

But this relationality also introduces an unpredictable element into things: personal relationships are not static things, and are not all the same. The God we come to is not stationary and predictable, but free and sovereign in all his relations.  His Spirit is not given like a fixed amount of liquid, which remains stored up in the believer, but is constantly moving, blowing through church and world, sometimes more, other times less, producing life in all its variety. The God of the gospel is a God who does new things. Variety and change are implied by this kind of unity around a person.

Third, it’s a story in which we’re free to look bad. ‘United with the world in wretched sin’: that’s a great load off our shoulders, not having to be the last repository of all that’s faithful and true in the world, not having to be the ones with all the answers to the world’s problems. There’s another person who can be that for us even if we are a bit mouldy – another three persons, in fact. Quite liberating, really.

Fourth, the story has the potential to generate a high level of cohesiveness and direction in the lifestyle of a community gathered around it, because it is focussed on the here and now. The Heaven’s Gate sect with their plans to be collected by flying saucers, probably didn’t achieve a vision that gave much guidance for the complexities of everyday life – family, work, finances etc. But the gospel story tells of God’s action towards us and our world. It’s about his arrival in this world, in real space time history. It calls on us to reshape every area of life around the reality of the King’s arrival, of the Spirit’s coming. That gives a unifying set of parameters for Christian living.  Those who share a basic commitment to the advancement of God’s kingdom in the creation are going to find a lot of common ground in the business of living in this world – common ground firm and broad enough to embrace vast differences in how that commitment is expressed. The arrival of the King is a story with so much unifying pull at the level of practice, that it should minimise the need for unity to be imposed from without. And within it a great deal of diversity should be possible. It gives a big picture with enough complexity, colour and variety, that everyone can find a place to take part. God’s kingdom is a big country!

Even more promising, the story is itself inherently one about unity. This is not always the case in foundational myths or stories. Hitler’s narrative of a master race, for example, hardly had a unifying effect on the world! But in this story, God is regathering and reconciling everything and everyone under his Son, King Jesus, by the restorative working of his one Spirit. He is creating one new people united to Christ, where in the past there was division. In other words, the gospel happens to be a powerfully unifying story in its content.

It seems like Wellsie may be on to something.

And in fact, at our church we are attempting to develop a community re-centred around these things: the Trinitarian action of God in redemption, as described in the apostles’ creed; and also a vision statement that basically interprets that action as the coming of God’s kingdom, and commits us to participating. In other words, we’re trying to put the gospel story at the centre of our church life, and make it our story and the source of our unity. In fact, we’re trying to storyify everything.

And negatively: we believe the Bible, and use it all the time, but we don’t make a big deal about the doctrine of Scripture. It’s not in the top three things we want to say about ourselves or about God. We focus on the content, more than the nature of the artifact. It’s not our core unifying principle.

We’re hoping that this will shape us into a truly centred community. We’re hoping this centre will have enough gravity to unify us strongly – unified enough to be comfortable with a lot of diversity. We’re trying to develop a fairly hands-off leadership style where church members are encouraged to have ideas and develop goals and ministries on their own initiative (but always in fellowship). And where everyone is encouraged to teach us the word of God, no one has a monopoly on ‘the right view of things’.

It’s early days for us, and these things don’t come naturally. But so far the signs are good.

The main objection to this sort of foundation for a community is obvious: it’s not that useful for keeping people out! How are you going to distinguish yourselves from non-evangelicals?

I agree that this is an issue. One interesting thing will be to see how it goes when practising Christians from other traditions want to join us. That’s started happening already, but it’s too early to report much on results. But as a preliminary comment, I can say that it definitely has got a lot harder to keep them out!

(continuing from the last post…)

What’s the foundation that unifies churches in the evangelical movement?

I want to try telling a bit of our story to give some context, and help figure out an answer. For the first 1000 years or so, the Church was unified by a few things. One was the great ecumenical creeds, the apostles creed, for example. In other words, theology. Another was tradition. The church had roots in history going back to the time of the apostles. If the tree was large, and the branches spread wide, it could still look back to the trunk and roots which it had all sprung from. A third unifying factor was Christendom – the idea of a Christian Empire, a manifestation (in some sense) of the kingdom of God in this world. These three formed a powerful unifying  force, defining, locating and unifying the church in time, space and belief.

That unity started to crack in the 11th century, when the East and West split and adopted different versions of the Nicene Creed. Geography and theology were both still unifying forces for each of the (divided) communities, but tradition had now been found an inadequate basis for unity. A shared tradition was not enough to keep the 2 churches together.

By the 12th century, things were looking bad for the Western church – it launched the Inquisition. This brought coercion to the fore in the life of the church. The Inquisition was aimed at heretics. Theology was looking like a shaky basis for unity. It hadn’t been able to keep East and West together, now it didn’t seem to have the gravitational pull to keep the Western church intact. Insecurities took over and lead to oppression and torture.

By the sixteenth century, these suspicions were confirmed: the church exploded catastrophically into violence and bloodshed at the ‘Reformation’. The theology of the ecumenical creeds was not able to preserve unity, even when agreed on by all parties. The story of the gospel and the core doctrine of the Trinity seemed to be an inadequate basis for unity in the church. More abstract doctrines, such as justification by faith, transubstantiation and the sovereignty of God, seemed able to exert a much more powerful fragmenting force than the unifying influence of the ecumenical creeds could counter. It seemed that faith in the God who had sent Jesus to redeem by the power of the Spirit, was not adequate to hold the christian community together. Geography, too, was looking shaky as a foundation for unity: Catholics and Protestants lived in the same country, and the result was frequently war.

And of course these division-creating doctrines (or ‘distinctives’) then became basic to the identity and (ironically) the unity of the newly formed sects. Protestant? Justification by faith. Catholic? Transubstantiation. And so on. Where in the past the church had united around a shared creed of central beliefs, from the Reformation onwards churches (and especially protestant churches) united and identified themselves through distinctives.

The Enlightenment saw the breakdown of the idea of God’s kingdom in this world, and the concept of  Christendom began to haemorrhage. As both Protestant and Catholic churches spread beyond Europe to other continents, geography became irrelevant for the church’s identity. By this stage, tradition, theology and geography had all ceased to play the unifying role they once had in the world-wide Christian church.

In the c.19th, the rise of Liberal christianity and higher criticism of the Bible raised new challenges to unity. For now there were Protestants who believed many of the key doctrines, but held them in a different way, as expressions of human faith, rather than divinely revealed truth. And the most obvious mark of this movement was its different attitude to the Scriptures: the Bible was now just a human record of religious experience.

Those holding a traditional, revelation-based faith sensed that the church’s core identity was under attack, and re-formed themselves into evangelical organisations (often parachurch). But how to define these groups? The particular doctrines on which they disagreed with Liberal christians changed over time, since Liberals were ultimately free to believe or deny pretty much anything they wanted. At one time it might be the virgin birth, at another the resurrection of Jesus. Also, Liberal christians could believe in the resurrection, but in a different way. It seemed it was just too hard to pin them down on theology.

It seemed the only way to define and centre evangelical identity was as the opposite of Liberalism: i.e. around a high view of Scripture. This seemed to be the clear and stable point of difference with Liberal christians. From now on the evangelical movement would be defined and centred around a new foundation: its distinctive view of the book. This had the unfortunate implication that Liberalism had effectively been allowed to define evangelicalism. This kind of unity was the ‘circling-the-wagons’ kind. But circling the wagons creates a unity founded on outside threats, rather than shared internal goods or values.

The importance of this foundation for c.20th Christianity can be seen in that collection of booklets called The Fundamentals, which seek to outline essentials of orthodox Christian faith. In volume after volume, the question of Scripture recurs. It can also be seen in the truly vast number of publications about the Bible itself to come out of evangelical publishing houses through the century. Evangelicals, we say, are ‘Bible-believing Christians’.

It is worth noting that this new core idea was not a material or substantial one, it was not unity around content, so much as around form. It was not belief in the contents of Scripture that was central to evangelical identity (most of these were shared with other church traditions) so much as a certain approach to Scripture, a certain view of the book itself.

The hope was that defining evangelical identity by a particular view of Scripture would give the clarity needed to create unity. The strategy was certainly successful in creating a clear distance from Liberal Christianity. However, the ongoing controversies and instability within evangelical groups suggest that this foundation has not proved to be very robust.

Many evangelical groups have felt it necessary to define the doctrine of Scripture more or more precisely, having found a general assent to a revelatory view of the Bible inadequate to preserve unity. Terms such as infallibility, inerrancy, etc have become successive standards for evangelical movements struggling  to define themselves. Along with this has gone the habit of disciplinary and coercive practices even towards others who share a high view of Scripture, in order to preserve internal unity and deal with perceived threats from within.

Unfortunately, all of this has proved inadequate, as the issue of hermeneutics rose like floodwaters over the debate mid-century, adding a whole extra dimension of complexity to the problem. Even amongst inerrantists, disagreements about what the bible actually says can and do now fracture peaceful fellowship.

As I tell the story, it’s starting to feel like an infinite regress, a chase to find a foundation that recedes faster than we can pursue it. The doctrine of Scripture has not proved to be the strong and focussed force for unity which it was hoped to be.

But somehow that’s still where we are today. The thing’s been tried and found wanting for many decades, but I guess we might have run out of options for a unifying centre – we keep clinging to this one.

But it’s not functioning well. It may well be that our current high levels of intervention and politicking reflect a real lack of a unifying centre in our evangelical scene. It seems that allegiance to the Bible, a fairly abstract and vague idea at the best of times, is inadequate to create the cohesion that any group craves and needs. Inerrancy or whatever is just too poorly defined, it leaves too many questions unanswered (like hermeneutical ones), and above all it is a formal or procedural idea, and too light on content to provide a rich and healthy foundation for our unity. And so it leaves the church feeling vulnerable to destructive forces from within and outside.

In Gunton’s terms, our church movement looks to me like a group suffering from lack of a unifying story or idea, and resorting to the inevitable coercive practices to fill the vacuum.

And ironically, these coercive responses, though designed to create and protect unity, tend to fragment the church further, as evangelical groups divide and split from each other more-or-less endlessly. The cure is worse than the illness.

Have I got this right?

And could we evangelicals recentre and redefine ourselves around a better unifying focus?

Any suggestions?

I’ve been reading an arresting article by Colin Gunton about whether God (or a god) is a necessary foundation for any society (in his The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). It’s raising some interesting questions for me about our church scene.

In the article Gunton talks alot about unity and diversity. (I never would have believed how important those two suckers turn out to be!) Our society is on the surface devoted to diversity (pluralism), and suspicious of attempts to identify unifying foundations. Such attempts are thought to be oppressive, trying to force people into moulds. But Gunton makes the point that diversity alone without unity is unsustainable for a society, leading to violence and oppression. Without a shared vision of who we are and how we should be, we have no protections from coercive and totalitarian forces. Pluralism itself becomes a force for intolerance, crushing any point of view different from its own.

If I can give a juicy quote,

…in the absence of an acknowledged basis of unity, social coercion, perhaps as an intolerant form of political correctness, but probably more institutionalised, will fill the vacuum.

Gunton describes how when unifying, shared stories and values (what he calls myths) are weakened, politics steps in to fill the vacuum – coercive politics. It’s a great article.

I want to do two things with this. First, push Gunton’s view a little further. Second, apply it to that particular society called ‘the church’, and in particular the evangelical church scene.

First, to push Gunton’s thinking a little further, it’s not hard to see how a lack of unifying foundation for a society generates insecurities. Who is to say what the group stands for? How can deviant or destructive behaviour be identified and dealt with? How can the communal goods most valued by the group be safeguarded? Identity crises are likely to be ongoing. Not surprising if these insecurities lead to violence, as coercive politics try to achieve what the weak foundations couldn’t do: provide shape, structure, meaning and protection to the life of the group. And not surprising if the average group member accepts these harsh measures, for the sake of preserving the group. Unity is important, even if it has to be imposed…

Perhaps we could turn this around and propose that the stronger and more focussed the underlying unity in a social group, the less need for police and totalitarian leaders. In a group where all agree on basic issues of identity, a high degree of freedom is possible. Much diversity and even disagreement can be tolerated, it will not be felt as a threat to the group’s existence.

I think what Gunton is getting at is that unity (whether ‘underlying’ is the best way to think of it, I’m not sure) is ultimately the safe-guard for diversity. It gives space for difference without insecurity or fear.

Or to put that negatively, you can’t really impose unity: when you use coercion, what you get is unity’s evil twin, uniformity. I.e. a unity that squashes instead of facilitates diversity.

Now to apply this to our little group, the evangelical church movement!

If this account of things is half right, then it raises interesting questions about us. For one thing, politicking is a rather prominent feature of our movement. Both internal, and towards extra-mural church groups.

Also there is a fair bit of trying to define who’s in and who’s out. And rather than occurring largely naturally through the choices people make about their affiliations, this defining often occurs through more ‘intrusive’ means – warning, critique of others, ostracism, promotion of ‘approved’ leaders. Our leaders are trained in how to maintain the ‘approved’ position in the current lot of controversies (they really are!). We are used to all this, we hardly notice it, but what it amounts to is that we have a strong habit of imposing unity on our people.

Accordingly, diversity is not a strong point. People or churches expressing their faith in non-traditional ways are likely to create worry and tension – are they ‘kosher’? The tendency is rather to look for approved phrases and metaphors to speak in; approved ministry models for churches to follow; approved leaders to have the ideas; approved colleges to source leaders from. We aim to create a fairly high level of similarity amongst the graduates of our colleges. We tend to be suspicious of ideas that have not come from our leaders. We recommend the same small group of books for our people to read, year after year. We tend to invite the same small group of ‘reliable’ speakers to address our conferences again and again. Etc, etc. The evil twin seems to be fairly active in our scene.

Now rather than moan about how bad all this is in good pluralist style, I want to explore it from the point of view Gunton has proposed, outlined above. And what it suggests, of course, is a lack of underlying unity. A high level of intervention to ‘create’ unity and discourage diversity, hints at a weakness or lack of focus in the foundational story or values that unite us into a community. Could that be true?

What is there at the core that gives unity to our movement? We’re looking for a story, an idea, a set of values or commitments. And we’re asking, could that core be weak or unfocussed, leaving a unity vacuum which gets filled by overfunctioning institutional habits of imposition?

I think these are intriguing questions, and would love to hear people’s thoughts.

5. A masculine ministry heralds the truth of Scripture, with urgency and forcefulness and penetrating conviction, to the world and in the regular worship services of the church.

…no matter what a preacher’s personality or preferred tone, this preaching necessarily involves urgency and forcefulness and a penetrating conviction which aims to come with divine thrust into the minds and hearts of the listeners. And therefore, this is a manly task.

Nice one, Piper. Classy. Made us laugh. Alot.