Archive for the ‘Pastoral issues’ Category

The-Return-of-the-King-Smeagols-BirthdayIt’s time to ask the question, why have evangelicals been so attached to this medieval theory for so long? It’s not exactly leaping off the page of Scripture demanding to be noticed. Why do we give such airtime to an idea that has so little exegetical backing?

Here we are into the realm of opinion. I can only offer my impressions. I used to hold to this satisfaction stuff. Why did I?

1. ST has become an identity marker

As liberal Christians rejected the idea of the wrath of God and everything that went with it, this area became more important for evangelicals’ sense of identity. We have long defined ourselves over against liberals. We have wanted clear ways to signal who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. God’s wrath has become a handy identity marker for us. This being so, it is appealing to have an account of God’s wrath that is as hard-core as possible. Satisfaction theory absolutises the demands of wrath. It helps us maintain our polar opposition to liberal compromise. At the political level, it works well for us.

In other words, ST has become so closely identified with our movement, that it’s hard for us to imagine letting it go. If we stopped teaching ST, who would we be then? It’s a scary thought.

2. ST provides a simple explanation

The cross is fundamentally mysterious. But the church in the West has always had a leaning towards processes, laws and mechanics. It comes out of Roman culture. We want things analysed and explained. They aren’t like that in the Eastern church: they’re more comfortable with mystery. But we want clarity.

So we want a clear simple account of the mechanics of the cross. We want to know how it works. ST offers a very simple explanation that claims the be complete and adequate: the cross is a satisfaction. We feel like we really need this. It needs to be logical so we can explain it to people.

We want something you can draw as a diagram, put in a pamphlet and train people to recite. It needs to be reducible to a few boxes. It needs to be simple and clear!

We don’t want to be saying ‘The cross is a mystery that saves you’. We want to be able to say ‘Here’s what it’s all about.’ Scripture doesn’t say much about the mechanics of the cross, but the logic of ST covers the gaps and gives us the simple explanation we require. That’s hard to resist, and hard to give up even though we might have doubts about Scripture backing.

3. ST is a powerful and compelling idea.

Necessity. Implacable wrath. Unstoppable justice. Terrible danger. God’s grace wrestling against his anger. A great escape.

It’s hot stuff. It’s a high energy story. Luther more than anyone sensed the dramatic potential of the story and brought it out.

Satisfaction Theory makes the gospel seem urgent and important. We are ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’, dangling over the pit, liable at any moment to be dropped into the fire. For anyone who buys this picture, it provides a strong motive for turning to Christ.

We have a kind of feeling that without this the gospel would lose its cutting edge, its forcefulness and immediacy.

4. ST is less personally confronting than other atonement theories.

Because Satisfaction Theory locates the main problem outside of us, it can leave our sense of self intact.  ST’s focus on our legal status takes the spotlight off our moral condition, our heart-trouble.

It works like this. I can acknowledge that I have sinned, fallen short of perfection, and yet maintain my sense of superiority and pride towards others. I might be guilty, but I’m basically a decent person. I’ll admit I’ve infringed God’s law (who hasn’t!), but I don’t have to admit that I’m greedy or blind or full of hatred. I’m willing to say I’m a sinner, but this is more a comment on my record than on my character. I have sinned in the past, but that doesn’t mean that sin defines me. In any given situation I can take it or leave it. This is much less confronting than the idea of sin as slavery or a kind of heart-disease characterised by stubborn rejection of God, which we’ve seen pervades the Bible story.

ST gives us, in fact, a comfortable middle-class version of sin that does little to challenge our lifestyles or the godless structures of our self-centred consumerist society.


Well that’s how it looks from where I’m standing anyway. Seems to me those are the main reasons evangelicals are attached to this medieval theory, in spite of its weak attestation in Scripture. The very suggestion that ST may not be biblical feels like a threat, an assault on Who We Are, an undermining of our simple certainty. That’s why even after being shown the exegetical problems (see previous posts), many evangelicals will still cling to ST with a kind of reverent loyalty.

What do you reckon? Have I missed anything? There may be other reasons I haven’t noticed.

timkellerI like Tim Keller. I find his preaching thought-provoking, interesting, sometimes even inspiring. He has so much to say that is good. So many helpful thoughts about the theology of the gospel and of mission.

However, I do often find myself worried about his use of Scripture. I like creativity, but sometimes I think Keller gets carried away with it, leaving me wishing we could have listened to the text a bit more.

For example, on Acts 16, (“A woman a slave and a gentile”) Keller gives us over 10 minutes on Lydia being converted by the beauty of the gospel. She has an aesthetic experience, through a rational discourse. She is attracted. Her heart is opened to listen, and the word ‘listen’ actually means ‘attracted’.

Inspiring stuff. I like this talk about the aesthetic appeal of Christ. I buy that.

There’s only one problem. Luke doesn’t say any of this. In Acts 16 there is no mention Lydia’s aesthetic experience. The word translated ‘listen’ doesn’t mean ‘attracted’. Nobody thinks it means that. Don’t know how Keller came up with it. It means ‘pay attention.’ Or ‘listen.’ At least, that’s what everyone else thinks it means!

Read Acts 16 for yourself. Luke says nothing about the beauty of Christ in this episode. Yet Keller can get 10 minutes + on aesthetics out of it.

I just pick this as an example, but really, he’s doing this often. I think he’s just got so many ideas he wants to share, it must be hard to be limited to preaching the Scripture texts.

I love creative preaching. It’s so lacking in my scene. But I also love good exegesis. I mean I value people listening carefully to hear what the text is saying. In Acts 16, and other places, I’m not sure Keller is doing that. For me, this is not a small failing.

  1. Quenching the Spirit

After recognising that his position will offend many, Gaffin makes some helpful concluding remarks. He suggests that what is often seen as ‘post conversion baptism of the Spirit’ really is a great working of the Spirit, in convicting us of the gospel! ‘Often too, what is seen as prophecy is actually a spontaneous, Spirit-worked application of Scripture’. In relation to tongues he makes a damning appraisal of the contemporary practice. He notes that it is often seen as a gift for all believers, for personal benefit, not relating to judgement in any way, and with interpretation either being neglected or ‘applied in a dubious fashion’. Hence; ‘Contemporary tongues are not the gift of the Spirit described in Acts 2 or 1 Corinthians 12-14.’ Smack down! He concludes with a genuine appreciation of the many strengths of the charismatic movement, which we could all learn from.


I really dug the first section. Gaffin’s Old/New Covenant gear was great. The Spirit is the risen life of Christ amongst his people. I for one need to make more of that. I dug plenty of other stuff along the way, but the jury is still out on the issue of cessation of tongues and prophecy.

At times, Gaffin places too much weight on uncertain exegesis (eg. In relation to 1 Cor 14:14 he says that ‘my spirit’ must be the Holy Spirit, whereas Paul seems to have a distinction between the Holy Spirit and our spirit. Eg. Rom8:16.) But at many points he garners enough evidence to convince me. He convinced me that prophecy is always revelation and even that tongues are about the revelation of gospel mysteries too.

However I’m still unsure about the beam that bears most of the weight in his argument for the cessation of prophecy. Keeping in mind the ‘covenantal, redemption-historical character of all revelation’, I think his key statement is: ‘Since the history of redemption has been definitively accomplished, and since after Pentecost its ongoing movement is delayed until Christ’s return […], the basis and rationale for new revelations is lacking and revelation has therefore ceased.’

I think this characterization of prophecy is overly restrictive. His insistence that all prophecy is covenantal and redemptive historical in character is laudable, but I think he applies those categories too restrictively. Prophecies like Agabus’ concerning the famine (despite Gaffin’s arguments) doesn’t seem to fit within his tight definition. Old Testament prophecy didn’t always relate all that directly to salvation history either (eg. 1 Kings 20:35, or 2 Kings 2:3-5). Without a shadow of a doubt I’m not the exegete that Gaffin is, but I do find it hard to see how some prophecies in the scriptures relate directly to ‘the ongoing movement’ of redemptive history.

Similarly, I agree with him that we shouldn’t expect any ‘new revelations’ concerning salvation history, or the character of our God revealed therein. It’s just that plenty of prophecy doesn’t seem to offer significant new information about salvation history or God’s character either. Is it possible that similar prophecy could operate today? Maybe prophecy ‘forthtelling’ old information for new believers in certain circumstances?

For this reason I’m not convinced his arguments for the cessation of prophecy hold. This would then carry for tongues also. However, I’m still not sure what I think about this tricky topic!

  1. Prophecy and Tongues.

1 Cor. 14: Some controlling Observations.

In this chapter tongues and prophecy are played off against each other, prophecy is clearly superior. However a sharp division between these two isn’t possible, and their partnership in 1 Corinthians 14 underlines this. Both are about the reception and communication of “mysteries” (13:2, 14:2).


‘New Testament prophecy is revelatory. […] The words of the prophet are the words of God and are to be received and responded to as such. […] The prophet reveals the Word of God, the preacher expounds that word.’ They, with the Apostles, reveal the ‘unsearchable riches, the ‘mystery’ of the gospel. It includes both ‘forthtelling’ and ‘foretelling’. There are no levels of authority in prophecy, even between written vs oral prophecy. It’s all revelation. Weighing of prophecy wasn’t ‘sifting worthwhile elements’, but determining if the whole prophecy was from the Holy Spirit or another spirit. Obviously there is spurious prophecy even within the church (eg. 2Thes2:2).



Gaffin begins by dispensing with a common view of tongues which suggests that the Spirit bypasses our minds to produce this vocalization of a ‘volitional, yet non-intellective, preconceptual capacity in man, usually with the emphasis that tongues bring to expression the more primal, deeper levels of personality.’ Gaffin points out the ‘insuperable difficulty’ with this position, that Paul doesn’t see mind and spirit as opposites. In fact, they both have ‘essentially the same reference’ in Paul’s anthropology (eg. Rom1:9). This view comes from a ‘conviction that religious experience is essentially irrational.’

Rather, Gaffin argues for a ‘fully inspired’ view. ‘Tongues are a mode of prophecy.’ Pretty well the only difference between the two is that prophecy utilizes ‘the speaker’s existing language (conceptual) capacities’, while tongues doesn’t. ‘His speech capacities are so taken over by the Spirit that the words spoken are not his’. This reading depends on reading 1 Corinthians 14:14’s ‘my spirit prays’ as ‘the Holy Spirit prays’ (which Gaffin admits ‘is difficult’, at least its initial impression).

He goes on to argue that tongues must be a genuine kind of language.

Tomorrow, arguments for cessation.


Mark Driscoll resigns

Posted: October 18, 2014 by J in Church, Pastoral issues

The news has come through that Driscoll, pastor and founder of the Mars Hill Church, Seattle and of the Mars Hill brand of churches, has stood down from his leadership role and severed his connection with the church.

This follows months of turmoil in which numerous staff have resigned or been laid off, attendance has halved, and many have called for Driscoll’s to put his leadership on hold.

The issues seem to be to do with leadership style, personality and manner, and the church’s governance more generally. It seems there’s a high level of control exercised over church activities  from the top, and a low level of participation in decision making for the members. Also it is claimed that many leadership matters are shrouded in secrecy – such as how much the leaders get paid.  Driscoll himself has been criticised for being domineering and destructive towards those he works with.

There is no suggestion of sexual sin or financial fraud.

Acts 29, the church planting movement Driscoll inspired and helped found, has lately severed ties with him and with Mars Hill.

Driscoll is known for having popularised a kind of muscular Calvinism that engaged confidently and positively with culture. Culturally progressive meets theologically ultra-traditional. The appeal of this unusual combination among young adults has produced crops of cool young big-R Reformed Christians who drink beer and love the inner city.

For those of us who see megachurches and church franchises as deeply unhealthy animals, it is no great surprise to hear claims that the leaders who built those unhealthy structures are themselves prone to unhealthy practices and relational patterns. Be surprising if they weren’t, really.

There is no doubt that Driscoll has been tireless in preaching the gospel of Jesus and growing churches. Nor that he has been an inspirational figure to many. I reckon he’s had some great things to say about mission for Jesus. His comments about our diocese when he came to Sydney were well worth listening to. He’s got a sharp mind and has thought deeply. He forms his own ideas and isn’t afraid to shock or offend. Driscoll has a lot to offer.

However, there is another side to him, as revealed in his obscene, misogynistic and unhinged-sounding online rants, which he doesn’t seem to have ever explained or repented of. Those posts have ‘mental health troubles’ written all over them.

Given Mars Hill’s culture of secrecy at the top, the details about Driscoll’s departure may never be known. Many of the staff recently laid off have had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

We sincerely hope that the Mars Hill Church can survive this crisis and move on in healthier directions.

I was lately privileged to spend a week at the snow staying in a nice lodge. The guests ask each other, what do you do? When they heard that I was in Christian ministry, some of them expressed a struggle to understand. Why would an intelligent young man go into something so strange and unpromising and, well, out of date? What I was doing was so far outside their experience, they just couldn’t connect with it at all.

How does a leader maintain morale in such an environment? I don’t mean the ski-lodge, I mean our society. Because those people were normal well-to-do Aussies – and to them my life and work was a complete irrelevance.

How do you wake up every morning and get out of bed and get motivated to do a job that your neighbours neither comprehend nor value nor care about? We spoke in the previous post about the mental health challenges for church-leaders today. Jim commented, graciously sharing his experience of working hard to see a net growth of one person over a year or more in his church. How do leaders avoid discouragement and depression, and persevere with energy and hope and joy over the long haul, in such dry times?

I’d love to know what other leaders do to ‘stay strong’. I’ll offer a few thoughts of my own here. These are my top four:

1. You choose your area. The people in that lodge were too rich and too self-satisfied. If life is feeling a bit tough, there’s always another holiday to Paris to distract them. They had no sense of needing outside help – or if they did, they weren’t admitting it to themselves. Our traditional protestant support base has been the upper middle classes, but they have now turned away from us. They don’t want to know about Jesus.

Our Lord’s advice was not to keep banging your head against the brick wall. If you go to a town and they won’t receive you, shake the dust off your feet. Go somewhere else. If the good folks of Mosman won’t listen, try Merrylands, or Moorebank. Go ‘down-market’. Invite the blind and the lame. They will listen!

It’s too hard to keep slogging on in areas where no one is interested. It’s not wise. It gradually erodes your confidence and your mental health. It’s also not a good use of your time and energy. Life is short, and you are not bullet-proof. But there are places in your city where people are open to the gospel. Move on.

Lots of our leaders in Sydney get trapped in suburbs that are not interested, and the resulting toll on morale is unacceptably high. Eventually they come to expect failure. That’s a hard place to come back from.

2. You get a good team around you. Solo ministry is a recipe for exhaustion and discouragement. A team helps you stay strong. A shared vision is much more robust than an individual one. We all have weak times: at those times the team can carry you. They can believe and pray when you can’t. I wouldn’t have made it this far without our team.

3. There are two things I tell myself regularly to help me keep going. I think most guys in my scene tell themselves, God is in control. His hand is behind all this, even the failures. It’s all part of his plan. That’s ok by me, but it’s not in my top two. I don’t find it that much of an encouragement, to be honest. It can even feel like I’m saying, God intends me to fail.

So what do I tell myself? I tell myself Jesus has already won the victoryMy little patch is a local battle in a much bigger war, and even though today I feel like I’m getting my butt kicked, although I might feel like the French Resistance in a hostile land, thankfully I’ve got a map of the whole campaign. And in that campaign, Jesus is winning. He defeated death itself and got raised up to inherit all power and authority over the creation, forever. That’s what we mean when we say, Jesus is Lord! His gospel is spreading through the whole world. Though we don’t see that fully yet, his victory is assured. VE day is coming. We win. 

I find that helps. It helps a lot. It gives me hope and purpose in my little efforts in my patch. I might not be the sharpest tool in the shed. My church may not be the most effective missionary force in the city. We might be working hard and seeing only a little fruit. But I’ve got this perspective, this larger frame around my little picture: the team we’re on is the winning team. The future is ours, in Christ.

4. The other thing I tell myself is, my work may not impress the people at the ski-lodge. It may not impress my neighbours. But if I am faithful to my calling, then God my Father is impressed. I can please him by my weak little efforts. Although I invest in  person and love them and share Jesus with them, and then they move away and I lose contact, and they didn’t get converted yet, and I don’t know if they ever will – still the time was not wasted. My Master was pleased. We may spend a lot of our time and energies laying down our lives in costly service, making mission efforts, and it only has a small pay-off. But our labours are not in vain. God is honoured in the eyes of our neighbours, through what we have done. Our Father is proud of us.

Our labours are not in vain. The day of Christ will bring our reward: ‘Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a little, receive ten cities!’ On that day the honours will go to everyone who fought for Christ, whether their local battle was a win or a washout. We will all share in the glory of Christ the Victor. Personally, when I remember that day I find the thought highly motivating. The thought that something I have done has pleased God, pretty much feels like its own reward.

Well, those are my top four. There are more things than this that we can do and tell ourselves to maintain morale. But for me, those are the irreducible minimum:

1. choose an open area to work

2. get a good team around you

3. keep remembering that Jesus has already won the victory, and

4. labour to please and honour God rather than for immediate ‘success’.

If those are in place I can function as a leader and persevere in a post-collapse environment. Without them, I find I can’t.

How about you?

Most of this series has been from the point of view of the whole church, living after the collapse of church involvement in Australia. But the issue of leadership has also come up. One other aspect of leadership is well worth considering: what’s it like leading the church at this time in history?

Think about this chain of factors:

1. Our leaders are generally employed full time as church workers.

2. People in general derive a fair bit of their sense of identity and self-esteem from their work.

3. We are asking our leaders to find ways forward for effective mission. We expect them to make our churches to grow.

4. Our churches are mostly small, not growing much, and most people in Sydney are not remotely interested in joining us.

Putting all this together, our leaders are experiencing ineffectiveness and failure in a key area of the work that gives them their identity. In our post-collapse setting we are looking to them for answers, and they don’t have answers. For ways forward, and they don’t know the way forward.

That’s not a comfortable situation to be in. At the existential level, it’s pretty stressful to be that leader. There’s a level of strain in just being, as a leader in this climate, quite apart from any specific demands or tasks that you might have to deal with. We all feel disappointed about the collapse in Australia. But for our leaders, it’s personal. It’s a threat to their identity.

Of course it’s true that a few of our leaders ares seeing growth in their churches. But many don’t. And even those who do, you’d be surprised how much failure and confusion they experience in their ministries. Our leaders often feel powerless and baffled. They don’t feel too good about themselves.

Over the years this takes its toll on mental health. Inevitably. We’re talking erosion of morale. Feelings of lostness and lack of purpose. Worthlessness. Ultimately, depression and anxiety.

Add to this, most church leaders don’t have a fallback occupation they can switch to. They have no option but church ministry, if they want to feed their family. So on top of the above feelings, they feel trapped.

Pastors struggle under these burdens for years. Sometimes it shuts them down completely, and they have to drop out. Other times they limp on, in self-protection mode. Waiting for retirement. Others manage to still function, but they are carrying mental health troubles, their energies sapped, their joy dampened. Often for years. Generally they hide these disorders from their people.

What I’m describing is not an occasional or rare experience. It’s a common problem. This is what it’s like trying to lead the church, post-collapse. It’s like trying to lead the army when the enemy has been kicking your back side for years and you’ve been in retreat, and you feel outgunned and outflanked. You feel a massive weight of responsibility, and not a whole lot of hope.

One thing that makes all this worse is the constant stories of success in the church magazines. Their MO seems to be, look around for the few bright spots in the dark scene, and focus on them relentlessly. Create the impression that those successes are the norm, that they are the story everywhere. That should cheer us all up!

Of course these magazines actually have the opposite effect on our leaders: a corrosive effect. It tends to sap the little strength they have. It isolates leaders in their feelings of failure. By creating the impression us that everyone else is on the front foot, bolding going where no man has gone before, seeing lots of converts and generally prosperous, these stories make our leaders feel alone and ashamed. The others seem to know what they’re doing – why do I feel so confused? They’re all pushing forward with energy – why am I treading water? What’s wrong with me? All of this makes the burden twice as heavy for already-struggling leaders.

Our failure to discuss our post-collapse situation openly, only perpetuates this isolation. If we could admit openly that we’re all facing these times, we could have a sense of facing them together. We could get some perspective on our lack of success – it’s part of a much bigger picture and it’s not my fault.

That perspective is going to go a long way to help sustain the mental health of our leaders in these difficult times.

Here’s the last of our five realities the church must face in post-collapse Sydney (and elsewhere):

5. Rampant individualism means even some Christian believers prefer to stay away. The idea that you can do God stuff on your own without the church, is deeply ingrained in our culture – thanks (probably) to Protestant theology and its secular twin, the cult of the individual. It’s a fairly common thing to find people with a Christian faith who have no church connection, and don’t want one. They can do faith on their own.

There are lots of people out there who have a high view of Jesus. Lots. There are lots of people who pray. Stacks. They read Christian books. Some even read the bible. Or listen to Christian radio. Or watch Christian TV. Or podcasts. Or whatever. But they don’t belong to a church.

Church used to be the main way people could access Christian teaching. That is no longer the case. Online education is widespread and normal nowadays.

And that feels OK to people. Protestantism has long told us that what really matters is your personal relationship to God. Church is much less important. OK, then I can stay at home, keep to myself, and still have what really matters. I can pray under a tree. Make sense? People are just living out what we have taught them.

Also the church’s reputation has to be at an all-time low ebb. And churches can be difficult, people can annoy or offend us. It’s easy to feel alienated. So joining a church is not a very attractive option for many – and we all know that it’s not essential anyhow. So why bother with it?

In fact, our whole society has been shaped by this sort of individualist thinking, so even people from other traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, etc) find themselves thinking similar thoughts. “God is everywhere so I can know him anywhere. I don’t need church”. I’ve heard this said by people from all sorts of different Christian denomination. This seems to be the ‘default position’ for many religious people today.

So there’s a whole stack of ‘Christian’ type people out there who are not very connected to a church. Over the past fifty years they’ve drifted off – and haven’t come back.

Of course this is a temporary situation. The kids of these people are not likely to identify as Christian. If they’re not brought up in a church family, they are unlikely to embrace the Christian faith of their parents. It’s often too weak to make a deep impression.

How should we respond to this?  Can we turn this situation around? Can we regather these people?

I think we can. My church is largely populated by regathered Christians who had spent many years off in the wilderness. Now their faith is reigniting.

What’s the way forward then?

One thing we can say is we’re going to need to offer more than just bible education, to be attractive for these people. Church-as-bible-teaching-platform is not going to be very compelling anymore. Churches no longer have a monopoly on the education market.

If we go back to the NT as our resource, what help does it offer in this situation? It gives us a vision of church as a living community of people, rather than church as just a teaching event on Sunday. That’s full of potential for us. Authentic community can be tremendously attractive to people. Church in the NT is a richer experience than the fairly slender one we have made it in our tradition. Relationally richer. It was more like a family – complete with squabbles! In fact we’ve found in our church that relationships and community have been the main way Christian people have been drawn back to the church community.

So why don’t we develop our churches so that they offer people that richer experience of community life?

It’s not going to happen easily is it? Who is going to devote themselves to building that sort of community? Most evangelicals know that a personal relationship with God is much more important than the church community: so they may be hard to get on board.

We may need to go further  back and take a look at the faith we are teaching in our churches. Take another look at Jesus the Gatherer, who taught his disciples to cast their nets for people not fish. Fundamental to his mission was drawing together a people, a new people for God’s praise, whose lives together were regulated by the rule of love. Jesus seems to have had no idea of achieving anything much else, besides creating this people. It was that central to God’s purposes. The rest of the NT follows suit. It’s all written to and for the new people gathered around the risen Jesus – or else to their leaders. The tensions we feel between personal faith and church-belonging – as if these two themes were rivals – that tension doesn’t seem to exist for the apostles. The two seem to function as two sides of the one coin: the coin of salvation.

Ultimately life follows theology. We are now reaping the harvest we sowed in the past when we downgraded the church to second-rank importance, and elevated individual faith to unique core status. That Protestant logic has seen not only unbelievers but also Christians leave the church. Turning that around will probably also have to start with theology. A new vision for the place of God’s people in his purposes. A new vision for what the Christian community is and must be. Something cogent.

Step 1, then, is probably to get ourselves convinced about church. Those who’ve stayed need to be persuaded. Then we might have some chance of convincing those who’ve left.


Well, those are my top five post-collapse realities we need to face as the church in c.21st Australia. There are others of course. What would you have listed? What do you think we should do about these ones? Please leave us a comment! We need to get talking together about these things.

It’s hard to be teachable. Damned hard. Especially if you’re an evangelical. 

As a young believer in my early twenties, I was exposed to the Puritans (via J I Packer). I was smitten. They had so much to say that was compelling. And they were Reformers. With a big ‘R’!

I became a disciple. I too became a Reformer. My mission: to reform everyone else. My friends, my church, other churches!

Sure I was happy to listen to your ideas about Christian faith. But what I really wanted was for you to listen to my ideas. Puritan ideas. To be honest, unless your ideas lined up with those ones, you couldn’t teach me a thing. Not about Christian faith, anyway.

Not all evangelicals love the Puritans. But we all have something of that same Reformer impulse don’t we. Imagine the following scenario:

Evan the evangelical is walking down the street when he meets Cath the Catholic, and Theo the Orthodox believer. Cath and Theo are talking about God’s grace. Evan joins the conversation, and politely listens.

What is he listening for? If he’s a good evangelical he’s listening for an opening where he can insert some wisdom about the true grace of God. He knows these guys are strangers to the truth about God’s grace: they’re talking about it as though the thing is some sort of substance that flows, for heaven’s sake! They’re talking about sacraments. Theo the Orthodox is even talking wildly about having your humanity infused with the divine! Something his priest said, apparently. Sad stuff.

Evan is not there hoping to learn, or be taught. He knows that he is the one in possession of the truth. What could he possibly learn from these guys? Evan is there to teach. If he can get them to listen to one bit of truth, he’s done well, he’s had a win. Because Evan is on mission. Whenever he’s not with another evangelical from his own camp, his job is Reforming.

There are some designated teachers that Evan will learn from. They are guys who say things that he already thinks, and teach him things he already knows. Evan calls this ‘faithful preaching’.

It’s not easy for Evan to be teachable, is it. I don’t know how you feel, but I suspect that when it comes to faith matters, Evan doesn’t have a very attractive personality – know what I mean?

I don’t know if you know anyone like Evan, I see a lot of myself in him.

What makes it harder for Evan and me is, while everyone else believes the things they do because they’ve learned them from their tradition – they’ve been taught them and trusted the teaching – evangelicals like us have a different way of coming to our convictions. We learn them straight from the Scriptures. We just read the Bible, and trust the words on the page. It’s nothing to do with tradition, or culture, it’s just simple bible truths. God spoke, and we listened.

While to an outsider this might sound laughable, Evan and I really believe in that: ideas free from the taint of tradition or culture. We talk about it often.

When your ideas have come straight from the source, those ideas cannot really be challenged. They are the Word of God. It works like this:

The things the bible says are Word of God.

I believe those things in a simple way.

So the things I believe – they are Word of God. They are The Truth.

You might think this belief in Scripture would leave us wide open to being challenged in our convictions. What if we’ve misunderstood the text?

But actually it’s not much good asking me to read the bible text from a different angle. Because what I’ve already found in Scripture is the very Truth itself, on which our salvation depends. That Truth has set us free. How could I have got it wrong, when it’s the Truth I’ve found there?  There’s not much room for me to reconsider these beliefs. In fact the very idea smacks of apostasy.

If you challenge me to read the text from a different angle, most probably all you’re really doing is introducing human ideas like a cloudy lens that will distort my reading. That’s the problem with a lot of theology. So often it pushes us to read the text differently. In other words we lose the pure simplicity of our ‘simple’ straight reading. We could end up losing the Truth.

And it’s not just theologians who are suspect: ordinary people – they hate the truth. There are not likely to be good guides. Anything they challenge me on – they’re likely to have bad motives and be trying to lure me away from the truth. Actually, the very fact that they are trying to change my mind is evidence that what I had believed was right – otherwise why would people like them be trying to derail me from believing it!? It pays to be savvy to people’s real intentions. We are not unaware of Satan’s devices.

It’s not easy for Evan and me, and evangelicals like us, to be teachable, is it? Not easy to be open to the people around us. Some people tell us there is something lacking in our faith – sometimes they identify it as humility. We feel, however that they have misunderstood us! We are just being faithful.

Well, Evan and I still struggle with these traits. We’re still stuck in these same loops. And of everyone on the planet, I feel that he and I are among the least teachable.

Which is not a great recommendation for following Jesus, is it?

Chaucer’s Parson

Posted: March 25, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Church history, Pastoral issues

(Taking a break from Hell)

One of the most inspiring writings on gospel ministry ever. From the 1300s.

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the narrator meets a troop of pilgrims heading for the shrine at Canterbury. One of them is a parson. Chaucer has a lot to say to us about gospel ministry, through his parson. I think you might like him.

I love to read and re-read this part of Chaucer’s Tales. It refreshes my soul every time.

NB I’ve updated the language a bit, but tried to keep it poetic. If you haven’t read Chaucer before, be aware that the thoughts flow over from one line to the next, as in 

…full patient

He oft was proved to be, by trials beset.



A good man was there of religion

And was a poverish Parson of a town

But rich he was of holy thought and work

He was also a learned man, a clerk

Who Christ’s own gospel truly he would preach.

His parishers devoutly would he teach.

Benign was he, and wondrous diligent,

And in adversity, full patient

He oft was proved to be, by trials beset.

And loath was he to force men’s tithes by threat

But he would rather give, without a doubt

Unto his poor parishioners round about

From th’ offerings and from his substance too –

Himself, he could with little well make do.

Wide was his parish, houses far asunder

But he would not leave off, for rain nor thunder

In sickness nor in trouble, still to visit

The farthest-off, whe’r rich or poor, whoisit

Upon his feet, and in his hand a stave.

This noble example to his sheep he gave:

That first he wrought, and afterward he taught

– an idea he had from the gospel caught!

He also this proverb added thereto:

“That if gold rust, then what shall iron do?”

For if a priest be foul, in whom we trust

No wonder if a common man should rust!

Shameful it is – let priests here caution keep –

A shitten shepherd and a clean sheep.

A priest a good example ought to give

By his own cleanness, how his sheep should live.

He did not put his ‘living’ out to hire

And leave his flock, a-sinking in the mire

And run to London, seeking at St Pauls

A cushy job, a-chanting mass for souls

Or rest, as chaplain of a guild retained –

But dwelt at home, and his sheep-fold maintained.

So that the wolf could not steal in and harry

– He was a shepherd, not a mercenary.

And though he holy was and virtuous

He was to sinners not contemptuous

Nor in his speaking haughty or above

But he would teach discreetly and with love.

To draw folk up to heaven by the fairness

Of his example – this was his main business.

But any person sinning obstinate

Whate’er he was, of high or low estate

Him would the parson chastise without fears

– A better priest, I trust, there nowhere is.

He looke´d not for pomp and reverence

Nor over-spiced with laws his conscience,

But Christ’s good word and his apostles twelve

He taught – but first he followed it himself.