I’ve just answered an email to a friend about how as pastors we approach the changes that are happening in society around us. This is my response to him and I’m publishing it below to get your thoughts on my thoughts.
I think the difference in our perspectives is less that I don’t acknowledge a huge shift going on in our culture around identity and sexual identity in particular, but rather I’m convinced that we as Christians are not going to be able to materially affect society for a long time yet (decades?) I genuinely feel that the debate over things like Civil Partnerships is over and that the role of the church is not to oppose these things in society in general but rather to make sure that the Body of Christ continues to maintain an incarnational witness to a holy lifestyle that reflects and honours Jesus. Our task then is to love people for the sake of loving them, giving them the dignity and respect that they deserve, to never flinch from the truth when asked what we believe is the way that God has called us to live, and to help those in whom the Spirit moves to learn what it is to be disciples of Christ.
What do you think?
Good. Marinlike :)
I think the ability to influence a society in terms of its laws is a two-edged sword anyway. Look at the CofE.
It’s always so easy to lose confidence in the priority of the Kingdom of God, which can’t be identified with any human state.
Iâ€™m convinced that we as Christians are not going to be able to materially affect society for a long time yet (decades?)
It depends what you mean by “materially affect society”. Churches should be materially affecting the society around them at all times; if they aren’t, then it’s a pretty poor show. If you mean in terms of legislation, you may have more of a point – but I think that if we give up that easily, and accept that for the next few decades legislation is never going to go our way, then the ability to “maintain an incarnational witness to a holy lifestyle” (what does the word ‘incarnational’ mean in that context, BTW?) is going to be severely curtailed.
The current government has passed and is attempting to pass yet more legislation of which Christians would disapprove. By opposing it, we may be fighting a rearguard action, but any general will tell you there’s often value in fighting one, even if we eventually concede the ground for a time.
There is nothing in this with which I disagree, Peter, but I am unsure of how it translates into specifics. You write that you wish,
“to make sure that the Body of Christ continues to maintain an incarnational witness to a holy lifestyle that reflects and honours Jesus.”
Does this allow for the fact that many Christians, such as myself, believe that same sex relationships can be “holy lifestyles that reflect and honour Jesus”?
You also wish to,
“never flinch from the truth when asked what we believe is the way that God has called us to live, and to help those in whom the Spirit moves to learn what it is to be disciples of Christ”.
Who do you mean by “we”? The fact is that my “truth” about what I “believe is the way God has called us to live” is different from yours ( at least when it comes to certain issues such as sexuality.) Are you content for my voice to be recognised as part of Christian thinking and for this to be acknowledged by the Church generally to be part of mainstream Christian thinking ( because it is!)
I actually believe that the church, in this day and age, has to hold back from trying to dictate to people how they should live their lives. I know that will sound incredible to many readers! Instead, the Church should aim to genuninely and deeply draw people to God – period! I think that it is for each of us to decide how to act in our lives through that relationship with God, not because the Church says this is acceptable, or that isn’t. I know this stance could be criticised as impractical or hopelessly idealistic and that it could be argued that people need a letter of the law to follow, the spirit of the law alone allows too much latitude? Nevertheless, it is what I have come to think is the right way forward.
I think that it is for each of us to decide how to act in our lives through that relationship with God, not because the Church says this is acceptable, or that isnâ€™t.
That view, if held, would clearly have a significant effect on how a pastor saw their role. Do you think that the New Testament instructions to pastors (in e.g. the Pastoral Epistles) are consistent with this hands-off approach to the lives of their congregations?
I know this stance could be criticised as impractical or hopelessly idealistic and that it could be argued that people need a letter of the law to follow, the spirit of the law alone allows too much latitude?
Can the spirit of the law come eventually to contradict the letter? If so, in what way does it continue to be the spirit “of the law”?
It depends what you mean by “hands off” approach.
If you look at what I say – and people on here so often don’t look at what is being said in context- I say it is for each of us to decide how to act THROUGH THAT RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD. I do not say, “it is for each of us to decide for ourselves on our own.” I actually think that as Christians we are called to the highest standards of integrity in all we do. We have freedom – “all things are permissible” but also the grace to know that “not everything is beneficial” and the ability to submit to the will of God, not because we have to but because we want to. God takes away our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh. He writes his law on our hearts. As so often in Christian teaching, there is a profound mystery and paradox in our faith.
What I am saying does not obviate the moral duty to oppose injustice or evil as individuals or a church – but I do think we get the whole thing the wrong way round.
Love people and draw people to Christ, he will write his law on their hearts.
“What I am saying does not obviate the moral duty to oppose injustice or evil as individuals or a church ..”
Err, still lots of assumptions. I think you need to define how you decide what “injustice or evil” is. Who decides and how?
Jesus and the Apostles were pretty damning of many sexual behaviours, and even thoughts, that liberal societies see as a matter for one’s private life and choice… and even as beneficial for personal flourishing.
Jesus was pretty damning of divorce and remarriage for anything other than unfaithfulness in one’s spouse. Yet when I meet a remarried person I do not tell them they are an adulterer and must leave their new spouse. I don’t even use the word adultery. I know, I know ..it is really unbiblical of me, terrible that I am prepared to reserve judgement and accept them – I just abjectly bow to the pressures of liberal society on this one.
Do you know, I don’t judge all these adulterers – I know quite a few! I leave them to God in his mercy and love as he is the only one who can judge their hearts. What is more, although I have never committed adultery myself, I don’t regard myself as morally superior to them. I think I may have sins of similar gravity or possibly worse that I am as oblivious to as a plank in my eye. I’m more concerned about my own sinfulness than theirs – that’s the sort of wishy washy liberal I am. I really think I shouldn’t judge them lest I am judged – I don’t know WHERE I picked up these terrible ideas from, I must have read them in some dreadful liberal text.
Jesus told people not to judge others; he also told people that adultery is wrong. If you pick and choose which bits of Jesus’ teaching you will believe and obey (or teach others to believe and obey – if you have that responsibility) are you really following him?… or just yourself?
I do think adultery is wrong -I am not supporting adultery in my post. Have you considered that maybe I don’t “pick and choose” Jesus’ teaching any more than you do? Maybe you pick and choose more than I do – how do you know that you don’t?
I really think I shouldnâ€™t judge them lest I am judged â€“ I donâ€™t know WHERE I picked up these terrible ideas from, I must have read them in some dreadful liberal text.
Sarcasm is not terribly conducive to reasoned debate.
Whatever it is that “judge not” means in that passage, it must be something that Jesus, Paul or the other apostles never commended – otherwise they would have been encouraging sin. And yet both Jesus and Paul seem to think it reasonable to take people to task about their current sexual behaviour. How do you fit those two things together? Doesn’t it suggest that the meaning of “judge not” may not be as blanket as you think?
I wouldn’t use the words “take someone to task” over Christ- I see great tenderness with the sexually sinful. The women caught in adultery should “by rights” and biblically be stoned to death. To the scribes and Pharisees Jesus saving her from stoning would have been offering a very soft options and being terribly unbiblical. It was a source of scandal that he associated with prostitutes and drunkards in terms of friendship, not specifically to condemn their behaviour (no, I am not saying he condoned it but he saw that there are greater sins.)
No, sarcasm isn’t conducive to reasoned debate is it? I promise faithfully that when I get some reasoned debate, I’ll give it up.
I’m sorry that you think I am not engaging you in reasoned debate.
Jesus’ instruction to the woman caught in adultery was clear: “Go, and leave your life of sin”. Are such instructions, from church leaders or others, a feature of church life as you envisage it?
Of course, the thing he said before that was “Neither do I condemn you.” Clearly, he saw no contradiction between being non-condemnatory, and telling people that their behaviour was sinful and needed to change. “Go, and leave your life of sin” is, according to Jesus, not a condemning thing to say.
Note that Jesus waited until the Pharisees and general public left before her told the woman what to do. He didn’t inform the religious authorities of his command and there is no evidence that he checked up on the woman afterwards. If she had said, “no”, would he have called the general public back and had her stoned after all?
Jesus also knew the woman’s circumstances and heart in a way that nobody else did. He was in a position to judge and command her in all respects – Church leaders are fallible sinners themeselves, they are not God and should not assume that role. You will say to me that Church leaders should apply the biblical injunctions to people’s lives – but it Christ had done that, this woman would have been stoned.
To me, the story of the woman caught in adultery sums up how each of us should respond to our sin, alone with Christ because we long to be worthy of someone who loves us so much much. This is why I say that Churches should aim to draw us to Christ and he will guide, counsel, teach and sometime convict us.
I have met some Church leaders who acted as though they awere God. I will list some examples 1. telling a young divorced friend of mine that she must never remarry ( she became deeply depressed – she is now married but lives with the guilt that it is an adulterous liaison and not a marriage) 2. telling a dear gay friend of mine that he was going to
hell if he did not leave the man he loved ( he has now left church altogether) and telling someone that they must forgive their abuser or else they were “worse than him.”
In my experience Churches which dictate in this way cause damage and are not Christ like. I also think that if somewon is loved and really respected they may actually be more willing to turn to a Church leader for advice. My pastor and I think differently about several things ; he does not tell me how to think or how to behave. Because of this I sometimes ask him for advice and I take his advice very seriously. his approach would be to discuss with me how I should act, askf me if I had prayed about it, listen to me. He might even say “I think you should…”, although it would be very likely that he would first say, “what do you think you should do?”
Perhaps you think the above approach is wrong? If you do, you you are entitled to your opinion but you will have to accept that I beg to differ.
Now obviously, if I confided that I had committed a crime or was planning a murder or something
I think my pastor would tell the police if he could not persuade me to his point of view. I am not saying that, I am just saying that dictating to people, judging and controlling them is ( in my opinion) not the way to run a Church.
Sorry for typos in this, a section of my box disappears fof the screen and I can’t see what I have typed!
“I actually believe that the church, in this day and age, has to hold back from trying to dictate to people how they should live their lives. I know that will sound incredible to many readers!”
Sue, INCREDIBLE! Do you really mean that?
Do you really mean that the church shouldn’t oppose racist attitudes speech and acts? or behaviours that continue to destroy our planet? AMAZING.. And not criticise people for breaking the law, hating people, being violent to their family etc etc?? WOW, you really are a radical!
But won’t your church get criticised for including people who foment hatred and violence, and break the law?
I’ve managed to upset you:)
I suppose I believe that if we truly draw people to Christ that transforming love will be more effective in changing hate filled behaviour than any amount of hectoring about personal morality.
Of course I believe the Church should “oppose” racist or destructive attitudes, nor should it encourage illegal acts. Opposition is not the same as dictating to individual people about the morality – or perceived lack of morality – in their private lives.
Incidentally, the Church often has condoned or perpetrated racism, been complicit in the destruction of the environment, fostered attitudes which allowed the abuse of women and violence towards gay and transgendered people to flourish – and still does in some places – so nothing new there!
I certainly think institutionalised religion could clean its act up and lead by example in these matters.
Overall – and although I think it has it dangers of misinterpretation by those unable to comprehend its true meaning – I agree with that saying of St. Augustine , “love God and do what you like.”
Yes, I am a radical.
Would you classify e.g. the Sermon on the Mount as “hectoring about personal morality”? If not, why not?
Opposition is not the same as dictating to individual people about the morality â€“ or perceived lack of morality â€“ in their private lives.
It’s exactly the same, if you remove the word private, so I assume you included that word precisely to make the distinction.
Do you think that God maintains this distinction between our public and our private lives, in terms of how we are called to think, act and behave?
Overall – and although I think it has it dangers of misinterpretation by those unable to comprehend its true meaning –
That sounds a little like poisoning the well to me…
I agree with that saying of St. Augustine , “love God and do what you like.”
I’d be very grateful if you could source that quotation for me.
I hope this brings up a page witht the Augustine quote – it is quite a well known one.
No, I don’t think the sermon on the mount is hectoring, it is about the blessings we receive from God when we are so in tune with him that we are poor in heart, meek, peace makers etc.
I think you can make a distinction between opposing evil and injustice and dictating to individuals over private morality
– obviously these two overlap at times – but we are warned against specks and planks.
I don’t think God makes any distinction between our private and public lives. He is the only one who can see into our hearts and truly judge our private morality, this is whywe should be maintain the highest standards of probity in our own conduct ( knowing that God is privy to it) and refraining from judging others ( knowing that we are not God and in a poor position to do so.)
Sue, no I wasn’t annoyed by what you wrote; I was critically examining it.
As you clarified, and as I expected, you didn’t really mean what you wrote when you said that “the church, … has to hold back from trying to dictate to people …”. You were, of course, just working off unspoken assumptions that “of course … the Church should â€œopposeâ€ racist or destructive attitudes, nor should it encourage illegal acts…”
Similarly your reply. When I critically examine what you said about “dictating to individual people about … morality … in their private lives” aren’t there agains several unspoken assumptions or very unclear thinking:
1 “Morality in our private lives” has to do with EVERYTHING about our private lives, not just how we explore and express our sexuality!! But you just said that the Church has a role in helping people form virtuous private lives?
2 I think you are just using the verb “dictate” as a way to distinguish between moral teaching and discipine in areas that you think are for personal choice (eg sexuality in relationships), and moral teaching and discipine in areas that you think are you think are “obviously” wrong (eg racism, sexism and abuse).
Arem’t you are in danger of falling into the trap of making sweeping assertions that sound virtuous but are not accurate and, therefore, are untrue?
–For where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also.
Let your lions be girded about, and your lights burning, and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their master, when he will return from a wedding; that as soon as he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him.
and if he come in the second watch,yea if he come in the third watch, and shall find them so, happy are those servants.–
Poignant words . . . so lets get on with the job!
Your vision of a church that, for all intents and purposes, fails to challenge sin and uphold Christian morality among its members, is profoundly anti-biblical.
You will doubtless quibble with my characterisation of your views, as you often do – which is why it can very frustrating to debate with you, like nailing jelly to the wall – but yours is not a New Testament view. I am sorry, but there it is. It is like arguing that the Pickwick Papers is a beginners’ guide to cricket, just because it contains description of cricket matches.
This is not “my truth”, but an objective statement about the kind of church models that we find in the New Testament.
Dear Wicked Conservative,
Please read this section of my post again. I note you didn’t comment on it in that balanced, objective way you have. Please explain to me how I am failing to uphold Christian morality – or what it is about this that you find “anti biblical”?
It is for each of us to decide how to act THROUGH THAT RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD. I do not say, â€œit is for each of us to decide for ourselves on our own.â€ I actually think that as Christians we are called to the highest standards of integrity in all we do. We have freedom â€“ â€œall things are permissibleâ€ but also the grace to know that â€œnot everything is beneficialâ€ and the ability to submit to the will of God, not because we have to but because we want to. God takes away our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh. He writes his law on our hearts.
Part of the reason I find it tiring to engage with your individual points, is that when I have done so in the past you have changed the subject, avoided the question, or claimed that I have misrepresented you.
In any case, I have read your post again, and in the end it comes down to a very simple question:
Do you think that your model of a church when members and leadership do not rebuke personal sin – through preaching, discipline, personal intervention etc. – is the model that we find in the New Testament?
Hi Wicked Conservative,
The subject of church leadership is a complex one and I have posted a link to this excellent overview which reflects a lot of my ideas. Youâ€™ll have to read it for yourself to get the full flavour, but the author emphasises that,
â€œThere seems to be no clear prescriptive pattern of leadership in the teachings of the New Testament,â€
Also that Paul himself tailored his advice to specific cultural contexts, and so should we.
The author writes,
â€œThe problem is that we are more than two millenniums removed from the life and times of the early church. This creates an immense â€œcultural gapâ€ that must be bridged. Therefore, a theology of church must be an ongoing conversation between what the Spirit speaks through Scripture, how church tradition has applied Scripture throughout the centuries and how the principles of Scripture are to be outworked in our specific contemporary historical-culture context. â€
I also like the sentence that reads,
â€œThe danger for us today is to look at our modern day church leadership structures and then look for various Scriptural â€œproof textsâ€ to validate their authority and thereby declare them â€œBiblicalâ€.
I think that the blinkered mind set above is a trap into which you fall. You often write as though there were some set-in-stone, rigid, incontestable, definitive supremely biblical model for or understanding for everything â€“ and there isnâ€™t! There is scope for interpretation, relative weighting of different ideas, layers of contextual and cultural factors, the influence of tradition and the balancing with other scriptural principles. Until you understand that the situation is much more complex than you suppose or admit â€“ we really arenâ€™t going to make a lot of progress and possibly not even then because our perception and approaches are too deeply opposed.
Maybe we can make progress if we move away from generalisations to specifics. Let’s say that somehow – it doesn’t matter how – a priest become aware that one of his flock is having an affair, yet still turning up to church on Sunday morning, wife and kids in tow, taking communion, leading a Bible study group. What should the priest do?
Is the answer to the question the same if the man is embezzling money? What if he is beating his wife? Or getting drunk every night in seedy bars? Or taking illegal drugs?
I genuinely don’t understand how you can draw people to Christ without in some sense challenging their sinful behaviour. I’m not saying we should shame people in front of the entire congregation, or refuse to deal with them, or necessarily expect that people will be able to overcome certain sins right away, but the whole point of Christianity is to provide a remedy for human sinfulness. That is why those who seek to remove the concept of guilt from our moral landscape are so deeply, deeply misguided. Guilt is good. If there is no guilt, there is no conscience, and without conscience there is no civilisation. Guilt fulfils a similar function to physical pain, that is to say it draws our attention to a particular problem. When, let us say, a man spends money on gambling instead of saving for his wedding as he promised his fiancee he would, he feels guilt, just as he woud feel phsyical pain if he drove a nail through his foot. The guilt is a spiritual pain highlighting a spiriual problem.
But guilt is like pain in another way too: it can be ignored and suppressed. How good we are as humans at rationalising the things we do wrong. How often we bury that still small voice that says no to buy some temporary peace of mind. “I work so much unpaid overtime; fiddling my expenses is simple justice”; “I missed prayer today, but I worked so hard this week”; “the church says I can’t have this sexual relationship – but otherwise where will I find companionship?”.
Sometimes it takes someone else to draw attention to the sin before we will acknowledge it. We don’t like that; we sometimes fight it tooth and nail – but it is necessary. That is why I would much rather risk being thought of as rigid and judgmental than let someone continue to delude themselves that black is white and good is bad.
As it says in Proverbs: “The wise man welcomes a rebuke”.
Funnily enough in my first post I ask Peter ( of his vision of a Marin like pastoral response) “How does it translate into specifics?” Most of us are aware that we should not judge, but what do we do when someone does something that is so harmful to themselves or other and we feel they bloody well do need telling off!
I don’t think that we should delude ourselves that, “black is white and good is bad” – but I do think a good Church should be very aware that many situations are grey.
I do not think that “holding back from dictating” means that there is no role for moral guidance. In the case of the man who is being unfaithful, I think any priest should think hard before intervening without thinking of the consequences – he might deny it, he might lie and say it was over, it might force his hand and he might leave his wife for good.
I would hope that this individual sought me out himself, I would pray,. I do think that a good priest might decide to reveal that he knew about the situation and I think it entirely appropriate to ask the person if they have thought about the consequences for other and the hurt and damage they are likely to inflict as well the betrayal of trust involved? Hopefully they would REALLY talk to you. But what if they said they had fallen in love with this woman and couldn’t leave her? What if they said their marriage was dead and over?You might personally think they should fight their feelings etc ( you might say so) but I doubt that delivering ultimatums or threatening would really do much to salvage that marriage. Furthermore, this man, ultimately is answerable to God – he is not answerable to you – but has to decide in the light of his own faith and his Lord and Saviour what he can see his way to.
The scenarios of alcoholism, drugs and domestic abuse are likewise complex, such addictive and violent behaviour arises from deep rooted psychological problems, my father was an alcholic – believe me, no amount of “rebuking” does any good .
In a case of wife beating, I would personally support the wife, help her to leave her husband, if she wanted that.If you know someone is involved in illegal activities such as fraud, I think you are legally bound to tell the police, aren’t you? I don’t think “holding back from dictating” means ignoring the law of the land!
You write of someone for whom the Church says “I cannot have this sexual relationship but how else will I find companionship?” A close friend of mine married young ( eighteen ) and was divorced by the time she was twenty two. The church we were both at told her she must not remarry but remain celibate. She longed for that companionship – she was twenty two and also desperately wanted the chance for children and a family. Now, i have answered your “specifice” – whether you like my answers or not. I’ll ask you a “specific” – would you lay down the law and insist she must remain single?
I note that,even though I answered your “specific” scenarios and questions, you do not seem to be in a hurry to answer the one the I have asked you?
You accuse me of changing the subject but it is not true. I have noticed many times that while I try to honestly engage with your points, and sometimes I am prepared to say, “I don’t know”, you are not prepared to do likewise.
The attitudes of so many on this site deeply grieve me and I do not intend to comment here for some time because you only wish to attack but are not prepared to deal openly.
My solution to this situation if I were the priest, Sue?
After suitable preparation, including a frank look at why the first marriage ended, I would consider allowing a church wedding. A second option would be to tell the woman that she could marry, but the ceremony could not take place in church.
Forgive me if I didn’t reply sooner but I have a busy life and only manage to look at blogs in fits and starts.
I really do think that, on the whole, we should try and keep emotional accusations out of these debates.
I think you make rather a lot of assumptions yourself, David. I donâ€™t really understand how you make the cognitive leap from â€œthe church has to hold back from trying to dictateâ€ to the misconception that I am saying the church should condone violence or not uphold the law of the land! If you look again at what I say, perhaps you will be able to recognise that the wording is deliberately tentative â€“ that the Church should, â€œhold back fromâ€ (in other words show restraint in) trying to â€œdictateâ€( ie issue orders) to individuals. What I do NOT say is that the Church should not have a role of moral guidance â€“ but that this should be a mission to draw people to Christ, not a punitive policing of lives. You need to look at the whole of the post and not just pick sections to â€œcritically analyseâ€ out of context.
As for â€œsweeping assertionsâ€, you need to differentiate between an assertion (which purports to be a statement of fact) and an opinion (which is a statement of belief.) What I express is my opinion about what the role of the Church should be in todayâ€™s society. An opinion cannot really be â€œinaccurateâ€ or â€œuntrueâ€ â€“ although of course, you can disagree with it personally, as I know you do.
You also say that,
“Morality in our private lives” has to do with EVERYTHING about our private lives, not just how we explore and express our sexuality!!
I couldnâ€™t agree more, and think it sad that so many churches focus only on sexual morality. I have heard sexist and racist views in church â€“ albeit expressed in a middle class way- I have never seen someone rebuked by a church for such views (you maybe have, but I havenâ€™t.)
You have a tendency to rewrite my words or to misconceive my meaning. I really am not going to continue to comment on sentiments which you ascribe to me but which I do not actually hold.
You also tell me at one point that I “didn’t really mean what I said” in the first post. Please let me assure you that I meant what I said, even if I didn’t mean what you â€“ erroneously – assumed that I had said.
Finally, my views are born of practical experience. I left a church which was quite controlling and am now at one where the approach is different â€“ I am not saying it is a perfect Church but I might not attend Church if not for the kind of love I have found there.
Sorry, what I meant was that, objectively, the words you used at first did not accurately express what you meant.
How can we feel that our views are being respected, and how can we achieve true understanding and a search for truth, if we don’t express ourselves fully and accurately?
I can see why you might have misinterpreted my words but I wonder if this had more to do with your assumptions about me – than any innaccuracy in what I said – because looking at the post I still hold to the sentiments and wording.
Going back to Peter’s original post, I think I agree with him because I don’t believe that it is our task as Christians to try to force non-Christians to live as if they were Christians by e.g. using whatever influence we may happen to have at the time to influence legislation. If we do try that, successfully or otherwise, I believe we would appear to teach a doctrine of works, as if these things (e.g. chastity) could please God by themselves. If we really want people to follow Christian teaching we should first be trying to bring them to Christ, otherwise we are putting the cart before the horse. We might I suppose try reminding them that chastity is prudent (for various reasons), but even that might be criticised as obscuring the main issue, if our doctrine of marriage really is grounded on the understanding of marriage as an embodiment (if that’s the right word) of Christ’s relationship with his church.
There may be all sorts of reasons why we, as Christians or simply as citizens, might try to get the laws changed (or not changed) in one way or another – for example to protect the poor and weak as we are called on to do (whether they are Christians or not) or simply to suit our convenience – but enforcing outwardly Christian behaviour on non-Christians seems to me not just pointless but harmful to God’s purposes and should surely not be one of those reasons.