On the day of the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister of the last 150 years, tributes continue to be been paid from all-sides of the political debate. Love her or loathe her no one denies that, through her leadership, she changed the face of a nation and her influence continues to be felt across the world to this day.
Looking back over her time in office, what made her the leader she was? Here’s a personal take on seven qualities identified by Thatcher and those who knew her that shaped her leadership. Seven qualities that all leaders can learn from starting in this post with 1) conviction and 2) clear vision.
Margaret Thatcher famously said above all I am not a consensus politician but a conviction politician. Her leadership was borne out of a strong moral conviction that what she believed in was what could make Britain great again. And Thatcher was to attribute her success to this unswerving conviction in the rightness of her cause. After nearly ten years in office she still maintained if you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing.
Leadership not borne of strong conviction is leadership that will fail. Even when at her lowest political ebb, in 1981, she argued pragmatism is not enough, nor is the fashionable word consensus. To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.’
Lord Saatchi, in an interview on the BBC the morning after Margaret Thatcher’s death, paid tribute to this quality. He summarised her outlook in the following way:
The aim in that period when she was leader of the opposition was to present an ism, called conservatism, which in her mind was a philosophy and the object of the exercise was to explain that philosophy and see if people would support it and now we have a situation all these years later where you can tap anyone on the shoulder any where in the world and ask them ‘what did Mrs Thatcher believe in?’ and you will get a straight answer in a second.
Applying this principle of leadership to churches we might well ask whether it is obvious what we, as a church, stand for? We also have to ask are our principles matters of conviction,derived from God’s word and God’s purpose for the church in the world, rather than our own ideas? Do we lead from conviction or consensus?
2. Clarity of vision
Thatcher had not only strong convictions which guided her actions but a clear vision of where she wanted to take the nation. Henry Kissinger comments on why he thought Thatcher was a breathe of fresh air as a leader in her generation: The appearance of a leader that confidently asserted a vision of the future and, was wiling to tackle the economic problems of the day based on an alternative theory, had both a practical impact and also a psychological and moral impact on the period in which she lived.
He concludes her view was that leaders should define themselves by clearly articulating for their public their vision of their future.
What can we learn? It couldn’t harm if we as Christian leaders were to ask ourselves just how clearly are we articulating a vision for our particular churches? Are we able to assert not just guiding values that under-pin our ministries but a compelling vision as to where such principles might take us? For example, it is surely a good thing for a church to affirm the spread of the gospel as a necessary core value, it is another thing to set out a vision for how the church will seek to see the gospel go out over the next, say, 5 to 10 years.
In our next post we consider what it meant for Thatcher to be a leader defined by courage, clear communication and commitment to her cause.
The following is an extract from a talk I gave at Week 1 of New Word Alive last week on 1 Peter 1:22-2:10:
Two for one deal
We know it’s not always easy to love your family. Yet, the God who brings us to new life in Christ also brings us to a new love for his people. Peter says (1 Pet 1:22) ‘you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth’ by which he means we have believed the gospel. But in the very same verse he tells us of something else we have along with our new life in Jesus: v.22, you also ‘have sincere love for your brothers.’
With new life comes a new love. It’s a two for the price of one deal. And we ought to expect love to flow out of life because the God who gave us this new life is the God is love. God is life and God is love and if his word has entered our hearts then the word that brings us to life in Jesus will also brings us to love our brothers.
Bible logic says ‘you do love, so love!’
But there’s one other thing that Peter knows and it’s this loving your new family is not easy is it. The comedian George Burns once said ‘happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.’ It’s the day to day business of getting along together as a family that proves so hard. No wonder Bible logic says, v.22, ‘you do love one another’ and then in the very next sentence also say ‘so go on loving one another deeply from the heart.’ We all know that we can say of many people ‘I do love and yet I need a lot of help to love you as a fellow Christian at times.’
And it’s a big ask to love as God loves. Peter doesn’t say tolerate one another, nor does he say love one another when someone obviously needs love, or love the people you like, or the people you want to like you but love one another (that’s every brother or sister) and love them deeply and love them from the heart.
Our society says love people for what they do for you, or give to you – the gospel says love your brother or sister simply for who are they are – your family in Christ. That’s how families work. Family is about the one place where you love people despite what they do! Family is the one time you choose hang out people you have nothing else in common with except that you are family. Any other group and you’d walk away but because its family you make it work.
And Jesus shows me just what this looks like. He knew how to love deeply and from the heart. When Jesus loved he seemed to make life more difficult for himself rather than less. He picked out they people most difficult people to love. Don’t you think that Zacchaeus was probably a really irritating person? Don’t you think the disciples were a frustration to Jesus at times and at other times a disappointment and an embarrassment?
Love is about what you don’t do
And Peter wants you to know that loving someone is as much about what we don’t do as what we do do. In chapter 2v1 he says ‘rid yourselves of all malice, deceit, hypocrisy and slander of every kind.’ Love isn’t always about how I feel towards someone, love in the Bible is rarely sentimental. Love means deciding not to damage other Christians by my words and my example, not to put myself and my feelings first, not to be so constantly full of my own opinions and ideas that I speak too hastily and harshly to others. Everything that Peter describes in 2v1 – all of these flaws and failings – are sins that damage other Christians, things that destroy our life together.
God has put you into a new family that you might help one another to grow. The goal of life together is that we, v.2, ‘grow up in our salvation’
The church shouldn’t be a place where we just tell each other to grow up but where we help each other to grow up.
Maybe you can think of one or two people whom God has used just in the past few weeks or months to do just that for you. And growing up is what your new life is all about. I have a 2 year old son. He is full of new life. He is for the most part adorably cute – or at least I thought so until Monday afternoon when he decided to put a roll of toilet paper in the sink, blocking the plug hole, turned both taps full on and flooded the downstairs bathroom.
Do you know what I thought to myself as I mopped that bathroom floor? I thought a few things actually but one thing was this; I can’t wait for you to grow up but then I also thought and it’s my job to help you. I have a responsibility to make sure you do grow up.
The word of God brings us to new life and its brings us to new love and we know that a church is living out the gospel as we help our Christian brother and sister grow up into their salvation. That’s not easy. Living together in the Powell household is not always easy and it’s not always easy in our church family either
Growing up is a messy business we need a lot of patience with each other we will let each other down, we will hurt one another, we’ll do and say stupid things we’ll accuse one another of being immature – it’s then that we need to remember that we’re growing up together.
Growing up is not only a messy business it’s a slow business we aren’t the people we want to be. Ask any child how frustrating it can be when they know they want to be riding a bike without stabilisers or swimming without armbands. Why do I find it so hard to change? Why do I keep making the same mistakes? Only a deep love from the heart can enable me to overcome my many failings.
Growing up may be a messy business and a slow business but more than anything else it is a necessary business isn’t it. I hope my son is not putting toilet rolls in the sink when he’s 10!
And the key to growing up together? Well ask any new born baby its craving milk. For Peter that is the milk of the word. Like new born babies lets crave God’s word so that the truth of the gospel changes hearts and minds and grows that new life to maturity.
A small group of Muslim men turned up at church from the local mosque to ask a few questions on Sunday evening. Unsurprisingly conversation soon turned to the Trinity. As it turned out we had just returned from a church weekend away reflecting on how essential the doctrine of the trinity is if we are how to live well in the world. Here’s a sketch of my notes from a talk I gave on the weekend.
A. How does God define our relationships?
I wonder when you last spent some time thinking about the Trinity? I guess many Christians find understanding what it means that we believe in One God in three persons a little confusing if not a little awkward to explain. Maybe we find the trinity intellectually embarrassing if and when we are challenged by a non-Christian and I suspect we do find the doctrine a little irrelevant when it comes to living everyday life.
Well this morning its not my place to give a defence of what Christians believe or the history. But my job in just 30 minutes is to show you how life-changing it is to know that you love and serve a God of relationships.
The Bible affirms that there is One God in three persons. That means because God is eternal relationships (between Father, Son and Spirit) have always been at the heart of ultimate reality. And my big point this morning is that ONLY the Christian can say that!
And that means that only the Christian has a foundation for relations.
Whoever we are, our doctrine of God IS the foundation for our relationships.
B. What we think of God defines and shapes the nature of our relationships
Maybe the best way to look at this truth is by way of comparison with the other ways of looking at relationships.
The dilemma of modern man is simple: he does not know why man has any meaning. He is lost. Man remains a zero. This is the damnation of our generation. – Francis Schaeffer in He is There and He is not silent.
We don’t know how to live in the world and we cannot agree how we should live in this world;
- If there is no God then there is no basis or standard for relationships (there is nothing informing our relationships!)
- We can recognise the problems in our relationships but cannot find a binding answer (the world would be a better place if we all got along…but we can’t agree on what that means)
- We define relationships for ourselves (every man, and woman, does as he sees fit)
- Relationships are an aspect of ‘survival of the fittest’
Richard Dawkins summed up how the absence of God impacts his ethics in the following sobering words: If someone used my views to justify a completely self-centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose I think I would be fairly hard put to argue against it on purely intellectual grounds.
Fellow Oxford intellectual Peter Atkins puts it this way when quoted by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the rainbow: We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.
Is it enough to believe in ‘god’ to understand the nature of relationships and living well in the world? As we will see the answer is ‘no’. All depends on the nature of that god.
No word is as meaningless as is the word god. Of itself it means nothing unless content is put into it. – Francis Schaeffer.
- God is not a personal god. He exists in ‘splendid isolation.’ Even in paradise God will not be with us.
- God and relationships are separate thing – God is not a God of relationships for before he ever created he was alone.
- God cannot inform our relationships (we cannot look to him to teach us) and our relationships are not an aspect of image-bearing.
- When God is teaching us about relationships he is not teaching us about himself
- God may be loving (toward his creation) but he is NOT love because in eternity he has no-one to love. He had to create in order to love and experience love.
3. Pantheism (Hindism, New Age, etc..)
- God is an impersonal force
- Impersonal forces cannot define or inform personal relationships. In fact, more than that, they undermine relationships. The holy men of Hinduism retreat from relationships and community.
- Our final goal as human beings is to join the impersonal ie become one with the impersonal force.
- Relationships and personality are temporary
The truth is that if you exchange the truth about God for a lie it will not only damage you but destroy community and confuse society.
Look with me at Romans 1:18-30. What is the result of humanity suppressing the truth about God. It is two things i) a turning to worshipping other gods and ii) a break down of relationships. The SIN of rejecting God leads to all sorts of SINS damaging to community. Looking at the list at the end of the chapter (vv.28-30)
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
Only Christianity has at its heart a God who IS a God of relationships and God’s own relationship makes your relationships meaningful.
C. What can we learn from the God of relationships?
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always existed in perfect relationship. They express and define perfect love.
Therefore (for example) we can learn how to love one another within a marriage by learning from the relationship between Father and Son.
|Bible verses||Nature of relationship|
|John 14:31, 3:35||Perfect love seen in a desire to bless the other.|
|John 17:1,4||Other-person centredness. A seeking after the glory of another ahead of own. Love involves service, sacrifice.|
|John 10:30||Unity. One in Being. One in purpose. One in ministry.|
|John 5:30||Difference. Unity does not mean uniformity. There is an order to the relationships. The Son does the will of the Father and obeys him even though they are both fully God.|
As God’s image bearers in the world God shapes and defines our relationships. Whether that be relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, authorities and those subject to authority. All our relationships reflect in some way the God of relationships. Our relationships are defined by love, other-person centredness, unity yet difference.
Reasons to rejoice in the Trinity!
There is no other sufficient philosophical answer than the one I have outlined. You can search through university philosophy, underground philosophy, filling station philosophy – it does not matter—there is no other sufficient philosophical answer to existence, to Being, than the one I have outlined. There is only one thought, whether the East, the West, the ancient, the modern, the new, the old. Only one fills the philosophical need of existence, of Being, and it is the Judeo-Christian God –not just an abstract concept, but rather that this God is really there. He exists. There is no other answer, and orthodox Christians ought to be ashamed of being been defensive for so long. It is not a time to be defensive. There is no other answer. – Francis Schaeffer, He is There and he is not silent
Part 2 of this series will consider just how our relationships are to be based on the God of relationships.
A sad and sobering report in the Telegraph of a University of Montreal study in which they could not find a male student who had not consumed pornography.
The study found that the average age at which boys were introduced to porn was 10 years old.It also found that single men viewed pornography 3 times a week for an average of 40 minutes each time and men in relationships 1.7 times a week for 20 minutes each time.
What does all this mean for Christians? Who’s keeping watch in your church? Here are 12 questions that spring to mind that need the attention of any leadership team.
2. How and when should be raising the issue with our children? At what age? In what way?
3. How and in what context should we be talking about these issues with the men of our church? When did we last talk to the men about this?
4. What do we need to say to wives and girlfriends? Do they understand the nature of the struggle?
5. How do we protect marriages from ‘virtual-adultery’? Are we helping husbands and wives to talk wisely and appropriately about this issue?
6. What are the statistics for women? Is this a growing issue for both sexes?
7. What accountability structures do church leaders have in place for their own behaviour? Who is asking them whether they are viewing pornography? How can they model godliness in this area of life?
8. What support and accountability do we offer for those willing to acknowledge that this is an issue for them? What church discipline is appropriate too?
9. What are the lies that capture our hearts and make pornography a battle for every man? Do we understand its power?
10. Do we know how to fight this battle through the gospel rather than by mere will-power of self-control?
11. What do we want to say to non-Christians who might be part of the wider church community?
12. How do we help apply the gospel to those who have a ‘past’ in this area even if it is no longer a dangerous issue?
If you’re anything like me your natural temptation is to want to forget the mistakes you’ve made in ministry. Some are embarrassing because they highlight our immaturity or weaknesses, others are difficult to recall because we remember the impact they had on others. Bad news is for burying, isn’t that right? But maybe God wants to teach us through our mistakes (and our failures for that matter).
Ten most common mistakes made by new church starts is a book that aims to take our errors and put them to use. In their introduction Griffith and Easum write ‘Those of you who are already church planting will recognise yourself as we go along. If the pain gets too bad, take an aspirin or two.’
I think I probably made at least 6 of the mistakes they list. One of the mistakes I recognise was called ‘Failure of the Church to Act Its Age and Its Size.’ The key principle being that in a planting context decisions need to me made about what ministries should be started when. In other words there is the world of difference between knowing something is the right thing to do and knowing when is the right time to do it. When we started talking about buying a building as a one year old plant we certainly didn’t help ourselves or our congregation to ‘Act our age!’ Great idea, wrong timing. The same can be said of wanting to start a full-blown kids work from age 0-14 to draw in families to the plant at a time when our eldest child in the congregation was just 1.
Stepping out in faith is not the same as running ahead, unaware of the risks and at a pace that cannot be sustained by even the most servant-hearted, faith-filled congregation. Nor do plants begin ministries only to please guests. ‘It’s better to just let them walk away than to overextend and burn out. It’s also better than making promises you can’t keep.’
At our next 2020birmingham Planters meeting we will be sharing our mistakes and in turn I’ll try and share some on the blog.
God not only lets us make mistakes, he wants us to learn from them. He also wants us to teach others through our mistakes. The Bible is full of stories of those who failed from Abraham to Moses to David to Paul. Their examples are for our instruction. God has included their mistakes to teach us humility, patience, God-dependence and above all else that He is the one building His church sometimes because of us and sometimes despite us.
We live in a world where no-one will ever say they were wrong. As Christians we are free from the need to prove ourselves, our ministry successes and failures do not define us. But they do shape us and others. Let us put them to good use.
Jon Tyson is lead pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York City. I found a sermon he preached in December from Matthew 1:21-23 really enlightening, not to say a little disturbing. Tyson (about 19 minutes into the sermon) highlights a hidden danger inherent in the hearts of men and women driven by a noble desire – living for God.
What could be wrong with such a fine ambition? Essentially, Tyson points out, the danger comes from failing to recognise that our lives were never intended to be lived for God but with God. When our passion is not Christ but doing stuff for Christ we become vulnerable to that most subtle danger of ‘importing worldly ambition into Christian ministry’.
Tyson draws on a blog post written by Skye Jethani entitled Has mission become our idol to expand his point. Jethani writes
Sometimes the people who fear insignificance the most are driven to accomplish the greatest things. As a result they are highly praised for their good works which temporarily soothes their fear until the next goal can be achieved.
How easy it is for Christian ministers to believe that the worth of our life is determined by the achievements of our ministries. Jethani quotes Gordon McDonald who says of this condition (which he defines as missionalism);
Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader’s attitude before long the mission controls almost everything; time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics and convictions.
How many Christian ministers are actually pursuing a worldly ambition –driven by a desire to prove themselves through their ministry – rather than joyfully living out their lives and fulfilling their ministries with Christ?
What might be tell-tales signs that your ministry has morphed into a self-serving idol?
Here are 5 symptoms I recognise in myself;
1) An aggressive self-promotion of our own ministries. Every conversation, blog-post or tweet is an opportunity to talk about ourselves through the vehicle of pushing of a ministry rather than an opportunity to bless others with the gospel.
2) A lack of interest (let alone joy) in the ministry of others. If my sense of self-worth is located in my ministry then the success of others disturbs and threatens me. They become a threat to my security and rob me of my joy.
3) When our ministry is an idol, and its success becomes our consuming goal, relationships suffer. When our focus is our ministry our relationships begin to be defined by the extent to which they can be useful to us in fulfilling our objectives. Family life suffers because they don’t advance our cause and instead slow us down by demanding time and energy we want to invest elsewhere. In essence the idol is seen to be at work when I am only interested in others to the extent to which they can assist in the completion of my projects and plans.
4) When we are defined by our ministry we find it next to impossible to rest from our work. The idol of worldly ambition enslaves us and we fear falling behind.
5) When ministerial success is essential to our identity what keeps us awake at night is not the fate of the lost, or the glory of God but a fear of personal failure.
Most of us ministers think the test of a good church is one that preaches the gospel faithfully. That must be right. But is it enough? In the new free e-book Brothers we are still not professional Ray Ortland Jr. wants us to recognise a further test of orthodoxy. Does our church not just preach the gospel but evidence transformation through the existence of a recognisable gospel culture. The issue his chapter addresses is the necessary connection between preaching the gospel of grace and living out the gospel of grace in our church communities. So the challenge for any who are leading churches is not just to preach a gospel message in our churches but to build a Gospel Culture.
What should be happening in our churches?
Where the gospel is faithful preached and carefully applied the church community ought to exhibit the transforming effect of that gospel. Ortland describes a church shaped by gospel preaching as a social environment of acceptance and hope and freedom and joy. As different books of the Bible highlight different aspects of the gospel so they shape the community in different ways. Ortland suggests;
- The doctrine of regeneration creates a culture of humility (Ephesians 2:1–9).
- The doctrine of justification creates a culture of inclusion (Galatians 2:11–16).
- The doctrine of reconciliation creates a culture of peace (Ephesians 2:14–16).
- The doctrine of sanctification creates a culture of life (Romans 6:20–23).
- The doctrine of glorification creates a culture of hope (Romans 5:2) and honor (Romans 12:10).
- The doctrine of God—what could be more basic than that? — creates a culture of honesty and confession (1 John 1:5–10).
The gospel really does have power to create God’s new society that is radically different from the world. However the sad reality is that whilst individual lives may be being changed through the gospel sadly too many churches find their community life a pale imitation of what we should expect.
So why is it that churches that preach the gospel fail to be transformed by the gospel?
Here are a few thoughts from my own experience
1. Because it’s a whole lot easier to preach the gospel than to live it. Many things will work against the transformation of our life together. Sin in all its forms; apathy, indifference, self-centredness, etc. will inevitably make establishing a gospel culture harder than ensuring faithful gospel preaching. Gospel preaching requires just one man to get it right, gospel transformation requires the whole community to put it into practice. What all that means is that it is not automatic that a church preaching the gospel will be being transformed by the gospel. We should recognise that it is always a slower process than we would like (as is our personal sanctification) but still it ought to become increasingly evident in a gospel-preaching church.
2. Because as preachers in our sermons we spend too little time applying the Bible to the community life of the church. My training for preaching prepared me well to preach to the individual Christian but much less the church body. For most preachers we find individual applications relatively straight-forward but I have to say I’ve lost count of the number of sermons that fail to even once address the gathered church.
We need to ask ‘what does this sermon mean for us as a church family?’ as well as for us as individuals. We ought to lead our congregations through our preaching and corporate applications are key here.
3. Because we British (!) struggle to find appropriate ways to celebrate how the gospel is impacting our communities. We don’t often talk about how the gospel is at work in our relationships in the church. Perhaps we ought, in our preaching to celebrate examples of gospel transformation in action. So, for example, a sermon that features the theme of inclusion provides an opportunity to comment on how we’re getting on at relating to those who are different from ourselves in church and to celebrate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships and how different church is to other communities.
4. Because we think a gospel culture should just grow organically rather than be nurtured. It’s true that much transformation can be seen simply through individuals deciding to put the gospel to work in relationships with other Christians. But why should we simply leave people to it? We don’t think gospel-preaching just happens which is why we give considerable time to training young preachers, reviewing sermons and preparing well for our own preaching. So what energy could we put into facilitating a gospel culture? What training could we put in place? What formal as well as informal opportunities could we create to facilitate gospel relationships?
Don’t let your test of orthodoxy be limited to how faithfully you are preaching the gospel but ask too ‘how is the gospel of the living God transforming our church?’ For much is at stake; Ray Ortland includes this terrific quote from Francis Schaeffer’s The Church Before the Watching World.
One cannot explain the explosive dynamite, the dunamis, of the early church apart from the fact that they practiced two things simultaneously: orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community in the midst of the visible church, a community which the world could see. By the grace of God, therefore, the church must be known simultaneously for its purity of doctrine and the reality of its community. Our churches have so often been only preaching points with very little emphasis on community, but exhibition of the love of God in practice is beautiful and must be there.
Al Mohler’s new book on leadership has recently dropped through my letterbox. The conviction to lead: 25 principles for leaership matters is everything that you might expect; wise, clear, biblical and focused! Above all else what guides Mohler’s principles for leadership however, is conviction. He writes I want to fundamentally change the way leadership is understood and practiced.
It won’t do to ignore best practice in leadership as some evangelicals are prone to do. We cannot hide in our studies, write a few sermons and pay our pastoral visits and believe we are doing all we are called to do as church ministers. Leading a church requires much more than that. But neither can we reduce our role to that of ‘leaders’ who mimic the world, seeking to take a church forward through motivation, vision, strategy and models of leadership. Mohler seeks to bring these, too often separate, worlds together. His purpose in the book? My goal is to redefine Christian leadership so that it is inseparable from passionately held beliefs [convictions], and to motivate those who are deeply committed to truth to be ready for leadership. Let a book like this shape your ministry and that of others in your church. Be clearer on your convictions and put those convictions to work as you learn to lead through them.
Here is Mohler on The Leader and Death
A legacy is what is left in the wake of a great leader. The leader is gone from the scene, but his influence remains essential to the direction and culture of the work he led. Once again, conviction is central. The idiosyncrasies of the leader will not (or should not) remain. The plans and visions of the leader will be outdated soon after his burial. The style of the leader is a personal signature. Your tastes will not be the tastes of the future. Yet none of this really matters. What matters is that the convictions survive.
Remember that leadership is conviction transformed into united action. If the convictions are right, the right actions will follow. The wise leader does not try to perpetuate matters of style and taste, or even plans and programs. The leader who aims at a legacy aims to perpetuate conviction. If the conviction is truly perpetuated, all the rest will follow. If the convictions are not perpetuated, none of the rest really matters. The leader who truly leads by conviction drives those convictions deep into the foundation of the movement. A legacy is built on that foundation as convictions frame reality.
Every leader needs to know the reality that we will die one day and that others will take our place. Hopefully, these new leaders will bring talents and abilities and vision greater than our own. Our greatest concern, however, is that they come with a wealth of conviction. Otherwise, all that we build can be turned against the very truths we have championed.
So NT Wright (formerly Bishop of Durham and now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, St Andrews) has declared in the Times newspaper (£) that the argument for women Bishops is to be found in the Bible.
We applaud his rejection of the cries of both media and politicians that the Church must ‘move with the times’ and modernise. CS Lewis was right to reject the myth of moral progress which he described as ‘chronological snobbery’.
So far so good. However Wright’s defence of women Bishops from the text of the Bible is quite something to behold. He writes ‘The other lie to nail is that people who “believe in the Bible” or who “take it literally” will oppose women’s ordination. Rubbish.’
Nathaniel Dimock in his work on the Atonement argues that three tests can be applied to assess the validity of an interpretation of the Bible. A doctrine should be regarded as orthodox if it can be demonstrated from the Scriptures, but further, interpretations should also be weighed against the church’s teaching across the centuries. Dimock as a good evangelical believed in Sola Scriptura and tradition is in no way a final authority but nevertheless we are right to ask whether a view of the Bible is biblical if it is also not also primitive and catholic.
By Biblical we mean it must find clear support in the Bible itself. By primitive Dimock means we should look to see whether such an interpretation has been accepted from the earliest times of the church and catholic meaning it should have widespread support across the ages of the church. Clearly doctrines (such as penal substitutionary atonement which Dimock defends) are not taught with the same frequency and clarity across all ages but Dimock ably demonstrates a form of the doctrine present in the church from the earliest times to the present day. If a doctrine is clearly taught in the Bible, so much so that it should be regarded as the correct interpretation over other views, we should expect to find the church affirming it to some degree at points throughout history.
So what should we think of Wright’s approach, maintaining as he does, that a doctrine held nowhere in the church for the first 2000 of its existence should be accepted as Biblical? Further a doctrine still rejected by the vast majority of Christians across the world? I hope he can at least understand the scepticism of many when his judgement is questioned.
Should we not also be a bit apprehensive when it comes to embracing a novel 21st century interpretation that just so happens fits exactly the mood of our own times. It makes me, at least, think there might be some attempt to make an idea ‘fit’ the text at all costs.
We shouldn’t say that Wright is simply wrong it’s rather that his arguments need to be a great deal more substantial than they are if he wishes to persuade that Christians have failed, for 2000 years, to understand and interpret the text of the Bible correctly.
Christians often use the phrase in the world but not of the world (something drawn from Jesus’ own words in John 17:11 and 16}. It encapsulates that difficult responsibility for Christians to be a visible and yet distinctive presence in the midst of our communities.
Tim Keller in his book Center Church describes something of what this might look like:
We will have an impact for the gospel if we are like those around us yet profoundly unlike them at the same time, all the while remaining very visible and engaged.
1. Christians are to be in the world
Tim Keller writes;
So, first of all, Christians must be like their neighbors in the food they eat and clothes they wear, their dialect, general appearance, work life, recreational and cultural activities, and civic engagement. They participate fully in life with their neighbors. Christians should also be like their neighbors with regard to excellence. That is, Christians should be very good at what others want to be good at. They should be skillful, diligent, resourceful, and disciplined. In short, Christians in a particular community should—at first glance—look reassuringly similar to the other people in the neighborhood. This opens up nonbelievers to any discussion of faith, because they recognize the believers as people who live in and understand their world. It also, eventually, gives them a glimpse of what they could look like if they became believers.
Christians are not to be of the world
Second, Christians must be also unlike their neighbors. In key ways, the early Christians were startlingly different from their neighbors; it should be no different for us today. Christians should be marked by integrity. Believers must be known for being scrupulously honest, transparent, and fair. Followers of Christ should also be marked by generosity. If employers, they should take less personal profit so customers and employees have more pay. As citizens, they should be philanthropic and generous with their time and with the money they donate for the needy. They should consider living below their potential lifestyle level. Believers should also be known for their hospitality, welcoming others into their homes, especially neighbors and people with needs. They should be marked by sympathy and avoid being known as self-serving or even ruthless in business or personal dealings. They should be marked by an unusual willingness to forgive and seek reconciliation, not by a vengeful or spiteful spirit.
In addition to these character qualities, Christians should be marked by clear countercultural values and practices. Believers should practice chastity and live consistently in light of the biblical sexual ethic. Those outside the church know this ethic—no sex outside of marriage—and any inconsistency in this area can destroy a believer’s credibility as a Christian.
That is how Christians are to be in the world and not of the world at one and the same time.
But what if…
Reading Keller on this issue reminded me of a talk I heard a few years ago which highlighted that perhaps the greatest danger is one we hardly ever spot. We spot the danger of Christians being in the world AND of the world (compromise), we are wary of Christians NOT in the world and not of it (retreat) but do we recognise the double-danger of Christians not in the world and YET of the world!
How does that work?
It is possible for Christians and church communities to cut themselves off from the world and retreat into glorious isolationism and yet at the same time exhibit all of the traits of worldliness behind our locked doors. In such a situation the church is unchanged by the gospel and displays all the characteristics of the world. Maybe that means for some being as individualistic in our disregard for the need of others, as materialistic in our attitude to money, as self-obsessed so that the focus of our lives is not the gospel to the lost but our own sense of well-being and comfort.
What a tragedy when Christians are not in the world and yet undoubtedly of the world.
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