Patrick Mitchel is blessed to be surrounded by three wonderful women - hsi wife Ines and their two daughters - a somewhat biased statement but true nonetheless.
Some particular areas of interest include exploring how the gospel of Jesus Christ applies to contemporary life. Areas of teaching include faith and contemporary culture, introduction to Christian theology, Christology, Pneumatology, contemporary theologies and evangelicalism.
His PhD was published as 'Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster 1921-1998' by Oxford University Press in 2003. He has contributed chapters to various other books. A recent one is 'Solus Spiritus' in McKnight and Modica (eds) "The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective" (Baker Academic: March 2016), Contributors include Scot McKnight, N T Wright, J D G Dunn, Bruce Longenecker, Lynn Cohick and others.
Patrick writes book reviews and other pieces including articles published in the national press. He was editor of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland's 'Together We Believe: a common faith, a common purpose' and chair of EAI's theology working group.
He is actively engaged in local church ministry as an elder in Maynooth Community Church - a community that is truly home. He also speaks regularly at various events and churches.
Some favourite 'off screen' pursuits include golf, hiking & camping, travel, reading, dinner with friends and time alone with Saint Bob (Dylan that is).
James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?
Remembering the poor was a key strand of agreement between Paul and the other apostles. It was a defining mark of early Christianity. In an important book on Paul, New Testament scholar Bruce Longenecker has argued that that
“economic assistance of the poor was not sufficient in and of itself, nor was it exhaustive of the good news of Jesus; but neither was it supplemental or peripheral to that good news. Instead, falling within the essentials of the good news, care for the poor was thought by Paul to be a necessary hallmark of the corporate life of Jesus-followers …” (Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World. My emphasis).
Gal. 2:10 fits alongside Gal, 5:13-14 “serve one another in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
Paul ‘put his money where his mouth was’ by committing several years to organising the collection from among the Gentile churches for the poor in Jerusalem. We could even say that this task eventually cost him his life for it was in Jerusalem that he was arrested and sent to Rome.
Read Romans 15:23-33 about Paul’s desire to go to Rome with the contribution to the poor and his prayer request that he might be kept safe from unbelievers there. What does this tell you about his commitment to the poor within his ministry?
Read 2 Corinthians 8:1-15. Paul’s appeal for the giving to the poor is patterned on Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” How does this challenge you to ‘do justice’ with what God has blessed you with?
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
REFLECT What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?
This is one of the most dramatic texts in the Bible. Jesus’ ministry of healing and authoritative teaching was fermenting ‘messianic mania’ – could this Galilean Rabbi actually be God’s promised Messiah, come at last to liberate Israel after hundreds of years of waiting? Standing in his home synagogue, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 and unambiguously claims to be the one they were waiting for. Like King David, the Messiah would be anointed and empowered by God for his task. What’s fascinating in this text is what form that task takes. It is the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed that he comes to liberate and restore. The king is inaugurating a kingdom of justice, open to all. Missional justice is central to the mission of the Messiah.
Yet, today it often seems that those who do pour out their lives in service to the poor are seen as admirable but exceptional. It is a fact that that within most churches in the West direct engagement with the poor and marginalised is itself a marginal activity. Why is this? Is it because we tend to individualise the gospel in terms of personal salvation and see missional justice as an ‘add on’ to the ‘core business’ of the Christian life?
The gospel (good news) in Luke 4 revolves around two things: (1) the identity of Jesus as God’s Spirit-anointed Messiah; (2) who will ‘proclaim good news to the poor.’
What God has joined together, let us not separate. We need to proclaim and demonstrate a holistic gospel, one which tells the good news of the Messiah and pursues justice in his name.
WEDNESDAY: The means of missional justice – generous sharing
READ – Isaiah 58:6-7 Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?
This hard-hitting text is emphasising, in Old Testament imagery, that ‘faith without works is dead’. A religious practice like fasting is a waste of time if not accompanied by a life of justice. Doing justice in the Bible is treating people fairly; injustice is treating people unfairly, either exploiting them in some way or neglecting to help those powerless to help themselves. Here in Isaiah, injustice takes two forms: that which oppresses and imprisons people (probably something like unpayable debt that enslaves the debtor); or failing to meet basic physical needs of food, shelter and clothing. The comment about ‘your own flesh and blood’ refers to how, within a land gifted by God, Israel was to have ‘no poor among you’ (Deut 15:4). This radical commitment to each other within the people of God is reiterated again and again in the Old Testament (e.g. Micah 6:8 ‘And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’) and the New Testament (e.g. Matt 6:1-2; Acts 4:32-35; Gal 2:10; James 1:27 ff).
This means that a Christian’s identity is not to be that of capitalism’s self-made individual consumer who has no responsibility to anyone but himself, but that of a brother and a sister with practical obligations to those less well-off than ourselves since all we own is a gift from God.
How is God calling you to loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free? Can you think of specific people and situations where you can make a difference through generous giving of your time and money?
Have you heard a sermon in the last 5 years about how the beliefs and values of capitalism collide head-on with a biblical vision of justice? If not, why might this be?
How can the church be an alternative community of justice in a capitalist culture that idolises power, money and success?
For further study see Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010). Excellent.
READ – DEUTERONOMY 10:17-19 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?
We return today to Deuteronomy 10 and zone in on verse 17-19 in a bit more detail. They are truly revolutionary. The ‘way of the (ancient) world’ was power and violence – and it is not much different today. The gods fought amongst themselves. Human rulers used the gods to legitimise their own authority. Those in power prospered at the expense of the powerless. From this perspective, these verses are like a shaft of pure light penetrating a pitch-black room. The God of Israel shows no partiality. It is his very nature to love all humans equally and this means that he even defends the fatherless, widow and alien – categories of the most vulnerable people in the ancient world. There is no other god like this! As John would much later put it, God is love.
Seeking to ‘do good’ to others can be done out of a mixture of motives. They can include guilt – making us feel better about ourselves by helping others less fortunate. Or it can be unconsciously patronizing – a handout to the ‘deserving poor’. Or it can even be a form of ‘empire building’ – gaining reputation and funding for ‘our’ ministries. But authentic missional justice begins not with us but with the love of God himself.
Here in Deuteronomy caring for the powerless is modelled on God himself who cannot be bought. Such impartiality subverts the power structures of the world.
How can the church challenge the power structures of our world through generous ‘no strings attached’ love of the most vulnerable people in our society?
Read James 2:1-12 for a New Testament perspective on God’s impartiality.
READ – DEUTERONOMY 10:12-19 12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? 14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations – as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?
Fear’, ‘walk’, ‘love’, ‘serve’ and ‘observe’: five commands are given to Israel as she is about to enter the promised land. The command to love is reiterated numerous times in Deuteronomy (6:5; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 19:9; 30:6, 16). The other four commands can be seen as examples of what love for God means in practice. Love means fearing God in gratitude and thankfulness. Love means to walk in the ways of the one true God. Love means serving God wholeheartedly and therefore obeying his commands. For Israel to live this way will be a source of great blessing for her own good (13).
But note how verses 17-19 then unpack a practical example of love in action. Since God ‘loves the foreigner residing among you’ (18), Israel is to do the same (19). Authentic love for God cannot be kept to the self – it must overflow to others in need because this is the indiscriminate way that God has loved Israel (15).
The motive for missional justice flows from our experience of the love of God that simply can’t be kept to ourselves. How is that love ‘overflowing’ to those in need in your life; in your church’s life?
The global refugee crisis means that there are refugees living in our neighbourhoods. How can disciples who claim to love God show practical care to such foreigners in our midst?
This is the final post in a series on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.
This post will focus on the practical implications of the theology outlined in the previous posts.
What does it look like for the church to be a ‘community of life’ within a ‘culture of death’?
Hays argues that if the biblical paradigms (post 4) were put into practice within the church, then abortion would hardly ever be necessary within the Christian community.
There could be some exceptions. Can the Church act ‘in fear and trembling under the guidance of the Spirit’ to identify those extreme exceptions? Hays suggests such cases: pregnancy as a result of rape or incest [not allowed under Irish law]; and abortions performed to save the life of the mother [are allowed under current Irish legislation].
He also raises the issue of disability. Advances in prenatal testing have been significant since Hays wrote (1996). In the UK, non-invasive screening for Down Syndrome and other genetic conditions is becoming standard.
His position is that
the New Testament summons the community to eschew abortion and thus undertake the burden of assisting the parents raise the handicapped child.
Where abortion is practiced, he argues that
The tragedy is primarily the tragedy of a church that has abdicated its call to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). The New Testament envisions a more excellent way.”
The Church in the World
But how then is this community of life to live and witness within the world?
This is a question that tends not to get asked when it comes to Christian campaigns against abortion.
I may be wrong and am happy to be corrected, but it seems as if there is little reflection on the distinction between the church and the world. This suggests to me that there are deep unexamined Christendom assumptions at play like Ireland is, or should be, a ‘Christian country’. This leads towards urgent calls to action that I saw somewhere recently that Christians have a few weeks to ‘save’ Irish society.
Hays calls for Christians to recognise some realities. He writes in an American context.
How does what he writes apply to contemporary Ireland do you think? What are your reactions to these points?
1) Christians “cannot coerce moral consensus in a post-Christian culture.”
2) Christians should “recognize the futility of seeking to compel the state to enforce Christian teaching against abortion.”
3) This is not to advocate withdrawal from society or to propose some sort of dualistic spirituality of the sacred and secular. It is to recognise that Christian rejection of abortion is dependent on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Word – and that the world will never share that rationale for terminating abortion.
4) Christians in post-Christian Ireland need to recognise that we stand as outsiders to our culture. Our primary task is to be a counter-cultural witness. In other words, a community of compassion and love that acts as a neighbour to the desperate, weak and vulnerable; which bears the burdens of others and imitates Jesus in his inclusion of the marginalised.
5) This means that the calling of the church in regard to abortion in Ireland is to show the world an alternative way of life to one in which abortion seems an ‘obvious’ choice. Hays proposes that
“The world needs to be shown another way, not forced by law to abandon something it perceives as a ‘right.’”
I think this is relevant when it comes to the 8th Amendment. From its inception it has been a controversial piece of legislation designed to enforce and copper-fasten Catholic morality on abortion on Irish society in perpetuity. That was the whole reason to add it to the Constitution. I’m not at all questioning the sincerity of those who supported that move – their motive was to protect the unborn from abortion ever arriving in Ireland. But I suspect part of the groundswell of opposition to the 8th today comes from its ethos of legal imposition on what is now a post-Catholic / post-Christian culture.
In contrast to using the power of the law, Hays proposes that the
“The first and most basic task is for the community to act in ways that embody its commitment to receiving life as a gift from God.”
And he closes the chapter giving several examples of the deep cost such a commitment would entail. Here is one, written by William Durland
We should not look to the state to compel women to complete, nor allow them to terminate, a pregnancy. Rather, God calls us to be our own people and our own community – to witness to the world’s scandal, to love and bind up those harmed by its values. If the energy now being poured into attempts to affect Supreme Court decisions were dedicated to establishing viable alternatives to abortion and substantive support and long-range care for victimized women, “unwanted” children and families struggling with poverty, mental illness and domestic violence, perhaps we would begin to see Christian community being born in our midst – a light to the nations and a sure refuge for these needy ones.
Young Irish Christians I talk to have been profoundly alienated from both pro-life and pro-choice politics. It is precisely this sort of voice that they say they have not heard in the Irish abortion debate. As a result, I suspect a surprising number of young Irish Christians may vote ‘Yes’ on 25 May. If so, I think this represents a tragic failure of the church to articulate – and embody – a loving and theologically informed response to the challenge of abortion.
The commitment Durland calls for cannot be made lightly. It calls Christians to inconvenient self-sacrifice, generosity and willingness to open up their lives and communities to those in need. As Hays says
“In other words, it would find itself living as the church envisioned by the New Testament.”
Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.
In the last post, in the light of how the Bible has pretty well nothing explicit to say to the modern practice of abortion, we discussed Richard Hays’ hermeneutical proposals around these themes
God the life-giver
Being a neighbour to the weak, vulnerable and helpless
Bearing one another’s economic and practical burdens like a crisis pregnancy
Imitating Jesus in looking after those in difficulty
But there are also other sources for thinking theologically about abortion – namely those of Tradition, Reason and Experience.
Christian tradition against abortion is long-lived, strong and consistent. Early evidence points to Christian counter-cultural witness against pagan practices of infanticide and abortion.
The Didache (late 1st Cent or early 2nd Cent manual of Christian teaching) contrasts the ‘way of life’ against ‘the way of death’ (language that speaks eloquently into the reality of modern abortion practice as well).
“You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor shall you kill one who has been born.”
The entire historic Christian tradition has consistently rejected abortion. Any shift towards acceptance of abortion by some branches of modern liberal Protestantism is utterly out of step with the traditional teaching of the church catholic.
It is in the area of reason that most contemporary secular arguments for abortion are based. ‘Pro-choice’ arguments on a leaflet dropped through our door and arguments made in general debate include the following:
A woman may not procure an abortion in Ireland on the grounds of rape or if she is carrying a child who will not survive after birth. Pro-Life arguments are “cruel” to such women (moral and philosophical arguments around women’s rights and well-being).
Over 150,000 women have travelled to Britain for an abortion since 1983 when the 8th Amendment was introduced (pragmatic arguments that since it is happening, it should be made legal in Ireland).
Many women take abortifacient pills unregulated in Ireland (medical arguments for abortion as safer for women who will have one anyway).
The 8th Amendment equates a woman’s life to that of an embryo (legal arguments on the status of a person).
Rejection of arguments that abortion increases risk of suicide and depression (psychological arguments on the health of the mother)
Abortion law as a misogynistic affront to a women’s right to have control over her own body (feminist liberation argument)
An embryo is not a person (scientific arguments about consciousness, personhood and when human life begins)
There are other arguments, but you get the picture.
Reason is the arena where the abortion referendum is being played out. It is primarily a political, cultural and legal debate, with competition for the moral high ground (defence of the rights of the unborn versus assertion of the rights of women to make autonomous choice regarding abortion).
Here’s the danger for Christians in this debate: all too easily Christians jump right into the middle of these arguments without much awareness that they represent a double-edged sword. Double edged in that these arguments inhabit the thought-world of secular rationalism.
If Christians choose to try to win the argument within these terms I think that they have already conceded defeat before they begin. They become just one more pressure group talking the language of law, reason, pragmatism, rights, psychology, medicine and individual choice. They have nothing particularly distinctive to say. They have (perhaps unconsciously) abandoned the thought world of the New Testament in favour of the thought world of secular rationalism.
To be honest, I am dismayed by how so much Christian activism against Repeal the 8th has taken the form of primarily secular rationalist arguments – whether legal, medical, rights based, pragmatic, or psychological. They have, as a result, had little to say to the Church in helping people frame a Christian response to the issue of abortion.
I’m not saying that a Christian rejection of abortion is irrational – far from it. It makes strong, consistent, moral and ethical sense – but it is an argument that is coherent and compelling within the thought world of the New Testament.
Ok, you may be wondering what I am talking about. Maybe some examples will help.
Richard Hays give 6 examples of “fundamentally inappropriate” waysfor Christians to frame their opposition to abortion.
i). It is inappropriate for Christians to set up the issue as one of competing ‘rights’ – the right of the pregnant woman versus the right of the unborn child. This is not the language of the Bible or Christian theology. No-one has a ‘right to life’ nor a ‘right’ to do what they will with their own bodies. All life is a gift from God, no one can claim ‘rights’ over it. A Christian’s body is not their own (1 Cor 6:19-20).
ii). It is inappropriate for Christians to see the issue as a ‘right to privacy’ or purely a matter of individual choice. No Christian is an unaccountable free-floating individual. She or he is called to be a faithful disciple within a community of faith.
iii). For Christians to appeal to the ‘sacredness of life’ is, Hays says, a ‘sacred cow that has no basis in the New Testament.’ God is the life-giver, this is why Christians respect life, not because of life itself.
iv). It is not a Christian argument to appeal to the question of ‘When does life begin?’ or ‘Is the foetus a person?’. There is no clear scientific or biblical answer to these questions. Usually they are asked with the agenda of defining certain conditions as outside human personhood in order to justify abortion. ‘Jesus’ persistent strategy was, on the contrary, to define marginal cases in.’
v). Deeply anti-Christian is the ‘quality of life’ argument – “no unwanted child ought ever to be born.” Christian witness from Jesus and the church has been to receive the marginalised, unwanted, and rejected – not to ‘put them out of their misery’. Such arguments rationally lead to infanticide and euthanasia of anyone deemed not to have a suitable ‘quality of life’.
vi). Christians should stay well away from feeble consequentialist arguments against abortion like ‘What if Mary had aborted Jesus?’ Such silly questions merely reinforce how the NT never engages in such consequentialist speculation. As Hays says, it never asks ‘What will happen if I do x?’ but it asks ‘What is the will of God?’.
The appeal to experience is probably the most significant factor in the Irish abortion debate.
Proponents of abortion appeal constantly to the experience of women forced to travel to Britain or forced to give birth to a child with a severe disability or forced to carry a child conceived by rape.
Opponents of abortion counter with arguments about the psychological and physical risks of abortion.
Such arguments are going to go back and forth and will be inconclusive one way or the other.
For Christians to base their support or rejection of abortion primarily on experience is to venture into a quagmire of competing claims.