IBI Live

Here’s an announcement by yours truly about the launch of IBI Live: On Site and On Zoom.

We are investing in technology to facilitate a twin track access to our undergraduate programme in Applied Theology from this Autumn. Check it out and share it with others who may be interested!

Does Church Stifle Spiritual Growth? (2)

In the last post we linked to an article written a few years ago by John Wilks called ‘A Spiritual Evangelical Church?’ (EVANGEL, 26.3, AUTUMN 2008). To the question whether church life can actually become an obstacle to spiritual growth his answer is YES, it often can. And the evidence says that many people struggling with or walking away from church are mature, committed believers. Their church experience is one of feeling stifled or constricted. This post surveys his argument and his proposals.

Wilks engages with the research of two authors in the 1980s and late 1990s.

Alan Jamieson: A Churchless Faith

The first is Alan Jamieson, A Churchless Faith: faith journeys beyond the churches (2000). Based on interviews with over 150 people from evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (EPC churches) mostly in their 30s and 40s, this New Zealand pastor developed several categories to describe their journeys.

1. Displaced Followers

About 18% of leavers. Left due to frustration and negativity towards a particular local church and/or its leadership. Not a rejection of faith per se, these remain committed believers. Only about a quarter return to church life somewhere else, most work out their faith apart from a church community but linked in with wider resources of relationships, teaching, books etc.

2. Reflective Exiles

These leavers exit around questions and issues primarily concerning foundations of Christianity itself. It may be questions concerning the love and justice of God, or perhaps these days we can imagine it being around Christian teaching on sex and gender. Regardless of the precise reason, few of such leavers return to church, but few leave Christian faith altogether.

Jamieson talks of these are ‘counter-dependent’ – they find faith expression outside EPC communities. This can be a destabilising process of deconstruction since their faith has been integral to self-identity. They are in unknown new territory with all the uncertainty that brings.

3. Transitional Explorers

This group can be seen as having moved on from Reflective Exiles towards a place of integration – through deconstruction towards reconstruction. This typically has involved a lot of indepth questioning and debate and/or a personal following of intuition of what feels most right. Most remain believers, a small number become agnostic.

4. Integrated Wayfinders

Jamieson came up with this description to try to capture a sense of completion – a new place of integration. Further on from the previous group to a point of finding a clear way forward – a new expression of faith that works. Their leaving of the church is symptomatic of an exploration where they have found more freedom and depth, often with others, outside the confines of church.

The point to note of these 4 groups is that very few are rejecting Christian faith. They leave church because they feel it has become an obstacle to spiritual growth.

James Fowler: Stages of Faith

The second author Wilks discusses is James Fowler and his examination of stages of faith (Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (1981). These go from birth to death so Wilks just talks of stages 2-5. Fowler’s work is dated now and has been critiqued but is still useful.

The key idea here is of a linear progression, linked with age and experience, with later stages associated with older believers.

Stage 2: The Literalist

This is what Fowler calls a straight-forward, even simplistic faith (he puts 20% of adults here). Characterised by a belief in literal interpretations, this faith is largely unexamined.

Stage 3: The Loyalist

Most church members are at this stage. Fowler describes it as an uncritical acceptance of the values and beliefs of the church. Questions like ‘Why do we do this?’ tend not to be asked. A strong sense of belonging, identity and purpose are all connected with church life.

Stage 4: The Critic

This stage sees a shift towards questioning beliefs and practice. Answers that just appeal to tradition (this is the way we do things) or authority (accept what you have been told) do not satisfy. Critics want to work things out for themselves. Values and beliefs are reassessed, uncertainty about cherished positions can bring turmoil but also new discovery and growth.

Stage 5: The Seer

Fowler sees this as a place of peace and resolution – the believer has reached a place of integration – even if that means accepting ambiguity and a lack of easy black and white answers. (I don’t like the term ‘seer’ – it carries too many gnostic associations of arrival at a higher spiritual level). What Fowler is trying to capture is a sense of being beyond the turmoil and disruption of the critic.

Wilks’ Analysis

Wilks sees the two separate pieces of research mapping on to one another with leavers overlapping primarily with stages 4 and 5.

He outlines a few implications:

  • There tends to be a linear progression of faith development
  • There tends to be a gradual order of progress that comes with experience and reflection – people do not jump from the first to the last stage
  • Moving from one stage to another is far from easy – it often involves much angst. It is only when remaining within a stage becomes impossible that someone will transition. But such a shift may well mean leaving behind previous certainties and embracing new uncertainties.
  • Wilks argues that the research suggests that faith development cannot be reduced down to learning more information. Of course it includes this, but it also embraces feelings – around meaning, purpose, questioning, and working out things for oneself.
  • Neither Fowler or Jamieson are arguing that one stage of faith is superior to another. This is not some gnostic ladder of ascent to a higher plane of faith. Movement through the stages is not inevitable.
  • Very few people leave churches due to loss of faith. For Jamieson it was 1%. 81% left because they felt unable to develop spiritually within an EPC church.

Implications for Evangelical / Pentecostal / Charismatic Churches

Wilks is honest in saying there is a temptation to avoid the realities of this discussion within evangelically minded churches. It is difficult, he says, to ask these questions. He says he tried writing the article doing this but couldn’t do it. Obviously what he concludes is not necessarily true of every church, they are general trends. What follows is a summary of three questions and his answers.

QUESTION 1: “Is Evangelicalism a movement which caters for people in a small number of these stages? [His answer ‘Yes it is’]

Jamieson concluded that EPC churches shaped worship, teaching and role models around Stage 3 (loyalists) to encourage and reinforce belief but leaving little space for exploration, questioning and doubt. Wilks agrees with this. It does not tend to welcome self-criticism. Those who ask critical questions can often be seen as disloyal, divisive and ‘un-sound’ and are therefore not listened to or are dismissed. (My comment – this can be true within a local church or a broader denomination. Religious institutions can be incredibly effective at silencing or marginalising dissenters).

If this is often (not always) the case then Wilks concludes that it’s not surprising people feel increasingly marginalised and eventually leave when they enter Stage 4.

QUESTION 2: Is it possible to make a faith journey and remain an Evangelical at all stages of the process? [His answer ‘Only just – but it is not easy]

Fear of questioning is understandable. It may be seen as undermining the leadership, or leading others astray. This can include questions about science and the Genesis creation accounts for example. Or same-sex marriage, or sex before marriage, or the role of women in leadership or penal substitutionary atonement or the exclusiveness of Christian salvation, or the trustworthiness of the Bible, or the historical reliability of the resurrection or the deity of Jesus etc etc

And sure the New Testament does reveal a need to teach truth and reject both doctrinal error and un-Christian behaviour.

But here’s the paradox.

The more questions are either shut down to ‘protect’ the church and its leadership, or are never seriously addressed in the preaching and teaching, the more likely it is those in Stage 4 on will be unwillingly squeezed out.

Jamieson’s work shows that they don’t want to go. They aren’t leaving because they don’t believe any more. They are leaving because who they are – what they think and feel, what is important to their faith and life – has no place in their church community.

So Wilks argues church leadership needs to respond with

“‘Bring it on’ … bring your questions, doubts, uncertainties and let us debate them vigorously and robustly, with respect and rigorous deliberation. Let us reject all half explanations and simplifications, let us look at the difficulties with all their complexity and confusion”

QUESTION 3: Is there something about Evangelicalism that means it deliberately prevents people from attempting to make a faith journey?” [His answer ‘There shouldn’t be, but I think there is.’]

Linked to that last quote, Wilks argues that there is nothing inherent within evangelical faith that means its members can or should remain in Stages 2 or 3. Quite the opposite should be true. There should be nothing to fear from questioning.

But it’s one thing saying this and another facing up to Jamieson’s findings. Wilks challenges leaders to respond, not by avoiding the issue or seeing people who question as problems, but rather actively to encourage believers to “investigate this for yourself.”

“We need not reject our stage 4 disciples and eject them from our churches …. none of us should need to reject the desire to question and investigate.”

“Are we willing to change our perception of stage 4 as a crisis of faith most likely to lead to a loss of faith to one where we view it as a positive period from which we can expect growth?”

My Comments

Recall that Jamieson did his research c. 2000. Wilks wrote in 2008. Today every Christian with access to the internet has access to information and teaching on pretty well anything you can think of. Leaving aside the fact that it’s hard to sift the wheat from vast amounts of chaff, this has two consequences.

One is that long gone are the days when it was actually quite difficult for someone to do even basic biblical and theological research for themselves. Only leaders/clergy were trained and were generally recognised as experts. Now at a few clicks there are excellent teaching, preaching and written biblical and theological resources are available.

Trying to close down questions locally reminds me of a lovely wedding our family watched on Zoom the other day. Due to the pandemic It was outside and the bride ‘entered’ the ‘aisle’ via double doors, built into a frame in the middle of a field. It was a nice image of a church wedding but with no building in site. You’ll get my point – what works as an image in an outdoor wedding won’t work with questions in modern church life. Shutting the doors in the middle of a field means that people will just walk around them.

In other words, not giving space for critics to be listened to, respected and heard, and for their questions to be addressed means that they will most likely continue seeking answers somewhere else. Wilks puts it this way:

“Let us face honestly and seriously the consequences of ignoring this problem. There is a leakage of people through the back doors of Evangelical churches. They are not peripheral people, people who were not converted properly or who have lost their faith. To the contrary, they are often key people, people who put years of hard work into making the church happen and work, and who feel that their spiritual needs simply are not being met. As they move from a stage faith to one in stage 4, where they are now questioning and evaluating everything, they discover that they are no longer welcome in the typical Evangelical church. After gradually sliding out of their areas of responsibility they slip away.”

Another is that, for good or ill, authority has been radically decentered. I say for ‘for ill’ because I happen to believe that authority matters. Church tradition and doctrine has historical and theological weight and should be respected. Theological and biblical expertise matters. Church is not an individualist ‘free for all’ where every half-baked Bible interpretation has equal merit.

But it is ‘for good’ in that faith should never be ‘second hand’ – just accepted unquestioningly on someone else’s authority. Such faith has thin foundations, especially in a secular, pluralist, post-Christendom culture like ours. It is not good enough today – if it ever was – for leaders or denominations just to appeal to authority in the face of critical questioning. It is, in effect, saying ‘the church is not the place for you’. Leadership that has confidence in God and his Word trusts him, it welcomes questions, especially from experienced committed believers who want to grow and develop in their faith and worship of God.

Does church stifle spiritual growth? (1)

In our local church we are in the process of a ‘Listening’ exercise. It is linked to coming out of lockdown – Ireland had the longest amount of time in lockdown I think in Europe. As a church we have not been able to meet physically since March 2020, mainly because we do not have our own building.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, of which we are a part, provided resources to churches to help them hear what their people are thinking and feeling as we emerge from lockdown.

We adapted these into a questionnaire, answered via a google form, around 5 questions. The first asked about personal faith and sense of connection to the church community.

The next four followed this traffic light system suggested by PCI. Here’s a clip of the form. This was all public domain so no problem sharing here:

We gave three avenues for feedback to be collected. Via written individual submissions, by group discussion and notes taken at Bible study groups, and a community ‘Townhall’ event on Zoom.

The idea here was to give people different ways to communicate, and also the option to hear from others in the process.

A couple of things stand out to me so far.

One is how welcomed the process has been. Most people participated in one way or another. We are a small community, but the amount of feedback is significant. An overwhelming sense, made in verbal and written comments, is of appreciation of the process. Appreciation of the chance, given by the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic, as a church to pause, review and reflect what we are about as a community.

It is this openness to ask the questions (and hopefully to listen well to the answers, especially when what is said is difficult to hear) that people have appreciated. It will take some time for us as leaders to process and act on.

Another is how rarely these sorts of questions tend to get asked in churches (at least in my experience, maybe yours is different).

Asking questions is risky. We may not expect the answers we get. We may not like the answers we get. But without giving space for people honestly to express their views we will never really know what is going on.

But here’s my theory – it is actually the answers we find most troubling, or disagree with the most, that we need to be listening to the hardest because they are likely challenging our own perceptions and assumptions of what is going on. That’s why we find them threatening or unreasonable.

But rather than finding them a threat or dismissing them, we should be welcoming them as answers which can help us see things differently. It’s the temptation to close down critical voices that should be resisted because to do so is a form of not listening.

This all reminded me of an article written a good while ago by Dr John Wilks in the journal Evangel which made quite an impression on me when I first read it and which I have kept to hand. I had the pleasure of corresponding now and then with John when he was book review editor of Evangelical Quarterly.

The title of the article is ‘A Spiritual Evangelical Church?’ (EVANGEL, 26.3, AUTUMN 2008)

The question mark is significant. He’s exploring the question of whether there is an innate conflict between growing spiritually as a Christian and being in an evangelical church community.

In other words, does church stifle spiritual growth?

His answer is, a lot of the time, ‘YES’

Now that should be a troubling and perhaps puzzling answer for most of us in church leadership of one sort of another. It’s an answer that we may not want to hear, or a question that we have never really thought about. After all, doesn’t active participation in church life – worship, Bible studies, mission, service, teaching, various ministries – show in itself that someone is doing Ok spiritually?

Wilks says actually things are a lot more complicated than that. And that for many Christians, despite appearances of active church involvement, church is a place of frustration, alienation and boredom.

And here’s the key thing – such Christians are NOT young believers or half-hearted disciples. They tend to be committed, long-serving and mature Christians who are not ‘losing their faith’ or ‘falling away’. But they are walking away from church.

So what is going on? Come back for part 2 to find out !

Dylan at 80

This is a rich weekend for Dylan fans like yours truly.

The great man’s 80th birthday is the catalyst for an outpouring of all sorts of broadcast programmes, events and articles.

Here’s a little flavour of ones I’ve listened to or plan to.

These five 15 minute podcasts on BBC Radio 4 by Sean Latham, Director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, and editor of The World of Bob Dylan, are rather wonderful. They trace Dylan’s music, poetry and life in five periods from the early 60s to 2020.

What came across, to me anyway, is the man’s single-minded devotion to his craft. In a world of endless distraction and noise, he has followed his vocation relentlessly – and still is. Thus lie the seeds of true greatness. Know what you want to do and follow your passion. In Dylan’s case never allowing himself to be boxed in to others’ agendas or expectations.

Also on Radio 4 over the weekend was Verbatim, Dylan in his own words

And Front Row on BBC Radio 4 has a programme discussing his music and legacy with Bob Geldof and others

On BBC Radio 6 Cerys Matthews, she of a Welsh lilt and great taste in music, hosted a birthday tribute to saint Bob

And she also has a programme on BBC Radio 2 on Bob Dylan Blues to mark the occasion

The BBC World Service has a ‘Heart and Soul’ programme looking at his Gospel period, broadcast last Friday

In Dublin, tomorrow night there is a free livestream event from the US Embassy on You Tube and Facebook to celebrate his birthday.

That’s enough to be getting on with …. time spent with Bob is time well spent.

Happy Birthday Bob!

UPDATE

A couple of other things to add from today, Dylan’s birthday.

This article from Declan Kiberd in the Irish Times

And this charming letter from the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins – ‘one 80 year old to another’

Very short musings on beauty and love

This was the view over Belfast Lough the other night. The vista from the Craigantlet hills above Holywood is a favourite of mine but last night was a pretty special show.

A connection between beauty and love goes back a long way – for example to Plato’s Symposium where beauty is the highest or primary form of love.

Here’s a very short musing evoked by this beautiful scene that goes in a slightly different direction.

One of the most popular sayings about love is that “true love is unconditional”. But what is meant by that phrase is often left unclear.

It could mean that love just loves with no strings attached, with no expectations of the other at all. Yes, this expression of love does occur – but it is pretty rare.

One example is a devoted daughter caring for her terminally ill mother, who cannot communicate or do anything much for herself at all. The relationship is very much ‘one-way’ – the giver selflessly giving out of love that does not expect anything in return (unconditional).

But let me suggest that generally human love is anything but unconditional. Typically it is conditioned (evoked or dependent on) specific qualities in the object of love.

Take the scene above. It is a lovely view. There is a tight connection between beauty and love – think of a place that you love to go to. Why? I bet it is not generally an anonymous industrial estate on the fringe of city. It will probably be beautiful, or it will have a deep personal connection in the story of your life. I love this view not only because of its beauty but because this is where I grew up – it links to many good memories and connects to stories and people.

Or take a person you love. A son’s love for his dad is conditioned on the fact that he is his father. It is anything but an unconditioned love. Human love tends to be very specific in direction. It is far from random.

Or take two lovers. They are drawn to each other for specific reasons. It’s a pretty cold sort of relationship where partners have nothing to say about the special, attractive qualities of the other!

Think of the woman from the Songs of Songs chapter 5 extolling at great length the unique physical characteristics of her lover:

My beloved is radiant and ruddy,

outstanding among ten thousand.

Song of Songs 5:10

Her love is obviously conditioned on who he is, just as his love is conditioned on who she is – both are intensely attracted to each other and pretty well the whole book is a celebration of their delight in one another.

And if we jump forward from their relationship to modern relationships today, for a couple’s bond to last and flourish both individuals need to be loving the other. Relationships die if only one partner actively loves (cares for, is kind to, acts for the other’s good). Love in this sense is conditional on the other person loving back. Yes there are many examples of one partner relentlessly loving the other even in the face of betrayal and coldness, but generally for love to survive and develop it is conditional on reciprocity.

So the next time you hear the slogan ‘True love is unconditional’ maybe ask the person, ‘What do you mean?’ and see where the conversation goes.

Marva Dawn – a joyful Christian life

Marva Dawn

Back in 2008 it was a pleasure and rare privilege to spend some days with Marva Dawn and her husband Myron Sandberg. With my IBI hat on I had invited her to come over from America and speak at our annual Summer Institute.

It was a delight to get to know her and Myron. I recall reading in The Atlantic some time ago that research showed that marriages that flourish have kindness at their heart. A lack of kindness is the surest indicator that a relationship is in trouble. Theirs was a kind way of being that brought others into its generous orbit. And a michievous wit and sense of humour as well.

She taught on themes related to her books on worship such as Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (1995), A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (1999) and my favourite Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (2002) which won a Christianity Today annual book award.

If you haven’t read any of Marva’s work then you have something to look foward to.

In class yesterday by coincidence I was talking about Marva’s book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting as an example of a rich, thoughtful and life-giving theological response to our restless and frentic culture, driven by an insatiable desire for more.

Today I learnt from a friend that Marva had recently passed away (April 18) aged 72. She had suffered from an array of serious illnesses for many years. I think it was polio that meant that one leg was in a brace, and she had had a kidney transplant, cancer, blindness in one eye and other ailments. She wrote a wonderful book called Being Well When We’re Ill: Wholeness and Hope In Spite of Infirmity that has been a help to many many people. But she was not defined by her infirmities! She was a far from infirm thinker and she displayed fierce courage not only in dealing with her frail body but in her bold and uncompromising call to the church to spiritual faithfulness in an age of compromise and confusion.

It is hard to think of a more joyful Christian. She radiated joy – joy in the Lord, joy in being with fellow brothers and sisters, joy in her marriage with Myron and joy in teaching. She leaves a rich legacy – not only of significant books, but in and through many lives enriched by encountering her along the way.

She was a prophetic voice in calling the church to authenticity, prayer, humility, connection to the Great Tradition of historic church worship and liturgy – and to love. We need voices like Marva’s – and Eugene Peterson with whom she worked closely – more than ever. Gentleness, kindness, joyfulness, love, peacefulness, patience – these are characteristics of the power of God’s Spirit at work. How ironic that so often such characteristics are dismissed or despised as not ‘strong’ enough or not ‘effective’ enough in so much church ‘leadership’ practice.

In several different ways these last couple of weeks I’ve been reminded of how short life is. As the Psalmist says

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
    they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.

Ps 103:15-16

Marva lived with a close awareness of her mortality. Even back in 2008 I remember her wondering how long she had left and if that would be one of her last trips abroad – travel was simply becoming too difficult physically. But death was not feared. We are back to joy again – because of Easter she had a joyful hope that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already opened up a new future for all joined to him through faith. Death has lost its sting.

She is now in that future. Her ‘light and momentary’ troubles are over. And I can imagine her now in the presence of Jesus her Lord and his words of welcome,

‘Well done good and faithful servant’.

Love in Paul (13) Conclusions and suggestions for a love-audit of our lives

This is the final post in a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We’ve covered a lot of ground. The evidence is overwhelming that love is central within Paul’s own experience and plays a determining role within his entire theological framework.

That’s a significant claim, but the supporting evidence is strong. Too often love in Paul has been overlooked, downplayed or marginalised as some sort of ‘second order’ doctrine.

There are reasons for this – not least the dominance of soteriology in Pauline theology. Centuries of polemical debates about justification – whether RCC/Reformers, New versus Old Perspectives – have tended, particularly within Protestant/evangelicalism, to make one’s position on justification a touchstone of ‘soundness’ or orthodoxy.

E.G. – if you like N T Wright over John Piper you’re suspect on ‘the gospel’ of justification by faith alone. And therefore suspect (not to be trusted) in general.

But, ironically, this passion for orthodoxy can miss the wider purpose of justification in Paul’s thought. Love is not a nice ‘by-product’ of justification – it is the entire point (Galatians 5:6).

What would it look like I wonder if there was equal passion for ‘soundness’ regarding ‘faith working in love’ as in a correct understanding of righteousness by faith alone?

Paul is first and foremost a missionary-pastor. His priority is the moral formation of believers in the fledgling Christian communities that he planted or helped to grow. And that moral formation is framed within a comprehensive theology of love.

For Paul love does the following:

> His understanding of who God is is revolutionised in light of Jesus Christ. God demonstrates his love in the cross. Out of love the Father, Son and Spirit work together of effect salvation.

> The Spirit works to transform believers into the likeness of Christ – a process that has love at its core

> Believers living in communities of love fulfil the Law

> Christian freedom takes the form of self-sacrifical love

> Christian worship revolves around love for God and love for one another

> Love is God’s ‘spiritual weapon’ in an eschatological conflict between the realm of the flesh and the Spirit

> Love is the ‘oil’ which enables the church to function. The apostle knows that without love communities made up of diverse social, ethnic and religious groupings will fall apart.

> Communities of love are missional in that they form a counter-story to the hierarchies of power that shaped the Greco-Roman world

> Love is inseparable from Paul’s theology of financial giving to help fellow brothers and sisters in need.

> Love for God and being loved by God give a robust framework to withstand suffering, persecution and even death

> Love is the primary motive for Christian mission

> Echoing Jesus, love for enemies is to mark a Christian’s response to injustice

> Without love, all Christian ministry is worthless

> Love describes ultimate eschatological hope for believers – it is love alone which will endure forever

In other words, theology and ethics in Paul must not be divorced. They are inseparable.

A Love Audit of Our Lives

Reflecting on this final list again I’m challenged to think about what a ‘love-audit’ of my – or any Christian’s – life would look like

Perhaps something like this: and feel welcome to add your own comments or suggestions – this is very much a thought experiment.

  1. Consider honestly and self-critically each point above and reflect on your own life in light of them.
  2. Move to prayers of confession and repentance (if you have nothing to do here may I suggest you haven’t done point 1 very well!)
  3. Ask the Spirit’s help to deal with areas of un-love in your life – grudges; unforgiveness; arrogance; lack of action; selfishness; disobedience; lack of generosity; bitterness; despair; greed; where unloving means have justified even good ends.
  4. Be accountable – a life of love is a corporate journey. It is to be shared with others – our failures and weaknesses as as well as successes. Have a friend / mentor who can ask you the hard questions and expect truthful answers.
  5. Write down some concrete actions in light of your reflections and act on them
  6. Repeat 1-5 on a continual basis. In this way make love central to your Christian faith and life since this is God’s agenda for his people.

Romans Disarmed – a review

This is a review I did of Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019 that was recenly published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics.

My description and critical assessment are contained in the review so I won’t repeat here what is said below – save to say that while I was unpersuaded by the authors’ relentless politicisation of Paul, many important and controversial questions about the meaning and contemporary relevance of the apostle’s magnificent letter to the Romans are addressed within its pages.

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This ambitious book stands in continuity with Keesmaat and Walsh’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP Academic, 2004). I use the word ‘ambitious’ in that since probably no other New Testament book has had as much written about it than Romans, it is a daunting task for anyone to write seriously on the letter, let alone do what the authors are attempting to do in this volume. Namely, to use that historical, theological and exegetical work as a basis for articulating a comprehensive anti-imperial interpretation of Romans (ch. 1 ‘Reading Romans and Disarming Empire’) from which to explore how the apostle’s words continue to challenge various expressions of what the authors identify as ‘modern imperialism’ such as: colonialism and the conquest of the Indigenous peoples of Canada (ch. 3 ‘Empire and Broken Worldviews’); home and homelessness (ch. 4. ‘Homeless in Rome’); ecological destruction (ch. 5 ‘Creation and Defilement in Rome’); the economic destructiveness of modern capitalism (ch 6. ‘Economic Justice and the Fabric of Life’); systematic injustice against the poor and marginalised (ch. 7 ‘Welcoming the Powerless’); a culture extolling nationalism, racism, identity politics, power and violence (ch. 8 ‘The Pax Romana and the Gospel of Peace’); and injurious and exploitative sexual behaviour (ch. 9 ’Imperial Sexuality and Covenant Faithfulness’).

But Romans Disarmed is ambitious in other ways as well. The authors note that the ‘disarmed’ in the title is a deliberate double entendre on the way Paul’s epistle ‘disarms’ both the violence of the first-century and modern empires and the way in which Romans itself needs to be disarmed, ‘after centuries of being used theologically as an instrument of oppression and exclusion’ (p. xiii). What they mean by this surfaces regularly throughout the book. The following gives a flavour of the emotive strength of this critique. ‘For this is a text that has been used to justify the tearing of the church asunder … Romans has been wielded as weapon, often in service of theological violence’ (pp. 105-06). Romans has been domesticated by ‘a pietistic interpretation preoccupied with individual salvation or personal righteousness’ (p. 278). As ‘the church has wielded this epistle as a sword within its own theological wars, the letter itself has been strangely (and paradoxically) rendered powerless’ (p. 252). The text has been ‘betrayed’; the church’s preoccupation with the ‘justification’ of the ‘sinner’ has led it to lose sight of Paul’s ‘radical message of how in Jesus Christ those who are unjust are made to be anew, equipped and empowered for lives of justice’ (p. 252). ‘If we are going to disarm Romans, then we will need to disarm the language of salvation and of its exclusionary judgmentalism’ (p. 368).

Chapter 1 is key to the authors’ project in that it unpacks and defends their reading of Paul intentionally seeking to confront and undermine the story of the Roman empire. They do this through a fictional dialogue with a sceptical observer who asks a series of questions. The questions are obviously ones that the authors are anticipating from scholars, readers and reviewers (such as this one). How convincing one finds their answers will largely dictate how persuasive one finds the rest of the book and so I will pay particular attention to this chapter.

Debates about ‘empire criticism’ have been swirling around New Testament studies since the 1990s, particularly associated with Richard Horsley and the ‘Paul and Politics’ group at the Society of Biblical Literature and later with N. T. Wright. Via their interlocutor, the authors engage with John Barclay’s critique of Wright’s account of Paul and Empire (pp. 13-14). They reject Barclay’s argument (Pauline Churches and the Diaspora Jews. Mohr Sieback, 2001, ch. 19) that, for Paul, the Roman empire was effectively insignificant in that it was merely an unnamed bit-part player in a much bigger cosmic conflict between God and the powers (death, sin and the defeat of evil through the victory of God in Christ). They side with Wright in seeing this cosmic battle being embodied in the specific form of Roman idolatry and injustice (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, book 2. Fortress, 2013. pp. 1307-19). And so Romans is interpreted as a deliberate counter narrative to that of Empire; ‘the symbols, vocabulary and structure of the empire underlie the world’ that Paul describes in Romans (p. 14). Despite Paul never mentioning Caesar and his empire, the original recipients living under the cruel injustices of Pax Romana would have ‘got’ the message loud and clear. It is modern readers who need the epistle’s clear anti-empire implications spelt out – which is what the authors then proceed to do in great detail in the rest of the book. They do so in a highly political manner, going beyond Wright’s softer view of implicit subversion to seeing Paul engaging in a systematic programme of cultural, social and political negation against Rome. The result is that Rome is everywhere in Romans. To give one example, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom 16:16) is a kiss ‘breaking down the racial, political, gender, and economic boundaries of the empire … the loving and respectful kiss that characteriszes the family of Jesus, in contrast to the imperial family of father Caesar’ (p. 137).

The force of this political hermeneutic is earthed in imaginary stories of Iris (a slave) and Nereus (a Jewish believer named in Romans 16:15). It is also expanded in a number of lengthy ‘Targums’ imagining how Paul would write Romans today in our context of empire, racism, nationalism and economic injustice. It shapes a reading of Romans through the lens of home, homelessness and homecoming where traditional themes such as justification and the status of Israel are set in the context of how a diverse community make home together amid empire. It reads creation groaning as Paul referring to destructive Roman environmental practices. It interprets economic themes as crucial to Paul’s letter that then speaks directly into the injustices of contemporary global capitalism and Pax Americana and related issues such as MAGA. It sees Paul’s ‘creational vision and prioritizing of economic justice in the face of imperial economics’ as underpinning a contemporary ‘economy of care’ that will require ‘full-scale paradigm shift in economic life’ (p. 263). It rearticulates salvation as ‘nothing to do with an eternal home in heaven or the release of a guilty conscience’ but as a matter of justice, especially for the poor (p. 368). It interprets the ‘dominion of death’ of Romans 5:14-17, not as a cosmic power, but as ‘an end to the imperial rule of death’ (p. 369 emphasis original).

On a related, but different tack, the authors contrast the degradations of imperial sexuality against a calling by Paul to sexual relationships of faithfulness, justice and covenant love and conclude that committed, faithful Christian homosexual relationships should be seen, not as a threat to marriage but as a witness to its restoration.

Keesmaat and Walsh write with a passion to see Paul’s ancient words speak with relevance and power into our 21st century world. Whether you agree with their arguments or not, a strength of this book is to ‘defamiliarize’ Paul and make readers think afresh about their prior reading of Romans. Few would disagree that the call of all in Rome loved by God to be saints (Rom 1:7) involves participation in a profoundly subversive way of life within diverse communities bonded together by love. Many readers may find themselves in broad agreement with large swathes of their politics. However, if you sense an impending ‘but’ you would be right. In fact, there are several.

Despite the authors’ anticipation of objections of confirmation bias, it is difficult not to conclude that their methodology is open to such criticism. If you are looking for Rome ‘behind every bush’ then you are going to find it. Repeatedly through the book there are arguments from inference. For example, Paul’s words about creation in Romans 8 ‘could only’ have been understood as a critique of the ‘land-destroying’ practices of empire because he visited Judea and Roman cities and must have been aware of the environmental impact of Roman economic exploitation (pp. 172-3). This is a threadbare basis for such firm conclusions. In this vein, the Targums are in significant danger of literally re-writing Romans along the lines of what the authors judge Paul should be saying. I suspect there is not a lot of daylight between the authors’ politics and those of Paul reimagined for our day.

As noted above, there are highly polemical statements made about how others have ‘armed’ Romans. However, apart from general assertions there is no critical engagement with specific representations of such voices. This weakness extends to a lack of detailed engagement with exegetical scholarship, a symptom of where the scale of the book’s ambition becomes problematic. If such a radical re-reading of Romans is to stand up it needs critical dialogue with alternative voices. It also, dare I say, could do with a more gracious tone.

It is not clear what place is left for eschatology in Romans Disarmed. When death in Romans 5 means imperial rule, creation groaning is primarily about Roman environmental malpractice and salvation equals justice, this question becomes a very real one. There is little discussion of the ‘first fruits’ of the Spirit, life in the Spirit versus life in the flesh in the overlap of the ages, divine conflict with hostile powers, nor of the eschatological implications of resurrection, baptism, the Adam / Christ contrast, Israel in the plan of God, and God’s wrath and future judgment – all significant themes in Romans. At one point angels, demons and the powers are specifically excluded from Paul’s list of things unable to separate believers from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (pp. 378-79). The book closes with an invitation to imagine the future world in the present, but such is the weight put on economic justice that one cannot but feel that Paul’s pervasive eschatological emphasis has been flattened out into a this-worldly horizon.

Paradoxically, given the authors’ critique of Christendom and the captivation of the church to the imagination of empire, the broad political ambitions of this book raises questions about how consistent it is with Paul’s understanding of the church’s mission. Such is the strength of the apostle’s focus on the inner integrity of the community, it is a moot point how much room there is, if any, for transforming the Roman world. Based largely on Romans some scholars like T. Engberg-Pedersen (‘Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12–13: The Role of 13:1–10 in the Argument’, JSNT 29 (2006): 163–72) and R. Thorsteinsson (‘Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics’, JSNT 29 (2006): 139–61 and Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality.Oxford University Press, 2010) argue that, in contrast to the universal scope of Stoic ethics there is no ‘love for others’ ethic in Paul, the furthest he goes is exhortation to treat outsiders well. Others, like D. Horrell (Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics. 2nd ed. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016) see some common universal ethical norms such as a shared recognition of the good. But generally, the vocation to be an alternative peaceable community in a world ruled by empire is much closer to Barclay’s judgment than Keesmaat’s and Walsh’s expansive political programme. Paul’s silence about Rome may be the most counter-imperial stance of all.

This is the Original Submission of the review. The final published edition was first published online April 20, 2021. Issue published 01 May, 2021. Studies in Christian Ethics 34(2), pp 267-270.

Love in Paul (12) was Paul a proto anabaptist?

We’re getting to the end of a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the third and final post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.

In this post we’re focusing on a controversial issue that brings us right into contemporary debates about social justice and cultural transformation. A question raised by study of a Pauline theology of love is this:

Is there a place for loving ‘outsiders’ in a Pauline theology of love?

And linked to this we can add:

How ‘ambitious’ should Christians be about transforming the culture in which according to Christian principles?

Those who believe the church has a God-given mandate to shape society to Christian beliefs belong to a long history that can be traced back to Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313 when Christianity, for the first time, was officially treated benevolently by the Empire, paving the way for it later to become the state religion. It runs through Medieval Catholicism (Aquinas) and into the Reformation. The Reformers disagreed with medieval Catholicism about a lot of things, but the God-given centrality of the church in ordering society was not one of them.

We can call this the cultural transformers corner.

Yet there is a strange paradox to the cultural transformers’ position. Christians follow a Messiah crucified by the state. The first centuries of the church were forged in persecution and martyrdom. Deep down in its DNA, Christianity is a faith formed by suffering at the hands of those in power. And when the church has got into positions of power, let’s just say that it has not tended to end well.

There is still much theological reflecting to do on the relationships between Christianity and colonialism and imperialism – and how both were dependent on a theology of justified violence to advance Western ‘Christian’ values and interests.

All this to say that the cultural transformers’ position sits very uneasily beside the teaching of Jesus. But less recognised is that is also sits very uneasily beside the teaching of Paul. (You may like to read this related post on Paul and non-violence).

Paul and love of ‘Outsiders’

A beginning point: as we have seen in this series it is undeniable that Paul has an overwhelming focus on love within Christian communities.

Some scholars therefore argue that Paul effectively has NOTHING to say about love for outsiders. His focus is on the internal authenticity of the first Christian communities.

So when you read a text like Romans 12:9-21 it is speaking of love restricted within the community of believers. Yes non-believers are to be treated well but there is no command to love them. This is love as an ‘in-group’ ethic. It defines the community of faith and marks them out as distinct from the world.

The implication here is that there is no mandate in Paul for a theology of cultural transformation. Such thinking rests on an expansive understanding of the church’s mission to be an agent by which God transforms the world. Yet Paul has no such agenda. His focus is on the internal integrity of Christian communities that speak of a different story to that of the ‘present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4).

Other scholars do not want to go so far. Not commanding believers to love outsiders is not the same as telling them only to love fellow believers. There are Pauline texts that suggest loving outside the community of faith, and even love of enemies:

1 Corinthians 16:14 “Let all that you do be done in love.”

1 Thessalonians 3:12 “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”

Philippians 4:5 “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

Galatians 6:10 “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Romans 12:14 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Beyond specific texts, there is then Paul’s framing of the Christian life as the imitation of Jesus – which involves self-sacrificial love of the other, including enemies (Romans 5:8).

Other scholars discern in Paul a recognition of the common good. For example live peaceably with others and be known of good reputation (e.g., Phil 4:5 “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”)

However, it has to be said that such arguments are a long way short of any theological platform for ‘cultural transformation’. At best they are shaped by Paul’s primary concern for mission – how best to win outsiders for Christ.

So it can be argued – and I do – that Paul’s attitude to the state / wider society is certainly far more consistent with how anabaptists read the New Testament than how cultural transformers do.

In other words, yes, it is possible to argue that Paul was a proto-anabaptist.

His concern for a peaceable, loving, non-violent community willing to suffer for the cause of the gospel is consistent with the teaching of Jesus and is, I believe, hard to reconcile with a Christendom perspective of religiously sanctioned power and violence.

As I’ve said before, all this makes me a very bad Presbyterian!

Ministry amidst “An Abundance of Caution”

These are remarkable times for sure. Conversation after conversation is dominated by debates over risk of death and illness and how best to mitigate that risk on a national level. Two examples;

1) Irish Quarantine

A furore has broken out here in Ireland about mandatory hotel quarantine – its legality (whether it is in reality a form of detention breaching constitutional rights) and its inflexible application – already more than one court case has been won against detaining already vaccinated people, or where someone returns (vaccinated and Covid free) to see a dying relative only to be quarantined for 2 weeks and possibly being denied the chance to say farewell. The irony is not hard to see – a dying person cannot see their son in order to ‘protect’ them from risk of infection. And this does not touch on its military-style application, even for people with negative tests and who have already been vaccinated. This from the Irish Govt website.

Designated fresh air breaks will be accommodated at the hotel. A designated safe and secure space for fresh air breaks will be available at the hotel. These breaks should be booked in advance. The hotel will endeavour to accommodate guests at their preferred time.

At the requested time, a Security person will knock on the guests door and escort them to the designated area. All outdoor areas are monitored. Security will escort guests back to their bedroom after their break. In order to protect other guests and the hotel team, a fresh air break will only be permitted after you have received a negative PCR test.

Penalties for breaking the rules are €2000 in fines and up to a month in jail.

2) The Astra Zeneca Vaccine

And this evening it has been announced that the AstraZeneca vaccine will not now be given to anyone under 60. This is the advice of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC). This follows a report from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which concluded that a small number of unusual blood clots in the brain are likely linked to the AZ vaccine. These cases are serious and potentially fatal.

From what I’ve read there have been about 222 cases in the UK and EU out of about 34 million cases. That is risk of about 0.00000652941176471. This compared to a many hundreds of times higher risk of being unvaccinated and getting Covid-19, especially the older you are.

As I understand it, the NIAC advice, accepted by the Irish Govt, goes much further than the EMA advice which says that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the minimal risk.

Ministry amidst “An Abundance of Caution”

There are no easy answers here. And this is not an argument for law-breaking, arrogance, lack for respect and care for others, or a selfish insistence on individual rights at the expense of the common good. Neither am I a doctor or politician. These are complex, difficult decisions based on multiple factors. I don’t envy those who have to make tough calls. Everyone has their own opinions and the comments sections on newspapers are rather places of rather vitriolic debate (no change there on most comment sections come to think of it). On those issues my opinions are probably as (mis)informed as anyone else.

But as a Christian and church elder and someone trained to think theologically, the point I want to focus on is a phrase used by one of the NIAC advisors who said that the advice to limit the AZ vaccine to over 60s was made out of “an abundance of caution“.

Safety first. Minimise risk. Lockdown. Protect the vulnerable. Save the health service. This is, rightly or wrongly, the dominant narrative of 2020-21.

But such a narrative raises many questions for Christian life and ministry.

One of the last things believers or churches should be characterised by is “an abundance of caution.”

Thankfully God is not characterised by “an abundance of caution.” He is a God of outrageous grace and extravagant salvation whose saving love finds ultimate expression in the cross of Christ.

Christian mission is not to be marked by “an abundance of caution.” Countless martyrs throughout Christian history testify to that.

Christian love is not be marked by “an abundance of caution.” It is to be poured out generously for others, often at great cost to the self.

Christian worship is not be marked by “an abundance of caution.” It is to be joyful, wholehearted and holistic.

Christian faith is not a “safe investment’ with a guaranteed return. It is a call to an adventure of following the Risen Lord wherever he leads and who calls his followers to an un-cautious life:

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:27-31

All this raises questions for individual believers and church leadership teams. And pershaps answering these sorts of questions will be one of the main challenges for churches as the rest of 2021 unfolds.

What does it look like to live an ‘un-cautious’ life in times characterised by ‘an abundance of caution’?

What does it mean to be communities of faith, hope, joy and courage in a culture shaped by fear of making a mistake?

What does the gospel have to say about life and death in times confronted with, and traumatised by, the reality of death?