The pandemic is exposing the myths of Western individualism

This post is sparked by reading Douglas Campbell’s marvellous Pauline Dogmatics.

If asked to diagram social relations, very likely most of us would typically use a number of circles to represent individuals.

Each person is imagined as a self-contained ‘unit’, a discrete individual, separated off from other individuals by a social space.

This is a picture of the person as a self-sufficient person, with clear boundaries delineating them from other individuals. Others exist in their own spheres, perhaps bouncing off each other now and then, but essentially each of us are our own island.

Margaret Thatcher famously took this to its logical conclusion in stating that there is ‘no such thing as society’. Or, in Campbell’s words;

Personhood exists in isolation and society is a game of marbles

p.50

But with even a little analysis we soon realise this is a myth. All of us are incomplete, indeed we are crippled, without a network of social relationships. Our very identity and sense of personhood depends on interaction with, and recognition of, others.

This simple diagram begins to hint at how who we are is bound up with with relationships. The self cannot exist in splendid isolation.

By Wykis – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1618169

This is why the pandemic is so hard to bear – we are being forced to actually live like the isolated individuals of Western consumerism / capitalism. And it shrivels the soul and breaks the heart. There is something deeply alien to our humanity to be in enforced lockdown.

For those us locked away with family members that we actually like and get on with this is just about survivable! But we still miss 1001 things about everyday life – its vibrancy, life, and delicious complexity, not to mention hugs, food with friends, and endless fascination of meeting new people.

For those trapped in spaces characterised by toxic relationships, it is unimagineably difficult. For those living on their own it is a lonely wilderness experience, unsustainable in the long term.

Douglas Campbell wrote his book long before Covid-19 was known about. So his words have perhaps attained extra prophetic weight in the meantime. He speaks of the connection between our social identity and the nature of God – Father, Son and Spirit.

We must let this revelation concerning the true nature of personhood sink down into out theologial bones, since it will pervade all that follows. People are relational beings because the personal God that is the Trinity is a relational communion, and we are made in the image of God …

At the heart of all reality lies an interpersonal and hence fundamental familial God. We are involved with a divinity that is interpersonal in the most committed and relational fashion.

p.52

Lockdown is necessary. But it comes at great cost – and I am NOT talking money here. It’s an issue of love. I say this because Christians believe, as Campbell says that

At the heart of the universe is a play of love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

p. 55

We are embodied beings, made by a relational God of love to be in relationships of love with him and with each other. Of course we can still love others we can only see on a computer screen, but it is a pale imitation of a fully functioning relationship.

And so, from a theological perspective, we long for the ending of lockdown, NOT so we can save the economy (although we need it to work in order to live) but so that we can love – for that is what we have been created to do.

And, even more remarkably, as God’s children love they ‘witness’ to the truth of who God is. God takes the ‘risk’ of choosing people like you and me to reveal or demonstrate his love to the world.

So in this pandemic, let us be asking ourselves, how can we as individuals and as church communities mediate something of the love of the triune God to a coronavirus world.

Comments welcome

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (27) Marriage and singleness

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On p. 248 you stress that Christian marriage is not a private relationship in which you have all your love concentrated and all your love needs met.  As you say, Paul sees marriage as exhibit A of the larger relationship Christ has with his body, his bride, the church. “The primary location for love is not the nuclear family but the community of the church.” I agree, but this is not what most people mean by a family church (that usually means a church that nurtures nuclear family units, or worse still a church run by a singular nuclear family). Help us to better understand how in an individualistic age we get across that the church is the primary family.

PATRICK:  I say to students sometimes that there’s a ‘weirdness’ to Christianity that we need to feel otherwise we’ve probably domesticated the gospel. I mean by that that Christianity is profoundly ‘out of step’ with many assumed norms of Western culture – and marriage is one example. Conservatives tend to idealise a 1960s version of the nuclear family – a phrase that probably conjures up in our minds images of 2 parents and 2.5 children living in a detached home on a suburban street. Conservatives tend to want to ‘recover’ this lost ideal as a way of promoting social stability. Western liberalism tends to prize love, sex and the option of marriage all belonging to the private domain of the individual lovers, regardless of gender.

It seems to me that Christian marriage challenges both social conservatism and radical individualism. While it is an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman, it is not a a private relationship.

In Ephesians 5 the couple’s love is to exist within the wider network of relationships that is the church (ekklēsia appears multiple times in this text). They are first and foremost members of Christ’s body called, like any other disciples, to love brothers and sisters across deep divides around religious and ethnic background, gender and social status. This relativises marriage – it is not an end in itself. It is not the place the couple’s love rules supreme and which might perhaps ‘overflow’ to others. It’s the other way around – as disciples they learn to love within the community and take that Christian love into marriage.

As Hauerwas says,

‘Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se.’ 

This means that Christian marriages ‘belong’ within community – they are to be ‘porous’ (places of hospitality and welcome) not impermeable (the self-sufficient nuclear family).

This perspective gives space to recover a proper theology of celibacy and singleness as an equally (if not higher) calling than marriage – which is also a radical challenge to idolisation of the nuclear family.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (23)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: We are called to love self-sacrificially, as Christ loved. That seems a very high standard indeed which we can only approximate at times. But it does make clear that Christ expects a lot of us. ‘To whom more is given….’. I have grown tired of the mistranslation of the famous verse in Philippians which actually reads ‘I am able…… all things in Him who strengthens me’. It seems clearly, in light of Paul just saying he has learned contentment in good times and bad, with and without material well being that the appropriate way to read that verse is not ‘I can DO all things…’ but rather ‘I am able to endure with contentment all things… etc. Comments??

PATRICK: Yes, in John’s Gospel disciples are commanded to love one another as Jesus has loved them. Indeed loving one another is the only duty that is commanded in the whole Gospel. What that means is spelt out – Jesus lays down his life for his friends. This is love orientated to the good of others at cost to the self. It’s the very heart of Christianity. Of course all of this is much easier to understand in theory than do in practice! In the book I quote Francis Moloney, ‘Words about love can come easily enough; lives that demonstrate love are harder to come by.’ I happen to be married to someone who lives such a life but I agree with you that it’s a tough calling. It’s a long way from the sort of naïve positive thinking that you mention. I fail to be loving every day to the people I like, let alone to the ones I don’t! This is why life in Christian community is where the rubber really hits the road. Love hangs in there. It’s open-eyed about human failure – including our own. It seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s honest. Churches are made up of all sorts of people and love is the only thing that’s going to hold it together if it’s going to flourish and grow. Perhaps it’s only such authentic communities of love that are going to make an impact on a (often rightly) sceptical world.

 

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (13)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: P. 114 is one of the more important diagnoses in the book of what is wrong with the way Western culture views love. Love as a legal right, non-traditional marriage arrangements as a legal right. But the Bible says love is a gift, not a right. It’s not something owed to us by society or the world. I like the quote from Simon May

“Whereas becoming even a fairly competent artists or gardener or editor or plumber or banker or singer is dearly purchased with long effort and then only by the few with sufficient talent, love is [thought to be] a democracy of salvation open to all.”

And you are right that modern notions that love itself can save us without need for repentance, or humility or obedience to God, are over-confident about the power of merely human love. Without our sounding like the Grinch who Stole Christmas, how do we explain to people that real love is costly, is not free, and demands all that we are and have if is to be really transformative, and while we are at it— it needs to be God’s love that is the ultimate change agent of human personality???

PATRICK: I think it’s about where you start. Christians believe in the gospel (good news) of God’s victory over sin and death through the life, atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the living Lord. It’s this message that the great gospel sermons in Acts tell, they don’t begin with bad news. Similarly, when it comes to very different understandings of love, I think the best tack is to focus on how the Bible’s ‘Message of Love’ is packed with good news. That’s the message we have been given to witness to.

In the conclusion of the book I try to draw the three strands of love in the Bible together. Strand 1 is God’s relentless love unfolding through the OT and NT. Theologically it’s the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved Son who dies for us that marks a revolution in the understanding of divine love. Strand 2 is the call for a whole-hearted response of human love for God. Strand 3 is resultant communities of God’s people loving one another and their neighbors with Jesus-like love. As your late friend Larry Hurtado says, Christianity’s love-ethic marked it out as unique in the ancient world. We need to teach and inspire people with these truths – ultimately that’s why I wrote the book.

But words count for only so much. The challenge for us as individual Christians and churches is to ‘explain’ what love is by our lives and communities. It is our lives and churches that are the ultimate hermeneutic of the gospel. People are rightly sceptical of the church and its hypocrisy which says, in effect, ‘Don’t mind our broken relationships and toxic communities, believe our message of love anyway!’ John put it pretty bluntly didn’t he? He who claims to love God but does not love his brother shows himself to be a liar. Honesty and truth-telling is all we have (Hauerwas).

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (8)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook

 

BEN: Let’s talk about the circumcision of the heart, an important idea in both the OT (p. 37) and the NT. On the face of it, the text of Deut. 10.16ff. indicates that God’s people must circumcise their own hearts— they must repent, not be hard-hearted etc. and turn back to God and thus be able to love God. But in the NT this act of internal circumcision seems to be the work of the Spirit. It seems to be something humans can’t do for themselves or to themselves, at least not without divine help. How do you view this matter? Where should the emphasis lie?

PATRICK: That’s a very interesting question. I think there are strong continuities here OT to NT. In both cases the great good news is God’s prior love which elicits a human response of love in return.

The chapter on Deuteronomy 10 is called ‘God’s love for the outsider’. Love is a major theme in Deuteronomy (think the Shema of 6:4-5) and in chapter 10 Israel is told to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:19). Verse 19 is paired with verse 16, “ Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” Their love of the ‘Other’ does not come naturally, it requires repentance and a turning of their hearts (the seat of identity) to God. What ‘circumcision of the heart’ seems to mean here is internalizing the generous and indiscriminate love of Yahweh himself who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (10:18) and remembering how they themselves were beneficiaries of such life-saving love.

There is a strong continuity here with Paul’s talk about true circumcision being a matter of the heart, a spiritual response to God not merely an external physical act (Rom 2:28-29). In both cases circumcision of the heart has to do with appropriate human response to God’s prior love. Yet it is not all dependent on human will. Deuteronomy 30:6 locates heart circumcision with God: “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.” In the NT, it seems to me, this promise is fulfilled in the gift of the Spirit whose fruit is primarily love. Again, there is both continuity and discontinuity – the Spirit enables believers to love and be in relationship with God and one another in a way that was not available in the OT.

BEN: There is a strong emphasis in your book on the church being the church, and you see the social side of the Gospel as a sort of overflow to local communities, but not a matter of a direct focus on the world and changing the world (p.283 especially). I was thinking about the Salvation Army while reading this, and thinking they at least would strongly disagree with some of this, with the church focusing on itself and loving itself, and simply being an alternative witness, rather than having a direct prophetic ministry in the culture, and a reaching out to better the culture quite apart from evangelism. John Wesley once said there is no spiritual holiness without social holiness, and he went about prodding Wilberforce to get the abolition legislation passed in Parliament to the day he died. He went about founding orphanages, and poor houses, which is eventually where General Booth got the idea. I know you are not talking about the church becoming like the Amish, and withdrawing from culture and society, but could you articulate for us what you do mean to say a bit more clearly?

PATRICK: One theme that was continually reinforced for me in researching chapters on the Old Testament and the New, is how the Bible’s overwhelming emphasis is on the spiritual authenticity of the community of the people of God, called to obey and imitate their God in every aspect of their lives together. And love is what that life together looks like. I say on the page you mention that “There is virtually no focus, Old Testament or New, on transforming the world outside the covenant community.” Love for God and each other is the missional task of the Church.

Now, as your question suggests, that sounds like a pretty insular thing to say! If seems to fly in the face of a lot of evangelical social and political activism, but I think we need to take seriously how uniform Scripture is on this theme. I believe that the primary calling of the church is to be the church – a foretaste of God’s kingdom and justice in the present. I worry when I see Christians ‘leaving the church behind’ and becoming consumed with making this world a better place through social and political action. I wonder if this turn to politics is in part a disillusionment with the church and a lack of confidence in the gospel – as if persuading those in power to do the right thing will advance the kingdom. In contrast, I’m struck by Jesus’ and the New Testament’s rather magnificent disinterest in the affairs of Empire. The real king of the world is the risen Lord.

This is not to say Christians in their individual lives, and local churches in their communities, should not be busy showing God’s love and justice with those in need around them (Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12). This is a ‘bottom up’ witness to the world, not a Christendom ‘top-down’ attempt to control levers of power. I could start to comment on (some) evangelicals in your part of the world Ben and their apparently uncritical support of a certain President in order to advance Christian values through profoundly unchristian means – but I’ve probably said too much already!

BEN: Interesting that you brought that up, your fellow resident of Dublin, who is certainly a Christian, by whom I mean Bono, would disagree with your reading of the material rather strongly. But I don’t disagree that the primary mission is for us to be the church in the world and fulfill the great commandment as well as the great commission. Nor do I disagree with your critique of things in America where the civic and Christian religion are syncretized in unhelpful and unBiblical ways.

The Message of Love (3)

This is the last of a couple of posts about The Message of Love, which was published this week.

A flavour of the chapters

Each chapter was a challenge and joy to research and write and gave a distinct contribution to an overall theology of love in the Bible.

Introduction

What is love? Contemporary beliefs about love. Reasons for the book.

Part I: Love in the Old Testament

Much of Part 1 explores divine love – God’s covenant love for his people. How does he respond to human failure? Divine love and judgement. Chapters 4 and 5 shift to human love: love for God (ch 4) and the Bible’s unrestrained poetic celebration of the joy of sexual love (ch 5).

1. Abounding in love, punishing the guilty               Exodus 34:6-7
2. God’s love for the outsider                                        Deut. 10:12-22
3. God, the betrayed, yet persistent lover                  Hosea 1-3
4. Love the Lord Your God                                             Deut.6:4-25
5. Erotic love                                                                     Song of Songs 4-5

Interlude

This sets the scene for interpreting love in the New Testament including the shift to agapē language.

Part 2: The Love of God Revealed in the Mission and Death of Jesus Christ

Given that the sending of the Son is the climax of the triune God’s redemptive action in the world, Part 2 focuses on how the NT talks about Jesus’ mission, and particularly the cross as God’s supreme demonstration of love.

6. ‘You are my Son, whom I love’                                 Mark 1:1-15
7. God is love                                                                   1 John 4:7-10
8. Love and justification by faith                                Romans 5:1-11
9. God’s great love                                                          Ephesians 2:1-10

Part 3: Love in the Life and Teaching of Jesus

Jesus does not talk that much about love, but when he does his words carry enormous weight and profound challenge. Part 3 examines the searching demands of ‘discipleship love’ – utter commitment to Jesus; the command to love enemies; a beautiful story illustrating what wholehearted love for Jesus looks like; and how remaining in God’s love is linked to obedience.

10. The cost of love                                              Matthew 10:34-39
11. Enemy love                                                     Luke 6:27-36; 10:25-37
12. A woman’s great love                                   Luke 7:36-50
13. Remain in my love                                        John 15:9-17

Part 4: The Church as a Community of Love

Love only exists in relationship with others. The majority of love language in the Bible is about the church and its calling to be a community of radical, counter-cultural love. Part 4 unpacks the searching character and supreme importance of love; the connections between humility, faith, love and the Spirit; how love is God’s weapon in a spiritual war; and how Christian love within marriage subverts the world’s assumptions about status and power. A major theme in the Bible is idolatry – where God’s people love the wrong things. A final chapter looks at a modern example – the love of money and the relentless persuasive power of consumerism.  

14. The searing searchlight of love                          1 Cor. 12:31-13:13
15. The liberating power of love                             Galatians 5:1-23
16. Subversive love: Christian marriage               Ephesians 5:21-33
17. Love gone wrong: money                                   1 Timothy 6:2b-10

Conclusion

The conclusion is a synthesis of themes that emerged within the chapters, outlining a biblical theology of love and the central role of the church as a community of love within his overall redemptive purposes.

Theological, pastoral and missiological questions

Three strands of love and associated questions emerged during writing.

Divine love:

Is God really loving and utterly good? How can God love if he allows such suffering in the world? How is divine love compatible with divine judgement? Is God’s love unconditional? How does God show his love for the poor and marginalised? How is God’s love revealed at the cross?

Human love for God:

Can love be love if it is commanded? How do faith, love and the Spirit connect together? How can the love of money be ‘de-idolised’ within the church today? If love for God requires humility and submission, is Christian love a denial of life and our full humanity (Nietzsche)? How is love for God costly?

Human love for one another:

Why does the Bible overwhelmingly concentrate on love within the community of the people of God? Is loving enemies an impossible ideal? What does the Bible have to say about erotic sexual love? What is the relationship between knowing God and loving one another? What does a loving Christian marriage look like? How is love God’s most powerful ‘weapon’ in a conflict with powers opposed to his will? What is the relationship between love and future hope? Where are you being called to walk in the difficult yet life-transforming path of love?

My prayer is that this book will help to put love where it belongs – at the centre of Christian teaching, preaching, worship, ministry and individual experience.

Vox 10th Anniversary

vox 10thCongratulations to the team at VOX magazine led by Ruth Garvey-Williams and Jonny Lindsay for their January 10th anniversary edition.

It is a remarkable achievement; the quality of production, done on a shoestring budget, is outstanding and the magazine has grown to be a unique place of news, discussion,  reviews and reflections concerning Christianity in Ireland.

But more than this, what strikes me reading it is the passion of Christians all over Ireland to serve their God by serving others. The Apostle John says that

whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20)

Yes the Church is imperfect, it is full of imperfect people – I’m one for sure. Yes it is often divided relationally and theologically. Yes, there is much to be concerned about and lament over. Yes, it can be especially hard going in a local church when there is disagreement and division.

But it was ever so – as a quick read of Corinthians and Galatians and James will remind us! The real challenge is to develop constructive criticism that builds up and does not just tear down.

So at times I get a bit weary of endless criticisms of the local church – and have to watch that critical spirit in myself. This is why VOX has been, I think, a blessing to the church in Ireland.

It has taken some risks to host debate – and the 10th Edition gives space to leaders talking honestly about challenges facing the Irish church.

But it has also given voice to how the heartbeat of the Christian faith is ‘faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6). Faith in Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, leads to a life that looks outwards from the self to others. And that is what I see in story after story in VOX.

So thank you VOX for 10 years and best wishes for the ones ahead.

Love not necessary for marriage?

ephesusReturning to Ephesians in this post – love and marriage in 5:21-33 to be more precise.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Subversive Then

Such a famous passage needs no introduction and I am not here going to get into ‘complementarian’ versus ‘egalitarian’ interpretations of the ‘roles’ of husband and wife.

Far more interesting is how, in these verses and throughout the letter in general, Paul (and I do think Paul wrote Ephesians) is engaged in an audacious act of subversion.

Basically he is instructing believers in the Ephesus region to live to a different story to that of their world. That sounds all very nice but what does it mean? Very briefly, at least this:

live by a different power. They are filled with the Spirit, not the powers of this dark world (6:12)

to a different ethic, as children of light not of darkness (5:3-14)

walking in love (5:2), not in futility and greed (4:17-19) as the surrounding pagan world walks

in eschatological hope: putting off the old and putting on the new (4:22-23)

imitating their Lord, showing forgiveness and compassion and so building unity rather than division (4:29-32); self-sacrifically serving each other as their Lord gave himself up for them (5:2)

And this theme radical counter-cultural living continues right on into the famous ‘household code’ of 5:22-6:9.

We get so distracted with our modern obsessions about ‘individual roles’ that we can miss the wider story of what is going on here in the apostle’s instructions to 6 groups of believers: wives/husbands, children/parents and slaves/masters.

The reality of the culture is assumed – this is the world they lived in. A world of hierarchy, power and status. A culture of patrons and clients, of rulers and ruled. But that world, so apparently ‘given’ and ‘normal’ and powerful, is being shaken to the core.

Do you see how?

It is Paul’s very act of writing that puts the ‘writing on the wall’ for the power structures of the Greco-Roman world. He addresses personally every one of those 6 categories on the same basis. Whether a wife or husband, child or parent, slave or master, they are to live primarily as disciples of the risen Christ – ‘as to the Lord’.

Do you see the implications?

Now, their primary identity is not the social group in which they happen to find themselves. It is in their joint union of being in Christ. They belong to Christ and to each other in a revolutionised set of relationships that we call the Church.

for we are members of his body

Power, status, hierarchy, patronage, honour and birthrights are radically relativised. A new world has arrived. The old world would eventually crumble, as the social and political implications of the gospel eroded it from within.

This new community is to be marked by virtues and attitudes common to every member.

All are to walk in love and imitate their Lord (5:2)

All are to live pure lives (5:3ff)

All are to live to please their Lord (5:10)

All are to submit to each other (5:21)

Subversive Now – the example of love and marriage

If to be a Christian is to live in community with others ‘as to the Lord’ before all else, this has deeply radical implications today just as much as it did in the first century.

Where the Ephesians lived within a world of highly stratified boundaries that were rarely crossed, we live in a world where the individual is king or queen.

And perhaps nowhere is the ‘freedom’ of the autonomous individual challenged more than in being accountable first and foremost to others in that community of the church.

Take the example of love and marriage today. In our culture there are few things more private that our love lives. Romantic love is idolised. The two lovers find themselves in each other. Nothing should stand in their way of true happiness. Love trumps all.

Their primary identity is in their relationship. Other things like church involvement may follow, but is secondary to their love and to any children that follow along. It is family first.

But this is a modern example of living to the story of our culture rather than to the story of the gospel. Rather, Christians are ‘members of his body’. No identity, even marriage, comes first.

Even more subversive, this means that marriage is not private but public – it belongs to and within the community of faith. It is within the body that husband and wife learn to live out their marriage and their faith.

And even more heretical yet, this means that privatised individual love between a couple is not the primary ‘location’ for Christian love to flourish. Love between the couple sure helps, but the primary location for Christian love is the community of the church. Whoever we are, – whether we are in positions of weakness or privilege: wives or husbands, young or old, slaves or masters – we are all commanded to ‘walk in love’.

And this is why the paterfamilias, the husband with all the authority and power within Greco-Roman culture, is commanded four times to love his wife. It is his status within the culture that is being most subverted by the radical social implications of the gospel. He is being told to live to a different story – not one of assumed rights to be served but one marked by self-giving love for others supposedly less ‘worthy’ then he – like his wife.

The ever quotable Stanley Hauerwas puts it like this,

The church makes possible a context where people love one another. Love is not necessary to marriage, and the only reason why Christians love one another – even in marriage – is because Christians are obligated to love one another. Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se. You don’t learn about the kind of love that Christians are called to in the family and then apply it to the church. You learn about that kind of love from the church and then try to find out how it may be applied in the family.

Comments, as ever, welcome

 

After the Referendum

The summer edition of VOX is out. Thanks to a talented team of Ruth-Garvey Williams, Jonny Lindsay and Tara Byrne, it has developed and maintains a high standard, mixing news and articles and opinion pieces. Here’s a piece I have in it reflecting on the aftermath of the abortion referendum.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

I have been trying to think through what the abortion Referendum result means while also trying to sort out my emotional ‘gut reaction’ to the vote. So what follows is unapologetically personal. You might agree or disagree, but hopefully we can learn from each other in the process.

Let’s start with emotions: at a deep level I’m dismayed and saddened. Christians believe that God alone is the life-giver. To take life is to assume the ‘right’ to destroy a precious work of God. But’s let’s also try to think what the result means more widely. I’ve only space to make two points on how I think the result poses profound challenges for Christians in Ireland today.

First, the Referendum was about much more than abortion. A story is a powerful thing. I don’t mean story as fiction, but story as a narrative that carries moral, emotional and personal power. The story of the YES campaign was vote for compassion, safety, liberty, inclusivity, welcome and dignity for women faced with the traumatic situation of an unwanted pregnancy. It was a vote to cast off the last shackles of our religious past: its harshness, judgementalism, cruelty, abuse, enforced adoption, and systematic humiliation of vulnerable women by a patriarchal religious culture that used power for its own ends. This is why, for some Christians I talked to, the vote was far from a black or white issue but posed a real dilemma. It was also, I think, primarily the leaving behind of the final legacy of ‘old Ireland’ that thousands of people were on the streets of Dublin to celebrate on the 26th of May 2018.

This means that in today’s Ireland, to use the language of John’s Gospel, it is the ‘world’, not the church, that embodies progress, hope and, most of all, love. And here’s the thing that churches really need to face up to and own – there is very good reason for the world to think like this. You don’t need me to re-tell the story of religion in 20th century Ireland. And let’s be honest, Protestant, evangelical and Pentecostal churches have plenty of repenting to do about our own divisions and lack of love.

I often hear it said that Christians in the West now find themselves in a context similar to that of the early Church – as marginalised small communities of believers living within a pagan Empire. I think that’s partially true, but is too easy a comparison. The first Christians had no baggage of church history. Christians in Ireland, rightly or wrongly, like it or not, are perceived as carrying a truckload. The vote shows that a large segment of the population see that baggage as bad news, not good.

Second, this means that the Referendum is primarily a challenge for the church to look at itself. Our job is not to ‘save’ Ireland – as if there is such a thing as a Christian country. The ‘world’ will do what the world will do and we cannot control it, nor should we try. No, our primary job is to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world.

This means being authentic communities of love, grace and good news. Of serving others, of preaching the gospel, of forgiving each other, of welcoming the outsider whatever their history, sexuality or status. If we are against the taking of life in principle, it means being people of peace, not war and protecting and taking care of the elderly. When it comes to abortion, it means not only talking about it, but being communities of such generous love that a woman faced with a crisis pregnancy will be supported and cared for emotionally, financially and relationally so that the community can help her bring up her child. But we can’t do that from a distance. We need to ask ourselves, are we in nice holy huddles, detached from the experience of many women (and men) faced with abortion as the only ‘solution’ to their situation? Or are we taking the time, and bearing the cost, of loving people in need sacrificially?

I’m troubled by my own answers to these questions. How about you?

Love’s hard calling: rejoicing in the truth

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. It is also one of the most troubling. It is one particular aspect of the difficult and demanding nature of love that I want to focus on in this post. First, a wee bit of context.

When read at weddings verses 1-13 are often sentimentalised. ‘Love’ is abstracted to be a ‘lovely’ description of the loving couple in a day celebrating their love. The fact that ‘God’ does not appear in verses 1-13 makes it a particularly suitable text for this type of abstraction. ‘Love’ is everyone’s property. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in love.

The same goes for funerals. Prime Minister Tony Blair read these verses at Diana’s funeral in 1997. Now, I admit I find it hard to take Blair at face value in anything he says. But his overly-dramatic performance that day seems a good example of how ‘love’ in death is easily abstracted to become a sort of eschatological hope – that which ‘lives on’ after us when we are dead. Again, this hope is universal since everyone can love.

But 1 Corinthians is anything but abstract; it is highly specific. Paul writes to a church riven by division, bad theology, pride, arrogance, immoral behaviour and misplaced priorities over gifts.

So, as we read these verses they have a hard edge; there is nothing soft and fluffy about them. There are 7 positive descriptions of what love does and 8 negatives ones. A verb is used in every case – love is seen in what it does.

Love Rejoices in the Truth

Let’s take one example of a positive: love … rejoices with the truth (6b). It sits in opposition to love does not delight in evil.

The verb has a sense of ‘joyfully celebrates’ or ‘acclaims’ truth’ At first reading this sounds lovely does it not? But think about the implications for a moment.

In his NIGTC Commentary on First Corinthians Anthony Thiselton argues the emphasis here is not so much on ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’ (eg the truth of the gospel) as on relationship. Love rejoices in truth that protects, fosters and strengthens relationship, even at cost to ourselves.

There can be powerful reasons NOT to rejoice in the truth.

Take two current examples in the Christian world

(1) The Church of England

Last week the Church of England published a ‘report into a report’; namely a review of their own first investigation into how allegations of abuse had been handled by the Church. The independent review found that the first report has been ‘botched’ and that negative aspects were downplayed in order to protect the reputational character of the Church.

(2) Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church

This story has been unfolding for some time and appears to be in the process of coming to a head. You can read about the details fully in a recent post by Scot McKnight (who was a member of Willow for many years). Serious allegations against Hybels had surfaced some years ago and had not been dealt with openly then. When more women came forward, the reaction was denial, calling the women liars and failing to implement a robust external investigation.

Now, at last, and only after enormous criticism and widespread concern both within and outside Willow, the elders and the two senior leaders have issued public apologies and promised to seek the truth.

The cost of rejoicing in the Truth

Both these stories are bad news and good news. They begin with the bad news of damaging behaviour. That was compounded by an instinctive reaction to hide the truth, or at least give a partial version of the truth in order to protect the institution in question. But the good news is that both are moving, at last, towards full disclosure.

In both cases, there were powerful motives NOT to rejoice in the truth:

  • money (at all sorts of levels: potential court cases, to book sales and huge ministry budgets at stake etc)
  • reputation and the deep cost of admitting ‘we got it wrong’ (and in Willow, protection of a deeply loved and charismatic leader like Hybels)
  • power – and the threat of a loss of that power
  • God (perhaps persuading ourselves that God needs protection – that the truth will damage the church, the gospel and good kingdom work)

I mention these cases because they are current and in the (very) public domain. If postmodernism has taught us anything, it is to have a healthy scepticism over how institutions tend to act to protect themselves – and that, sadly, is true of churches as well.

The tough calling of love is NOT to act in our own self-interest but in the interests of others, especially when there is a cost to ‘us’.

In both cases, love meant first seeking the good of those damaged and hurt rather than using manipulation, obfuscation or obstruction to hide the full truth and protect ourselves.

That’s why 1 Corinthians 13 is anything but a mushy feel-good ‘ode to love’, but is, rather, a very troubling and difficult text.

Comments, as ever, welcome.