The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, same-sex relationships and church membership: six problems (Long Read)

I don’t know about you but I’ve never really believed the adage that ‘All publicity is good publicity’. Allegedly it comes from Oscar Wilde who said ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’

Well, speaking of Oscar Wilde, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has sure been talked about over the last couple of weeks. Twitter storms, widespread media coverage inside Ireland and beyond, public resignations, and many and varied responses online all followed its debate on same-sex couples and membership at the 2018 General Assembly in Belfast.

People have asked me what I think; friends in other PCI churches have emailed telling of friends they have who have been exploring faith and coming to church now thinking of leaving; we’ve had animated family discussions around the dinner table and, as usual, I’ve learnt most from those. So here are some thoughts.

An online war of ‘gospel inclusivity’ versus ‘gospel purity’

I’m an elder in a local Presbyterian Church outside Dublin. For most people in it, Belfast and what goes on there during General Assembly is pretty much ‘out of sight out of mind.’ They are Presbyterian with a small ‘p’: people from all sorts of backgrounds, few with any family, cultural or theological ties to Presbyterianism who gather together to worship and try to follow Jesus.

But it’s hard to ignore the fall-out of GA 2018. It has long-term implications both in the official policy of the Church (that all Kirk Sessions are supposed to be trained in) and for the mission of local churches like ours (I can only speak of the context I am in)

Much social media I’ve looked at just dismisses ‘the other’ for being homophobic or a liberal depending on where you are coming from. It’s like an online war of ‘gospel inclusivity’ versus ‘gospel purity’ with both sides feeling virtue is on their side. So I’ll try (and probably fail) not to caricature and will quote from the Report and the PCI directly in aiming to be fair to its thinking and motives.

A point of clarification: this post is not discussing the rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships, ‘active’ or not. It’s responding to the process and new policy of the PCI.

The PCI statement can be seen here (pdf)

The actual report of the Doctrine Committee can be read here – go down to Appendix 2 (pdf)

‘Same-sex couples’ and a ‘credible profession of faith’

In case you have missed it, the furore has been about a Report from the Doctrine Committee of the PCI responding to a

a request from the General Council to prepare guidelines for Kirk Sessions to address the issue of same-sex couples who may seek communicant membership … or who may request the baptism of a child.

And the Doctrine Committee Report therefore focused on

the specific theological question of what constitutes a credible profession of faith and how it is to be understood and applied in these particular pastoral situations.

The ‘credible profession of faith’ is the key phrase: as the Report says

within the Reformed tradition the notion of a ‘credible profession’ is effectively a shorthand for not only a credible profession of Christ as Saviour but also a credible walk in obedience to him as Lord.

And the key conclusion of the Doctrine Committee was

In light of our understanding of Scripture and the Church’s understanding of a credible profession of faith it is clear that same sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children. We believe that their outward conduct and lifestyle is at variance with a life of obedience to Christ.

For non-Presby readers, the logic here is the covenant theology around infant baptism. The child obviously cannot make a profession of faith. The parents promise to bring up the child in the faith within the community of the church. To do so they should have a ‘credible profession of faith’ themselves. Since ‘same-sex’ couples have, in effect, an ‘incredible’ profession of faith, they cannot have their children baptised.

The Report was debated at the GA 2018. Rev Cheryl Meban proposed that the relevant parts of the Report (Appendix 2) not be received, but in the debate that motion did not succeed and the Report was adopted as the official position of the Church.

So, if that’s the story, how to interpret it? Here are some perspectives. These, of course, are my personal opinions. Always open to correction, learning from push-back, apology for misrepresentation. There are few more emotive and sensitive subjects than this one. Comments welcome.

Logically Consistent – what’s all the fuss?

Looking ‘logically’ at things, the vote is perfectly comprehensible. The PCI has produced several reports on Homosexuality over the years. They are gathered together in this document (pdf) which has a summary article by Prof Stephen Williams (2013), an original report (1979) and pastoral guidelines (2007). I’d recommend you read them if interested in hearing what the PCI is saying in its own words in officially agreed documents.

In the 2013 summary, it says

The position that has been clearly and consistently adopted in PCI is that homosexual activity is not consistent with Christian discipleship, since it does not accord with the will of God expressed in his moral law.

So, if ‘homosexual activity’ is inconsistent with Christian discipleship, and if ‘credible’ Christian discipleship is required to be a communicant member and have children baptised, therefore, when asked the question, the answer of the Doctrine Committee Report is hardly that surprising.

Fair enough? Not really. For what it’s worth, here’s why I think it is a deeply misguided decision.

6 Problems

  1. Pastorally deaf

The Doctrine Committee Report saw its job as answering one narrow question. In their own words:

The Committee approached this issue in the understanding that the General Assembly has already agreed pastoral guidelines on homosexuality and has offered substantial pastoral advice for Kirk Sessions.

So, after mentioning pastoral guidelines, they are then set aside, effectively irrelevant to the task. Doctrinal implications are then worked out to their logical end.

But when you actually read the pastoral guidelines of 2006, the tone and content is light years away from the abstract, logical and pastorally deaf conclusions of the 2018 proposals.

The 2007 Report was written specifically in request of a resolution of the 2006 General Assembly that accepted that there were homophobic attitudes within the PCI:

“That the General Assembly recognising homophobic attitudes within our Church and society request the Social Issues Panel to prepare guidelines to help our Church to develop more sensitive and effective pastoral care.”

Remember, this is also ‘official’ PCI policy. The 2007 Report says things like this:

many people in churches who have same sex attraction are afraid to be open about it for fear of how they will be treated by those in their church, amongst others. There is no reason to assume Presbyterians are any different. Representatives of the Gay Helpline state that they have regular calls from people belonging to PCI who are unwilling to disclose their same sex attractions.

It is clear that people of all ages who have same sex attractions are very reluctant to tell others because of fear, prejudice etc. Keeping their feelings hidden out of fear has a significant impact on mental health.

The Report tells several stories – here is one worth recounting in full:

Bob’s story. I was brought up in a strong, loving, Christian home and was very actively involved in a lively, evangelical Presbyterian church. I became a Christian when I was young and was well taught and have a real love for the Bible. I was very committed to the youth work in my church and tried to live for Christ and witness for Him inside and outside the Church. During my teens I began to realise that I was different. I found myself attracted to boys rather than girls. I didn’t choose it to be so, it just was. I resisted it, prayed against it. I understood well the Bibles’ teaching on homosexuality and wrestled to overcome my feelings and pretended to be like ‘the lads’. Eventually in my late teens I confided in a Christian friend. He continued to talk to and pray for me over a number of years. Knowing and respecting the churches teaching I practiced celibacy but felt alone, fearful and overwhelmed. The pressure of keeping it to myself, the feelings of shame, the guilt of feeling that I was living a lie and the fear of how the news would affect my parents and my church life eventually took its toll on my mental health. I had to take various medicines for depression and on one occasion came very close to committing suicide.

People in the church would crack jokes about ‘Gays’ and I just wanted to crawl into a hole. How could I open up to them when my struggles were joked about? I respect my minister and his teaching, but when homosexuality was mentioned in church the Biblical position of calling practising homosexuality sin was outlined without ever a word of compassion or understanding for people like me who were struggling so hard and hadn’t chosen to feel the way I did.

One of my greatest struggles was that I had always been brought up to respect and to tell the truth. Yet here I was living and telling lies to protect my family and myself. Eventually I felt I had no other option but to tell my parents about my struggles. They were devastated and so were my friends at church. It is devastating when all who made you and shaped and directed your life turn on you. I am not bitter, I still love my family and respect my church but when I really needed someone to listen to me without judgement, there was no one. I would love to be straight. It would cause so much less pain but for the sake of my own sanity I have eventually had to accept that I am gay. I am both a Christian who loves God and His word but I am also gay.

How I wonder does ‘Bob’ feel now in light of 2018?

It seems to me that the message he, and everyone like him has received, is that the Church has gone backwards, not forwards in its attitudes since 2007. It is not a safe space to share struggles with sexuality. It’s better to keep quiet, whatever the cost. You are not welcome here.

  1. Missionally disastrous

I also wonder about the internal politics of the Church that led the General Council to ask the Doctrine Committee to give an answer to this one specific hypothetical scenario. It seems to me to be an intentional ‘marker’ of orthodoxy setting the Church against a rapidly liberalising culture, particularly around sexuality and gender.

Now I have no concerns about the Church of Jesus Christ, who was crucified by the state let’s not forget, being counter-cultural. That is its job. I agree that a Christian sexual ethic is, and will seem increasingly, bizarre within Western late-modern culture. So be it.

But why proceed in such an oppositional, defensive and exclusionary way? It feels a bit like those under siege, retreating to the Keep, drawing up the ramparts and taking up arms, fearful of the surrounding hoards.

It feels like a retreat from conversation and engagement. Whereas the 2007 Report made serious efforts to dialogue, this is theology done in a vacuum, abstracted from real people.

Such an approach is, in post-Christendom, missionally disastrous. It speaks of a Church Community speaking only to itself. I would have thought that after the 2007 Report, there would have been a sense of humility at homophobia within the Church (that the Church itself acknowledged) and a sensitivity to the relational impact of such a Report.

There is a flood of good theological thinking and practice out there on learning from the multitudes of people exiting institutional Christianity. It is exactly this type of bureaucratic, abstract and un-relational process that puts post-Christendom people off denominations.

A theme that keeps coming up around gender and sexuality is the need to listen, to learn and to apologise for how attitudes and actions in the Church have hurt people like Bob. This isn’t ‘selling out’ beliefs on what the Bible teaches, it is being relational as well as doctrinal.

I’m afraid that this PCI process and Report lacks humility, of learning from the Other and of generous hospitality to those different from ‘Us’. Its tone is that ‘We have nothing to learn’ and we are putting up boundary fences instead.

I’m writing something related to 1 Corinthians at the moment. There is perhaps no more relevant letter in the NT for contemporary Western culture. Yes, Paul puts boundaries around Corinthian sexual behaviour (among other things) but he does so passionately, compassionately, persuasively and lovingly as a father who cares for his children.

This is how theology works – in relationship, inspiring, exhorting, encouraging Christians to live a life worthy of the Gospel. Passing a hypothetical rule about a specific sin that rules hypothetical people out of membership and being able to baptise their children does not seem very biblical to me.

  1. Hierarchy of sin

Choosing to focus on ‘same-sex sin’ as a bar to membership also gives the impression that the PCI has a hierarchy of sin, with same-sex relationships at the top. There are innumerable other sins that Presbyterians commit but are not (as far as I know) specifically singled out to be examined when it comes to membership and baptismal promises.

The irony is, when it comes to infant baptism, it has been the church’s failure to practice it consistently which has all but destroyed the integrity of baptism within Christendom Reformed churches. (See David F Wright’s book, What has infant baptism done to baptism: An Enquiry at the end of Christendom?). The notion of a ‘credible profession of faith’ has been given lip-service for generations. To start tightening up sacramental discipline with same-sex couples speaks of double standards. I know many cases of couples who hardly, if ever, appear in church or show ‘visible’ signs of a living faith, suddenly appearing for a baptism of their baby. Or of couples living together being welcomed as members with no questions asked.

Paul’s ‘sin-lists’ in the NT are pretty catholic in their scope – greed, gluttony, envy, pride, hetero-sexual sin and others all appear and more. If the Church is serious about stricter sacramental discipline, then how is this going to happen? Are other sins going to be specified as that which exclude people from communicant membership?

Now the Doctrine Committee report is aware of this:

The Doctrine Committee recognises the danger of giving the impression that there is the only area where sacramental discipline might apply. However, the current request to the Doctrine Committee asks for guidance in one particular area.

So, the Committee was aware of the problem but, in effect, seem simply to have pressed ahead with their remit anyway. The danger foreseen is now fulfilled: same-sex relationships DO seem to be treated in a distinct way to every other sin when it comes to sacramental discipline.

In contrast, the 2007 Report on pastoral guidelines says this

When we condemn homosexual practice in isolation or single it out as somehow worse than other sexual practices outside of heterosexual marriage then we demonstrate homophobic attitudes.

I’ll say no more.

  1. No consideration of pastoral accommodation

The motive for this Report was to give guidelines to Kirk Sessions (elders) within the PCI. Apart from laying down a law, I am not clear what guidelines are being given.

Not only is there a lack of guidance to elders on how to approach the ‘straight-forward’ hypothetical situation of a same-sex couple seeking membership and / or baptism of their children, there is no discussion of other likely scenarios.

What, for example, of the following example? (I have no agenda in the one that follows. I am just trying to show that the PCI process has not addressed pastoral realities and passing a law is an inadequate approach. I am sure you can think of other scenarios.)

A legally married same-sex couple, with children, become Christians. They want to become members of the church. What should elders do? To obey the recent decision of the GA 2018, such a couple cannot become members and baptise their children. Should they be advised to get divorced and split up the family? What if they stayed married, but celibate? Or can some form of pastoral accommodation be worked out on a case by case basis?

A useful book discussing alternative theologies of same-sex is Sprinkle, P. (ed) 2016. Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church. Grand Rapids. Zondervan. I’m going to zone in on one of the contributors, Baptist theologian Steve Holmes, because he, like the PCI, argues on the non-affirming side. His chapter carefully considers the arguments for Christian same-sex marriage, and for a new form of relationships to be accepted – like Robert Song’s ‘Covenantal Partnerships’. He is not persuaded by arguments for either of these two options (and the book itself gives space for other views which do).

But Holmes addresses a crucial question that the PCI does not – what then does the church do with a situation like the one above? Holmes opens up the question of pastoral accommodation.

“If the Christian theology of marriage is not extensible to same-sex couples, and if there is no space for a new discipline of ‘covenantal partnerships’ that includes sexual activity, what are we left with? The answer, it seems to me, is pastoral accommodation. Churches that believe same-sex partnerships to be wrong might nonetheless find space within the life for people living in such partnerships out of pastoral concern.” (191)

He refers to how Protestant churches have made space like this for divorced people out of pastoral concern. Most now allow remarriage. In Africa, some churches have done similar with regard to polygamy. He says

“We must at least ask ourselves how we can refuse to give the same permission to gay people.”

The PCI Report makes no mention of pastoral accommodation. To begin to answer it, the PCI should, I think, be considering the sort of issues Holmes’ raises. To leave things as they stand after the GA 2018 is deeply unsatisfactory:

  • If addressing issues of sexual practice and discipleship, then there should be a renewed emphasis on sexual ethics for straight people. How can the Church do this before making judgements that exclude same-sex couples?
  • Holmes says “general rules or guidelines are almost always unhappy”. And “pastoral questions are properly answered at the level of individual lives, not at the level of generic themes”. Sadly, the PCI did not take this view. Going forward, there needs to be more thinking about pastoral practice.
  • How do we approach issues of discipleship around sexually active converts in non-marriage relationships (whether same-sex or opposite sex) if they have joined the church? Is it consistent? Will there be limitations on areas of service into which they are invited?
  • How will the church relate to gay and lesbian church members who come out? What space will there be for them to open and honest about their sexuality? What if they are married and likely with children? How can the church support all the family in their discipleship in such a scenario?
  1. Loose language

A not insignificant point in the loose language of the Doctrine Committee Report. Throughout it talks of ‘same-sex couples’. Nowhere does it distinguish between a couple who may, out of Christian conviction, be in a non-sexual same-sex relationship. What difference might that make to communicant membership?

  1. Love

It is unfair to say that the Doctrine Committee Report does not mention love – it does here.

In this context it is important to emphasise that the Church invites and welcomes all who wish to sit under the means of grace at public services and to have access to the pastoral care and counsel available within her fellowship. Like her Lord, she reaches out to all with love and compassion. This posture of grace and welcome should not in itself be confused with moral indifference or approval of any behaviour contrary to God’s Word. It is rather the warmest of invitations to receive Christ Jesus as both Lord and Saviour in all of life.

The problem with this is, it is one thing to claim for yourself that you reach ‘out to all with love and compassion’ but it is of much more relevance to ask ‘Do the people you are reaching out to feel loved?’

I’m afraid that there is very little likelihood that the process and the Report would make a gay person feel loved. It is also pretty unlikely that they would have any prospect of feeling ‘moral indifference or approval’!  It is hard to feel that it represents ‘the warmest of invitations to receive Christ’.

Overall this final paragraph feels hollow in light of the overall content, tone and pastoral insensitivity of the process.

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Ireland and the Reception of the Bible

Reception of the Bible in IrelandJust received a copy of this book, edited by Brad Anderson and Jonathan Kearney of Dublin City University.

The full details and list of 21 chapters can be seen here . I’ve pasted them in below as well.

Congratulations to Brad and Jonathan on bringing this big project to publication. I look forward to browsing the diverse range of chapters.

Chapter 11 is one I did on the use of the Bible by two Christian relief organisations – Trocaire and Tearfund Ireland: one Roman Catholic, the other Evangelical.

It took the form of a comparison and contrast of how each organisation uses the Bible in articulating their mission and practice.  I found it a fascinating topic – hopefully some readers will too! A lot of overlap and significant areas of difference. Perhaps a blog post on this to follow ..

WIth a price tag of €95 I guess it is a book primarily aimed at libraries and specialist collections.

Introduction: Situating Ireland and Socio-Cultural Reception of the Bible –– (Bradford A. Anderson, Dublin City University, Ireland and Jonathan Kearney, Dublin City University, Ireland)

Part One: Ireland and the Transmission of the Bible
1. The Multifaceted Transmission of the Bible in Ireland, A.D. 550-1200 CE — (Martin McNamara, Milltown Institute, Ireland)
2. The Bible and ‘the People’ in Ireland, c.1100-c.1650 — (Salvador Ryan, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland)
3. Translating the Bible into Irish, 1565-1850 — (Fearghus Ó Fearghail, Mater Dei Institute of Education, Ireland)
4. ‘The Little Ones Called for Bread and there was None that Would Break it for Them’: Some Notes on the Use of the Bible in the Sermons of Bishop James Gallagher — (Ciaran Mac Murchaidh, Dublin City University, Ireland)
5. Irish Catholic Bible Readers before the Famine — (Brendan McConvery, St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Ireland)
6. The Catholic Lectionary: Its Creation, Reception and Challenge — (Kieran O’Mahony, Diocese of Dublin, Ireland)

Part Two: The Bible and Identity in Ireland
7. ‘This Booke hath bred all the quarrel’: The Bible in the 1641 Depositions — (Bradford A. Anderson, Dublin City University, Ireland)
8. The Last of the Milesians: In Search of Ireland’s Biblical Past, 1760-1900 — (Brian Murray, King’s College London, UK)
9. Between Ulster and the Kingdom of God: Uses of the Bible by Evangelicals in the Northern Ireland Troubles — (Joshua Searle, Spurgeon’s College, UK)
10. Dancing Like David and Overcoming Enemies: Scripture and Culture in Christ Apostolic Church Dublin — (Rebecca Uberoi, independent scholar)
11. God’s Preference for the Poor: The Bible and Social Justice in Ireland — (Patrick Mitchel, Irish Bible Institute, Ireland)
12. How Sacred Text Becomes Religious Artefact: A Cultural Geography of the Book of Kells — (Eoin O’Mahony, University College Dublin, Ireland)

Part Three: Ireland and Beyond: Reciprocal Influences
13. Toland, Spinoza, and the Naturalization of Scripture — (Ian Leask, Dublin City University, Ireland)
14. Irish Travellers to the Dead Sea: The Interplay and Impact of Empirical Investigation and Biblical Exegesis — (Thomas O’Loughlin, University of Nottingham, UK)
15. The Chester Beatty Biblical Collection: A Treasury of Early Christian Manuscripts in an Irish Library — (David Hutchinson Edgar, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland)
16. ‘Casting Bread Upon the Water’: A Voyage of Discovery — (Carmel McCarthy, University College Dublin, Ireland)

Part Four: Cultural and Artistic Appropriation: Imagery, Music, and Literature
17. The Book of Kells and the Visual Identity of Ireland — (Amanda Dillon, independent scholar)
18. Imaging the Bible in Stained Glass: Five Stained Glass Windows by Michael Healy in St. Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea — (Myra Hayes, Mary Immaculate College Limerick, Ireland)
19. The Bible in Music during Dublin’s Golden Age — (Siobhán Dowling Long, University College Cork, Ireland)
20. Scripture, Music, and the Shaping of Irish Cultural Identities — (Róisín Blunnie, Dublin City University, Ireland)
21. James Joyce and the Study of the Bible — (Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp, Belgium)

Is it time to give up on the term ‘evangelical’?

Quite a few people think the answer to the title question is YES.

Alwyn Thomson makes the case with typical incisive analysis in a post at PS at Contemporary Christianity’s website

The word ‘evangelical’, he argues, is now theologically almost meaningless. Evangelicalism as a movement has undermined the church. And evangelicalism, especially in the USA, is fatally compromised by its alliance with political power.

Alwyn knows what he’s talking about. When research officer for Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) he developed a lot of excellent material on evangelical identity, politics and theology, and now he lives in the USA.

In America, Christianity Today is asking the same question. Scot McKnight has argued that the word is so compromised politically that it is time to give it up.

The issue is politics; the presenting painful reality is Trump. The reality is 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. The word “evangelical” now means Trump-voter. The word “evangelical” is spoiled …

… Which now means evangelical=Republican=Conservative=populist=Trump …

… Today the term evangelical in the USA means (supposedly) conservative in politics, and hence “Votes Republican.” This definition is not going away. The political folks have won.

Let the political evangelicals have the term …

…. The one thing I despise about Christianity in the USA is its aligning with a political party. Mainliners have done it; they’re Democrats. Evangelicals have followed suit; they’re Republicans. Politicization is accomplished.

Let the rest of us call ourselves Christians.

Others, like Roger Olson, know well the difficulties associated with the word but refuse to let bad use take away right use.

Here in Ireland, evangelicals are so tiny that the vast majority of people have little or no idea what the word stands for. If they do, it is probably something like one of the following ..

  • zealous for something: ‘She was almost evangelical in her enthusiasm for sushi.’
  • fundamentalist: ‘ISIS are the evangelicals of the Muslim world’ (I heard this said by an Irish reporter on radio)
  • Intolerant, obscurantist, right-wing, Trump supporters
  • Conservative reactionaries against the emerging liberal new Ireland, particularly on sex and gender issues.

None of which are exactly complimentary definitions.

If the heartbeat of evangelicalism is an ethos that feels something like this then I don’t want to give up what it describes:

  1. A love for the Bible leading to personal transformation
  2. An emphasis on repentance and faith
  3. A focus on the cross as that which makes reconciliation with God possible
  4. Activism as living out faith in Christ with integrity and authenticity
  5. And a Christ-centered faith that issues in discipleship, obedience and good works empowered by the Spirit

And, as I’ve posted about before, this sort of evangelicalism alive and well in countless individuals’ lives across the globe.

But what to call it?

Is the word ‘evangelical’ necessary in order to describe such faith? Is it fatally compromised – mostly by an American fusion of religion and politics that has global consequences?

If we answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to these two questions then we need to find a different way of talking about who John Stott called ‘Bible people’ and ‘Gospel people’. Whether just ‘Christian’ or something else.

In my Irish context, it’s not a word that is very helpful. Trump and American Republican co-opting of the term plays a part, but there are other historical factors at play too. So I have no great objection to dropping it.

Or should the majority world evangelical movement – as defined by the Cape Town Commitment for example – resist being defined by the ugly politicization of what is only a relatively small sector of the global evangelical family? Can the word ‘evangelical’ be redeemed?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Musings on mere Christianity and ‘A Reforming Catholic Confession’

My Christian identity, from school days onwards (that’s quite a while now!) has been shaped by a commitment to a broad, inclusive evangelicalism.

There are other ways to say this (and I know these phrases can mean different things to different people):

  • an ecumenical evangelicalism
  • generous orthodoxy
  • non or inter-denominational Christianity
  • mere Christianity
  • catholic Christianity

I guess that commitment was shaped early on by mentors and leaders who led me to faith and discipled me. Northern Irish Christianity gets a lot of bad press, but my experience was of a warm hearted faith fostered in local church and para-church organisations.

That instinct for holding to the centre has been reinforced over the years in at least three ways – two positive and one negative:

i. Experience

Some have questioned whether such a thing as evangelicalism even exists … Friendships forged with Christians from many traditions and backgrounds – in work, in ministry, in different churches, in travel – is evidence that it does. Evangelicalism is an ethos as well as a commitment to core Christian doctrines. Seeing the reality of others’ love for God, love for the gospel, love for each other and love for the world among Christians of many different hues is a powerful testimony to the lived reality of that evangelical ethos. The Christian faith is more than knowing truth; it is coming to know God through faith in his Son and by being made alive by his Spirit. Those ‘in Christ’ are united in him and thus to each other. That unity finds expression on common concerns –  in prayer, in study, in worship and in mission together. I work in a place where this unity around common priorities is visible every day –  and it is good. It speaks of the unifying work of the Spirit and the universal application of the gospel to all people.

ii. Theology

That instinct has also been interrogated and analysed theologically – in a PhD on evangelicalism, in writing, research, reading and teaching. The more I go on as a Christian, the more I am convinced that the Scriptures tell a theological story that is coherent, understandable, powerful and true. It is the core story, with the person and work of Jesus at the centre, that we need to focus on and unite around in dialogue with the Great Tradition of the Church catholic.

iii. Schism

Another thing I am more convinced by as I go on as a Christian, is how scandalous division is among Christians who claim to be committed to the evangel. By division I do not mean only where churches divide and split, but where Christians who manifestly agree on the important stuff choose not to work together, not to speak well of each other, to ignore each other and sometimes directly to compete with each other.

I can understand this at an intellectual level – it is usually around what I call an ‘affinity issue’ rather than a core doctrine of faith. An affinity issue is one which marks out a particular sub-grouping of evangelicals. For example, it might be a particular view of the gifts of the Spirit, or of the structure of church leadership, or a stress on a particular aspect of the atonement, or mode of baptism and so on. Commitment to affinity then trumps commitment to a broader unity. Working with those most like you is most comfortable and ‘safe’ after all. You create and forge your own alliances and tend to circle in the wagons tighter than the broad circumference of mere evangelicalism.

But, to be honest, I don’t understand this mentality at a theological and experiential level. Theologically it seems to question the sufficiency of the gospel. Experientially it seems to question the work of the Spirit.

All this leads in to a REFORMING CATHOLIC CONFESSION just published as part of the 500 year commemoration of the Reformation and signed by a wide spectrum of well-known (mostly American) evangelicals. For a quick glance at the signatories, that spectrum embraces Reformed, Arminian, Pentecostal and others .. If I was to make a critical comment, it would be the overwhelmingly American and Western and male make up of those involved in its drafting. A commitment to global evangelical unity needs to reflect that breadth in its formation.

But it is well worth reading and I’d be happy to sign it. It leaves affinity issues to one side as much as  possible in articulating the core implications of the Reformation Solas.

Their motive is given thus:

One of the best ways to commemorate the Reformation is to remember the Reformers’s original vision for Catholic unity under canonical authority. This original vision has sometimes been forgotten not only by the heirs of the Reformation, but also by its critics, who often fixate on the divisions within Protestantism. Thus, a number of leaders from across the Protestant spectrum have come together to honor the original vision of the Reformers by demonstrating that, despite our genuine differences, there is a significant and substantial doctrinal consensus that unites us as “mere Protestants.”

Point 9 of ‘The Explanation’ expands on this motivation:

In sum, the Reformation was an appropriation and further development of the seminal patristic convictions presupposed by the Rule of Faith, the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and the Chalcedonian definition, particularly as these clarified the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, essential conditions for the integrity of the gospel. The solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone) enabled a deeper insight into the logic and substance of the gospel as well as the unique significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ and, as such, stand in continuity with the whole (catholic) church, even as they represent a genuine elaboration of faith’s understanding.

In Point 10 it states

… in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

Point 22 expands on this pursuit of a generous broad evangelical ethos

We recall and commend John Wesley’s plea that Protestants display a catholic spirit, a call for right-hearted believers to give up their prideful insistence on their right opinions in order to establish right relations with others whose hearts and minds are set on following Jesus according to the Scriptures. We resolve to rededicate ourselves to dialogue in, with, and for the communion of saints, and not to settle for thinking and doing things separately that we can in good conscience think and do together, for the sake of our common witness to the one church of Jesus Christ.

Amen to that.

What have evangelicals to learn from Catholics?

 

vaticanI’ve been working my way through a very thorough book by an evangelical scholar on Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in order to write a review of the book for a journal.

This post isn’t primarily about that book, but it did raise a question. The structure of the book was a point by point assessment of official Catholic doctrine. It was fairly done. The author brought out commonalities as well as differences. There were substantial numbers of both.

Overall, the approach was to analyse and assess RC doctrine from a particular (Reformed) evangelical perspective. The thrust of the book was to conclude that despite many areas of agreement, there are multiple substantial areas of disagreement that should preclude any notion that the Reformation is over or that evangelicals and Catholics should cooperate in mission and witness.

Again, that conclusion is not what this post is about. It is more about a lingering question I was left with. It wasn’t asked in the book because it tended to be assumed that evangelical doctrine and practice is the yardstick by which to evaluate other systems. The critique was all flowing one way.

What has evangelical faith and practice got to learn from Roman Catholic faith and practice?

This is a self-critical question. It assumes that ‘we’ haven’t got it all right. It is open to learn from others. It implies a certain humility as we look at ourselves, our level of Christ-likeness, our churches, and our often disunited factions.

Despite that last sentence, this is not asking for a long list of the failures or weakness of evangelical faith and practice, nor is it asking for a similiar list of Catholic weaknesses. It’s framed postively …  So another way of asking this is

What for you are the ‘best’ aspects of Catholicism from which evangelicals can learn and be reformed by?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Paul and Gender (1) : a call for a serious discussion within Irish evangelicalism

Here’s notice of an important, carefully researched and very well written book.

It is by Cynthia Long Westfall, entitled Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ.

Professor Craig Blomberg, who teaches with us in IBI on our MA Programme on a regular basis and is not a card-carrying egalitarian, says this about it,

“After the deluge of literature on gender roles in 9780801097942the Bible, can anyone add anything distinctive and persuasive to the discussion? Cynthia Long Westfall has demonstrated that the answer is a resounding yes. This is one of the most important books on the topic to appear in quite some time, and all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration. The approach does not replicate standard contemporary complementarian or egalitarian perspectives but charts a fresh course in light of first-century cultural history and informed linguistic and discourse analysis. A must-read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.”

Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

Westfall explores Paul and Gender through multiple angles:

1. Culture
2. Stereotypes
3. Creation
4. The Fall
5. Eschatology
6. The Body
7. Calling
8. Authority
9. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Conclusion

I’ve written a lot on ‘Women in Leadership’ on this blog over the years – this link takes you to many of those posts. This is probably the best book I’ve read.

Some seriouslys coming up: it takes the biblical text seriously, it takes Paul’s context and culture seriously, and it takes the factors that shape biblical interpretation seriously.  Note Craig’s two seriouslys:

all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration

it is a must read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.

My context is Ireland:  I would love to see Irish evangelicals take Craig’s two points seriously. I’m sketching why below.

  1. Evangelicals, if they are to live up to their name, need to be engaging with Westfall’s arguments

John Stott called evangelicals ‘Bible people and gospel people’. To live up to that description is to always be open to reformation and hearing the Bible speak afresh.

Please note what I am not saying. I’m not saying she must be agreed with. Nor am I saying that anyone who holds to male only leadership / preaching obviously lacks a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture or is obviously wrong. I am not saying that those who are not persuaded by Westfall are ‘un-evangelical’, lack a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture, or are mistaken.

I am simply appealing for a serious discussion and review of established interpretations and practice. For any pastor / church leader / denomination / network of churches to ignore the increasingly powerful and compelling challenges to old paradigms and to keep doing things this way because that’s ‘obviously the biblical way’ – is to fail to be evangelical enough.

To be consistently evangelical is to engage fairly and constructively with Westfall’s arguments and to face searching criticisms of traditional interpretations of Paul as being inadequate and inconsistent. Such has been the weight of significant evangelical scholarship on this issue over the last few decades, that those who hold to tradition and custom without rigorous self-critical engagement on how Paul is being interpreted are failing to be open to semper reformanda.

Evangelicals should, in theory, be the last people who resort to custom and tradition before considering serious biblical exegesis that challenges accepted paradigms. Isn’t that exactly what the Reformation was about?

I have no problem with churches and networks who have seriously thought about and had open transparent debates about this issue.

Networks like New Frontiers in the UK for example. While I don’t agree with people like Andrew Wilson’s innovative and (to me) unconvincing and arbitrary defence of teaching with a ‘big T’ (‘doctrinally definitive’ teaching, open to appropriately gifted male elders) and teaching with a ‘small t’ (‘quoting. explaining, applying Scripture’, open to invited people), you can’t say there hasn’t been a thorough and informed examination of questions of exegesis, hermeneutics, culture and gender. You also can’t say that there isn’t a real desire to explore every way possible to encourage and release women in ministry within parameters of how Scripture is understood. As Wilson says

I believe in women in leadership. Not many people don’t, to be honest: I don’t recall ever coming across a church where women don’t preach the gospel, or lead worship, or speak on Sundays, or disciple people, or run events, or train children, or lead areas of ministry, or serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team, or prophesy (and they do all of those things at the church I’m part of). I believe in women in ministry, the equality of men and women, and the importance of releasing women to be modern-day Phoebes, Priscillas, Junias, Marys, Lydias, Euodias, Syntyches, and so on.

This from what is otherwise a very traditional approach to a male only elder / Teacher interpretation.

In contrast, in Ireland, apart from some isolated examples, I’m not hearing much vigorous informed debate. I’m not hearing of reassessment of established patterns of ministry, many of which appear purely cultural and have little thought-out rationale. I’m not hearing a passion and desire to explore every way possible to release women into ministry and use God-given gifts.

In fact more the opposite.

In much of the church it feels more like a culturally conservative holding on to the status quo as somehow clearly biblical against a perceived advance of ‘liberalism’ or ‘feminism’ rather than a serious open-minded discussion of the issues.

What I continue to hear from many women in different churches in Ireland is light years away from even what a  male-elder-only traditionalist like Wilson describes. Many women continue to have no opportunity to preach the gospel, speak on Sundays, serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team. Some are not even allowed to lead a Bible study in a mixed-gender setting.

I’d love to hear if I am wrong – but are there serious discussions happening reflecting a desire to release women into ministry as far as possible? Is this happening in Baptist circles, in many independent evangelical churches and networks, in Pentecostal networks, in many ethnic church networks etc?

Even within a denomination like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland of which I am a part, which decided to ordain women elders back in the 1926 and women ministers back in 1973, there has been a conservative retrenchment. In 1990, in response to a move by a minority resistant to the official position of the denomination, the Church’s Judicial Commission issued guidelines that allowed “Those with personal conscientious objections” not to participate in services of ordination of a woman. In effect the 1990 Guidelines have fatally undermined the Church’s own democratically endorsed official policy. They have given the green light for many churches to refuse to call a women minister and many male ministers to fail to support women candidates for ministry from within their churches. In that sort of climate, it is remarkable that there are any women ministers emerging at all – and there are only a very few. It does certainly not feel like a culture which wishes to explore every possible means to encourage and release women into ministry. This all in the absence of open transparent theological discussion of work like Westfall’s at formal church level (again glad to be corrected on this one if there has been).

Westfall argues that no interpretation of Paul and gender should be automatically privileged. At the end of the book she proposes this – and it is worth reading carefully for traditional assumptions and practices ARE guarded as a sacred citadel to be defended.

I exhort the evangelical community to make a crucial distinction between what a text is and what has been assumed about the text in the process of interpretation. I encourage evangelicals to then “trust the text.” Place the actual biblical text above the interpretations of the text and the theological constructions that have gained a dogmatic foothold among so many.

The traditional interpretations and understandings of the Pauline theology of gender should not be guarded as a citadel and treated as a privileged reading of the texts that must be incontrovertibly proved wrong with hard evidence before considering other options. Rather, they should be placed on equal ground with other viable interpretative options and treated with comparable suspicion because of the history of interpretation, not in spite of it. I invite serious scholars and students of the text to go through the discipline of carefully identifying the information, assumptions, and inferences that have been imported into the texts, extract them from the reading, and then read the texts again with hermeneutics that are consistent with the best practices for interpreting biblical texts and language in general. Seek to weigh the contexts in which the text is placed and consider how they affect interpretation. Utilize sophisticated tools to determine the meaning of words in a linguistically informed way, because that is a major arena in the argument. (314)

  1. This is a crucial topic

The second reason is related to the first. It is not only a question of taking the Bible seriously, it is also an issue with significant pastoral, theological and missional implications.

Too often I have heard from (male) leaders – whom I have great respect for – that women in leadership is simply not a priority issue. It is a ‘secondary matter’, historically and theologically a peripheral issue, far less important than evangelism, mission, preaching, discipleship etc.

I have also heard pragmatic responses. It is just too difficult and potentially divisive to risk rocking the boat by opening up this particular can of worms. It is an issue better left alone.

While these responses are understandable to a degree, they are inadequate. Blomberg is right – it is a crucial issue. It impacts half the body of Christ. Those unwilling to engage seriously with the weight of scholarship like Westfall’s need to consider the implications of being mistaken: to consider the impact on women in their church network; to consider implications for faithful obedience to God and his Word; to consider the unnecessary limits on the gifting and work of the Spirit within the body of Christ.

[Yes, I know such questions cut both ways – again my point is not to assume Westfall is obviously right, but to say that her arguments need serious engagement].

Men in positions of power need to consider seriously Jesus’ command to ‘do to others as you would have others do to you’. They need to try seriously to put themselves in a gifted woman’s position who feels a sincere call to leadership.

For example, at one point Westfall refers to John Piper talking about his ‘call’ to ministry.

A man’s personal call to the pastorate and other ministry is treated with due respect and seriousness in the seminaries. There is a reluctance to question or contradict a man’s sense of his own call …. John Piper serves as a an excellent paradigm for a call to the pastorate: He sensed a call to ministry … which he describes as “my heart almost bursting with longing.” Then, in 1980, he felt an irresistible call to preach. When a man negotiates his call to ministry, he utilizes emotions and experience in accordance with his faith and the grace that he is given.

However, the role of variety and experience in the realization of calling is either explicitly or effectively discounted for women. When a woman determines her call by the same model, using the same criteria, if she comes to the same conclusions as Piper, she is told that her navigational system is broken. (213-14)

Men need to try to imagine having your desire to pursue that call NOT being automatically welcomed, celebrated, affirmed and encouraged. They need to try seriously to imagine it automatically being treated as a problem, a form of mistaken ambition, an embarrassing awkward situation that hopefully will go away – all quite apart from your Christian maturity, gifting and desire to serve Jesus. I suspect all men just can’t really imagine what that feels like – however hard they may try.

At the very least, therefore, ‘to do to others’ means to sincerely, seriously, open-mindedly and compassionately engage with arguments like Westfall’s.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Grace reimagined: Paul and the Gift

img_20161104_225105Looking forward to preaching at MCC tomorrow. As a one off sermon rather than part of a series, it’s going to be about grace; connected to working through John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. Hopefully the sermon will not be a lecture on the book! Will be trying hard to earth it.

Prof Barclay was in Maynooth last year.

What would you say grace is?

Something like the unconditional love of God? Or God’s unmerited favour to sinners?

Far greater minds than mine have hailed this book as a masterpiece and one that will re-shape how grace is understood within Christian scholarship and the wider church (Have a read of the endorsements on the Eerdmann’s website above).

Having spent quite a bit of time researching and writing a book chapter ‘The New Perspective and the Christian Life: Solus Spiritus’ within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life this is an area I find fascinating.

Not so much on ‘Old’ versus ‘New’ (I don’t really have a dog in that fight), but how the discussion relates to mission, how the gospel is presented, the role of the Spirit (pneumatology), the place of Israel, the radical implications of who can be righteous before God (ecclesiology) and how (soteriology), the identity of Jesus (Christology) and how to read the Bible as a whole (narrative vs systematic) and how we understand the Christian life itself.

So a lot of things are tied up in understanding Paul.

So it is fantastically impressive to see John Barclay cut with a surgeon’s knife through over 40 years of contentious debate between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives. His operation is clinical (in the best sense), analytical, massively learned and compelling.

A huge issue that he brings out so well is that a lot of the confusions and disagreements about Paul, grace, justification and works, is that people are often working with different understandings of what grace actually is and how it works.

For example, many people say that grace is ‘free’ and ‘unconditional’. But what does unconditional actually mean in practice?

Does it mean that God’s saving grace in Christ is unconditional (it is not conditioned on anything we do or are)? OK. But is grace still free or unconditional after that?

Protestants have deep anxieties about subsequent ‘works’ being mixed up with grace and talk a lot about grace being ‘free’ if it is truly to be grace. Catholics generally don’t (they talk about an infused righteousness that can go up and down in the Christian life).

‘Old’ Perspective people are generally Reformed and have been dead set against some ‘New’ Perspective voices that seem (to them) to make works part of saving faith and so undermine grace.

E P Sanders, who kicked off the whole debate in 1977, talked about Judaism as a religion of ‘Covenantal Nomism’ – Jews were already ‘in’ the Covenant by grace. All of Judaism, he said, was a ‘religion of grace’ and therefore Jews had the task of ‘staying in’ by keeping the Torah. And the implication was that Christianity worked much the same way.

But this challenged ‘Old Perspective’ ideas that went back to Luther and in some ways all the way to Augustine. Namely, that Paul’s solution of grace was in contrast to Jewish legalism. The gospel of grace was an answer to legalism (self-righteousness).

Today, the dominant way evangelicals talk about grace and the gospel is in terms of liberation from self-righteousness (trying to save ourselves). This is good news to be sure, but was Paul talking about grace as salvation from legalism?

Barclay’s book is so important for a number of reasons: he is a world class scholar on Paul. He also has done years of research into gift in the Greco-Roman world and also has discussed in detail the ‘history of grace’ – through people like Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Sanders and modern scholarship.

Barclay’s brilliant move is to offer an original and creative 6 fold matrix for defining what grace actually is and how it works within the realm of gift. This then becomes his analytical tool for seeing how grace is being understood and used by Paul and also by those theologians through history.

Reading through his extensive conclusions I found myself nodding in agreement and having plenty of ‘Ah Ha’ moments when something vague became crystal clear. He has a terrific gift of his own for writing clearly and logically. In doing so he has forged, not a middle way between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives, but a way that helps to bring out the best insights of both into a fresh and convincing understanding of grace.

But that’s not all. Paul’s theology of grace is worked out in mission to Gentiles. Barclay sees how Luther’s reconfiguration of grace, while departing from Paul in significant ways, was still a brilliant re-application of grace in the context of Medieval Catholicism. As we think about grace today, we also need to be thinking about how it applies missionally – and he finishes the book with insightful ideas for grace in our contemporary Western world (one or two of which I will be nicking tomorrow).

Comments, as ever, welcome.