Musings on Discipleship

Here are some thoughts on discipleship triggered by two things:

1. Being asked to give a ‘quick-fire trigger talk’ as part of a Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) gathering of church leaders, youth leaders and others reflecting on contemporary challenges around discipleship. It was a really good day organised by Rick Hill Discipleship Officer of the PCI (and MA grad of IBI), with lots of good input and discussion.

2. Reading Matthew Bates’ outstanding book Salvation by Allegiance Alone.

For various posts on Bates’ important book see:

Nijay Gupta has a fair and warm review here :

Michael Bird has two interviews here and here :

Scot McKnight did a series starting here:

The Gospel Coalition did an unsurprisingly critical review here

The fun part of a short talk is that you get to do what you tell students not to do: make deliberately provocative statements without following the niceties of detailed academic substantiation. The point of the talk is to raise issues and get open discussion going.

This is not to say these are random thoughts. They come from thinking about faith, gospel and works in teaching and preaching over a lot of years.

It’s also drawing on what Bates does with crystal clarity. He articulates a persuasive case for how themes of faith, gospel and works operate within the New Testament – from Jesus to Paul, John and other authors.

Here are 7 thesis statements with brief notes. Feel welcome to comment – whether agree, disagree or discuss …!

  1. THESIS 1: We have a major problem with discipleship in the West – and to be specific within the PCI.

Discipleship is patchy: in prayer, giving, service, training, Bible reading and study, evangelism, and a passion for holiness. Attendance is plummeting within denominations in the post-Christendom era, including the PCI. Membership is getting older. I can’t prove this, but formerly high levels of nominalism within Christendom are now being revealed within post-Christendom. The cultural pressure to ‘go to church’ has evaporated. Perhaps contemporary members are more committed and serious than many in the past? And there are lots of good things happening in various places, but no-one I talk to is bursting with optimism and confidence about the future of the institutional Church.

  1. Tinkering with programmes and courses isn’t going to address the problem

We can easily fall into the trap of imagining that ‘if only’ we got things right, that the Church can return to its former ‘glory’. Getting things right tends to mean things like having more attractive services, youth and children’s programmes, modern buildings etc. But reliance in externals is just rearranging the furniture. Something more fundamental is at issue. Treating symptoms is not going to address the root cause.

Neither is the solution dependence on pragmatic models of ministry. By this I mean adopting models of discipleship based on x principles of how Jesus made disciples and if we do the same mature disciples will result – as if discipleship is a nice easy recipe to follow and if we keep to the instructions – bingo! Some discipleship resources seem to owe more to management strategies for growing a business than they do to the teaching of the New Testament.

  1. That fundamental problem is theological

We need to think primarily theologically when we think about discipleship. So what’s the theological problem? Let me suggest it includes a superstructure of half-formed assumptions and misconceptions about both the content of the gospel and a proper response to the gospel (faith and works).

For various reasons there are deeply embedded and damaging popular misunderstandings of how gospel, faith and works are understood that distort both the way the gospel is talked about and how a proper response to that gospel is framed. This impacts both how discipleship is understood and how it is prioritised and practiced.

  1. The key issue revolves around the word pistis (faith)

What is faith? At what is it directed? How does it ‘work’?

These are very big questions indeed. Just have a read of Galatians for example to see how crucial a place ‘faith’ has within the argument of the letter. ‘Faith’ is clearly the key to Paul’s passionate appeal to the Galatians to come to their senses – but what does he mean by faith?

Popular understandings of the gospel and faith sound a bit like this:

“Have faith in Jesus and your sins are forgiven.”

“Forgiveness is a free gift, apart from works. Just believe in Jesus.’

“Jesus paid the price so I could be free.”

Or an ‘ABC gospel’: Accept. Believe. Confess. For an earlier post on ‘gospel lite’ versions see this.

In all these formulations, believing in Jesus is the key to salvation. As Bates says at one point, they frame faith in problematic ways that:

  • Confuse the content of the gospel (a narrow focus on sin and personal forgiveness)
  • Obscure the nature of true faith (emphasis on mental assent)
  • Misdirect the focus of faith (focus on my faith, my salvation, my choice)
  • Artificially separate the relationship between grace and works (former makes the latter of secondary importance and of no soteriological significance).
  • Mask what Christians are actually saved for (little or no space for the necessity of personal transformation and growth in holiness and Christlikeness).
  1. Faith tends to be set against works

Popular views of faith are imagined to work something like this:

  • Faith is opposed to works due to the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of not importing works into saving faith.
  • Grace tends to be set against works as well. Grace invites, but does not obligate.
  • Thus works (which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about discipleship) are artificially detached from both faith and grace
  • Works (discipleship) happen as a fruit of faith: a secondary cause.
  • But the real hard lifting has already been done (forgiveness, salvation, assurance, justification) by faith. Sanctification is secondary.
  • Some propose that ‘works are the fruit of faith’. But this itself is not how the Bible talks about faith – works are intrinsic to saving faith. We are judged ‘according to our works’.
  1. Pistis has a much broader sense of meaning than assent or trust: in both in the Bible and outside it

No-one is rejecting the central place of faith. Take Ephesians 2:8: It is by grace you have been saved through faith. But what does faith mean and how does it work?

Matthew Bates (and others) argue that pistis has a wider semantic range than in popular models outlined above. Pistis includes faithfulness; loyalty; fidelity; or as proposed by Bates as allegiance to the risen Lord. Faith here is best seen as a personal commitment for all of life.

If this is the case, Bates proposes that when it comes to discipleship we would be better off dropping faith language altogether in order to try to get back to what Scripture means by pistis.

In brief, the gospel is about the good news of Jesus the resurrected Lord and King. The gospel is therefore first and foremost Christology that calls for a response in faith to a person (not an abstract idea). Salvation is past present and future, lived out in hope of resurrection life in the new creation.

In Jesus’ teaching, discipleship is right action in light of his authority. Faith in Jesus = allegiance to Jesus the king. And this sense of allegiance fits the sense of pistis in wider Greco-Roman culture in NT times. A sense of fidelity and loyalty

Bates proposes it has three inter-related themes.

  1. Mental assent – the story of the gospel is true
  2. Confession of loyalty to the risen King
  3. Embodied fidelity – life lived as a citizen of the kingdom

John Barclay comes into the story here with his magnificent book Paul and the Gift that I posted on here and here and here.

He has shown how grace in the NT world is more subtle and complex than theological systems (both Protestant and Catholic) have often allowed. Certainly for Paul there is no problem in expecting grace involves reciprocity. Whereas ‘gracism’ that says that free grace ‘requires nothing’ is an alien concept to the NT.

This is not to say that salvation is not utterly and completely due to the grace of God. We cannot save ourselves. There is forgiveness and new life in the Spirit through confessing and repenting – turning to Jesus Christ in faith. But God’s grace is not opposed to a response of embodied obedience. Grace is not opposed to works, it leads to works shaped by loyalty and action in the world. It is opposed to merit.

  1. How faith, gospel and works are understood will impact discipleship

How we understand gospel, faith and works (and discipleship fits in the category of works) will have practical implications for how we think about evangelism and discipleship.

However you read the NT, any idea of ‘easy believism’, or ‘cheap grace’ is utterly alien. Both Calvinists and others should agree on this. Believers have assurance built on the person and work of Jesus, but since only God knows all we should be wary of offering any blanket easy reassurance.

How I read the NT is that there is a very high expectation of moral transformation. For Paul and Luke especially this is built on the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a basic starting point for discipleship in local churches is to aim high rather than settle for basic and often misleading indicators like church attendance …

What does ‘successful’ discipleship look like? And how can what goes on at church foster development towards that goal and vision?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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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.

An Irish Presbyterian night out: sandwiches, tray-bakes, harps, mythical objectivism, spiritual transformation and the grace of God

On Sunday evening a group from our wee church, joined with a three other Presbyterian churches in the wider area for a bit of a shin-dig in Drogheda.

A very convivial evening it was, with a generous surplus of sandwiches and tray-bakes, plenty of chat, worship led by a dynamic team of MCC musicians (including a harp and Be Thou My Vision in Irish); the service led by Rev John Woodside of Drogheda interspersed with people telling their own story of faith (i. e. testimony).

Listening to the stories was fascinating. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems as if someone telling their ‘testimony’ of what God has done in their life does not seem to happen very often any more? I wonder why?

Two things stood out to me:

First, how beautifully a woman spoke of the church.  This was a story of a specific experience of a particular community. The image used was from Luke 13:34

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Dominus Flevit
Mosaic from Dominus Flevit, a Franciscan church at the foot of the Mount of Olives

She used this as illustration of how she had been ‘gathered in’, almost against her will: gently, without coercion or pressure or force, but with love, kindness, pastoral care and friendship. Her experience of church was of soft feathered wings protectively enfolding her and bringing her into a safe place.

Now, ‘the church’ in general gets pretty bad press in Ireland. But this was a reminder what authentic Christianity in action looks like. Love. Nothing as powerful nor as moving.

Second, the stories illustrated something that was mentioned on this blog a while back when discussing conversion and finding / losing faith. Namely, the fallacy of ‘mythical objectivism’  (the myth that objective truth is knowable, neat, tidy and can be acquired in a neutrally detached way by the knower).

Rather, spiritual transformation tends to be personal, subjective, storied, and nearly always deeply relational.

For some people it was a line in a hymn that suddenly became real, for another a Leonard Cohen song, or a post on Facebook by a virtual stranger, or a chance visit to a church that sparked off a journey towards faith in God. No one story was remotely the same.

One thing they did have in common was that they did not focus on unpacking rational arguments for the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, or how the atonement works. Nor did they tend to focus on sermons heard or teaching received.

Now, this is not to fall into some Kantian dualism where ‘faith’ belongs to the realm of the subjective. It was clear that the faith shared by the speakers had become / was increasingly becoming ‘faith seeking understanding’. In other words, faith based on historical fact, coherent biblical doctrine, gospel truth and so on. Each was on a journey of faith seeking increasing understanding; some just starting out and others a good bit along the road.

But (for me anyway) they highlighted how most of us humans are no mere ‘rational minds’ working out ‘truth’ in a detached, logical manner before making a carefully, calculated decision to follow Jesus. Rather we are a whole mix of emotions, experiences, relationships, questions, thoughts and beliefs – and somewhere in that pot-pourri God graciously breaks in surprising and unexpected ways.

I say graciously, because the other thing the stories had in common was the joy and conviction that this new life was a good one: not without struggle or doubt or questions, but full of thanksgiving and joy and hope.

All in all, a grand night altogether.

Equal to Rule

Last week I was honoured to speak at a book launch for Trevor Morrow’s Equal to Rule: Leading the Jesus way. Why Men and Women are Equal to Serve in the Leadership in the Christian Church

Trevor is a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Here’s the gist of what I said …

Thank you to Trevor and to Columba Press for the invitation to speak at this book launch – I am honoured to be asked and delighted to see Equal to Rule in print. I hope and pray that it is read widely, not only within its target audience of the PCI but across church communities in Ireland and further afield.

There is so much that I’d like to say when it comes to the issue of women in leadership and ministry within the church – and isn’t that a scary thing for an audience to hear from a speaker at the start of a talk?

  1. More than listening to me, the most profitable thing you can do is to get your hands on a copy of the book and read what Trevor has said in his inimitable and insightful way. I’m sure that the globe could be encompassed by the pages and pages of print that continue to be written about this issue. For over 20 years I’ve been engaged with, reading, writing, collecting books and articles and more recently blogging about this topic and it is not going away. The volume of material continues to grow. So what Trevor has accomplished in a mere 112 pages is quite a feat. His style is easy to follow and understand, yet beneath that surface is a deep knowledge of complex and hotly debated issues. In other words, something understood profoundly can be explained simply – and Trevor has that all too rare gift.

He covers much ground

  • Genesis – men and women in the image of God and the Fall
  • OT women – and their significance today
  • Jesus and his radically counter-cultural attitude to women
  • Paul and early church – equal ministry – the difficult texts
    • Marriage
    • Worship
    • Discipleship (Eph / 1 Tim 2)
    • Leadership (Spirit / gifts)
  • Practical steps in church life today
  • Men and women serving in a wide variety of gifts and ministries TOGETHER
  • Wise words about the need for men to act against the status quo – courage and how hard for women to change power structures
  • Unity in diversity as an eschatological foretaste – how the church now is to reflect equality and diversity between men and women as a foretaste of the kingdom to come … not obliteration of difference but strength in difference.

Trevor puts it this way,

“In the church men and women should be free to lead but never to the detriment of their manhood or womanhood. Instead, they will rule together in collegiality because men need women and women need men. This is how we truly express the image of God and say to the world – A new day is coming and this is how it’s going to be.”

 

  1. My second point is that I am not a woman.

This might (!) seem somewhat obvious, but it does have serious implications. I have no idea what it is like being a woman – despite being married to one for 24 years and having two late-teen grown up daughters. However hard I might try, I can’t understand the experiences, feelings and challenges of being a woman – not only biologically, but also what it is like to be excluded from leadership roles where I could use God-given gifts for serving the church ONLY on the basis of my gender, REGARDLESS of my ability, character, experience, training, mind, and heart.

For I’m going to cut to the chase, we need to be clear here. This might sound critical but there are important issues at stake. At heart the male-only leadership position essentially says women cannot hold certain leadership positions because the Bible says so. The argument goes that the sexes are equal but have complementary ‘roles’.

But the fatal flaw is that in normal complementary relationships roles can change (a student can become a teacher). But in male-only leadership, women can NEVER lead – her subordinate ‘role’ is given at birth and is fixed for good. Women, ONLY because they are women, are the subordinated sex for no other reason than gender. However much the male-only leadership view says otherwise (and I have read all the arguments), to put one sex in a permanently and divinely-sanctioned subordinate position to another speaks of inferiority to the ones permanently set over them.

Imagine a Christian white man in Apartheid SA saying to a fellow black believer “Brother, the Bible says we are truly equal, created in the image of God. We are to minister together in service of the Lord, and complement each other within the body of Christ. But your role must ALWAYS be subordinate to mine, I have authority over you. We may be equally intelligent and spiritual and experienced and gifted by the Spirit to lead – but you will never be able to do so because you are black, and the Bible says blacks are not be in positions of leadership. Please don’t question why, it is just because God says so.’ (this illustration is adapted from Kevin Giles)

What might the black man think? Perhaps ‘That sure sounds like a peculiar type of complementarity!’

The problem with ‘complementarianism’ is that it is not complementary there is NO role that women alone should do and men not do. It too conveniently enforces the status quo. Ultimately it appears arbitrary, without a rational basis.

This is why, ironically, Christian men need to speak out on behalf of women. The status quo favours men. Current power structures favour men. It is particularly difficult for women to challenge the status quo without being seen as self-promoting or power-hungry, and going against the very truth of the Word of God himself …

Again, I can only say I have no idea how this must feel.

John Stackhouse says this

“We men will not change until we want to change … We men need to hear from women about what it’s like to be demeaned, disrespected, or dismissed … Men certainly have responsibility here to speak up on behalf of their sisters, on behalf of justice, and on behalf of the greater good that accrues to everyone as women are treated properly. But we will respond more readily to exhortations from both sexes if we feel it, and feel how important it is. We need this powerful impetus to compel us to undergo the strain of actually changing our minds and hearts. Otherwise, we naturally will stay where we are, in the convenient and comfortable paradigms we have inherited.”

  1. This links paradoxically to a third point – that I look forward to the day when the ministry and giftedness of women should not need ‘defending’ – least of all by men. In a brilliant blog post the Baptist theologian Dr Steve Holmes of St Andrews University said this:

“I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

Take Phoebe Palmer.

She began to be involved in leading a Bible study in New York around 1830. She soon received invitations to preach across the USA and in the UK. Something like 25 000 people were converted by her ministry.

25 000 people. Converted. Does that need defence? Really?

She visited prisons regularly, ran a society helping poor people in need of medical attention, and was involved in an ambitious project to challenge the new problem of urban poverty through the provision of low-cost housing, free schooling, and employment. She had a particular concern for orphans throughout her life.

Challenging injustice on a grand scale. Do you want me to defend that?

…..
And then there’s Catherine Booth. And Mary Dyer. And Catherine of Sienna. And Mother Julian. And Rose Clapham, all-but forgotten, whose first sermon, preached when she was 18, saw 700 miners converted to Christ.

Defend that? Why?

There’s a thousand stories like it. That I know. Ten thousand times ten thousand that have gone untold, no doubt.

And I think of women who I have the privilege to know, who I sit in awe of, some of whom graciously allow me to call them friends. If I could preach one tenth as powerfully or effectively as Ness Wilson, or Bev Murrill, or Miriam Swaffield, or if I had a tiny portion of the vision and capacity to inspire change of Cathy Madavan or Natalie Collins, or if I had some little echo of the pastoral wisdom and visible holiness of Pat Took or Ruth Goldbourne, or if I could even once in my life make something happen the way Wendy Beech-Ward or Ann Holt do every day – then I might think the question of whether these women are permitted by God to lead and preach was worth thinking about. [put in names of women you know]

As it is, no. I can’t defend their ministries. I am not worthy to

But I’m not going to try to illuminate the sun.

And I’m not going to try to dampen the sea.

And I’m not, any longer, going to try to defend the ministry of women in the church.”

  1. My final point is on how to disagree

Students frequently say to me as I teach theology and describe different views – what do you believe Patrick? And they sometimes accuse me of sitting on the fence when I don’t tell them. But as a teacher it is your job to get students to understand both sides of an argument. To be able truly to stand in someone else’s shoes and argue their case as well as or even better than they could themselves – even if you disagree with it profoundly.

That shows that you have taken the time truly to listen and understand the other – without constructing a straw man which you then demolish in a swift bout of self-righteous satisfaction!

There are a range of key areas of differences of interpretation on this issue which include:

–         Was male headship established at creation or did it enter the world as a consequence of the Fall?

–         What is the significance of women prophets in the OT – an exception or a role model?

–         How are we to interpret Jesus’ attitude and actions towards women in terms of roles in the church today?

–         Women witnesses of the resurrection – significance?

–         No male or female in Christ we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28) – only a spiritual equality or implications for roles in the church as well?

–         Is male authority in church and marriage the biblical norm or a relationship of full mutuality and equality?

–         Is Paul setting up a creation-based permanent subordination of women to men, or addressing local issues in the church of his day?

–         Are male-female hierarchical relationships actually mirroring something of the relationships within the Godhead of Father-Son-Spirit?

I am concerned that there is an increasingly strident tone to the whole debate – both from ‘hard’ complementarians, especially in the USA and Australia, and from ‘hard’ egalitarians on the other side.

So, especially given this context, it is all the more important that, even if we hold strong views on this question (and you may have picked up that I am off the fence on this one) – we are all the more obligated to show grace and charity to fellow Christians with whom we disagree.

Trevor models grace and charity in his approach. This is not a polemical book. He does not misrepresent those who hold different views, he describes their positions accurately. He focuses on a positive biblical vision of men and women equal to rule. His emphasis is on what all Christians can agree on and how this issue has not historically been, or should become, an issue of division.  For this he is to be commended.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Struggling with conflict? Let the church help

Conflict

OK, the title of this post is tongue-in-cheek. I’m not being cynical, but am pointing to the deep irony and failure of a Christian community called to reconciliation by the grace of God at the same time being a place of division, conflict, unforgiveness and hardness of heart.

A friend of mine, Joe Campbell, last year researched and delivered a report to the General Board of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland related to conflict. It’s a public document which can be found here if you dig a bit (p.37 on).  In it Joe talks of the need for honesty and transparency around conflict, so it seems appropriate to talk about it here.

It’s a hard-hitting self-appraisal. Christians need to admit that conflict is endemic within church life and that it is nearly always handled poorly. Too many people I know have been hurt by the fall-out of conflict in church life to ignore the reality.

Some points that stand out to me:

1.Causes of conflict

60 cases of conflict were reviewed that had been referred to a formal conciliation process. (Far more conflict situations are handled locally and others end up in the formal judicial courts of the church). There were a variety of factors that had caused conflict in the 60 cases:

–   35 cases reflected tensions between a minister and some elders. All of these cases had been going on for a long time

– some involved conflict over church property decisions

– some involved mental health issues

– some involved individuals or families within a church congregation

NOT ONE involved points of theology. ALL of them revolved around breakdown in vital relationships

 2. Insights gained from Mediators

Joe talked with those involved in conciliation. Some points highlighted included:

Conflict seems to bring out the worst in the best of people. There is an enormous human cost to badly handled conflicts within Congregations. Spouses and children feel and see the effects’

“Mediators uncovered an attitude within our Church of confrontation, an unforgiving spirit and at times a deep desire among disputants to have their case heard by Commission of Presbytery or Judicial Commission. It seems we are a people more comfortable with rules than relationships.

3. Insights gained from interviewees

He also talked with people in churches. Again some comments that stand out to me:

– Treating conflict in a formal way early on was a typical response via rules and regulations

– None of those interviewed reported on any healthy supportive pastoral support for Ministers or Elders during tense times.

– The church’s systems for handling conflict “seem hidden to most members, overly bureaucratic, involving carefully written submissions even at an early stage of a process, and takes a long time. Several who have experienced commissions spoke of how they are just not user friendly, law based not relational.”

And the strongest finding I think was this one:

 “It seems clear from everyone I spoke to that conflict is viewed as  wrong, even sinful. It is kept hidden, sometimes ignored, spoken of in hushed tones, and too often leaves people feeling helpless, sometimes angry. Some try to spiritualise conflict seeing it as an attack from the forces of evil. A situation where victory must be experienced at all costs since God is on “my” side. We need somehow to see conflict as normal, since God in His great wisdom has made us all different. How we handle it will make it a bad and negative experience or a good and positive one. The establishment of a good and functioning service to help us handle conflict well, should be seen as a sign of health in our Church, rather than the dominant view as sickness. There were no positive experiences spoken, of conflict being handled well, producing change, new growth, more real relationships, and a greater awareness of God’s love and grace.

No positive experiences of conflict – at all – in a national denomination that exists to follow Jesus who happens to have rather a lot to say about love, giving up of rights and forgiveness.

Joe concludes with what is probably an understatement:

It seems clear that we as a Church need to recapture the attitude and skills obvious in several Biblical models of talking, listening, searching for solutions, praying together, and above all loving, and the giving and receiving of forgiveness.

The report then makes many practical and wise recommendations in light of its serious findings which I hope are ‘owned’ and acted upon with intent.

Some personal comments and questions for discussion if you would like to join in:

– The report is in a context of a historic denomination that has accumulated lots of rules and bureaucracy over centuries. The comments about rules before relationships is fascinating and makes me wonder about the impact of Protestantism’s dominant judicial and abstract understanding of the atonement – but  better leave that for another day.

– Its findings are not surprising – but that in itself is scant comfort. They are shocking – or should be. Christians above all, should be best equipped to handle conflict in a transformative way – yet the complete opposite often appears to be the case. (But it should be said here that untold numbers of acts of grace and forgiveness that lead to healing are by definition ‘invisible’ – we only see the visible damage caused by relational breakdown).

– What do you think lies behind this evident failure to match faith with practice?: to fail to apply and live out the gospel of reconciliation in our relationships?

What are your reflections on church conflict and how it is dealt with?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A personal sketch of the 1912 Ulster Covenant

Tomorrow the 28th of September 2012 marks the centenary of The Ulster Covenant. As a way of reflecting on events 100 years ago, allow me to tell a story of two sides of my family tree. First the text itself:

‘Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V., humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant throughout this our time of threatened calamity to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right we hereto subscribe our names. And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant … God save the King.’

The Unionist Side

I recently had a browse of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland website and looked up signatories of the Covenant. Very quickly I found the signatures of my grandfather George (18), my great-grandfather Rev Samuel Mitchel, Presbyterian minister in Enniskillen  (56), his wife Marie who signed the separate women’s Declaration in Enniskillen (address given, ‘The Manse’), and my great-great grandfather, Rev David Mitchel (1825-1914), retired Presbyterian minister attached to Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church in Bangor.

The three men had probably met up in Belfast together on a sort of pilgrimage. I know that my grand-father cycled to Belfast from Newry to be there. They must have listened to Edward Carson at City Hall warning of the imminent dangers of Home Rule before signing the Covenant within the building itself.

It was a Saturday, but felt like a Sunday; a holy sacred and solemn day, filled with significance. Pretty well everyone went to church, just as they would the next morning. But what was different about this act of worship was the way it transcended any theological distinctives and united the signatories within a broad politicised Protestantism. The document they signed that day promised to resist Home Rule ‘by all means which may be found necessary’. The formation and arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force gave shape to this threat.

It may have been a century ago but that day, and other events of that decade, are still within touching distance. I remember my grand-father quite well – a real gentleman. I can imagine him as a teenager, there with his father and grand-father, both Presbyterian ministers; three generations together, men of the church, men of Ulster, men of Empire – men of their time.

The Irish Nationalist / Republican side

The Rev David Mitchel I just mentioned was a first cousin of John Mitchel ‘The Patriot’ (1815-1875); orator, journalist, controversialist, fervently anti-English Irish nationalist, himself the son of another Presbyterian minister in Newry, Young Irelander, bitter opponent of O’Connell’s pacifism, transported to Van Diemen’s Land for inciting revolution, author of Jail Journal (a hugely influential book within 19th and early 20th century Irish nationalism), and, at the very end of his life, MP (although declared ineligible since he was a ‘convicted felon’).

Mitchel can fairly be called the father of violent Republicanism. He was one of Padraig Pearse’s four ‘ghosts’ – the dead but inspirational forefathers of 1916. Mitchel was the ghost legitimating the use of physical force to liberate Ireland.

So, two very different sides of the one family who knew one another. Conversation over tea at family gatherings with Rev David and rebel John must have been interesting. But both sides in their own ways embedded beliefs that gave shape to the rest of 20th century Irish history (as well as having a nice line in beards).

A belief that violence, or the threat of violence, is in certain circumstances justified and trumps ‘illegitimate Government’.  For Unionists, the Ulster Covenant represented a covenant with each other (not with God) to resist British failure to maintain their side of a contract of honour to protect the Union.  Such resistance was heroic, necessary and morally right. The violent rebellion of 1916 glorified martyrology, death and violence in the cause of the nation – the rebels taking onto themselves the right to bear arms even though they were a tiny minority at the time.

Both sides are shaped by nationalist narratives that claimed that God was on their side. See the text of the Covenant for how it ‘sacralised’ the political cause of opposing Home Rule. And see 1916 and Pearse’s religious rhetoric for how Christian imagery would serve the cause of his ‘blood sacrifice’. My Presbyterian grandfathers would not have put in those terms of course. They fitted within the overwhelming Protestant consensus that they had no other choice but to resist such a manifest threat to their political, religious and economic existence and that God must obviously be on their side.

Both sides saw themselves as fighting for ‘liberty’: one from the alien and disloyal threat of Rome Rule, the other from the crushing power of English occupation.

Both sides were battling to protect, maintain and express their own political, cultural and religious identities. For Protestants like my grandfather and his forbears, it was a time of ‘threatened calamity’ that called for radical unity – wherever it may lead.

Both Irish nationalist and Ulster Unionist narratives united people into opposing ‘identity blocs’. Unionists like my grandfathers were overwhelmingly at this time ‘Irish’. By the end of the 1970s only about 3% of Protestants would describe themselves this way. Previously significant differences of identity (between Presbyterian dissenters and the Anglican establishment for example) would be subsumed within an all-embracing Unionist political identity.

Both sides developed negative ‘identities of opposition’. The zero-sum politics of siege and fear of ‘the Other’ would dominate the rest of the century. Both were defined by what they were not: Unionists were not Catholic and (increasingly) were not Irish. Whatever Irish nationalists were, they were not British and did not exactly share Unionist’s view of the Empire as a benign force for good. Both sides saw themselves as more rational, advanced, and obviously morally, culturally religiously superior to the Other.

Both sides used the power of the state to implement and reinforce and propagate its own identity – which included wildly differing interpretations of Irish history. One led to De Valera’s Catholic Ireland, the other to James Craig’s ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people’. Both sides excluded and marginalised the Other as they gained the freedom to assert their own identity within a political space –whether Northern Ireland or the Irish Republic.

Of course these are all generalisations but I want to contend they are broadly accurate. This deep entwining of religion with narratives of power, self-interest, fear, exclusion and violence in Ireland has been, in my opinion a disaster and a curse. It is a form of idolatry that has deeply damaged the authentic witness of the church as followers of a crucified Messiah who rejected violence.

Its legacy is one where churches still find it incredibly difficult to even begin to imagine how to distance themselves (not remove themselves) spiritually and theologically from particular political and cultural identities. And this has deeply damaged their witness and mission to an alternative kingdom of the one true Lord.

As you can tell from my family tree, ‘historically’ I’m a Presbyterian. But I’m also one by practice – if a Christian first. So I’ll explore in a couple of more posts next week how this fusion of religion and national identity around ‘Ulster’s 1912 pact with God’ played out within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland during the 20th century.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

post-Christendom (7) Christian realism and Civil Partnership

This post continues to unpack the argument of my paper “Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture”

A ‘Christian Realist’ view is not so much a third alternative to ‘cultural transformation’ or ‘holy distinctness’. It acknowledges that both approaches have significant biblical support and notable strengths, as well as weaknesses.

As John Stackhouse puts it, rather than solely pursue ‘the’ right approach to culture, Christian Realism seeks to maximise shalom in the messy reality of a diverse and complex post-Christendom culture. Stackhouse summarises his call for a renewed Christian Realism as

a realism that tries to be true to the nature of things, to reality: true to the nature of the world, to the nature of God’s revelation in Scripture, to the nature of the experience of God’s people through several millennia, and especially to the nature of Jesus Christ as we know him, and hear his call, today.[1]

So I’m suggesting that Christians need to engage with a number of political, cultural and spiritual realities as they do public theology. I list 6 in the paper. Here’s the first:

1.Realism about the ambiguity of faithful Christian discipleship in a post-Christendom culture

There is rarely a public policy which is ‘just plain Christian’ otherwise Christians would not disagree so much! A challenge for Christians is how to deal realistically and faithfully with the ambiguity of life in a plural democracy.

In The Bible in Politics, Richard Bauckham makes the following interesting observation

 … we need to recognize that the political material in the Bible consists largely of stories about and instructions addressed to political societies very different from our own … The adaptations needed to transfer biblical teaching on personal morality from its cultural situation to ours are comparatively easily made, but a more imaginative and creative hermeneutic is necessary for the Bible to speak to modern political life.[2]

I am not concluding that Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s was ‘the’ correct response to CPB, but I am proposing that it at least represents an attempt to bridge Bauckham’s hermeneutical gap between the realm of personal Christian ethics and the complex realities of a modern, post-Christendom, democratic and fast-pluralising state.

An authentic public theology must have a dual nature as it negotiates the tension between an eschatologically orientated faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and a simultaneous active commitment, shaped by kingdom of God values, to working for the wellbeing and renewal of contemporary culture. In other words, walking between what O’Donovan called ‘abstract idealism’ and ‘colourless assimilation’.

In my view, all four approaches – the Irish Bishop’s Conference, the Iona Institute, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Aontas – don’t seem to wrestle with the reality of a hermeneutical gap. Three, Iona excepted, seem to assume that since same sex Civil Partnerships are contrary to Christian ethics, they should not be allowed in law.

Such an assumption just doesn’t cut it in a post-Christendom context.

Comments, as ever, welcome


[1] Stackhouse, Making the Best of It, 309.

[2] Richard Bauckham, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically (London: SPCK, 1989) 12.