How important is the Bible, really?

God has been challenging me about the place of the Bible in my life, and particularly in the worshipping life of the church community.  Though we don’t use the label, Beverley Baptist Church comes from the tradition known as Evangelical.  The word means different things to different people, but common to all definitions would be a high place for the Bible as the Word of God.

And yet, look at our average Sunday service, and the Biblical content is often just a few short verses.  Contrast this with the “Catholic” tradition – in which I include Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, and Orthodox in all its forms.  In all of these the Bible would be held alongside church traditions which are in some way or other also seen as authoritative.  So on paper the Bible is less important than in the Evangelical church, yet in a Catholic service of worship there will be four readings – Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel.  And alongside this a written liturgy that is packed with Biblical quotes, imagery and allusions.  Which tradition seems to place more importance on the Bible?

To which the Evangelical might respond that we spend a substantial amount of time each week unpacking, interpreting, and seeking to apply the few verses that we have read.  This is broadly true, and shows perhaps a differing understanding of the purpose of reading the scriptures – the Evangelical church reads a passage from the Bible in order to preach from it, and to hear God speaking through the preacher; the Catholic church reads the Bible because it is valuable to hear in its own right as “The Word of the Lord”.  That is perhaps an oversimplification, but one I think with some truth in it.

But I have a niggling feeling that the above is a convenient excuse to cover up the decreasing importance placed on the Bible in Evangelical churches.  Is it really our “supreme authority on matters of faith and doctrine”, to use an oft quoted phrase.  This was really brought home to me recently during my studies.  One of our modules is “Missional Leadership” and as part of this we have occasional guest lecturers.  Most of these come from Evangelicalism, broadly defined, and they have brought us ideas from various books, personal experience, secular management practice, etc.  Last week our guest lecturer was the Venerable John Day, an Anglo-Catholic.  And he turned us to the Bible, to the story of the Emmaus Road, and over the course of an hour ably expounded leadership based on what Jesus did in that story.

So, how important is the Bible to us, really?

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Faith and Works

While getting our boys ready this morning we were flicking through the Children’s Bible and came across the parable of the two sons, in Matthew 21.

There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

God challenged me directly through this about an area of my life in which I have been saying to God and people involved, “I will do this,” and meaning that, but in practice have not done so.

But then he led  me on from there to reflect wider about what this says about people’s response to God.  This is a little crude, because in reality there are scales and degrees, but I wonder if we can basically group people into 4 categories: those who say they will and do; those who say they will and don’t; those who say they won’t but do; and those who say they won’t and don’t.

The question is, how does God respond to these groups, and particularly the middle two.  The Protestant emphasis on salvation by faith not by our good works has tended to favour those who say over those who do.  But I don’t think that is correct.  In this parable, those who outwardly reject God but still do what he says, are seen as being in the right, whereas those who profess to follow God but their lives do not reflect this, are in the wrong.

And I would suggest the rest of the Bible backs this up.  To give just a couple of examples from the mouth of Jesus: Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven”; and against that the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:37-40 where the righteous are presented as having been oblivious to the fact they were encountering Jesus through their works, but the works are the reason they are welcomed into his presence.

In probably every church in the world there are people who profess to follow Jesus but whose lives consistently fail to bear that out.  Please note I am not talking about there being occasions where we don’t do the right thing – none of us are perfect – but where the whole basis and direction of the life is contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

And there are also those whose lives are lived in accordance with the love of God, even though they would not claim his name, or even actively reject him.  The Bible suggests this latter group are more in accordance with God’s will, but they are by definition not in our churches.  It is challenging to think that there are those outside the congregation who are closer to the kingdom of heaven than some of those inside.

Obviously my aim for myself, and my prayer for each one, is to be in the group of those who say we will follow Jesus and then live according to that desire.  But if I had to choose, I’d rather be outside the church doing God’s will, than inside but refusing to follow his call.

 

 

 

 

 

EU Referendum – a response

In my posts on the Referendum I tried hard not to come down on one side or the other.  My reason for this was a strong belief that as a Christian minister my role is not to tell people where to put their ‘X’, but rather to open up a Biblical angle on the issues to enable people to make their own decision under God’s guidance.

But now I cannot influence the outcome, I feel at liberty to say that I think the British public have made the wrong decision: wrong economically, wrong politically, but most importantly wrong spiritually.  In the short term I believe Brexit will damage the church’s ability to fulfil our calling to bring hope for the poor, relief from suffering for the oppressed, and the message of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to the world.

Like many Christians, over the past few weeks my prayer has been “Your will be done.”  So how do I respond now?  Has God’s will been done?  Am I wrong in my understanding?  Where is the message of hope for those who feel angry and hurt today?

As I reflect on this I think I unwittingly preached the answer last Sunday as we looked at Psalms of Lament, and particularly Psalm 137: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”  Because the will of God being done is not the same as a pain free life.  Jacob and his family going down into Egypt to 400 years of slavery, the people of Judah being carried off into 70 years exile in Babylon, the early church being scattered by persecution: these were all horrific experiences for those involved, but each was used by God to bring about his will.  I’m not saying that God caused the suffering involved, but in each case it was the means by which he moved his people on into the next stage of their relationship with him – the people of Israel formed into a nation in the land God had promised them; an idolatrous people brought back to the living God; a Jerusalem focussed church pushed into fulfilling God’s call to witness to the nations.

And the ultimate example, Jesus who in the garden of Gethsemane prayed more fervently than anyone before or since that God’s will be done, and God’s will was that he should endure the cross in order to open up a new level of relationship with God made available to people of every nation.

So my hope for today is that God’s will is always to work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).  The times of suffering and lament have so often been the beginning of a new movement of God.  Exile is followed by restoration.  Crucifixion is followed by resurrection.  And so too may Brexit be followed by a time in which the church discovers again and anew the calling which God has given us to bring the gospel to the nations, and learns in a new way to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.  Then our prayers will have been answered, and the will of God will truly be done on earth as it is in heaven.

EU Referendum – Migrants are people too!

Most BBC stories covering the movement of people from North Africa across the Mediterranean to Europe, or on across Europe towards the UK, carry the following explanation:

The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.

I can see why they do this.  One alternative term is “immigrant” which has these days seems to carry connotations of people who are up to no good in one way or another.  “Refugee” is factually incorrect, as not everyone travelling to this country meets that definition.

But I wonder if there is another alternative that could be used?  “People”.  So yesterday’s BBC headline of “Shipwrecks kill up to 700 migrants” becomes “Shipwrecks kill up to 700 people.”  Somehow the latter hits home more – migrants cease to be a different class who we can perhaps mentally worry about less, and we realise they are just like us.

I’m not just getting at the BBC here, in fact they have done more than many news outlets in explaining their reasoning for their choice of words.  Much of our media is guilty, consciously or otherwise, of dehumanising people in their reporting.  One example that hit home particularly forcefully to me was the story a couple of weeks ago of the NHS being overrun by “migrant women having babies.”  Well those babies would include both of my children – they are people, just like you or I – we are all born somewhere.

The Bible is full of stories of people on the move.  The Israelite people escaping from slavery into Egypt, were not welcomed into the land for which they headed, and had to fight to live there.  Centuries later a foreign invading army carried many of them off into exile in a foreign land, and it was 70 years before some of them could return to their home.  Jesus was a migrant – a refugee – in Egypt when just a baby, escaping the tyrant Herod who was trying to take his life.  Freedom of movement is not a new issue.

Having lived in the South East of England for 16 years I understand some of the concerns about overcrowding and pressure on infrastructure.  I am less convinced that the solution is to limit numbers coming in to our country – if you took all the non-British people out of the NHS I’m not sure there would be a health service in the London and the Home Counties.

But others will disagree with me.  The important thing is that, as Christians, we make a decision based on the facts, and based on affirming the humanity of each person.  Whatever the colour of our skin, wherever we chanced to be born, whatever our life circumstances, whether we live in this country already or are seeking to move here, we are each made in the image of God, loved by him, and worthy therefore of complete love and respect.  We are people!

 

 

 

 

 

EU Referendum – it’s not all about “us”.

One uniting factor of both sides in the EU referendum is their emphasis on the supposed benefits for “us.”  For example, the 6 key facts listed on the leave.eu website are all ways in which it would be good for “you”, “us”, or “the UK”.  And nearly every paragraph in the equivalent section on strongerin.co.uk includes the word “our” or “we”. 

It is human nature to think first of the effects on ourselves.  But is it consistent with who we are called to be as Christians?  And if there is an “us”, who is to be included? 

Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” 

At first sight this offers a very direct and plain answer to our question.  We are not to act in accordance with what benefits us, but what will be advantageous to others, who are of more value that ourselves.  A closer reading shows that it is a little more complicated, as this is very much in the context of relationships within the church, but in that context at least others are more important than ourselves.  So on a very practical level, if voting one way will make me better off financially, but will cause the person in the next pew to lose their job, there is a question to be asked. 

Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” 

One of the most quoted of Jesus’s commands.  Once again it raises our eyes, beyond what this will mean for me, to the effects it will have on other people. 

James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” 

This is just one of so many verses I could have chosen to illustrate the continuing message of scripture that we have a duty in everything to be considering the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized. 

All of which seems to be pointing us beyond “my” interests, to consider the impact of my vote on a larger group of people.  The question is, how large?  Should I vote for what will most benefit the people of Beverley, or Yorkshire, or England, or Britain, or Europe, or the world?  Or perhaps it’s not geographical, maybe I should focus on the effects for the poor, or the disabled, or children, or the elderly? 

Some of these may be good groups to focus on, as they may be less well equipped than others to cope with any negative effects from the result.  But I would suggest the Bible really only allows for two possible definitions of “us” in our considerations. 

Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” 

Primarily scripture leads us to a definition of “us” as humanity.  We are called to a global vision.  All people have been made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), all have sinned and are in need of the grace of God (Romans 3:23-24), Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14).  There is no division on grounds of ethnicity, religious background, gender, class etc. (Galatians 3:28) – I don’t like ‘proof texting’, but I believe all of the above to be the clear teaching of the whole of the Bible, and I just offer some verses as examples. 

So primarily we are called to consider the implications of our vote on a global scale.  It is of course impossible for us to know all of these, but there are questions we can ask.  For example, if we believe strongly that to remain in the EU would grow the UK economy, we must also ask what effect it will have on the economies of other European countries, and indeed those outside Europe too.  If leaving the EU will increase job opportunities for British people, we must also consider its effect on employment in the rest of Europe.  This is not natural for us as innately selfish beings, but it is part of the radical call of Christ on our lives. 

If we are to narrow the definition of “us” at all then I would suggest there is only one subset of humanity which the Bible allows us to give preference to.  Returning to our Galatians verse we are to especially do good to “the family of believers”, in other words to Christian people.  This is not something we commonly hear these days, and perhaps sits uncomfortably with us, but if we read the New Testament carefully the early church does seem to have been focused inwards.  Acts 2:45, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” in context implies those within the church who had need. 

That was of course a particular context of a small, new, persecuted movement.  And Jesus’s teaching, not least the Good Samaritan, challenged people to look beyond their own religious communities, both in giving and receiving help.  So I’m not entirely convinced, but I can see there may be an argument for taking special account in our voting of what will benefit Christians in other parts of the world, for example the persecuted church and those living in countries which do not allow freedom of religion. 

But the main point stands, that there is no Biblical defense for looking out primarily for “our” interests.  We are called to have a bigger picture, to consider the impact of our vote on all those God loves, in Britain, Europe, and the world.  And particularly for those in a vulnerable position – the poor, the homeless, the unemployed – who are less able in some ways to look out for themselves. 

As I finish this post there is a graph circulating on Facebook which shows that there has never been a year where the UK has received more from Europe than it has paid in.  This is presented as a bad thing – how we’re not getting our money’s worth.  But in the light of our thinking above I question whether this is right.  The UK is the world’s 9th largest economy, the 2nd largest in Europe.  So surely we should celebrate that for nearly 40 years we have been committed to a system that, flawed and imperfect as it is, redistributes our resources to countries who are more in need.   Jesus would, I am sure, approve!

EU Referendum – British or European or…?

As we consider how to vote, we have to begin by identifying the question we are answering.  On a very fundamental level this is a debate about political identity.  Some of the campaign material presents a choice between being British or European.  On a human factual level I could be said to be both, but as a Christian there is a sense in which I am neither.

Philippians 3:18-21, “…many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… Their mind is set on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven.  And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…”

The implications of this for our current issue are clear.  Our primary identity is not to be found in connection to any earthly political entity, but in Jesus Christ.  We are first and foremost citizens of his kingdom, and this is where our primary loyalties must lie.  This radically changes the question when it comes to the referendum.  It is no longer, “Do I identify more with ‘Britishness’ or ‘European-ness’”, but rather, “What will best enable me to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven?”

Hebrews 11:13-16 says of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

The idea of being “foreigners and strangers” has been wrongly interpreted by some to suggest we should keep a distance from this world – cling on and hope heaven comes soon.  That is contrary to the message of the Bible as a whole.  But there is a sense in which we must not become too bound up in the things of the here and now, because we are ultimately called to look forward to something far better which is to come.

Which is one of the reasons why too overt patriotism makes me uncomfortable.  The next post in this series will deal in more detail with the fact that both sides frame the question in terms of “What will benefit ‘us’?” and whether that is a right question for a Christian to ask.  But even if it is, we do have to consider who “us” is.

I used to be very proud of my Welsh heritage, and I still identify with much of what that has to offer.  Many years living in the South have made me a proud Northerner (even if I was born in London).  But over time I’ve come to realise quite how much of an idol both of those identities can become at times, and how both need to take a much lower place in my life than my identity as a child of God in Jesus Christ.

The non-Conformist tradition used to be very strong on this issue.  In contrast to the established churches, where religion and state were inextricably entwined, Baptists and others argued for a healthy separation.  Loyalty to the state as long as that didn’t require us to go against the teachings of Jesus, but a recognition that all nation-states are man-made constructs, temporary in their nature, and our ultimate allegiance is to God alone.  I think we need to recover some of the more radical elements of this.

So I am not proud to be British, though my passport tells me I am.  I am not proud to be European, though my passport also tells me I am that.  I am not proud to be Welsh, or northern, or living in Yorkshire.  What I am is blessed to be a citizen of the only Kingdom that matters.

And so when it comes to voting, please don’t vote on whether you would rather have a British passport or a European one.  Vote as a citizen of a higher kingdom, a heavenly city.  And ask what will best enable you to express your service of the King of Kings as you look forward to the day when his Kingdom shall come and his will be done on earth (Britain, Europe, and all of it) as it is in heaven.

EU Referendum – a Christian approach

Many column inches have been devoted to the forthcoming EU referendum and the issue of the UK’s membership of the European Union.  Many of us, myself included, already know what we think and which way we will vote on June 23rd.  As a Christian Minister I don’t think it is part of my role to tell people into which box they should place their ‘X’, as with most issues there are some valid arguments on both sides.  But it does concern me that many Christians I have spoken to seem to be making their decision based on the economic and political arguments put forward by our politicians and press, rather than asking what light the Word of God might shed on the issues.

So over the next couple of weeks I hope to publish a series of posts opening up the Bible to what God might have to say to us about this.  These may be a bit longer than some of my posts, and unlike a lot of what I write is aimed very much at Christian readers, though I hope others may find food for thought also.  My aim is to remain politically neutral, and apologies in advance if I don’t manage that, but I want to open up some of the issues to perhaps a fresh perspective on the questions.