The Bible clearly says

Cat BibleOver the past year or so, Facebook has become a place of wide-ranging theological discussion for me. Of course, as a medium for serious, in-depth discussion, it has its disadvantages and limitations; but thanks to others of like mind, I’ve found it to be predominantly a source of life and stimulation.

Being active in theological debate on Facebook has taught me a lot, especially about things like taking time to think before speaking, giving others the benefit of the doubt and working hard to communicate clearly and unambiguously. It’s also brought to my attention certain recurring arguments that many Christians regularly trot out in defence of whatever position they’re pushing, one of which I’d like to briefly highlight today. And hopefully demolish.

If I had a pound for every time in the last year that I’ve heard or seen someone say “But the Bible clearly says…”, I’d be well on the way to funding a more generous pension for my later years.

I have a number of issues with arguments beginning “The Bible clearly says…”.

First, it is not borne out by two thousand years of history. If the Bible clearly said anything much at all, surely the world would not now have something like forty thousand Christian denominations, many of which claim to have the correct interpretation of scripture. Similarly, if the Bible was anything like as clear as this statement claims, there would have been no need for the academic study of theology and the accompanying theological debate that has persisted through twenty centuries and shows little sign of abating even today. This alone ought to be enough to kick “The Bible clearly says…” into touch as a credible argument for anything. Continue reading

My thoughts on the “Monster god” debate

Monster god debateTwo days ago, International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, USA hosted a debate titled “Monster God or Monster Man”. On one side, Dr Michael Brown ably explained and defended the widely accepted penal substitution theory of the atonement; on the other hand, Pastor Brian Zahnd skilfully refuted this theory and put forward an alternative view of what happened at the cross and why.

Having watched the video of the debate earlier today, I’d like to offer some thoughts.

First, I commend IHOP and its leaders for their courage in hosting a public debate on such a central and potentially controversial topic, and their willingness in making the audio and video publicly available free of charge. (To go to the full audio and video, just click on the screenshot above.)

Second, if you believe that the penal substitution view (on which more below) is the only viable view of what happened at the cross, or if you are desperately seeking a meaningful, biblically concordant alternative to penal substitution, I urge you very strongly to watch the video from the debate. In it, you will see and hear a crystal clear presentation and defence of penal substitutionary atonement (which I will henceforth call PSA), together with what I believe is a far more compelling view of Christ’s work on the cross that is far more honouring and glorifying of the true nature of God. Continue reading

No punishment

Man crossA few days ago, Irish speaker and itinerant minister Phil Drysdale published the following tweet:

I thought it was so good that I shared it on Facebook, where it very quickly racked up a good number of “likes” and a few shares. Not one single person voiced any objection. Clearly, Phil’s words connected with quite a few people and elicited a positive heart response. I was glad about this… but it also gave me pause. Why?

For this simple reason: for all the popularity of the message conveyed by the above tweet, when you boil it all down, the vast majority of western evangelical Christians — from whose ranks a good number of my Facebook friends are drawn — fundamentally believe that their salvation depends on someone being punished for their sins.

Here’s the issue: it seems to me that many people will gladly accept that God is not interested in punishing them for their sins, as long as they can continue to believe that punishment remains a necessary part of the equation at some level. But suggest that God doesn’t need or want to punish anyone for their sins, and you’ll probably be called a heretic quicker than you say “Away from me, evildoers!”

The reason for this, in my opinion, is quite simple: we’ve been taught that sin is something that, for reasons of cosmic justice and God’s holiness, must be punished. Further, we’ve been taught that the only fitting punishment for sin is death. Apparently there’s no way around this; it has the status of a universal law, written into the fabric of the cosmos. That being the case, the only way we can escape our deserved punishment of death (which is what we mean by being “saved”) is for someone else to be killed in our place. Enter Jesus, spotless Lamb of God, who willingly takes the punishment for us. Continue reading

Pierce My Ear

EarWhen I was a new Christian, at the time when “modern worship” was still fairly new (for UK readers, Songs of Fellowship very much dominated the market), we used to sing a worship song called Pierce My Ear. The lyrics of the chorus went like this:

Pierce my ear, O Lord my God
Take me to Your throne this day
I will serve no other god
Lord, I’m here to stay

The song was an allusion to the ancient Hebrew practice whereby a slave owner would pierce a slave’s ear to mark the slave’s willing, lifelong allegiance (you’ll find the origin of this practice in Exodus 21:6).

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Ten years or so ago (can it be that long?), I did something very uncharacteristic. Without telling anyone I was going to do it, I went out one afternoon and had my left ear pierced.

It was uncharacteristic partly because it didn’t fit the image of the kind of person I appeared to be. First, I was in my early thirties, old enough to be past the age of youthful indiscretion and rebellion. Second, I had a wife and two young kids and lived in a nice, detached suburban house – very much the aspiring middle-class family. Third, I was a middle manager in a major high street bank, and doing such a thing was bound to provoke at least a few raised eyebrows at work. Fourth, I was a respected member of the worship team in my church who probably had a reputation for being very solid and straight.

But the main reason it was uncharacteristic was that it just wasn’t the type of thing I’d ever do. Continue reading

On being human and knowing God

HumanToday I’d like to begin with a bold statement and then unpack and explain it for you:

One of the big problems with much of the charismatic and Pentecostal church is that it lacks a valid anthropology.

Okay, before you run away because of a big, scary word, let’s back up and see if we can make sense of this.

It’s relatively easy to come up with a doctrine of God. If you ask someone to describe what God is like, chances are they’ll be able to give you some kind of answer (unless they’re an atheist). Many of those answers will revolve around God’s omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience – i.e. that he is all-powerful, all-pervading and all-knowing. Believers will – at least I hope – talk about God’s love.

This is all fine and dandy, but please notice something: all these definitions are based in more or less abstract notions of God. In other words, when asked to think about God, we “look up” and we imagine what he might be like.

These abstract conceptualisations of God are typically informed by many things, including Platonic philosophy, popular religion (much of which is nothing more than superstition), childhood fables and pure imagination. Of course, for believers they may also be informed by the Bible. For example, we find depictions of a violent, warlike deity in the Old Testament, so we factor some element of anger and retribution into our mental portrait of God. We also find that “God is love”, so we try to incorporate a more tender, compassionate aspect into our picture of God to counterbalance his judgemental side. If challenged to define what we mean by “God is love”, we might appeal to Paul’s wonderful poetic description in 1 Corinthians 13. But ultimately, that description – wonderful as it is – is just a bunch of words that can be given various shades of interpretation.

The point I’m trying to make is this: our concepts of God are often “out there” somewhere, rooted in abstract thinking and strained attempts to capture the ineffable in human language. Continue reading

On ministry, status and church culture

Hamster wheelAs I write this in September 2014, it’s not far off thirty years since I became a Christian and church went from being something I had rarely experienced to becoming a very big part of my life. If I could have a pound (or a dollar) for every hour spent in a church building or church meeting (or otherwise doing “church work”) since then, I could probably retire and live the high life until I die.

For pretty much all of that thirty-year period, I have been involved in some form of what is generally referred to as “ministry”. For me, this has mainly consisted of leading worship and playing in a worship band. However, I have also participated in running kids’ outreach, leading home groups, leading Sunday gatherings and preaching. I was also part of a church’s team of leaders/elders for a few years. The last few months have really been the only period during which I have not engaged in some kind of ministry, preferring instead to simply attend church on a Sunday.

Now, before I go on to say what I want to say, let me first clarify something: I do not wish to imply that all ministry is futile or misdirected. Nor do I wish to suggest that the institutional church is without merit, or cast aspersions on the motivations of anyone involved in ministry. I have benefited immensely from my journey through the church, and I know many people who sincerely and tirelessly seek to serve God by serving others in their faith communities. Not to mention many who have found compassion, love and healing through the institutional church. (I say this because some will inevitably assume that I have an axe to grind and am simply airing a bad case of sour grapes against the church. Not so.)

Having had a few months out of active “ministry”, and having at the same time had a good portion of my theological thinking deconstructed and rearranged, I find that my perspective on ministry involvement in church has evolved somewhat.

You see, with the benefit of thirty years’ hindsight and the increased clarity that comes from stepping back for a few months, I’ve begun to see some worrying aspects of the “ministry culture” that is found in many charismatic and Pentecostal churches.

We like to pretend that everyone in church is equal, that we are all simply using our various gifts to serve God together in a variety of ways. Indeed, I’ve often heard it said from the pulpit that the person who cleans the toilets is just as important as the pastor or the preacher. In practice, however, the reality is often rather different. Continue reading

A year of blogging

Carry on bloggingOne year ago today, I began my adventure of blogging here at Faith Meets World. Since then, this little blog and its nearly 600 posts have received 1,000 comments and been viewed over 23,000 times by more than 8,000 visitors. To say that I am both surprised and delighted at this response is an understatement.

I’d like to thank my agent…

Seriously, I’m indebted to my friend Randy McRoberts, without whose encouragement I may never have taken the leap and finally moved from thought to action. And, most of all, I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who has honoured my efforts by taking time to read. Whether you’ve visited once or are a regular reader, I’m sincerely grateful. And I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.

[ Image: John Sutton ]