New broom?

12 June 2018

I’ve seen a couple of sad scenarios recently, both in workplaces. A new boss or supervisor has been appointed. They arrive, and within a week or two have managed to create chaos and upset all their underlings. The result? Bad feelings all round, soured relationships between them and their staff, and a poorer service to the folk the business serves.

broomThis happens too often, so, from the wisdom that has accumulated in my old age, I offer some advice to you if you’re about to take on a new post that carries authority.

‘A new broom sweeps clean’ says the proverb. And that’s the problem. You go into your new post determined to make your mark, to stamp your authority on the setup and to crank up the levels of progress and efficiency. You’ll sweep out the way things were done before you arrived and lay a new carpet, one with your name woven into the design in capital letters.

Well, here’s the advice: don’t do it!

Why? Because it never works out well. In the end, people are what count, and your relationship with the employees you are now in charge of needs to be kept as sweet as possible. Over the years, many of them will have helped shape the way things are being done, so if you barge in and bin it all, you are effectively saying to them, ‘You’re a bunch of visionless incompetents’—which won’t make them like you.

Far better to let the existing systems carry on for a month or two, while monitoring them carefully. Focus on getting to know the employees under you and seeing what makes them tick. Yes, some of them might be lazy and self-serving. Take note, and bide your time. But most will be decent people, keen to do a good job for the company and to enjoy their work. Note them, too, and bide your time.

In due course you will be ready to make some changes. But evolution is always better that revolution. Introduce the changes gradually and carefully. Consult first with a few trusted folk, asking them how they would view it if you were to introduce this or that change. You won’t be able to please all of them all the time, whatever you eventually do, but the fact that you have at least consulted them will weigh in your favour.

Then check your own motives. Why do you want to make big changes? Could there be just a smidgin of pride in you that says, ‘Haha! I’m the one in charge now, and I’m going to show them who’s boss’? That’s not a sound reason for changing things. Are you secretly power-hungry, getting a dark sort of satisfaction from making people dance to your tune?

Or maybe there’s a level of deep insecurity in you that craves recognition and obedience from others. If so, you will be bound to over-compensate by becoming authoritarian to a degree unwarranted by your position. And that will alienate everybody.

So, be a new broom with soft bristles. Sweep slowly and sensitively. Keep people on your side. Let them see that you consider them more important than systems and targets. And so may the company prosper! Imagine the after-work conversation between two of your employees, where one says to the other, ‘Tell you what, it’s been tons better working here since [your name] came.’

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Attitude

27 May 2018

I woke this morning with a prayer from one of David’s psalms in my mind: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).

Ps 51 10It was the second bit that really grabbed me—the need for ‘a right spirit’. I take ‘spirit’ here to mean ‘attitude’, so it’s a prayer that the Lord will enable me to keep my attitudes right. That’s in keeping with the Holy Spirit’s work in us to make us more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).

As for Part 1, sometimes I think Christians get a bit over-fixated on sin. Jesus has dealt with the root issue there, and any follower of his who takes sanctification seriously will hopefully have grooved into a way of life where sin is no longer a major thing. While I’m far from perfect, I don’t spend much time examining my inner self with a torch to see if I can find any dreadful sins lurking there, like slugs under a stone. There are better things to do, and more positive approaches to adopt.

But the dodgy attitudes of Part 2 can hang around like a bad smell when all the known sins have been swept up and binned. A ‘right spirit’ can be hard to maintain. All too easily I can have bad attitudes towards people I disagree with, people who rub me up the wrong way, people with personalities different from my own—and lots more. Spotting this ‘wrong spirit’ in my heart, and doing my best to deal with it, is a full-time job for me.

Thankfully, God is loving, gracious and kind. Every time I pray, ‘Renew a right spirit within me’, he says, ‘Will do, son. I’m not giving up on you. Thanks for asking. Between us, we’ll crack this one! Now get up, look up, and start walking again.’

Purists will point out that many versions have ‘a steadfast spirit’ instead of a ‘a right spirit’ and that that’s the gist of the Hebrew word. Fine, but I still want my attitude to be ‘right’ before I adopt it as the direction of my steadfastness. I want the painting to be finished before I frame it and hang it on the wall. So I’ll continue to pray for that ‘right spirit’ and keep a picture-hook handy.


God only has ‘Plan A’

2 April 2018

In a recent Bible-study group, a friend observed that, as he saw it, God started out with the nation of Israel. But they messed up, failing to go along with his intentions for them. That’s the Old Testament story—the bad bit. So God started again with Jesus and the church—which is the New Testament story, and the good bit.

noplanbNot true! The following is an extract from my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, that explains the ins and outs of it…

‘Too many Christians have lost touch completely with the Old Testament. They think that, because it is all pre-Jesus, it is unimportant. One outcome is that they separate Israel from the church. Their unspoken assumption is that, while God in Old Testament days dealt with the nation of Israel (Plan A), due to their failure he turned his attention to an alternative community, the church, founded by Jesus (Plan B).

‘This is not right at all! God has never had a ‘Plan B’. His ‘Plan A’, as we have seen, was the calling of Abraham and his descendants to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’. By this means, he would reach everyone and in due course put the whole world to rights. Paul constantly has this Old Testament narrative in mind in his writings. He insists that the fact that the Jews failed so signally in their mission did not throw God’s plan off track at all. The Messiah, Jesus, proved to be the true Israelite. He embodied everything that the nation had been called to be and, through him, Plan A remains on track. His resurrection vindicated him as God’s chosen one, through whom all who believe — Gentiles as well as Jews — are justified and partake in the new age he had inaugurated.

‘According to Paul, Israel thus continues but has been redefined. The children of Abraham — or to use synonymous terms, ‘Israel’ or ‘the people of God’ — are now all who believe in Jesus, regardless of their ethnic background. Justification breaks down the barriers. In this way God has honoured his covenant with Abraham. This is the message of Paul’s letter to the Romans, whose fundamental topic is ‘Who are the people of God?’

‘All this means, of course, that the obsession of some Christians with Zionism and the current State of Israel, in the belief that the Jews have some separate role in the purpose of God, is completely misplaced. If you have held Zionist sympathies, that could be a wobbler.’

There’s more where that came from, and you may be wanting chapter and verse to back up the thesis. It’s all in the book, which you can download for free at http://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/apitfdownload.htm

And if you want more on the role of today’s State of Israel, you will find food for thought in my blog post, Red Herring In Galilee.

Enjoy!


Review: Radical thinking on the church

29 March 2018

Lots of people these days seem to be saying Yes to Jesus but No to church. While some have given up on church completely, others still hope to find an expression of it that they can live with and find satisfying. Maybe they should read this book:

Reimagining Church: Pursuing The Dream Of Organic Christianity by Frank Viola (David C. Cook, 2008).  

rclargeOrganic Church is an attempt to embrace the simplicity of church life as portrayed in the New Testament. That life, the author maintains, reflects at a human level the ‘community life’ of the Trinity. The Organic Church, therefore, means no ordination, no officially-recognised leaders, no hierarchy, no purpose-built buildings, no formal sermons, no denominations. Instead, only Jesus is recognised as Head of the church, meetings take place in homes, and everybody contributes on an equal basis, yielding to the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is church that attempts to measure up to the NT’s primary metaphor for it: family.

The author is no mere theorist. He has many years of working with churches that operate this way. He has helped them work through the inevitable difficulties to arrive at a place of vibrant viability, and he shares his insights with warmth and passion.

Ironically, while he insists that the NT contains no blueprint for ‘how church should be’, his own approach assumes that the NT’s presentation of the early church is itself a blueprint to follow. Whether or not he is right is for you to decide.

He admits that, for many of us, the transition from our familiar traditional patterns of church life to Organic Church will require an enormous adjustment, and that many will find it too much. He may be right. But even for those who can’t go the whole hog there are valuable insights here that could benefit us all. This is a book worth reading.

Here are some quotations. [I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers.]

I took the daring step of leaving the institutional church. That was in 1988. Since that time, I’ve never returned to institutional Christianity. Instead, I’ve been meeting in what I call “organic churches.”  (36)

It’s the present practices of the church that I’m seeking to reimagine, not the church itself…  The church as we know it today evolved (or more accurately, devolved) from a living, breathing, vibrant, organic expression of Jesus Christ into a top-heavy, hierarchical organization whose basic structure is patterned after the ancient Roman Empire. Tellingly, most churches today still hold that structure.  (63)

I’ve met countless believers who have said, “The church is an organism, not an organization.” Yet as they formed those very words, they continued to be devout members of churches that were organized along the lines of General Motors and Microsoft.  (116)

This book reimagines a vision of church that’s organic in its construction; relational in its functioning; scriptural in its form; Christ-centered in its operation; Trinitarian in its shape; communitarian in its lifestyle; nonelitist in its attitude; and nonsectarian in its expression.  (245)

I have a dream that the clergy/laity divide will someday be an antique of church history, and the Lord Jesus Himself will replace the moss-laden system of human hierarchy that has usurped His authority among His people.  (245)

The DNA of the church is marked by the very traits that we find in the triune God. Particularly, mutual love, mutual fellowship, mutual dependence, mutual honor, mutual submission, mutual dwelling, and authentic community. (336)

Neither “going to church” nor “church services” appear in the New Testament. Both of these terms emerged long after the death of the apostles. The reason is simple: The early Christians had no such concept. They didn’t view church as a place to go. Neither did they see their gatherings as “services.” (544)

Today, the weekly “church service” is designed for worship, the hearing of a sermon, and in some cases, evangelism. But in the first-century church, the governing purpose of the church meeting was quite different. The purpose was mutual edification. (562)

Perhaps the most startling characteristic of the early church meeting was the absence of any human officiation. Jesus Christ led the gatherings by the medium of the Holy Spirit through the believing community. The result? The spirit of “one-anothering” pervaded the entire meeting. (612)

The Reformation recovered the truth of the priesthood of all believers. But it failed to restore the organic practices that embody this teaching. (665)

The only sustaining force of the early church gathering was the life of the Holy Spirit. The early Christians were clergyless, liturgyless, programless, and ritualless. They relied entirely on the spiritual life of the individual members to maintain the church’s existence and the quality of their gatherings. (731)

One of the tasks of an apostolic worker is to equip God’s people to function together in a free-yet-orderly meeting that expresses Christ in His fullness. (797)

There is a natural affinity between the home meeting and the family motif of the church that saturates Paul’s writings. Because the home is the native environment of the family, it naturally furnishes the ekklesia with a familial atmosphere—the very atmosphere that pervaded the life of the early Christians. (1066)

The ghost of Protestant individualism haunts the average postwar evangelical church. And until it exorcises that spirit, it will continue to see little spiritual formation in its congregants. (1300)

Because we are made in the likeness and image of God, we are only truly human when we are living in community. A church that is hierarchically structured or that relegates its fellowship to a weekly religious service violates this spiritual reality. (1333)

The church that’s introduced to us in Scripture is a loving household, not a business. It’s a living organism, not a static organization. It’s the corporate expression of Jesus Christ, not a religious corporation. It’s the community of the King, not a well-oiled hierarchical machine. (1365)

Anytime a group of Christians undercuts the biblical basis for fellowship by excluding those whom God has accepted—whether explicitly or implicitly—they are a sect. (1492)

The division of the Christian church is rooted in the evolution of the clergy/laity class distinction. This distinction began to crystallize around the third century. The emergence of this hierarchical system, which violently ruptured the priesthood of all believers into a clergy class and a laity class, was the first major division known to the body of Christ. (1511)

Many evangelicals have been taught that when Adam and Eve fell, God decided to scrap the earth and redeem a small group of people out of it that He will take to heaven. But God loves the earth, and He wishes to redeem it (Ps 78:69; Eccl 1:4; Rom 8:20ff.). He has promised to fill the earth with His glory as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14). Ultimately, God will bring heaven to the earth (Rev 22), just as it was in the garden of Eden. (1837)

Whenever the church gathers together, its guiding and functioning principle is simply to incarnate Christ (1 Cor 12:12). (1887)

Leadership in the New Testament places a high premium on the unique gifting, spiritual maturity, and sacrificial service of each member. It lays stress on functions, not offices. It emphasizes tasks rather than titles. (1920)

Whenever the New Testament describes people who are chiefly responsible for spiritual oversight, it does so by mentioning the work they do. Functional language dominates. Verbs are prominent. (2002)

The clergy profession is little more than a one-size-fits-all blending of administration, psychology, and oratory that’s packaged into one position for religious consumption. (2021)

“Elder” means mature man. “Shepherd” means one who nurtures and protects a flock. And “overseer” means one who supervises. Put plainly, the New Testament notion of oversight is functional, not official. True spiritual authority is rooted in spiritual life and function, not title or position. (2236)

Every time Paul wrote to a church in crisis, he always addressed the church itself rather than the elders. This is consistent from Paul’s first letter to his last. (2288)

The New Testament consistently rejects the notion of ecclesiastical officers in the church. It also greatly downplays the role of elders. (2340)

What was the New Testament pattern for decision-making in the early church? It was simply by consensus. “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church,” and, “it seemed good to us, having become of one mind” was the divine model for making corporate decisions (Acts 15:22, 25 NASB). In other words, the decision-making of the early church was not in the hands of the elders. It was in the hands of all the brothers and sisters. (2470)

When the church reaches a consensus, murmuring and complaining are eliminated. Why? Because every member has had an equal share in the decision. The church owns the decision. It was made by and for the church under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. (2502)

The New Testament knows nothing of an authoritative mode of leadership. Nor does it know a “leaderless” egalitarianism. It rejects both hierarchical structures as well as rugged individualism. Instead, the New Testament envisions leadership as coming from the entire church. The brothers and sisters supply direction and decision-making by consensus. Seasoned brothers supply oversight. (2535)

If we strip it down to its bare roots, the idea of “covering” rests upon a top-heavy, hierarchical understanding of authority. This understanding is borrowed from the structures that belong to this world system. It in no way reflects the kingdom of God. (2573)

The Bible never teaches that God has given believers authority (exousia) over other believers. Recall our Lord’s words in Matthew 20:25–26 and Luke 22:25–26 where He condemned exousia-type authority among His followers. (2736)

Those exercising organic authority never demand obedience to themselves. They rather seek to persuade others to obey God’s will. Paul’s letters are wonderful examples of this principle. They resonate with appeals and pleas rather than commands. They’re littered with the language of persuasion. (2788)

God’s idea of accountability works from community to person. Not from parson to person. (2958)

Many so-called nondenominational, interdenominational, and postdenominational churches are just as hierarchical as mainline denominations. (3023)

My experience suggests that unless the extrabiblical clergy system is dismantled in a particular church, efforts to recover the organic nature of church life will be handcuffed. (3309)

The megachurch movement is built on a corporate business paradigm that utilizes a market-driven approach to building the kingdom of God. It’s no wonder that churches of this ilk are successful at swelling their ranks. (3324)

When individuals taste body life, they will be forever cured of the unbridled urge to travel “to and fro ” to attend the latest “hot spot” of renewal. Instead, they will discover true and lasting refreshment and stability within the local assembly that’s captivated by a revelation of Jesus Christ and God’s eternal purpose in Him. (3389)

It seems to me that many of us are willing to tip over any sacred cow except the modern pastoral office and the Sunday-morning Protestant ritual. Regardless of how unbiblical these two religious traditions are, they seem to be off limits even to the most radical thinkers. (3457)

The church doesn’t need renewal. It needs a complete overhaul. That is, the only way to fully renew the institutional church is to wholly disassemble it and build something far different. (3596)


Review: Is God violent?

24 March 2018

Several writers have recently tackled the delicate question of how to reconcile the violence practised by God in the Old Testament with the forgiveness and non-violence taught and modelled by Jesus Christ.

The definitive work on this is without question Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. But that is 2 volumes, 1500 pages, and is written for a scholarly readership. Happily, he has also produced, for ordinary folks like us, a slimmer and simpler version. It is:

Cross Vision: How the crucifixion of Jesus makes sense of Old Testament violence by Gregory A. Boyd (Fortress Press, 2017).

cvlargeBoyd holds to the divine inspiration of the whole Bible. At the same time, he recognises the shortcomings of the human authors, who were men of their time, with a typical Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mindset and cultural conditioning. As we would expect, they often portrayed God as a ‘man of war’, helping his people in their conquests and rejoicing when they slaughtered their enemies on his orders. God accommodated them in their twisted thinking as, in love, he met them where they were, in order to take them into deeper revelation about his nature.

If Jesus alone is ‘the exact representation’ of the Father’s nature—and this is the truth on which everything else depends—there’s no way God is really the genocidal deity portrayed in some parts of the Old Testament. The cross gives us a clue as to how we can resolve the problem. There, we not only see the immense love of God reaching out to reconcile the world to himself, but his amazing condescension in allowing his enemies to crucify him. God was acting on humanity, but also permitting humanity to act upon him.

The author applies this broad principle to a substantial cross-section of OT incidents where God is portrayed as bloodthirsty and violent. He does it in great detail and with careful exegesis of the relevant passages. He explains the meaning of the ‘wrath’ of God, and tackles incidents of violence by Israel’s enemies (like the Babylonians, who were his outstandingbookinstrument of judgment), by cosmic forces of evil (like the Flood and the Red Sea crossing), and by his servants (like Elijah, Elisha and Samson). To my mind he has a sound case from start to finish.

But you must read it for yourself to get the full picture. If it will help, I have prepared a synopsis of the book, which you can read/download here: Cross Vision synopsis.

Meanwhile, here is a selection of quotations.

I am not going to try to minimize the moral awfulness or put the best possible spin on the OT’s violent depictions of God, as Evangelical apologists typically do. (p7)

The biblical authors believed they were complimenting God when they proclaimed that “the Lord gave David victory wherever he went” (2 Sam 8:14), which meant leaving no man or woman alive. (p11)

While I continue to affirm that the whole Bible is inspired by God, I’m now persuaded that the Bible itself instructs us to base our mental representation of God solely on Jesus Christ. (p19)

To say that a passage is divinely inspired is not to say that it necessarily reflects an unclouded vision of God. (p21)

Augustine defined love as an inner attitude that did not have any necessary implications for how we actually treat others. He went so far as to argue that Christians could imprison, torture, and, if necessary, even execute heretics in the name of love. (p35)

If Jesus is the center to which all Scripture points, then the cruciform character of God that was supremely revealed on the cross must be regarded as the epicenter of this center. And if all Scripture is about Christ, then all Scripture is more specifically about Christ crucified. (p38)

Whereas the OT consistently presents people who are victorious in battle as being blessed by God, Jesus taught that it is the peacemakers who will be blessed (Matt 5:9). (p41)

Paul didn’t view the cross merely as God’s means of achieving salvation. It was for him also the clearest expression of the power that God uses to rule the world and to defeat evil…  This cross-centered understanding of God’s weak-looking power and foolish-looking wisdom is so radical that even the majority of Christians throughout history have not been able to fully accept it. (p45)

Putting the best possible spin on the OT’s violent portraits of God isn’t going to cut it. In fact, the very attempt to defend the violence ascribed to God in these portraits indicates that we still believe that God is capable of this sort of behavior, which in turn indicates that we do not yet fully trust that the crucified Christ is the full revelation of God’s true character. (p46)

[Re Jeremiah 13:14]  When read in light of the cross we are able to look through this ugly sin-mirroring surface to behold the beautiful cruciform God stooping to bear Jeremiah’s sinful conception of him, which is why God takes on this ugly appearance in Jeremiah’s contribution to the biblical narrative. Interpreted through the looking-glass cross, violent divine portraits like Jeremiah’s become both beautiful and revolting for all the same reasons the cross is both beautiful and revolting. (p53)

Insofar as the cross is beautiful, it reflects God acting toward us…  But insofar as the cross is ugly, it reflects God humbly allowing other agents to act upon him. (p55)

God allowed the sin of humanity to act upon him and to condition the way he appeared when he breathed his supreme revelation on the cross. And this is also why God has always been willing to allow the sin of his people—including their sinful conceptions of him—to condition how he appears whenever he breathes revelations of himself. His breathing always reflects the reciprocal give-and-take of a noncoercive, authentic relationship. (p58)

While the cross-centered interpretation of the OT’s violent divine portraits that I’m proposing in this book has clear precedents in the early church, I nevertheless concede that it runs counter to the way the church has interpreted these portraits for the last 1500 years. (p63)

…my conviction that we should interpret the OT through the lens of the cross instead of restricting ourselves to the authors’ originally intended meaning. (p65)

The supreme revelation of God in the crucified Christ requires us to conclude that the author of the biblical Flood account (Genesis 6–8) was reflecting his fallen and culturally conditioned view of God when he portrayed God as the agent who caused this flood. Yet, my commitment to the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle nevertheless compels me to affirm this author’s claim that a flood occurred and that it was indeed a judgment of God. I must therefore give an account of how the Flood could be a judgment of God while denying that God was the agent who brought it about. (p67)

Given that God created people free and thus with the potential for love, he must work by means of a loving influence rather than coercion. God has therefore always worked to reveal as much of his true character and will as was possible while accommodating the fallen state of his people as much as was necessary—though…it certainly grieved God deeply to do so. (p84)

Even the Ten Commandments reflect highly accommodating elements, however. For example, they reflect the common ANE assumption that women are the property of men. Men are told not to covet a neighbor’s wife, nor his house or male or female servant, nor his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to their neighbor (Exod 20:17). In other words, men can’t covet their neighbor’s wives because they are his neighbor’s property, which is why there’s no similar prohibition on wives coveting husbands. (p93)

Let us settle on this guiding principle: Insofar as any law reflects an improvement over the prevailing laws of the ANE, I submit that it reflects God acting toward his people. As barbaric as many of the OT laws are, most reflect an improvement, and sometimes a significant improvement, over the laws of Israel’s neighbors, and this surely is the result of the influential work of God’s Spirit. But insofar as any law falls short of the character of God revealed in Jesus’s cross-centered ministry, it reflects the point at which the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people resisted the Spirit and, therefore, the point at which God stooped to allow his people to act upon him. In my view, all portraits of God in the Bible should be assessed by this criterion. (p98)

In light of the material we’ve covered, it seems that when Yahweh said, “I want my people to dwell in the land of Canaan,” what Moses’s fallen and culturally conditioned ears heard was, “I want you to slaughter the Canaanites so my people can dwell in the land of Canaan.” For again, in Moses’s ANE worldview, acquiring someone else’s land and slaughtering the inhabitants of the land were two sides of the same coin. (p117)

One of the primary ways we battle cosmic foes is by refusing to battle human foes, choosing instead to love and bless them. (p125)

All ANE people believed their chief warrior god lived on top of a sacred mountain, and we find this belief reflected throughout the OT. (p127)

If the violence that biblical authors ascribe to God reflects their cultural conditioning, does this mean that God never actually judged people? If so, does this imply that we must interpret every story of God bringing judgments on people to be nothing but a reflection of the fallen and culturally conditioned imaginations of biblical authors? In short, have I erased God’s judgment with my interpretation? While there are some Bible scholars who accept this conclusion, I cannot. (p131)

Sometimes love leaves us with no other choice but to let go of a loved one and allow them to suffer the consequences of their own self-destructive decisions. And this is as true of God as it is of us. (p136)

It surely is not a coincidence that soon after the “myth of redemptive violence” was introduced into the church’s thinking about the atonement in the 11th century, there were five centuries of almost nonstop, church-sanctioned, violence. (p138)

Prior to the eleventh century, most Christians believed that Jesus died not to free us from the Father’s wrath, but to free us from Satan’s wrath. This is known as the Christus Victor view of the atonement, and in contrast to the penal substitutionary view, this view doesn’t implicate God in any violence. (p139)

God longs to mercifully protect people from the destructive consequences of their choices, like a hen protects her chicks. But when people are not willing to be protected, and when God sees that his mercy is simply enabling their sin, he has no choice but to “hand them over” to suffer these consequences. (p140)

God wisely used the evil of Satan’s loveless heart and inability to understand love to get him to orchestrate the destruction of his own evil kingdom. In other words, God used evil to vanquish evil! This was God’s Aikido strategy in action. (p145)

Contrary to what many people think, the Bible generally construes God’s punishment of sin as organic in nature. God doesn’t impose punishments on people. The destructive consequences of sin are built into the sin itself. And this is why God only needs to withdraw and let sin run its self-destructive course when he judges people. (p148)

Some of God’s judgments in the Bible did not unfold quite the way God intended, and the attack on Israel by Nebuchadnezzar is a case in point. Scripture tells us that this king and his army went beyond what Yahweh had intended. “I was only a little angry,” the Lord said, “but [the Babylonians] added to the calamity” (Zech 1:15). This sort of thing actually happens quite often in the Bible, and each instance makes it clear that God doesn’t micromanage the agents he uses to express his judgments. (p157)

The very narratives that attribute violent actions to God usually provide clues that this violence was actually carried out by other agents who were already bent on violence. (p160)

Like all other ANE people, the Israelites assumed it was an insult not to “credit” God with the violence that resulted from his judgment. And this is reflected in the fact that God and God’s agents are frequently made “the subject of the same destructive verbs” in the writings of many biblical authors. In other words, the cloudiness of their vision of God is reflected in their dual speech pattern of depicting God simultaneously doing and merely allowing the same violent actions. (p166)

When the violence that an author ascribes to God can’t be attributed to humans, it must be attributed to violent cosmic agents. (p179)

The Gospels uniformly attribute afflictions not to the mysterious providence of God, as so many do today, but to the corrupting influence of Satan and demons. (p181)

It is the narrative that is divinely inspired, regardless of what we think about the historical event it is based on. (p194)

[Re Genesis 6:12-13]  The same root word (sāhat) is used to describe the sinful condition of humans, the effect their sin was having on the earth, and the punishment for this sin, which indicates that all three are organically related. And this means that the Flood was an organic, not a judicial, divine judgment. (p196)

The Flood was not the result of something God did, but of something God stopped doing. (p200)

While the author of the Exodus narrative believes he is exalting Yahweh by attributing the violence involved in each plague to him, these passages provide further confirmation that Yahweh merely permitted a band of cosmic agents that were already bent on destruction to do what they wanted to do. (p214)

Moses later struck a rock with his staff out of anger, causing water to gush out of it in order to quench the thirst of the complaining Israelites (Num 20:11). Yahweh was so angry with Moses and Aaron over this outburst that he did not allow them to enter into the Promised Land (v. 12). Yet the supernaturally endowed staff worked, in spite of the fact that it was used in a sinful way! (p220)

[Re 2 Kings 1:10-12; Luke 7:51-56]  It seems that Jesus attributed violent supernatural feats like Elijah’s incinerating fire to “the way of the devil, rather than the way of God.” (p222)

At no point does the author show Samson seeking God’s will about the use of this supernatural power. Nor does the author ever depict Samson aspiring to use this power for the glory of God. Samson rather uses the divine power that was entrusted to him for personal gain and personal retaliation. (p229)

If we are to believe that the God who is fully revealed on Calvary went to the extreme of uttering this barbaric command [for Abraham to kill Isaac], we must assume that he had sufficient reason for doing so. And for me, the suggestion that God was merely trying to find out if Abraham trusted him doesn’t suffice. (p235)

I’m suggesting that Yahweh didn’t merely stoop to allow Abraham or others to believe he gave this command. In this one instance, the heavenly missionary stooped to actually give it! And Yahweh did this to have Abraham undergo a highly emotional paradigm shift in his view of God that removed any doubt that Yahweh might be like other ANE gods who required this ultimate sacrifice. Indeed, far from demanding this sacrifice, Abraham needed to learn that Yahweh is a God who makes sacrifice. (p236)

In Abraham’s pagan upbringing, sacrificing one’s firstborn child was the ultimate “work” a human could perform to prove their loyalty to a god or to court a god’s favor. So if there remained any suspicion that Yahweh was in any respect like other ANE gods, it would be about this. As a means of finally freeing Abraham from every remnant of this cursed view of divinity, God humbly stooped to temporarily take on the likeness of this cursed view. As we’ve seen throughout this book, God was once again stooping to meet his covenant partner where he was at in order to lead him to where he wanted him to be. (p240)

The test boils down to this: Will we trust God’s loving character even when God appears to be acting in ways that contradict this character? This is the question all followers of Jesus must face. (p243)

The cross only functions as a looking-glass that enables us to discern what else is going on behind the scenes of the OT’s violent divine portraits when we remain fully confident that Jesus’s cross-centered life and ministry fully reveal what God is like. (p246)


Hard on the ears

16 March 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 5 (and last).

Not far from where I live is Gwennap Pit. It’s a hollow in the ground, believed to be the result of mining subsidence, and is famous for being a place where John Wesley preached on 18 occasions in the second half of the 18th century. It has good acoustic qualities and, today, has been tiered to take over 2,000 people sitting down.

sound high volumeWesley first preached to a standing audience there in 1762. Afterwards, he wrote, ‘The wind was so high that I could not stand at the usual place at Gwennap village; but at a small distance was a hollow capable of containing many thousands of people. I stood on one side of this ampitheatre towards the top and with people beneath on all sides, I enlarged on those words in the gospel for the day, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see….hear the things that ye hear.”‘ We don’t know how many listeners he had, but eleven years later he addressed, at the same spot, his biggest ever audience there: 32,000 people, spilling way out of the confines of the hollow.

Now think about this: microphones and PA systems hadn’t yet been invented! Instead, preachers like Wesley were used to projecting their voices, and were skilled at using the contours of the ground to give the sound maximum spread. Most preachers today would be novices at both those skills. They don’t need them, because we have sound systems—which, in themselves, are not a bad thing at all.

But surely the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction now? You go to a church service with a mere 50 people present and there’s a sound system in operation! The speaker can mumble, and his mumbling is magnified to a mega-mumble. The guitars and drums are all mic’d and the volume too often cranked up enough to demolish the walls. Why on earth is that necessary?

I know, it is in vogue for sound-systems everywhere to be set at ridiculously high levels. But in church we should surely not be slaves to that fashion? By all means have a sound-system, but ensure that it is set to enhance the speaking and listening experience in church, not to ape an auditorium where a rock band is performing.

An audiologist of my acquaintance points out the huge increase in young people of the current generation with hearing problems caused partly by ear-buds pumping music from devices whose volume is set too high, and partly from the ear-splitting decibels at discos, night clubs and concerts. That’s bad in itself, and is a worrying trend. But the church is supposed to be where things are done to a better standard, setting the measure for, rather than aping, what goes on outside.

The abuse of sound-systems in church meetings leads to the following problems:

  • High volumes in the music create an invisible barrier separating the singers/musicians from the congregation.
  • The congregation ease up on singing because they can hardly hear themselves above the cranked-up volume coming from the speakers. They thus become spectators rather than participants.
  • People with hearing aids (like me) find the volume oppressive and are tempted to stay away until the ‘worship’ is finished or, resisting that extreme, they switch their hearing aids off and, as a result, feel no longer part of what’s going on.
  • People who want to contribute spontaneously by praying, or whatever, from ‘the floor’ are disinclined to do so, fearing their voice won’t be heard. And they feel embarrassed about coming forward to take a microphone, because it makes them the centre of attention, which they don’t want to be. Might as well just not bother.

Some would argue that a cranked-up sound system is a necessary concession to youth culture. If we are to reach the young generation with the message of Jesus, they say, we have to meet them halfway on issues like this.

My feeling is that we are going way beyond halfway. Nobdody expects young people to warm instantly to the traditional hymn/prayer sandwich and the music of a pipe organ. But they can surely be won by a musical approach, and a volume level, that demonstrates a winsome skill and sensitivity to the importance of the Person we represent?

And they are not the only generation to be considered. The primary New Testament metaphor for the church is ‘family’, and a family quickly goes to pot if the kids rule the roost. There are two generations older than them who have learnt a thing or two about living, about what matters, and about standards of family behaviour. If there is genuine love at the heart of it all, the youngsters will cope with everything else.

‘Church’ as a whole, I suspect, needs some rethinking. Certainly the three current models in the UK suffer from grave deficiencies for young people:

  • Typical churches of the liturgical variety—Church of England, Roman Catholic etc.—appear too set in their ways to appeal to the young, who see little life or attractive spontaneity there.
  • Churches of the hymn/prayer/sermon kind—Methodist, Baptist etc.—also fail to attract the young, who feel the services are a couple of centuries out of date.
  • Auditorium-style churches, with big screens, smoke machines, coloured lights and a sound system that threatens the ear-drums may attract the young, but too often at the expense of providing any real spiritual substance or pastoral care.

It’s easier to spot the problems than to come up with satisfying answers. Maybe you have some light to share? In the meantime, please turn the volume down.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Review: God is like Jesus!

9 March 2018

A big question today is ‘What is God like?’ A consensus has been crystallising in the reply, ‘God is like Jesus’. This book takes that, not as its conclusion, but as its starting-point. It is:

A More Christlike God: A more beautiful gospel by Bradley Jersak (Plain Truth Ministries, 2015. ISBN: 978-1508528371).   

amcglargeIt treats its topic comprehensively. Starting with how we tend to create a view of God in our own image and then find scriptures to support it, the book goes on to look at history’s competing images of God (‘will’ versus ‘love’) before looking at the scriptures, both OT and NT, that present a vengeful God—a view of him which the author sees as trumped by Christ’s perfect revelation of the Father’s heart.

Jersak develops at length the idea that God is a cruciform God. He rules through self-emptying love (kenosis), and ‘Christ crucified’ is the climax of his self-revelation. Kenosis is not a surrender of the divine attributes but the very nature of them! God rules, not by force, but by consent, which is evident in the deference of the Persons of the Trinity to one another, and in God’s allowing us to choose to respond to his love.

This notion of ‘consent’ leads to an interesting take on theodicy, what the author calls ‘an anti-theodicy of the cross’. God has given consent both to natural law and to human will, and does not normally interfere in their operation. But he comes with love and compassion when their effects are negative, having been there himself in Jesus.

The concept of God’s ‘wrath’, too, comes under examination, and the author sees a progression of understanding of its nature as the Bible unfolds, ending in its definition as God’s ‘giving over’ of sinners to the natural results of their behaviour. This is how theoutstandingbook ‘bipolar image’ of God (as both angry and loving) is resolved. Inevitably, this ventures into the realm of ‘atonement theories’, on which Jersak has some well-balanced comments, and takes a detailed look at Jesus’ own metaphors for his saving work, and those used by Paul.

This is meaty, challenging material but also heart-warming. I’ve never been a fan of ‘devotional’ books, always preferring something intellectually challenging. But this book somehow manages to combine both aspects—and that, in my view, is a huge plus.

Here are some quotations. The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers.

God is love and every other aspect of God must align with his love. (271)

When we say “God is love” or “God is good” or “God is light,” we aren’t merely describing his characteristics. We are saying God is love, goodness and light in his energies, just as we say God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in his persons. (283)

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised how this proposition—the message that Jesus shows us what God is like—is often well received by those who don’t profess Christian faith. (308)

What are we to think when the ‘God of the Bible’ seems so un-Christlike? Sometimes even Jesus seems to describe this kind of God. It’s not as simple as tossing the Old Testament; God the vengeful king makes a cameo appearance in several of Jesus’ parables. Awkward! (359)

Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith. Or better, he was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy. He didn’t seem to appreciate our self-loathing. The repentance he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. (451)

The great peril is that we worship ourselves via an image of God we create out of our own temperament. Then, easily enough, we find scriptures to establish our image as ‘biblical’! (528)

…just one beautiful image of God, evident in the Christ of the Gospels: he’s the Restorer of lives. (754)

…the two principal competing images of God throughout the history of religion: the God of pure will (or freedom) and the God of pure love (or goodness). This divide affects virtually every faith tradition and cuts through the heart of most of them. These two images clash within the ‘biblical religions’ of Judaism and Christianity and even collide on the pages of our Bible! (778)

If God is pure will—even a divine tyrant—then we’d better submit, like it or not. The fact is, historically, such a God recurs in various forms throughout Christian history and even within the pages of the Bible. (966)

According to Calvin, God is not only beyond good and evil, but everyone who does evil is merely acting as his instrument and at his command. When an evil person or even the devil commits evil, it is because the Lord not only permitted it—he commanded them and forced them to do it. Every act of terror, every rape and murder, every genocide or infanticide, every cancer and heart attack, every famine and plague are all in the service of God’s ultimate purpose: that you would fear him and glorify his name. (1006)

…the obvious intended trajectory of revelation from Old Covenant to New. God didn’t evolve; our conception of him did, in greatest part because Jesus came to show and tell us exactly who God is in ways no prophet had the capacity to anticipate—not Moses, David or even Isaiah. (1138)

It’s not only the vengeance or violence from which I’m recoiling: the real problem is the portrait of a God whose un-Christlike naked will eclipses love and trumps grace—a coercive force incongruent with Christ’s cruciform revelation of his Father’s love. (1147)

Throughout his letter [Romans], Paul quotes his opponents and their favorite exclusion texts, then turns those same texts against them (a method called ‘diatribe’). In Romans 9, Paul takes passages his adversaries have used to paint God as a willful hater, but he applies them to magnify God’s freedom-in-love to graciously extend salvation to the Gentiles. (1178)

Because God is fully revealed in Jesus—exactly like him—then God is a self-giving lover, and not a conquering emperor, like Constantine for example. We will need to address both the problem of a seemingly two-faced God (love versus force) and an apparently two-faced Christ (Lamb versus Lion; the suffering Servant versus the bloody Warrior on the white horse). (1216)

If God sent his Son to reveal himself, if Jesus showed us how true sovereignty works, what real power does, and what victory looks like—on earth as it is in heaven—then let me propose that the King of Heaven rules and reigns, not like Constantine, but like Jesus of Nazareth. (1320)

Some believe that kenosis means that God gives up his divine attributes or hides or hinders his own nature in order to become incarnate. He either puts on something (like wearing a disguise) or takes off something (like disrobing). Certainly the fullness of the divine nature is concealed in some ways in the Incarnation. But it is uniquely revealed in Christ as well. “We beheld his glory,” says John (John 1:14). (1413)

What if Jesus’ humility, meekness and servant heart were never a departure from God’s glory and power, but actually define it and demonstrate it? (1437)

Unlike the synoptic Gospels and Pauline epistles, which usually associate glory with the resurrection, in John’s Gospel, the ‘hour’ of Christ’s execution is the hour of his exaltation. Jesus is the serpent ‘exalted/lifted up’ on the wooden stick (John 3:14). When he is ‘exalted / lifted up’ from the earth, he will draw all people(s) to himself (John 12:32). Thus, the language of glory and the exaltation / lifting-up of Christ are synonymous in John. For John, the Cross is the diadem of God’s unprecedented self-revelation. (1618)

“Please accept my proposal, my beloved …or I’ll throw you in a lake of fire.” Where’s the freedom in that kind of ultimatum? Where’s the consent? (1672)

Cruciformity and kenosis are not temporary conditions of God’s history, restricted to a first century Jewish long-weekend or even to the whole of the Incarnation of Christ. They describe God’s divine identity—not just what he is like, but who he is. (1676)

As first cause, God is Good and all he does is goodness. But there are also secondary causes. Secondary causes include natural law and human freedom. We refer to them as secondary causes because while God caused them, they also cause things that God does not directly cause. That is, God consents to the free (and often catastrophic) play of these secondary causes—he allows natural law and human freedom to do their thing. God is ultimately responsible for all that is—for natural law and for human freedom—but we would say he doesn’t directly cause or control humans or nature in whatever they do. (1798)

God is in charge, but he is not in control, because he doesn’t do control. (1852)

Kenotic power may seem feeble because it is patient and humble, but in the end, God-as-love—the truly Christlike God—is the overcoming force more powerful because he does what no tyrant can ever do: he wins hearts, restores lives and transforms societies. (1889)

I once heard the renowned South African human rights activist, Bishop Desmond Tutu, say, “For whatever reason, since humankind showed up on the scene, God does nothing without a human partner.” (2076)

Christlike prayer is kenotic, cruciform and willing—not coercive, demanding or manipulative. Partnering prayer listens first to seek God’s will, rather than attempting to impose our will in the world in his name. (2157)

At the Cross, we see the perfect love of God and the crazy-making affliction of all humanity in one place, one moment, one Man—Jesus Christ, the cruciform God. Rather than dazzling us with a clever answer, the Cross arrests us. It offers an anti-theodicy. The love and the anguish—both present in the extreme—are astonishing. (2246)

If evil exists and yet we hold that God is good, then what of his power? Ultimately, the cruciform King—the Cross itself—challenges this premise and overthrows our ideas of what it means for God to be all-powerful in this world. (2325)

A theology of the Cross responds to “why does God allow X?” with “God (obviously and observably) allows everything!” If God is all-powerful, his power is not akin to control. (2339)

We might know theologically that God is everywhere and always present, but we don’t always feel it. In affliction, God’s real presence often makes no practical difference; people still suffer and die in all manner of cruel ways. So in the crucifixion, Jesus shared fully in our experience of absence, assuming it and thereby utterly redeeming it. (2400)

The Bible…itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents—gives us over—to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance. (2491)

By reading the Bible’s judgment narratives through the lens of cruciform consent—through the Cross—we will begin to understand the wrath metaphor. And we will be equipped to retrieve rather than dismiss the so-called ‘toxic texts’ of the Bible. (2599)

Boyd teaches that the judgment of sin is not an externally applied penalty by a divine judge. God doesn’t actively investigate, arrest, convict, sentence and punish sinners. There’s no need and, in fact, that’s not God’s heart at all. Here’s the bottom line: sin carries its own penalty (or ‘wages’ in Rom. 6:23) because consequences are built into the fabric of the universe… It’s not that my sin literally causes God to be angry and provokes God’s judgments. Rather, that sin itself is harmful to us and to others. (2621)

When mercy is hidden and the wrath of self-destruction begins to play out, rather than assuming God’s patience has run out as if he’s decided, “Okay, enough mercy; now I’m choosing to withdraw mercy to release the wrath,” what if it is really we who make that choice, consciously or unconsciously? What if the valve that shuts off mercy is intrinsic in the same way wrath is? In fact, what if it’s the very same thing? (2641)

God consents, but remember, there is so much more. God also participates. This is super-important. Yes, our heavenly Father allows, but he is also truly good and he cares. (2641)

Wrath is a metaphor for the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God… When mercy gives way to wrath, it must be that we ourselves hit the off-switch and rebuffed mercy through our sinful acts. (2672)

As God is increasingly unveiled as life-giver rather than death-dealer, the biblical authors reflect this perspective more and more, becoming ever more careful to assert that God is not to blame. A simple example of this shift appears when David counts his armies. (2707)

In the Gospels, Christ did not operate in the power of miraculous interventions (the magical suspension of laws), but in the authority of supernatural love (the application of God’s highest law). (2845)

The cruciform King is not literally an angry monarch seething from his heavenly throne, but we do experience wrath as God’s passive and indirect consent to the destructive forces of necessity. (2886)

How did the life, death and resurrection of Christ save us and reconcile us to God? Was the wrath of God somehow satisfied through the punishment of Christ? Or was the Cross God’s grand rejection of wrath as a solution to sin? (2998)

Confusing atonement theories with the gospel itself, or with the biblical metaphors they strive to interpret, leads to a terrible mistake. The mistake occurs when we want to speak about the meaning of the Cross, but skip the Gospel narratives and New Testament metaphors, and charge straightaway into debatable and polarizing theories. (3026)

God’s saving work through Jesus is so multi-faceted that Christ and the apostles found it necessary and helpful to use a constellation of metaphors to describe its benefits. Each metaphor serves to clarify, but can also obscure. Every metaphor can extend our understanding, but can also be over-extended such that we corner ourselves into error. So our theories about the metaphors need to be held very lightly—no theory holds a monopoly on the gospel, nor should it lay claim to actually being the gospel. (3033)

One of the tragedies of the atonement wars is how wound-up many pastors and theologians get about theories composed many centuries after the New Testament, and the great efforts involved in imposing those later theories back onto Scripture. If this weren’t already worrisome, the comparative dearth of concern for the breadth and depth of Jesus’ own metaphors is pretty appalling. (3060)

When we see sin as a fatal disease that produces ugly symptoms and a sure death-warrant, we see how useless punishment is as a cure. (3097)

There is no law or principle of justice higher than God to which he is beholden. ‘Justice’ is not a god to whom Yahweh must bow or appease with blood. Nor is God’s ‘Law’ some retributive principle that binds him. The whole point of the prophetic Book of Hosea is exactly this: that God is utterly free to forgive sinners—to show mercy to the guilty. He is able to respond to legal demands for punishment with a counter-verdict: complete pardon based in God’s own grace. (3260)

Christ’s self-offering must define the true meaning of sacrifice, as opposed to letting the symbols of sacrifice define the reality of what Jesus did. Reversing these is the quickest path to paganizing the sacrifice of Christ. Christ doesn’t get his meaning from the symbols; the symbols derive their meaning from him, even when they predate his own sacrifice.

The meaning Christ attributes to sacrifice is simply this: laying one’s life down for someone else (1 John 3:16). Anyone who gives their life to rescue another—whether it’s a fireman dying while pulling someone from a flaming building; a policeman who’s fatally wounded while rescuing a hostage; or a martyr stoned to death for preaching the good news—is ‘paying the ultimate price.’ Here, the metaphors are off the table. Here, sacrifice (laying down your life) is raw actuality—the events as they really happened.

Notice that this type of sacrifice has nothing to do with punishment, payment, retribution or appeasement. In every case, a life is given for the sake of the other, not to satisfy someone’s wrath or placate their anger, but as a life-giving, life-saving sacrifice. (3390)

We want—even demand—to know how the death of Christ removes sin, whereas Paul resists the mechanics of transaction: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Wages, payment, sin, death—that’s ledger language, wrath language. But Christ doesn’t balance the ledger; he nails it to the Cross (Col. 2:4)! He utterly removes it. God’s ways are not bound to the ledger, but free to the boundless way of pure grace and free gift. (3412)

We can retain a biblical form of ‘substitution’ if we ask simply, “Did Jesus do for us what we could not do for ourselves?” Of course he did. Did he ‘step into the ring’ as our substitute? Did he go through the battle royal with Satan, sin and death for us? Sure he did. Did Jesus ‘take a bullet for us’? Yes! The key is to remember, God is not the one holding the smoking gun. We are. And as he bleeds to death, he forgives us and says, “I’ll be back—see you in three days.” (3462)

The great problem the gospel addresses is not primarily your guilt or God’s need to punish it. Rather, it is about saving us from death and the fear of death through which the devil held us in bondage all our lives (Heb. 2:15). (3721)

This drama is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament. God makes a promise, someone turns from him, they experience the tragic results, but God comes to find them. (3769)

Some will resist and reject God’s love and forgiveness to the bitter end. And when humanity experiences the penalty of its own sin, when it falls away into death to be forever separated from God, what does God do? God says, “My love is stronger than the grave!” (Song of Sol. 8:6). “Even if you make your bed in sheol, I am there” (Psalm 139:8). God in Christ pursues us in his wild love all the way into death. (3856)


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