Can we crowdsource theology?

This is more or less what I said in my session on social media and theology at the Christian New Media Conference:

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This week the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the American Southern Baptists held a large conference on the subject of marriage.

This commission isn’t some minor technical meeting but one of the most significant Christian pressure groups in the states – their endorsement can make or break the fortunes of political candidates.

And as is the norm with most conferences these days many outside the room were following along through the hashtag, and on this occasion able to watch a livestream as well.

There were two different conversations going on. What was spoken on the stage and received by the audience. And what was being discussed on twitter. The conversations were different, and often seem detached from one another.

The ERLC takes a position on marriage which angered many viewing online, who made clear their dissent and opposition. This was not a discussion nor a debate of the position, it was a broadcast of one position from the stage, and the broadcast of opposition from the internet.

This is not to comment on the validity of either position, but to point out that debating points of theology and doctrine via social media is rarely a productive exercise and more often an excuse for restating entrenched positions to those who view things differently.

Even when the lines of opposition are less clear cut social media can still aggravate rather than unify. On Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at my church, he was funny and winsome, and at one point quoted from Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire, reflecting on the comment that all religions are equally useful he stated that “we’re not to be useful, we’re to be transformed and transforming”.

Someone tweeted that, and almost immediately got the response: “hashtag false dichotomy patrol”. To his credit, upon clarification the reply was removed.

In reducing the comment, and removing the context of the sermon the archbishop’s words were easy to misunderstand.

Too often social media stimulates dissent as if it was the oxygen that gives it breath.

Dissent is healthy, it is essential, and in social media we find opportunities to explore different views and opinions that were never previously open. Where previously ideas were not questioned, they are now relentlessly scrutinised. There has been a democratisation of ideas that enables new voices to be heard.

This has transformed the context in which we talk about theology, and that’s what I want to explore briefly.

There is a responsibility upon Christians to understand what they believe and why they believe it, and breaking down the walls of traditional authority enable an exploration of theology and the doctrine of the Church.

Social media offers a opportunities for new voices to examine beliefs, and to do so in new contexts without the traditions and orthodoxies that can sometimes silence questions.

My concern is that we run the risk of moving from a priesthood of all believers to a priesthood of the loudest voices. And we end up having conversations, debates and arguments online about theology without thinking about the framework that we’re working within, or that those we’re talking to are working from.

There’s something in Christian identity that sees opposition as a validation of belief: if people are disagreeing with me, it means I’m standing for something worth standing for. This entrenches disagreement where it doesn’t need to be entrenched and it builds walls between Christians and everyone else, and between different groups of Christians,

The problem with the democratisation of ideas on the internet is that someone somewhere will take just about every possible position. It means that if you want support for a point of view you will find it. If you want to go into bat on one side of an argument you can find reinforcements. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

As Thorin says in The Hobbit: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Christians cannot isolate themselves from critics, or people who think differently, but we should think about the frame within which we’re having a conversation. If I’m going to debate theology online first of all the ground rules need establishing. Are we talking about the meaning of scripture, or its pastoral implications, are we trying to work out what our sources of authority are in the first place?

These questions matter, because while there is nothing intrinsically valuable in being opposed there can also be a false goal of seeking agreement where that just isn’t possible. Sometimes we will disagree.

Because there are opportunities for new voices on the internet does not mean all new voices are equal. There are gatekeepers on the internet, and they marshal their authority very differently than traditional sources of church teaching, but they are still powerful.

In the online discussion surrounding the ERLC’s conference two key gatekeepers were Rachel Held Evans and Justin Lee. They both strongly disagreed with what was being spoken and curated a lot of the opposition being voiced. But their postures were different. Justin Lee was at the conference, and while tweeting comments was also having conversations. He was trying to move beyond the broadcast opposition.

Just this week Philip Yancey wrote in an article on the Huffington Post: “Writing for the Internet, I’ve learned, is a bit like taking on the hecklers at the Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. The normal rules of civil dialogue do not apply. Especially if the topic is religion – any religion – you’ll likely provoke a reflexive verbal blast.”

Many of the conversations we have online about theology and doctrine aren’t new. That’s why although I think it’s transformed the context in which we discuss it I don’t think it transforms our doctrine. When we wade into an argument about how we read the Bible think about the arguments that have gone on throughout history on this very point. Most of the internet’s controversialists are not original.

Christian doctrine may not have been formed in the crucible of social media, but the arguments have frequently been battled through time and time again. In the novelty of fresh discussion we cannot forget the centuries of conversation the church has gone through.

When we talk about theology online what do we take our cue from? Are we looking to the Bible, are we looking to creeds and church leaders, to favourite bloggers and authors, are we weighing what they say carefully?

And are there some things we opt not to write about? Are some topics too controversial, too likely to be opposed or misunderstood? When thinking about theology and the internet we often look to the States and see the debates that take place online there. We forget that our context is different even if we read their posts and they read ours.

The internet is open and accessible it also operates in circles. I can write something popular and approved of because of who is reading what I write. Someone else can write the very same words and it is viewed as outrageous.

A couple of years ago when the General Synod didn’t vote for women bishops I asked a friend to write a piece for Threads about the vote. She takes a traditional complementarian position and views church leadership as reserved for men. Her article wasn’t inflammatory, and the comments were fairly kind even if mostly disagreeing. But it was a bruising experience. A school of thought held by many in the church had become hard to speak in support of online.

I don’t want everyone to agree with her, I don’t myself and she knows that. But when the internet is a hard place to talk about certain issues we have to question its value as a forum for debating and determining church doctrine.

That’s because we simply don’t know the perspective and background that many we discuss with come from. We don’t know the frame from which they’re arguing, and we very rarely are able to take time to establish some ground rules.

If I’m going to talk about the role of women in church leadership I not inclined to do it with someone who takes David Cameron’s view that the church simply needs to get with the programme.

I’ll do my best to articulate a biblical position for those who don’t hold to the authority of scripture but I’m not going to get too worried about trying to convince them to come over to my side, our frameworks are different.

And this is the problem with the priesthood of all. And it means we can’t just crowd source our doctrine. Or at least we can’t unless we’re able to agree the ground rules first. And that raises the question of who gets to decide what those ground rules are. There’s an infinite loop of complexity here that ends up with someone always having authority, power and influence over other people.

There’s an important caveat to all this. When we talk about doctrine I want scripture to be central, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we should listen to. I want to use my reason, I want to see what it means in real life, and I want to hear from people’s experience.

The church has to have its eyes open to the world it is walking through, it does not exist in isolation. It is also the reality of our situation that discussion about doctrine and theology take place in the open – just look at the Catholic Church’s recent synod on the family. Even a meeting that was supposedly taking place behind closed doors had the full glare of the media exposing its twists and turns.

The daylight built into our social media infused world is healthy, it gives us a scepticism that causes us to re-evaluate and debate the things we believe. That’s a good thing. But it can also lead to a level of doubt and uncertainty that means everything is always up for grabs. And that’s not a healthy thing. We can be so bewildered by alternatives that we end up not having a clue what we believe.

I firmly believe that some things are true and other things are not. Some of those things we can know clearly, others we will struggle with, and yet more we will know but find difficult to apply.

Christian doctrine isn’t easy. It’s not the conclusion of what’s popular at any point in time. It’s determined neither by what’s trending, nor what we’ve always believed. Doctrine shouldn’t be inflexible, but social media increases the complexities of how it flexes.

Social media prioritises polarisation, and when it comes to working through doctrine we need less polarisation and more patience. And social media isn’t very good at patience.

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Fake it until you make it

Two types of posts get read a lot on this blog. Those about relationships and those addressing current political or church issues. So when I write about dating or singleness or Mark Driscoll or women bishops my stats page is suitably satisfied. When on the other hand I take a more rambling approach to writing, the readers do not come flocking. I suspect this is one of the latter.

It is also probably worth explaining at this point what happened to the endeavour I had provisionally titled ‘The centaur and the heir’. It was my attempt to write a novel in 30 days, 50 000 words from scratch onto the keys and into some semblance of a novel. I could try and sugar coat it and put it in diplomatic fashion but basically I failed. After ten days I was a few thousand words behind schedule and with a mostly free Sunday ahead of me I could have spent all my free time writing and given myself a boost. I had also rather shamefully posted the first two chapters of the work so instead of clarifying my abandonment I slipped quietly into the night. I decided I had other things I wished to do with my time. I took the choice to fail. It’s not often we make a choice so consciously as that, but I realised that while I was deciding to fail, I was still not entirely sure what is was I was failing at.

My novel would never have been published, not even in my most remote and wildest dreams. It was a work of fan fiction, an effort to hark back to the Chronicles of Narnia and explore what became of Susan Pevensie after her family’s death. I had lost the plot quite literally, I had no idea where it would go next, a vague concept I wanted to pull through the whole story but the characters were weak and they asserted no direction on the page. I had a handful of readers who had taken in the first two sections, but their engagement was not enough to keep me going. Nor was the brute stubbornness that had propelled me through the same endeavour last year enough. I had proved I could do it, proved I could write an inordinate number of words that made very little sense, read by even fewer and done so at a particularly busy period of work.

I simply had no reason to go on writing.

And sometimes that can be a lesson we face in so many parts of life. We want something to whisk us up and propel us forward. We want the glorious crusade, the righteous campaign, the infusion of meaning into a life otherwise droll and predictable. We don’t want to just carry on because we think we ought to carry on.

Sometimes in church life it can feel like a massive effort to keep with the programme, to show that you are on the same page as everyone else. Sometimes it can be a spiritual equivalent of keeping up with the Jones. We want to be as mature as everyone else, we want to have the same experience as everyone else. When we see others having prayers answered we wonder why ours are going unmet.

I see the doubt in my own mind and think others are plagued by the same lingering thoughts. But there is one particular doubt I want to zero in on. I doubt that there is purpose and meaning behind what I am doing. In the world in which I spend most of my time much is made of calling and vocation: of what you are doing with your life to serve God. And I feel I have none. I can scrabble around and cobble together something approaching a spiritual sounding narrative, but it is really little more than a projection of where I have come from and where I am currently at. It is all I have.

I hear exhortations to have plans and goals, and strategies, ideas of where you want to be in ten years time – and this is in church not a job interview. I hear the calls for a vision of what your sphere could look like if the kingdom of God was to break in. Except I don’t know what my sphere is and I don’t have a vision of what it might look like.

I sometimes think, if only I had something to commit myself to, a passion to throw my weight behind, a mission to get lost in, a conviction that it is this (whatever this might be) to which I am to spend myself. But I don’t and therefore I leave myself with two options. Well three if I include giving up. But unlike writing a novel in a month this isn’t something I want to pack in. At least, I hope not. So my options are either to fake it until I make it, to conjure some vision out of thin air, construct it on the back of what I do and what others might expect me to be passionate about. Or alternatively to get back to basics.

When I put it like that it seems like a no brainer, of course the basics should win over being a fraud, but I’m not so sure it’s that simple. Maybe part of the going back to basics is doing what I am doing right now as well as I possibly can. Going back to basics means not over complicating life. It means not looking for something that isn’t there. It also means stripping out the extraneous elements that combine together to create a noise through which we cannot hear the movements and melodies that lie behind our lives.

It means for me I need to stop worrying about not having a ten year plan. It means not being ashamed by what I am doing or not doing. Rescinding the relentless rhetoric towards bigger and better, onwards and upwards, letting go of the need for validity and worth in what I am doing or where I am going. There is a lot that I can do, or stop doing.

And I want that to be the focus of my attention, but there’s also a slight critique I want to make of the language, tone and rhetoric used in churches. I get the desire to cast vision, to get people caught up in where you are going, to inspire them to hear their own call. But does it run the risk of encouraging people to fake it until they make it? They see something that looks good so present themselves in a spiritual light and hang a personal vision off that prefabricated script? Does it lead to a conformity with the corporate vision by accident rather than design? Does it stifle innovation while actually seeking to unleash it? I don’t know. But I’ve felt the pressure to conform, and to find something which I do not at the moment have.

It’s a concern I have with all areas of the Christian life, if we place the expected and modelled level of behaviour high without an equivalent modelling of grace, we run the risk of encouraging a fraudulent faith because the fear of not performing up to the expected standard becomes too strong. And when faith comes down to performance it may be time to bring the curtain down, send home the cast and rewrite the script.

I don’t want to glorify messing things up or not having a clue. I don’t want to privilege doubt over faith. But I want to be honest that all these struggles exist and not present too perfect a picture.

Beliefs that dare not speak their name

I’ve hesitated long and hard about whether to say anything about the debate over gay marriage and the government’s proposals. I’ve held back for a couple of reasons. My work has a view on this. And it seems impossible to say anything that casts doubt on the validity of allowing gay couples to marry without being denounced as a homophobe and a bigot.

Because I don’t think that the plans are a good idea. And that probably makes me unpopular, both with those outside and some inside the church.

Today on twitter I’ve observed a lot of people despairing at the Church of England’s response to the consultation in which they urge the government to rethink changing marriage in the way that is proposed.

Because that is what the government are planning on doing. Whether you support the proposals or not, if these plans are implemented marriage will be different in a couple of years time to what it is now.

I want to make a few scattered comments about this whole escapade. I want to do so in the carefullest possible way as this is a subject that is not detached from people’s individual lives, emotions and identity. Maybe it would help by pulling out some of the slightly spurious points often made against those who would prefer that marriage remained as between a man and a woman.

I believe that there are ways to live that are better than other ways to live. And I know that this means that for some people it will seem as though I’m criticising the way that they choose to live. But I think that sexual relationship should only take place between men and women, and between one of each in the context of marriage. And marriage matters because it is placing the union between two people before God and under his authority. It is about submitting not only to each other but principally to God.

And as far as I can see that means we must do our best to live lives that honour God. Even if that means doing things we find hard, and not doing things which otherwise we may choose to do. For devout Christians who experience same sex attraction may well choose to put their belief in and devotion to God before that, and choose to live another way. This is not something I pretend to understand. It is not something that I pretend is easy. It is not something that I would pretend is not counter to the way that the world would choose to order things.

But as Peter Ould tweeted earlier today, “The moment you argue that Church should ‘catch up with society’ you demonstrate your theology is of man and not God”. Because while the church has so often got so many things so very wrong, and in it’s dealing with gay and lesbian people at times its actions have been horrific, that does not mean it should adjust its view because something is deemed out of fashion, or even intolerant.

The church is accused of inconsistency, and it has so often been guilty of that, but that’s not a reason to drop all of the values it holds to and rush towards a lowest common denominator that does its best to keep everyone onside. The church is told to not think that something is wrong, all the while told to stand stronger against other things that are wrong. Told to worry more about poverty and the injustices of the world because holding a view on sexuality will make people think the church is out of touch. It’s curious that at a time when morality is coming back into vogue, when questions are being asked about the value of money in our lives, or the isolation created by ongoing technological  advancement, the church is told to pipe down.

Many have commented today that the church accepts divorce but opposes gay marriage. Often that’s the case. Divorce isn’t what God wants, but sometimes it’s the best way out of difficult circumstances. Confusing? Yes, but often handling the tensions in the way that we live will look like that. God is redemptive, and although marriages should stay together many will not. So there is hope in the hardest of situations, which is why divorce should be allowed. To introduce gay marriage is to create something new, and in doing so change something old.

And then there is the West Wing argument. About shellfish and mixed fabrics. It’s a neat little charge but it misses any attempt to understand the purposes of different Old Testament laws. This isn’t the place but I think a decent case can be made for those laws to keep people clean before a holy God and therefore not needed since Jesus’ death and resurrection have made us all clean; those laws given to aid the governance of Israel (many of which we can learn from without direct application), and those laws which give us moral guidance on how best to live.

The particular proposals that the government make suggest that a distinction can be made between civil and religious marriage. That’s nonsense, there are civil and religious weddings but they are just two different doors to the same room.

The proposals also allude to the fact that some people are banned from marriage, that’s just not true, anyone can get married, but only to someone of the opposite sex. Trying to allow gay couples to marry is trying to make marriage into something that it simply is not. On one level marriage will always be marriage, and nothing that the government says will change that. It’s like trying to suggest that the government should pass a law allowing two floor bungalows to be built.

A big part of me wants to stay quite about this debate. I want to shut up. Turn off my computer, deactivate twitter for a while and stay away while the government push their case, opponents dismiss it and are subsequently tarred and feather in their virtual stocks.

But that’s actually what makes me speak up and say my piece because I shouldn’t be shamed into silence. It is what worries me most if these proposals go through: that I won’t be able to hold, and promote, a view that marriage is and should be between a man and a woman. I’m not expecting every one to agree with me, much as I don’t expect everyone to agree with many of the things that I believe. When they do perhaps I’m a little too closely following the crowd.

Do I think that the world will collapse if gay marriage is constructed ex nihilo within the legal system? I don’t. Do I think that sometimes Christians have used language in their opposition that has made the charge of bigot stick a little easier? Yes.

But I don’t think that the church, and other opponents, should stay quiet when the government are introducing something which isn’t in keeping with what they believe is best for the world around them. And a world in which Christians are committed to making God’s kingdom come. That means fighting poverty and promoting relationships that reflect God’s desire. It means speaking truth in a way that people see God’s love and truth in the content of what you say and in the heart that lies behind it.

And this is not easy. And I’ve not really dealt with many of the issues in play but this is already plenty long enough.

More information about this topic and a briefing on the Evangelical Alliance’s position can be found here. And you can respond to the consultation here.

What do you think, do you think Christians should back gay marriage? Should they stay quiet about their views? Or loudly make their opposition know?

We are God’s idols – Life:unmasked

You are God’s idol. Humanity is created as God’s idol.

Like a bolt out the blue, like a shock through the heart. Like the words from a page coming to life.

Like the truth that I know and the truth I deny. That God loves me and made me and created me as his image.

But more than that, that he has no need for graven statues to manifest his presence on earth. Because we are that. That is what we are as well as what we do.

When God chose to represent himself on earth we are what he created. When Jesus ascended he did so in bodily form, bearing the marks of his suffering, displaying and retaining his humanity as a sign of the resurrection that is to come.

And that means that not only does God love me. But it means that he wants me. And more than that he identifies in me.

So when I start suggesting to myself that I am really not worth very much. Or that I do not have talents which others could appreciate. Or when I tell myself, in this very parish, or to the quiet of my soul, that no one could ever choose to be with me, or to like me. What I am doing when I do these things is to take a scalpel and carve out of me something which God has placed there.

In a way that escapes the confines of my comprehension the way that I treat myself and think of myself is a choice to treat God in that same way. Perhaps echoing Matthew 25, what I do to myself, as well as I do to the least of these is a reflection of what I am doing to God.

I sit somewhat inadequate in my macbook-less state. With no international preaching ministry or book deal. I feel small beyond my size, I feel lost, sometimes beyond redemption.

But in my better, clearer, more lucid of days I know that these are not the way I should view myself. And perhaps, today, I have a better understanding of why that is.

For the first time today, and in a rather unusual manner given my presence at a theology conference, I’ve joined in with Life:unmasked started by Joy Bennett.

The stimulation for today’s thoughts have been gratefully received from Crispin Fletcher Louis at the Pioneer Summer School of Theology. Much to chew over and think about.

A biblical framework for understanding politics – part 4

[update: the full series is available as a PDF here]

In the final post in this series we will take a step beyond considering how we should view politics and government and set out in hazy terms what such a government should do.

If you’re only just joining us I would suggest taking a moment to catch up. In the first post I explored the key characteristics of political authority, in the second how we should view government, and in the third what the Lordship of Christ meant for all this.

The purpose of government

We’ve already looked at government as an ambiguous concept, caught in the tensions between it’s created status and its fallen nature, and between it’s legitimate role and it’s evident limits.

The exercise of political authority is often equally dubious. These tensions exist in what the government seeks to do and how it does it.

But we’re invited to the task of living in these tensions and working to bring the redemptive hope of Christ into the outworking of government and across all of society.

Here are three broad areas which the Bible suggests should be within the scope of government.

Commitment to human equality

It’s astonishing that the church has let the concept of equality be snatched from its grasp, because equality is such a fundamental part of biblical teaching.

We are all equal under God, this is true in our created status. It is true in the universality of sin, and it is true in our universal need for redemption.

Jesus was radically inclusive in his ministry, he deliberately sided with the poor and the disenfranchised. He overturned the social order and he overturned the tables of those who would profit from the poorest.

But that wasn’t were equality began. In the laws for Israel there was a strong seem of justice running through them. The laws for the ownership of property and slaves ensured that intergenerational social mobility was not hampered.   Israel was warned against taking a king and the prophets railed against the injustices perpetrated by them.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he exhorts them to generosity, and he uses the old Testament portrait of the manna provided in the desert to point out that those who gathered much did not have too much and those who gathered little did not have too little.

For the common good

All governments promote and seek some form of common good. What this looks like is different in different contexts and sometimes gets lost in the pursuit of just judgement.

Thomas Aquinas noted that the common good existed for the good of the people and not for the good of the ruler. For much of history this was not the way that political authority operated.

The concept of the common good is based on the idea that a community is more than a series of disconnected individuals, it works upon the coming together of those people and their working together for a common cause.

While Christianity has often emphasised individual choice, especially in relation to salvation, it has also affirmed the need for community structures that enable us to live fulfilled lives as part of wider society.

It is the role of government to promote such structures while making sure that they do not dominate them. When the common good comes to the fore it makes sure that no one suffers permanent social exclusion.

This means that particular attention should be paid to those who are liable to experience such exclusion. David McIlroy comments, “The weight of the classical tradition is solidly behind the prioritising of the needs of the weakest, in whom it has been recognised that we see the face of Christ with special clarity.”

Exercise of just judgement

The third core function of government, alongside a commitment to equality and working for the common good is the exercise of just judgement.

The Christian tradition has long acknowledged that the Christian ruler must discern the requirements of Christian moral teaching within and for the complex realities of the society that has to be governed.

This means that there are very few absolutes of what a governing system should look like. I think if we cast our minds through history we can see the rights and wrongs of political systems of every hue. Including those who explicitly reject Christian teaching, and those claiming to govern in its name.

It is not possible to take judgements in a neutral space. It is simply one of the myths of contemporary political thought that there exists a space where all prejudices and conceptions of the common good can be removed and a judgement reached that abides by the rules of justice and nothing else.

Instead, we have to accept that there are many competing claims to subjective morality, and these require us to offer a substantive argument for why the values we hold, and the truths we believe, are for the common good.

And we need to keep one eye on the fact that human concepts of justice will only ever be limitedly just. This means that that the capability of government to promote the good, and exercise judgement, while present, is limited.

Conclusion

The apostles chose to reinforce the radical message of Jesus’ death and resurrection and refused to accept the absolute claims to authority that the Roman Empire demanded.

But they didn’t reject the fact that it had authority, they just saw its authority as limited. They continued to remind the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and reflected the role of the prophets in the Old Testament.

We must remember that neither tyranny nor anarchy are what God desires. The institutions of political authority have good in them as they reflect the nature of our created God. But they are also fallen because they are formed by fallen humans.

But most of all, we must hold to the hope for the ultimate redemption of all things and how we are commanded to have a role in that rebuilding.

A biblical framework for understanding politics – part 3

Government in the New Testament

In the first two posts in this series I set out firstly the concept of political authority in theological terms, and then in yesterday’s post what this meant for how we should view government: as both legitimate but limited. I’ve also briefly touched already on the position of government and political authority in New Testament teaching, but here I want to delve a bit deeper. In particular I want to explore what impact a full understanding of the Lordship of Christ has on our engagement in politics.

Tom Wright has written extensively on this subject and a theme he returns to time and again is that Christianity has underplayed the political purpose in Christian thought, and as a result misread key aspects of the gospels and epistles.

This revolves around an incomplete understanding of what Jesus achieved through his death and resurrection.

If we understand Jesus as Lord, and subsequently understand that Caesar, or what ever contemporary ruler has taken his place in different times and contexts throughout history, are not Lord, we are free to step back and take a broader view of what Lordship means.

We’ve already referenced Jesus before Pilate, and his declaration that whatever political authority he exercised had been given to him.

 

You see, Israel wanted a liberator. They wanted a saviour who would vanquish their foes, free them from oppression and enforce the laws that were ignored.

But the coming king did not look like that.

Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem with chariots to overthrow the Roman oppressors. The Messiah who for hundreds of years they had awaited did not back the Pharisees and insist that the law, in all its detailed regulations governing every aspect of daily life, was strictly enforced. This king did not even remove himself from the enemy occupiers to create a kingdom on earth without blemish.

For Jesus those who broke the rules and those who enforced the rules were both equally wrong.

He confounded his critics and he confused his supporters.

The way that Jesus engaged in public life was completely different to anything they expected.

So when Jesus came before Pilate we see very clearly the meeting of two different kingdoms, the kingdom of the Roman Empire and the political authority that it exercised. And the Kingdom of God fully represented in the person of Jesus.

The point that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world does not mean that it is instead an entirely spiritual one.

No, Jesus’ kingdom is not derived from this world, but it is designed for this world.

Tom Wright puts it like this: “Precisely because it is the kingdom of the wise creator God who longs to heal this world, whose justice is aimed at restoration rather than punitive destruction, it can neither be advanced nor attained by the domineering, bullying fighting kingdom methods employed in merely earthly kingdoms”.

This is how Jesus redefines what Lordship means.

Yet at exactly this point he also declares support for the existence of earthly rulers. In affirming that Pilate does have authority he is advocating government over anarchy.

The worst form of government is not dictatorship but no government at all. I’d suggest that even the very worst ruler is better than a world where we are all our own tyrants and the weak are crushed in our desire to achieve the best for ourselves that we can.

God did not send his son to destroy the world but to rescue it from evil. And the structures of human society are part of the good of creation that he came to redeem.

During Jesus’ ministry the disciples squabbled over who would get to sit on his left and his right, and Jesus sees all this as an adventure in missing the point.

He radically restates that the rules of this earth lord it over their subjects but under his kingdom the greatest must be the servant. Mark 10.45 offer the conclusion to this dramatic reversal: “The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

This is more than just a statement about the work of Jesus on the cross.

It is a radically counter imperial statement. To quote Tom Wright once again: “it is an invitation to understand the atonement itself … as involving God’s victory not so much over the world and its powers but over the worldly ways of power.”

Romans 8 gives us a fuller picture of our hope for a new creation. It upstage the hope of Rome that is entering a new stage of its fruitfulness. It goes beyond our wildest dreams as to what a new creation could look like.

And this links back to what we’ve already considered: the ultimate recourse of an earthly authority is to take away life.

Jesus’ victory over death, and the promise of a future resurrection, makes this exercise of power somewhat futile. Death has, after all, been defeated.

The Lordship of Christ needs to be considered alongside the biblical themes of creation and judgement. Together, in harmony, they show us the good news. That the God who made the world now rules the world through his son Jesus.

In the closing section of Romans, 15.12, Paul echoes Isaiah 11 saying “Jesus is the one who rises to rule over the nations, and in him the nations shall hope”.

This Lordship is not just over heaven, it is not just for the ultimate future when everything will be restored to Him. It is also for the present time, for this penultimate future where we catch a glimpse of God’s coming kingdom.

And in response we are called to be the bringers of hope. The carriers of healing to a broken world. And show that Christ’s rule is good news for all.

Read on: the fourth and final part in the series

A biblical framework for understanding politics – part 1

Introduction

Welcome to this mini series of posts which more or less mirror a talk I gave at the Salvation Army’s training college this week. There’ll be four posts in all but even spread across this many words and posts it is a fairly fast tour through the biblical themes. Hopefully, it will help provide a better understanding political authority, and what this should look like when worked out in the institutions of government. Alternatively you can download the whole series as a PDF.

Each of the posts offer a further layer to help us understand what the Bible has to teach us, so today we stay on quite a conceptual level, but hopefully by the end a picture full of texture and colour will have been built up. I also hope it will be clear why I consider politics as something essential for Christians to engage with. As this comes from a talk I apologise that the quotes aren’t properly referenced, most of them come from God and Government edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin, but others I’ve dug out from a variety of other sources. However, I’d suggest you don’t read that book because then you’d realise just how significantly it has influenced the development of these posts. (that was a joke. it’s a fantastic book which I’d very strongly recommend, and I’ll freely admit most of this comes from it)

In this first post I’ll look at political authority in general and pull out three aspects of that authority which we can draw from the Bible.

In subsequent posts I’ll consider how we should view the idea of government more specifically, and then a reasonable amount of time will be given to assessing the Lordship of Christ and what this can teach us about the exercise of political authority.

In the final post I’ll touch on a few of the main purposes of government and how these are affected by our understanding of the bible.

Nature of political authority:

powers as created

So to start, let’s take a look at the nature of political authority.

In the beginning God created the world. We understand creation as the divine work of calling all things into being.

And in Genesis while we see that the earth is created by God we also see humans given a role of authority – they are co-creators.

It’s not just a one off command, a one time only opportunity; Adam and Eve were asked to name all the animals. They were told to go forth and multiply and to have dominion over every living thing that moves on earth.

This command is not just about biological reproduction, it is also about the work of governing, directing and developing culture. Nigel Wright states that “The building of societies, nations and cultures is thus understood as part of human responsibilities before God, part of what we are called to do”.

Government as an institution, or even the organisation of basic communities, would not exist outside of the human beings that comprise them. There is no franchise model that we buy into, government is not a pre-ordained, off the shelf, divine institution that we partake in. It is what we create.

The outworking of governance, and the form that it takes, is a product of our ingenuity and our God given creativity. It is what we do in our role as co-creators with God.

The political authority we recognise as government is what enables us to achieve goals that would be out of reach on our own. It is the way that we come together to build a social structure that works for the good of all.

So my first point is this: political authority is a divine creation in its origin but human in its prescription and its outworking.

powers as fallen

If we stopped there we’d have a rather one sided view of political authority. Because it all sounds rather rosy, but it bears very little resemblance to the exercise of political authority we see around us.

Let’s take a whirlwind tour through the outworking of political authority in the Bible because it doesn’t always paint a picture of political authority as good. Representative democracy was not on the scene but there is still a good spread of different regimes.

We have Pharaoh and the Egyptians and their oppressive regime, we have the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires and the brutality that went with their conquest.

In the New Testament we see the Roman Empire in all its glory, bringing order to the known world but at the cost of human dignity.

In both Daniel and Revelation the empires of this world are described as a ravaging beast (Dan 2.31-45, 7.1-8; Rev 13).

If the institutions of political authority grow out of our human nature, then not only will they reflect the good that is in us, placed there at creation, but also the fallen and sinful nature to which we turned.

We should not be surprised that the exercise of political authority will be as corrupt as our own nature is.

Too often governments are simply an expression of domination, as Walter Wink says, wielding power through violent means over the majority for the sake of the elite.

It’s taken a long time for political authority to move from serving those elites to acting in a way that is in the interests of the whole country. And we’re not there yet.

Power isn’t given up easily, even in our present democratic state we have to ask whether the exercise of political authority is done in a way that reflects our created state or our fallen nature.

We see that political authority is an ambiguous power. It is God given and it is honourable, it is an outworking of the cultural mandate we have been given.

But it is also used for the pursuit of self, and for the oppression of others. And we have seen this far too frequently throughout history.

powers as ‘to be’ redeemed

This is not the end of the story, Nigel Wright comments, “Fallenness is not the last word about anything or anybody”.

If the institutions of political authority reflect ourselves as created in the image of God, and marred by our fallen nature, then they too can be redeemed.

Where once they worked to serve our ambitions and schemes, they can be turned to serve others and honour God. They can shift to fulfil the life enhancing role that God had in mind at their creation.

But the redemption is only ever partial in the here and now.

We live in a space where the Kingdom of God has begun to break in. But we see only a glimpse of its true glory. In the same way political authority will only be fully redeemed in the fullness of time.

This means we cannot hold too great a hope for the redemption of political authorities.

Yet it is a hope. It is a hope that the power of the state can be used to enhance life, promote justices and secure peace and prosperity for all.

When the exercise of political authority moves towards the work of justice it is both a reflection of the good in its original creation and itself a witness to the activity of redemption that is at work.

Therefore: government is an ambiguous concept

I’ve very briefly outlined three aspects of political authority, but they don’t operate separately, or consecutively. It is not that any particular political authority is good, fallen, or only on its way to redemption.

Instead the three aspects are threads that intertwine and exist simultaneously in all political authority.

Overall, this view of political authority as created, fallen and on its way towards redemption shows us that government is an ambiguous concept.

It’s not to say that all examples of political authority are equal, at different times and in different places the redemptive possibilities may be nearly invisible as humans in their fallen state exercise authority with all the selfishness they can muster.

Likewise, we should not focus too much on any one of the three perspectives, if we consider only the original good that we are created with we can be naïve as to the potential dangers.

And too much focus on the fallen dismisses the potential for good and we can become paranoid about the exercise of authority.

If we forget about that redemption is only partial we can be overly optimistic about what will come next.

The three threads need to be held in tension.

And this ambiguous picture of political authority is reflected in the biblical ambivalence towards its outworking.

We’ll look at the nature of government in the New Testament in a future post but it is worth noting Jesus’ words to Pilate at this point. In John’s gospel when facing trial before Pilate Jesus says: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” (John 19.11)

There are limitations on earthly political authority, there are things it can do, but it cannot act alone, and it cannot act without recourse to a greater source of authority.

Julian Rivers assesses government as “a natural product of human society made much harder by sin; a good gift, like marriage, and like marriage, easily distorted and subverted”.

And I think this is a picture we would recognise. The modern state has achieved huge strides in promoting human welfare but it has not been without abuse.

In tomorrow’s post we’ll probe a little deeper into the nature and role of government as the outworking of political authority to understand this tension further.

God lives in all our boxes

One of the strange side-effects of taking up blogging is navigating the segues between what I say online, the people who read it and those who I know in real life. I’ve been told off for talking like this in the past, with the insistence that online relationships are also real. Maybe so, but my relationships with those I see in the flesh will, and I would argue should always, take priority over those I only have contact with over cyberspace.

The difficult part are those who fall into both camps. Walking into church at the weekend was a little strange, I’ve written 4 pretty lengthy posts offering my thoughts about relationships, and in small group settings over the past few days talked quite a lot about it. But this was a large gathering with people I know well, those I know a little, and many I do not know at all. And quite a few of them will have read my thoughts. I would really rather keep them in separate camps, as many people can read the blog as they like, but please not those I meet in my daily life (unfortunately I think the ship has sailed on that one). As a side note it’s interesting to see comments from people I haven’t seen in a few years, the internet can do some wonderful things.

I’ve always had a slightly insidious predilection for compartmentalising my life into little boxes, and not really being very comfortable when the edges blur. It lets me determine which picture I paint of myself, specific to the situation and I find it hard when friends, family or colleagues cross from one setting into another. The truth is the boxes we build are always porous, and they have to be, but we often construct them for our own convenience to let us present our best face, which may be different to different people.

Sometimes we forget that God lives in all our boxes.

He is there when we sing songs of worship, when we read the Bible, he’s there when we struggle to get out of bed and when we stagger back in smelling of pilchards. God is there when we love him and when he forget him. God is there when we nervously reach out a hand to touch the palm of the girl before us, he is there in the tears and the heartache. He is there in the ecstasy and the intimacy.

And we do none of these things separate from our relationship with God. A really key contribution to this subject is a chapter towards the end of Alan and Debra Hirsch’s book Untamed called ‘Too sexy for the church?’.

The church has been criticised for taking the language and behaviour of romance and using it for our relationship with God. Particularly stinging criticism has been levelled at some contemporary worship, as ‘Jesus is my girlfriend songs’. What we have not done as much of is consider the depth and the extent of our relationship with God and include within that our romance and relationships.

We deal with sexuality outside of the context of spirituality. And often the only place that it has within discipleship is its prohibition outside of marriage. It is often skipped over with uncommon haste the fact that we are sexual beings. That we have a sexual nature, which while often corrupted, is not in and of itself sinful outside marriage. Let me state this clearly, sexuality in singles is not sinful.

In Untamed the activities of several of the early church fathers is considered as mistaken; Origen, Augustine, and Simon Stylites went to pretty extreme measures to deny their desires because they felt they were incompatible with God’s holiness (including self castration and living on a pole for 40 years).

In the contemporary church there is often a lot of talk about the wonderful gift of sex that married people can enjoy. Following the Hirschs I want to suggest that the marriage covenant in which sexual relationships flourish is the high water mark of the second half the great commandment. To love the lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. We are to grow in relationship with God, and in relationship with people.

Too often we box up the little bits of our life and apply our beliefs to them in isolation, we ensure that our faith is sufficiently malleable to fit our context. So we might talk about marriage in church, we might talk about discipleship and the Lordship of Christ. But we don’t do enough to connect the dots.

While we talk openly and honestly about loving one another in church the purpose of it is a platonic, or perhaps agape, love, it is about building community, about knowing each other deeply. We don’t just leave things to chance, we set aside time, we meet together, we ask tough questions and aren’t satisfied by pat answers. It is not always easy, and often doesn’t work like this but at its best it is deliberate and it is clear.

We show no such clarity or intentionality in how we pursue relationships. It might best be characterised as a hazy fog. As well as the duality that often characterises our handling of sexuality, and detaches it from discipleship, there are a couple of other issues at work here. I’ll mention one briefly now, and the second deserves a post of its own.

We get sucked into a vortex of secrecy and uncertainty. And while we kind of guess that others experience similar dilemmas, we act in our own isolated world. An upshot of all this thinking and writing on relationships is a number of pretty frank conversations about it. I’ve started to try to put together, in my head at least, a definition to what this blog will be about, and if I want to achieve anything, I think it is to get people thinking and talking about areas of their faith which too often go unspoken.

I’m all for discretion in handling sensitive issues, where passions and emotions are in play, but don’t let privacy be an excuse for secrecy.

And the next one, well that would be relationship idolatry…