Learning from Jennifer Lopez

It was one of those evenings. When you get in, picking up your small chips and battered sausage on the way home, grab the bottle of Bulmers which has been lurking in the fridge for an occasion such as this and swiftly fade into the folds of the sofa and absorb whatever the screen before you has to offer.

I could blame it on working all the way through the weekend, meaning I’m a little over halfway through this nine day week. Or I could blame it on a bout of lethargy that stopped me from getting that overdue piece of work completed. Either way I watched back to back films, beginning with Monster-in-Law, a pretty shocking Jennifer Lopez vehicle that weaved its way through her travails with her soon to be mother-in-law.

But like much inspiration it came out of nowhere. And this most unexpected of cultural landmarks offered up something to critique and something to appreciate. Jennifer Lopez’s character was sat shooting the breeze with a couple of friends wistfully describing her ideal man. He would be strong, but gentle, rough but in touch with his emotional side. It was a wish list that soon came true in the hands of Hollywood scriptwriters.

The inspiration came because it more or less echoed a conversation I had on Sunday, I’d rushed back for church from the conference I was at and lingered in the pub for a little while afterwards. Slightly in shell shock from the fallout from my previous post, it was a difficult time for me to be in company, the dissonance between my online writings and my face to face relationships abundantly apparent. The conversation was a critique of what girls look for in guys, wanting the best of both worlds, wanting the strength and the sensitivity. And I apologise because I wasn’t fully engaged in the conversation, but something stuck. And Jennifer Lopez’s words brought it back to mind.

We have wish lists. They can be long and they can be short. They can focus on the minutiae or the grand. When I was looking around houses my wish list was fairly short, I was flexible. Mostly, I had decided what I was going to do and that was the most important step. When it comes to relationships we have ideals and hopes and dreams. We manufacture edifices of imagination of what life will be like if it all comes to pass.

We want the strong and the sensitive, the fun and the focused. Whether it is a guy who will be unbreakable until he meets her charms, or the girl whose frivolity fades before the one true guy. We want to have it all.

But what if the most important aspect is not the marks out of ten that we ascribe but the decision that we take to engage in relationships.

This morning before I sat down to write I had my regular check of twitter and top of my feed was this from Lauren Dubinsky:

Whimsical? Probably. Profound? I think so too.

It is about the purpose and not the process. And that’s the part of Monster-in-Law that I appreciated. Amid the candy floss storyline that was always going to come good there lay a overriding decision that she was going to marry this guy. The details of the wedding, the disaster of the engagement party and rehearsal dinner faded before what was in her sights.

Maybe, just maybe, the first step is to decide to engage. There’s a lot of talk about waiting, and I’ve had my fair share. But I’ve also used waiting as an excuse for disengaging. A bit like that conversation after church on Sunday. I was there, but I wasn’t.

Where we end up may be less important than taking that step and deciding to make relationships, of whatever form, a priority. What do you think? Is it too much to just decide one day that it’s time to find a girlfriend/boyfriend, or even husband or wife?

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Singleness is not a prelude

Today’s guest post comes from Jennie Pollock and continues along the theme of singleness. I hope you enjoy…

© David Hawgood

When I left Uni with a good degree but no job, I followed the promptings of that ‘still, small voice’ and became a teacher on a missionary ship sailing around the Caribbean and Central and North America.

It was a two year commitment, and I had a great time, made some lifelong friends, saw some amazing sights and generally had a great sort of double gap year.

Towards the end of my commitment I was recruited to join a music ministry in the same missions agency (OM). I worked with them first in London then in Atlanta, GA, being effectively a tour manager for a Christian band. We travelled extensively in the US and Europe, and also did tours in Canada, South Africa, Australia and Turkey.

I loved it. I was totally in my element: loving my work, loving my boss, loving the team, loving the travel, loving the new friends I made around the world. It was so much fun, and all for a great purpose, which made it even more worthwhile.

I did it for eight years.

And somewhere in the middle of it all I suddenly realised something: I was still treating it like a gap year. I was thinking of it as the thing I was doing before my life really started.

The life where I was married, living in England, paying the mortgage on a nice little house in a suburb somewhere, taking care of our 2.4 kids. My real life. The life I had always expected and wanted.

I realised that because I thought this wasn’t really it, I was letting it pass me by and not really making the most of it or engaging properly with it. Everywhere I went, everything I did, I did like a tourist. I absorbed the experience without letting it touch my life – and without my life touching it.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think our cultural attitude to singleness – particularly within the church – is similar to my attitude to my life in OM: it’s fun, but it’s not the real thing. It’s the phase you have to get through while waiting for your real life to start.

Sorry, but I have news for you: this is your real life. You need to start living it.

When I pitched a post on singleness to Danny, I was going to call it ‘Waiting Well’. I was going to talk about how while you are single you should not be consumed by the desire for a relationship, because that can easily slip into idolatry, seeking a mate with all your heart instead of seeking God. I was going to advise you to focus on becoming the person God is calling you to be, not only because it is the most satisfying path and a generally good thing to do, but also because when you do meet that special someone, you’ll have something genuine to bring to the relationship. This is all still true and worth mentioning.

I was also going to say that the best thing you can do is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. This is always worth repeating.

As I thought about it though, I felt my emphasis was wrong. Calling the post ‘Waiting Well’ implies a preparation phase before the real thing, and that’s how many sermons on the subject tend to approach it, but that is not a helpful mindset. Marriage is not the thing that will ultimately fulfil you. It is wonderful, and I look forward to mine, in faith that God will keep a promise made long ago, but your wedding day is neither the end of your story (as Hollywood tells us) or the beginning of it.

It is a transition, sure; a major scene-change, the start of a new act with new characters and new scenarios, but the months or years of singleness before it aren’t prelude. They are not the bit where the orchestra warms up, playing notes and scales you don’t really have to listen to before the real thing starts. They are the real thing.

If your perception is this is just a phase you have to get through, marking time before the real thing starts, you won’t engage with it properly, and are liable to wake up one day, as I did in Atlanta, and realise life has drifted by.

If you are single you are living in God’s best for you right now. You’re not missing his will for your life. You’re not in the second-best role. You aren’t waiting for his plan to start; this is it, it’s started.

Embrace it. Enjoy it. Stop waiting and start living. What are you going to do with the time God has given you?

Jennie Pollock is Editor for New Frontiers UK Media and Communications and is a little closer to 40 than 22. You can find more of her writing at http://jenniebeanbag.wordpress.com and while you’re at it, follow her on twitter.

A guide to Christian dating

© April Killingsworth

Christians need a helping hand to get on the relationships ladder, and I’m here to provide it.

I look around my church and see many eligible men and beautiful women who are not in relationships. I’m tempted to suggest arranged marriages – either by the wisdom of the elders or drawing of lots – but I suspect that my guide will prove far more productive. This is written for men (although I’m sure everyone can learn from its wisdom) but any offers to provide a companion piece for the ladies would be gratefully received.

Step 1. Find someone you like

There are plenty of girls around but making your mind up can be difficult, so here’s a little crib sheet that you can score potential marks out of ten.

  • Attractiveness – do you like the way their earlobes hang?
  • Personality – how many times an hour do they make you laugh? (laugh-o-meters are available from accredited retailers.)
  • Intellect – can they recite the books of the Bible backwards?
  • Spirituality – check out their prayers for buzzwords: propitiation, justification and atonement in the same sentence counts double.
  • Holiness – how important is God in their lives: do they carry their study bible everywhere they go? (You Version on the iPhone is indicative of a consumerist, easy, faith)
  • Testimony – will your life stories mesh together to provide a beautiful symphony of the Lord’s work?

I will leave to you what counts as a datable score in each category.

Step 2. The after church mingle and other appropriate social contexts

Once you have a particular girl in your sights the next task is to find ways of maximising social contact without disclosing your interest. The most obvious device to use at this juncture is the ‘after church mingle’, I would suggest you use this open social environment to test the waters of your potential date. If you are fortunate to attend a church with many mid-week activities you can maximise your engagement with the opposite sex, and if you diarise with skill you could scout out multiple marks at once.

A particular challenge in this regard is breaking down the inevitable cliques that develop in church. If the girl of your dreams always sits at another table when you go to the pub after church you’ll have to take additional measures. I would suggest segueing into a conversation by inquiring of them whether they enjoyed the prayer meeting last night, or other suitable occasion that provides a spiritual cover for gentle flirting. If there is an opportunity to discover where else you might happen to be in the same place together all the better.

Step 3. The pre-date

Anyone new to the world of Christian dating might be surprised by the tortured agonising that goes on before a guy asks a girl out. In the language of contemporary Christianity this is described as discernment. You have to make sure that the girl likes you before you let her know that you like her.

A decade or so ago dating was rather out of fashion, and the old fashioned notion of courtship came back into vogue. This tendency has now faded and replaced with an exhortation to guys to be direct and ask girls on dates. However, there remains a scepticism about asking girls out on a date with only a cursory post church mingle to ascertain your spiritual compatibility. This is why the pre-date is vital.

The pre-date can takes a variety of forms, the most common is the, ‘let’s meet for coffee before church’, but its more sophisticated proponents would also demonstrate the carefully orchestrated ‘walk to the station together after church’. Such circumstances are vital to ensure that you can savour a few moments of the person’s undivided company. Because of the prevalence of the pre-date and the myriad uses to which it has been put, for example providing friendship and company as well as testing out potential dates you may wish to provide an alibi for your coffee: planning an event or discussing important pastoral issues are common devices.

Interlude

At this stage in the process it is usual to participate in that vital aspect of informal church communications: the accountability partner. Through this sharing of dilemmas you can gently inform other people of your interest and if the networks work to their optimum capacity you can ward other potential suitors off before you mark is aware of your intent.

Step 4. The date

If all of the preliminary stages have been completed with due care and attention the ideal situation is that without having to disclose your interest you reach a point where your mark has provided a cast iron guarantee of their mutual desire for a relationship.

Unfortunately not all situations work out quite this well, which incidentally is the stimulus for an audit of relationships in church with the intended output of sharing good practice. This project goes by the name: Good Operations Statement of Sexually Interested Parties.

It is therefore often necessary to take the step of asking a girl out on a date. I am aware that this is an unorthodox and confusing practice so would like to off so high level guidance on how to do this. I would suggest: “Hi Gertrude, would you like to go out for dinner on Friday?” (If the girl you are interested in is not called Gertrude it might be apposite to use their name instead.)

During the date there are various things to bear in mind. It is vital to allow the direction of the Holy Spirit to function to its full degree so we would suggest not planning too precisely what you do, you do not want to be guilty of quenching the Holy Spirit. Once you have begun dating, everyone in the church will begin checking their diary is free on Saturdays nine months hence, so you don’t want to waste time dilly-dallying. Get to the core issues straight away, I would allow only a couple of preliminary questions before inquiring of the status of their walk with God. Good phases to throw into the conversation at this point include: “God’s calling on your life” or “His Will for your life”. From my vast experience I find that a simple “Tell me about your faith” works well. While prophesying on a first date may seem a little too much, if the Lord is directing you to share your vision of marital bliss I do not wish to stand in your way.

Step 5. The relationship

After a couple of walks around the park praying together and conversing with the Holy Spirit you may wish to start consider this relationship a Relationship. While you may have previously been going out with this delightful lady, only now are you ‘Going Out’. Please remember the important difference, and although you may still go on dates you are no longer ‘Dating’.

It is necessary to carefully articulate the terms and conditions of your relationship as it has been reported that some ladies are unaware they are in a relationship at this phase. One way of indicating this progression maybe through subtle physical gestures, such as holding hands, or even a peck on the cheek if you are feeling brave. As a last resort you could of course talk about the status of your relationship.

It is not essential to start scouting wedding venues as soon as you progress into this stage but depending on your timing, budget and aspirations it’s never too soon to start. As you are a Christian you clearly do not suffer with issues of lust and temptation, so it is not to dispel these urges that you might consider swift nuptials. Instead it is to honour and uphold the biblical command to go forth and multiply. Some things are a burden you must carry for the kingdom.

Step 6. Marital bliss

Once you are married all of your problems are solved.

Leonard Cohen and biblical sex

“He saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you, she tied you to the kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the hallelujah.”

A moment of madness, a rash act, a crazed maze of unintended consequences. One minute David was gazing longingly at a woman bathing, the next he was sending her husband to the front of the battle to cover over the shame of having conceived his wife’s child.

Avoiding the fact that Leonard Cohen neatly conflates David and Samson’s stories into one testimony of the triumph of sexual temptation, the picture he paints is one never far from our own experience. We may not have avoided the challenges of battle to recline and seduce our neighbour. We may not have lost our incredible strength by succumbing to the charms of Delilah. But I’m sure there are times when we’ve let sexual temptation steal something from us.

When we’ve let our lust take from us the hallelujah that is due to God. When we have ducked the challenges of life for the easy satisfaction that is purportedly presented to us on a plate. The chance to have what we want, when we want it, and walk away unchanged but with our needs satisfied.

Free love, that’s the tale we are told and the dream that we are sold. And was the topic for week 2 of Christchurch’s Love is a Verb series.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there is no such thing as free sex. Everything comes with a price. Sex is an act of commitment between two bodies. Not that I’d know, but one hears that it is an act of immense fulfilment, which creates an obligation beyond just the physical experience of the moment. Which is why sex is best within a relationship that can bear the weight of commitment in emotional, psychological, spiritual, material as well as in the physical sexual sense.

Otherwise, the free love that we are experiencing leaves us in debt. It carries the weight of more than it can hold, it either tries to hold all of those levels of commitment on a pin head or we remove the attachment it creates and empty sex of its meaning.

The problem for David wasn’t that he failed in his worship of God, but that his life did not match up to that worship. I know that feeling too well. The ecstasy of worship followed by the cascade of the fall. The love for God and the desires of self. One doesn’t do away with the other. I can love God with all my heart, I can be passionate in my worship for him and still walk in the opposite direction. I know that path all too well.

I know the grace that comes when I confess all that I have done and all that I have thought. I know the darkness of my soul that is washed clean, and rendered ruined once again.

But love and worship of God isn’t a part time hobby. It’s not something we can pop into and out of. It’s not something we can leave to the side and pick up after we are done with what we wanted to do. It’s more than a full time job. It is complete absorption in the purposes and rigour of a life defined not by yourself. It is giving every ounce that you have and know that you have given it all, and then realising that is the time God’s grace is most present. In the moment of weakness, not before we try, but once we have failed.

Two final thoughts that may make there way into further posts so I’d love to hear your thoughts. Firstly, David tried to cover over his shame, and that made things worse. It is the haunting effect of guilt that drags us into deeper secrecy and shame in a forlorn effort to cover over our sin. The fear of shame allows it to become more ingrained and more pronounced. How do we break the ties of shame that clamp us to the floor?

Secondly, and this one I almost expected. The line that sex is a great gift from God, complete with the requisite analogy demonstrating its power but also the need for it to be used in the correct way. Maybe that needs to be said, but it comes supremely close to a taunt, that it is the greatest gift you will never receive. Unless you get married. There’ll be more on singleness in a couple of weeks, both in the series and on this blog. But how do you handle this tension, the need to affirm sex as good without making the wait all the more difficult for those not in a place to experience it?

Let’s talk about sex

Romance Academy are running a series of road shows over the next couple of months called ‘Let’s talk about sex’ which are aimed at equipping adults to talk about sex with teens.

I wonder if we need a parallel series to help adults talk to each other about sex. Because it’s not really something we do particularly well. Maybe it is just because I am single and therefore not privy to the conversations of married couples who talk among themselves about the permitted relationships that I am not to know of. Maybe it is out of fear that we will corrupt one another with talk of illicit liaisons. I don’t know, I just know it’s considered off limits for polite conversation.

Even a very brief conversation in the office which flirted with the topic seemed awkward and hedged, and out of place. The hesitancy of asking someone who is married to write a guest post marked the inbuilt challenges of the topic.

It is not that I want to know the intimate details of people’s personal lives, or that I think it is essential to be fully informed about how each and every aspect of married life works out behind closed doors. But maybe it would be helpful if we knew a bit more, and if we were willing to talk about it with a bit of openness that might help those of us this side of the Rubicon know what lies ahead.

There’s two aspects to this, one for those who are soon to get married, and the other for those for whom it seems a distant concept not really related to our everyday lives. In terms of marriage prep I’m assured that for some it is talked about and discussed well, but for others leaves gaping holes that become problematic after the glitz and glamour of the wedding day has faded away. This is not something I’m going to delve into but if you’ve got either a good or bad experience of marriage prep and are willing to write about it please get in touch, I’d be happy to feature something along these lines.

One day I hope to get married. I don’t know when that day will be, and it is possible it will never come. And it will change my life. Admittedly probably not as dramatically as having kids, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. So many parts of my life which I like the way they are will have to change: I will no longer have sole charge of my destiny (and my delusions that I do now will be even more abruptly shattered). I can visualise what it might be like to live in permanent commitment to another person, I can toy in my mind with the concept of a brutal crushing of the ego as the focus of my attention turns from me to another.

But then there is something else. Something that I have been told not to do. Something that I have reacted so strongly against in adherence to the creed that it is sinful and wrong. That thing which for so many years has been wrong suddenly becomes right.

And that is the problem. I’m not arguing for leniency or encouraging sex before marriage, in fact I think a more brutal openness about sex could lead to less sex outside marriage. At the moment it is so hushed up and secured in a lead-lined box of secrecy that it ferments activity in private that betrays the values we hold to in public. We’re told not to think about sex because it will lead to lust, and therefore are aided and abetted in covering over the temptations we face. We do not talk about it, we remain British, we are stoic and polite and proper and pretend that sex is something that only ever happens between married couples.

I’ve heard stories about couples who struggle to have sex after they get married, who are paralysed by fear that they are doing something wrong. The doctrine of sex as sin has been etched so deeply that the sanctity of marriage does not erase it.

How should we go about talking about sex in a more open and honest manner? How do we educate and inform each other about the joys and the frustrations, the license and the limits? How do we understand the love that sex is part of, and the lust that remains despite it?

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.

Drowning in the Shallow [review]

Lying out in the sun this morning I downloaded Andy Flannagan’s new album, released today and debuting on the iTunes singer/songwriter charts at #6.

I listened a couple of times through and decided it was worthy of a few comments. Not really a review, more like an extended urge from me to you to buy it, listen to it, hear the words and take the meaning.

Andy is an Irishman, and his Ulster lilt is in full display in some of the songs, never more so that in the second track ‘The Reason’. Combined with strings playing melodiously in the background, this thumps home the message with resounding strength.

For a long while ‘Fragile’ was the only song by Andy I owned, and this very special song finds a particular home among the tracks on this album. As with many of the songs, the story behind the words make them more powerful when you know them and curious and curiouser when you don’t.

A couple of other tracks to call particular mention to, ‘Ego’ could lull you into a false sense of security with its merry notes, before shattering your pretences with the powerful words “I took so long to realise, that love equals sacrifice”.

‘Addiction’ catches you with the clever rhythm that draws you in, and Andy does things with his voice that really only belong in a boy’s choir. It tells a story that’s both personal and social. It’s a tale that he speaks of as his own but with such resonance for me, and I’m sure many more. The wish to turn our viewing habits into a story of our life, with pause, fast forward and rewind available at will.

The album fits together as a piece of music but each song stands on its own. At times while listening I wished for just a little bit more musical expansion, some of the songs seemed to build towards a crescendo, and then almost flinch away at the last minute. That’s the case with ‘I will not be leaving’ and with the final song on the album ‘Fall’. But that’s as far as my criticism would go.

For some reason iTunes refused to download ‘Fall’ on the first attempt, which meant that when I managed to get it I listened with even greater intent. Having heard Andy play in a variety of different settings I’m sure I’ve heard this one before. I’d struggle to put the album into any particular genre, it’s folksy in parts but it’s not folk music. Likewise while the songs are full of worship, they are not really worship songs. ‘Fall’ is perhaps the exception to that. In the notes on the sleeve Andy writes this next to the lyrics to this track: “I used to rush around a lot trying to change the world. I still do. But without the rushing. And now I realise I’m part of the world that needs changing.”

Indeed. Those are words I need to hear.

All in all it’s a beautiful album, and even more so it’s a reflection of Andy’s heart. I’d suggest you go and spend 799 pennies right now and buy it.

A biblical framework for understanding politics – part 2

In yesterday’s post I began to set out a framework for understanding and engaging with politics. I started out with a high level approach and showed that political authority has three key characteristics. It is created as good, it is fallen, and it has the potential for redemption.

Next, let’s have a look at government in particular, and I want to suggest that the key way of understanding it is to view it as both legitimate and it is limited. First let’s take a look at why it is legitimate.

The nature of government

government is legitimate

We’ve already considered that political authority is a concept put in place by God, but government is the outworking of that political authority.

The writers of the Old Testament point to a God that was the creator of the heavens and the earth and as such held authority over all things. Psalm 82 tells us that He is supreme over all nations and their gods.

A number of times in the Old Testament God humbles the created gods that are put up to oppose him. This happens with the prophet Baal when the Ark of the Covenant is placed in the same tent and again for King Nebuchadnezzar, where in Daniel 4.34 he was forced to admit that God’s dominion rules forever.

The psalmist recognised that the coming Messiah, the offspring of King David would exercise God’s universal rule over all nations through one person. (Ps 2.4-6)

If we move into the New Testament we see the same picture reflected. The apostles saw Jesus as having complete authority and his rule placed him as a threat to the worldly rule of Caesar. (Acts 17.7)

In 1 Peter 2.13-17 and in Romans 13.1-7 government is shown as legitimate and established by God, and as a result we should submit to it.

What’s interesting is that in both 1 Peter and in Romans the preceding sections could cast doubt on our submission to political authorities but the writers let this tension linger. Despite the challenges and potential problems, government is shown as legitimate.

The role of government is cast in broad terms: it is for commending the right and punishing the wrong.

Julian Rivers addresses this: “Anyone who fulfils the task of government has a divine mandate for that task. At some point presumably a claim of authority loses its legitimacy but that point is not identified.

Throughout scripture, in both the Old and the New Testament we see that human government is legitimate.

government is subject to the law and held to account

Governments are legitimate because they are accountable to God.

In the fourth century when Emperor Constantine was declared God’s representative on earth Gregory of Nazianzus insisted that precisely because Christians understand God to be Trinity, no human ruler can ever reflect God adequately.

And it has been a central claim of political theology down the ages that Kings remain answerable to God for their actions.

This conviction runs counter to the regular proclamation that ‘God is on our side’, whatever side that might be.

A core biblical theme is that each individual is accountable to God for the actions they take while on earth, and that has to include our political activity. (Matt 25.31-46)

As well as being accountable to God an important practical outworking of legitimate government is a human structure of accountability which gives space for critique from those who have some distance from the immediate decision making. But we’ll come onto that in a little while.

government is limited

The mandate for government is to commend the right and to punish the wrong. Both simple sounding and asking an awful lot.

We have perhaps got rather used to a picture of limited government, and in particular in non-conformist church circles, to not view the role of government as promoting true religion.

But in scripture we see a holistic picture that calls people away from a life that is focused on the self and towards reconciliation with the one true God.

We also are given a picture of new creation where there will be no more death or mourning, where everything will be made new.

So it’s not immediately obvious that the role of Christians, whether in politics, the judiciary, the public sector, or anywhere else, is not to give themselves fully to the work of building God’s kingdom and trying to achieve this through the institutions of government. It is not immediately clear what limits there are to the potential for government in meeting this goal.

However, government is necessarily limited because of the methods that are at its disposal. The final recourse of a human authority is the taking of life, and this sits awkwardly with a King who rejected the way of the sword.

It is also limited because you cannot coerce people into doing something. At the end of the day, you can take away liberty, you can confiscate property, but if you only ever end up taking life to enforce your rule you lack the legitimacy that comes with consent to be governed.

This does not mean that government is rendered useless, but it does provide a cautionary tale in case we start to think that government can do all that we might want it to do.

There’s a further limitation, and that comes from an understanding of the law, the law given to Israel.

We see particularly clearly in Paul’s writings that there are limits to the law. It can show people how far short they fall from God’s perfect plan, but the law clearly failed to make Israel righteous and we too should be careful that we don’t invest too much faith in a system that is after all a human construct.

And as we mentioned earlier, government is subject to the same affect of our fallen nature that our own inability to be righteous on our own so clearly demonstrates.

government should be diffuse

A further limitation on government is that power should be diffuse, and by this I mean that it should be spread out rather than concentrated in one place or person.

This works itself out in two ways. Firstly political rule is not the only form of authority that we live with. There are other institutions that the Bible clearly values and it is essential that we understand the roles that the family and the church play, as well as our own freedom to self-govern, when we consider what we want the state to do.

The church exercises authority, and the authority that it exercises comes from God and not from political authorities.

This cracks open the idea that political government is the only source of authority. The family is a further structure that is given a crucial role in ensuring order and peace. In the marriage union we find another foundational social unit.

The second way that this works out is that political authority is not just not the only form of authority, but within that authority the operation of power should be diffuse.

While there is no mandate for a particular form of government under the new covenant we are told that we should live as salt and light among all people.

We can learn from the practice of Israel. God put structures in place through tribes and priests, he gave them judges, he provided them with a king when they wanted to be like other countries. He sent prophets to call the kings back to account.

The Kings which Israel so desperately desired were joined by prophets who held them to account. Power was not given to a single person, and no particular model worked better than the former.

Even the very best of people, on their way to full and final redemption through Christ are still broken and inclined to act in a way that serves themselves and not the good of all.

So political authority is created good, it is fallen and it has the potential for redemption.

We should also acknowledge that while there is clearly a legitimate role for government this role should be limited, and it should be diffuse rather than concentrated in one particular place or person.

Read on: Part 3 – Government in the New Testament

Light, darkness and the ballot box

Today is polling day. I voted at a few minutes after 7 and I wasn’t the first: a couple of people trudged through the room in the local Methodist church ahead of me. Outside in the rain stood a Lib Dem teller with her clipboard, she didn’t ask for my poll card number as I lifted my hood as a shield to the elements. I hadn’t been canvassed by the Lib Dems so I’m not sure what good my information would have done on the telling tallies.

I voted because I think voting matters. I voted because I care about who runs my city as I care who runs the country. I voted because as a Christian I believe that we should take responsibility for the world around us and that means making difficult choices about what needs to be done. Last night I wrote in haste about the place of Christian political parties. If you read that it will not surprise you that as my pencil lingered for a moment above the paper awaiting my crosses it was not drawn towards the Christian People’s Alliance.

But my vote was not an automatic one. For I had not been impressed with any of the campaigns in London. Added to this, the dynamic of a supplementary vote system was new to me, voting for one of the top two candidates with your first vote renders your second pointless, so I was tempted to give my first choice to a candidates that wouldn’t normally attract my support. Peter Ould has written this morning that social conservatives should withhold their vote from the Conservative Party to send a message that they won’t be taken for granted.

What I picked up from his post was that we’re too easily taken for a ride. We hear the politicians fawning over every target group, offering special targeted messages and focus group tested policies. We hear the Bible verses quoted and the laudable things said about how integral Christians are to society. And then we are surprised when the politicians turn the other way once in office.

If our political engagement is only about extracting a promise from candidates and political parties at election time then we are asking to be used and abused. It is almost as though we want politicians to promise us the earth. If politicians only make promises as a factor in electoral calculations they will be willing to ditch them if the algebra changes.

So the answer is to vote for the party that mostly closely reflects your values, and then see how you can get involved to influence those values and the policies that arise from them. My fear for politics is that too often the value that overrules the others is the desire to get elected and whim and whimsy too often come to the fore. But like all areas of life where problems exist, they will not be solved by staying on the sidelines and becoming experts at what’s wrong.

I think for some people who usually vote Conservative, now might be a good time to send a signal that you won’t be taken for granted. But don’t just do that through the ballot box, don’t abstain because that is abdicating responsibility, and don’t vote for a party you like even less because that’s just spiteful.

If politics is a place too shrouded in darkness then we have to be the ones who will bring the light.

Why I don’t think Christian political parties are the best option

This week the God and Politics blog ran an interview with Malcolm Martin, the lead candidate for the London Assembly elections for the Christian People’s Alliance. At the time I was inclined to respond but decided against it as I didn’t want to get drawn into a political debate, and I didn’t want to be seen as casting judgement on another Christian engaging in politics – something I am passionate to see more of. Then this evening came a bit of a discussion (not really a spat as I originally wrote) on twitter about the relative validity of the Christian People’s Alliance and whether Christians should vote for them.

So being unable to express in 140 characters some nuanced thoughts, here comes a quick fire summary of why I don’t think that Christian parties are the best way for Christians to engage in politics.

Firstly, a caveat, I think people should vote for who they support and would like to see in government. That means that for some people the candidates running under a Christian ticket may well be the best candidate for them. Gillan Scott, who’s set up and quickly established the God and Politics blog as a go to destination, has taken a bit of flack for running the interview, which is perhaps a little unfair, I think like everyone the Christian People’s Alliance have a voice that deserves to be heard. Occasionally I speak to churches about political engagement, almost invariably I will be asked a question about whether Christians should vote for Christian political parties, this is more or less what I say.

Summary

I do not believe that there should be any suggestion that for Christians the best party to support is the party with Christian in the name.

And this is why:

  1. Pragmatic.

The two Christian parties that operate in the UK, the Christians People’s Alliance and the Christian Party are both very small in terms of the votes they garner and the seats in which they stand. This means that it is highly unlikely that they will be in a position to win seats, and even were they to, to influence political decisions.

  1. Political

This should not, in and of itself, be a reason not to vote for a party, often key voices come from the margin, and people not in the centre of decision making are able to take a view counter to the political mainstream. However, politics is about programmes and about delivering on these programmes. Therefore there needs to be an ability to do more than protests about problems with the current system. Fringe political parties, and by their electoral results the CPA and CP can both fairly be defined as such, are little more than pressure groups, and when I cast a vote I am voting for someone to govern not for someone to issue press releases.

  1. Philosophical

There are two Christian political parties. This should be enough to demonstrate that Christians don’t agree on political issues, the CPA are more centrist and the CP are more right wing. All of the political parties contain things in their platform that I disagree with. If I wanted a party where I agreed with everything it would have a membership of one: me. If we are to engage in the political process then we have to accept that disagreeing with things that a political party says is not a barrier to engagement. And if we want to see political parties stand for things that are closer to what we believe, then it is more vital than ever that we engage in them and advocate for those policies we wish to see.

  1. Theological

I wanted to find another ‘p’ to say this but my brain was struggling. This is the reason why in the end I don’t think that Christian political parties are the best choice for Christians, that’s over and above the other reasons outlined above, which in the right circumstances could all be ameliorated.

The idea and operation of Christian parties promotes an approach that verges on theocracy. It suggests that as Christians we will rule the country in a Christian way, and in a way that only Christians can. I am aware that those involved in the parties mentioned would dispute this.

But we live in a country where many people are not Christian, and to govern through parties that are identified as Christian with an explicitly Christian programme would suggest that we are seeking to introduce a political programme that is actually the enforcement of religious belief.

I don’t think that Christians have all the answers. I think that in the end, God’s Kingdom will come, and in the meantime God works through us to bring that Kingdom into our world a little bit at a time. But there are good ideas and aspects of that greater good that comes from sources outside the church. It is important that we recognise this. Politics is about making things work, for Christians it is about accepting that while overall authority lies with God he gives us a mandate to act on that authority.

The gospel is also about freedom, it is the thing that brings true freedom and it sustains freedom. The gospel is about the choice to follow God, and any attempt to legislate for religious belief, or even to try and enforce morality through the legal system will not only engender hostility towards Christianity, it is simply not the way that the gospel works.

Conclusion

In summary, Christians, like all people should vote how they wish, and in the Mayoral elections that may mean voting for the Christian People’s Alliance, but as someone passionately committed to seeing more Christians engaging in politics, and making a difference in the political sphere, it is not the route that I would advocate. I would suggest joining one of the mainstream parties, which ever one comes closest to you views. I would suggest getting involved, putting in the hard work, and seeing how, we can not only speak what we believe, but live it and see others changed by how we live and what we support. For more information I’d recommend the Christians in Politics website.