On the Unity of the Church – What is this thing called Christianity?

[Edit (03/10/14): Apologies for how long this post is. If you’re in a hurry you may find it effective to just read the bits in bold to get the main points, and prioritise reading the final section.]

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“Christianity” can mean so very many things.

When you meet enough people – especially people who have met a lot of other people – and when you see enough of the world, you must concede this fact, that two different “Christians,” when randomly plucked from different places on the globe, will not necessarily adhere to beliefs or practices that at all resemble each other. To study history only multiplies this phenomenon: not only is Christianity different from one place to another, but also from one time to another, within the same place! Over the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, those who claim to follow him have said and done radically different and irreconcilable things. In the name of Jesus, some people have fed the hungry and clothed the poor, while other people have fought wars and taken land by force; some people have abolished slavery, while others have enslaved generations; some people have set up schools as centres of free education, while others have sought to suppress and persecute free thought. Some Christians have called Jesus the very Son of God, while others have called him only a good teacher; some have said that salvation is a free gift received by faith, while others have said we are to earn our way into Heaven by our good deeds. Some Christians believe fully in the authority of scripture, while others say it’s only a flawed human guideline. Of those who do believe the Bible, they can’t agree on how long it took God to create the Earth, or whether God exists as a Trinity, or whether or not women ought to preach. All the while some of these people are singing hymns while others sing rock music – and have even waged war on each other over differences comparable to this.

I hope you get the point. There is a serious question on the minds of so many people on the outside, looking in: What is this thing called “Christianity”? And why can’t its proponents get along? How can you say that there is one Christian religion worth talking about, when there as many interpretations of it as there are “Christians”? Of course, Christians like myself will say that people who fight wars in the name of Christianity have entirely abandoned the very essence of what Jesus came to earth to achieve – a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36). “They are not true Christians,” I will say. But of course that’s exactly it, they shall reply: who gets to decide who are the true Christians and who are the fake ones? Your peaceful Christianity is just your interpretation, while those who want to advance Christendom by the sword will tell you that your interpretation is wrong; you are the fake Christian. Who, then, can be the arbiter? Who can really say what ‘true’ Christianity is?

To complicate matters further, while there are a whole bunch of people who claim to be Christian that I will say are in fact not Christians, there is a whole group of other people whom I affirm when they profess to be Christian, even though I disagree with them on smaller but still major theological issues, such as the nature of God’s sovereignty and its relationship to human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or creation and the age of the Earth. Yes it seems as though Evangelical Christians (by which I mean roughly “Protestant Christians who believe that Bible is the sole authoritative word of God and that people must be saved from deserved punishment for sin through a personal faith in the atoning work of Jesus’ death and resurrection”), have decided upon a certain set of criteria for what it is to be a real Christian. We have at some point drawn a theological circle, inside which you count as a Christian and outside which you don’t. And of course, “to be a Christian” is here synonymous with “to be saved”, and thus such theological line drawing comes with a certain level of moral connotation, and can cause all sorts of offence. And yet such line drawing must be done, for not just any old person who believes any old thing can be called a “Christian” just because we want to be nice – no more than just anybody can be called a “hipster” (not that they necessarily want to be). The question then is, on what basis do we mark the cut-off between Christian and not? Just how much can a person disagree with me before I say they have departed from the true faith? Ultimately, on what basis can I say that there is one religion called Christianity? Continue reading

On prosperity theology

Even in the case that prosperity theology is true, then I still do not see how the believer is left with a reason to “chase God’s blessing.”

If the truth is that obedience to God will attract material blessing towards you, then this could only be a reason precisely not to chase wealth. For “it will chase you.”

The believer’s only task, then, would be to simply obey God by being generous towards others with their wealth.

It seems to me that any person who is storing up for themselves treasures on earth is not living a life that is consistent with prosperity theology.

A Quick Thought on Abortion

There are many arguments given for the permissibility of abortion. Most of them seem to be concerned with the rights of the mother to have control over what happens to her body. I personally find these arguments to be callously cold and inhumane in their thinking towards unborn children. However there are also some arguments that appeal to the rights of the unborn child – the right not to live a life that would not be worth living.

This kind argument came out pretty loud this week with Richard Dawkins’ tweets saying that it would be “immoral” to bring a child into the world if you knew it had Down’s syndrome. I take it that he is not worried about the child being more of a cost than a benefit to society – I think he is worried about the suffering the child is expected to go through if it is allowed to be born and grow up. Of course, this argument isn’t limited to concerns about children with Down’s syndrome but extends to other diseases, as well as socio-economic conditions that would mean the parent is unable to provide what we might consider an adequate life for the child.

I just think this is the most absurd argument; it surely cannot stand up to scrutiny. Here’s what I don’t understand. We’re saying that it would be cruel to bring into the world a child whose life would be so full of suffering that it wouldn’t be worth living, right? Have we ever thought of asking the children what they want? Well of course, the children we’re talking about can’t speak; they’re fetuses. But we can speak to the millions of people who have been born with diseases, or born into poverty, and have grown up into adults. Here’s what’s so remarkable: there are millions of these people whose lives pro-abortionists say would are not worth living, and yet for some reason, the overwhelming majority of them choose to continue to live. Don’t you think that’s noteworthy? I mean, if their lives really were so much more painful than they were pleasurable that they would have been better off not to have been born, wouldn’t they just go ahead and kill themselves? But they generally don’t kill themselves, do they? In fact many of them, particularly those born into poverty, go to extreme lengths just to survive. The fact that so many people born in life’s unfair circumstances wind up living lives of crime is so often given as a reason why they shouldn’t have been born. But really I see it as a testimony to just how desperately these people wish to continue living. They will do almost anything, it seems, to stay alive.

Of course, you will probably say that this is just the result of natural instinct: it is incredibly unnatural for a person to end their own life – they generally have to be experiencing an incredible amount of suffering for them to consider it better that they should die. And I would say… Ah, yes; precisely. Maybe that should make you reconsider how lightly you are willing to end someone’s life. Let’s not forget – it’s very, very easy to kill oneself. There’s nothing physically hard about it. What makes it so rare is that people almost never want to die. It’s simple logic: If people actually didn’t consider their own lives worth living, they would kill themselves. And thus, given the enormous sample size of empirical evidence showing that people born in disadvantaged circumstances usually choose to continue living, the rational thing to do is to assume that an unborn child with Down’s syndrome will most likely prefer to live.

Doesn’t it seem tremendously paternalistic to decide, before someone has the capacity to choose for themselves, whether someone’s life is worth living? If what you’re really concerned about is the quality of life for the unborn, why not let the child be born, and then if they decide that their life isn’t worth living, let them kill themselves? How presumptuous, how autocratic, that we would think we know better than someone whether their own life has enough joy that it would be worth continuing, given that whenever we actually give a fetus in a disadvantaged position the chance to live, they almost always take it, holding on to it like nothing else! It is unthinkable to me that our assumption would be that they wouldn’t want to live when everything we know about real life tells us the exact opposite.

Almost everybody who’s ever been born with Down’s syndrome, or with difficult economic circumstances, has chosen to keep living. How about we give them a chance to make that choice.

On women preaching.

There are Christians who believe that women should not preach to men.

Understandably there are many Christian women who are upset about this.

But we must remember, that to preach is an act of service. It is not done for the good of the preacher, but for the good of the listener. The only right some women are being deprived of is the right to serve others.

This is true about all gifts within the body of Christ: they are not toys that the Christian has a right to play with, but tools that the Christian has a responsibility to serve the body with. I play keys at my church. If somebody in leadership decided that I couldn’t play in church because I was left handed, how should I respond? Would I assert my equal right to play? Why would I do that? Was I trying to gain something by playing? I hope not.

I hope that I would be upset not because I have lost something, but because my church has lost something. I hope that my love for the church would be so great, so central to my vision, that it would alone be my inability to help them that hurts me.

Preaching is no exception to this law. It seems to me that, if women are angry about the lack of opportunity for those of their gender to preach, it ought not be because they feel that Christian women are being deprived of something, but because men are being deprived of something.

And here lies precisely the reason why it makes no sense for women to be alone in speaking about this issue. If God doesn’t forbid women to preach to his Church, then the absence of this in the Church is an issue for everybody – especially men, since they are the only ones who are unable to hear sermons from the mouths of women. If God desires women to preach to mixed congregations, then it is because he has made man such that he needs it, such that there is something about the way women think, speak, and exhort that men need to hear.

If God desires women to preach to men, then men should be more upset about their suppression than women.

To Know the Word

I’ve resolved that I now want to begin a journey of better knowing the Word of God.

There is such a difference between knowing about the Bible, and knowing the Bible.

It is just like any other piece of literature, really. I could tell you a lot about Immanuel Kant’s major work Critique of Pure Reason. I could tell you when Kant wrote it, why he wrote it, and what philosophical questions it addresses. I could tell you about who his influences were in writing it, as well as about the ways in which the book influenced generations of philosophers to come. I could even tell you many things about what views the book espouses.

But do I know the book? Am I familiar with it? Do I know Kant’s actual words? No I do not, because I have never read the Critique of Pure Reason. Not more than a few pages anyway.

In the same way, I think I know more about the Bible than I do the Bible itself. I can tell you a lot about the theology that the Bible contains. I can tell you how and when the books of the Bible were compiled together. I can tell you who wrote what book of the Bible, when they wrote it, and the historical context in which they produced it. I can summarise the message of many of the books of the Bible. I can even tell you a lot about how to read it.

But the thing is, there are many people to whom I could teach a lot of the above things, but who know the Bible itself better than I do.

I don’t want to just know about the Word of God. I want to know the Word. I want to be intimately acquainted with the words of the Scriptures such that their exhortations frequently feature in my conversations with others, that God’s promises saturate my prayers, that his commandments are the meditations that form the backdrop of my mind. I want to be so familiar with the Word of God, that I have a verse to stand on for every situation I face, and another one to encourage my brother in every trial.

Such a knowledge is not the product of intelligence. It is the product of devotion.

Don’t preach against abortion if you’re not willing to help take care of abandoned children – and single mothers.

Don’t preach against corporate greed if you’re not willing to give your possessions to the poor.

Don’t preach against homosexuality if you’re not willing to invest part of your life into befriending and encouraging gay individuals. On that note, don’t preach against homosexuality if you won’t also preach against all bullying inflicted on homosexuals.

And don’t preach about Hell if you’re not willing to put your life on the line to stop people going there.

C.S. Lewis on Death

Death is, in fact, what some modern people call ‘ambivalent’. It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.

C.S. Lewis, Miracles, Ch. 14, ‘The Grand Miracle’

On the Progressiveness of Science and Conservatism of Religion

We all know how often science and religion are pitted against each other. And it happens in so many ways. Various inherent differences are suggested between these two enterprises. They say that science appeals to reason while religion appeals to authority; science improves society while religion hinders society’s progression. We’ve all heard the fairy tales – you might not call them fairy tales, but I do. Anyway. There’s one particular difference that I commonly hear suggested as existing between science and religion, which I want to address here. And that is that science is inherently progressive, while religion is inherently stubborn or static.

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We have been taught to believe that world history turned its big corner in the late 18th Century with the birth of modern democracy and the rise of modern science.

The Christian claim is that world history turned its corner when Jesus came out of the tomb.

– N.T. Wright