13 myths Christians believe about the gifts of the Spirit

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This is a blog post that I recently realised I have been writing in the back of my head for the past 6 months or so. From dozens of conversations with people and epiphanies in the shower, all of which I thought were unrelated, I’ve realised that a lot of the thoughts I’ve been thinking lately can be more or less unified under the topic of misconceptions Christians hold about the Holy Spirit, his gifts, and his interactions with us. So here are 13 myths that I think (many) Christians believe and should start unbelieving about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

While this is partly a cathartic rant unloading all the ways everybody but me is wrong, actually, I hope much of what’s written here is a liberating and empowering encouragement to people to, as Paul says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” (1 Corinthians 14:1), with even a few practical ways that we can actually do that, all towards a vision to use these gifts to build up the church and see real change in our lives. Much of what I say here we can all agree on, while every reader, from every denomination and theological persuasion, will probably find something to disagree with.

1. Equating the gifts of the spirit with the Holy Spirit himself

I’m kicking things off with this one because it was encountering this myth in a recent conversation that got me frustrated enough to write this thing in the first place. You see, this is something that we charismatics say a lot, and I wonder if we realise what we are saying – where we use the term “the Holy Spirit,” to refer specifically for some reason to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It’ll just be a passing comment where someone will say, “It’s so sad how those traditional Christian folk don’t believe in the Holy Spirit.” Or, “Unlike them, we believe the Holy Spirit is present in the Church today,” or, “What a shame that so many Christians miss out on the Holy Spirit.” And we’ll talk about how the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900s were the long awaited return of the Holy Spirit to the Church. We’ll even put on services at church with a focus on healing and prophecy, and we’ll call them “Holy Spirit” nights.

There is a gigantic problem with this way of speaking, and it is that it equates the gifts of the Spirit with the Holy Spirit himself. Or more specifically it implies that the Holy Spirit’s sole function in the Church is to give people “spiritual gifts”. The reality is that the Holy Spirit does a lot more than give us spiritual gifts. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Holy Spirit has far more important things to do than give us spiritual gifts, such that by far the majority of the roles the Holy Spirit plays in the lives of Christians are things that every Christian believes in, whether they’re charismatic or not.

First of all, it is impossible to be a Christian without having the Holy Spirit living within you (Rom 8:9-11, 1 Cor 6:19). To say that someone doesn’t have the Holy Spirit is to say that they are not a Christian at all. So let’s be careful with what we say. Further, to put it bluntly, the Holy Spirit is the one who actually does the dirty work, on the ground, of actually saving us (Titus 3:5-7, John 3:5, Romans 8:15). The Spirit is also the one who empowers us to believe and say that Jesus is Lord – according to Paul, without the Spirit it is impossible for us to do this (1 Cor 12:3). The Spirit is also the one who sanctifies us and empowers us to die to sin and live in obedience to the Father. There’s a reason our good works are referred to as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26, Romans 8:13). I could go on listing all the other nifty things the Holy Spirit has been involved in, from creating the universe to raising Jesus from the dead, but we’d be here all day. Hopefully by now you can see that restricting the Holy Spirit’s resume to “spiritual gift giver,” really fails to give him enough credit, which is ironic when the people who talk like this claim to be the ones who like the Holy Spirit more than other kinds of Christians.

When we talk about prophecy, tongues, healing, and other spiritual gifts, we are talking about something much more specific than the entire person of the Trinity that is the Holy Spirit. We are talking about one of the many things the Holy Spirit does. And so when it comes to charismatics (who believe in the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit) vs cessationists (who believe these gifts ended with the first generation of Christians), both of these camps believe in the reality and power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church today. In fact charismatics and cessationists agree on far more about the Holy Spirit than they disagree on. Also, I know we mean well, but it’s kind of nonsensical to talk about “Holy Spirit nights” at church. Every church service in the history of church services has had the full involvement and cooperation of the Holy Spirit, without which nobody would be saved, nobody would be edified, and Christ would not have been proclaimed or worshiped. And as for the “return” of the Holy Spirit to the Church in the Pentecostal revivals… If the Holy Spirit ever actually left the Church, the Church would cease to exist. Continue reading

Further Reflections on Same-Sex Marriage

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Excessively Long Introduction:

One year ago, I wrote a blog post explaining why I intended to vote “Yes,” to the then upcoming postal survey regarding the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia. I was overwhelmed by the response. While there were certainly some Christians who responded with what I’d describe as excessive harshness (who called me a heretic and had no desire to listen, etc.), the response was far more predominantly positive from both Christians and non-Christians alike. I even received a message from a gay, formerly Christian man I’d never met who said that reading the article had caused him to reconsider Christianity, and even to pray for the first time in years.

While I was pretty amazed at how many people read the post, I kept wondering whether it was having a genuine impact on the actual voting outcome of the Christians who read it. While I’m sure it did change some people’s decisions on what to vote, the most common response I got from Christians was something like, “Thank you for writing this. I think I’m still going to vote no, but you have changed the way I think about this issue.” Most people didn’t change their vote through reading the article but it caused them to be humbler in their decision and more aware of the complexities, both theological and relational, of the issue. To me, that is a deeply encouraging victory. I knew as I set out to begin this conversation that I probably couldn’t change what people think. But hopefully I could change how they think – something far more important, I believe. If I couldn’t sway the outcome of the postal survey, at least I might be able to help Christians think differently about it, so that in their subsequent conversations with other Christians, with non-believers, and with homosexual people, their priorities would have changed.

Having said all that, I also wished I could have been more persuasive and more clear. Due to the complexity and multi-dimensionality of the issue, I found the article incredibly hard to compose. The 8,000 word document that I posted had had a lot of argumentation cut out of it. It was a painful compromise between comprehensiveness and readability. With so many reasons that different people were objecting to SSM, it was hard to know which ones to focus my energies on refuting, and I had to be selective. The problem is, beliefs work in such a way that, when you’re challenging ways of thinking that have been held by your community for generations, which have been seen as the default position the whole time, it takes a great deal of intellectual energy to move one’s beliefs up and out of the groove that continued defaulting and repetition have engraved. It’s very hard to see the alternative, not necessarily because it’s unreasonable, but because it’s unfamiliar. It is universally true that it takes more work to believe a new thing than to continue to believe an old thing. Thus great imagination and the willingness to scrutinise one’s own beliefs is required of the hearer of the new idea. And from the presenter is required not only some very clear thinking, but also usually a sheer volume of content big enough to compete with a lifetime of community influence. (If you don’t think your beliefs – and mine too – are influenced by community, you’re just not paying attention.)

I knew that there was only so long an article that people were going to read, and so there was only so much one guy can do. But at the same time, as I look back I wonder if I cut out some of my more persuasive pieces of argumentation from that article. Who really knows. I know I did my best and I trust God to use what I gave. But then this other annoying thing happened: It was in the weeks following my posting of that blog that I actually thought of what I think are the clearest and most compelling theological arguments in favour of the legalisation of SSM that I’ve come up with. But by the time I would’ve had any chance to write any of these further thoughts up into something formal, the vote had already happened. So I felt that the show was over, and there was no need to further defend a Christian “Yes,” to SSM.

But now, a year on from the postal survey, and 11 months into the institution of SSM in Australia, I think it might be valuable for the Church to continue to reflect on and challenge how we think about this new law of the land. Because, although the issue of SSM has been decided by the nation and is here to stay, the Church has an ongoing decision to make in how we live with that reality moving forward. Now, in addition to an open mind, and high exposure to well argued new ideas, one of the other things that’s usually required in changing long-entrenched beliefs is time. Minds don’t change overnight, especially regarding long-held views on very complex issues. When enough time has passed – a few years, decades, or generations, I suspect that most Australian Christians will view the legalisation of SSM in the same way as we currently view the decriminalisation of homosexual activity: a no-brainer. It’s easy for us today to see the distinction between the moral question of homosexuality and the legal question of it. But back when it was a debate, this distinction may not have been so easy for the average Christian to see. And I suspect and hope that with the issue of SSM, a similar transition will take place in due course.

But, as I was recently rereading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, I was reminded of what he said about time:

“It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively … We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

While I hope that we will transition in our attitude to SSM, I fear that this may not happen automatically. If we are passive, who knows what the next generation will believe. And not only that, but I don’t want the church to learn to accept the legality of SSM in Australia merely by acquiescence to the culture, but rather by genuine theological reflection, and a deeper, more accurate understanding of God’s revelation to us. And so in wake of this very long-winded introduction, I wish to do some of that theological reflection, to use the time creatively, to try to convince more of us that the legalisation of SSM is something we as Christians should accept with gladness.

What I want to do here is not build an entire case from the ground up. I did that in the last one. Here I simply want to add to the arguments I’ve already made by making some points I didn’t make in my original post because I either cut them out or hadn’t thought of them yet. So in this article I want to lay out two arguments in particular. Here they are:

 

1. God Legislated Immorality in the Torah

One of the most common objections made to me in response to my decision to vote yes to SSM was that in doing so I was condoning sin. That for the state to sanction SSM is inherently an affirmation or celebration of homosexuality. That in legally recognising same-sex relationships as marriage, the state is necessarily affirming and condoning those relationships. If God doesn’t affirm it, why are you voting to allow it?

Slavery

Well. The thing is, God has a track record of not only allowing, but even commanding and instituting things that he personally finds disgusting. Namely, there are certain Old Testament laws in which God permits or even commands things that he ultimately doesn’t like. One of them is slavery. Moses’ law has a complicated relationship with slavery. If you read Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, and Deuteronomy 15, to name a few, you’ll find that God most certainly permitted slavery among his covenant people of Israel. In fact, the Law regulated slavery in some detail, laying out the circumstances under which slaves could be taken, the way they were to be treated, and the circumstances and manner in which they were to be freed.

There is no question as to whether slavery was lawful according to the Torah. But let me ask you this question: Does God hate slavery? He most certainly does. At the meta level, the very story of the birth of Israel begins with God hearing the cry of an oppressed and enslaved people: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their suffering.” (Exodus 3:7) God sets free an oppressed people and takes them to be his own free nation, meanwhile he judges Egypt and Pharaoh for having enslaved them. Later on, when Israel breaks their covenant with God, his punishment for them is that they become slaves again in a foreign land. Note, this is a punishment – not something he considers a happy state of affairs. After eventually restoring Israel back from exile, he turns his eyes on those nations that enslaved the Israelites and brings judgement on them for their injustice.

Thus, it makes sense that in the laws about slavery in Exodus we get clauses like Exodus 21:16 where God categorically forbids the kidnapping of people to make into slaves. The only lawful kind of slavery in Israel was voluntary (even if reluctant). Slaves were also only to serve 6 years and then to be given the option of freedom. And Deuteronomy 15 commands that a master was not to let him go free empty-handed:

“You shall furnish him liberally from your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.” – Deut 15:14-15

This section even ends with God commenting that a slave owner shouldn’t complain about this law, since their slave has just served them for “half the cost of a hired worker” (15:18). I can’t help but read that comment with a slightly taunting overtone, as if God is underhandedly critiquing the fact that they’ve held a slave in the first place.

None of this reads as a God who is happy about the practice of slavery in Israel that he is permitting. Rather, it reads as a God who is making a compromise between what’s morally ideal, and what’s socially, economically, and culturally viable. God’s legislation about slavery wasn’t a simple case of, “Well, slavery is wrong, so slavery shall be illegal.” Nor was the reason for its legality because God thought it was right. It was a more complex, nuanced approach, which took into account many other factors. God hates slavery, and yet he allowed it in the law for his people.

Polygamy

But it doesn’t stop there. We have to discuss polygamy. Does God like Polygamy? No, of course not. So why does he not only allow it, but effectively command it in Old Testament law? Deuteronomy 25:5-10 commands a man, if his brother dies without children, to marry his brother’s widow in order to provide her with children. This necessarily amounts to polygamy in all cases where the brother-in-law of that widow is already married. Why did God command this? To God, the ideal is monogamy. But God knew that he wasn’t dealing with an ideal society. He was dealing with one where there were very few economic protections for women, such that the only real economic security most women had was marriage. And thus when navigating the world of marriage people had to consider not only love and relationship, but also financial and social factors. And so, in spite of his aversion to polygamy, God saw it necessary in certain cases in that society. Even in the theocracy of Israel, under his immediate rulership, God allowed and even commanded a sexual and marital practice that he abhors.

Hermeneutics of the Law

This is very important in general for our hermeneutic of Old Testament Law. Because maybe, if you were told, “God in the Old Testament Law commanded and permitted certain things that he hates,” you would have thought that this is impossible, contradictory, inconceivable. That God’s Law was the perfect expression of his wishes. How could God command something that he is against? But laws like these demonstrate unequivocally that we simply cannot read Mosaic Law as a timeless list of everything God approves of and everything God disapproves of, as a list of sins and virtues. We cannot consider Mosaic Law to be identical to “God’s universal moral law”. We cannot unconditionally define “sin” as “disobedience to Mosaic Law”, and we cannot have a Christianity in which our failure to live up to Mosaic Law is the thing for which we have been forgiven. And this isn’t because the Old Testament Law got things wrong – it got things right for Israel in that time and place. But, as literature, the Torah is a more legal than purely moral entity. And thus it is full of compromises and concessions to make the best of complex social and economic circumstances. Mosaic Law isn’t God’s universal moral law in written form; it is the product of God applying the principles of his universal moral law to a particular national group, facing particular issues, at a particular time. We are not ethically subject to Mosaic Law. We are subject to the moral realities that produced Mosaic Law.

But more relevantly to same sex marriage: If God in Israel was willing to allow and even command practices that he actually abhorred, why should any aversion to homosexual practice on God’s part mean that he is automatically against the legalisation of homosexual marriage? The fact is, God’s moral disapproval of the sexual relationship just doesn’t necessarily preclude a legal recognition of it. We have real-life, Biblical precedents of our God choosing to institute laws that allowed or even required people to do things that he didn’t like. If God thought that an absolute “no slavery” law would have been better for ancient Israel, he would have given that law. If God thought a “no polygamy” law would have been better for ancient Israel, he would have given that law. But he didn’t give those laws because he didn’t think they would have been better laws for that society. He thought these compromises were worth making. In his literally infinite and perfect wisdom, he thought that things would be better if he allowed slavery and polygamy.

The need for SSM in our society

Isn’t it conceivable, then, that God could prefer, all things considered, in our current society, for the state to recognise certain non-heterosexual relationships as marriages? Not because he likes it when people take sexual partners of the same sex, but because of numerous social factors in the society that make it necessary to legally recognise such unions? I wrote in my previous article about what these social factors are. One is the fact that many of these same-sex couples have children. You can say all you like that homosexual relationships are, by themselves, incapable of producing children. But gay couples generally aren’t by themselves; they are parts of communities in which they have various means of becoming the joint legal parents of children in those communities. Given that gay couples are raising children, it makes sense for the state to come in and recognise these relationships as marriages, bringing the force of law to the unity of these families. This is especially true given that their connection to children is the main reason cited for why the state should recognise heterosexual marriages in the first place. Another social factor is that SSM is legally the simplest way – without all the linguistic gymnastics of “civil unions” – of ensuring those real same-sex couples in real, existing relationships all the legal rights that marriage endows one with, from hospital visits to matters of succession. Another is the social exclusion felt in the gay community by not being included in the institution of marriage. Before SSM, homosexual relationships were the only sexual relationships in Australia that were at the same time legally permissible and also not able to be recognised as marriages. It was a unique kind of relationship in our society – allowed but not acknowledged – a relationship equivalent to second-class citizens. And it came with a mental health toll on the gay population.

A different kind of social factor is the relationship between the Church and the gay community. I wrote at length in the last article about how the Church’s constant opposition to SSM has been a stumbling block for gay people to hear about and receive Christ as their Lord. What is gained by our efforts to oppose SSM is nothing in light of what is lost. A world without SSM isn’t worth a Heaven without gay people in it. It’s just not worth fighting for. And when you combine all of these things with the fact that there are actually no tangible, foreseeable, practical negative consequences inherent to SSM… well, as write this paragraph I struggle to even remember why we ever opposed it. If they wanted it that bad, and it actually has no inherent negative consequences, why not let them have it? If God, under his own direct theocratic rule, was willing to allow slavery and polygamy based on social and economic considerations, then surely we can consider same-sex marriage on similar grounds.

Now, of course, you might say, “Sure, all this is a great reason to have civil unions for gay couples, but why call it marriage?” Well, for one thing, a civil union doesn’t solve all of the social problems that SSM is intended to fix: Marriage is not just a legal but also a social construct that carries not only legal but also social force. It’s the social force of the word “marriage” that is partly needed to keep families with gay parents together for the sake of their children, as well as to foster the sense of inclusion that SSM is intended to create. Another question I’d ask is, why not call it marriage? And at this point, hopefully you’ve found what I’ve said so far persuasive enough that you’re in a position to find what I’m about to say next a little more palatable…

 

2. The Bible Doesn’t Define Marriage

Well that’s a bold claim, isn’t it. What on earth am I talking about? Now I’ll warn you: This is going to get somewhat complicated and nuanced. So you’re going to have to read me carefully and thoughtfully to understand what I’m really saying.

We all know how much this debate has centred around the assumption that Christianity, and the Bible, have a definition of marriage, and that same-sex marriage is an idea that defies this Christian definition. This Christian definition of marriage is, of course, something to do with the lifelong union of one man with one woman to the exclusion of all others, etc.

Is this true? Does the Bible put this forward as a definition of marriage? Is a conversation about the definition of “marriage” one that the Bible has something to say about? I have come to think that the Bible has little to no interest in polemical questions of the definition of marriage. See, I think we’ve been putting a lot of words in the Bible’s proverbial mouth.

Redefining a debate

Here’s what I think has happened, and I genuinely think this: One day, some gay people started saying that they wanted to be able to marry their gay partners. The first thing Christians thought was, “That’s wrong and immoral and bad, so we shall oppose this in the public forum.” But very quickly we Christians realised that the world we’re living in has a radically different understanding of sexuality to the Christian one, and so there was no traction to be had with arguments against SSM that were premised on any kind of moral objection to homosexuality itself. And so we had to change our approach, and we started to come up with all sorts of other arguments that might be more palatable to the homosexual community. One of these arguments amounted to, “It’s not that it’s wrong. It’s just that it’s not what marriage is.”

This has been one of the key arguments used in this debate, and I think it’s caused all sorts of trouble. This argument changed the rhetoric and reframed the whole debate from one about what people are allowed to do and not do into a debate about what the definition of a certain institution is. It changed it from a debate about values to a debate about meanings and semantics. And it did this so that Christians could say what we wanted to say without having to actually say it. We were able to say we were against gay marriage without saying why. While sidestepping the whole issue of the moral value of homosexual relationships, we still sought to prevent our society from placing value on homosexual relationships. It was essentially an attempt to win a moral battle by means of a semantic loophole. And I believe, as far as I can tell, that it is this argument that is the origin of any notion that the Bible presents a definition of marriage as a matter of sacred truth.

In reality, I don’t think the Bible itself tries to do this at all. Of course, the Bible has plenty to say about marriage. It has much to say about how a marriage ought to look. But I don’t see anywhere that the Bible wants to argue for a particular definition of the word “marriage”, such that there would be some communities out there have their definition wrong. Actually, I think the Bible is far less interested in whether a relationship is a marriage than whether a relationship is good. It’s not as interested in categorisation and definition as it is in evaluation; not as interested in the semantic question as the moral question. And these are not the same thing. The Bible seems quite content with the idea that there are many relationships that might be called marriage, some of which are godly, and others of which aren’t.

The Wives of Solomon

Why do I think this? Mainly because of Solomon. As the Bible tells us in 1 Kings 11:3, Solomon had 700 wives, as well as 300 concubines. If I’m not mistaken, this Biblical definition of marriage that we have received from the Bible is something like, “the exclusive lifelong union of a single man and a single woman.” Polygamy does not fit this Biblical definition of marriage. In fact, if I’m still not mistaken, I recall many politicians and clergy making the argument that, if we broaden the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, there’s nothing stopping us from broadening it further to other things like… the legalisation of polygamy. But it seems that the Bible was perfectly okay with calling all of Solomon’s 700 wives, well, “wives”. If the Biblical author was adhering to the correct Biblical definition of marriage, he would have said that Solomon had 1 wife, and 699 fake wives. But instead, not only does the author describe all 700 of these women as his wives, but he even makes a distinction between these “wives” and the other 300 “concubines” that Solomon had. So there is a line between a wife and a mere sexual partner, but the author draws that line way, way after bigamy, trigamy, etceteragamy… Why does he draw the line where he draws it? Probably because that’s where the culture of the day drew the line, and the author wasn’t trying to pick a fight about the definition of marriage. Because, if the Bible was operating under some sort of deeply held conviction about the definition of marriage, surely the author of 1 Kings would have demonstrated a bit of that backbone in his narration of Solomon’s love life.

“But Lachlan,” you say, “The Bible is critical of Solomon’s practice of polygamy here, and points out how it led to his downfall.” Yes, that’s precisely my point! The Bible here condemns Solomon’s marital practice, but still calls it marriage. “But Lachlan,” you say, “Polygamy is still heterosexual. The idea of a man having more than one wife doesn’t contradict the Biblical definition of marriage; it just multiplies it. Every marriage is still one man and one woman, it’s just that a single man is involved in multiple simultaneous marriages.” Well I have to say that if you were to make that argument to me it would strike me as somewhat ad hoc. Here we are, defining marriage as the lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman, and now you want to say that the exclusivity isn’t part of the definition, but the heterosexuality is. That is arbitrary. For thousands of years the Church hasn’t allowed people to get married if it is found that they are already married to someone else. For some reason, we don’t tend to say that for someone to be married simultaneously to several people is inconceivable; we simply say that it is wrong. And yet when it comes to the idea of homosexual marriage, we say this is inconceivable. If we were to be consistent with our conviction that the Bible has this particular definition of marriage, then we must either say that A) neither homosexual nor polygamous marriages are logically conceivable, or B) they are both conceivable, but immoral practices.

Jesus, Genesis, and God’s design

But what about what Jesus said? Of course. Often Jesus’ quoting of Genesis’ creation account has been cited as a case of the Bible, and Jesus himself giving the “definition” of marriage. In Matthew 19, Jesus was asked whether it’s okay for a man to divorce his wife for any reason he likes. Jesus responds by quoting Genesis’ account of God creating male and female:

Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

What was Jesus (and the author of Genesis) saying? Well, it’s important to understand that he was not having a conversation about what does and doesn’t constitute a marriage. That wasn’t the question Jesus was answering. The nature of the conversation was not semantic, but ethical. No one in that conversation (or in any other conversation in the entire Bible) was talking about what marriage is, but rather how to do it. And, as with any topic in the Bible, in the absence of any explicit intent from either Jesus or Matthew to address the definition of marriage in this passage, if anything can be concluded about that topic it is not without at least one layer of interpretation. Nothing Jesus says here automatically, before several interpretive steps are taken, tells us how he would deal with an explicit conversation about the definition of marriage. This should simply give us pause, and humility. But I do think there are things we can ascertain from the passage about how God thinks about marriage. In answering an ethical question, Jesus, like any good Bible scholar, responds by appealing to the creation narrative of Genesis. From his telling of this “origin story” of marriage, and the way he argues from it, I think we can draw out the following: 1) Marriage is somehow predicated on the maleness and femaleness of humans, 2) Marriage involves some kind of separation of its participants from their family of origin, 3) Marriage involves a man and wife becoming “one flesh”, 4) Marriage involves God joining the two participants, 5) Married people should not be separated.

So, this much is clear: there is a thing that God designed. We can call it marriage, and it is the lifelong, romantic and sexual union of a man and a woman. And yes, it seems that polygamous and homosexual unions (and presumably all manner of other ones) were not part of the fabric of this creational design for human relationships. The problem is that, from this reality, many Christians have been inferring more than is actually implied. Namely, they have been inferring that, because God designed humans to join together in a particular way, God has some kind of particular interest in the name or the categorisation that is given to this as opposed to other unions. It is not implied from this or any other passage in scripture that, because God designed us to be sexually joined together in a particular way, that it is somehow important that society holds a unique kind of recognition for this relationship as opposed to other kinds of relationships. It is not implied that God is concerned to ensure that the kind of union he designed be linguistically set apart from all other kinds of union, and that the same word not be used to describe it as well as another. And it is certainly not implied that the weight of God’s objection to polygamy or homosexuality has something to do with their falling outside of the boundaries demarcated by a semantic definition.

God, and semantics

There is no indication from anything Jesus, Moses, or any of the prophets or Apostles said, that God is interested in this philosophical and semantic conversation about what is and isn’t a marriage. In everything the Bible says, in the Torah, the Prophets, and the New Testament, about the myriad of ways that humans can practice immoral sexual relationships, never once is the problem with them framed as being that “they are not marriage.” The problem is simply that they are not good. Never is the point of it that they are some kind of fundamentally different entity to the kind of union that God designed. Because in reality, from an amoral point of view, polygamy and homosexuality and all manner of other kinds of relationships actually bear many similarities to traditional marriage. The ultimate difference is not one of categorical description but of moral prescription – only one of these is good. Thus it is hard to see that Jesus would have made a point of arguing against someone who wanted to say that a homosexual or polygamous relationship was some kind of “marriage” in some sense of the word. It is hard to see that, if Luke were penning a chapter for the Book of Acts, and he featured an episode where Paul came to some obscure city where they had the practice of “same-sex marriage”, that Paul in his conversations, or Luke in his narration, would have made an issue of that city’s use of the word “marriage” – that out of some sort of religio-semantic conviction, they would have refused to go along with the culture of the day in calling these same-sex couples as married. Nowhere in the Bible do we ever find this kind of definition polemics. And if we were going to find it anywhere, we should find it in 1 Kings’ divinely inspired narration of Solomon’s marital life, but instead the author follows the language of the culture quite happily.

There is no Biblical reason to think that God wants to be involved in some divine campaign to set society’s definition of the word marriage, or even generally to control the naming of anything. Note that never is any attention drawn to the name that is given to any immoral sexual relationships in the Bible – read Levitical laws on sexual practice; it describes unlawful sexual acts, but never names them. Because what God has to say about all the possible relational arrangements out there is not what they are but whether they are good. God doesn’t appear interested in going around categorising and defining relationships, telling us what we ought to call them. What a trivial thing that is, when compared with the tangible human experiences of all these different relationships and their deep and lasting consequences – for good or for ill. God is far, far more concerned with what people do, whatever it gets called.

Because the fact is, while these other unions are not part of the fabric of God’s design for sexuality, they do bear enough similarities to marriage that one can see why it might be useful to call them all by the same name – and what do you know, the author of 1 Kings did exactly that. You can have a philosophical and semantic conversation about the boundaries of what does and doesn’t constitute a marriage if you want to. The point is, don’t fool yourself into thinking that this is God’s work, that it is part of the divinely mandated Christian mission, or that it is something the Bible shows concern for, or that it is anything more than an interesting philosophical discussion. There are many interesting things that are not very important. And there are even many relatively important things that are not as important as the work of the Kingdom of God. Semantic debates about the meaning of marriage do not fall into the category of Kingdom importance. It is just not a conversation that God has shown interest in.

Man was not made for marriage

See, it’s just not about semantic categories for God. God isn’t going around saying, “Don’t do that; that’s not marriage.” He’s saying, “Don’t do that; it’s not good.” We must remember, humans were not made for marriage. Marriage was made for humans. God didn’t make humans to fit into this neat institution he had come up with called marriage. He made marriage to fit into and live up to the needs of our humanity. Thus the problem with these alternative unions is not that they are not marriage; it’s not that they fail to live up to the definition of marriage; it’s that they fail to live up to what it is to be human.

And here’s where this gets important: in failing to live up to the needs of our humanity, polygamy and homosexuality do not differ from divorce, or adultery, or marital abuse, or any other relationships that are dissonant with humanity’s design. It’s not that some of these are a corruption of the ideal marriage, while others are fundamentally something else entirely. All of them are an adulteration of the same good thing, all of them in their own way fail to express and enjoy the fullness of God’s good design. This is why the definition of marriage can be an irrelevant and unhelpful distraction. Because if you’re asking which relational arrangements fall within the definitional bounds of “marriage”, your question will get an answer that includes many relationships that are not pleasing to God, because an abusive, or adulterous, or loveless marriage still counts as a marriage. But if you ask which arrangements live up to the fullness of God’s good purposes for humanity, you will find no distinction between homosexuality or divorce or polygamy or abuse, since they are all united in falling short of this.

If you ask the question of whether a relationship counts as a marriage, you’re asking a question that God just isn’t asking. Because the only thing he is asking of our relationships is whether they are right, and good, and just, and loving – not whether they live up to the mere definition of marriage, but whether they live up to the purpose marriage was intended for in the first place.

 

ABRUPT END

On Rob Bell

So last week, after a long time wondering about it, I finally got around to reading (listening to) the controversial Love Wins by Rob Bell.

If I have any friends who have actually read it (I know a lot of us have opinions about the book without having read it), I’d love to discuss it.

Here are some initial thoughts:

  • He might be evangelical (more on that below).
  • There is one thing that reading this book solidified for me beyond doubt: Rob Bell is a brilliant, absolutely exceptional thinker and communicator. For every point in the book I disagreed with, I found just as many profound insights into aspects of the Gospel, and imaginative, compelling ways of communicating them. He is no lightweight, sentimental popular theologian; he is well and widely-read, and his intellectual bravery – willingness to think original thoughts and question common assumptions – should be a lesson to us all, certainly a challenge to me.
  • Right or wrong, his ideas in the book are worth listening to and thinking about for serious, thinking Christians.
  • There is no doubt that he definitely does espouse a version of universalism. He doesn’t express this ambiguously in the book. It’s quite clear. Although, some aspects of his precise conception of how it works are left unexplained – probably because he admittedly doesn’t claim to have figured it all out.
  • However, the way he formulates, and arrives at, his version of universalism is very… well, evangelical. That is, it comes from his interpretation of the Bible, not a rejection of the Bible. He perceives himself to be agreeing with Jesus and Paul and John, not evolving beyond their ideas, which leads me to my next point:
  • There are three main things that tell me that he was not trying to depart from the historic Christian faith, and his evangelical roots:
  1. An explicit statement to that effect in his own preface, where he said that he has no desire to be original, but thinks himself to be expressing very old, Christian ideas.
  2. His acknowledgements and thanks at the end of the book, the first of which was to Erwin McManus (who I’m pretty sure believes in the traditional hell), and from there he listed several personal recommendations for further reading, which included Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God,” and NT Wright’s “Surprised By Hope,” both of which he  held in very high regard, and then he thanked his parents for getting him to read CS Lewis when he was younger. His love of these authors communicates an identification with the camp/community/system of religion that they exist in.
  3. A list of orthodox, evangelical beliefs he affirms within the book, which I’ve listed at the bottom.
  • These considerations make me question the way the evangelical world responded to Love Wins, and whether statements of “farewell”, as if he had departed the faith, were fair, just, and wise. It seems to me that the basic question Love Wins was trying to ask was not, “Should we continue to be evangelicals about Hell?”, but rather “Can evangelicals faithfully and Biblically embrace a vision of the New Creation in which all people and all things might eventually be redeemed?”
  • The question this book has genuinely led me to ask is, Whether or not Bell’s version of universalism is correct, can it be considered a legitimately evangelical position? In the same way evangelicals currently allow differing views on predestination, the gifts of the Spirit, or women’s roles in ministry – and just as John Stott famously said that annihilationism can be considered an evangelical position – is there enough uncertainty about what the Bible says about Hell that call we can accept certain formulations of universalism among the various possible eschatologies within evangelical Christianity? I’m just asking. I haven’t answered this for myself yet.

List of orthodox evangelical beliefs Rob Bell espouses in Love Wins:

  1. Jesus as the divine, incarnate Son of God, Israel’s promised Messiah.
  2. That Jesus died for our sins (including a penal substitutionary atonement interpretation of it).
  3. The bodily resurrection of Jesus.
  4. That Jesus will return to Earth and God will make a New Creation where everything will be perfect as it was originally intended to be in Eden.
  5. That God is just, hates evil, and will judge, condemn and punish evil.
  6. Hell is a real thing (whatever it means), and is the deserved punishment for those who reject God’s rule over their life.
  7. While he doesn’t express it, his whole book assumes that the Bible is how we know stuff about God (and yes, definitely including the Old Testament).
  8. Probably some other things I forgot.

Less orthodox things espoused in Love Wins:

  1. God won’t punish those who reject him with eternal, conscious torment.
  2. (If I’m interpreting him correctly) Those who have rejected God will, in the New Creation, be banished from the New Jerusalem in which only goodness is allowed, BUT, their banishment is never final, and it will never be too late for them to change their mind, and choose to enter God’s Kingdom.
  3. Those who have accepted God’s rule will be accepted into the New Jerusalem in which everything will be perfect, but they will also always be free to leave, and to go off and live their own way.
  4. Probably some other things I forgot.

Things his argument depends on:

  1. The precise meaning of the New Testament word commonly translated into “eternal”.
  2. To be honest a lot is hanging on that word.
  3. How much of Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (going to heaven and hell respectively) is allegorical and how much is meant to portray an accurate cosmology.
  4. Revelation and all that.

I recently heard a Christian argue against the Theory of Evolution on the basis that they find conflict between the notion that humans are descended from non-human animals, and the idea that we are made in the image of God.

I hate to break it to you but the Genesis narrative says we were descended from… DUST.

Do you prefer this? Really, how is this better?

I would’ve thought that one of the overarching themes of Christian scripture is that the origin of something needn’t have any bearing on that thing’s identity, or its future. Matthew’s Gospel highlights that Jesus was descended from a prostitute. And he turned out alright.

Communion

Communion
[Originally posted 17/4/2017]
Christianity is a very un-ritualistic religion. In fact it has only two official rituals. One is that of Baptism: at the beginning of the Christian journey a new believer is encouraged to be baptised, symbolising the death of their old self, and their rebirth in Christ. But after that singular event, there is only one ritual that Jesus commanded his followers to engage in as a continuing life practice. It is known as The Lord’s Supper, or Communion.
The ritual reenacts something that took place during Jesus’ final supper with his disciples before he was crucified – Jesus took bread and wine and gave it to his disciples, instructing them to take, eat his “body”, and drink his “blood”, which he said were given for us. Jesus told his disciples to retain this tradition in remembrance of him, and indeed the tradition continues today in churches across the world and is naturally a central part of Easter services with its intrinsic connection to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Reflecting on it this year, something struck me all of a sudden: Isn’t it amazing that of all the activities Jesus might choose as the single ritual his followers would have by which to remember him, he gave us the act of eating and drinking. That it is an act that nourishes us. An act not of giving, but receiving.
What an incredible God, who would have us remember and honour him not by performing some activity like walking a mile, or bowing down seven times or waving our hands in the air. Not an activity that expends our body’s energy, but one that provides our body with energy. Eating and drinking are the way that we humans receive what our body needs to live, to walk, to work. It is not an activity that represents giving something to God, but one that represents receiving him.
Could any ritual better encapsulate God’s heart for humanity?
What is the main thing God wants from us? How can we honour God? We might think that the way we can honour God most is by giving everything of ourselves to him. But while I wholeheartedly believe we must do that, I suspect that the most significant and important way we honour God is by receiving him. I suspect that the man who takes everything God offers him pleases God more than the man who merely endeavours to give everything to God. Because I don’t think God wants to possess quite us as much as he wants us to experience the joy of possessing him. As C.S. Lewis said: “God created us not primarily so that we could love him, but so that he could love us.”
By instituting the tradition of Communion, Jesus was saying, “You need me. So take, eat and drink. Nourish yourself with me.” And there is nothing we can do that exalts him more than taking.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
– Isaiah 55:1-2

12 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Date a Non-Believer

Let’s start by saying it out loud: I’m single. So here comes another single guy, writing about relationships as if he’s qualified on the topic. But actually, I’d want to suggest to you that perhaps my singleness is in fact exactly what qualifies me to talk about this. Because, while I have never been in a relationship, I have had several serious opportunities for relationships that came close but which I ultimately decided not to pursue. It’s not that these girls weren’t Christian, but I had my reasons for knowing that pursuing a relationship with them would not have been the godly thing to do. So while I may not know that much about dating, I do know a thing or two about, well, not dating. And that’s precisely what this article is about.

So. This is an article about why, if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t date someone who isn’t. I’m writing this in part because it is a common issue in most Christian communities – all of us will have at some point at least known a Christian who was dating a non-Christian. But it’s mainly because I’ve often thought, from the conversations I’ve had about this topic over the years, that there is a lot of unclarity and maybe confusion around how some people in church think about this. It seems to be a bit of a grey area for a lot of Christians. I want to argue that it’s actually pretty black and white. I want to argue that because I don’t want Christians to be confused and unsure about this. So I hope to bring clarity and definition to the issue for people, so that they can have a conviction about it that is not merely a product of Christian culture, but is the product of their own engagement with God’s word on the matter.

Of course life and people are complicated things, and knowing clearly what’s right doesn’t always produce a lifestyle to match. It’ll take more than one blog post to change a person’s life choices. And the huge premise here is that, regardless of where we’re at on this particular issue, we’re all together in the fact that we’re messy, idiotic sinners who get stuff wrong all the time. And so I would hate for my exhortations here to come across as a self-righteous sense of moral superiority. I assure you I have no delusions that I am a good person. But as a starting point, whatever we do with the information, it is beneficial or all of us to be informed about how God wants us to live, and to know the reasons for our beliefs. Because we definitely can’t live right, or help our friends live right, if we don’t know what right is.

  1. How good or bad a boyfriend/girlfriend they are to you is not the issue

I think this is the first thing that needs to be said. This is not about how good or bad a partner a non-Christian will make. When I say you shouldn’t date a non-Christian, it is not based on some prejudiced, unrealistic notion that unbelievers are selfish, debaucherous people who won’t treat you right. This needs to be said because, personally, I am very perplexed by the frequency with which I hear the argument that goes, “A lot of unbelievers will treat a girl better than a lot of Christians out there.” This is so confusing. Why would you say that? Is it because you believe this is about how well someone treats you? It’s not about getting someone who will be good to you. It’s about something so much deeper than that.

Yes, there are plenty of Christian guys and girls out there who are after your affections and who don’t deserve them. There are some Christians out there who would treat you worse in a relationship than some non-Christians. But the answer to that is not to ditch those loser Christians and pick up the decent unbeliever. The answer is to neither date the inadequate Christian… or the unbeliever. The answer is to raise your standards – not lower them. The answer is to wait for someone who belongs to Jesus’ Kingdom, and will treat you right. Because Christians aren’t perfect, but you’re stuck with them. If you don’t want to marry a Christian, you might be in the wrong religion.

  1. The Bible says no

Sorry to be blunt. (I promise this article gets more tenderly pastoral towards the end.) But I really do believe God has spoken on this topic. Well, almost. The Bible doesn’t forbid dating unbelievers. But then again, “dating” is a foreign concept to the authors of the Bible. What the Bible does forbid is Christians marrying unbelievers. We can see this in 1 Corinthians 7:39, where Paul says a widow is free to marry anyone she chooses, “only in the Lord,” which is First Century Christianese for “only if he’s a Christian.” Continue reading

A Lesson From Prayer

This is not a lesson on prayer. This is a lesson from prayer. Sometimes God teaches us things through our own prayers. As we talk to him, he shows us something new. This is a lesson I learnt from a recent experience praying to God about something.

See, there was something I wanted. Something in my life that I really wanted to happen. I’ll leave you to speculate about what it was, because it doesn’t matter what it was. The point is that I wanted it. I really did.

And yet, as I talked to God about it, I somehow found myself saying, “God, I only want this if you do too.” From where I mustered the faith to say such a thing I don’t know, but there I was, telling God that it was more important to me what he wanted for me than what I wanted for myself. There was something so therapeutic about the very act of saying this to God, because it meant that I wasn’t trying to attain this thing by my own power or finesse. Believing that the outcome was in God’s hands, believing that he was in control over whether or not I got what I wanted, I had no choice but to believe that if I didn’t get it, it’s because God didn’t want me to have it.

And what a difference that makes. Because a “no” from God is so much easier, so much more tender than a “no” from just… life. It is so hard to handle the idea that the thing that has prevented you from getting what you want is nothing other than the blind, mindless processes of chance. But if this thing was withheld from me by an intelligent agent, a personal being who was consciously aware of my desires, and who does things for reasons, and not only that, but whose reasons include the fact that he loves me and is deeply and intimately concerned with my life. That is something I can handle. That’s something I can be okay with. That my “no” comes from God proves that I didn’t need what has been withheld. A “no” from God comes with a smile, and with the promise of a better alternative. As the old adage goes, that God answers every prayer in one of three ways: ‘Yes,’ ‘Not yet,’ or ‘I have something better.’

But that’s where the fears started coming in. What exactly does God consider “better”? Given that God’s ways and thoughts are so much higher than mine, what if his ideas of what would be best for me consist of things that I would consider abhorrent and miserable, and will only understand the benefit of in the next life or when I’m like 80? What if it’s best for me to go through decades of suffering? What if he needs to teach me a painful lesson? What if God wants me to live a truly hard life, overcoming some serious, heart wrenching battle in order to humble me or something? And while I’m slightly exaggerating, don’t write off questions like these. It’s not a stupid thing to wonder about. A life of suffering is literally what God, in Acts 9:16, explicitly had planned for the Apostle Paul.

And can anyone say, “Job”?

This stuff isn’t beyond the realm of realism. Earthly exemption from suffering (of whatever kind) is never promised in the New Testament. What God promises is to empower us to experience joy through pain. And that’s great, but it doesn’t come easy. It requires a journey. And that journey is terrifying. And what doesn’t help is Christians coming around you with empty promises, saying “God’s gonna do this, and give you that,” when they’re often just platitudes based more on hearsay and the hopeful thinking of folk theology than on God’s own words to us.

Yeah, some days I really was worrying about stuff like that. Because, while I knew that God, according to Romans 8:28, was doing everything for my ultimate benefit, I feared what kind of journey that might entail – and what kind of crazy, ridiculous, deep trust in him I might need to find in order to be okay with whatever journey he has planned. And so, at this point, for God to say “no” to my prayer, would to me have been taken as more evidence that God’s plans for me might be radically, painfully different to my own.

Well. I found the answer about an hour before the “no” came. One night, the door was shut to the thing I wanted. But, to the Devil’s dismay, that door shut itself right after a church service. And I guess God used that service to prepare me for the impending denial. Because as I was standing in worship that night, I can’t remember what song we were singing, but for some reason it reminded me of Romans 8:32, which says:

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

It’s funny how God works. Because he usually doesn’t answer your questions. He just distracts you from them. Our questions are stupid, and so rather than answering them, he gives us something better to think about. While I had all these fears running around my head about the scary things God might put me through, I was hit with this… thing… from the Bible.

God gave me his Son. How could I not trust him? He has already given me his best. The very best thing he had in his possession, he has already given me.

Now I guess the usual lesson we take from that would be the fact that, “Jesus is enough.” And that’s true. But that’s not what God was showing me that night. He was simply showing me that he was worthy of absolutely all of my trust, because he is the kind of God that would give me his greatest and most prized possession.

On that day God withheld something from me. And I don’t like speculating about what his reasons for that might be; how could I possibly figure that out? But the fact that he has already given me his very own Son, tells me what isn’t the reason he withheld it from me:

He didn’t deny me this thing because it was too good a gift.

It’s not because it was too good for me. It’s not because I’m not worthy of it. It’s not because I don’t deserve it. How could it be? If he denied be some earthly gift because of my lack of merit, how the heck could he possibly give me his priceless, glorious, eternal, majestic, only begotten Son? If he gave me his Son, then I just know for a fact that he’s not in the business of withholding things from me because they’re too good. The giving of his Son showed me what kind of value he places on me, what kind of a giver he is to me. He’s not holding out on me things that he knows will bless me. He doesn’t look at me and look at the gift and think, “Hmm, nah this is to valuable a thing for me to give away to him.” That’s not what’s going on, because that’s not what he did with his Son – the best thing that anyone has given to anyone.

How could I not trust him?

Sometimes our forgiveness is patronising.

Because sometimes the only way we manage to take the high road is to look down on someone such that we expect nothing from them. In order to hold nothing against someone we take on the role of the indestructible giver, who never takes, never needs.

But sometimes it is more loving to need someone. Sometimes it affords more dignity and respect to someone to expect them to do right by you, and to be hurt when they don’t.

It is in daring to care enough about people such that it is possible for them to hurt us, in becoming breakable before people, that we honour them.

And it is in requiring of them that they don’t break us that we dignify them.

And though we mustn’t do it carelessly, we must do it, because it is in this great leap into the possibility of pain that we leap into our humanity.

Sometimes, if we have forgiven someone too quickly, perhaps it is because we have forgiven wrongly, and dehumanised someone in the process.

Sometimes we give something up because God asks us to, but at the time we don’t even know just how costly our choice of obedience will turn out to have been. With great anguish we sacrifice something for him, only to find out later that the sacrifice we made was even bigger than we realised – that the consequences are more numerous and more painful than we saw coming.

God doesn’t always act with our informed consent. He doesn’t always give us all the information before asking us to do something.

Perhaps this is for our good.

Dirt (an Easter message)

IMG_1376

How hard it is for us to conceive

That it was right there on the ground,

In an obscure corner of the Earth,

Within the flesh and blood of a man,

Hanging on a plank of wood shooting up from the dirt,
Audienced by a handful of fishermen and tentmakers,
That in the quiet of that man’s slowing heartbeat…
Something cosmic was happening.

And none of the fishermen knew that in that moment the world was being changed forever.

In the cross of Jesus, the astronomical met with the biological.

In the mundane, down here in the mud, God was fixing the universe.

The Christian story was, to my mind, so clearly imagined by God and not by man, because God, the mature storyteller, required no grand display in the climax of his narrative. No exploding stars, no shining lights from Heaven.

Almost no clues at all that what was being acted out in that Jewish town that afternoon had the undivided attention of every single angel and every single demon.

The finale of an ancient celestial battle between good and evil, all within one man’s body.

Power not exhibited, but exercised.

The power not to dazzle and amaze, but the power to save.

The power to change forever the very meaning of life and death,

By a single death and a single resurrection.