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’m a Conservative Christian, and I Intend to Vote “Yes” to Same-Sex Marriage

GayWeddingCake

I want to start a conversation. A conversation that we don’t seem to be having inside the Church. We’re at a very unique and important place in Australian history where, like it or not, the whole country is getting the chance to “have its say,” on the contentious topic of same-sex marriage. But, while it is contentious within the nation of Australia, there seems to be almost no contention within the theologically conservative Church about what the best way to vote would be. That is, among Christians who hold the classical, historically Christian view of marriage and sexuality – of which I am one – there is a near universal assumption that the only faithful Christian course of action is to vote “No”.

I want to question that assumption. I want to challenge the way we are all thinking about it as a Church. I want to propose that the most God-honouring thing might be to vote in favour of same-sex marriage, or otherwise to abstain from voting at all. And I want to invite Christians to consider choosing one of these two options. I don’t see this as a case of disregarding the Bible’s teachings for pragmatic or any other reasons; I see it as an honest attempt, with fear and trembling, to apply Biblical priorities and principles to a complex world.

*TLDR: I understand that this article borders on the gargantuan. It has been incredibly hard to try to do the topic justice as concisely as I can.

But I have make this article skimmable by putting some of the most important sentences in bold.

 

INTRODUCTION

The moral vs the political

The first thing I want to clear up is that the question about the moral status of homosexual relationships is a related but completely separate question to the question of same-sex marriage. One is a purely moral question, the other is a political and legal question. The political takes into account the moral, but it also takes into account many other things. This is why, while it’s immoral for high school girls to systematically and vindictively exclude each other from their lunch time groups, it’s not illegal and shouldn’t be. Christians believe that it’s immoral for two unmarried people to have sex with each other, but we don’t believe it should be illegal. Likewise, we may believe that homosexual sex is outside of God’s best intentions for human sexuality, but we don’t believe that it ought to be illegal, even though not that long ago it was. That is because the state (in a Western democracy) is rightly not intrinsically interested in punishing people for immoral acts. It is interested in creating whatever laws happen to enable our society to function peacefully and prosperously. Of course the definition of peace, prosperity, and the good life, will be determined by one’s ethical worldview. And so it is not that good laws won’t be informed by a moral framework. But the laws are not equal to the framework.

And this is a wonderful context for Christianity to operate in because it means that we have the opportunity to persuade people to freely choose to live God’s way rather than have them coerced to do so by the government. To God, only voluntary obedience is of any worth. God want our hearts, not just our actions. He’s only interested in obedience that comes from genuine love and desire – something which no amount of legislation can generate. And for the most part, Christians in Australia get this. There are all kinds of moral laws that we don’t think should be enforced by law. So, why then is it that so many of us automatically think that if God disapproves of homosexual activity, that that answers the question of what the state’s role is in recognising homosexual couples? The Bible is clear on sexuality itself and what marriage is. But it is actually silent on how Christians ought to respond to a nation of unbelievers that want to deviate from the Biblical understanding of marriage. Why, then, do so many of us default to thinking that the questions of homosexuality itself and of gay marriage are one and the same question?

Framing the debate

Of course not all who oppose same-sex marriage (hereafter SSM) have simplified things to quite that degree. Many have thought very carefully about this, concluding that not only from a moral point of view is God’s intention for marriage that it be between a man and a woman, but also that the legalisation of homosexual marriage will not be conducive to the flourishing of our society. And this question of the societal consequences of SSM has dominated the debate. To convince a secular culture, Christians have produced numerous secular arguments positing that SSM will not be good for our society. I want to spend the first portion of this article assessing whether the arguments we’ve given against gay marriage can reasonably be expected to succeed in persuading a secular mind. From there I will begin to look at whether these and other argument ought to persuade Christians to vote against SSM.

 

 

PART 1: PERSUADING NON-CHRISTIANS

The rights of children

Many Christians have said that children have a right to being raised by both of their biological parents, that this is the ideal, and gay marriage, by design, robs some children of that possibility. Well… the thing is, not really. Because, regardless of whether or not they are married, gay couples are already raising children. They can legally adopt children, and many of them also choose for one member of the couple to have a biological child by whatever means, and for them to raise that child together. I don’t know how to put this more clearly. This is already happening. The ability of same-sex couples to be married makes no difference to whether or not they raise children.

Further, while I do believe that a child being raised by both of their biological parents who are married to each other is the ideal situation for any child, we must remember that this is only one of many factors that contribute to the ideal situation. We know that countless children who are raised by both of their biological parents are experiencing terrible domestic situations. No, that doesn’t negate the fact that both biological parents is ideal, but it shows that the presence of both biological parents isn’t by itself enough to create the ideal. There also needs to be love, economic security, good access to education, safety from physical and sexual abuse, and so, so many other factors. All other things being equal, a child will be better off with both of their biological parents, but the reality is all other things are not equal. We are not going to get the ideal in most cases so we simply need to accept the good. And there exist gay couples who are in a far better position to provide a good upbringing for some children than those children’s biological parents. Moreover the statistics show that the adoptive children of same-sex couples tend to do better in life than the overall average, yes the overall average. This is partly because gay couples that wind up adopting tend to be people who really, really want kids, and are also in a financial position to go through the difficult and expensive process of adoption. Meanwhile all manner of heterosexual couples around the world are having children by accident, well before they’re financially or emotionally ready to do so. It’s just wrong to say that gay couples can’t provide children with genuine, meaningful love. Many of them can be far better parenting teams than than innumerable heterosexual couples. This is something I believe the church needs to accept and embrace.

Children as a reason for gay marriage

Now there’s more to say about children. One of the ways Christians have argued against SSM is to bring up the whole question of, why does the state even need to play any role in marriage in the first place? Why not just leave the state out of it and leave marriage as a purely cultural (and sometimes religious) phenomenon? The reason, which I think is a good answer to a good question, is because of children. Children need parents, and children are going to be way better off if both of their parents stick together. State sanctioned marriage is a way of adding legal force to the union of a couple, such that when they produce children, the state makes it hard for them to leave each other. That legal accountability to the couple’s marriage vows is in the child’s interest. The anti SSM argument goes, since gay relationships are inherently sterile, there’s no need for the state to take an interest in them.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I realised how much this argument backfires. And boy does it backfire. Because it actually turns out to be one of the best arguments for gay marriage that I’ve been able to think of.

Think about it… Gay couples have children. What would happen to those children if their gay parents were to split up? Wouldn’t that make things worse for the child? Isn’t the fact that the state’s interest in marriage is contingent only on the rearing of children a really good reason for the state to barge in on gay relationships and keep those families together too? Isn’t the welfare of children a really good reason to have gay marriage?

What’s in a name?

But of course, why call it marriage? One common argument we’ve made against SSM is that, well, that’s not what marriage is. Marriage has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman. To take a word and a concept that has always meant one thing, and then to redefine it as we see fit is just dishonest – calling something marriage doesn’t make it marriage. We can have same-sex relationships, but why do we need to call them marriage? I will say that this argument is especially relevant in present-day Australia in which the legally recognised de facto relationships that gay couples can partake in enjoy almost all of the legal benefits of marriage. For the most part all they really lack is the name.

This argument is stronger in a way than many others Christians have made because it doesn’t rely on any discredited empirical or factual claims. Instead it appeals to intuitions of both semantics and tradition that are commonly felt – that that’s just not what marriage is. The problem with this is that it can’t really be proven right or wrong. It becomes as much a matter of opinion as disputes about when “next Friday” becomes “this Friday”. It’s just an argument about what people think a word means.

Thus the semantic argument against gay marriage is only as persuasive as its sentimental power. And it has some, but can that power match the sentimental power of the gay community seeking the recognition that they feel would be endowed upon their personhood by their inclusion into the institution of marriage? Not even close. The fact is that words can change their meaning; it happens all the time, and if you believe that homosexual relationships are just as virtuous and healthy as heterosexual ones, and if you feel that gay couples are being discriminated against by their exclusion from the symbolic legitimacy that the title “marriage” places upon relationships, then in your mind any semantic conservatism that must be sacrificed to change the definition of the word is a negligible price to pay. And if you think that something of such deep importance to you is being withheld from you because of a mere semantic quibble, you will not feel that you and your community are being afforded due consideration and respect. I see no reason why a person without a Christian sexual ethic ought to be convinced by this argument.

The bottom line

The main point I’ve been trying to make up to this point is, our secular arguments against gay marriage have not convinced our society. But really, we shouldn’t be surprised. The whole enterprise of Christians using secular arguments to persuade secular people to adopt Christian values is a pretty strange one. Why did we ever think that would work? Here’s the bottom line: Despite going to great lengths to downplay its relevance to the debate, the fact can’t be avoided that Christians only have an objection to SSM because of a moral objection to homosexuality. Now, our society simply does not believe, in fact repudiates the very notion, that there is anything morally wrong with homosexuality. And we have learnt well that arguing against SSM by trying to convince people of some moral fault with homosexuality is a lost cause, but we don’t seem to have learnt that, in the absence of that underwriting moral objection to homosexual relationships themselves, no argument against SSM will ever make adequate sense.

 

PART 2: PERSUADING CHRISTIANS

 

And so I think the project of using secular arguments to persuade our culture against SSM is a failed one. The question now is, how ought these arguments be received by us as Christians?

Sticking to our job (The problem with secular arguments)

Well, to my mind one of the overarching problems with all these secularised arguments that have characterised so much of the Church’s opposition to SSM is that it’s not our job as Christians to make them. Because these secular arguments by their very design go beyond what God has revealed to us. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong (though I think they are), but it means that they’re not the things God has sent us to tell the world. I recently read an anti-SSM article by a Christian who analysed Roman and Greek culture and attributed both of their declines to the breakdown of the strength of the family unit due to sexual deviance. It predicted that if we continue down our current path the same thing will happen to us. Arguments like this, as well as ones about the impact SSM would have on children and semantic arguments about the meaning of a word, strike me as being disconnected from the message God has told us to tell the world. If the redefinition of marriage will cause a gradual deterioration of the family and therefore society, God hasn’t told us about it. Because the Bible never tells us that; we have reasoned it ourselves. These insights didn’t come from someone’s knowledge of the Bible, but from someone’s knowledge of sociology and political philosophy. Anyone could have made these insights, regardless of whether they’re a Christian. And being a Christian doesn’t make you the best amateur sociologist, philosopher or historian. We are not called to be right about everything; we are just called to be right about who Jesus is.

Being a Christian ought to have no bearing whatever on whether I am persuaded by secular arguments against SSM that are based on worldly predictions about its effect on children, families, and broader society. That SSM would be bad for children or will cause society to crumble is not the “Christian position.” It is just the position some Christians have taken. Being a Christian does not constrain you to accept it.

I believe that we as the Church would have much to gain if we focus our energies on saying the things that only we can say. And leave it to the world to discuss worldly matters. It is not our job as Christians to correct the world on everything. It’s not our job to tell them about insights we have arrived at by our own intelligence. Our job is to deliver to them the message God has spoken. And I believe the more we strip our message down to focussing on just the things God has said, the more fresh, inspired, credible, and powerful our message will be. Because the world doesn’t need to hear our ideas one trillionth as much as it needs to hear God’s. And I wonder if the fact that we think we have time to do someone else’s job means we have been neglecting to do our own.

A stalemate of symbols

I’ve been trying to show that our secular arguments against SSM have failed to show that there will be any negative societal consequences as a result of gay marriage – in fact it could well have good consequences for children. These anti-SSM arguments don’t convince non-Christians and they shouldn’t convince Christians either, especially since they have little to do with Christianity. Concordantly, at the end of the day is that it is only those who have some moral objection to homosexuality itself that have any reason to oppose SSM.

And at this point, I think we all have to admit that the significance of gay marriage is almost entirely symbolic. Of course, both sides of the debate have been using this as an argument. The gay rights movement say, “It’s just a symbol, why does it matter to you so much?” And the Christians say, “It’s just a symbol, why does it matter to you so much?” While I think both of these arguments are actually quite powerful, I’ve come to realise that gay people’s desire for the symbol of marriage is not as childish as I once thought. Symbols are important in society, and they communicate things very powerfully. For gay couples to be bear the title “marriage” means that, after centuries of persecution for their sexuality, gay relationships are recognised as just as legitimate and valuable and human as heterosexual ones.

It can be easy to forget that it’s actually not easy to be gay, even in 21st Century Australia. That there are very few people who, if given the choice, would choose that orientation given the hardships it comes along with in life: There is still discrimination, there is still marginalisation, there is still bullying – things that I just have no experiential understanding of. Same-sex marriage, by contrast, would be a powerful symbolic recognition of the equal personhood of homosexual people. It would reverse the message that society has sent to gay people for centuries – that they are unworthy of consideration, dignity, even safety – and instead it would celebrate homosexual people, saying that they and their relationships are valid, valued, and important. I think the impact this would have on the lived experience of a gay person is real. The felt safety and affirmation of living in a society that is officially on their side is, I think, a very important thing to take into account.

Christians want to affirm and celebrate homosexual people, but they’re uncomfortable with society celebrating homosexual relationships.

Christians, the world, and sin

So what is the right Christian reaction to the world celebrating something the God denounces? Well here I think Christians need to remember that we do not own this world. That our citizenship is in Heaven, and we are sojourners and exiles here on Earth. That our job is not to shape the present world into our image, but to conform ourselves into Christ’s image so that in us the world can see Christ. That we are not called to demand that the world act like God’s kingdom, but are called to simply be God’s kingdom and invite those in the world across the border.

Of course, part of the way we be God’s kingdom is indeed by defending the oppressed and marginalised, which sometimes does involve petitioning governing authorities to act mercifully and justly. But read the New Testament: This directive for the Church was never about holding society to a standard of morality or holiness for its own sake – it was always mandated specifically with a view towards helping “the least of these.” That is, the goal was not to hold people to account for their evils, but to alleviate the impact of evil on the lives of those affected. The New Testament always assumed that the world will follow its own way. That’s why Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 tells us that it is not for us to judge outsiders; it is only for us to judge within the Church (and note that the context here is specifically about sexual sin). The Church is only called to intervene in the world’s sin where there is a victim in need of protection. The fact is, homosexual sex is an act committed between two consenting individuals. There is no victim involved that the Church needs to step in to protect. I believe that what unbelievers do regarding homosexual activity is not under our jurisdiction; it is not our concern.

Likewise, unless we can show that the state’s sanctioning of same-sex marriage will have serious, real-life, foreseeable, damaging consequences for our society – that it would entail the oppression of someone – I don’t think it makes any sense to try to hold the nation to our standard. I believe it is a case for the Church to let the world be the world, while showing them what it is to be the Kingdom.

 

PART 3: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

 

But here’s a question: What if the victim is the Church?

That is, what if the legalisation of same-sex marriage will entail violations of the rights of Christians (or people of other faiths) to sincerely disagree? This is where one of the more significant concerns Christians have about SSM comes into play – that of religious freedom: Will pastors be compelled by law to marry same sex couples or otherwise go to prison, as does seem to be happening in some countries? Will all ideological disagreement with SSM be defined by law as hate speech?

The wrong target

Well the thing is, no matter how connected they are, the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the Church’s right to disagree with it are fundamentally distinct issues. There is no necessary connection between the legalisation of SSM and the prosecution of anyone who refuses to conduct same-sex weddings. Currently in Australia, celebrants are under no obligation to marry any couples they don’t want to marry for pretty much any reason, even if it’s because they’re a part of the wrong denomination. There is no reason why the broadening of the definition of marriage should change that. And in reality all the proposed legislation for SSM includes provisions for celebrants to refuse to marry couples based on sincerely held religious beliefs.

More broadly, it’s one thing to make a law; it’s quite another to say that you’re not allowed to disagree with that law. The question of religious freedom is not about whether SSM exists, but about whether people are allowed to disagree with it. There are so many laws that we all have a right to express disagreement on; why should SSM laws be any different? And on any laws with which there is no right to express disagreement, the problem is not that the law exists, but that freedom of speech doesn’t. Why do we think that the prevention of SSM is necessary for the retention of religious freedom? Any threat to religious liberty that SSM comes along with is not an essential part of what SSM is, and can be quite easily avoided with well worded legislation. In fact I fear that the more we push this idea that we cannot have SSM and religious freedom simultaneously, the more we perpetuate the narrative that tolerance equals agreement and that it is impossible to have a society in which peaceful disagreement exists. Even if problems for religious freedom do arise out of SSM, they can be resolved without having to going back to the traditional definition of marriage. Because the enemy of religious freedom is not gay marriage; it is religious intolerance. We can accept gay marriage while still fighting against religious intolerance. I am aware that there have been serious violations of religious freedom in some countries in relation to gay marriage. But I am saying that I don’t think preventing gay marriage is the only way, or the best way to stop such things from happening.

The Church vs.

But here’s the thing, even if the gay lobby is a bloodthirsty persecution machine that is out to get Christians (which I really do doubt is their main objective), what is that to us? It troubles me that one of the main and most strongly felt objections the Church has to SSM is the threat that SSM poses to the Church, as if we object to it because we feel threatened. It makes me wonder what we think our goal is as Christians. This passionate resistance to SSM for the sake of safeguarding our religious freedom comes across as if Christians are primarily concerned with protecting our own tribe, even at the expense of others. I fear that it communicates to the gay community that we are more worried about our own well being than we are about theirs. And more than that, I fear that we are more worried about our own well being than we are about theirs. I fear that it communicates to the gay community that we have an “us vs. them” mentality towards them. And more than that I fear that we do have an “us vs. them” mentality, as if our purpose as Christians in this world is just to get on with this life peacefully and happily, defending ourselves against any competing tribes who try to stop us from getting our due.

My friends, why would we try to compete with the world when we exist for the world? We are the Church. We are not of this world. The world’s concerns are not our concerns. It’s wars are not our wars. Its governments are not our adjudicators, and its armies are not our defenders. We serve a higher King, and he has sent us with one mission, and that mission defines our every action: to serve the world by preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. Don’t we know that there is nothing the world can throw at us that can threaten the Church? The Church is indestructible. It exists and persists by the very power of God, and not even the gates of Hell itself could ever prevail against it. Why are we trying to protect the Church from the world when it is the Church’s job to save the world?

Should we chase after persecution? Certainly not. Should we try to avoid persecution by reasoning with those in power? Absolutely. But we can do that without opposing gay marriage. And avoiding the persecution of the Church by stopping gay marriage from happening makes it appear as if the gay community is Christian enemy number one. It is seen by the gay community as us persecuting them before they gain the power to persecute us. Indeed, I wonder if their assessment is accurate. It appears as if we are vigilantly careful with our lives, but callously reckless with theirs, willing to prevent them from enjoying the recognition of marriage in order to avoid hardships for ourselves even though these hardships can be avoided in other ways.

These actions are pushing gay people away from us. This unnecessary yet firm opposition to gay marriage creates an enmity between the Church and gay people, and is thus a hindrance to them hearing the Gospel. And for that reason it can’t possibly be the best way to escape persecution as Christians. It’s important to avoid persecution and to value our earthly lives. But it’s more important to reach other people with the Good News, and value their eternal lives. How can we make an enemy out of the ones God has sent us to rescue?

Overall, I am personally not too worried about religious freedom in the face of SSM in Australia. I would like to trust the people of the Australian SSM movement when they say they’re not trying to take away religious liberty from anyone but are only trying to increase their own liberties. Apart from anything else I think that choosing to trust people is a good way of building trust. But ultimately I think we are faced with something of far more urgent concern than the distant possibility of the loss of religious freedom. Because the Church is indestructible. But the lives of gay people are not.

 

PART 4: THE RELATIONSHIP PRIORITY

 

We are losing more than a debate

The reality is, we are losing this debate. But there is something more important to talk about. Because we are losing more than a debate. We are losing friendships. The relationship between the Christian and the gay communities is currently entirely occupied with – to the point of being defined by – the debate over same-sex marriage. And because of this, the relationship between our two groups is overwhelmingly characterised by enmity. The debate about SSM is getting in the way of relationship. And as Christians we need to take that as a serious problem.

I recently read an article written by an Australian Christian that pointed out the fact that relationships are being torn apart by the debate over SSM. But to my disappointment, the author was pleased to sacrifice these relationships and friendships for the sake of “speaking the truth”. He considered the division to be the fault of gay people’s unwillingness to listen to truth. And he encouraged Christians to continue to speak out against gay marriage to their gay friends, even at risk of losing the friendship.

I propose that that is actually not a Godly way of approaching this. I think there is a better way. There is a difference between being a people pleaser and being someone who simply values relationships. While we mustn’t live for the praise and approval of people, we must follow Paul’s example in becoming all things to all people that by all means we might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22). We must aspire, as Paul commends in 1 Timothy 3:7, to be well thought of by unbelievers. And we must obey the command in Romans 12:18 to, if possible, as far as it depends on us, live peaceably with all. (I find that it tends to depend on “us” far more than we realise.) See, there is a way of not caring what people think that is actually just a lack of care for people – an unchristlike disregard for relationships.

To me the fact that there is such a wide and deep division between the Christian community and the gay community is too terrible, too important, too alarming a reality to accept and settle for. Are we really ok with allowing several generations of gay people to be almost entirely unreached by the Gospel? I believe we the Church (and not just previous generations of the Church but this one) are more responsible for this divide than many of us have realised. I do not think we have been doing all that we can to live peaceably with the gay community. I don’t think we have been doing all that we can to save them. I think there is yet more we can do. We have been choosing to sacrifice peace for the sake of “speaking the truth.” But we need to understand that this is not just about a debate between ideologies. This is not just about what the correct answer is to a philosophical question. This is about people. And the fact is, Christians are pushing gay people away by our insistence on continuing to fight against gay marriage. And as we push them away from our community, we become a hindrance to them discovering the love of Christ.

What are they hearing?

What do you think is the main message God wants to communicate to gay people? I think it is clear: God wants to say that he loves them. The main message God has for the gay community is not about marriage, or sex, or sexuality. It is the same message he has for everyone: He loves them and he wants them. But what do you think is the main message gay people are hearing from Christians? How often do we talk publicly about homosexual people in a way that isn’t dominated by the topic of SSM, and isn’t broadly characterised by disagreement? Unfortunately, most gay people seem to believe that the primary attitude of Christians towards them is one of opposition, and our primary message towards them can be aptly summarised as, “No.”

I am not okay with gay people thinking that God’s main message for them is that he is against them. Whether we mean it or not, our fervent opposition to their ability to get married is taken by them as fervent opposition to them as people. It doesn’t matter if we don’t actually oppose or hate gay people. If they think we do, we have a problem that we must take responsibility for. A pastor friend of mine once told me that effective communication is not about the message you deliver; it’s about the message they receive. As the Church I think we need to start taking responsibility for the message that the LGBT community is receiving from us. Because here’s the thing: Our attempts to try to clarify that our resistance to gay marriage has nothing to do with any contempt for them as people clearly haven’t worked. They just don’t believe us. And it’s not enough to just say that that’s their fault and they should believe us. Put yourself in their shoes for one second: Would you really believe the Church if you were them?

That same pastor friend of mine recently said something to me that stuck: The Church hasn’t been there for gay people. We weren’t there for them when their sexual activity was outlawed. We weren’t there for them when they were hunted down and beaten in the streets. We weren’t there to defend and stand up for them when they were being bullied in schools and workplaces. We haven’t been there on their side in the past. Why should we expect them to listen to us now? Why should they believe that the Church’s current antagonism to gay marriage is not just more of the same disregard for their welfare that they have come to know all too well from the Church?

 

PART 5: A WAY FORWARD

 

I am convinced that the only way that we can mend the relationship between Christians and gay people is to, believe it or not… stop arguing with them. Stop speaking and acting against same-sex marriage. Stop being an obstacle for them getting this thing that means so much to them, that they consider to be the ultimate recognition by the state of their equal personhood. I believe we have said enough about it. I don’t think we need to explain it anymore, or remind them anymore. And unfortunately every sentence we utter in resistance to gay marriage only reinforces the enmity between our two communities and only continues to push them away. The faintest whisper of it is a deafening screeching in their ears that drowns out anything we try to say about God’s love for them. I believe it is time to stop talking about gay marriage, and focus entirely on talking to the gay community about God’s perfect, amazing love – for as long as it takes, until they forgive the Church for its sins against them. Until God’s main message to gay people can be heard again.

I think we do need to accept the relative inevitability of SSM in Australia, and the futility of any attempt to prevent it. If SSM is blocked this time around, it will only be postponed another few years, and the cost will be a gay community that is even more frustrated and alienated from ourselves than before. We need to ask ourselves, is this losing battle worth continuing to fight, at the expense of enormous relational damage, just for the symbolic value of not giving in? Was this battle ever worth winning in the first place? Is this really what God has commissioned us to do? Are we going to stay in this sinking ship and go down with it, along with any hope of reaching current generations in the gay community with the love of Christ?

I want same-sex marriage legislation to pass in Australia because 1) I believe it would make Australia feel kinder and safer for gay people, 2) It’s not the mission of Christians to hold the world to our standards on this type of issue, and 3) I believe it would end a conversation, a conversation that is not doing the gay community or the Church any good.

My invitation to Christians

Christians, I can’t tell you how to vote. Part of what I’m trying to challenge here is the notion that there is only one Christian way to vote on this issue. But I am asking you to seriously consider joining me in voting “Yes” to same-sex marriage. To do this as an act of friendship, so that we can help make the world better and kinder for gay people. So that they can feel safe and valued as equals in this country. And so that this monumental obstacle in the way of relationship, and this loud distraction from God’s main message to the gay community, will be gone.

If you don’t feel that you are able to vote “Yes,” I would ask you to consider abstaining from voting. You don’t have to help make SSM happen, but you don’t have to take action to prevent it either.

I am sure at this point the objections are still many. Let me now consider a couple of objections you might be thinking about:

What do they need to know?

You might be thinking, “Well they need to know the truth.” But, first of all, not all true things need to be said at any given time. Proverbs tells repeatedly of the wisdom of silence. Proverbs 12:23 says, “A prudent man conceals knowledge,” (also see Proverbs 10:19, 13:3, 29:11, 29:20). Wisdom tells us when to refrain from speaking true things because we understand the consequences of our words. Second of all, telling someone something doesn’t make them know it. They already know what Christians think the truth is. Saying it again won’t suddenly make them believe that it is the truth. The only piece of knowledge they’ll gain if you tell them that homosexuality is sinful is that you think that. Just because you’ve said something to someone, doesn’t mean they’re any closer to believing it.

And third, yes, you’re right they need to know the truth: They need to know that they are deeply and unconditionally loved by the one who created them. They need to know this desperately and urgently. And our loud talking against gay marriage is stopping them from being able to know that truth! People need to know the truth but they don’t need to know every truth equally. Some truths are more important than others. It is nowhere near as important that they are told about the Christian understanding of homosexuality as it is that they are told about what God has done for them in Jesus. We do not need to convert them to a Christian sexual ethic. That on its own will ultimately do nothing for them. We need to invite them into a relationship with Jesus, and upon their acceptance of that invitation can we then begin to graciously and slowly work out with them what discipleship looks like, knowing that neither they nor we will ever have it all worked out. Telling them about the Christian sexual ethic is hindering them from hearing about Christ. It is infinitely more important that they hear about Christ. I don’t want these people to miss out on Jesus because I was pushing them away by talking about something other than Jesus!

The meaning of a vote

Now maybe you’re thinking that by voting yes you’d be enabling or condoning sin. But first of all, gay people are already in homosexual relationships and will continue to be whether they’re married or not. This is not going to affect people’s sexual behaviour. So certainly doesn’t enable anything that is currently disabled. And second, saying that it necessarily condones sin fails to appreciate the complexity of what a vote means.

The crazy thing about democracy is that we have the opportunity to express our preference, but our form of expression is always limited to a one-word answer to an incredibly complex question. A lot of Christians think that by voting in favour of same-sex marriage, you are necessarily expressing an endorsement and approval of same-sex relationships. But, in a world where all kinds of people can prefer the same outcome for radically different reasons, I don’t think it is reasonable to assign only one possible meaning to any given vote. During the Trump vs Clinton election in the USA, there were a number of people who thought Trump was a buffoon, but who wanted to vote for him. Why? Because, for whatever reason, they thought the consequences of him being in office would be better than the consequences of Hillary Clinton being in office. Some of them even thought that Trump’s policies were positively worse than Clinton’s, but that because of his lack of political tact and poor standing with other politicians, he would be unable to get anything done politically, and they thought a president who can get nothing done is better than president Clinton effecting her policies. But I heard so many people say that you can’t vote for Trump because a vote for Trump is by definition an endorsement of him, an affirmation of his fitness for office. They suggested not voting at all. But to this these voters tended to reply that to not vote was to effectively hand the presidency to Clinton, that failing to act was the equivalent of acting towards a worse outcome.

Perhaps you can see here that there were two very different understandings of a vote. One ideological and one consequential. One group saw a vote as an expression of favour and approval towards a candidate; the other saw a vote as an action that influences an outcome. For the latter group, to vote for Trump didn’t mean that they approved of him, and it didn’t mean that they would vote for him in any election at any point in history; it just meant that in that situation, all things considered, they would prefer a state of affairs in which Trump was the president. But the other group saw a vote as an endorsement of a leader and felt that they couldn’t in good conscience express such a thing about Donald Trump.

My point is, I don’t think either the ideological voters or the consequentialist voters had a monopoly of correctness on that question. There were genuine merits to both sides, and we don’t need to go around to people insisting that their vote expressed one particular idea. I think there is room for many people to vote for the same thing for different reasons. To deny that possibility fails to appreciate the complexity of a democratic society, and the complexity of every single issue that has ever been voted on. It is precisely because voting is a single-word answer to a complex question that large, diverse populations are able to vote on anything at all. The more detail you put into an option on a ballot paper, the more reasons there will be for large portions of voters to disagree with it. If we had to choose between two 1000-word essays on the merits of either side, almost no-one would find either option to be representative of their view. The fewer words in the ballot, the fewer words we put in voter’s mouths. Voting is vague, and that is a good thing. Any vote can be interpreted in a number of ways. To say that voting “Yes” to gay marriage intrinsically means that you endorse the celebration of homosexuality is like saying that voting “No” intrinsically means that you hate gay people. Both of these are putting words in people’s mouths.

For me, voting “Yes” means that, in the current state of affairs, all things considered, I think the best outcome for our society will be if gay couples are able to get married. Could I be misinterpreted? Sure. But, first of all, Jesus didn’t seem to worried about being misinterpreted to be condoning sin when he associated with sinners. He seemed much more concerned with ensuring that these sinners knew they were loved. And it was an absolute scandal. And second, as I’ve mentioned, voting “No” could be misinterpreted. Voting “No” can and will be received by a vast number of gay people as expressing hatred or disdain for gay people. How is that better than being interpreted to be endorsing homosexuality? We’re worried about being seen to endorse sin? Hatred is sin. Being a violation of literally the most important commandment, hatred is one of the worst sins – a status never given to homosexuality in the Bible. I’m just saying, if I’m going to be misinterpreted, I would rather be interpreted to be endorsing homosexuality than to be hating gay people. Not only because hatred is worse than homosexuality, but because the appearance of hatred on my part would be a hindrance to homosexual people discovering the goodness of God.

See, I don’t think God is as concerned with the formal appearance of our actions as he is with their relational consequences. I believe God is more concerned with the practical than the symbolic. It’s not that God doesn’t care about symbolic things; it’s just that in the face of really big practical issues, symbols are not his first priority. It seems to me that the Church has been preoccupied with a symbol in the face of the very serious practical problem of our relationship with the gay community. In the present situation, I want to prioritise remedying a significant real-world problem with my vote.

What to do with uncertainty

I have to acknowledge that this is a very, very complicated topic. And, while I believe I hold my position with integrity and with good reasons, I do not have absolute certainty about it. So if I am uncertain, would it be better to err on the side of caution and “No”? Well, no, I don’t think so at all.

When Jesus healed a man on a Saturday, the Pharisees were caught up in the technicality of Jesus having “worked” on the Sabbath. Now, the Law forbade working on the Sabbath, but it actually didn’t stipulate what “work” means. Jesus responded to the Pharisees by asking whether it is lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm (Mark 3:4). That is, he filled in the questions the Law leaves unanswered not with further regulation, but with the rule of compassion.

As I mentioned earlier, the Bible is silent on the issue of how to respond to a nation that wants to deviate from the Biblical understanding of marriage. It is a complex question in a complex situation. I think to say that marriage in the Bible is between a man and a woman and therefore we must obviously do everything in our power to ensure that non-Christians in our country to define it that way too is an oversimplification. And it fails to deal with the important relational factors that are at play in this situation. It fails to take into account how our speaking and our voting will affect individuals, communities, and the relationships between our communities. But I also cannot say that we should obviously vote “Yes”. That would be rather hypocritical, and I just don’t think any answer to this question is obvious. But when things get complicated, and there are arguments for both sides, and I am at risk of error whichever way I choose, out of reverence for God I would rather err on the side of compassion than err on the side of technical correctness. I would rather choose that which I know in myself is motivated by love and has foreseeable practical rewards than that which seems pious and orthodox but has foreseeable practical costs. God is not a bureaucrat. He’s our Father. And I’m making this decision in the context of relationship with him. I could be wrong. But if I am wrong, God knows what led me to choose wrongly. He knows that in a complex situation it was a decision motivated by love. And I pray that that pleases him, either way.

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

The following I don’t say as an accusation but as a confession: I believe that we as the Church have failed the gay community. We, who are called to be the defenders of the marginalised and the oppressed, have failed to defend these people, many times because we have been the very ones we were supposed to defend them against. For me, voting “Yes” to same-sex marriage is my way of saying, “I’m sorry we haven’t been there for you before, but I want to be there for you now.”

I want to help make the world better, safer, kinder, for gay people. I want them to live in a society where they feel that they are valued as equals. I want to be known individually as a Christian who prioritises love, compassion, kindness, and relationship. I don’t consider myself to be very good at doing that. But I hope I am getting there, and I hope this decision to vote in favour of same-sex marriage is a step along that path. I want gay people to believe that the Church is on their side, that our main message for them is about a love that is stronger and deeper and better than they can even imagine, a love that upstages everything, undoes everything, changes everything.

Imagine what could happen if they received that message.

I don’t believe they can hear it and hear a Church opposed to same-sex marriage at the same time. And I truly believe that the Church has no mandate from God to contest against gay marriage in this world. We must remember where our true citizenship lies – a Kingdom from which we come to the Earth as ambassadors and servants. What if, before trying to tell the gay community how we can serve them, we listened to them?

Perhaps it is not until they have the world as they want it that they will be willing to hear about a new world.

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.

Love Reconsidered

My understanding of love has drastically changed, and we might need to talk about it…

*TLDR version: I know this is long, so I’ve made it skimmable. If you just read everything that’s in bold you will get the main points (but you won’t get as much of my sweet prose skills.)

I: LOVE AND ACTION

Correcting a worldly error

We Christians talk about love a lot. And we should. We all know that love is a concept that lies at the very centre of the Christian faith. And it should. As Jesus said, the greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:37-39). And of course, as John said, “God is love,” (1 John 4:8).

And here’s the thing. The contemporary Church has needed to combat many worldly distortions of what love is, because the World so often teaches us that love is a kind of euphoric feeling that comes over you whenever and however it pleases, that can neither be cultivated nor controlled, and ought to be obeyed above any considerations of morality – we ought to follow our hearts. The Church has rightly corrected the problems with this notion of love, reminding us that love, according to the Bible, is not merely euphoric but is maintained by discipline and is expressed through action, that it is not convenient but is self-sacrificial. In reaction to the over-romanticised Disney brand of love, the Church has reminded us that God demonstrated his love for us by the ultimate sacrifice of sending his Son to die a brutal death for us, that we may have eternal life. To correct an erroneous emphasis on emotion, the Church has taught us that the best way to love our neighbour is by treating them the way God’s law tells us to treat them.

And again this is absolutely right. After all, when Jesus gives the great twofold commandment, he says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 22:40). Paul reiterates this in Galatians 5:13-14: “Through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” Clearly, to love people is to obey the law, and to obey the law is to love people, because God gave the law to show us what real love should look like in practice.

But some time lately (ok, it was about a year ago now – that’s how long it’s taken me to write this), I began to rethink entirely the nature of this commandment to love one another, as I became confronted with how much deeper – and how much more challenging, powerful, and exciting – it is than I thought.

To-do list love

When I look at contemporary Western Christianity, I notice some things. As we endeavoured to combat against cheap, flippant, passive, convenient love, I fear that we have sometimes overly intellectualised and externalised love into a concept, and a to-do list. Please hear me right: We have made love about helping people, meeting people’s physical and spiritual needs, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, defending the oppressed, visiting the lonely, liberating the enslaved. We have preached, “Love your neighbour,” and meant, “Get out there and do something!” We have made the topic of love into a “how to” topic, writing books and articles suggesting practical ideas on how to literally “love our neighbour” – with the help of baked goods and power tools. We have asked ourselves, “How can I love this person,” and meant, “What does this person need that I can give them?” Indeed, we have made “love” a verb, and we have synonymised it with “serve”. And what wonderful things these are!

But if this were all our love was, there would be something missing, something we have maybe forgotten about love (even though it is perhaps the most basic, intuitive fact about love that there is to know), something I am beginning to think is actually the main thing God is trying to get us on board with when he tells us to “love”. Continue reading

Incarnation (a Christmas message)

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This is something I posted on Facebook for Christmas and am now belatedly posting on WordPress for longevity’s sake, or just in case you missed it:

Just nearly two weeks ago I was in Paris, sitting at the top of a basilica named Socré-Coeur. Atop this church on Paris’ only hill, you see a marvellous view of the otherwise completely flat city – other than the Eiffel Tower sticking up like a needle off in the distance.

As I sat there I was thinking about how this vantage point enabled me to gain an understanding of the city of Paris that couldn’t be gained from walking its streets. You don’t really know what a city looks like until you’ve escaped it, risen above its walls, and seen it from the outside.

Then I thought about how life is so often like that. Things always look different when you’re in the middle of them compared to how they look from the outside. I thought about the slightly crappy situation I was going through those few days, and realised that in a few weeks or months I would look back on that situation with an entirely different perspective.

You haven’t really understood your situation until you are no longer in it. It’s only from the outside that you can examine and appreciate the whole shape of one of life’s episodes. It’s only when you’ve come through the other end that you can view it with a clear enough mind to really learn from it.

But then I thought a bit harder and realised that the exact contradiction of this idea seems equally true. If I had only seen Paris from the top of Sacré-Coeur, and never seen it from the ground, a Parisian might rightly ask, “What do you know of the real Paris when you haven’t walked it’s streets?” If I had only seen Paris from the outside, surely I would be missing some vital experiential knowledge of the city. It seems like one could equally say that you don’t know what a city is like until you have been in the thick of it, touched the walls and breathed in the air.

And likewise it seems that you haven’t fully understood a situation until you’ve seen it from the inside. This is why we are so familiar with the words, “You don’t understand,” that meet us at our attempts to criticise the addict, or console the grieving parent. Of course we never understand a situation that we haven’t been in ourselves.

And so I thought, “Which is it? Which viewpoint gives us the best knowledge of something? Is it the view from within, or from without?”

And then I realised that it’s both. We need both.

This is when I wrote these words, which you might have seen on Instagram, if you were paying attention:

“The fullest knowledge of something can only be attained through viewing from both outside and in, above and below, as both a part of it, and as the other.”

And then I thought about this world we are in.

There is only one person who has viewed our world from both within and without. You see, none of us really understand this world, because we are in it. Our exclusively interior view of the world strips us of the ability to see its true shape, to understand where it fits within reality, and to know its purpose, or whether it has one at all. Only a creator who stands outside of it, and distinct from it, has a high enough view to see it as it truly is, unbiased by this low-down, narrow viewpoint each of us has.

But then in his distant objectivity, we petition, God is missing something. He is missing that experiential knowledge of what it is truly like to be a part of this world: to be weak, limited, fragile. To know what honey smells like, what blood tastes like, what it feels like to run out of breath as you run a mile, the awe of looking up to the stars and wondering what they are, and the pain of a broken bone or a betrayed friendship. God is distant, we say. He doesn’t understand what it’s like.

But Christians worship a God who knows, who understands. Christmas is the story of the incarnate God, the God who became flesh – an insider in the very world he created. God, who had looked over the whole universe with perfect objectivity, now found himself amidst it, viewing it through two human eyes. The God who at first only knew the world in a way that we couldn’t, now also knew the world in a way that only we could.

The God of Christianity knows pain, thirst and hunger, not just because he can conceive of them with his perfect, divine imagination, but because he has felt them. There is only one person who has been both an outsider and an insider, both one of us and incomparably other, who has seen the world with the clarity of a spectator, and with the detailed empathy of a player.

No other religion in the world has ever proposed a God like this. Only Jesus knows what it’s like to be a part of our world without being limited by it, because he also sees us from above. He knows our pain, but he also sees its purpose. He can sympathise with our struggles, but he can also see the part they play in the whole story.

This is to me what makes Christmas a day of hope. God is with us. But he’s still God. As the old carol says, “The incarnate deity.”

Merry Christmas.

One thing I’ve learnt to be true over the past year or so:

A person’s spiritual maturity is better measured by their relationships with the people around them than it is by how much they talk about spiritual things.

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.