Review of The Gender Agenda: discovering God’s plan for church leadership by Lis Goddard & Clare Hendy

30/06/2011

Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry are both ordained women in the Church of England; they are friends and evangelicals who differ on their understanding of what the Bible says about the role of women in the ministry of the local church. Goddard is an egalitarian, Hendry a complementarian of roughly Stott-like convictions (ie the senior pastor should be a man but teams can and should be mixed; she preaches but accepts that not all complementarians would agree).

The Gender Agenda is a discussion conducted by email between these two women about the biblical texts and how they understand them. There are usually a couple of exchanges on each text which raise the main issues and outline the views on either side. Some striking points about the debate are:

  • The tone of the discussion is remarkable – at least as far as this debate is concerned. It makes one realise how rarely debates are conducted between people who are friends in any real sense. There is warmth and chattiness, which feels trivial at first. But eventually one comes to believe that they really are interested in and concerned for one another. The difference it makes is that they are trying to listen to each other, and find appropriate ways to express either their surprise or their disagreement.  I have commented previously and here on the futility and sterility of a debate in which neither side listens to the other. I would love to see a debate on that issue between two people who genuinely respect each other!
  • The differences between the two sides are sometimes surprising. They begin with a different view of Genesis: Hendry reads the text as teaching that there was a right difference in role at the creation; and that the fall/entry of sin distorted this into a wrong difference in role (aka patriarchy). Goddard sees an egalitarian creation, with role differences as a consequence of the fall. This has implications for the church’s responsibility to model and teach redeemed relationships, to reverse the impact of the fall. There are differences along the way with many other texts, with both sides showing briefly how they are read in their understandings. It’s a good primer to some of the basic issues and texts. There is a glossary at the end for some of the more technical terms
  • What remains striking is the size of the gap between them. These friends are evangelicals, and yet the differences are signficant on this issue. We assume that on others they are close enough. As a mark of this difference, see the joint statement by the councils of Reform and AWESOME (to which Goddard and Hendry belong), after several joint meetings to explore their differences.

My Life is but a Weaving

28/06/2011

My life is but a weaving between my God and me,
I do not choose the colors, He worketh steadily.
Oftimes He weaveth sorrow, and I in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper, and I the underside.

Not till the loom is silent, and shuttles cease to fly,
Will God unroll the canvas and explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful in the skillful Weaver’s hand
As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares, nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those who leave the choice with Him.

~Author Unknown

With thanks to Uncle Emmanuel who shared this with a group of us recently.


Festival anyone?

28/06/2011

When Easter was recently behind us, I should have been glad. The services hed to go well, we had room for everyone who came and as far as I can tell, the talks were orthodox and helpful. So why did I feel such disappointment?

And why did I feel the same after Christmas? Again, the church services were well attended, with many visitors even coming on their won (ie with a personal invitation from a church member). Yet my overwhelming feeling was of relief and once I had rested a little, of eagerness to get back to bread-and-butter preaching and teaching. Why is that?

I admit that part of this feeling is because I am a pessimist and naturally consider the glass to be half empty. Of course things could have gone better, and of course more could have responded as the Pentecost hearers did (cut to the heart, and seeking to repent – see Acts 2.37). And every year there are things that could have gone better, practical and pastoral.

Another factor is that Festivals (Christmas, Easter) always come at the end of a long term. I am worn out and longing for a break; I am not rested and ready for the big push.

A larger part of it is that I don’t feel I have done justice to such a highlight in the Christian year. I should be thrilled to meditate anew, over a period of at least a week, on the Lord’s Incarnation (at Christmas), and on his death and resurrection (at Easter). Yet I feel myself to be a bystander as I churn out talks. I know that my personal devotions can and should feed me; but if I feel like this, can the services I lead be nourishing the congregation as they should? Are we as a church family rejoicing in, and glad to rejoice in, our wonderful salvation? Once again I feel to busy to think about church to be able to think about God. The Trellis has swamped the vine.

So what can be done? Here are some ideas I have had for refreshing the Festival programme:

  1. Follow a theme through the season. That may mean following through one gospel for the readings, or following one OT prophet’s words fulfilled at the Nativity; or looking at one epistle’s teaching on the resurrection, or the return of Jesus. There are several advantages: it should reduce the time spent hunting for a text; it keeps us fresh; and it should enable us to listen to Scripture’s different voices.
  2. There is a problem with this approach. If the festival theme is new, then it needs preparation time to do the texts justice. But there is less time, not more, at Festivals. There are more services, and fewer workers given the extra social demands on volunteers. So we have double the services with half the workers. No wonder there is not time to do the passages or themes justice.
    Why not then pick Christmas and especially Easter readings from passages which have been worked on during term time. We may then, with clean consciences, focus on single texts, and enjoy the leisure to dwell on them knowing that we have already done the exposition and context work during the term.
    For example, we are working our way through 1 Peter, an immensely rich letter with some classic verses on the cross and resurrection, quite apart from extended reflection on Isaiah 53. All of those would have been ideal for Easter Services, at least the texts for preaching, even if we were sure t read through a passion narrative to keep the events clear in our minds.
  3. Because our Festivals, and especially Christmas, are such good opportunities for evangelism, we have also considered adding specific reflection on the Season for Christians. Our contemporary Christmas or Advent is basically ‘Christmas for Christians’: a reflection of the Incarnation, or the Advent, for Christians, using songs we sing through the year which teach on this theme, and looking through key passages. I hope that as I do this and as I feed my own meditation on the great acts, even my evangelistic preaching will be enhanced.
  4. Of course there is nothing wrong in seasonal services which have evangelistic messages, and with evangelistic messages which change little in their message from year to year. But it is not satisfactory to settle for that diet. Because it leads to the feeling of dissatisfaction I described above.
  5. Some of my fellow-pastors have the ability to pull out the stops at the end of term and push ahead on caffeine and adrenaline. All strength to them, but I am not cut from that cloth. Others are on multiple staff teams and are grateful for any preaching opportunity that comes their way. Our situation is of a settled community in which I have been mainly on my own, and in which the same people come to many of the services and there is little scope for repeating talks, and I am preaching at most services. I want to do what I can, and make it count as far as I can for Christ. If the situation changes, or if I suddenly find myself able to be insightful and exhausted, then I can change our pattern.

Ask me in a year’s time whether I have been able to do these things, and whether they have made any difference to celebrating festivals.


Review of two more books on debating Darwin and the Bible

26/06/2011

Debating Darwin: Two Debates Is Darwinism True, and Does It Matter? by Graeme Finlay, Stephen Lloyd, Stephen Pattemore and David Swift
Milton Keynes: Paternoster 2009         pb    200 pp*      ISBN: 978-1842276198        £8.99  *listed in catalogues as 144 pages

Think God, Think Science: Conversations on Life, the Universe and Faith by Michael Pfundner and Ernest Lucas
Milton Keynes: Paternoster    2008         pb    144 pp
ISBN 978-1842276099        £9.49

The debate between Christians concerning the scientific and biblical accounts of our origins is not as mature as toshould be. The key issues have been around for over a century, advances in scientific knowledge notwithstanding; books, publications and web pages continue to pour out from both sides; research continues apace. And yet the debate cannot be termed mature: positions are entrenched and polarised, the arguments on both sides are ill-tempered and manipulative, Christians are divided and the Gospel is neither served nor adorned by their conduct. It is in this febrile atmosphere that we are asked to consider two contributions convened by staff of the Bible Society.

The first, Debating Darwin, promises to be a standard knock-about between the two sides, and it does not disappoint. It’s all here: death or no death; creation or atheism, Genesis as history or as myth, an incomprehensible scientific paper on genetics, tables and diagrams, and dozens of footnotes. There are no new arguments on either side as far as I can see, which does not excuse the authors who appear unable to listen to each other. Lloyd spends the majority of his thirty-page chapter discussing three central doctrines for the non-Darwinian case, namely Adam, the flood and pain. Finlay and Pattermore’s response gives them one page, one paragraph and one sentence respectively. A debate in which opponents talk past each other like is most unsatisfactory. At times the authors also appear to get carried away by the heat of the debate and make rash statements. Lloyd appears undaunted by the logic of his rejection of neo-Darwinism requiring him single-handedly to rewrite science “by constructing a wide-ranging model that takes account of as much of the available data as possible…It is a project that is enormously exciting, innovative, enriching to science.” (25). Yet he fails to explain why no better model has so far even threatened the consensus of the scientific community that evolution is the best model yet for the evidence available. And on the other side, Finlay seems unfazed by a lack of evidence when he says “It would be perverse to deny that major phyla (sponges, molluscs, worms) arose by natural evolutionary means simply because the events occurred so long ago that the unambiguous genetic markers [ie the evidence] of evolutionary relationships have been obliterated” (165, my insertion). I could go on about accusations of Gnosticism, and suspicions of open theism, but they would add little to the review. While the expositions of the views on either side are as clear as many other similar treatments, the debate fails entirely to meet in the middle. I am still waiting for the ‘debate’ book that does not leave me  angry, sad, confused and equally unhappy with both sides.

David Wilkinson’s foreword to Think God Think Science seems to promise different sort of volume. It is a kind of survey-with-an-agenda of three questions caught in the crossfire between some scientists and some Christians. The whole book (not a long book) is presented as an overheard conversation between Pfundner (the enquirer) and Lucas (the sage, who has written on science and christian faith and teaches Biblical Studies at Bristol Baptist College in the UK). It is of course an interview in which Pfundner coaxes Lucas along some well-worn paths, gently raising questions and objections on behalf of others. He begins by asking whether the Christian faith has been so marginalised by scientific advance and the rise of rationalism today as to be out of the picture. Are faith and science really that far apart? Four chapters then cover the major areas of apparent conflict. In ‘The Issue’, Lucas takes the reader through a potted history of the debates between scientists and the church, taking in Galileo and Darwin/Huxley. What they are seen to oppose is not the church as such, but something it stood for: in Galileo’s case, Aristotelian philosophy; in Huxley’s, authority in education; and in recent creationism, liberal Christianity. In ‘The Sky’ he meanders over creation and the Big Bang, Adam and the image of God and other topics. ‘The Cell’ focuses on Darwin, design and other Creation issues. Finally, ‘The Faith’ looks at the impact of Biblical studies in the twentieth century in trying to undermine biblical Christian faith (Bultmann and so on).  In each case Lucas shows there is coherent path beset on one side by rationalists and on the other by literalist Christians. I found each of these to be good surveys of the field, and helpful for introducing some of the major names and currents, and showing how they reflect changing culture and differing approaches to the Bible and science. There were some frustrations: there was nothing to engage with at points of disagreement (because it is a survey); and it is sometimes too generous to significantly heterodox opponents. But here at least is an opportunity to listen to one, largely conservative, evolutionary theist tell story as he sees it. Whether or not we agree with it.

Book Review Submitted for publication in Churchman


The Creation and Evolution Debate – a path to sanity?

24/06/2011

We cannot ignore the debate about how to relate the Bible’s account of human origins with the current consensus of mainstream science. However we rightly want to avoid the acrimony that too often marks the discussion, not least between evangelical Christians.

I met over a couple of days with a group of ministers to think some more on this issue. We based our discussion around Denis Alexander’s Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? and the response Should Christians Embrace Evolution? edited by Norman C Nevin. The authors on both sides are evangelical Christians, but they differ on the extent to which Christians can embrace the findings of evolutionary science.

Denis Alexander does not think that that evolutionary science and the Bible are at odds. He outlines 5 possible models which I found to be a helpful sketch map of the ground (see Chapter 9, and evaluation in the chapters that follow).

Model A. There is no connection between the Bible and science; Genesis is a myth (234) and the Fall is the story of everyman (254)

Model B There was a gradual growing spiritual awareness from first hominids 200,000 years ago in Africa which eventually became human in God’s image. Gen 1-3 is a mythical retelling

Model C God chose a pair of neolithic farmers some 6,000-8,000 years ago (241) to endue them with his Image, (Stott’s Homo Divinus). Adam is representative of all humanity which somehow came to share as God’s image bearers. Adam represents humanity in a sort of federal way as far as image bearing and as far as the Fall are concerned.

Model D Old earth with periodic miraculous creative interventions. Adam and Eve were created ‘out of dust’ and are discontinuous with the rest of creation.

Model E Young earth creation about 10,000 years ago with literal six days of creative activity.

We did not resolve the discussion into a single solution. Instead I note these reflections on the issue itself, and propose some ideas for Redeeming the debate in Church.

Reflections on the Issue Creation vs Evolution

  1. If we are debating among evangelical Christians, we can agree on some non-negotiables straight away. Based on the gospel presented in the New Testament (NT) and the passages in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 about Adam-Christ, we must insist on an historical fall, and a representative Adam. This rules out Models A and B above.
  2. There are other issues that are non-negotiable on one side but not on the other that we need to examine in the light of the scriptures. For instance the meaning and significance of death, the place of miracles in creation, what it means that God pronounced the creation ‘good’ (can it be good and yet involve death or suffering?). What we decide on these issues is a function of our whole systematic theology, even in they seem to us so obvious as not to need justifying.
  3. No apparent solution is entirely free of problems. However we relate science and the Bible, it will be messy somewhere.  Models A and B are unacceptably messy on the Bible, the Fall and Sin. Models D and E are messy because of their rejection of some or all of evolutionary science. (Messy in the sense that more questions are raised by the solution). And Model C has a number of loose ends. This calls for humility on all sides.
  4. We need to distinguish between a weakness and a fatal flaw. The absence of an historical fall is (in my view) a fatal flaw. But a question about how the image of God is borne and shared under Model C may be a weakness.
  5. We also need to distinguish between strong assertions and tentative proposals. For instance I found that Wayne Grudem’s list of 8 positions held by theistic evolutionists (in his foreword to the Nevin volume of essays) obliterates this distinction (as well as inaccurately representing Alexander’s position in Do we have to choose).
  6. The Bible challenges the place that reason has in our thinking and in our culture. We need to be ready to examine our cultural assumptions under Scripture. But this does not mean we must reject all science!

Redeeming the debate within churches

This part of the debate is conducted among Christians, and often within churches. Here are some thoughts on how to conduct ourselves in person and in print (and online).

  1. We need to listen to each other. That is, we really need to listen to what the other person is saying, rather than on what I hear them say. I am really surprised at how many people whose academic training (e.g. a degree) should equip them to understand another’s point of view don’t do so in this debate,
  2. We need to know whether we disagree with what someone is saying, or whether we disagree with what we think follows from that. For instance, you may think that a position inevitably leads to Gnosticism or Atheism, but you must not call this an Gnostic or an Atheist unless that is what they are saying. But you can say that you think their position leads to G/A and invite a response.
  3. While the debate touches on some primary issues (sin, salvation), it does not turn on them. This is not a primary level debate, although the issues are not secondary
  4. Because no solution is error-free, we need space to struggle towards a better answer.
  5. We must watch our language and tone. Whether the opponent is arguing a Christian position or a non-Christian one, there is no excuse for some of the language and polemics used by some Christians.
  6. Everyone needs a dose of humility. I might be wrong; and they might be right about some things. And we might both be wrong. We long for the time when we will see everything clearly.

Review of John Stott: A Portrait by his Friends, edited by Chris Wright

16/06/2011

This collection of short essays by John Stott’s friends and protégés was originally conceived as a posthumous tribute and has been published to mark his ninetieth birthday in April 2011. The editor, Chris Wright, was invited by Stott to take over the leadership of the ministries that now form Langham Partnership (known in the USA as John Stott Ministries), and is now International Director of Langham Partnership International.

Thirty-five contributions paint a picture of the man they have known. They are ‘many brushstrokes, one portrait’ and describe the early and formative years, his time at All Souls and influence within the Church of England, his international influence, his wider interests, the study assistants and ‘the final lap’. The most varied section includes the wider interests of birdwatching, caring for the environment, and renewing church music. Of course the different parts overlap because no man can be so neatly divided.

John Stott’s influence has been both wide and deep. Contributors consistently speak of his clarity, faithfulness and power as a teacher of God’s word; of his remarkable efforts in equipping the churches in each continent to speak for Christ clearly, faithfully and effectively; and of his legacy of movements which continue to mobilise Christians with the gospel. Those who knew him best were deeply impressed by his character. Time and time again they speak of his astounding gift of friendship, his humility, iron self-discipline, love for children and Christ-like love for people.

This is a portrait not a biography. The works of Dudley-Smith (1999-2001) or Steer (2009) should be consulted for the facts of Stott’s life and work. This is a portrait not a critical evaluation of his work. Critics exist already, and objective analysis must wait for the passage of a little more time. And finally, this is a portrait not a shock exposé. It is an exposé, but there is no shock. As Chris Wright observes, Uncle John is like a stick of seaside rock that is the same all the way through. I found this fond portrait to be a gripping and inspiring read, that made me want to follow Stott’s example of devotion to Christ, and to thank God for this most remarkable man and his ministry.

Reviewed for Churchman 2011


Review: True Spirituality by Vaughan Roberts

16/06/2011

True Spirituality: the challenge of 1 Corinthians for the twenty-first century church by Vaughan Roberts

Hugh Palmer recently observed* that 1 Corinthians is becoming easier to preach and apply with every passing year as our society gets closer to the world of first century Corinth. He is quite right, and this is a book for our time and for our church.

Vaughan picks up the main themes of the letter in eight chapters, one on each of the major blocks of teaching. It’s great stuff for the following reason:

  • Vaughan isolates the main issue in each section, and shows how the whole holds together. I was persuaded by his choice, although I admit I have never preached through this book myself.
  • He has a turn of phrase and use of illustrations which allow him to communicate clearly
  • His examples and applications are contemporary to Christian life in the west today.

True Spirituality explains the message of 1 Corinthians. It does not address ‘spirituality’ in the sense that many use the word: nor does it reflect in any depth on the issues around spirituality. It’s simply saying that truly ‘spiritual’ people live obedient lives shaped by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

*Hugh was speaking at Proclamation Trust’s Senior Ministers Conference in May 2011.


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