Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Should Bible in Schools Be Trashed?

Watching Breakfast yesterday I was intrigued to hear the Reverend Clay Nelson of St Matthews-in-the-City come out strongly against Bible in Schools saying that it is should be trashed. He argues that it is “un-Christian to force our faith on other people.” He aligns himself with the Secular Education Network. According to its website, this network is profoundly secular growing out of the rationalist society. It affirms a naturalistic world view rejecting all supernatural explanations. It sees science and religion as opposed explaining the world in fundamentally opposing ways.

The Rev’s position raises all sorts of questions for me. First, why would a Christian minister support an organisation like the Secular Education Network that blatantly opposes Christianity and faith claims? Christianity is premised on a God who created the world, the story of his repeated intervention, and most importantly, the story of Jesus who was imbued with power and performed miracles, rose from the dead, and whose Spirit acts in his people and world today? Can it really be said that the Rev in any real sense represents “our faith” when he aligns with the openly anti-religion Secular Education Network and against the proclamation of the gospel to NZ’s young? Certainly, on the basis of this at least, he does not align with the same faith as I do.  

Secondly, why would he oppose Bible in Schools on the grounds of force? Is it illegitimate “force” to allow a school to opt in or out of Bible in Schools at any time? or, when any parent at any time can opt a child out of the program? Is it illegitimate force for the church to faithfully and carefully obey the law which allows them to do this? After all, Bible in Schools is Government approved. It has been run on this basis for decades. If Bible in Schools was truly compelled, illegal and not well managed, he would have a point. However, it is not compelled, it is legal and the Christian Education Commission does a fine job in ensuring that the program is well run without compulsion.

Bible in Schools exists as a program because our forebears acknowledged the principle of the separation of Church and state. However, they also acknowledged that NZ, like all western nations, was to a large extent founded on Christianity. The Christian Church has been heavily involved in NZ’s history from its inception, including the Treaty of Waitangi. As a result of these two convictions, our forebears believed that the faith has some primacy and its values and basics should be taught. As such, the BIS program was established whereby the school is closed and the Christian story and its values taught. Direct evangelisation and proselytism has always been repudiated in Bible in Schools.

Christianity and the program are a long-established part of our Kiwi heritage as is Maori culture. I wonder whether the Rev would argue that we should remove Maori culture from the school curriculum because it is coercive and mono-cultural? After all, every NZ child has to study it. None of us should suggest such a thing.

In my view, the Christian story and its values should not be marginalised into a half-hour school closed program, but responsibly taught within the curriculum. Yes, we should teach young people to understand all the major religious and philosophical perspectives; but we should give some primacy to the faith that undergirds NZ culture—to not do so is a denial of our national identity.

A few other things come to mind. First, Jesus told the Pharisees and disciples that a kingdom divided against itself will fall. The Rev is nicely accelerating this in NZ. I wonder how Jesus views his comments. Secondly, the Rev perpetuates the western myth that secularism is neutral whereas religion is not. Secularism is not a neutral position—it is an anti-position; an anti-religion, anti-supernaturalism and anti-faith philosophy. It is as much a “religious” belief system and faith-claim as any religion. It is premised on the presupposition that supernaturalism in any form is untenable. This cannot be verified. Case in point, the origins of the universe; Christians claim God initiated it. Secularists have no answer other than chance. The jury is out on the actual answer and we all make our own call. Thirdly, as an aside, the claim that science and faith are fundamentally opposed is nonsense and the sort of either-or modernist thinking that should be rejected.

The media loves this stuff. If you google bible in schools, this story is everywhere. What the Rev has done is give them another angle to hammer Christianity—when one of “their own” comes out supporting the anti-Christian agenda that underlies our culture. While the Rev is quite within his rights to say his piece and believe as he does, in doing so I believe that he violates his call, his church and tradition, the gospel, and plays into the hands of the anti-Christian worldview. Bible in Schools is not coercive, it is an integral part of our heritage and I hope it continues to play an important part in the NZ education system.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Radical Call of Tatenda Taibu

I dreamed of being an international cricketer in my younger days. Each year, I played rugby in winter, cricket in summer, and wanted to be one of those double All Blacks who played both codes for NZ. I made it to Premier Club level in both and perhaps might have made it higher if I had stayed in sport. However, once Jesus got a hold of me in my early twenties and called me to preach, it was all over, and I gave away competitive sport to follow Jesus’ call.
It was a hard decision at one level, sport was so important to me. At another level, due to my radical experience of conversion and involvement in evangelism and ministry, it was easy because all I wanted to do was to obey Jesus and tell people about him.  I still feel the same. While this is not the call of every Christian sportsman, many of whom stay in the sport to play and give witness, it was my call. I have never regretted this decision and am where I am today because I dared to say yes as we should all do, no matter what the call is.

With this in mind, I was intrigued to read recently of Tatenda Taibu. Tatenda Taibu is a much more successful sportsman than I ever was and who has much more at stake. Until a week ago, he was a wicketkeeper batsman for Zimbabwe after a 11 year career. First selected at 18, just 3 years later at age 21, he became not only the first black captain of the national cricket team, but the youngest test cricket captain of all time. He was a fine player with an impressive record, scoring 5198 runs, average around 30, 3 centuries and 34 fifties, and taking 215 wicketkeeping dismissals across all forms of international cricket—impressive. He was internationally regarded, playing in the lucrative IPL. He is just coming into his prime as a cricketer and could likely have played on into his late thirties and made an awful lot more money.
Yet, last week on the 10th of July at age 29, shocking many, he retired from cricket to do church work. He is quoted as saying, “I just feel that my true calling now lies in doing the Lord’s work, and although I am fortunate and proud to have played for my country, the time has come for me to put my entire focus on that part of my life.”

Tibby, as he is nicknamed, has turned his back on pursuit of glory and has devoted his life to preaching. While a successful sportsman, he admits seeking true happiness and has found it in God. Renowned for his love of money and bling, he has renounced this preferring to store up treasure in heaven. He has put aside his bad boy image. He once fell out with the Zimbabwe cricket team for two years and played in South Africa. During this time he was charged for assaulting a Zimbabwe cricket official. Now, on the wall of his house is written, “I am God’s disciple—Taibu.” He has also said, “there is no looking back. I have stepped over the line. I won’t let up, or shut up. My focus is clear, my path straight, my God reliable, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.” His wife’s name is Loveness, his children Taibus, Tatenda (Jnr), and Gershom Paul (named after Moses’ son and the Apostle). He is raising his children in the Lord—“through him, the sky is the limit for me and my family.” He is a member of the Eagle Eye Tabernacle.
It is interesting reading blog sites and comments on ESPN Cricinfo, where critics debate his decision, mostly critical and showing little comprehension. Yet, those of us who know Jesus, know that Tatenda Taibu illustrates the heart of true discipleship found at the call of the first disciples (Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11) and through history; namely, if called to do so by Jesus, to be prepared to give up anything for him and to pursue his call no matter what the cost. His call is typical of God, calling someone out of fame and glory to be his servant.

May we be inspired to do the same, and may Tibby, his family and the church be richly blessed as he preaches God’s word.
A version of this can also be found on the Laidlaw College Blog (

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Women Bishops, Euodia and Syntyche

So the Anglicans in the UK have delayed yet again the vote on female bishops. I find the whole thing bewildering. I have written on this before,, but want to look at Philippians around the question. I know a little about Philippians, having written a few articles, a thesis, and now most of a commentary on the book.

The bishop is drawn from the notion of the episkopos, in Greek, an 'overseer.' The word is found once in Acts (Acts 20:28) of the leaders of the Ephesus church, of Jesus the supreme overseer (1 Pet 2:25), and in Paul three times of church elders (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:7; Phil 1:1). It is generally believed that the references in 1 Tim and Titus rule out women in this role, as the overseer is to be a husband of one wife. This may be correct. However, the Philippians' reference is intriguing and raises doubts.

Only in this letter does Paul single out the overseers and deacons (Phil 1:1). He then goes about writing a letter which is dominated by the unity issue. This is seen in Phil 1:5, "the partnership of the gospel;" in his report of his situation in Rome where preachers are divided over him (Phil 1:14-18); in his central proposition of the letter in 1:27 including "standing firm in one Spirit", "contending as one for the faith of the gospel;" in 2:1-4 he gets more direct, appealing for the Philippians with a four-fold emphatic construct to have the "same love, the same mind, to be one-souled, and one minded," they are to be humble and elevate others, being others-centred; in 2:5-8 they are to emulate Christ who embodies unity with God; in 2:14-15 they are to stop complaining and arguing; the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus point to their preparedness to partner with Christ and Paul for the gospel (Phil 2:19-25); in 3:2, 18 they are to shun false teachers, otherwise they are to be unified; in 3:16 he tells the Philippians if there are points of disagreement, God will bring fresh revelation to bring them into unity. Finally, in 4:2-3, he directly addresses the two at the centre of the debate, two women, Euodia and Syntyche. Using language used in 1:27; 2:2 he appeals to them to be unified in their mindset.

This all raises the question of who these women were. For Paul to write a letter dominated by the issues of their relationship suggests they were more than a couple of housewives having a squabble over the carpet or scones. Rather, they are clearly significant people, leaders of some sort with some degree of influence that occasioned Paul's letter all the way from Rome 1400km away. Not to mention that he is prepared to send two of his best co-workers, and come himself to sort it out (see 1:24-26; 2:19-30). This is clearly some issue.

The two women are described as "co-workers", which is Paul-speak for gospel preachers (used of Timothy, Titus, Aquila and Priscilla, Philemon and others). They worked beside him for the gospel, on previous visits. Again this says more than scone making. We know that the church was not led by a single bishop in those days (the word overseer is only plural in the NT). We know that women hosted and likely led churches including Lydia who hosted the first Philippian house-church in Acts 16:14-15, 40, and Nympha in Col 4:15. This all points to these women being at least house church leaders, pastors, preachers, and likely, overseers or deaconesses. A number of scholars suggest the latter. Why not the former? After all, if the church began in the home of a woman, and the letter singles out leaders, why not? So, were these women in fact bishops? It is certainly a good debate either way, if not conclusive.

The debate also hinges on which verses your privilege. If you privilege "husband of one wife" over Phil 1:1 which is ambiguous, you will argue that the Philippians verse should be read through the lens of 1 Tim and Titus. On the other hand, these latter two texts may apply only to Ephesus and Crete, perhaps because of female involvement in false teaching. So one can equally privilege Phil 1:1.

All in all, I don't get the refusal to have woman bishops. There are lots of signals in the NT, like the one above, that women should not to be limited in ministry, even though there are two situations where Paul acts to limit them (1 Cor 14; 1 Tim 2). Neither of these texts, however, state that the limitation is universal for all of time. They could equally be situational. Indeed, 1 Cor 14 follows 1 Cor 11:4-5 where women are permitted to speak in church, so it would seem likely 1 Cor 14 is a situational issue.

Anyway, Paul himself advocated flexibility on non-essentials on the basis of culture (1 Cor 9:19-22). I suspect he would say to those discussing this that in a nation where a woman can lead the nation, why not the church? It is not as if this is a salvation issue Christians should be so determined to split over.

Why should a woman who is a good leader, preacher, administrator and carries a sense of call, not be released into ministry, including that of being a Bishop? Especially so in lands where a woman is queen, where women lead businesses, schools, and become PM's (Thatcher). In fact, it is decidedly ironic that the head of the church is a woman (the Queen), and yet they can't be bishops! Not to mention that the idea of a single bishop is a post-biblical development anyway. Come on!

Jesus on no occasion limits people like this; if anything he went the other way allowing people freedom to serve (e.g. Luke 9:49-50). It is not as if Christian ministry is defined primarily by authority, it is defined by servanthood.

Neither is this issue on the same scale as the gay issue, which seems to be assumed in the debate by many. The whole Biblical Narrative gives no sense that the Law, Prophets, Christ, Paul or any other writer was open to the possibility of gay leaders. So, it is a different discussion.

On the other hand, slavery, gender and race issues we see contrary and subversive notes through Scripture. On slavery the seeds are sown in Philemon and Eph 6:9 which to me anticipate the end of slavery. On gender, in texts like Deborah, Philippians, people like Mary at Jesus' feet, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman of John 4, Nympha, Priscilla, Junia and the women of Rom 16. On race, we see proselytes leading from Acts 6; Luke was likely a gentile, as were many of the leaders of the churches (e.g. Philemon, Clement etc).

I am all for the authority of Scripture, for an evangelicalism based on Scripture, but we have to do it well. I find the whole thing perplexing. There is a time biblical conservatism becomes deeply troubling. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is it time for church sponsorship?

(Also published on the Laidlaw College Blog)

So the All Blacks are in discussions with potential sponsors who will place their logo on the centre of the jersey front. The English have the big Oa on theirs, the Springboks have Sasol, the Wallabies have Qantas. But the AB’s have been able to stay free of this dominant logo. Traditionalists are up at arms, crying foul. They want to keep the jersey pure. “No longer All Black” is the cry. Forget of course that Adidas already have their logo on it. Others concede that nothing can stop this, as it will yield the cash strapped NZRFU a way out of their financial predicament in these hard times. Should they sell their souls?

This got me thinking about church sponsorship. Should be fill those big spaces on the walls and notice boards of churches with corporate logos? How long will it be before churches go into partnerships with big companies for sponsorship? The church notice board could have a big golden M, or have the coke or other logo all over it. The side of the church, somewhere near the cross or communion table, could have a big “Sponsored by…” sign on it.
This would solve all our problems of paying the pastors the enormous salaries they need to show that God blesses the special and obedient. It could help pay for the cracking ceiling, the new sound system, the youth ministry, the church camp, and more. We could at last feed the poor. We could make the church eco-friendly. No longer would the people of God have to dig into their purses to fund the church, it would be secure.

After all, many churches are already kind of doing this by taking money from the breweries and gambling. Why not put it out there, “This Church is Sponsored by …”?

This could solve the problems of traditional churches facing declining numbers and buildings—they could rebuild them! People would flow with the glossy product, hot music, good looking and well dressed people, and the glorious oratory. After all, we could actually hire professional speakers and speech writers to improve the sermons. Whole denominations could go into partnerships with big corporations who would get great bang for their buck. Such things are so tempting in an age where money talks, where a good looking church set up requires on-going funding that is beyond many congregations and denominations.

Actually, I expect this is already happening and someone will respond to this blog telling me that their church or other has a sign to this effect on the door—I pray not.

The whole thing of course is corrupt and flawed. Tempting though it is, and arguably justifiable (then again maybe not), it is a return to the patronage system Jesus came to set the world free of. A system where one gives, in part, to get something back—especially their “name” enhanced. The recipient too must submit to the desires of the patron—it is quid pro quo giving. Christian giving is no strings attached. It demands nothing of the recipient. It is “on the quiet,” the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Corporates are free to give, but not as sponsors—their giving should be anonymous and from the heart like it all.

The only logos (note the play on words there) on the walls of churches should be dedicated to the great giver, God, Father, Son and Spirit. Unequal yoking is to be avoided, especially where the god of mammon is concerned. Whether the All Blacks yield, and I am sure they will in this day and age, and why not in this system, churches must not! What say you? 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Raise the Drinking Age—where is common sense?

Note: Written while not under the influence.

Surely, now it is time to raise the drinking age to twenty. In an ideal world, this would not be needed as kids would grow up with a responsible attitude to alcohol. But the thing is that they don’t. The TV is full of reports of out-of-control young people whose drunken behaviour is obvious. This is not new. It is a long-term kiwi issue going back to the “good old days” of rugby, racing and beer and seen in our on-going binge culture. I grew up with it—getting wasted was the norm then and now. My sister tragically died at age 23 from one such binge.
Sometimes one wonders where common sense has gone. The recently completed Herald DigiPoll shows that nearly 80% want the purchasing age raised to 20. 50% want the purchasing age in all licensed premises raised to 20. 25% believe it should remain at 18 in bars and restaurants. Personally, I am with the 50%; raise it to twenty in all situations. The Law Commission report in 1999 made this recommendation, stating that the reduction of the purchase age to 18 had increased youth drinking and alcohol-related hospitalisations and road crashes. Over a decade later, things aren’t getting any better.  So this is common sense isn’t it?

From a Christian point of view, with the Kiwi family and communities failing to raise young people who drink responsibly, the state which is God’s agent to maintain justice and peace, needs to step in big time (Rom 13). For me, it is irresponsible for the government, national and local, to sit back and not act decisively. What are they waiting for? One can imagine that the Government is under immense pressure from the powerful alcohol lobbyists, but it is time to get real. They should also be pushing for further alcohol education in schools, continuing advertising to warn of the risks, and especially hitting people in the wallets by raising the price of alcohol. It has worked with smoking; it will work with alcohol over time.

The church too needs to be much more proactive in speaking about alcohol. First, teaching young people of the consequences of alcohol and drugs. Church leaders need to be upfront with them, giving them a good theology of alcohol and drugs. Jesus drank in moderation even turning water into wine (John 2), but urged sobriety (Luke 21:34). Paul similarly had no problem with moderate drinking (Rom 13:13; 14:21; 1 Tim 3:8; 5:23; Tit 2:3; Rom 13:13), but rejected drunkenness (Gal 5:21; Eph 5:18). We need to teach abstinence or responsible drinking. Leaders need to model responsibility, and church should share testimonies of victory over the booze and drugs. Churches also need keep giving youth opportunities for good times without getting smashed. Where Christians have opportunity to speak into schools, we should take them sharing how young people can be responsible with their booze.

Secondly, we our ministries should include a real awareness of alcohol’s dangers and with help available. Our preaching, without harsh judgementalism and demand, should frequently refer to this subject. No doubt, many in our churches will be dependent on alcohol and drugs to varying degrees, with some alcoholics, and others affected in their everyday lives.  When there is an opportunity to speak on social vices, we must not neglect this. There will be many who need regular reminding about the dangers of alcohol, and many who need help—we need to be there for them, with professional counselling available. As part of this, we can set up and/or support the work of 12-step programs such as AA which help people find freedom from their addictions with the support of the ultimate higher power.

What do you think?