Friday, March 22, 2013

Gay Marriage—Does it Change Anything? Further Thoughts

In my earlier blog piece after the passing of the second reading of the Gay Marriage bill in NZ, I suggested that in reality the passing of this legislation changes little for Christians who uphold traditional marriage. While many of us will be upset and saddened our response should not be to be reactive prophets of woe, defensive and bitter toward politicians (they are people too) because they have chosen this path, or continuing to regale the world with moralism. No doubt each Member of Parliament all acted in good conscience, and that is all a person can do in any situation. Rather, our response should be to dig deeper into God and work harder to be the people of God we are called to be—people who live out of the call of the gospel. This means being people who live the gospel full of grace and seasoned with salt (

There was one additional question that came to me as I continue to ponder this situation. That is the challenge we now face as Christians and churches which uphold traditional marriage where the gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual community is concerned.  As more gay and lesbians marry and adopt children in the years ahead, some from those will seek out Jesus and churches. Some will have leadership potential, which raises a range of questions around gays and lesbians in church leadership. Similarly, as we go about our lives at work and in mission, we will increasingly encounter these people, working and playing alongside them. Some people who believe in Jesus and churches with a more liberal theology which support gay marriage will be fully open to these people and they will have no problem being welcomed as full participants in the life of the church (e.g. Many others will not, and will struggle to know how to handle it. I suspect that, unless there is a great liberalisation of the wider church over the next decades where sexual ethics is concerned, most churches will remain of the view that gay and lesbian marriage is no marriage at all and a distortion of God’s intention for humanity. The question is I have is, how do we handle this? We face a real clash of our view of “truth” and the Christian imperative for “grace.”

This is something that is hard to theorise on because each situation will be different and believers will have to work this out as they go—learning will be discovered in the journey. However, a few thoughts I had are these.

First, I believe that, once this is passed, as I am sure it will be, it is essential that our public voice on this issue is very carefully thought through. Strident voices making threats of further action, apocalyptic woe, rebuking politicians and parties, demands for referenda and further politicizing, may seem a good idea and a natural response, but I suspect if it will only further to alienate us from the world around us—a world we want to reach with the gospel message of salvation in Jesus.

I would prefer us working to ensure that our own views within the church are well-conceived, and then get on with the core work of the gospel—worship, being the people of God in community, and sharing the message of Jesus to the world in attitude, deed and word. We need to think through how we respond and relate to a world with a very divergent ethic to our own—our best minds need to work through at a new level how to engage in mission in the secular west. We need to get our own houses in order, teaching our people well, so they live the gospel as Christ called us, including in the area of sexuality. In 1 Pet 3:1–7 Peter urges women in the Asian churches who are married to husbands who have rejected the word, to win them without words. There is a time for us to realise that it is time to move on and move the message to the heart of the gospel, Jesus Christ and salvation. Perhaps the time will come in the future when others will readdress this issue. I sense in my spirit now is not the time, we need to get on with being the people of God.

Secondly, all churches and denominations which are involved in marriage will have to consider at a macro and/or local level how they will respond to this new law. Some might pull out of state marriage, and simply have blessings for those who have become legally married through a registry process. Some might agree to conduct gay marriage. Some may allow ministers and churches to decide on conscience. Some will continue on, marrying only heterosexual couples. It will be essential that each church and denomination has a clear position on this, or they will become subject to the State and human rights legislation. In some very liberal or evangelical churches and denominations this will be a simple process, in others it will difficult and contentious as there will be strong and differing views on this. Whatever the situation, churches and denominations will need to be clear on their position and this may be a painful process. May the Lord’s people conduct these conversations in the grace of Christ!

Thirdly, I am particularly concerned that we help our younger people negotiate the area of sexuality much more intentionally, thoughtfully, and graciously. It is a confusing world for young people with sexuality becoming a minefield, with many confused through conflicting messages, accessibility of sexual gratification through a multiplicity of sources, orientation questions, guilt and shame, and how to respond to it all. It must be very tough being a teenager today! We need to ramp up our support for young people to help them through this difficult area. They need support and space to work through the questions many are facing. We need well-trained safe people they can go to help them in their journeys.

Finally, I believe the greatest challenge will be for churches which uphold the traditional Christian position on marriage is how to remain open communities of grace welcoming all. Without doubt as the years roll on, gay and lesbian married couples will come to church with their kids. Some will be gifted and want to contribute. As with all people, they are God’s image bearers and Christ was clear—we are to love all humanity.  While being always committed to the gospel which is very clear on sexual ethics, we need to ensure that we are open non-judgmental communities of grace welcoming them. In his teaching Jesus endorsed holiness and goodness including sexual purity, but he also was unafraid of intimate fellowship with sinners, tax-collectors and prostitutes.

Our churches are full of people who without exception are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We must resolve to continue to be communities of forgiveness and healing to all, no matter who enters our doors. God’s love is there for all of those made in his image. And when new people arrive, whatever their struggles, sin and weaknesses, we must meet them with relentless grace. 

Our supreme challenge then is to find a way to continue to uphold and proclaim a Christian sexual ethic, but in a way that is saturated with grace and gentleness. This will not be an easy path as we hold in tension our view of truth and the imperative of love. I suspect it starts with humility because our churches are already full of people who have fallen short in this area. We will no doubt fail one way or another as the future unfolds, but we must never give up on our determination to find a way to embrace this challenge. We will discover how to do this as we set out on the path—may we do it faithfully to Christ who showed us the way.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Worldwide Religion Rejection—Sorry Bob Jones, You Are Wrong

Bob Jones is at it again. In the NZ Herald today (19/03/2014) he has commented on the decline of religious adherence in the recent British census. He speaks of his hope that the same thing will happen in NZ. No doubt his hope will be realised, as there is no secret that European Kiwis who make up the majority of the population have been rejecting institution religion for decades now. Sadly for Bob, we Europeans don’t have many kids, so NZ will increasingly become non-European and religious adherence will begin to rise as we are peopled by Polynesians, Asians and others in the future—enjoy it while it lasts Bob.

In the opinion piece Jones shows his modernist atheist biases. First, on the basis of philosophy he rebukes Jeff Tallon for suggesting that the intricacy of the universe supports the possibility of a creator. The problem for Bob is that he shows he is out of touch with philosophy. Philosophy does not rule out a creator, it regales against those who believe that there must be a creator. A creator (or creators) is one viable philosophical reason for this complex universe. Philosophy does not rule it out, but rightly rejects those who insist it is the only solution. It may well be the best solution. What is your solution Bob? What is your alternative? Aliens? Nothing produced this glorious universe? I can’t think of a better solution than some utterly immensely powerful creator (s) and creative force, even if I can’t prove it. I go with Jesus because he popped in and rose from the dead. Others have different explanations. What is yours Bob?

Secondly, he hammers some Americans for their belief in a literal 6 day creation. Fair enough on this one; but again, he shows how out of touch he is. Christians hold a range of views on the development of our world and universe, with many accepting science’s consensus of a big bang and an old earth. Many actually agree with an evolutionary world-view. However, they recognise the non-viability of evolution without an agency, and believe that God is at the helm of the creation of life in our world. When Bob singles out six-day creationists, he is using a straw man argument, a classic tactic. He ignores the swath of thinking Christians who have moved on from modernist dichotomies.

Thirdly, he shows that he hasn’t kept up with different ways Christians read the Bible. We don’t all naively read it literally. Hermeneutics is a well-developed discipline which recognises that the Bible is “theological history” as are the writings of the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans and others and reads it against its historical setting allowing for its biases, use of metaphor, varying intents, and genre, etc. Perhaps you could do a course on hermeneutics somewhere Bob.

Fourthly, Bob lives in a world which vilifies Christianity as entirely negative. This bias needs to be challenged. Yes, those who follow Christ have failed to live up to their own ideals, for that we are sorry. However, this does not repudiate the brilliance of Jesus who came among us and was the first to preach full egalitarianism, unconditional love, and non-violence. Further, Christianity has had a major positive influence on he and us all being able to enjoy science (e.g. Newton), education, health, work ethic, justice, morality, egalitarian democracy, freedom, and more. Jesus has brought much good to the world, even if his followers haven’t always got it right. While religion can be destructive, it has brought much good to our world. While Bob would no doubt disagree, I would argue that without Christianity, the world would be far worse off than it is today.

Finally, what really got me going was his statement that “with one exception, rejection of religion is a worldwide phenomenon corresponding with increasing education.” I wonder what the exception is—Islam? China? Former Communist nations like Russia? South America? Korea? Russia? Africa? His claim is utterly naïve and incorrect. In many countries in Europe and peopled by Europeans his thesis can be argued, especially the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, and NZ. But more broadly, this is patently incorrect. Christianity is blazing through Asia and Africa as we speak. In many of these nations (esp. China), education levels are on the rise not in decline, and Christianity is flourishing, despite state oppression. South America remains very Christian. Many portions of Europe, especially those which were under Communist rule, are far more religious than they were a few decades ago. Bob is your classic modernist suffering from a Euro-centric myopia. Religion is far from dead. See the response to the selection of Pope Francis. He should check out a recent report on the World’s Christian population. It’s bad news for Bob (

So, the census will no doubt reveal a decline in religious affiliation among Europeans in particular, but is this permanent or temporary? I suspect the latter, but it may take a few generations until the likes of Bob and I are facing our destinies and NZ (and other currently Caucasian dominated nations) is a brown and very religious country. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Gay Marriage—Does it Change Anything?

So the marriage amendment bill passed it second reading and, in NZ, very soon gays and lesbians will be able to marry. This was no surprise to me. It was obvious at the first reading that the bill was going to get through, despite the best efforts of many to convince MPs to change their vote. So where to from here for those who follow the Christian view of marriage? That is, an exclusive life-long commitment made between an adult man and a woman, in which both partners commit to wholly love and be faithful to the other.

The first thing is that I don’t think we should declare apocalyptic woe on NZ as if God will now punish us. If we do this, we will interpret any negative event in the next year or so as God pouring out his wrath on NZ. That would be dumb! The thing is, nothing much has changed in the last two days. Three days ago, a man could form a civil union with a man, and similarly a woman to a woman. This was a legally binding relationship. Now they can marry, at least in the eyes of the State. What has really changed? Going further back, homosexuality was frequent in our nation. And we can’t single out homosexuality—all over the place people are looking at porn, frequenting brothels, engaging in pre-marital sex, committing adultery, objectifying the other sexually, abusing children, divorcing and many other sexually immoral activities. Nothing much has changed. And indeed, many people who claim the name of Christ are doing these things as we speak! If God was going to pour his wrath on us for sexual immorality, he has plenty of reason whether the marriage bill had passed or not.

Another thing we should not do is get too fired up about the marginalisation of the Christian voice or ethic. It is true that our voice is marginalised, at least in moral areas and evangelisation (our voice for social justice in many cases is still welcomed, e.g. care for the poor). However, we did have our say in the process, even if some feel it was loaded. We presented to Parliament. The people we have voted in rejected it. We “lost.” That is democracy. We don’t live in a theocracy and we cannot enforce the “rule of God.” That never works anyway. It is self-defeating, and Christian alliances with the State over the centuries are a constant thorn in our side as we share Christ these days! Christianity has an essential “freedom” in it that allows people to respond to God, the gospel, and its ethics freely and without coercion. What is the alternative? That the government enforces God’s morality on a people who reject it? That sounds like a violation of the gospel to me.

Certainly, I find it deeply saddening that NZ is progressively abandoning a Christian morality. We have seen this in a number of recent social changes, e.g. abortion. Euthanasia I am sure is next, and ultimately it will be legalised. Or will it be marijuana legalisation? Then polygamy? The social liberalisation will go on.
I am certainly convinced the best way to raise children is in a healthy home, with a mum and dad in a loving faithful relationship, who bring their kids up with good discipline, gentleness, love and education.  I believe that is God’s ideal. However, NZ has chosen this path, and we are now on it. Crying foul in public and stating that “we will continue to fight” is not the best option. We look even worse as we do so. We need to choose our fights wisely and know when to stop. Personally, I believe we keep declaring the gospel of salvation in Christ rather than moralism.

So what is the best option? In my view, we should encourage each other as the people of God continue to live the gospel full on 24/7. We reaffirm our commitment to the patterns of human life God has laid down for us, and we live them. Among our churches, we continue to live out the creation mandate for men and women to marry, and raise strong families. We continue to be committed to celibate singleness, or faithful marriage as God intended. We stand for social justice for women, for the poor, for children, for the marginalised. Where the gay and lesbian community is concerned, we continue to do as Jesus did and love them with the grace of the gospel. We don’t need to demonise them, but respect their integrity as humans, and while we may disagree with their lifestyle, we love them as Christ loves all people. At a denominational level, we uphold the Christian ethic and not this progressive ethic the nation has opted for. We affirm that marriage is for men and women. We do not compromise and begin conducting marriages and civil unions in the name of our churches. We continue to proclaim Christ, but with a positive message of a God who loves us, yearns for relationship with us, has a vision for this world that is compelling and exciting, and who wants to spend forever with us. This positive message is the one that will change NZ, not moralising on after battles are lost.

One positive from this is that the differences between the Christian ways of life and those of our culture are continuing to grow. If Christians do not now compromise and sell out to this “progressive” ethic, whatever the cost in so-doing, their “light” and “saltiness” will begin to become progressively more apparent. This may lead to persecution in some cases as we are labelled homophobes and bigots. It may lead to marginalisation and ridicule. However, it will also enable people to see over time whether God’s way is the best way for humanity. You see, time will tell whether this is a good decision. I know some Christians who believe that Christian opposition to gay and lesbian relationships is akin to Christians endorsing patriarchy or slavery. I believe there is a difference, in that I don’t see homosexuality as a created given. Others disagree with me. I suppose time will test this. We will see over the next centuries the fruit of the rejection of the Judeo-Christian morality in our culture. Will it yield a better world? Will it not? And then there is the eternal question—what will God say when we meet him? Time will tell.

In the meantime, we who name Christ as Lord should all get on with being the people of God. This means renouncing all idolatries obvious (e.g. idol worship) and subtle (e.g. materialism, consumerism, etc) and loving God. Staying committed to knowing him through his word, in prayer, by the Spirit, and in others. It means staying committed to his people, worshiping, serving, and fellowshipping together in the local church. It means loving each other with the agapē love of Christ—serving, supporting, loving, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit to one another in communities of grace and as true disciples. It means loving all people we meet who do not agree with our faith with humility, grace and love. Sharing Christ with them with wisdom, with lives and “words full of grace and seasoned with salt.” In 1 Cor 5 we are told to remain engaged with those in the world who live out of a different ethic. Ours is not to judge them, to regale them with moralism, but to live the gospel. It also means honouring sexuality as a wonderful gift from God, but seeking sexual purity before God.

I get the sense that one of the reasons we are not listened to is our hypocrisy. We cry foul over sexual sin in the world, but we are little different. That is a fair critique I believe. As such, we should resist crying “morality” to the world, and “be the people of God.” It is by our love that people will see that we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:34–35).

We need to remember that the Christian movement in the Roman Empire outside of Israel grew up in a sexually licentious world. They advocated sexual purity and did not compromise on this, and neither should we. But they heart of their message was not to proclaim to Caesar that the State should adopt Christian marriage, but that Jesus is Lord, that he died for our sins, that he rose from the dead, that he invites people into abundant life, and he promises eternal life in a world free of corruption forever to those who accept him as Lord. They cared for the poor and marginalised. They built communities of grace, etc. That is the way ahead. In this way, the nation will be transformed as we are salt and light in its many crevasses.
So, does the marriage bill change anything? Not really. A small percentage of NZers that want to get married but couldn’t before now can. For the church, it means that we have to think a little more about how we relate to this shifting world. But, what really matters is that we truly live as the people of God we are called to be—holy, righteous and loving. Let’s do it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Election of a Pope: Is it just me?

So another pope is about to be installed. What to make of it all? First, some disclaimers. I am not saying that the Roman Catholic Church is not Christian—after all, for some 1500 years, it was one only a few  institutional churches on the planet. It remains the largest denomination in Christianity. Without doubt, among its people are many priests, nuns and people of faith; Christian people who love God and serve him faithfully. People like my wife Emma’s late mum, Brenda Jenkins. What a saint! Not to mention the Mother Theresa’s of this world—I stand humbled by such a wonderful women of God and a prophetess[1] to the world in her service in India. I would never deign to suggest I am anything like this women in terms of fidelity to God. There are many many clergy, nuns and monks who I am sure have given great service as leaders in God’s church. I am not saying that my church is any better. I am a Presbyterian at present and we have had a swag of problems over the years! As a biblical scholar, I also greatly respect the Catholic biblical scholarship. Some of the greatest NT scholars are Roman Catholics—think Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer for example, what superstars. I also greatly admire the united voice and stand of the Catholic Church on many social issues where the rest of the church is weak. Although I think in rejecting all birth control beyond abortion and abortifacients they go rather too far.

That said; I have so many questions about the Catholic Church and the election of a pope. 

First, the notion of a Pope and even priests seems to me to be antithetical to a gospel that says humanity needs no intermediary between God and man/woman aside from Jesus Christ. We have a helper from God, the Spirit, who walks with us, and God is a prayer away. We can read his word. We have access to the holy of holies as does the Pope and any priest, vicar, minister or pastor. Matthew 23 also explicitly tells us we are to call no one “father,” for we have one—God. Why a Christian leader would want to be entitled “Father” or “Pope” baffles me. Mind you, I need to read that passage carefully myself as a lecturer—we are also not to call anyone teacher—for Christ is our teacher. I am at best a guide who shares my wisdom and perspective, helping people know the true Teacher, Jesus Christ our Lord. The notion of a Pope is also historically flawed as has often been noted. Even if Peter is the rock on which Jesus established his church (Matt 16:18), which of course is disputed, Peter was not a “Pope” let alone the first of a string of popes. The text and the wider Scriptures says nothing about papal succession or apostolic succession. He was one of the first called apostles, a pivotal figure in the early church, but not a pope. The idea of papal succession is a human tradition that is lacking in biblical warrant. The appointment of Matthias in Acts 1 hardly constitutes papal succession. 

I also don’t get the idea of saints as special Christians; the NT use of hagios is unambiguous, we who believe all are saints—holy, consecrated, set apart for God! We definitely should not pray to saints; this violates the uniqueness of God. Nor should we pray to Mary in any sense. Mary is clearly very special; after all, she was chosen by God to mother his Son, to bear him and raise him, as she did so faithfully and well. She also clearly had other children as Mark 6 tells us despite claims to the contrary. She is a wonderful women of faith who is a role model to all God’s people and should be treated as such. I also don’t get that popes and priests have to be men. Mind you, the Catholics are not alone in this one. Where is this enshrined that it is so for all time? Why not a female Pope? The word "Pope" doesn’t work for that I suppose.

I don’t understand that priests are not permitted to marry. The first commandment in Scripture is, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth …” Seems all Catholics can obey this one, except their leaders! Strange! Peter was clearly married as Mark 2:30 and parallels make clear. Likely most of the other Apostles were also married and their wives accompanied them when they traveled (1 Cor 9:5)! It is also likely Paul was originally married, if we take agamos of 1 Cor 7:8 literally as widower, which seems probable when we consider the parallelism of the passage (widower and widow), and that Paul was Pharisee and likely married for this role. The many sexual controversies in the Catholic Church of recent times can arguably be linked to this. (Again, every church I am sure has its issues in this regard, and being married does not stop it happening—but the extent of the problem raises the question).

So, I don’t quite get the Roman Catholic Church. Mind you, I love its people of faith as brothers and sisters in Christ—after all, every church is flawed and God by his grace calls us his people! I also don’t quite get the Pope election. It is intriguing to watch and I can see its importance for the witness of the church and the Catholic Church. I do pray however, that the man chosen is a great man of God who gives good and humble leadership to the many faithful Catholics in the world. I pray he is a man of faith and wisdom and provides a great example and voice to a world that needs Christ more than ever. So I ask this question, is it just me who thinks like this at a time like this?

[1] In that, by her example, she called a world to social justice.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Positive Side of Death

In my last blog I shared from the heart some of my thoughts on death after my Dad’s tragic passing in Middlemore Hospital. I spoke of my abhorrence for death, its violation of life, and the hope of death’s end—thankfully, because Jesus has conquered death, death’s demise comes closer everyday—bring it on!
As I have reflected, I have realised I needed to add to that picture I painted. That is, the positive side of death. Everything has a positive side. Pain is very useful—it causes us to withdraw from situations that endanger us. I remember being very moved by reading in Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor of the story of Paul Brand who works with lepers and who speaks of the positive side of pain from the point of view of lepers. Lepers damage themselves because they do not feel pain. Pain causes us to withdraw to safety; otherwise we will be maimed.

In a fallen world susceptible to suffering and pain, death has a positive side too. Without death, those who suffer immensely in great pain would never find release. They would live on in their agony. I remember when Dad died, in the grief there was some sense of relief—his suffering is ended. There was also the unknown of what quality of life he would have had, had he survived. The Greeks weren’t completely silly to see death as a release. In many cases, it is. Sometimes death is timely and good.

Death is also essential in a fallen world to limit evil. Consider Hitler. Imagine him living on indefinitely in his despotic madness. What sort of world or universe would there be if those such as Hitler lived on indefinitely regardless! It would be a cosmic “bloodbath.”

Of course, the tragedy is that the good must also die with the evil. So the world is robbed of so many great people because of death. There are so many we wish would live on indefinitely because of the good they do. But they too must die, for what is corrupted, and we all are marred, cannot be allowed to live on indefinitely.
You can really see the “logic” of the Christian gospel here. When humanity became corrupted by sin due to its defiance of God in the garden, God had no choice but to limit the life-span of all people, to ensure eternity was not granted to marred humanity. Otherwise sin and corruption would live on in this world and the one to come. Death then became a good thing, it limits evil.

The point of Jesus is to deal with that corruption and our propensity to sin by overcoming it with a life that did not yield to corruption, dying for the sake of those trapped in sin and corruption, and providing the means by which all humanity can be set free from the power of despite. They can become people uncorrupted, and thus be permitted to live on. 

We can’t do any of this ourselves; we need God’s intervention to restore us to a state of goodness. It is all his work. All we have to do is yield to Jesus, say “yes” to him, trust in him, we are joined to him. Our part is miniscule, we will to be a part of it. As Luke’s Paul put it, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” When we yield, something mystical, spiritual and incomprehensible occurs. Though we are still trapped in bodies and a world subject to death, spiritually we move from death to life, and we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. In our present physical state, we remain marred by sin and corruption. We must at some point die or be transformed physically to be released, to be transformed, to become incorruptible, immortal and wholly good. Then we can live eternally. Paul describes this process beautifully in 1 Corinthians 15:50–53:

50 I tell you this, brothers and sisters: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be transformed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be transformed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality…

The Christian gospel is an ingenious. I can see no other way a God seeking eternal free fellowship based on love could have saved the world without something like this. I explore this in Chapter Three of my book What’s God Up To On Planet Earth. Such a means of saving respects God’s character, justice, and human “freedom.”

Returning to the issue of this blog—so it is that death has real value in a fallen world. It hurts like hell, it sucks, it grieves, it hurts, it violates! Yuck! But it is a necessary “evil” in a fallen world. That good news is that there is something on the other side of death and now we know it. Jesus showed us that when he appeared. History since has proved it as, despite Christian failure, life and goodness has penetrated God’s world like salt and light due to his Spirit’s work in his people in history. God paved a way. We can walk it if we want and we will know life without death. I plan to do so because I love life and God and Christ and if need be, I am prepared to die to get there. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.