Bishops, the Bible, and marriage

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According to newspaper headlines about General Synod last week, the Church of England is in turmoil. True, in the sedate world of church committees, this amounts to a few teacups rattling. But there was a surprise.

The Bishops’ recent report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships was written after much “listening” to the views of church members and clergy. Going against powerful trends in secular culture which redefine marriage, it basically affirmed with commendable clarity the Biblical teaching that marriage is and remains a lifelong exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, and also recognised that gay people have at times been made to feel unwelcome in church, urging the Church to review its tone and pastoral care in this area.

The surprise was that whilst the Bishops and lay members supported the Report, the clergy members of the General Synod voted (by a narrow margin) not to “take note” of it. This refusal to “note” the report is a long way from the Church of England “moving towards gay marriage”, as some headlines had it. Yet some of those who spoke in the debate are apparently so determined to force the Church to change that Scripture can be ignored and the Church  divided towards that end.

Nonetheless it was widely acknowledged that one of the most moving and courageous speeches in the debate came from Sam Alberry, an evangelical minister who described his feeling of being bullied, first at school for being “gay”, and now at Synod for being same-sex attracted but faithful to Christ. His three-minute contribution is worth listening to here and starts at 1:07 into the recording.

Those who hold as I do that the Biblical teaching on marriage is based on Genesis 2:24 , “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NIV), do not do so because we are being difficult or “fundamentalist”. We believe in taking the Bible literally – in the sense of meaning what the “letters” or words in it mean. We believe in interpretation of the Bible using the best tools of  learning – but not to make a text mean what the author could never have meant. We believe in being aware of the culture behind a text – but not in changing the text to fit our culture. We believe in reading the Bible as a whole, taking note of its diversity – but not in using one part to contradict another.

At their consecration bishops affirm their commitment to the Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for salvation, and to teaching the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it. The Bishops should be honoured for doing their job and faithfully teaching what the Bible says about marriage and relationships.

None of this absolves the Church from repenting that at times we have made gay people feel unwelcome – and for that matter, singles, or unmarried parents. All of us equally need the grace of Christ and the love of the Church, and we can start sharing these things today. But if Genesis 2:24 marriage is, as Paul says in Ephesians 5:31-32, not just a social convention, or a way to raise a family, but a sign of the union of Christ with His Bride the Church, it is surely right to defend its Biblical definition and value with every ounce of conviction that we have. Let’s pray for the bishops.

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Review of “The Call” by Trevor Archer and Paul Mallard

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This is an admirably  concise but deceptively thorough book to give to members of our congregations who are considering “the call” to full-time (paid, ordained – the right term eludes us) ministry in the local church. Written from a Free Church perspective (this becomes more and more apparent in the second and third parts of the book) I nonetheless found it useful to consider giving to potential Anglican ordinands.

The strengths of the book are its broad wisdom in describing both what to look for in oneself if considering the ordained path (part one), and in plotting the course through a process of discernment and training (part two). Obviously the examples given for the latter are not the same as in the Anglican process, although similar. I especially liked the emphasis in part one upon Christian character as foundational before any discussion of gifting – and the three “g’s” (evidence of the considerable ministry experience of both authors) of grit, grace and gumption. Judicious quotes are included from Richard Baxter, and the inclusion of discussion of other models such as bi-vocational ministry is welcome. It was good to see that one of the 12 “marks of ministry” highlighted is a heart for the lost, and the all-too-true comment that too many pastors are happier feeding the flock than reaching lost sheep! The potential danger of making it appear that “call” is a subjective and individualistic matter is well avoided by sections reminding us that “calling” is in large part the fruit of proven ministry and local church recognition. As my own director of ordinands said to me over 20 years ago, “The Church cannot give you a ministry, we simply recognise one that God has already given you.”

It would have been interesting to explore more the nature of the pastor’s role as a shepherd in leading the flock. What leadership gifting does a pastor need, or what special heart or skills are needed in pioneer or church planting or youth ministry? Theological reflection on ministry is light: to what extent does the pastor represent the congregation and model discipleship for others (however imperfectly)? That this is missing perhaps reflects lack of space, not just denominational perspective, but as an evangelical Anglican with a reformed bent I looked in vain for a reference to administering sacraments in ministry and how they proclaim the gospel alongside preaching. Preaching may be the key way we pastor, but surely leading the Church to be healthy in displaying her other key marks is essential as part of “the call” too?

The bibliography includes greats like CH Spurgeon, John Piper, Richard Coekin and Derek Prime, yet is a bit selective beyond those.

A great little book, probably most useful for pastors and potential pastors in free evangelical churches.

 

How will we train clergy to teach and preach?


“It’s the theology, stupid” is the title of Alister McGrath’s very helpful Church Times review of the Church of England’s discussion document on clergy training “Resourcing Ministerial Education” (RME). I believe strongly that we must cultivate a stronger leadership culture in senior clergy, which is the focus of the earlier Green Report, and which should not in my view be confused with this separate one. But I do agree with McGrath that congregations, parishes and people need clergy who know their Bibles and can connect them theologically with their lives. I’m not sure he is right to see RME as promoting a corporate, institutional view of Church, but he is spot on in sounding the alarm at its proposals to delegate how training is financed to local dioceses, and very likely to disconnect training from residential and university-based theological education. It’s the theology, stupid.

Bishop Steven Croft chaired the RME report group and responded to its critics in this blog this week. Reading his response, I am encouraged by the reminder of the goal of an increase in 50% in vocations (just as big a task as financing them). But I am still left asking for the group to assure us that increased quantity will not mean diluted theological quality. As mixed-mode training still appears to be the favoured way to finance an increase in ordinations, this dilution is surely inevitable, if the proportion of ordinands training residentially (and in seminaries linked to university faculties) falls as the number overall rises.

Attending a preaching conference this week I am forcefully struck by the value of rigorous theological education (evident in the humble work of so many attending with me) to give us high expectations of one another as clergy, and to train us not to think “that was it” but to be lifelong theological and homiletical learners. This “never stop learning” attitude is epitomised by the title of the handout given this morning by an eminent but humble Australian preacher and theologian who retired after 40 years of ministry, but continues to preach and train preachers:

“Still learning to preach, and still learning to teach others to preach”.

What should pastors read?

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Many of us who are pastors love what our ministry requires us to do – prayer, preaching, evangelism and pastoring people – but struggle with the challenge of the work involved and the nature of it. Preaching is hard work. Sundays come round with amazing regularity. And we are fallible people working among fallible people, who receive encouragement from many – and face discouragement from others, not all of it deserved.

Personally I find that the longer I go in in ministry (it’s twenty years since ordination this summer) the more I need to read books to keep me inspired and fresh. Some advocate only reading the Bible or books about it, but I read biographies (currently one on Whitefield, and one on Stalin for contrast), history, and classic novels, as well as books expounding the Bible (often the more ancient the author, the better). It all helps us to be nourished by the faith or wisdom of others, to sharpen our skills, or to understand our culture better.

I have several “favourite” books on ministry and preaching, but Charles Spurgeon “Lectures to my Students” is always arresting. I enjoyed this Spurgeon quote last week from Justin Taylor about the vital importance of reading books to our ministry, entitled “Paul was inspired, yet he wanted Timothy to bring him books to read!”

It is probably the nature of pastoral ministry (we’re too busy) that not many great modern books have been written by seasoned pastors passing on their hard-earned wisdom. I’ve read some Paul David Tripp before (a former pastor but not recently in frontline pastoral ministry). Here’s a not-entirely-positive review of his “Dangerous Calling” from just such an experienced minister, Paul Levy. I agree with the reviewer: we need books on ministry that are both realistic and encouraging to those who are in the trenches doing the work.

So what should pastors read? My top five favourites on pastoral ministry (apart from Spurgeon) would be:

The Art of Prophesying – lovely short work on preaching followed by two extended reflections on “The Calling of the Ministry”, by Puritan William Perkins

Preaching and Preachers – D Martyn Lloyd-Jones – preaching on fire!

Ordering your Private World – Gordon MacDonald – written out of the crucible of pastoral ministry

The Contemplative Pastor – Eugene Peterson – rich modern pastoral wisdom

Courageous Leadership – Bill Hybels – a unique pastor, and his best book, IMHO

And, erm, of course – the Bible. I hope that goes without saying.

Other suggestions on preaching and pastoral ministry?

Gleanings from this week’s news: Richard III, Boko Haram, leadership conferences, new bishop

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I thought Nick Baines put it really well in his BBC Thought for the Day on the reinterment of the remains of Richard III, villified by Shakespeare, and perhaps in need of mercy as much as we all are.

We need to continue praying for those persecuted as well as those who persecute. This in Christianity news was a fascinating insight into the life of those in northeast Nigeria affected by Boko Haram – fleeing and then serving those who flee.

I’ve hugely learnt from the wisdom of Bill Hybels. Earlier this week we met with European Willow Creek Leadership Summit (GLS) leaders and heard about some research they’ve done into the impact of these high-quality conferences on pastors and other leaders. Aside from inspiration, there are even “hard” team and skills outcomes too, it seems, and the Willow GLS homepage has a first taste of these figures. The leaders we met were great people, too – recommended!

Knowing Rachel Treweek and her work in London, I believe we have a new Bishop of Gloucester with a track record of gospel-centred ministry and leadership, who see concepts like “discipleship” and “leadership” and “church growth” as vital aspects of pastoral ministry alongside prayer and service.

Leadership and the care of souls

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Last weekend we had a fantastic time with 100 leaders from churches all over north London. We explored how the contemporary interest in “leadership” relates to the Biblical image of the pastor/shepherd.

It seems quite ambitious to be trying to convince anyone here that leadership is a good thing in the build-up to a General Election. There is so much scepticism around about politicians who break promises. But here are two reasons many are still convinced that leadership is a vital topic for us:

The Scriptures call us to it. The activity of overseeing or directing the people of God is common, from Moses and Miriam to Priscilla and Aquila. There are spectacularly bad leaders: but that does not mean all leadership is bad.

God gives us leaders for our good. There is no such thing in God’s purpose as a leader who does not care for those they lead. So in Acts 20 Paul calls the Ephesian church leaders “overseers” (from which we get “episcopacy” or “bishops”) and in the next sentence “shepherds” or “pastors” called to feed and care for the flock of Christ. Leadership and pastoral care may not be identical: but they are often inseparable.

Focus on giving not getting

The Biblical image of God as the shepherd leader is very common from the end of Genesis (48:15) and in no less than 11 Psalms.

Then in Exekiel 34 the leaders of the nation are false shepherds, 2bWoe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool, but do not take care of the flock”.

God declares that instead He will be shepherd to his people, and will send another David to lead and care for them properly.

Jesus is  “the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10). He sees the crowds as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) and predicts that at his arrest in Gethsemane, the shepherd will be struck and the sheep will scatter (Mark 14:27).

Not only is Jesus the great shepherd: The leaders of the Church are called overseers, bishops and elders but also shepherds in three distinct places (Acts 20:28, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Peter 5:2).

Yes, the Bishops and clergy, as the ordination rites remind us, are to shepherd and lead the flock. But the Great Shepherd has delegated his pastoral care of souls to all who lead in the Church. In  that all of us influence other people towards faith and following Christ, we are all pastors, shepherds and leaders to one another, whether given a title for that or not.

The letter of Jude underlines the difference between good and bad leadership, good and bad care of souls, in two very striking verses.

12 These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm – shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind, autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted – twice dead. 13 They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved for ever.

We can all think of leaders who are about all the wrong things – power, status and reward. Feeding themselves and their egos instead of feeding the flock with the truth and mercy of God. It’s easy to get sucked into a self-serving attitude once someone in the Church gives you a seat on a committee or a collar around your neck.

But shepherd leadership gives before it gets.

It also gives the hope Jesus brings. We are to promise sins forgiven, death defeated, sickness overcome, evil overthrown.

That is why “clouds without rain” (v12b) are so dispiriting – they promise much, but deliver nothing (again I suspect we will see a few political “clouds without rain” either side of this election!).

We do need vision, we need to paint clouds which people can see, targets to aim at – I do believe in mission plans and SMART goals. But we need to make sure those clouds deliver God’s rain too and are not empty promises, that they are prayer-based and Christ-centred.

Focus on character, not charisma

Three other images Jude gives us of faulty shepherds:

Fruitless trees (v12c) – you know the kind of person, who says the right things but they are only interested in their image, the fruit emerging from them is not mercy, love and goodness.

To his great credit, Bill Hybels includes a very searching chapter on “Self-leadership” in his book “Courageous Leadership”, because he knows the importance of character, and the temptations to stray from it as a leader.

Uncontrolled waves (v13a) foaming up shame – remember the floods on the coast this time last year? Leadership is about power, and power wrongly used may make lots of noise, but it leaves a trail of debris.

Wandering stars (v13b) – planets move in the sky, stars do not –  they are fixed points that we can rely upon and get our bearings from. We depend upon them. Bad leaders disrupt heavenly order, their contribution to God’s work may burn brightly but it damages our mission.

Character comes before charisma.

So how do I ensure that, whatever my role caring for the spiritual needs of others, I am fruitful, healthy and steady (instead of fruitless, destructive and erratic)?

The writer Eugene Peterson made a brilliant observation about leadership in his book “the Contemplative Pastor”. He heard a minister friend explaining that his job was to “run the church”.

He admits that sometimes we have to “run the church” –  just as we have to “run our homes” by buying the groceries and paying the bills –  but he was shocked that we could sum up leadership this way.

He suggests that when we lead or shepherd, we operate not only in the mode of “running the church” but also of caring for souls.

He identifies three areas this becomes apparent:

When we run the church we initiate, we strategise, we move things forward, all of which are essential to leadership.

But when we care for souls we react to God’s initiative, we look for where God is working, notice the traces of grace in a person’s life, and giving thanks for them.

When we run the church we use the language of motivation and description. We inform about next week’s events, we motivate people to volunteer their help.

When we care for souls we use the language of relationship, feelings are listened to, silences honoured, differences understood, compromises made.

When we run the church we solve problems, we answer queries, we tidy up messy situations, we use expertise.

When we care for souls we admit our inability to solve the deepest problems, we pray with the grieving, we live with mystery and believe that one day we will see clearly.

And godly shepherding is doing both.

Jude puts it like this to those who lead and shepherd in the Church, urging us to play our part (build up and keeping ourselves) – and let God do His (as we pray and wait for the coming of Christ):

20 But you, dear friends, by building yourself up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you eternal life.

Gleanings from this week’s news: “Quiet” leadership, Sartre, ISIS and Forgiveness, Play & Pray

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I was impressed with Susan Cain’s book on the unrecognised importance of introverts (undemonstratively entitled “Quiet“), who flourish with space and silence but whose contribution is gagged by “brainstorming” and groupwork. I think it’s a vital read for churches. For the summary version, watch her TED talk on this topic. As someone who loves team meetings but also needs quiet to think and write, I also welcomed this report from TLNT into the problems of “open plan” offices for workers and their productivity. I am still working out what this introvert/extrovert difference means for how we conduct public worship in church, and for our philosophy of “small groups”. There must be a way of enabling introverts to engage in Christian community deeply without having to enthuse, verbalise and self-disclose in a group setting.

There are also implications here for leadership models. The article above mentions the issue of managers/leaders having an “open door” policy for their people, but needing to find “code” by which those who want to see them are aware that “he/she would value some uninterrupted time right now”. It got me thinking about how I, or any of us, balance the “I’m always available for you” message with the “I need some space for prayer/planning/study/sermon preparation”. I’m not sure I’d do this by donning a baseball cap when “busy” (the solution cited above) but I do find myself shaping my daily routine more and more into “available to all” and “less available” blocks of days which I communicate to our staff team. Comments?

I’ve been immersed in, and loving, Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” with its Christian take on the romanticism which gave birth to twentieth-century existentialism. Peter Kreeft did an essay on Jean-Paul Sartre which has been summarised brilliantly by Justin Taylor – go here for “dummies” overviews of Machiavelli, Kant, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, too.

Did you see the viral video about a different response to the beheading of 21 Coptic Egyptian Christians by ISIS two weeks ago, Christian forgiveness? It’s very powerful and a great gospel antidote to the defaults of fear and revenge.

It can be argued that the theory of continental plates drifting apart is as important to understanding life and humanity on earth as the discovery of DNA. The fiftieth anniversary of a compelling Atlantic-centred theory is celebrated here and the original 1965 article is here.

Christians in Sport have put together a great new website PrayPlaySay.com with some fabulous video interview-based Bible studies on themes of disappointment, opponents and purity. Should be looked-at by everyone who follows Christ and plays in a team of some kind.