Saturday, 31 October 2015

Fellowship in the truth

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

So begins John in his first letter. Much could be and has been said about those verses. The one thing that struck me this morning is how fellowship (with God and with one another) is based in truth, in facts. Things heard, seen, witnessed, touched, believed, proclaimed, written - these are the foundations of togetherness in the Kingdom. 

We live in a world where truth-that-can-be-written is derided as the foundation only for hatred and war. To experience love, we are told, we need to flee from the Objective, the Absolute. John seems to say exactly the opposite. 

And that chimes with my experience. Over the last year I can think of a number of moments of meeting with Christians, both old friends and completely new to me, where the existence of a common foundation in the gospel was either the presupposition for the meeting, or quickly became apparent in the course of conversation. Such moments have been deeply moving and a source of thankfulness. On the other hand, I have also had experiences of 'Christian' events where the commitment to the Subjective, the rejection of objective doctrinal agreement or of verbal revelation itself, strangles fellowship at birth.

Our fellowship is in the Truth. Our fellowship is in Him - the one who came, was heard, was seen, who died for our sins, who rose again for our justification, who is seated at the right hand of the Father, who has poured out the Holy Spirit, who is being proclaimed amongst the nations, who will come again to judge the living and the dead. These truths about our Lord Jesus are objective, speakable, writeable, shareable. These truths are precious to us for he is precious to us. And where there is agreement in these truths, there is fellowship, light and joy. 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Teach your people...


Found here.

Friday, 23 October 2015

We must be careful not to worship the Bible...

If a woman is in love with a man, and he writes letters and cards, and she keeps them all in a special place and gets them out and re-reads them carefully many times paying great attention to the wording and the lovely way he writes - does she love the letters or does she love the man? 

And if she reads the letters once and chucks them in the bin, or is always talking about how inconsistent they are, and poking holes, what would we think about her love for the man?

The slightest hint of strong respect for the Bible, the idea that it can actually be viewed (while taking into account the diversity of its human history, genres, language and culture) as One Book with One Author, the notion that this Author may have overruled its production such that it is true and authoritative - I hear all of these being met almost as a routine, knee-jerk reaction with the statement, "We must be careful not to end up worshipping the Bible." 

I think it is a total non sequitur. It just makes no sense. I don't worship the Bible. I never have. I happen to believe in a big, powerful and gracious God who can use sinners to write something that faithfully reveals him, that's all. I'm so thankful that he is so great, and I worship him. 

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Streams in the Salvation Army: Schism or damage limitation?

The Salvation Army includes people of widely divergent theological views. This variety may be concentrated in some divisions, and the spectrum is different from country to country, but it is there. Specifically, in the UK territory, in a church which calls itself "evangelical", there is a significant number of people who reject the term, or are even scathing about it. 

From my limited, though growing, experience, unity in TSA seems to have been based around practical working together and not talking (or even thinking?) too much about doctrine. The movement has been held together around group traditions and activities - and sub-cultural cohesiveness is a powerful thing. Add to that, of course, the Army's structure and submission to leadership, and there is a degree of disciplined unity. 

But it is not quite the same as "being of one mind", or maintaining the unity of the Spirit. In fact, working together with an unspoken agreement never to discuss the content of our faith is the very opposite of the fellowship that should be the camaraderie of Kingdom Soldiers. Not ever talking about anything that might potentially tread on the toes of those who are not evangelical can leave little room for a distinctively evangelical spirituality and cooperation in today's SA. 

Evangelicals might want to ask all who cannot sign the 11 Doctrines in good conscience to simply leave - or at least renounce soldiership/officership. We might say, "you were not being open and honest when you said you believed this", and many people in the wider world might agree with us. But a mass "liberal" exodus is highly unlikely. The intrinsic brittleness of some of the doctrines, which has led to people signing them with some "qualms" for years, the alignment and self-comparison of TSA with "mainline denominations" as opposed to close association with the missional community with which it had most in common, the resultant steady influx of more liberal theology and the failure to latch on to the best more conservative scholarship in the colleges, and now the caustic environment of deconstructionalism, with its direct assault on the objective meaning of texts - these things have all led to the strength of non-evangelical emphases and all that flows from that strength. 

In the UK in 2015 the presenting issue in all of this is the acceptance as soldiers and officers of people in homosexual relationships. The fact that anyone is pushing for such a change of position has come as a shock to some evangelicals, but it really shouldn't; the underlying theology and attitude to culture makes this particular pressure inevitable and it ought to be no surprise.  

I hate this motto
The real issue is not Single Sex Marriage or related challenges. The real issue is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the doctrinal content of our faith. That is the root; the "SSM issue" is just one of several branches. To change the metaphor: the house we live in as a family in London is owned by the Army, and is falling down. Visible cracks keep appearing in internal walls. They are alarming. But the cause of those cracks is less visible - subsidence and cracking of the foundations.  The gay debate is a very visible crack; it is the loss of a coherent base in the authority of scripture, a common view of the doctrine of sin, the work of Christ and the future judgement which together are the foundational problem leading to that more obvious crisis.  

There may be trouble ahead
There is little doubt, though, that this particular issue is going to be the catalyst for some ructions. On past form that probably means a number of people leaving - resigning as officers or soldiers and heading for other churches. A full-blown split seems perhaps less likely, but significant losses will come. Is there anything that can be done to prevent this? Whether we face an explosion or "just" a steady bleed, what can be done to contain this? Are there ways to alleviate the shock? 

Other Christian traditions have contained equally broad theological spectra. The Anglicans have had their streams going back centuries. Although there is overlap between High Church and Liberal, and Liberal and Evangelical, by and large congregations and leaders from one wing can effectively work without reference to the other wings, much of the time. And official structures have worked in order to maintain the stability of the whole. (The present Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that this may now prove impossible, especially globally, because of the homosexuality issue, and some formalised loosening of links may be inevitable. See Guardian
During the 1990s I was in close contact with a number of young evangelical Anglican pastors. With women's ordination in hot debate, and the homosexuality issue already on the horizon, I was stunned by their radical pragmatism in preparing for the future. They could see that quiet coexistence in the evangelical wing of the CofE was going to become increasingly difficult. Despite the church's efforts to accommodate, with offers of pastoral oversight from "flying bishops" opposed to women's ordination etc, they could see that such accommodation would not be sufficient in the long term. Being allowed to be a comfortable conservative congregation in an increasingly liberal church wasn't going to work at the point when candidates for ministry were put forward for ordination. A network of local churches may happily do its own thing, but if its present ministers are sidelined when it comes to appointments to positions of influence, or its potential future ministers are consistently refused training or ordination because of their views, it is doomed to increasing marginalisation and ultimate extinction. The response of my friends was dynamic: considerable effort was made to secure a key training college for their particular theological camp; links were developed with likeminded branches of global Anglicanism outside the crisis in the CofE itself, and, above all, commitments were made to evangelism and church planting within and outside the CofE in the UK, in fellowship with similar evangelicals outside the national church. 

The result of all that is, a generation later, one of the strongest church-planting movements in the UK. There are new Anglican, neo-Anglican and nonconformist-with-Anglican-input churches all over the place, with new congregations already planting yet further churches. (See recent blog about Inspire.) Should current crises cause a total meltdown in the CofE, these people already have a structure in place for support and further development. 

In the Salvation Army, we have none of this, but it is high time to talk. Firstly, it is time to talk across the theological divides, to try to understand one another, to be honest about the intractability of some of the differences, and to discuss how to limit damage to the church as those differences play out over time. Pretending there are no real differences, or trying to hold it all together with middle-of-the-road empty talk only antagonises both sides. I don't mean Facebook-group-grenade-throwing conversations, either. I mean proper, respectful conversation, as when Martyn Lloyd-Jones met up with a group of "mainline liberals" years ago because they were perturbed at his standing aloof from their ecumenical process; after an honest and open conversation it was the liberals who agreed it couldn't work. I don't want to be schismatic; I want the kind of dialogue which makes it clear who is ruling the gospel out. It is possible to be real friends while having major differences of thought, but real friends are able to talk about their differences. At the moment dialogue about doctrine appears to be the stuff of angry online chats and (!) blogs, but not of frank talks over coffee.
Secondly, it is time to talk within our strikingly different wings. I say that for both sides, and I hope I am not unsympathetic to the difficulties for the "liberal" side in this debate too, especially when it comes to what is felt to be a fudge regarding positional statements, or when private encouragement from leaders seems to be followed by a public cold-shoulder. 
But my direct sympathy is clearly on the evangelical side of the fence. We are officially an evangelical church. When some people publicly repudiate that term and deride it, it cannot be schismatic for those who embrace the word to talk with one another. Evangelicals may wish that the liberal wing would just go away, but it won't, and with the speed of capitulation to the spirit of the age accelerating, there is an urgency in the air. Evangelicals need to start to network. We need mutual support. We need to work out in advance some damage limitation strategies for the future. We need to avoid the default position of allowing a steady trickling loss of gospel people from the Army. We can't settle for that. 
Of course, evangelicals within the Salvation Army (or outside of it) are hardly a homogenous group. Differences on the charismatic spectrum, differences over worship style, differences over eschatology, not to mention cultural and political differences that have nothing direct to do with the issues at stake - we have them all. But a thoroughgoing commitment to the Doctrines in the light of  the Founders' intended meaning would take us a long way. Just to grab four... The Bible is not just a "library of books"; it is one Book and it has one overarching Author whose voice we must hear and heed. The human race is made in God's image, but disastrously fallen so that every one of us is utterly unable to come to God, and we cannot say of any of our desires "God made me this way" without also acknowledging the pervasive influence of sin. Christ died for our sins, and that is of first importance - hearing that message and trusting him in his death is at the heart of everything for us. There are two populated destinies for the human race in eternity, and the gospel warns us to flee from the wrath to come. We may vote differently, have different views of gun-control, have different tastes in church music - but with agreement on those things we can be an Army fighting the same battle.
Thirdly, TSA evangelicals need to talk with people outside the Army. For too long we have been somewhat hermetically sealed, and when we do have contact with other churches, it is mainly at rather formal level, and we tend to look mostly to the "mainline denominations." We need to wake up to the fact that church growth in the UK is not really happening in the mainline denominations - or not in the mainline parts of them. That means relating to Vineyard and New Frontiers and other "new" churches, to Independent churches of many shades, to the young neo-Anglican churches I have mentioned, as well as to evangelicals in the historical denominations like the Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists. And we should relate knowing that we have something unique to offer: many of the growing churches are waking up to social concerns, to trafficking and food banks and homelessness and abuse, but they are predominantly middle-class and lack experience and knowledge in some of these areas. Partnership in social action with Salvation Army corps could be so helpful for these groups if based on a clear mutual commitment to the same gospel. And on the other hand, many of these churches are rich in Bible teaching and localised training ministries - we could benefit from their strengths too.

I know that suggesting any kind of parallel structure within or outside TSA sounds ludicrous. The idea of wings/factions/streams is alien, let alone the suggestion of "neo-Army" church planting, given our leadership structures.  But how will you and your corps honour Christ once a generation is occupying the Divisional and Territorial posts whose connection to the Doctrines is thoroughly postmodern? When those who scorn the Bible, despise the atonement and laugh at hell are the authorities in TSA, what will you do then? For that is where we are heading. Some of today's cadets are future DCs and TCs.

TSA is already a movement that would be unrecognisable to its founders. Passivity is no longer an option. Booth's "I will fight" dynamism needs to be applied to the battle for the gospel of Jesus within the movement he started. Wake up and smell the Shloer, folks!