Mrs R and I were taken to an extraordinarily moving play in the West End last week, The Christians by Lucas Hnath (you can read a review with him from the New York Times here). It is an essentially simple play – a large church US evangelical pastor announces to his congregation that they (the church) and he, in particular, no longer believe in hell. The Associate Pastor disagrees and is forced out. One by one congregation members seep away until his liberalism empties his church. Finally, in the most moving part, his wife tells him that she is not with him and cannot stay because she has felt betrayed (he has never told her of his doubts or thinking).
I thought it was well acted and well written – not, it seems, by an evangelical, but by someone who gets evangelicals and –shock horror! – portrays them accurately and well.
The challenges work at a number of levels. First, of course, it is a sad assessment of liberalism and how it empties churches. Perhaps we don’t need such a philosophical assessment, but I found it useful nonetheless, especially as just 5 minutes before writing these words, I listened to Radio 4 Thought for the Day with a Bishop (Tom Butler) who announced to the listening world that he didn’t believe in hell. Rather uncomfortable parallel – but we need to be sure where such liberalism will lead us.
Second, there’s something very profound to say about pastoral integrity. This man clearly had not believed what he had preached for some time, but until the church building debt had been paid off, he chose to remain silent. I’m not suggesting that you, Mr Preacher, struggle with the same lack of integrity, but it is always a challenge. Some soul searching required.
Third, the whole question of the pastor’s relationship with his wife intrigues me. I wonder what some of the wives of those outspoken liberals really believe, for example. But more importantly, for those of us who are married, we need to make sure we treasure and value our wives aright. That doesn’t mean making them co-pastor, even if they wanted that. But the fact is we are given a helpmeet who knows us better than probably anyone else in this world. Every pastor who is married should testify to the strength, comfort, help and challenge that his wife is. Without compromising complementary understanding he should often, like Abraham, listen to his wife.
Providence: a beautiful doctrine
There is little positive to say about the terrible tragedy that unfolded in Saudi Arabia with the stampede at the Hajj festival. It is always a sadness to see people killed so needlessly. And the black deception that Islam brings only serves to make this human tragedy more spiritually devastating. It will have eternal significance.
Perhaps, one thing that saddened me most about the whole thing was the interview with the senior cleric who said of the disaster, it’s just ‘destiny and fate’. How tragic to think of God in this way. Thankfully that’s not the God of the Bible, perfectly revealed in the glorious Son, Jesus. He is sovereign, of course, but his sovereignty is not distant and capricious.
No, we’re certainly not fatalists – an ugly doctrine. Rather we believe in providence, a beautiful doctrine: little taught and much misunderstood. Not a sparrow falls unless he wills it. He works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will and that sovereign will is good for those who love him, those he has called, ultimately promising us transformation into the likeness of his Son.
As I say, a startlingly beautiful doctrine. Christians (and preachers) would do well to reflect and meditate on it. Can I recommend William Cowper’s beautiful words?
God moves in a mysterious way,
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps in the sea
and rides upon the storm.
2. Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill
he treasures up his bright designs
and works his sovereign will.
3. You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.
4. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.
5. His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.
6. Blind unbelief is sure to err
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter
and he will make it plain.
Diversity and Equality and the Fall
There’s a profound thing going on in Genesis 1.27. When God makes mankind, male and female he creates a kind of divine paradox with both equality (both made equally in the image of God) and diversity (male and female he created them). The Fall, at one level, corrupts this paradox. As the wife desires her husband she craves equality over diversity. As the husband rules over his wife he craves diversity at the expense of equality. It’s no wonder that in our broken world, people try to address this Curse (even if they don’t know it’s called that). At one level, many of the wrong views we see in terms of the roles of men and women are a descending spiral of correction – the more men rule or dominate women in sin, the more a woman wants to stress equality to undo the effects.
The Bible Christian, it seems to me, has to work hard to recreate what God has made good. This is a tricky job. In times past, Christians have (wrongly) taken an easier route of misogyny or feminism as correctives. As is often the way, the godly and biblical path is harder and more challenging, but – by definition – more beautiful. It’s worth time, effort, pain and stretch to see God’s pattern and work, under him, for its restoration.
To my younger brethren
I was reminded recently that Handley Moule’s book To my younger brethren is a really useful classic on pastoral ministry. It has a context, naturally, which is ministry in an Anglican context (Moule was Bishop of Durham). Read it with that in mind. But even for the most rabid of non-conformist, there is pastoral wisdom and challenge here that, even 100 years on is necessary. It’s free online and Project Gutenberg helpfully supplies it ready formatted for kindles or other e-readers.
I’ve been very moved in the last few days reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s account of the last few weeks of the life of Thomas Cranmer, in his biography of the great man (Thomas Cranmer, Yale University Press, 1996). It’s a well known story, of course, of Cranmer’s apparent recantation of his Protestant convictions and then his dramatic recantation of the recantation.
What struck me was one of the primary reasons MacCulloch suggests for Cranmer’s apparent capitulation back into the Catholicism out of which he had expended so much energy dragging himself and his country.
The reason was friendship. Towards the end, in his confinement, he was very isolated from his Protestant friends. They had mostly either fled to the Continent or been jailed. Indeed two of the most prominent, Latimer and Ridley, had been burned at the stake and he had been forced watch their sufferings.
At this point, says MacCulloch: ‘In isolation which was spiritual rather than physical, he cast in the role of friend and confidant the attendant who was guarding him, a simple but devout traditionalist Catholic called Nicholas Woodson. Woodson’s friendship came to be his only support, and to please Woodson he began giving way to everything that he had fought for twenty years and more’ (pp.588-89).
Some very sharp Catholic minds had turned up during his imprisonment to try to argue him out of his Protestantism, but he held firm. Yet put him in a position where his only possible friend in all the world was a simple-minded Catholic and he weakened. I think it is only the most foolhardy of us who conclude that Cranmer was just one of life’s pushovers and that we would have been stronger.
What do I conclude?
I conclude that a desire to please my friends may well be deeper in me than I imagine it is.
I conclude that therefore those deep friendships that I do have with brothers in the Lord are likely to be a far more powerful means by which the Lord keeps me true to him than I imagine they are.
I conclude, finally, that choosing to sacrifice some other things in order to invest in those friendships is a very wise thing to do. According to MacCulloch it was spiritual isolation that did for Cranmer – although mercifully not permanently so. We are fools, I think, if we imagine that we are different.
My PT colleague, Adrian Reynolds, might well add at this point: so when, Mr Pastor, did you last go to a conference where you knew you would be spending time with like-minded brothers? He puts on some pretty good ones, you know.
Theology of suffering in the life of the church
As Andy Byfield was teaching at the Cornhill + conference, I thought about suffering again. We generally (and our people in particular) have a poor theology of suffering. That’s because we’ve many of us been raised in a culture where it’s been relatively easy to be a believer. You see this worked out in the way we pray our prayers of petition, which are often a kind of prosperity-lite (‘Lord make n better. Amen’).
I don’t think you can minister in a church unless you have a more developed theology of suffering – both personally (i.e. in your own life) and in how it works out corporately. It is such a key theme of the New Testament that a pastor who says ‘Hmm, I’ve never really thought that through’ makes you wonder if he’s actually ever read the Bible and wrestled with the difficult things (‘filling up the afflictions of Christ’ anyone?).
For the record, I think Christopher Ash’s commentary on Job (the longer one, from Crossway) is superb in this. Job, of course, is the go-to book for this issue, but many commentaries just treat Job as go-to rather than go-to-from, for unless you see suffering in the context of the cross, resurrection and ascension, you cannot possibly hope to develop a theology of suffering which will equip you for service in the church.
The preacher at prayer
It is possible in a church of 200 to pray for every member of the church by name once a week and every member by name early on each Sunday morning. That’s certainly Alec Motyer’s practice which he outlines in his excellent little book on preaching.
I wonder how that makes you feel? Perhaps you feel convicted? It may be an ideal to which you would like to aspire but you’ve never quite made the grade. Perhaps you feel a bit aggrieved? That sounds to you like a rather legalistic, worksy kind of approach to prayer. Perhaps you feel self-righteous? Only once a week, Alec….?
There’s surely no doubt that a preacher should be a man of prayer (Acts 6 anyone). But what kind of prayer? All kinds, surely, but at the very least, a preacher is a pastor, he is concerned to connect the ministry of the word to those to whom he is called to minister and so a preacher who never prays for his people would be a very odd preacher indeed. Sub-standard, in fact.
So the question is not so much whether one ought to pray for one’s people, but how and how much. In terms of ‘how’ I happen to believe and have experienced that praying in your sermon – both before and after the event – is the best way to ensure you are thinking pastorally in your preparation.
But it surely goes deeper than this, does it not? I don’t pray to make my preaching better, as though that were an end in itself. I pray because I want to see my people built up in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus. Which, of course, leads to ‘how much?’ Alec’s strategy may be out of reach at present for all kinds of reasons, but it should surely be the heart’s desire of every pastor-teacher.
The first prayer meeting
More on prayer. I’ve recently preached on Acts 4. I found it very personally convicting to look at one of the first recorded prayer meetings and learn about prayer. We have to be just a little cautious with Acts, of course. We can’t say that because they did this, we must to do it too. Although, in that tension between descriptive and prescriptive (which everyone accepts at some level), I think the safest road is to say that Acts is prescriptive when read in light of rest of NT, i.e. the default position should be that Acts is describing normality, unless the rest of the NT encourages us to think otherwise (and there are some clear areas where this is so). Back to chapter 4. The prayer meeting does therefore provide a helpful model.
Prayer is responsive. Prayer is an automatic response to what has happened and been reported. Not only does this challenge us to pray in an informed way (a very middle class application!) it also (and primarily) encourages a culture of spontaneous praying where a prayer is a natural response to events. We should expect and encourage people to be praying together at all sorts of moments, both those formally organised, and the ad hoc ones too.
Prayer is corporate. ‘Together’ is a key Acts word, as I’m sure you know. This is not to denigrate private prayer (see Matthew 5, for example!). But prayer in Acts is mostly a corporate activity and there is a power and significance about the church being together to pray. Shame, then, that most UK churches are reducing this opportunity. Once a month? Really?
Prayer is Scripture based. Notice how the believers pray Psalm 2 back to God.
Prayer is ambitious.
Lord, stir up in me a spirit of supplication.
Leaders who pray – shocking news for Calvinists!
Picking up on one of Andy’s points from yesterday, we watched a brief clip of Piper on James 4.2, it’s worth a few moments of your time. Here is a great challenge for me and for every church leader.
Andy Byfield at Cornhill+
I’ve just finished our Cornhill+ conference – a follow up programme for Cornhill students who don’t go to college for various reasons. It’s been an encouraging and enjoyable time with 12 others studying God’s word and simply hanging out together. We always ask a pastor to come and share some insights on leadership and this year it was great to welcome Andy Byfield, vicar of Moulton Parish Church. I thought his headings, representing challenges that he has set himself and been convicted by, were worth repeating. These are simply patterns that leaders must embrace:
- Leading without worry, 1 Cor 11.28 and Numbers 11.10-15
- Leading that gets others serving, Ephesians 4.11-13
- Leadership that s prayerful, James 4.2
- Leadership that encourages death, John 12.23-25
- Leadership as a younger man, 1 Tim 4.12.
- Leadership that doesn’t beat people up 1 Thess 2.11-12.