I am often asked at conferences and training events: why does bad theology seem to produce more healing? Sometimes the person asking is an impish conservative type, and they mean, maybe it doesn't produce more healing. It's all a scam. Sometimes the person asking is an impish Pentecostal, and the subtext is clearly, maybe it's not bad theology. It's all true. But more often than not, the person is genuinely worried: I'm pretty sure that so-and-so's theology on this is wrong in important ways, and that mine is right, but s/he sees way more healing than I do. Why? I sympathise.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think there are several plausible reasons why “bad” theology could produce “more” healing. (I’ll keep both words in quotation marks to avoid begging the question for now.) Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a particular person (a) holds a view of divine sovereignty, sickness, suffering and healing that is clearly unbiblical, and (b) sees credible, verified, remarkable healings at a rate that most of us get nowhere near. Why might that be the case? Four reasons occur to me.
They pray with faith. Assuming you believe that God heals today—and let’s face it, if you don’t, you probably aren’t interested in this article in the first place—then you’re presumably going to agree that there is a connection between praying with faith and people getting healed. Now: if you are theologically persuaded that God is going to heal every single person for whom you pray with faith, you will pray with a lot of faith for a lot of people. If you are theologically persuaded that God sometimes wants to heal people and sometimes doesn’t, you will pray with less faith for fewer people. (And if you are theologically persuaded that God never wants to heal people, you will pray with no faith for no people.) More faith for healing, more prayer for the sick. More prayer for the sick, more healing. It’s like John Wimber used to say: I’d rather pray for one hundred people and see one person healed, than pray for nobody and see nobody healed. I’m not saying it’s a simple percentages game—but then again, “you do not have because you do not ask.” As you sow, so shall you reap.
They have the gift of healing, whether or not they also have the gift of teaching. Paul is very clear in 1 Corinthians 12: “For to one is given ... gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles ... Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing?” Notice three things here. One: not everybody works miracles or has the gift of healing. Two: not all are teachers. Three: therefore the people with the gift of healing and the people with the gift of teaching will often be different people (or, put differently, the people with the strongest theology of healing will often not be the people with the strongest gift of healing). God’s gifts, you see, are not rewards for good behaviour, or good theology, or good devotional lives; they are gifts given for the good of the whole body, and no believer has all of them, and no believer has none of them. When firing on all cylinders, the local church will have great theology and lots of prophecy and lots of languages and lots of healing, because of the diversity of gifts within the body. In practice, this often doesn’t happen, because of the third reason.
People with similar gifts gather together. Like attracts like. Birds of a feather flock together. People with teaching gifts go to conferences run by TGC or T4G, or even THINK. People with leadership gifts go to conferences run by Leadership Network or Willow Creek. People with healing gifts go to conferences run by Bethel or Andrew Wommack Ministries. On its own, that wouldn’t be a problem; it would equip people to use their gifts more effectively, and strengthen the whole church. But because of the number of options available to the modern churchgoer, and the lack of institutional stickability, and even the invention of the motor car, people with particular gifts are able not just to go to entirely likeminded conferences annually, but to attend entirely likeminded churches weekly. You can probably find a church where gifts like yours are prized, and gifts that might clash with yours are either ignored or subtly denigrated. Wise church leaders will recognise the dangers of this, of course, and build teams and church cultures that honour and celebrate all of the Spirit’s gifts, but the temptation to specialise further is always there—not least because drawing likeminded people from all over the world to your school of theology, or leadership, or supernatural ministry, or worship, may well lead your church to grow in influence and numbers as a result. Which, if it happens, means that churches led by people with healing gifts see more and more healing (and less and less robust theology), and churches led by people with teaching gifts see less and less healing (and more and more robust theology), and everyone wonders why. What is needed is wise leadership that values and honours the strengths of others, and eagerly desires spiritual gifts, and guards the church from false teaching, and looks to preach the gospel to all nations, all at once. Which is harder than it sounds.
They are less sceptical about reports of healing. This final reason cuts both ways. In a good way, it means that people with strong healing gifts are more likely to hear about, announce and celebrate physical healings, more likely to thank God for them publicly, and more likely to encourage others to pray for more—which takes us in a nice feedback loop back to the first reason. (Scepticism kills that kind of thing. We don’t celebrate a healing straight away, because it hasn’t been verified. We don’t celebrate a healing a week later, because they might lose it. We don’t celebrate a healing a year later, because everyone has forgotten about it. Bah, humbug.) On the other hand, being less sceptical can also mean that people are proclaimed to have been healed when they have not, and a mixture of atmosphere, hormones, suggestion, emotion and euphoria has convinced them that they have. This double-whammy is bound to increase the number of reported healings, partly in a good way and partly in a bad way. Wise pastors, of course, learn how to celebrate healing without being merely swept along by the moment, and to verify reported miracles without pouring cold water on them. (For what it’s worth, my guess is that most people who have read this far will probably struggle more with cynicism than credulity, given our wider culture, and as such we should probably lean in the opposite direction. Take it or leave it.)
So there are four reasons why “bad” theology might produce “more” healing. Clearly, there are also such things as charlatanry and chicanery, just as there are such things as sneering judgmentalism and intellectual pride. But if we are able to assume the best of our brothers and sisters, even if we believe they are theologically wrong, and if we are prepared to sacrifice some of our personal preferences for the good of the whole body, we should not give up hope of being a community with both great theology and plentiful healing. Personally, I don’t want to settle for anything less.
In the year 250 an edict was issued that everyone throughout the Empire was required to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor Decius. These sacrifices were to be witnessed and certified by a Roman magistrate. This was state-enforced conformity.
The Decian edict does not seem to have been specifically targeted at Christians, but nonetheless had significant implications for the Christian community. Some apostatized (perhaps crossing their fingers, and not really meaning it), some fled, while others refused to make the sacrifice and suffered the death penalty. Once the persecution had subsided its effects lingered on, as the church was divided over how to treat those who had denied their faith, or ran away from trouble.
Today’s ruling in the Ashers cake case does not have the life and death implications of the Decian persecution, but the parallels are uncanny.
The craziness of the ruling is obvious: That it is all too easy to trot out all the, “It would be like…” examples. (Like a Jewish baker being forced to endorse pig eating; like a Muslim baker being compelled to endorse the superiority of Sikhism; etc, etc.) That Ashers had previously served Gareth Lee and would do so again – his sexuality not being an issue. That same-sex marriage remains illegal in Northern Ireland, so Ashers have been criminalised for refusing to endorse an illegal act. And on and on.
What this case makes crystal clear is the intolerance of the new sexual totalitarianism. No dissent will be tolerated: all citizens of this empire must demonstrate their obeisance. And that raises a question for Christians as to how they should respond: Acquiesce? (Perhaps with some finger-crossing and nose-holding involved). Go into hiding? (Which amounts to acquiescence.) Or face the penalty by refusing to swear fealty?
Imagine the instructions of a Roman magistrate in some dusty corner of the Empire: “Just make the sacrifice, say the words. You don’t have to really mean it. Doing it doesn’t mean you really support it. It’s just something you have to do. Come on, why are you being so unreasonable about this? Don’t you know it could cost you your life?”
That is pretty much the situation that Ashers finds itself in.
Of course, to refuse to bow before this new deity does not mean the death penalty. Practically, for Ashers, it simply means they will now only decorate birthday cakes to order – though that they should be thus restricted is itself a kind of craziness. Also revealed is one of the most disturbing aspects of the new totalitarianism: just how unkind it is.
Yes, the implications for freedom of speech and religious and political freedom are significant, just as they were in the year 250. (Even Peter Tatchell agrees with that.) But also significant are the implications for how we treat one another in the contemporary West. To try and compel a Jewish baker to produce a cake advertising pork products would not only be an assault on that baker’s religious convictions, it would be a profoundly ungenerous thing to do. To push the point because it was legally sanctioned would not make it any more morally justifiable. To push the point would be to undermine the civic bonds that enable a society to flourish. It would be unkind, and vindictive. What we are seeing is that the new totalitarianism does not have space for kindness or generosity – it seeks simply to dominate and control. Mr Lee has not gained any more freedom by pursuing this action; he has merely restricted the extent of business in which Ashers may engage. And he has made his community a less pleasant – a less tolerant – place in which to live. That’s what enforced conformity does.
All hail the new totalitarianism.
[Today's comment on the ninth commandment is what happens when you meditate on the spirit of the commandments, through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount, rather than the mere letter. The letter says, "you shall not bear false witness." The spirit (Spirit!) says, "I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name." This is not just avoiding defamation; it is actively seeking to honour. What a beautiful yet challenging target.]
Q112. What is the aim of the ninth commandment?
A112. That I
never give false testimony against anyone,
twist no one’s words,
not gossip or slander,
nor join in condemning anyone
rashly or without a hearing.
Rather, in court and everywhere else,
I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind;
these are the very devices the devil uses,
and they would call down on me God’s intense wrath.
I should love the truth,
speak it candidly,
and openly acknowledge it.
And I should do what I can
to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.
Process theology among liberal theologians and open theism among evangelicals have produced metaphysically more or less coherent accounts of primary divine agency and secondary temporal agency. But they have done so only by revising Christian language about God past all biblical recognition. A God who is one pole of a universal process is not the God of Ezekiel or any other prophet ...
In ancient drama, the actors brought the gods and heroes into the theatre by and as masks by which the acros hid and through which they spoke; within the ceremony the masks were dramatis personae. Martin Luther adduced this phenomenon, but reversed the relation of actors and masks. God brings the created heroes and villains of the temporal drama onto history’s stage as masks that hide him—for were he to appear barefaced creation would perish. Thus Nebuchadnezzar and his like are larva dei, God’s masks—as indeed are all creatures in one way or another, and we masks truly are the personae of the drama; we re not puppets manipulated by someone distant from us. Yet behind us hides the Creator.
—Robert Jenson, Ezekiel, 238-239
Five hundred years ago, the world was turned upside-down by an unknown theology professor in a small German town. Within five years of Martin Luther's call for an academic debate on 31st October 1517, he had caused uproar throughout Western Europe, destabilised the papacy, prompted new biblical translations, written numerous inflammatory pamphlets, been excommunicated, placed under imperial ban, kidnapped for his own safety and imprisoned in a castle, and his reform movement was already shaping churches across Christendom. The religious, political and even economic landscape of Europe, and in many ways the rest of the world, would never be the same.
Fifteen hundred years before that, the world had been turned upside-down even more emphatically by an unknown Jewish preacher in various small Asian and Greek towns. His radical new message about the kind of God there is, the kind of gospel he had revealed and the kind of communities that should result, expressed with such clarity and fire in his letter to the Galatians, brought about what some secular historians regard as the only genuine “revolution” there has ever been.
Because of the obvious similarities, many have regarded Luther and Paul as saying exactly the same thing. Many others have regarded them as saying very different things, with Luther thinking he was representing Paul when in fact he wasn’t. A newer movement in scholarship has proposed that both these views are wrong, and that Paul is a much more “apocalyptic” thinker than most of us realise. How should we locate ourselves in this debate? And more importantly, how can we read this astonishing, brave and bombastic letter in a way that does justice to all its themes: unity, freedom, baptism, fruit, faith, table-fellowship, spirituality and (yes) justification?
Join us for three days in July 2017. Be enriched. Take time. Think.
I have just returned from the Newfrontiers Global Conference in a secret Middle Eastern location, where apostles and their teams from all around the world gathered to pray, worship and learn together. A few programming problems aside (they left me off the speaker list – again!) it was a fine conference, and a great opportunity to see the many ways in which the movement has continued to grow.
In many ways it felt very familiar. There were recognisable faces, a real sense of unity, and similarity in vision and values. But there was one major difference. An elephant in the room. A subtle but shocking shift which, if not nipped in the bud, may cause an irreparable schism in Newfrontiers…
What has happened to the uniform?
It used to be the case that “by this shall all men know that you are a Newfrontiers disciple: that you wear checked shirts.” But no more. Plaid is a thing of the past. No longer would one attend a Newfrontiers gathering and be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled across a lumberjack convention.
It only took four years, but it seems that people have finally taken my advice on how to look good in the pulpit!
There was everything from solid coloured shirts, polo shirts, t-shirts, shirts with stripes of various widths and orientations, chevrons, geometric patterns, and even the odd floral design. Andrew somehow forgot to pack his ‘all things to all men’ shirt – a new approach to fashion that thankfully hasn’t caught on outside of the backwaters of Eastbourne. And I was relieved to only spot one man bun. Though that’s one bun too many.
Depending on your perspective, this diversification either spells the beginning of a bright new era for the-movement-formerly-known-as-Newfrontiers, or a step towards its demise.
For the progressives, this new liberty in dress-sense no doubt functions as a symbol of the spheres having gone their own way, found freedom, and gathered again, joined by relationships, not law.
For the traditionalists, this is another step down the slippery slope towards a Reductio ad Abspherdom. Assimilation to the culture. Wearing the clothing of the world, rather than the clothing of Christ. If a shirt loses its checkiness, it is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot!
I suppose only time will tell whether this new wardrobe is something to be celebrated or a sign that the end is near. But I’m sure all will become clear when the apostles hit the catwalk this time next year at Global 2017.
Your faithful fashion correspondent,
"And do you have family?" he asked. I was slightly thrown, as we'd just been talking about my brother and his wife and kids in California, and my parents in Northampton. Had it not been clear that they were my family? Then I realised what he meant: are you married?
No. I’m not.
There’s not a lot to say after that. We fumbled around ‘That’s OK. Or is it?’ ‘Yes, it’s fine. It seems to be God’s plan, so who am I to argue?’ And eventually, being at a Christian conference, we got to ‘We need to do better at our preaching around singleness.’
The trouble is, though, that preaching about singleness implies that singleness is a problem. I’ve never heard anyone express concern that there aren’t enough sermons about left-handedness, or shortsightedness, or less-than-five-foot-three-ness. Why not? These are genuine abnormalities that require adaptations to enable me to function fully in our world, yet no one preaches on them. Why?
Because no one thinks that really it would be better if I was taller, right handed or had 20:20 vision. They’re not cultural churchy values. No one is considered more qualified for a ministry position because they are the right height or they don’t wear glasses. No one is overlooked because they write with the left hand.
If singles are struggling with singleness it’s because our surrounding culture tells them that marriage is the goal. And our churches don’t argue. We don’t say it through our preaching (usually), but we say it through our practices, through what we (rightly) celebrate (weddings, babies), through who we choose to lead Bible study groups and Alpha courses, through how often we treat singles as an afterthought or a slightly awkward embarrasment.
But don’t get me wrong - this doesn’t bother me. If you genuinely believe that the Bible teaches that small groups should be led by married couples, and that being single means you’re somehow deficient and less able to serve, well, that’s between you and your Bible. One day you’ll find yourself preaching about Jesus and notice that he didn’t seem to see his singleness as a handicap. Then you’ll bump into Paul who argued it is actually the more desirable state, as it frees you to serve God whenever, wherever and however he calls. [Aside - I wrote this last week, and yesterday saw this tweet. Amen.] You’ll get it. And if your practice doesn’t follow your understanding of scripture, then you’ve got more problems than I can help you with.
The thing I’m looking for in preaching and teaching in church is what the Bible teaches and what God’s call on my life in response to it is. Not what the Bible teaches left-handers. Not what it teaches short people. What it teaches. Full stop. Yes, there is room for application (‘If you’re not a Christian here today…’, ‘If you’re struggling with addiction…’, ‘If you’ve been neglecting this command of God…’) and there are times when it will be appropriate to say ‘If you’re single, divorced or widowed [I don’t think I’ve EVER heard that last one - why not?], this may be a tough sermon for you to hear, next week’s message will have more relevance for you, but this week, why not pray for your married friends as they take on board some of the lessons God has got for them?’ [Note the emphasis on what they can contribute, rather than the self-focussed ‘you’re on the outside for now’]
Last week I was in a conference hearing from church leaders from around the world. The guy ministering to Iraqi and Iranian refugees in Turkey didn’t seem to think anyone’s marital status was significant in what he was being called to do - he was too busy getting on with feeding families, converting, baptising, and training people so they had a firm grounding in faith when they got approved to move to their new home country. He was too concerned with helping hopeless people find hope and getting them serving. He was too busy helping people from three conflicting cultures learn to love one another, and helping his church deal with the fact that they were no longer a stable group of 50, but an ever-changing community of seven times that.
The guy from the Ukraine wasn’t concerned about marriage except insofar as the war had put so much pressure on him and his wife that they barely saw each other for two years, despite living in the same house (and sometimes sleeping in the same car, with their kids). He was too busy buying thousands of candles in case the power shortages continued all winter. He was too concerned with providing torches for families in the church so that no one accidentally stepped on a landmine when walking home from a Bible Study at night.
The guys from China didn’t mention marriage when they talked about following God’s call to change the system and place orphans with families instead of in institutions.
The man working in Zimbabwe helping impoverished landowners change their mindsets and practices to bring fruitfulness to their land and prosperity and hope to their communities - he didn’t mention marriage or singleness.
What’s my point? There’s more to life than my marital status. Living for the glory of God is bigger and wider and more challenging and more fulfilling than any human relationship I may desire. If we’re wondering about how to teach singles and how to talk about singleness, I think that’s a sign that we’re too comfortable. I don’t think marriage is God’s top priority for your life, or for the life of anyone in your congregation. I don’t think it hits the top ten.
Preach in such a way that your singles, marrieds, divorcees and widow/ers feel more equipped to run after God with all their hearts, to live fully sold out for him. Preach about God’s priorities - love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.
Teach the singleminded pursuit of godliness - just like Jesus.
Image credit: Joshua Earle (cc)
Naomi Wolf ends her classic denunciation of porn with an encounter with, “A boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes” at Northwestern University.
“Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”
“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”
“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”
Last Saturday I officiated a wedding and chose as the text Proverbs 30:18-19
Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a virgin.
The wife of one of our elders, who had been asked to read by the couple getting married, was not especially happy with me: Are you really going to make me read that? Do I have to say ‘virgin’ at a wedding?!
Granted, this wasn’t the normal choice of wedding text, but I wanted to say something about mystery, because there is a mystery to marriage – and to sex.
Some things are mysterious, even if we can understand them in terms of science or history. I think the enigmatic Agur of Proverbs 30 wants us to see this, and to help us see that part of being wise is the ability to recognise mystery for what it is. Mysterious things are things so wonderful they make you hold your breath, and point you to God. The birth of a baby definitely comes into this category. I will never forget the sense of mystery when my children were born: I understood well enough the process by which this child had been conceived, grown in the womb, and was now held in my arms – the biology of reproduction is clear enough. Yet it felt beyond understanding that somehow my wife and I had been able to do this.
Agur chooses four other examples of wonders we might be able to ‘understand’ but which are too wonderful to understand.
An eagle in the sky is beyond understanding in its size, power, and gravity defying flight over the earth. A serpent on a rock is a mystery in the way it exhibits such power and poise, but can disappear without leaving a trace. A ship on the high seas defies hidden depths, and can circle the globe, and that is wonderful. And then there is the way of a man with a virgin: Agur here is describing the act of marriage – and he intends for us to see the mystery of it.
We live in an age which thinks it understands things, but in our lack of appreciation of mystery we display our folly. We think that romance is just about hormones, and that marriage is just a romantic choice – but that provides marriage with only a very shallow foundation. It reduces marriage to a thing merely personal, and temporary. It loses the mystery, and dispenses with wonder.
A more common wedding text than Proverbs 30 is Paul’s instruction about marriage in Ephesians 5: A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound…
What is it about marriage that is a mystery? The answer is given in how Paul continues the sentence: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. It is a mystery that Christ – God himself – should be united with people like us! And this is the model for marriage: that two people as different and distinct as a man and a woman are from one another can be united as one flesh.
The student at Northwestern was wrong, and Agur is right. There is something too wonderful to understand about sex, and about marriage (and without sex there is no marriage). It is, and is meant to be, something of a mystery. And for the wise, this helps explain why, as we state in the marriage service, “Marriage is the only honourable and moral basis for sexual love.”
Proverbs 30:18-19 might look somewhat mysterious, but it is a great text for a wedding!
[A reductionist view of the eighth commandment would be simply: don't forcibly take someone else's property. For most affluent people—affluent enough to have an Internet connection and read a blog post—this is pretty straightforward. But Heidelberg doesn't let us off the hook; by asking (in line with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount) what the heart behind the commandment is, it provides application for all of us. Theft "also includes all scheming and swindling to get our neighbour's goods for ourselves," even if the means appear legitimate. It rules out the charging of excessive interest (credit card companies, anyone?) and the watering down of beer as much as it rules out counterfeiting and fraud. It even rules out squandering God's gifts and laziness. How are we to live instead? "That I do whatever I can for my neighbour’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need."]
Q110. What does God forbid
in the eighth commandment?
A110. God forbids not only outright theft and robbery,
punishable by law.
But in God’s sight theft also includes
all scheming and swindling
in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves,
whether by force or means that appear legitimate,
inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume;
or any other means forbidden by God.
In addition God forbids all greed
and pointless squandering of his gifts.
Q111. What does God require of you
in this commandment?
A111. That I do whatever I can
for my neighbor’s good,
that I treat others
as I would like them to treat me,
and that I work faithfully
so that I may share with those in need.
My first preaching series at King's Church London has just started recently, and we're basing it on my book If God, Then What?. Each message lasts around twenty-five minutes, beginning with two minutes of vox pops and ending with five minutes of Q&A, and tackles a foundational question about the world from the perspective of someone who doesn't believe the Bible. How do we know? How did we get here? What is possible? What's wrong with the world? What's the solution? What happened at Easter? And so what?
As an aside, the fact that we are doing the series in this particular way is probably why I leapt to Andy Stanley’s defence two weeks ago, even though I disagree with him about a number of things he said (and would, so I’m reliably informed by friends of mine, disagree more if I’d talked to him more about it). So for all who are worried that not starting from the Bible is a slippery slope to moralistic-dishwash-blessed-thoughts-relativism, it might be an interesting series to follow.
Here’s the first (How Do You Know?):
And the second (How Did We Get Here?):
The news that Miroslav Volf has been overtaken by a bad case of moral relativism is sad, but perhaps not surprising: we live in an age when such things pass by all too frequently. Holding firm to a consistent, biblical, ethic faces particular challenges in our day. It is very difficult to remain publicly acceptable without adopting current moral positions, especially in the area of human sexuality.
The context and issue at hand was very different, but Paul’s comments towards the end of his letter to the Galatians are pertinent:
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. (Gal. 6:12)
Who Paul was gunning for in this letter has been the source of much debate in recent years (just type ‘Galatians’ in the Think search box) but this statement about the motives of the circumcision party is telling. Conformity to a socially demanded practice is being enforced by those who want to avoid persecution as a result of their belonging to a marginal group. They don’t even particularly believe in the cause, Paul seems to suggest, but they are forcing others to adhere to it in order to save their own skins (no pun intended).
The connection to contemporary ethical disagreements is obvious. In the contemporary world – especially the academic world, with its trigger warnings, safe-spaces, and bucket loads of other oppressive, censorious nonsense – the failure to adhere to the new orthodoxy can be ruinous. We thought we were living in Athens, not Babylon, and are not well equipped for life at the margins of society. So it is unsurprising to find those that claim to be of us seeking to coerce us into 21st century equivalents of circumcision. That way respectability can be maintained and persecution avoided. I think I know how the Apostle Paul would respond: the answer is also in Galatians, chapter 5, verse 12. Pithy.
[One of the great advantages of going systematically through the Ten Commandments as a whole, rather than dipping in and out of them, is that by the time you reach the seventh one, everybody knows what to expect; nobody can accuse you of being obsessed with the particular sins it is denouncing, since you are following God in denouncing all sin. There are civilisations that have struggled with the command not to kill, but welcomed the commands against sexual immorality; ours, speaking for the UK at least, rejoices in the command not to kill, but finds those against sexual immorality constraining, outdated or worse. But Heidelberg just chunters on. God says you shouldn't do it, so don't.
And, as ever, the Catechism gives reasons, not just imperatives. God hates unchastity (which, we should note, does not mean "sexual activity" but "sexual activity outside of marriage"), so we should "thoroughly detest it", whether we are married or not. "We are temples of the Holy Spirit, body and soul, and God wants both to be kept clean and holy." Consequently, we should not only abstain from sexual immorality; we should abstain from anything that might cause it (actions, looks, talk, thoughts, desires), and from anything that might cause something that might cause it (pornography is an obvious example, but to be honest, so are an awful lot of adverts, TV programmes, conversations and jokes). Yes, that's a big ask. No, it isn't easy. But that's why the gospel, so beautifully expounded in the first half of the Catechism, is so vital.]
Q108. What does the seventh commandment teach us?
A108. That God condemns all unchastity,
and that therefore we should thoroughly detest it
and live decent and chaste lives,
within or outside of the holy state of marriage.
Q109. Does God, in this commandment,
forbid only such scandalous sins as adultery?
A109. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, body and soul,
and God wants both to be kept clean and holy.
That is why God forbids
all unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires,
and whatever may incite someone to them.
The Ten Commandments are everywhere. Presumably I'm seeing them more because I'm working through the Heidelberg Catechism on Sundays, and they are helping me not just understand them and apply them but also notice them when they appear in Scripture, but I really hadn't noticed how many parts of the Bible are shaped by the Decalogue.
Some are more obvious than others. The Sermon on the Mount is a well-known example, for instance. When Paul lists vices in 1 Timothy 1:8-11, the order matches the second half of the Ten Commandments exactly: “those who strike their fathers or mothers (#5), murderers (#6), the sexually immoral, men who practise homosexuality (both #7), enslavers (#8), liars, perjurers (both #9), and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine (#10).” Similar vice lists elsewhere mix them up a bit, but retain most of the specifics: “neither the sexually immoral (#7), nor idolaters (#1 and #2), nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality (both #7), nor thieves (#8), nor the greedy (#10), nor drunkards, nor revilers (#9), nor swindlers (#8) will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10). Others include the Ten Commandments as part of a wider discourse on morality; Romans 1:18-32 covers #1, #2, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9 and #10, but not in that order. (It is fascinating that none of Paul’s lists include the Sabbath. Make of that what you will.)
Ezekiel 18 is a less well-known example, but one I recently encountered in my devotions. Ezekiel is making the point that children won’t die for the sins of their parents, and in three slightly varying lists, he draws from the Ten Commandments repeatedly. The paradigmatic sinner is one who “is violent, a shedder of blood” (#6), one who “eats upon the mountains and lifts up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel” (#1 and #2), “defiles his neighbour’s wife” (#7), “oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery” (#8), and “commits abomination” (all of the above). It is not that Ezekiel is particularly trying to make the point that the Ten Commandments sum up the call to godliness that has been placed upon Israel. It is more that he simply assumes that they do, and develops his prophetic preaching accordingly.
In an intriguing article in the Grace Theological Journal, John Walton goes further, and argues that the Ten Words even provide the structure of Deuteronomy. (Bear with me.) After the summary of Israel’s story and the Ten Commandments are recapitulated in Deuteronomy 1-5, and before the blessings and curses begin, Walton argues that the rest of the book follows the same basic shape as the Decalogue, and is intended to “elucidate the broader morality behind each of the Ten Commandments.” He sketches it like this:
#1: Authority - Love God Alone (6:1-11:32)
#2: Dignity - Avoid Idolatry (12:1-32)
#3: Commitment - Take God Seriously (13:1-14:21)
#4: Rights and Privileges - Observe Sabbaths and Festivals (14:22-16:17)
#5: Authority - Honour Judges, Kings and Prophets (16:18-18:22)
#6: Dignity - Manslaughter, War and Murder (19:1-21:23)
#7: Dignity - Sexual Relationships and Purity (22:1-23:14)
#8: Dignity - Property and Possessions (23:15-24:7)
#9: Commitment - Pledges and Trust (24:8-16 [or 25:4])
#10: Rights and Privileges - The Rights of Others (24:17 [or 25:5]-26:19)
See? The Ten Commandments are everywhere.
If you're in the UK tomorrow night, you'll be able to watch a documentary by the actress Sally Phillips asking whether we really want a world without Downs Syndrome.
She raises the question because a new, non-invasive, procedure has been developed that can predict with 99% accuracy the chances of whether a foetus will be born with the condition or not. Phillips, who has a son with Downs Syndrome, fears that we are “sleepwalking into a world where we could eliminate Down’s syndrome”1 (which is, of course, a polite way of saying ‘eliminate the people conceived with Downs syndrome’).
In an interview with The Guardian, Sally notes that she is often asked “Didn’t you know?” when people see her son, “the implication being that if she had known, surely she would have terminated the pregnancy.”2 Freedom of choice, yet again, is seen to mean the freedom to make the culturally-approved choice.
In a follow-up article in The Observer, Jane Fisher, director of an organisation set up to support parents affected by foetal screening and its consequences, raised concerns about the programme. While applauding the desire to show positive images of people who have Downs, she says it introduces “an extra layer of difficulty for couples and families who might be making the decision now about whether to end their pregnancy.” And worse, “It risks offering the suggestion to those who have [decided to end a pregnancy] that they have made the wrong decision.”
Of course it does. This is precisely the kind of tyrannous behaviour the great god ‘Choice’ engages in.
It doesn’t take Sally Phillips to make parents who have chosen to abort their child - for whatever reason - worry that they may have made the wrong decision. Anyone who tries to tell you abortions come without these terrifying questions either before or after is, quite frankly, probably trying to sell you one.
For any person not endowed with omniscience, it will be impossible ever to know whether any choice you make is the right one or not. (Aside: in a world with no absolutes, is there any such thing as the ‘right’ choice anyway?) The nocturnal ‘what ifs’ will always come creeping out of the undergrowth, whispering their unanswerable questions from dusk till dawn. But that’s what you sign up for when you pledge allegiance to that master. You get the freedom to choose, but you also get the freedom to live with the doubts and the recriminations and the fear. Your only hope is to make the most informed choice you can, then face the consequences.
So why do the advocates of choice so often seek to quash the voices of information? The charitable explanation is that it’s because their elephants are galloping so determinedly through the bushes that the riders haven’t a hope of trying to alter their course. Or could it be that we are not as free as we like to think, but are all serving some kind of god with some kind of plan for humanity?
If so, it might be just as well to make an informed choice about that, too…
Picture credit: Sally Phillips in a scene from the documentary, ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome?’ Photograph: Brian J Ritchie
Minutes after posting yesterday's brief comments on the sixth commandment, I read the following exposition of Ezekiel 22:1-16 in Robert Jenson's commentary on Ezekiel. At least as important as the instruction not to kill, from a theological point of view, is the reason why we are not to kill—and that, Jenson argues, is often forgotten:
“Thou shalt not kill.” We repeat it, and even in secularised societies do not invoke it only in synagogue or church. But why shall we not kill? A defining feature of modernity, and even more of postmodernity—whatever we take that term to mean—is forgetfulness of the reason: that all lives belong exclusively to God, so that human creatures are not in their own interest to take life. The sense of the commandment is not that putting to death is in all circumstances forbidden me but that humans are not to make decisions over life and death by their—even justified—desires, but only by command of the one to whom all lives belong. As our forgetfulness of this deepens, the boundary of the forbidden recedes: the blood of the unborn child is shed to preserve the autonomy—from whom?—of the mother; the life of the hopelessly diminished gives way to their or their caretakers’ easier to escape; the criteria of a just war are conformed to the desires of Realpolitik. The bill of particulars in the next part of our text (22:6-12) will at its end explicitly state the origin of all crimes, civil or cultic: “You have forgotten me” (22:12).
[How many of us, asked to explain the purpose of the sixth commandment ("you shall not murder"), would begin by saying, "I am not to belittle my neighbour"? Heidelberg's reading of the Ten Words is completely reshaped by Jesus's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and the sixth, which is probably the easiest one for respectable Christians to wave away as largely inapplicable—well yes, but of course I'd never do that—is rendered particularly clearly. No hating or insulting. No participating in the hatred or insults of others. No revenge. No self-harm. No envy, hatred, anger or vindictiveness. Instead, we love our neighbours with patience, peace, gentleness, mercy and friendship, seek to protect even our enemies from harm, and do good even to our enemies. It remains the most challenging, difficult, marvellous and fully human vision of the good life there has ever been.]
Q105. What is God’s will for you
in the sixth commandment?
A105. I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor—
not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture,
and certainly not by actual deeds—
and I am not to be party to this in others;
rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge.
I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either.
Prevention of murder is also why
government is armed with the sword.
Q106. Does this commandment refer only to murder?
A106. By forbidding murder God teaches us
that he hates the root of murder:
envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness.
In God’s sight all such are disguised forms of murder.
Q107. Is it enough then
that we do not murder our neighbor
in any such way?
By condemning envy, hatred, and anger
God wants us
to love our neighbors as ourselves,
to be patient, peace-loving, gentle,
merciful, and friendly toward them,
to protect them from harm as much as we can,
and to do good even to our enemies.
On the basis of Andrew’s recommendation I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I flew out to the States last Friday, and finished it on the plane, in between London Has Fallen (dire, but some nice shots of the capital), snoozing, and The Revenant (couldn’t suspend my imagination sufficiently to get past DiCapprio’s ‘please give me an Oscar for pulling this face’ face).
It took me a while to get through The Righteous Mind, not least because I kept getting diverted by the online psychological tests Haidt references. The Implicit Association Test was fairly brutal – turns out I’m more biased towards certain groups of people than I would want to be. I was happier with the results at YourMorals though – it seems I care more than liberals do about the things liberals care about, as well as more about the things conservatives do than do conservatives. Who knew.
It’s a rich book; a bit of a game-changer: and not so complicated as Andrew’s review made it sound (!). It is also four years old, so written before Obama’s second term of office, and way before the Clinton/Trump circus rolled into town. But the insights it offers are extremely helpful in the current context.
Towards the end of The Righteous Mind Haidt offers some analysis as to why American politics is so partisan, interestingly tracing it to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – an Act that saw the American South switch from Democrat to Republican.
Before this realignment there had been liberals and conservatives in both parties, which made it easy to form bipartisan teams who could work together on legislative projects. But after the realignment, there was no longer any overlap…Nowadays the most liberal Republican is typically more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.
American politics may be partisan, but Clinton and Trump are the parts no-one much wants. I’ve seen a few banners in support of Clinton since being here, and a few more for Trump, but very few overall. When I ask my friends who they intend to vote for the normal response is one of hands-over-the-face horror; and while queuing up for Texas barbeque I couldn’t elicit more thorough feedback from the stranger next in line. A combination of disbelief and embarrassment seems to be the majority view here.
I’m in North Carolina for a conference – a conference that kicked off with a talk reminding us of the sovereignty of God. That’s always a good topic to come back to, but especially at times when earthly rulers are at their most disappointing. It’s good to be reminded that God really is in control, and working out his plan. Kingdoms rise and fall, but the kingdom remains forever.
My hope for American politics would be a wholesale realignment of the Republican and Democrat parties: a realignment that diminishes some of the current partisanship and creates the space for more talented and moral presidential candidates to emerge. God knows, there are talented people of character aplenty in America – it’s just that either they can’t get to the top of the greasy poll, or (more likely?) don’t want to with things constituted as they currently are. Hoping for such a realignment may well be a forlorn hope. But I pray to a sovereign God.
A couple of weeks ago I read two fascinating articles within the space of twelve hours. Both were on the subject of sex difference and complementarity, and both made the case that despite our best efforts to blur the distinctions between males and females, and to catechise our society accordingly, genuine differences kept poking through the cracks. One was written by a woman (Christina Hoff Sommers) and one by a man (Alastair Roberts); one was in a mainstream news outlet (The Federalist) and one in a relatively niche Christian website (The Calvinist International); one was not explicitly Christian and the other one was; but they both told a strikingly similar story. You might even say they were complementary.
Arguably the key section of Alastair’s article is the link-flooded section in the middle, where he draws out many of these distinctions:
Men are typically considerably more aggressive, competitive, and inclined to risk-taking or violent behaviours than women. Men, for instance, constitute the overwhelming majority of those within prisons in nations around the world and commit practically every crime at a higher rate than women. Across human societies, men are directly responsible for almost all serious violence and war. Men are consistently found to be much more promiscuous than women. Testosterone is correlated with higher levels of confidence, status assertion, and a higher sex drive. Men are also much more likely to take risks (both physical and intellectual), to be fearless, and to be treated as expendable by society.
Important differences in sociality exist too. Differences between the sexes emerge very early on, even before children have any conceptual appreciation of gender (e.g. 40 of 43 serious shootings by toddlers in 2015 were by boys!). Male groups are much more agonistic (not just physically, but also verbally and conversationally) and prone to direct violence; female groups can be much more prone to indirect and dissembled forms of social conflict. Women tend to prefer smaller groups; men tend to prefer larger ones. Male groups are more hierarchical in tendency; women’s are more likely to be egalitarian in their group norms. Women tend to be more people and social-emotional oriented than men; men tend to be more thing, task, and agency oriented than women. Women are more likely to have a verbal tilt in their ability; men are more likely to have a mathematical tilt. Worked out across societies and over time, these weighted tendencies have fairly consistently produced predictable patterns and far-reaching differences in male and female representation in various endeavours and roles. Indeed, these differences in gendered tendencies are often most pronounced in Western individualistic egalitarian societies, where people are freer to follow natural inclinations.
There is a wealth of research on these and related subjects, yet it is unfortunate that I should need to link to any of it. Much of it simply identifies facts that should be clearly apparent to anyone who pays attention to themselves, society, and the world around them, and hasn’t been forgetful of nature.
Christina Hoff Sommers makes a similar point from the perspective of children:
Parents who read too much Judith Butler in college and view gender as fluid and malleable may be startled by the counterevidence their three-year-olds provide. The usually eloquent Julia Turner, editor of Slate, became tongue-tied a few weeks ago when she tried to explain a mysterious development at home: Her little twin sons were obsessed with wheeled objects—particularly cement mixers. Parenthood, she confessed, had “complicated” her worldview. Turner kept affirming her loyalty to the gender-is-a-social-construct school. But then, referring to her sons’ insistent boyishness, she uttered four heretical words: “There’s a there there…”
Indeed there is. And it takes a liberal arts degree not to see it. A 2012 cross-cultural study on sex differences confirmed what most of us see: despite some exceptions, females tend to be more sensitive, esthetic, sentimental, intuitive, and tender-minded, while males tend to be more utilitarian, objective, unsentimental, and tough-minded.
The female penchant for nurturing play and the male propensity for rough-and-tumble hold cross-culturally and even cross-species. Among our close relatives such as rhesus and vervet monkeys, researchers have found that females play with dolls far more than do their brothers, who prefer balls and toy cars. It seems unlikely the monkeys are acting out a culturally manufactured gender binary. Something else is going on. Most scientists attribute typical male/female differences to some yet-to-be understood combination of biology and culture.