On the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ: Revelation, Christology, Anthropology and Eschatology

 

“…when we hear the Easter story or are reminded by a worship song that Jesus rose from the dead, our default way of interpreting the story is through a secular imagination. In that vision, the resurrection is a great spiritual truth, a tremendous inspiration, and maybe forensic evidence of Christ’s divinity. But it’s not the firstfruit of the redemption of the world, it’s not an event transcending but yet not denying the immanent, it is not a supernatural event, and it is especially not a reality with spiritual results reverberating even to today.”           ~ Alan Noble, ‘The Resurrection in a Secular World’[1]

 

“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”         ~ The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:13-17[2]                         

 

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes–I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”  ~  Job from the Old Testament in Job 19:25-27

 

Thorwald Lorenzen describes four approaches to the resurrection and key theologians who are said to espouse these views.[3] The four are: the ‘traditional’ (typified by Carl F. H. Henry and Wolfhart Pannenberg); the ‘liberal’ (Rudolf Bultmann, John Knox et al); the ‘evangelical’ (Karl Barth, Walter Künneth et al); and the ‘liberation’ (Jürgen Moltmann, Jon Sobrino). The traditional, evangelical and liberation approaches, while each having widely varying underscores, largely accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus. For the most part, a denial of the bodily resurrection comes from within the liberal approach. This non-bodily view of the resurrection combines elements of dualism, Docetism and demythologising.  In terms of dualism, man is sharply divided between the physical and spiritual where the physical is demeaned and the spiritual is elevated. We see this dualism present today as we speak about people who have died, our speech betrays the liberal and dualistic view that the body is merely something to be escaped and that ‘floating in the ethereal’ is freedom for our souls. In terms of Docetism (from the Greek δοκεῖν – to seem) it is asserted by the liberal theologians that Jesus only appeared to have had a physical body at his resurrection.  Lastly, in terms of demythologising: that a man could rise bodily from the dead  is noted as neither normal nor historically viable, and so the resurrection comes to rest, not on an actual physical rising of Christ but rather a rising of the Saviour in our hearts as experience. Here the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus has little to no impact, again a view mirrored by contemporary culture.  So, what would be lost by denying that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was bodily? It would not be overdramatic to answer: everything! To limit the discussion we will focus on four areas that a denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus adversely impacts, namely: the authority and witness of Scripture; the person and work of Jesus for our salvation; our understanding of humanity; and lastly, the final plans of God.

 

  1. Revelation: the authority and historical witness of Scripture

Our starting point must be in asserting that to deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection rejects the witness of Scripture, God’s Word to us by his Holy Spirit concerning his Son. The primary issue is the authority of Scripture as God’s Word to us, and included are elements regarding the historicity of the gospel accounts. [4] Regardless of a dismal by the liberals, Scripture continues to proclaim the bodily resurrection, most notably in three key areas: Jesus’ own words about his resurrection, the implication of the empty tomb, and lastly the bodily appearances of Jesus to witnesses after his resurrection.

So firstly, on multiple occasions Jesus predicted that he would be betrayed and killed, but that after three days he would rise again (cf. Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10: 32-34). That his rising from the dead was no mere symbolism can be seen in John 2 where Jesus answers the Jews’ questioning of his authority with the following in v. 19: ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ Verse 21 adds: ‘But the temple he had spoken of was his body.’ After his rising from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said, ‘then they believed the Scripture and the words Jesus had spoken’ (v. 22). To deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to deny the truthfulness of ‘the words Jesus ha[s] spoken’.

Secondly, the empty tomb implies a bodily resurrection.  The traditionalist Carl F. H. Henry is right to assert that ‘without the empty tomb any claim for Jesus’ resurrection was meaningless.’[5] Specifically in terms of a bodily resurrection, the tomb must be empty of a body. Mainstream apologetic works sufficiently show that other options for the unoccupied tomb hold very little weight and that the empty tombs best fits the biblical claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.[6] Traditionalists at this point overextend themselves by seeing fact demanding faith by sheer reason.[7] Nevertheless the empty tomb is of great significance, at least implying the bodily resurrection of Jesus.[8] This is especially the case when coupled with the angelic witness recorded in Scripture: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen!’ (Luke 24: 5-6). Opposite to the traditionalists stand the liberals who in attempting to demythologise the resurrection will assert, not that an actual event took place, but rather that an experiential rising of Jesus in our hearts takes place. However if that was the case, then there is no reason for an empty tomb, and one must be given! Against this stands Scripture’s reason for the empty tomb, namely that Jesus was not abandoned to the tomb, nor did his body see decay (Acts 2:31).

Thirdly, Jesus’ multiple appearances testify to his bodily resurrection. When the disciples claim to have seen the risen Lord,  Thomas states that unless he sees the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, and puts his finger where the nail marks were, and his hand into Jesus’ side – he would not believe (John 20: 25). Thomas’ subsequent cry of faith is unlikely to have been brought about by a Docetist apparition of Jesus, but rather by the risen Lord standing bodily in front of him, as per his earlier demands.[9] Paul, when reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that they had received, stresses the resurrection of Jesus from the dead ‘according to the Scriptures’ and that Jesus appeared to Peter, the twelve, and after over five hundred of the ‘brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living.’ (1 Cor 15: 1-6). Again, the emphasis is on the physical (i.e. bodily) appearances of Jesus before multiple witnesses. On this, surely even the most sceptical cannot believe that 500 people could all have been under the same extreme influence of the sun or narcotics at the same time to create some kind of visionary state – to purport that must surely carry its own concern of writing ‘under the influence’. Rudolf Bultmann says that ‘both the legend of the empty tomb and the appearances insist on the physical reality of the risen body of the Lord (see especially Luke 24. 39-43).’[10] Except for his inclusion of ‘legend’ which betrays his understanding that ‘these are most certainly later embellishments of the primitive tradition’,[11] his conclusion is correct, namely that the empty tomb and the appearances do ‘insist on the physical reality of the risen body of the Lord.’

The words of Jesus, the empty tomb, and appearances of Jesus all fit into the historical nature of the preserved Christian message, not quite to the extent that the traditional approach supposes, but the fact remains that the Christian message arises from actual historical events. To instead deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus rejects the authoritative witness of God’s own Word about the matter.

 

  1. Christology: the person and work of Jesus for our salvation

To deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection adversely alters the very salvific person and work of Jesus that Scripture attests to. This is especially in regards to his lordship over death, as well as his continued mediation and intercession as the ascended Lord.

Firstly, ‘Jesus is Lord’ remains a succinct summary of the gospel and his lordship is intrinsically linked to his resurrection from the dead – in him death is defeated. So Romans 1:4 ends with the gospel summary of ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’, and it is both his Davidic humanity, and his ushering in of the Resurrection age, shown by his resurrection from the dead as the Spirit led Son of God that makes that declaration possible. Acts 17 likewise sets out Jesus’ lordship (here in judgment) as linked to his resurrection (v. 31). [12] To deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to maintain that Jesus is not Lord over death and that death has not been defeated.  It cannot be said as per 1 Cor 15:54, that ‘death has been swallowed up in victory’, for as N.T. Wright asserts, a non-bodily resurrection means that ‘death still rules – since that is a description not of the defeat of death but simply of death itself.’[13] For Jesus to have not been risen bodily is to allow death to have done its job. Instead, the bodily resurrection, ‘to be clad in the incorruptible garment of deathlessness’, is to declare that Jesus is Lord, even over death, the great enemy of humanity.[14]

Secondly, a denial of the bodily resurrection adversely impacts the continued incarnation of Jesus in the accession, notably in regards to his mediatorial intercession for us. The incarnation is God working to save man, God coming in the flesh to save us from our sins (Matt 1: 21, 23) and to destroy man’s enemies of satan and death (Heb 2: 14-17). Jesus, fully God and fully man is the perfect mediator, who even now is seated at the right hand of God (Heb 1:3, 1 Peter 3:22) interceding (Heb 7:23-25) for those he died to save. Gerrit Scott Dawson asserts that Jesus retaining his humanity ‘is essential for our salvation’:[15]

‘For any view of the ascension as Jesus slipping off his humanity is a sentence of condemnation. We cannot be united to him in the Holy Spirit if he is no longer flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. If the one who sits at the right hand of God is not fully human as well as fully God, then we will never enter within the veil.’[16]

Similarly Paul Molnar encapsulates T. F. Torrance’s assessment when he says:

‘In the incarnation we have the meeting of man and God in man’s place, but in the ascension we have the meeting of man and God in God’s place, but through the Spirit these are not separated from one another.’[17]

Just as a Jesus whose resurrection was not bodily is not Lord over death, neither can the ascended Jesus truly be the ‘man’ of 1 Tim 2:5 who sufficiently mediates and continues to intercede between God and man if he did not rise bodily. Salvation is thus brought into question.

 

  1. Anthropology: understanding our humanity

To deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection likewise impacts a number of issues regarding us and our humanity. In particular it misconstrues the nature of humanity, the hope of our resurrection bodies, as well as the implications of the bodily resurrection for life now.

Firstly, in regards to the nature of humanity, the bible shows that from the beginning, humanity before sin was created as physical beings – Adam was of the ‘dust of the ground’ and a ‘living being’ (Gen 2:7). In other words there is a physicality that forms part of what it means to be human. Dualists tend to make a sharp distinction between the flesh and spirit/soul, with a depreciating of the physical. Dr. Claudia Setzer maintains that the ‘earliest Jewish anthropology sees a distinction between body and soul as a soft distinction only.’ [18] The two aspects function as a unit,[19] there is no absolute dualism.[20] Hellenistic dualism has had too much of an impact: there is more to man than just being a physical creature, but the majority of these factors flow out of the uniqueness of our relationship to the God who created us in his image, something that the other creatures cannot lay claim to. Having failed to carry out what we were created for, in order to redeem humanity, Jesus entered into our humanity as a man. He lived, suffered and died in the body, and then rose bodily as a man. To deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to misunderstand the nature of man and Jesus’ interest in redeeming physical humanity.

Secondly, part of the Christian hope is for ‘the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom 8:23). Again, this is tied to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. We await his return when he will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Phil 3:21). The key text in regard to our resurrection bodies is 1 Cor 15. ‘But,’ some might say, ‘the text is clear: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (v. 50) and our resurrection bodies will be spiritual rather than natural (v. 44).’  The problem with our bodies is that they are naturally, as a result of sin, perishing. This natural and sinful ‘flesh and blood’ is ill-suited to inherit a kingdom that is everlasting. What is needed is a spiritual body. However, contra a dualist demeaning of the physical, these bodies are physical. Two points help clarify the confusion over the use of the word ‘spiritual’. Firstly, as T. F. Torrance says so succinctly: ‘To be a spiritual man is to be not less than man but more fully and truly man.’[21] Thus it is not less than what we have, it is more – at the very least non-sinful and hence not prone to perishability.  Secondly, spiritual should be related to the supernatural act of the life giving Spirit of God at work – this being the same Spirit who raised Christ Jesus from the dead and who gives life to our mortal bodies (Rom 8:11). Language has its limits, as does the amount of detailed knowledge we have of the future. However when it comes to our resurrection bodies, as with Jesus’ body, there will be an amount of continuity (remaining our bodies!) but also discontinuity (being more than we know). The tension must remain between this sense of continuity and discontinuity that Scripture gives us. They will be physical bodies, albeit glorious!

Lastly, for those saved through faith in the Lord Jesus who was resurrected (Rom 10:9), his bodily resurrection means a hope-fuelled living and complete reorientation of life in the moral body now. A non-bodily resurrection destroys this New Testament emphasis on a new life in the body now (Rom 6:4), lived for God our Saviour in the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies (Rom 6:12), we are not to offer our bodies to sin but instead to God (v. 13), and we are to especially flee sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18) – because what is done in the body redeemed by God and indwelt by the Holy Spirit matters. Jürgen Moltmann, espousing the liberation approach, stresses that a life lived through faith in the bodily resurrected Jesus will impact to the point of the ‘realization of the eschatological hope of justice, the humanizing of man, the socializing of humanity, peace for all creation.’[22] The dangers of a type of ‘heaven on earth’ mentality via Moltmann are plain, nevertheless the NT is crystal clear that the bodily resurrection of Jesus shows a complete reorientation of man as a whole where we use our bodies, not for sin, but instead for God our Saviour and for the good of others. To deny the bodily resurrection jettisons the redemption of physical man in Jesus, the hope of resurrection bodies, and the directive for godly living now in this new life that we have been given.

 

  1. Eschatology: the final plans of God

Finally, to deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection is to reject the cosmic and ultimate plans of God. The anchor for these plans is Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and to deny that is to lose the magnificent scope and physicality of what God is doing. From the onset, God is revealed as the creator. What God creates is physical and good. Salvation itself is a work of creation (or recreation, παλιγγενεσία – cf. Titus 3:5), again by the very Spirit of God, where those alienated from God and thus dead, are made alive. Through faith in the risen Jesus, men and women become new creations reborn to know God (2 Cor 5:17). However this process of transformation does not stop with humanity. It begins in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and flows to us as the church. But we are in Christ, the first-fruits of what is to come because this transformation likewise encompasses the whole of creation. The culmination of God’s salvation plans, based on Jesus’ bodily resurrection, is where those made alive in Christ will be given new bodies to live with God as their God in the transformed creation to serve him as originally intended. This cosmic dimension is rejected if the Jesus’ bodily resurrection is rejected.

Colossians shows the centrality of the resurrected Jesus to God’s cosmic plans where 1: 15-20 portrays the move from creation (vv. 15-17) to a reconciliation of all things (vv. 18-20) – creation to new creation. Jesus stands as Lord over the original creation – it is both by and for Jesus that all things are created (v. 16). There appears to be a very real way in which Jesus is committed to what he has created and what was made for him. Thus the shift in vv. 18-20 portrays reconciliation enacted by and in Jesus. It is his blood shed which brings all things together again: us (v. 22) but also all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven (v. 20).  Jesus through his resurrection, the firstborn from among the dead, is Lord (v. 18) of this grand movement of reconciliation. The church, those being made alive to God through Jesus, is evidence of God’s work of renewal with the end design of transforming this fallen world. This is why in the meantime creation is said to be groaning as it waits for the day when it will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:21-22). It is not safe to speculate regarding the exact specifics of the new creation. However similar to our bodies, there appear to be elements of both continuity and discontinuity. What is clear is that, as with our bodies, creation will be transformed in such a way that it fits, fulfilling God’s purposes. What are those purposes? Right now the bodily resurrected Jesus sits in heaven, ‘where he must remain until the time comes for God to restore all things’ (Acts 3:21). But when he returns, history as we know it will come to an end and those found in Christ will be endowed with glorified bodies to live with their glorious Lord in the glorious new creation. To deny the bodily resurrection denies this reality which God stands behind.

 

Jesus’ bodily resurrection points to the fact that we are living in the last days – days of salvation as well as of judgment. Scripture is clear that the only hope for mankind is to trust in the risen Jesus who rose bodily from the dead after dying in our place. But,

‘[i]f Christ is risen only in spirit – whatever that means then he is, so to speak, only a ghost with no relevance to men and women of flesh and blood, to human beings who belong to this world of space and time. If Jesus exists no longer as man, then we have little hope in this life, not to speak of the hereafter. It is the risen humanity of Christ that is the very centre of the Christian’s hope in life and death’ [23]

It is not too much to say that everything is affected if the bodily resurrection is denied. Scripture, God’s revelation to us, is no longer given its proper place of authority over us as a record and witness to reality. Jesus is not the Lord who can save us or intercede for us – the proposed replacement Christology is anaemic to the core. In terms of anthropology, the very nature of what it means to be human, the hope of resurrection bodies and what life should look like now are lost. Finally, God’s cosmic eschatological plans cable-tied to the bodily resurrected Jesus, where redeemed man in resurrection bodies like their Lord will serve God in the new creation – even these are destroyed. Against a denial of Jesus’ bodily resurrection it must be asserted that:

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again His body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherefore He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until He returns to judge all men at the last day.[24]

******************************

[1] Alan Noble, The Resurrection in a Secular World in “The Resurrection” March/April 2016 Vol. 25 No. 2 Page number(s): 36-45. For the full article please visit “Modern Reformation” here.

[2] All Scripture taken from the NIV (1984)

[3] Thorwald Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections, Theological Consequences (New York: Orbis Books, 1995).

[4] Sir Lloyd Geering, a liberal New Zealand theologian, provides a clear example of the dismissal of both as archaic with the first part of one of his books entitled ‘The collapse of an old tradition’ in Lloyd Geering, Resurrection : A Symbol of Hope (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971). See for instance pp. 20–42.

[5] Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (vol. 3; Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1976), 149.

[6] For instance, Josh McDowell, Evidence that demands a verdict : Historical evidences for the Christian faith (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1972).

[7] ‘If by rational inquiry it can be proved that Jesus rose from the dead, then no faith is needed to confess that Jesus is risen.’ Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship, 29. Martin Davie notes ‘three unfortunate consequences’ from failing to recognise the necessity of God given faith over simple reason: Faith becomes a work; Faith becomes dependent on historical proof and thus uncertain; Faith is closed off from those lacking intellectual ability (in The Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Theology of Karl Barth (Peter M Head, ed., Proclaiming the resurrection: Papers from the first Oak Hill College Annual School of Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998), 126.)

[8] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Abridged in One Volume (ed. John Bolt; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), 456.

[9] Cf. John 20:20 (showed hands and feet); Luke 24:43 (eats food).

[10] Italics mine. Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in:  Hans Werner Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (trans. Reginald H. Fuller; vol. 1; S.P.C.K., 1962), 39.

[11] Ibid; cf. Peter Frederick Carnley, The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 234–49.

[12] N. T. Wright dismisses any claims that a bodily resurrection is not implied in ‘resurrection’ and ‘resurrection from the dead’.  Wright in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008) shows that within the worlds of both ancient paganism and Judaism ‘[r]esurrection was used to denote new bodily resurrection’,  ‘[r]esurrection meant bodies.’ (p. 36). The importance in this is to understand that when the NT speaks of the ‘resurrection’ or ‘resurrection from the dead’, what is meant is a bodily resurrection.

[13] Wright, Surprised by Hope, 15. Cf. p. 194.

[14] Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 83. Cf. Acts 2:31.

[15] Gerrit Dawson, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 73.

[16] Dawson, Jesus Ascended, 6.

[17] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity (Farnham, England: Burlington, VT : Ashgate Pub. Ltd., 2009), 252.

[18] Claudia Setzer, Resurrection of the Body in early Judaism and early Christianity : Doctrine, Community, and Self-definition (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004), 151.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Setzer, Resurrection of the Body in early Judaism and early Christianity, 152.

[21] Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, 141.

[22] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (London: SCM, 1967), 329.

[23] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990), 22.

[24] The Thirty-Nine Articles, 4.

Piper: the IOU’S of praying for endurance (from the Psalms)

We have a number of issues when it comes to us praying: the desire to pray, the content of what to pray, and the discipline to do so being among them.

Desire is the chief issue because it’s so closely associated to what or who sits ruling our hearts. Content can however also be a cause of stumbling: What can or should I pray? We might have grown weary of praying the same “Dear God please help so and so with such and such…” Although I’m certain those prayers are heard by a gracious and loving Father, we may have the desire to be praying through a bit more of His Scripture, asking for specifics that God has brought to our attention through His Word –such as prayers for the endurance of ourselves and others. So content wise, what can you and I pray?

In the context of praying for endurance John Piper says this:

The psalmists prayed in the same way. They pleaded that God would overcome their failing wills: “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gains!” (Psalm 119:36). In other words, the Psalmist saw that he was “prone to wander” away from endurance and faithfulness, and pleaded with God to intervene and change his will when he started to love money more than truth. Similarly he prayed that God would open his eyes to see the compelling beauty of what was there in the Word (psalm 119:18), and that God would unite his heart from all divided allegiances (Psalm 86:11), and that God would satisfy him with divine love, and so wean him off the world (Psalm 90:14). Without this kind of divine help nobody will endure to the end in love to Christ. That’s why the apostle Paul prays this way for his people: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5). If we’re going to endure in faith and obedience, God must “direct our hearts” to Christ.

The footnote in this section says:

“Notice that the four italicized words (“Incline,” “open,” “unite,” satisfy”) from these four texts (Psalm 119:36; 119:18; 86:11; 90:14) form an acronym: “IOU’S.” I use this regularly as a reminder of how to pray for my own soul and for others.”

Lovely!

The exact acronym only works if you use the ESV – doh! It you’re using something else, say the NIV 1984 or the Holman then “Incline” becomes “Turn” (TOU’S doesn’t quite have the same ring to it), “unite” can become “undivided” (though you lose the verb). It doesn’t really matter though – I still think it’s a lovely acronym or set of Scriptures to use in prayer for ourselves and for others, specifically related to endurance to the end. The point, obviously though, is to pray! (On this, if I haven’t recommended it before, check out PrayerMate – it could help with the discipline side of things).

If we prayed these Scriptures regularly for ourselves and for others, I’d be surprised if we didn’t actually find our own desires changing and being shaped by the content of these Psalms as we’re pointed to what is of true value, what to seek and yearn for. I’ve certainly found them to be sobering in a re-evaluation of what to set my own eyes and hearts on. I pray they will be the same for you if you pray them.

 

Here are the four verses from the ESV, NIV 84 and Holman respectively:

Incline – Psalm 119:36

Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gains” – ESV

“Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain” – NIV 84

“Turn my heart to Your decrees and not to material gain.” – Holman

 

Open – Psalm 119:18

Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” – ESV

Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” – NIV 84

Open my eyes so that I may contemplate wonderful things from Your instruction.” – Holman

 

Unite – Psalm 86:11

“Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” – ESV)

“Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” – NIV 84

“Teach me Your way, Yahweh, and I will live by Your truth. Give me an undivided mind to fear Your name.” – Holman

 

Satisfy – Psalm 90:14

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” – ESV

Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” – NIV 84)

Satisfy us in the morning with Your faithful love so that we may shout with joy and be glad all our days.” – Holman

 

The book by the way is, “The Roots of Endurance: Invincible perseverance in the lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce” (quotes from page 24). It was wonderful for my own soul, and probably would be for yours too. A PDF copy for free can be found here at the Desiring God website.

A sermon on Distorted Sexuality

Background: Below is a copy of a sermon that was given on the Howard College Campus of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in 2015. It was the 6th sermon of a 9 week series on Relationships.

 

The Relationships Revolution #6

Distorted sexuality

 

Distorted sexuality and contemporary sexual culture

Some disclaimers before we begin. Firstly, certain parts of this are explicit, so prepare yourselves. Secondly, this topic is tough and so if anyone, for any reason, feels the needs to chat to someone afterwards, both Jo (my wife) and myself are available. (Although if you do see someone chatting to us, don’t assume that there is some issue going on. They could just be asking a question or simply saying ‘Hi’)

 

Last week we looked at God’s design for sex: sex that cares for the other and a sex which flourishes within the covenant relationship of marriage. That’s good sex! But what happens when God’s good design becomes distorted?

We’ve been asking students for the last two weeks a series of true and false questions. One was: ‘all we seem to talk about is sex.’ Most people answered true.

So for instance, listen to our conversations:  we’re bringing it up ourselves. Turn on the radio, and if there isn’t some song lyrical about sex, then it’s in the DJ’s banter or jokes. It’s in our ears, and it’s in our faces. It could be a billboard selling the most non-sexual object, a USB disk for instance, but with a woman pouting seductively: ‘Oh if you had this USB stick, you could… have me.’ Sex sells, even computer equipment. Or we pick up a magazine and what do we see: Celebrity affairs; how to get the best sex; or just a sexy someone on the cover. Or think of the last ad or show or movie you watched that didn’t have either sex included in the conversations; or super sexual dress code; or actual scenes involving sexual intimacy. Turn on MTV, enough said.

Explicitly or subtly almost everything is touched by sex and sexualised. And it’s often presented as a good thing: freedom, enjoyment, and the way sex should be.

But instead of seeing sex in the context of right relationships, sex becomes an object to have, something we must have. And once sex becomes an object, the people who can bring us sexual gratification are in danger of becoming objects. Making sex an object can turn people into sexual objects.

What’s the problem with this?

From the sermons on marriage and sex in marriage we should have seen the incredible other-person centeredness in them: sex in its proper place has a genuine care and service of the other person. But objectification of people in our sexualised culture twists that. Most times it becomes about me/us. And frequently it doesn’t consider the other person: their needs or even who they are.

For instance: a group of guys, and a girl walking on by. When she’s gone past (if she’s lucky!) the guys start discussing who would ‘tap that’. Now, there are exceptions to the rule but it’s a fairly frequent situation as they make that girl an object for them to score and discuss. Who is that girl? She’s not a person with personality and hopes and dreams. She’s an object. The pornography industry does this too. Hardly anyone thinks of those people as someone’s sister or daughter, someone’s brother or son. We’re blinded to see them simply as bodies twisting with other bodies – objects.

A study done in the US showed that nearly all young boys have been exposed to pornography.[1] And recent stats (again US) show that 65% of women between the age of 18-30 at the moment view porn at least a few times a year.[2] So what, what’s wrong with a bit of porn?

  • A. Porn doesn’t do anything for real sex.

The feminist Naomi Wolf, relying on UK data, writes that porn is actually destroying the sex lives of couples.[3]

Firstly, she picks up the well-known data revealing how it’s rewiring our brains. Watching porn causes sharp spikes in the activation of dopamine – which makes people feel confident and good. But like a drug it causes desensitisation, you need more and something ‘more extreme’ to get the same high.

Secondly confirmed in men (and perhaps true for women) it results in problems reaching orgasm. Many men, young and healthy, just can’t perform sexually.

Thirdly, as a result of porn men start to see their own partners as less attractive and they’re less aroused by ordinary sexual behaviour. In other words real women can’t compete with the staged performances of porn stars and they can’t deliver the boost and the high that can be found at the click of the mouse.

Many people consider porn to be a sex manual – how sex should be. But instead it’s destroyed our ability and even desire to have sex, to even understand what sex is about. We’re druggies hooked on the images of bodies.

So A. porn doesn’t do anything for real sex.

  • But B. again it ties into objectification.

Let me read you this:

“A common misconception about pornography is that it is just people having sex on camera. However, in mainstream pornography violence is now the norm, with men inflicting violence and abuse against women who are forced to submit to body-punishing and humiliating sex acts. A 2010 study of the fifty most popular pornographic DVD titles found that 88% of scenes included violence. Of these, 95% depicted violence against women by men.”[4]

Think about this – if our sexualised culture encourages the objectification of people, especially women, then why shouldn’t violence be present? If people are just objects to meet our (sexual) needs then why not? Objects are to be used, when we say and how.

Here are some stats on rape in South Africa:[5]

  • There are an estimated 1.7 million rapes each year in South Africa, on average only 54 000 of those result in changes being laid.
  • 50 percent of all cases before South African courts are for rape, except in Durban and Mdantsane, where it is… 60 percent.
  • 75% of all rapes involve gang rape.
  • 41% of those raped are under the age of 12

Women are raped; men are raped; children are raped.

I came across another article talking about rape culture in the UK and a starling phrase stood out for me that brought this all full circle. This person is writing about rape culture and says:

“Many young people feel that they are given mixed messages about what sexual consent is, where the lines are, and when you can say ‘no’. Many young men hold worryingly common attitudes that say sexual pressure and even force, as well as physical violence, is acceptable.”[6]

‘Many young men hold the attitude that sexual pressure and even force, as well as physical violence is acceptable’ – that’s a very scary statement. Objectification and rape are not that far removed.[7] And so we have the sad moment when Dej Loaf adds her ‘hook’ to a song making herself a sexual object to keep a guy’s attention:

“I’ll be a lady in the streets, in a dress with my hair tied up.

Or I can be a freak in the sheets with her hands tied up.

I’ll be whatever you want”[8]

It’s 50 Shades of Grey meet porno meet contemporary sexual culture – all on a public radio.

General point? We’ve taken the generous, safe, and profound act of lovemaking and put it in a blender. It’s come out as mush.

Sex in marriage must be our only hope right?

Unfortunately marriages also experience distorted sexuality. You probably read recently about hackers getting access to the database of Ashley Madison right? Ashley Madison is a website that helps married people to have affairs with other married people. But their database got hacked and all those secrets are out for the world to see (secrets that God knew already though).[9] We’ve distorted sexuality that even married people don’t find sex in marriage enough.[10]

 

Distorted sexuality and Christian responses

What’s the Christian response to this distorted sexuality?

I need to admit that often it’s not been good. Christianity is well known for that ‘us and them’ mentality. We’re those who look down our noses on ‘those dirty sexual sinners’! It’s us versus them.

There are a number of problems with that.

  1. It misunderstands that sexual sin is often more than what we think it is.

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 doesn’t go for the narrow interpretation of the law: ‘Oh sexual sin is only if you’ve had sex before marriage, or had an affair.’ No Jesus goes: ‘ah even if you’ve looked lustfully.[11]

How many of us are sexual sinners by that definition? I am. Are you?  There’s no place for pride, no ‘us’ and ‘them.’

What if by some miracle you’re not a sexual sinner? Well the second misunderstanding is that:

  1. It overlooks other sin by creating a hierarchical system of sin.

Christians can often give the impression that ‘sexual sin’ is the unforgivable sin. ‘Ah as long as you aren’t a “sexual sinner” then you’re probably ok’.

There are a number of lists in the New Testament. We read one in 1 Corinthians 6 verse 9-10:

“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”[12]

What does that show us? Look at what gets put together. Of course we have sexual sin, we noticed that. But ‘the greedy’ for instance, what’s that? That’s the average materialistic person in Durban, wanting more money and possessions, rather than God. Or slanderers? That’s a busybody gossiper or distorter of the truth about someone. Have you ever done any of that?

What’s my point? They’re all put in the same boat as a homosexual sexual relationship or a heterosexual person who cheats on their spouse. We’re all by nature sinners who sin. And sexual sin isn’t the unforgivable sin, rejection of Jesus is.[13] So, anyone who has come to Jesus in trust can’t hold an ‘us and them’ mentality. If that’s you, if that’s me, then we need to repent. Repent of our sinful pride. Repent even of our jokes about “fags” or “hoes” or whatever – how dare we! – there is no place for any of this in the community of saved sinners.

 

So what is the right Christian response?

It involves both a NO and a YES. The NO we expect. And the danger here is that Christians are simply known as the ‘NO people’. We say NO to sex outside of marriage and watching porn. We say NO to lesbians and gays getting married with a nice cake, and whatever else. We’re seen to be anti-sex, anti-love, anti-freedom, anti-pleasure. We’re seen as old fashioned, bigoted and judgmental. But that isn’t actually a fair reflection of Christianity in a number of ways.

Firstly, there’s the manner of our NO. Christians are those who do say NO, but we say NO not over people, but alongside people. As I’ve already mentioned there’s no space for pride, even as a Christian. We don’t stand over people wagging our finger saying: ‘naughty naughty you dirty sinner you.’ That is judgmental and often bigoted. But because Christians understand themselves as sinners for whom Jesus had to die, and because we recognize that even as Christians we still struggle with sin, we don’t talk down to people. Instead we come alongside people and we speak as saved sinners not holier-than-thou-arrogant-punks. So there is the manner of our NO.

Secondly, there’s the reason for our NO. Here’s often the biggest misunderstanding, both by the world at large but even by Christians. Why do we say NO? Is it just saying that ‘naughty naughty’ – as though life is just about rules and regulations and so sin is only about breaking commands? It is true that there are rules and commands and it is wrong to break God’s commands. But the reasons why God says NO are driven by sincere love for humanity: sex is not designed for *this*. And so, we as Christians say NO because we likewise care about people. We say NO because we think that not living God’s way is harmful for us, for how we live, for us simply as people.

In what way is sex outside of God’s purposes distorted, harmful for us? What would you say? We could talk about STDs. God knows we know the scourge of HIV-Aids.  A scourge often spread through distorted sex. We could talk again about the research showing that porn is rewiring our brains, or drop the stats of the study showing that an increase in porn use results in a greater likelihood of unfaithfulness.[14] We could talk about men having sex with men and the physiological dangers of anal sex: our anal tracts are not built for that kind of activity. We could talk about the relational baggage that comes with having had multiple sexual relationships and partners and the undercurrents of jealousy and comparison and the loss of intimate moments that you wish you alone could lay claim to. All of these in some ways point as evidence, that sex outside of God’s good intentions is harmful for us.

In the bible there are a few words for describing sexual sin but one of the major ones is the word porneia. Porneia, maybe you can already see the link to our modern day word pornography. The word is used in a broad way but in general it stands as catch phrase describing sex gone bad[15] – sex gone wrong – in other words sex outside of God’s design.

  • So it’s used to describe marital unfaithfulness in Matthew 5v32 and 19v9: it describes when a married couple might consider getting a divorce because there has been porneia – marital unfaithfulness. The sex created to bond two people has been abused and used to break a solemn covenant of love and faithfulness.
  • Or there is 1 Corinthians 5 where a man in the local church has been flaunting the fact that he’s sleeping with his stepmom. And Paul looks at that and says: ‘that’s porneia!’ – that’s distorted sexuality and messed up relationships.
  • Or there’s 1 Corinthians 6 where people are having sex with prostitutes.

The argument there is interesting because some people have been saying basically: ‘When we’re hungry, we eat, so if we’re feeling sexy, let’s just have sex. What’s the big deal?’

‘It’s just our bodies’ – some would say that on campus. Paul responds in at least two ways. One is specifically for Christians, I’ll leave that for now.[16] But the other is more general, in verse 16 he asks this:

‘Do you not know that he who unites himself with the prostitute is one with her in body?’

But then he quotes from Genesis 2 and the first marriage, this is how it was intended to be:

‘For it is said, the two will become one flesh.’

Notice that he didn’t say: the two will become one body but rather the two will become one flesh.[17]

In the bible flesh is often used in much broader way than just ‘body’.[18] It’s talking about the fact that we’re more than just bodies – we’re flesh/people. We have hopes and dreams and aspirations and fears and personalities and so much more. And here Paul’s going: ‘Listen when you have sex, yes you’re joining your bodies but don’t you understand? It should be so much more: sex is there for the joining of people (flesh), not just bodies.’

And so when we treat it like it’s just bodies, we’ve giving an intimacy of our bodies that is not placed in the context of an intimacy of knowing one another – truly knowing the other person. Sex should be placed in the security of knowing that the one you’re joining your body to has joined all of themselves to you.[19]

When God says NO, it’s because he wants what’s best for us. When Christians say NO it’s because we trust the goodness of God’s design for sex – we trust him. Porneia – sex outside of God’s good intentions is always sex gone bad – sex and us in a blender.

Thirdly, there’s also an eternity to our NO. Our misuse of sex at the end of the day isn’t our biggest issue. In Mark 7v21, Jesus says:

“For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.” [20]

Notice a few points here:

  • 1. Jesus says this in the context of religiosity.

There were some people who looked good – did good things – religious things, even what we might call ‘Christian things’. But Jesus is reminding them that these religious things can be like an outside shell covering a rotting inside us.[21] It’s a challenge that needs to be said to many people who would call themselves Christian because they do Christian things: like go to church, speak in tongues, fast etc. That’s not enough.

  • 2. We’re reminded that the even the bad we do on the outside is just a symptom of a greater issue.

When a boyfriend and girlfriend are having sex their primary issue is not that they’re having sex. It’s a symptom of a greater issue. The big deal of our sexual activity (or whatever it is for us) is that our hearts are not ok. We don’t love God; we don’t trust him or his design. We look at all of that and go: ‘meh’, or ‘no ways’. Or we say ‘yup ok’ – but it’s just lip service.

The heart of the human issue is the issue of the human heart: us before God. We are not right with him and we will rightly be judged for this.

  • 3. We must understand then what the Christian message is.

It’s not ‘pull up your socks’ – ‘do good, stop being a sexual sinner’. Isn’t this often how the Christian message is perceived? But it’s not “do Christian things and you will become a Christian”. It’s none of that. The Christian message is: We need a heart transplant. We need to be given a new heart (and not a Chris Barnard transplant either). Rather, it’s God the Spirit giving us an ‘us’ that desires to love and serve God, to know him personally, to praise and worship the One who deserves our praise and worship. To find our joy and identity in this single relationship that should shape and can hold us together. The Christian message is: believe in Jesus Christ and you will be saved from the eternal judgment for your sins, you will be given a new life as the Spirit gives you a new heart for God, this is eternal life.

So this is the other thing about the Christian message. Not only is it a NO to the old life of distorted sexuality. It’s not only a NO. It’s also a YES at the top of our voices! It’s a YES to life as it is meant to be lived. The sermons on marriage and sex in marriage we had, they were not intended as a message of: ‘look how bad we’ve been’. No, it was an opportunity to woo us, to see how good it can be. For us to look at marriage and sex in marriage as designed by God, to look at those things and go: ‘wow – it just works, it makes sense, it’s beautiful.’ When we have a husband who loves his wife as Christ loves the church we should be getting goosebumps. When we hear of the other person centeredness of sex within the commitment of marriage, the genuine care and desire for the best of the other, we should be going ‘ah man, just so lovely.’ (Better than any orchestrated porn scene)

And ultimately bigger than these things is the foundation of this all. The YES is to come back to loving God. Back from our unfaithfulness to him as we’ve run after other things. Back from our distrust of his goodness and his good designs. Back from ourselves and our selfishness.  He came to woo us back to him, with a great and deep sacrificial love. He gave himself, not for a beautiful bride but for a prostitute so that she (we) could become his beautiful bride.

The YES of the gospel is come back to the one who loves us and to live life knowing Him.

Distorted sexuality and our stories

Friends let me close by talking to three different groups as we look at one verse from the 1 Corinthians 6 passage. Verse 11, after the list of things that characterize those who will not inherit the kingdom of God, Paul says this to Christians:

“And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

  1. For the followers of Jesus:

The same NO we say to the world is the same NO we must keep saying to ourselves as we continue to have struggles with distorted sexuality. We need to keep coming back to this. When we sin, we mustn’t stay in that sin pretending it’s alright. We say NO!

And keep remembering why we say NO. It’s not just a wrong thing (although there’s an element of that). Instead we understand that we’re saying NO to what is harmful for us – not good – sex gone bad. We realise that God has better plans for us. We see through the lies of porneia and we trust our God: his goodness and his good design. And so our No is really a YES, it’s a YES to God. We don’t pursue sex gone bad, we instead concentrate on pursuing the God who is good.

There are some great images for Christian living and one is when Paul describes the Christian life like getting dressed.[22] He urges us to keep taking off the old nature – that’s like saying NO when someone offers us dirty beggars’ clothes. And he urges us, as we look at Jesus, to put on the new nature – he’s really saying:  ‘In Jesus you’ve been made a child of God – right, live like you are one.’

This is what the 1 Corinthians 6:11 is picking up on. It uses three words to describe salvation: washed, sanctified and justified. But the big deal is that they’re in the past tense and so they’re present reality. If you’re trusting in Jesus, they’re already yours. Now live (relying on him) as who you have been made. To not do so if to deny who you are. Or perhaps to prove that you do not understand the grace of God.

  1. Those of you not trusting in Jesus (yet).

1 Corinthians 6:11 is the offer being made to you – those three words.

  • Perhaps you feel the dirtiness of your distorted sexuality.

The offer here is to be washed: a deep cleansing that will wipe away even that grime you don’t think can be removed. (The blood of Jesus is sure to remove any stain, better than those products we see in the ads.)

  • Perhaps you feel the aimlessness of how you’ve been living.

The offer is for sanctification – being set apart to now live a new life in Jesus for the God who saved you.

  • Or perhaps you feel the guilt that you’re sure must keep you and God separate.

The offer for you is justification. The judge of the world passes a not guilty verdict on you. You’re free. Free to now confidently approach the Father who with open arms says: ‘welcome home my little child – come and give dad a hug.’

Against your sexual sin (or whatever it is that has made you feel dirty and aimless and guilty) God offers you a new life in Jesus. This is the offer – will you accept it?
  1. Lastly, some of you here consider yourselves sexual sinners, not so much because of what you’ve done but because of what was done to you.

For some of you what was done to you has destroyed your very soul and you feel too broken and ashamed to come to God. Or maybe part of the way you dealt with what was done to you is that you gave yourself over to further distorted sexuality. You’ve had those thoughts: ‘I am worthless and broken, too broken – so why not embrace what I was made by the sexual crime of another against me.’

My friend, the message to you is clear and simple.  Know that God hates what was done to you. He hates it as he grieves with you at the utter brokenness.

And then see that the washing and sanctification and the justification of verse 11 is for you! The Father has his arms open for you. You are not too broken or dirty for him. He will not reject you.

***********

The Relationship Revolution series followed this trail:

  1. Desiring God: the start of Relationships
  2. The Triune God of Relationships
  3. Church, the people of God
  4. Marriage, the union of a man and a woman
  5. Sex and the covenant of marriage
  6. Distorted sexuality
  7. Singleness and the kingdom of God
  8. The principles of Christian dating
  9. Christian friendship: closeness, openness, and brokenness

Relationships revolution

 

[1] “According to the June, 2015, data from the program, the average age of first pornography exposure for youth that reach out to the Fortify program for help is 11.9. Of the applicants to the program, nine percent have viewed pornography by age eight, 24 percent by age ten, and 77 percent by age 13.” (http://endsexualexploitation.org/wp-content/uploads/NCSE-Capitol-Briefing_Cordelia-Anderson_Why-Pornography-is-a-Public-Health-Issue_07-14-2015.pdf)

[2] http://www.covenanteyes.com/2015/02/13/do-women-look-at-porn/

[3] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2522279/Porn-destroying-modern-sex-lives-says-feminist-writer-Naomi-Wolf.html

[4] http://collectiveshout.org/2014/07/the-sex-factor-mainstreaming-and-normalising-the-abuse-and-exploitation-of-women/

[5] I’m not sure when these stats were gathered, this could be an older document and thus outdated stats: http://www.hst.org.za/news/rape-has-become-way-life-south-africa

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/marai-larasi/young-women-sexualised-pop-culture_b_2685075.html

[7] Obviously the situation is far more complex than that simple link between objectification and rape culture. For instance in South Africa the absence of fathers or the presence of abusive men in families and relationships (which one is worse?) could probably be shown to be fuelling the situation in South Africa when it comes to the abuse of women and children, and even other men.

[8] “Tied up” by Casey Veggies feat. Dej Loaf. Copyright: BMG Platinum Songs, Artist 101 Publishing Group, Parisjones15, Casey Veggies Publishing LLC

[9] It’s a good image and reminder that even our most secret sin will be revealed at the end of the day, ultimately by God who doesn’t need to hack anything to see what he already knows about us.

[10] It’s no wonder why a gay couple might look at all of that and go:  ‘Oh so that’s marriage between a man and a woman – this sacred institution? Really?’ And so they say: ‘Don’t worry people, we can hold the same standard, we might even do better! Let us get in on this whole marriage thing.’

[11] Matthew 5:27-28

[12] 1Corinthians 6:9-10

[13] Mark 3:22-30 has people rejecting Jesus, which Jesus calls the ‘blasphemy of the holy Spirit.’ And that’s because to reject Jesus is to reject what God the Holy Spirit is doing in this world, helping us to see our sin, the righteousness of Jesus and the judgment to come. (cf. John 16v8-11)

[14] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/i-can-relate/201403/it-doesn-t-hurt-look-does-it

[15] ‘Sex gone bad’: This phrase describing pornia’s catch all definition isn’t mine. I haven’t read the book but I am pretty certain it comes from a book called ‘Faithful – a theology of sex’ by Beth Felker Jones.

[16] Actually sorry if this is misleading but the whole thing is to them! To Christians Paul basically says: ‘Guys, your bodies were bought by the blood of Jesus, and you now have the Holy Spirit living in you – they are not just your bodies to do with as you want. The body is not for sexual immorality (porneia) but for the Lord’

In other words: our bodies have their greatest function in being used to love and serve the Lord. And they belong to him because of the price of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

[17] I don’t want to make too much of this, and push it too far but I do think it’s helpful. I’m not sure where I first heard someone expounding this link.

[18] Not always though which is why I don’t want to push this too far. ‘I will pour out my spirit on all flesh’ (the quote from Joel that’s in Acts) is often translated as ‘people’. Similar idea in Mark 13:14 where sarx is linked to ‘people’ (‘no one would survive’). Etc etc.

[19] Paul returns in verse 17 to the greater context of united with the Lord.

[20] Mark 7:21-23 NIV

[21] I’m reminded of seeing young men going into a Musallah to pray. They could be praying devoutly for hours but then go home and watch porn. So many ‘Christian’ examples of that abound too where we have ‘faithful’ attendees of churches who are unfaithful in their Christian lives.

[22] Cf. Colossians and Ephesians

So, you wouldn’t be OK with her pastoring a church, but you’d read her books?

I enjoy reading Dorothy L. Sayers. If you don’t know who she is, think the female version of C.S. Lewis, overlapping timeframe, more detectives but fewer wardrobes and lions. I haven’t read her novels (which are detective novels, in case you didn’t get the joke) but I am trying to read all of her theological works that I can get my hands on. She is bright, well read, witty, very direct and a wordsmith who doesn’t try too hard. I appreciate two major things in particular about her theology: one, her use of narrative and love of stories, most of all the greatest story of Jesus Christ; two, the way she attempts to be very practical in showing what Jesus Christ means for our lives. The best example of theBlue_plaque_re_Dorothy_L_Sayers_on_23_and_24_Gt._James_Street,_WC1_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1237429 latter is in regards to us and our everyday work. There are slithers of Anglo-Catholic theology (among some other things) in her writings, so I don’t agree with her on all things but I appreciate needing to think about why I may not fully support her line of thinking at various points. I am most times encouraged and challenged by Sayers.

I would be called conservative because of my view of women in the church (I might be called other things too, but let’s keep it pleasant). There are positives to this position.[1] One, as a conservative, men and women are regarded as equal in creation (Gen 1:27) and salvation (Gal 3:28) – what a glorious truth! Two, as a conservative I think we should be particularly active and vocal in protecting the physical and emotional wellbeing of women in all matters of abuse and exploitation. We are strongly against misused male strength, positions and authority, especially within the church! Three, as a conservative, I want to acknowledge the importance and wonderful involvement of women in the great storyline of the bible, in particular in the New Testament. No women means so much of the great story is missing. The same holds true for our times now. Four, as a conservative I think that women should be encouraged to speak the truth in love within the church (Eph 4). Conservatives have been guilty of letting this fall off the radar as we’ve relegated speaking in the church to one guy, sometimes two (service leader and preacher). So it’s really a wider issue than just concerning women. But with at least two guys in up front positions, understandably men are seen as represented, even if the majority of them are also simply sitting placidly in the plastic pews. That isn’t a call for our gatherings to be one big ‘share fest’ with a cacophony of un-weighed voices and versions of the truth. But it is a call to consider how we can implement creative ways to see as many Christians as possible (both men and women) speaking the truth to one another in love and so seeing one another built up as a result.

But then of course there is the so-called ‘negative theology’ of being a conservative, I’m thinking of a passage like 1 Timothy 2 where women are seen as prohibited from giving the weekly sermon or being the pastor of a church. And this is what usually causes all the fuss in response. It’s worth recognising that not all men are open to doing this either, as 1 Timothy 3 lays out. The situation is not as simple as: ‘you’re a man, therefore you can be a leader within the church and give the weekly sermon.’ No, plenty of Christian men are prohibited, but yes it is true, not on the grounds of their sex – which irks many and isn’t exactly PC. So why might women be prohibited from, for instance preaching the weekly sermon on Sunday? Aren’t women able, in terms of giftedness, to do this? Well yes I’m sure they are able. I’m sure my wife could give a better sermon than many pastors I know. But it isn’t a question of sheer giftedness but rather of responsibility.[2] I fear that the egalitarian position can make a mistake here when it starts with the matter of giftedness and turns them into rights: ‘I am gifted in this [by God], therefore who are you to keep me from using my gifts?’[3] But it is not a matter of sheer giftedness, but rather one of responsibility as the formal leadership of the church has been entrusted to certain men. This I believe fits into the larger scope and flow of Scripture, that men are called on to lead –  to lead in love and sacrificial service (remember, we are against the many distorted versions of abusive male leadership!). But still, they are called on to lead, and to do this in close partnership with women.  Different in responsibilities, equal in partnership we might say in regards to men and women in Christian congregations. And one of the ways that difference in responsibilities shows is in certain men pastoring churches and preaching the sermons. I believe that 1 Timothy 2 fits within this scope as these men are given charge of directing (under God) the spiritual well-being of the local gathering.

In the arguments against 1 Timothy 2’s prohibition I am yet to be convinced by:

  • The cultural dismissals (‘Paul only said what he said because there were particular women in that church who were teaching false doctrine and they needed to be silenced. It was just for them.’)
  • The redemptive-movement/trajectory hermeneutics (‘Scripture was heading in a direction in which, like with slavery, soon something like these prohibitions against women would be seen as passé and in fact evil.)
  • The intense and complex word definitions arguments (‘To teach technically means…’)

This isn’t the place to go fully into why I remain unconvinced by these arguments. Needless to say that even a prohibition like 1 Timothy 2 is grounded: not in culture, but creation (2:13-14); not in the issues of specific local church, but in the invitation to see the church as God’s household, the pillar and foundation of the truth (3:15) – surely unchanging from local church to local church?  I am convinced that the so-called ‘negative theology’ of something like 1 Timothy 2 finds its rightful place in the beautiful flow of God’s Scripture where it is presented as something for our good, part of the good order established by our good God. Certain men are given the responsibility to lead the church, they do this in deep partnership with other men AND women. This is good! And so it’s not actually ‘negative theology’ at all, even if it involves a prohibition.

I was not always conservative in these particular views. I was… well, nothing. I did not know that there was an issue and so I had no thoughts either way. (Some pastors seem to remain in this most unfortunate position, some not so much because of ignorance but rather indecision – regrettably incorrectly labelled as ‘epistemic humility.’) I was brought up in very small village church run by two women pastors whom I remain thankful for! They taught me the gospel as a young child, they were there when I rejected God in my early teenage years, and they were there when the zeal of the Lord stirred my heart as a late teenager. And then I went to university in the city. And in my second year as I started involvement in a Christian group on campus, the first book of the bible we did in Bible Study was, you guessed it, 1 Timothy. It was a jolt to my experiences, the start of many questions, and a push to frequent and fervent studying of Scripture and books around the subject. To the dismay of those women pastors, who used a cultural argument against 1 Timothy 2, I hold the view I do today.33H

So you read female theologians like Sayers, but wouldn’t feel comfortable with a woman pastoring a church?

Yes.

Why?

It’s a question often raised by both egalitarians and by ‘soft’ complementarians. It’s seen as a push back, a way to show the hypocrisy of being conservative and yet… ‘you read female theologians?’ Yes I do read female theologians and the two main reasons are: firstly regarding teaching authority and the pastor, and secondly regarding the differences between a theological publication and a preached sermon. I consider the first as the really important point, the one most applicable to our question; the second I offer as something for further reflection.

Firstly, the theologian does not have teaching authority over us like the pastor.

I should listen to all fellow Christian brothers and sisters as they speak the truth of God to me. This is part of the positive theology mentioned above that I think needs to occur more in our churches – it needs to form part of our congregational DNA. As this speaking is happening, I am to be discerning in what I hear: is it getting me to set my eyes on Jesus according to what Scripture says? If it is biblical and godly and wise then I listen. And by listening I mean the kind where it’s not just in one ear and out the other, but instead the kind that fast tracks this matter to the heart with the help of the Holy Spirit. Why do I aim to listen like that? It is because, as per a passage like Ephesians 4 and others, God is using this person for my edification as they bring His authoritative truth to bear on my life. I do this in church with people that I listen to, and I do this as I read the work of theologians who are faithfully thinking about and applying the things of God from the Word of God. Theologians then, when they are doing their job properly, are doing their work as a brother or sister in Christ as they encourage us to turn our hearts towards God.

The situation with my pastor is both similar and also slightly different.

It is similar in that he is certainly not less than also being my brother and I am still to be discerning. Like the Bereans (Acts 17:11) I am to search the Scriptures – tracing all things back to the ultimate authority of God through Scripture. God is the ultimate authority, not my pastor or the preacher (I am reminded in particular of so many African churches who need to hear this given the propensity to misuse authority. ‘The Pastor said…’ is often used, not as a hand towards godliness but as a weapon to bring about submission to this man instead of Christ). So the situation is similar – this man is still a brother under the authority of Christ and His Scripture.

But the situation is also slightly different. Firstly, generally speaking, we must remember that there is a relational context of pastor to congregation, one that is not necessarily present or needed as between the author to reader. I don’t necessarily know them (or vice versa) and actually I don’t need a relationship with them for reading their books. Secondly, and this is actually the point I want to focus on, an extension of the relational context, namely that there is an added level which I must be aware of as I relate to my pastor. Yes, I am ultimately under the authority of God and His Word but I am also under the authority of this man if he is my pastor. God has seen fit to place him as an under-shepherd who I am to obey for my own good (truly for my good, not as a threat ‘Obey me or else’). As the Holy Spirit says in Hebrews and 1 Peter:

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Heb 13:7-8 NIV)

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13:17 NIV)

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Pet 5:2-4 NIV)

A theologian I read is not operating at the same level as my pastor. She or he may be a sister or brother in Christ, and in so far as they point me to the things of God, I am to respond to that authority linked to God and inherent in His Word and truth. But they do not have the added level of being placed as one with teaching authority over me. So I gladly read female theologians, even expounding 1 Timothy 2 issues and give thanks for this one-sided ‘conversation’ and encouragement from a sister in Christ who I may never have even met or known.[4] 192H

There is perhaps another angle to come at things from. If the first one is primarily about pastors and their authority over us, the second is about the broader and linked category of preaching and how that compares to a theological work. And so:

Secondly, a theological publication is different to a preached sermon.

You may grasp that instinctively (you might not) and think: ‘Of course they’re different!’ But how they are different is slightly more difficult to articulate, even for leading theologians:

“That I am given the opportunity to preach is a great gift. I do not take it lightly. I am sure I spend much more time writing a sermon than most of the essays or books I write. I do so because it is my conviction that sermons are more important, that I am under quite a different obligation when I preach than when I write an article or book.” (Emphasis mine)[5]

So wrote Stanley Hauerwas in the introduction to a collection of his sermons. I’d imagine that Hauerwas wouldn’t be particularly gladdened by my using his words as I will (sorry Mr. Hauerwas!). Nevertheless, his words provide us with two differences between a theological publication and a preached sermon.[6] He explains it simply as (A) a sermon being more important and (B) as a preacher being under a different obligation. It is probably best to not separate those two ideas too much, they do go hand in hand – the greater importance with the different obligation. But how might we further articulate these ideas?

John B. Webster in his own wonderfully theocentric collection of sermons, prefaces them (don’t fear, I do read past the introduction/prefaces of these books!) by speaking of three elements to preaching. The first is Holy Scripture, a body of texts where ‘God teaches us, gives us knowledge’ and where preaching is part of the ‘church saying something about the words of the text, on the basis of the words of this text, under this text’s authority, direction and judgment.’[7] The second is the congregation:

“At the Lord’s summons, the people of God gather in his presence. They gather in the expectation that something from God will be said to them – that however anxious, weary or indifferent they may be, the God of the gospel will address them with the gospel, will help them to hear what he says, and will instruct them on how to live life in his company.”[8]

And the third element to preaching according to Webster is the sermon:

“God speaks to the congregation through the human words of one who is appointed by God to “minister” the Word, to be an auxiliary in God’s own speaking. The sermon repeats the scriptural words in other human words, following the Word’s movement and submitting to its rule. In this, the sermon assists in the work of the divine Word, which builds up the church, making its life deep, steady and vital.”[9]

Perhaps immediately you can glean some differences between the theological publication and the preached sermon from those words. Leaning on some of Hauerwas’ distinctions (the sermon is more important, the preacher has a different obligation) and Webster’s categories, we may say something like: What the appointed preacher of God is given in his preaching is an obligation (/responsibility?) to bring the Word of God to bear on a specific gathering of God’s people who have come to hear from God Himself.[10] Or more simply and starting from the other end: God has something to say to his expectantly gathered people through a sermon preached by an appointed person.

A theological work can do some of that, but I do not think it can do all of that, and not quite as well. If that was the case then we should be advocating people going home and individually snuggling up to Calvin’s Institutes, or get a group of people together (with less, to no snuggling) and have them read through Bavinck’s RD. Those are activities that God surely uses for our edification! But they do not quite hit the same mark as someone preaching to a gathering of God’s people does. Obviously there is overlap between a sermon and a theological book: both are theological (see remarks in footnote 6), and more importantly they are theological because they are based on Holy Scripture. In other words both are (or should be!) part of the ‘church saying something about the words of the text, on the basis of the words of this text, under this text’s authority, direction and judgment.’

But the differences then also exist: firstly, there is an expectant congregation. There is a gathering of God’s people, this relational context again, one which again, a theological publication may not have. But also a sense of expectation and even urgency to this all – they gather to hear what God has to say. Perhaps we don’t always rightly feel this on a Sunday, but we should – as the Word of God is delivered, this is [more] important!  We as the people of God have gathered expecting ‘the God of the gospel’ to address us! Secondly, note again the different obligation or responsibility of the preacher as he delivers the sermon. These are either his people (think under-shepherd language) or his moment to bring the Word of God to bear. He does this as he speaks the Word of God in other human words to these gathered people.

God uses all things: the words of a theologian as you read his or her book, and the words of the preacher on Sunday. But yes, out of those two, while they both matter and are used by God, I would say using Hauerwas’ words that the sermon is more important, and the preacher is under a different obligation.  How does that relate to reading female theologians but not being comfortable with women preaching at church? Well, I think while the activities are related, they are different and the latter activity has been entrusted to certain godly men within the church of God. Again, it’s not about ability but rather responsibility.

So… no job offer for Dorothy Sayers to pastor your church, but you’ll read her books?

This whole situation is easier in that a) Sayers is dead, b) based on some of what I have read, I don’t actually think she would want to pastor a church, c) perhaps some other things besides her being female could prohibit her from being pastor of a church. But those things aside, it’s still yes. I do not think that her pastoring a church would be in line with the good design of God for godly men to take responsibility to lead the congregation and to be preachers of God’s Word to His gathered people. But yes, I would gladly read her books (as I already do). And if she was alive and part of the church I was in, well, I reckon she’d have an open invitation for tea any day. Plus, imagine being in a book club or bible study with that lady! Perhaps I’d even ask her to help review and critique our sermons at church. And I’d certainly be looking for opportunities for her to be able to encourage and challenge, both men and women, in what it means to live as a follower of Jesus.

Appetite whet for a bit of DLS?

I’d recommend a copy of ‘Creed or Chaos’ as a good starting point. It’s a collection of some of her theological essays. Nothing particularly heavy but still good!

Then i’d recommend ‘The man born to be king‘ where Sayers draws on the gospel accounts to create one single account of Jesus’ life. It was done as a series of audio plays for the BBC. It goes a bit further than i’d be happy with in some places but it is still a very refreshing read.

Then a decent summary of Sayers’ theology can be found in: Creed without Chaos by Laura K. Simmons.

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Image credits

Dorothy Sayer plaque: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABlue_plaque_re_Dorothy_L_Sayers_on_23_and_24_Gt._James_Street%2C_WC1_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1237429.jpg
Others: http://www.gratisography.com/

Endnotes:
[1] To be clear, I hold to the subsequent list of things because I am a Christian, not because I might be called conservative by others.
[2] This does not at all mean that the male gets off the hook for preaching shoddy sermons and generally just being lacklustre. I take it that his responsibility would push him to grow, not only in his own personal knowledge and love of God, and godliness, but also in his skills and ability to faithfully present the Word of God. This would include, but is not limited to, his faithfulness in applying God’s Word to the people he pastors.
[3] It would seem to me that Scripture would encourage us to do the opposite, to think less of our own rights – that’s the other-person centred way of thinking. Of course you could try for the argument: ‘I have to preach because that’ll be for the best of others.’ But that strikes me as a dangerously proud train of thought. Only one person could be called God’s gift to humanity, and we killed him.
[4] So this is not primarily an issue of reading versus hearing.  A written work can carry teaching authority. Think here of Paul writing. Why should they/us obey as we read it? Because he writes as the apostle of Jesus Christ – his role carries teaching authority. (Often this has relational context but it is not needed all of the time, his position still carries the authority whether he knows you personally or not). Think about a watered down example involving your pastor and his authority: you could be away and your pastor sends you an email detailing a matter of concern for which he needs to rebuke or correct you. How do you respond? As he is your pastor, the fact that it was over email and not face to face should not change how you respond – his words, this time written down, still carry authority as he writes to you as your pastor. However, if your pastor publishes a book on theology, the book’s call on you is not exactly the same as if he was preaching to you. Why? I would suggest that he is not operating under his specific role as pastor to you but rather under the larger banner of general theology for Christians.
[5] Hauerwas, S. (2009). A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching (20). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
[6] In pitting ‘theology’ versus ‘a sermon’ I have introduced a false description and dichotomy, for the preacher is a most certainly a theologian, and sermons are first and foremost theological works. As Hauerwas notes, “I have, however, increasingly come to the recognition that one of the most satisfying contexts for doing the work of theology is in sermons. That should not be surprising because throughout Christian history, at least until recently, the sermon was one of the primary places in which the work of theology was done. For the work of theology is first and foremost to exposit Scripture.” Hauerwas, S. (2009). A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching (12). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.) I would suggest that the sermon and the preacher-pastor are the examples par excellence of theology and of a theologian.
[7] John Bainbridge Webster, The Grace of Truth (ed by. Daniel Jay Bush and Brannon Eugene Ellis; Oil Lamp Books, 2011), 11-12.
[8] Webster, The Grace of Truth, 12.
[9] Webster, The Grace of Truth, 12.
[10] I’m still trying to think through what is happening at a Christian Conference or convention – that strange animal of Christian gatherings. Possibly only for a small minority will the preacher be their pastor who has an existing pastoral relationship with them and also has teaching authority over them.  Perhaps these conventions are better thought about in terms of our second category here, not pastors, but preaching. For most people this man invited to preach will simply be the preacher, as a take it Hauerwas or Webster often were when preaching. What then? Well this man, whoever he is, still needs to conform to Scripture: he must carry the marks of knowing Jesus (1 Tim 3); and he should recognise the tremendous opportunity and responsibility placed before him. Perhaps recognition of his calling as a preacher is needed, although I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that. However, I wonder if it as a whole simply highlights the importance of praying that the conference organisers would be wise in who they choose and that we’d be discerning in who we come to listen to at Conferences. I still need to think about this more though!

Recent xenophobia and the plight of the vulnerable in South African society

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The recent violence against foreigners in South Africa brings to light occurrences that go on daily in South Africa against South Africans. It is a violence borne heavily by the poorer elements of South African society. You may not agree with everything Cawo Abdi says in her article, but I believe she has a point when she notes that this current situation is not as simple as kicking everything under the carpet of ‘xenophobia’, instead:

A mantra of xenophobia wishes away the fact that the everyday lives of those in vulnerable positions in this society (the poor, the disabled, women, children, the elderly) are filled with violence similar — if not worse — than that facing African foreigners eking out a living in the midst of abject poverty.

I think we should do all we can against xenophobia! But the violent acts these foreign nationals faced (and face!) are likewise faced by many vulnerable South Africans. These are incidents which are not necessarily in the news each week: the news providers have deemed them not captivating enough for the goldfish attention span of us – their devout news devourers. And who can blame their decision. They accommodate the masses (us) driven by what is new news. Issues which drag out for too long become boring and bland, and are flushed down the loo of society’s limited focus. ‘Tell us something new,’ we cry, as like spectators in the arenas of ancient Rome, we switch to the latest story, to be captured by the latest information coursing through our brains.

It is understandable in some ways. After all we have lives to lead and things to do and plus, long term compassion is tiring and must be sustained by something greater than ourselves. But perhaps it also serves as a question mark towards our own hearts and the lack of real compassion for the daily plights of people, all as we go about our daily lives.

Even though remaining unnoticed by media (and so by us), these banal occurrences still form the daily experience of the poor and marginalised and abused within our society. They won’t go away even if we do not note them, Many of the people who may read these thoughts are probably middle to upper class: the crimes against people ‘like us’ are more likely to be reported and to receive airtime. That doesn’t make these crimes any easier or less evil! But the many crimes against those in the townships and informal settlements often do not receive the same attention (these xenophobic attacks are rather exceptional). As Lizette Lancaster reported in 2013:

Similarly, countrywide analysis of police precinct statistics suggests that income levels matter. Residents in low-income areas, the analysis shows, are far more likely to be murdered than their middle and high-income counterparts. Half of South Africa’s murders occur in only 13% or 143 out of 1,127 of police precincts.

A vast majority of the average of 43 murders that take place daily do not make the news. They happen in areas where crime and violence are part of the daily despair of residents who already feel marginalised and forgotten by media and politicians. The majority of murders are not premeditated or committed as part of a crime, like a robbery, but occur when an argument leads to physical assault.

I am sheltered. I’m a middle class white South African male who has seen some ‘stuff’, but I don’t know the half of it. As someone trusting in Jesus, I pray to God that this realisation is used by Him to help shape me into a compassionately empathetic person. I’m to look at the recent xenophobia and to prayerfully stand against it. We should focus on this currently publicised matter. But we shouldn’t be foolish and miss the fact that it also points us to other vulnerable people, people whose plights are real, even if there is no camera-person nearby to capture it on film. The recent xenophobia highlights other acts of violence going on, often overlooked. These must not be forgotten.

A few final thoughts:

Of course the plight of the vulnerable (non-foreign and foreign) are placed in the context of the issues of wider South African society  – poverty, unemployment, HIV-Aids, absent fathers. There are no excuses for the attacks which took place against the foreigners among us. We may like to talk about mitigating factors, such as those listed above, which led to the violence, and there is need for conversation in that regard. But they cannot stand as justifications for the assaults and intimidations – they do not shake individual responsibility for actions (whether carried out as an individual or in a group). However, while never an excuse for violence against the vulnerable, these issues are still real and are socio-economic factors which must be addressed.

As I said, I am a follower of Jesus. That means a number of things but it certainly means that I am under no illusions that if the big issues like poverty, HIV-AIDs, unemployment and crime were fixed, then South Africa would be heaven on earth. No, the deeper issue to the deep issues has always been our sin, this heart issue, our rejection of the God who created us. To the good God who created us to know him and live with him as our good God – to him we’ve given the middle finger, and it’s been a disaster ever since then. Our sin manifests itself in so many ways: xenophobia, racism, sexism, the list goes on and on. Close one door and we open another avenue for the expression of sin – we’re like that and it’s often those closest to us who feel the brunt of it all. The only real hope is found in God the Son who came to rescue us and change us from the inside out by God the Spirit. Knowing this means at least two things.

One, I don’t expect heaven on earth now, at least not until Jesus returns to perfect what he accomplished at the cross.

Two, I also don’t act like this world is all going to hell now either. This latter point means active involvement as a Christian in the situations of South Africa which includes the wider South African socio-economic issues and the specific acts of violence against the vulnerable.

It’s as someone trusting in Jesus that I pray and do the following things, and invite you to do the same:

Pray for the continued position of foreigners in South African

Read this article on the situation of the displaced foreigners and then pray:

Give thanks that many people are reaching out to help!

Pray that their needs may be provided for.

Pray against the kinds of diseases and ailments that are likely to spread given that people are living in such close proximity and with not great sanitation.

Pray that local leaders might have wisdom in knowing how to re-establish these people back into South African society, or back in their countries if they chose to return

Continue to give to the groups collecting food and items.

Pray for the vulnerable elements of our society, placed within the context of South Africa’s socio-economic issues

Pray for South Africans leaders who desire to care for the poor and marginalised in society.

Pray for wisdom for our leaders that they may impact structural change that looks after and protects the vulnerable and that do work against the many issues of South Africa.

Pray that churches (especially the one we are in!) may be involved in caring for the poor and needy, the vulnerable of society. (Get involved!)

Pray for the non-governmental groups helping on the ground (and get involved!).

Pray that as individuals we may be involved in empathetically caring about the people who come into our sphere of engagement.

If we’re too sheltered and are not coming across those in need, then pray that we might step out [of our gated communities? and] into areas where we can be used to show care and compassion.

Pray that God may use Christians to see the good news and certain hope of Jesus go out.

Pray for comfort and healing for those vulnerable affected by crime and poverty and disease.

Come Lord Jesus, come.

See also:

Prayerful action in response to the violence of xenophobia

The relationship of evangelism and social responsibility

Prayerful action in response to the violence of xenophobia

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Besides praying that the violence would end, what would be good to pray to the God who is both Sovereign and good in this latest outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa?

As a starter for further reflection (and actual prayerful action) here are some general categories and ideas for prayer (I’m sure you can think of more). Perhaps you could use them to direct both your own prayer but also prayer in your local church. They’re not intended to elicit the response of ‘Wow, what incredible prayer points!’ Rather they’re given to try help encourage prayer by having some points and categories in one easy place, so that we may pray.

* Comfort and support for grieving and struggling foreigners

* Leaders of the country and of local communities

* The police as they curb the violence

* The perpetrators of violence and hatred  

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Comfort and support for grieving and struggling foreigners

Scripture for reflection:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

(2 Cor 1:3-4 NIV)  

Prayer points:

  • With the loss of life and livelihood and location, pray that the Father of compassion may comfort the hearts of these poor foreign friends residing within our borders and provide for their needs.
  • Pray that especially those who already know the comfort of God (i.e. his people, the church of God) may be quick to reach out in comfort and compassion in these dark moments as they remind people of the One who knows pain and suffering and who actually suffered in our place.
  • Pray that South Africans in general might provide the things needed for these people to survive and get back on to their feet.

Other action:

  • Organise a prayer meeting at your church to pray about these matters
  • Gather items (food, clothing etc) and get them to a local group asking for donations for foreigners (eg. As far as I know, The Red Cross office at the corner of Northway and Umhlanga Rocks drive is taking collections. )
  • Make sure that the foreigners in your congregation have what they need. Offer to go and buy their weekly groceries for them (remembering that many of them feel unsafe going into the CBD for doing their shopping). 

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Leaders of the country and of local communities

Scripture for reflection:

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all men–the testimony given in its proper time.

(1Tim 2:1-6 NIV)

Prayer points:

  • Pray for the leaders of the South African government, from the President down to municipal leaders. What to pray?
    • Pray that they may have wisdom in these matters, knowing how to govern well for the good of all people and how to make well informed decisions in these tricky and dangerous situations.
    • Pray for genuine love and care for those under their care (including the foreigners staying here)
    • Pray for leaders who lead because they want to help the marginalised and the poor, not to get a fat salary and status.
  • Pray for the leaders of the local foreign communities, that they may have calm and wise heads in these situations and that they may influence their communities in a way that encourages peace.
  • Pray that in these matters we would be pointed to the mighty good leader Jesus who is the one we should want to be leading us.

 Other action:

  • Google or scan through news reports for the names of the local government leaders and pray for them specifically.
  • Write a letter/email to your local government leader expressing your views.
  • Join a well organised and totally legal peace march to show your support? (exercise caution and wisdom in making that decision)

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The police as they curb the violence

Scripture for reflection:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience

(Rom 13:1-5 NIV)

Prayer points:

  • Pray for these servants of society that they may have the stamina and energy as they’re stretched to breaking point
  • Pray for them to be just and fair in their actions
  • As they are surrounded by so much brokenness, pray against bitterness and a hardening of themselves against victims. Instead pray that they would have compassion.
  • Pray that they may have opportunity to talk about the things they see and even have to do with trained counsellors.
  • Pray against, especially in their tiredness, rash and violent decisions and actions which may make situations even worse
  • Pray that they may be useful in curbing the activities of trouble makers and that they may have success in apprehending those who have committed crimes

Other action:

  • After you have prayer, why not visit the SAPS facebook pageand drop them a message telling them that you are praying for them and what you have been praying for them.
  • When you see a cop, why don’t you thank them for their service? Surely that would both encourage them in their work and perhaps even encourage them to live and act in line with the expectations of the people who value them. 

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The perpetrators of violence and hatred.

Scripture for reflection:

Paul writes, himself a man with a checkered past…

14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

(1Tim 1:14-17 NIV)

Prayer points:

  • Pray that these people may stop and/or be caught
  • Pray that operating within mobs will not mean that the can carry out crimes without responsibility for their actions.
  • Pray that they may realise that they will one day come under God’s judgment and let that lessen or even stop what they intend to do.
  • Pray for these people to find life in Jesus. After all he came to save sinners, you and I, and these people.

 Other action:

  • I’d imagine that it would be tempting to look down on these ‘wretched sinners’ who are killing and looting, and forget a number of things: one that at the root of these issues is sin (even if there are other factors like a lack of education or poverty), and two, we personally don’t escape from knowing sin and our own accountability. So perhaps one good action as we pray would be to also confess our own sinfulness.

We had a prayer meeting of Christian groups on the Howard College Campus yesterday and this is the prayer I prayed as we started the meeting:

 “Father we come before you saddened by the recent outbreaks of xenophobia in our country. And yet as sad and horrified as we are, we remember that this grieves you too – that all of this goes against your desire for people to live with you as their God.   We know that at the root of this xenophobic violence is sin – Our expression of living against you and your good ways.   Yes, these last two weeks we have seen sin on display but it has simply made obvious something which is always there. If it’s not xenophobia then it’s racism or sexism. Or pride, or self-reliance on ourselves instead of trust in you. Or the cutting words we say to the people around us. A lack of generosity, a lack of compassion. Bitterness, anger, sexual immorality.   We don’t love you or others as we should.   So as we gather together to rightfully pray against xenophobia, to bring these terrible events to you in prayer… Well, we don’t do it forgetting that at the heart of the issue and that in this matter of sin, we ourselves, even if we haven’t taken part in this xenophobia, well… we don’t stand uncontaminated.   Many of us here are people trusting in your Son Jesus: We thank you Father for sending your Son – that the judgment our sin deserves has been paid by him. We are grateful that our sin no longer stands against us to condemn us. And yet even as we live as your people we know we continue to struggle with sin. And so part of that means again that as we gather now to pray against xenophobia we don’t do it as the high and mighty looking down on all those so called terrible sinners. But no, in our hearts we do it down on our knees knowing that ‘But for the grace of God, that could be me.’ Help us as we pray now. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen”

 

Some odds and ends

  • Pray that people would be discerning in what information they pass on. There have been multiple smses doing the rounds which are false and merely add to the tension. So too are the various videos, often related to non-2015 xenophobia, but are then brought up as examples of what is currently going on.

Read more at: http://www.timeslive.co.za/local/2015/04/16/social-media-abuzz-with-false-rumours-over-xenophobic-attacks              (16 April) http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Police-concerned-about-xenophobia-hoaxes-on-social-media-20150417 (18 April) http://mg.co.za/article/2015-04-20-security-cluster-probing-circulation-of-xenophobic-messages                (20 April)

Lastly, I want to post something soon in regards to wider South African society ,namely that these xenophobic attacks should cause us to consider the everyday plight of the poor and marginalised South Africans who receive no news coverage of their daily struggles. I will try do that soon and to include some prayer points there too. (Post here)

PS: do you have any more ideas for what to pray about?

Image credit: http://www.gratisography.com/

The relationship of evangelism and social responsibility

A Mail and Guardian infographic released earlier this month said that according to recent StatsSA figures, just over 27 Million people (that’s more than the entire population of Australia) live below the poverty line in South Africa – that’s about half of my country. They are frighteningly dreadful statistics which should grieve us, and move us to action.

What should the Christian do, and why?  I have much further to go in my thinking on this matter and in better focusing my limited resources, as well as encouraging other Christians to do the same. However, linked to this, I’m finally getting to my copy of ‘Justice, Mercy and Humility’ [1]. I’m not far in. It’s edited by Tim Chester and contains papers of the Micah Network around the subject of ‘Integral Mission’ (sometimes called ‘Holistic Mission’ in some circles). While reading this a friend also reminded me of a specific Lausanne paper on the matter. ‘Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment[2] is the title of the 1982, Lausanne Occasional Paper 21. I believe that John Stott (who chaired this LOP – Lausanne Occasional Paper) received criticism for his partnership language from some reformed evangelicals; various liberation theology adherents (et al) from the opposite end would probably say that the paper maintains a dichotomy between evangelism and social responsibility. Nevertheless I do believe it provides a healthy framework for describing the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility – part of the ‘what we should do and why’. The paper sets out three kinds of relationships between evangelism and social responsibility: consequence, bridge and partner. These are followed by the question of primacy between the two. You can read the whole thing here, but below, with some of my own comments, is section 4 which sets out the relationship aspects.

1. Social activity is a consequence of evangelism

First, social activity is a consequence of evangelism. That is, evangelism is the means by which God brings people to new birth, and their new life manifests itself in the service of others. Paul wrote that “faith works through love” (Gal. 5:6), James that “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18), and John that God’s love within us will overflow in serving our needy brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16-18). As Robert E. Speer wrote about the Gospel in 1900: “wherever it goes, it plants in the hearts of men forces that produce new lives; it plants in communities of men forces that create new social combinations. ” We have heard of evangelists in our own day who, during their missions or crusades, actively encourage Christians (including new converts) to become involved in programmes to meet specific local, human needs. This effectively highlights the serving dimension of Christian conversion and commitment.

This is an important starting point, for it is the difference between religion and Christianity. The former starts with our activity and largely relies on that; the latter with God’s activity to both take those spiritually deceased and give them life, and then by his grace to fuel the kind of living we were created (and recreated) for. As the LOP then remarks:

We can go further than this, however. Social responsibility is more than the consequence of evangelism; it is also one of its principal aims. For Christ gave himself for us not only “to redeem us from all iniquity” but also “to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Tit. 2:14). Similarly, through the gospel we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2: 10). Good works cannot save, but they are an indispensable evidence of salvation (James 2:14-26).

We have not always had the activity of the new life flow into all aspects of our lives, especially in this case, in correct care of the poor and so it must lead to both confession (‘Father, we have sinned!’) and teaching on the subject (when last did your pastor teach on this? Other churches who teach on this all the time may need to make sure that Jesus’ atoning death is what directs Christian living, not just His example).

In saying this, we are not claiming that compassionate service is an automatic consequence of evangelism or of conversion, however. Social responsibility, like evangelism, should therefore be included in the teaching ministry of the church. For we have to confess the inconsistencies in our own lives and the dismal record of evangelical failure, often as a result of the cultural blindspots to which we have already referred. This has grave consequences. When we do not allow the Word of God to transform us in all areas of our personal and social life, we seem to validate the Marxist criticism of religion.

2. Social activity can be a bridge to evangelism

Secondly, social activity can be a bridge to evangelism. It can break down prejudice and suspicion, open closed doors, and gain a hearing for the Gospel. Jesus himself sometimes performed works of mercy before proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom. In more recent times, we were reminded, the construction of dams by the Basel missionaries in Northern Ghana opened a way for the gospel, and much missionary medical, agricultural, nutritional and educational work has had a similar effect. To add a contemporary Western example, a recent crusade in an American city was preceded and accompanied by a “Love in Action” programme, with the evangelist’s encouragement. Several “social uplift” groups cooperated and were able to extend their ministries to the inner city poor. As a result, we were told, a number of people came under the sound of the gospel who would not otherwise have come to the crusade.

Further, by seeking to serve people, it is possible to move from their “felt needs” to their deeper need concerning their relationship with God. Whereas, as another participant put it, “if we turn a blind eye to the suffering, the social oppression, the alienation and loneliness of people, let us not be surprised if they turn a deaf ear to our message of eternal salvation.” We are aware of the danger of making “rice Christians”, that is, of securing converts only because of the physical benefits we offer. But we have to take this risk, so long as we retain our own integrity and serve people out of genuine love and not with an ulterior motive. Then our actions will be “not bribes but bridges—bridges of love to the world.”

3. Social activity accompanies evangelism as its partner.

Thirdly, social activity not only follows evangelism as its consequence and aim, and precedes it as its bridge, but also accompanies it as its partner. They are like the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird. This partnership is clearly seen in the public ministry of Jesus, who not only preached the gospel but fed the hungry and healed the sick. In his ministry, kerygma (proclamation) and diakonia (service) went hand in hand. His words explained his works, and his works dramatized his words. Both were expressions of his compassion for people, and both should be of ours. Both also issue from the lordship of Jesus, for he sends us out into the world both to preach and to serve. If we proclaim the Good News of God’s love, we must manifest his love in caring for the needy. Indeed, so close is this link between proclaiming and serving, that they actually overlap.

The above is what got some reformed evangelicals hot and bothered. It is followed with some key distinctions, as well as wonderful insights:

This is not to say that they should be identified with each other, for evangelism is not social responsibility, nor is social responsibility evangelism. Yet, each involves the other.
To proclaim Jesus as Lord and Saviour (evangelism) has social implications, since it summons people to repent of social as well as personal sins, and to live a new life of righteousness and peace in the new society which challenges the old.
To give food to the hungry (social responsibility) has evangelistic implications, since good works of love, if done in the name of Christ, are a demonstration and commendation of the gospel.
It has been said, therefore, that evangelism, even when it does not have a primarily social intention, nevertheless has a social dimension, while social responsibility, even when it does not have a primarily evangelistic intention, nevertheless has an evangelistic dimension.
Thus, evangelism and social responsibility, while distinct from one another, are integrally related in our proclamation of and obedience to the gospel. The partnership is, in reality, a marriage.

The marriage analogy holds up as a partnership with distinctions, but perhaps not as tightly in maintaining the equality aspects of marriage.

The question of primacy

This brings us to the question whether the partnership between evangelism and social responsibility is equal or unequal, that is, whether they are of identical importance or whether one takes precedence over the other. The Lausanne Covenant affirms that “in the church’s mission of sacrificial service evangelism is primary” (Paragraph 6). Although some of us have felt uncomfortable about this phrase, lest by it we should be breaking the partnership, yet we are able to endorse and explain it in two ways, in addition to the particular situations and callings already mentioned.

First, evangelism has a certain priority. We are not referring to an invariable temporal priority, because in some situations a social ministry will take precedence, but to a logical one. The very fact of Christian social responsibility presupposes socially responsible Christians, and it can only be by evangelism and discipling that they have become such. If social activity is a consequence and aim of evangelism (as we have asserted), then evangelism must precede it. In addition, social progress is being hindered in some countries by the prevailing religious culture; only evangelism can change this.

So the first ‘a certain priority’ stems from the logical ‘social activity as a consequence of evangelism’. Namely,  evangelism makes [or should make!] socially responsible Christians. I read it ages ago and really should re-read it to see what I agree with or not, but I do remember a line from S. E. Wirt’s ‘The Social Conscience of the Evangelical’  [3] when he says ‘When a man becomes a believer he does not retreat from his responsibilities as a member of society; quite the opposite.’ And the point above is reminding us that it is the gospel awakening that must first happen and then a stepping up to our responsibilities as members of society. Otherwise again, we just have ‘good’ people doing good things – join most religions for that line of assurance-draining living.

The second situates matters in eternal perspective. This does not mean, however, using this as an ‘out clause’ to real action.

Secondly, evangelism relates to people’s eternal destiny, and in bringing them Good News of salvation, Christians are doing what nobody else can do. Seldom if ever should we have to choose between satisfying physical hunger and spiritual hunger, or between healing bodies and saving souls, since an authentic love for our neighbour will lead us to serve him or her as a whole person. Nevertheless, if we must choose, then we have to say that the supreme and ultimate need of all humankind is the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and that therefore a person’s eternal, spiritual salvation is of greater importance than his or her temporal and material well-being (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16- 18). As the Thailand Statement expressed it, “of all the tragic needs of human beings none is greater than their alienation from their Creator and the terrible reality of eternal death for those who refuse to repent and believe.” Yet this fact must not make us indifferent to the degradations of human poverty and oppression. The choice, we believe, is largely conceptual. In practice, as in the public ministry of Jesus, the two are inseparable, at least in open societies. Rather than competing with each other, they mutually support and strengthen each other in an upward spiral of increased concern for both.

 

1. Social activity is a consequence of evangelism

2. Social activity can be a bridge to evangelism

3. Social activity accompanies evangelism as its partner.

A framework is good. And I think the one above is a good one to have or start from. It should aid the Christian in thinking about why they live as they do, as well as providing thoughts on how to live it out. Woe to us if none of this followed through with action though! I wish I had an ending with an incredible 12-step plan to particularly help the poor in my city. I don’t. I often wish I knew of multiple billionaires who I could persuade to help create jobs for the many job-less I see around in my city of Durban. I don’t know of any. And I don’t want to wait inactive until I do. At the moment the best I seem able to do is to

  • 1) engage as an individual on a case by case basis with people I meet, trying to be wise and generous,
  • 2) be involved in the projects and strategies my local church is putting in place and
  • 3) support larger Christian organisations who can do more than I can as an individual or within my local church [4]

Making sure that me, my church and Christian organisations are operating with something like the framework above should, God-willing, help cut out some of the clutter and confusion and direct purposeful living.

Oh Father help your people to live in our local communities (and beyond) as thoughtful and sacrificial followers of your Son who died for them!

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[1] All quotes © 1982 Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization World Evangelical Fellowship
[2] C. René Padilla has a summary of some of the developments in his chapter, ‘Integral Mission and it’s Historical Development’ in ‘Timothy Chester, ed., Justice, Mercy and Humility: The Papers of the Micah Network International Consultation on Integral Mission and the Poor (2001) (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002).’
In response to the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization held in Cape Town 2010, René Padilla mentions again the dichotomy in his critique: ‘According to the official definition of its mission, the Lausanne Movement exists “to strengthen, inspire and equip the Church for world evangelization in our generation, and to exhort Christians in their duty to engage in issues of public and social concern.” Close analysis of this wording reflects the dichotomy that influences a large segment of evangelicalism especially in the West: the dichotomy between evangelism and social responsibility. Because of that dichotomy, closely connected with the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, the Lausanne Movement intends “to strengthen, inspire and equip the Church” with regards to the former, but only “to exhort Christians” with regards to the latter. The implicit assumption is that the primary mission of the church is world evangelization conceived in terms of the oral delivery of the Gospel, while engagement in issues of public and social concern — the good works through which Christians fulfill [fulfil for those of us who are not Americans] their vocation as “light of the world” to the glory of God (Mathew 5:16) — are a secondary duty for which Christians do not need to be strengthened, inspired or equipped but only exhorted.’ (http://www.kairos.org.ar/english/?p=109)
[3] Sherwood Eliot Wirt, The Social Conscience of the Evangelical (London: S.U., 1968), 8.
[4] iCare -a Christian organisation that helps street kids in Durban comes to mind.