Monthly Archives: August 2014

Women and Scripture

The rights now afforded to women by the church and the wider society would have been unthinkable only a century ago. We, in the Anglican church in the UK, are celebrating the recent vote to allow women to be bishops but we forget how much the church used to stand at the forefront of opposing even the very idea of women having rights or status in a male dominated world. If we deplore the attitude of some Muslims towards their women folk, we must not forget that in the 19th and early 20th century, the rights of women were virtually non-existent in Christian Europe and America.

In America, the National Woman Suffrage Association Convention was founded in 1885. One of the chief weapons used against this movement was, according to an early speaker Elizabeth Stanton, religion. She declared how the ‘Bible was hurled at us from every side’. In the next generation, in 1921, the power of religion was used to shut down Margaret Sanger’s public meeting in New York on birth control. The Equal Rights Amendment in the States was finally passed only in 1972. It had been presented to Congress for the first time in 1923 but had been bitterly opposed by congregations from Catholic, Mormon and Protestant groups. The Suffrage, the right to vote by women, was also long contested. The opposition to these ideas was in part sustained by the endless repetition of the familiar Pauline texts which appear to demand the silence and subjugation of women.

Two pioneers of the 19th century against the institution of slavery in America were two sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. Although they spoke only to audiences of women, the Congregational Church of Massachusetts sent out a letter in 1837 censuring them and declaring that they would ‘fall in shame and dishonour into the dust’. 300 men walked out of a meeting in New York in 1840 to protest the presence of one woman, Abby Kelly, on the committee of an anti-slavery group. In every case the participation of women was understood to be a ‘defiance of the New Testament’. A women’s rights convention in New York in 1853 brought out mobs of men, clergy and their supporters to sabotage the proceedings ‘with hisses, groans, stamping and ridiculing remarks’ bringing the proceedings to an end.

As a matter of record, it was women who were not members of organised religious groups who did the most to further the cause of women’s rights. A colleague of Elizabeth Stanton, Matilda Gage, wrote the influential Women Church and State. This owed little to religious ideas and she and her supporters would have been described as freethinkers. Another freethinker, Charlotte Gilman wrote: ‘one religion after another has accepted and perpetuated man’s original mistake in making a private servant of the mother of the race’.

I bring these various incidents of religious aggression against women before the reader to remind us all that attitudes on the part of Muslims towards women were part of our societies for a very long time. Not only were they endemic in the societies of 100 years ago, but the echo of the same attitudes is with us today. The open opposition to the concept of equal rights for women in society is not often articulated by religious groups but hidden misogyny still stalks congregations up and down the land. The basis for this opposition is to be found in the application of the identical Pauline texts that were thrown at the women’s rights pioneers. For the sake of tidiness I list them here. I Corinthians 11. 3, 8-9, I Corinthians 14. 34-35 and 1 Timothy 2.11-14. Whether Paul is the author of 1 Timothy is not here important because the writer is clearly following the Pauline tradition in this matter.

In my previous post I suggested that the way to deal with difficult texts is to apply the principle of seeking to establish the wider context. In the first place as a counter-balance we have the remarkable statement by Paul that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one in Christ. This appears to be Paul speaking in a lyrical frame of mind, while the ‘anti-women’ passages seem to reflect a far more sober approach. Paul’s writing often seems to touch heights of inspired poetic grandeur while at other times he comes over as rather pedantic and legalistic. While this comment is subjective, I invite the reader to contrast the poetic power of Romans 8 and the dry argumentation of chapter 9. Still more important for our desire to qualify the Pauline sayings about women is a cursory glance at the attitude of Jesus himself. The gospels cannot but reveal an approach to women (and children) by Jesus which was revolutionary in the extreme. I have not read feminist readings of the Bible, but anyone interested will have no difficulty in locating all the occasions where Jesus turned upside down the conventional patriarchal attitudes to women that were part of all the cultures of the ancient world. Certainly it can be said that there is nothing about Jesus and his approach to women that gives the tiniest support or encouragement to the attitudes that Paul seems to possess in the ‘proof-text’ passages mentioned above.

The anti-women rhetoric of yesteryear has given way to hate-filled rhetoric against same-sex relationships. Uncomfortably for those who follow the line that ‘the Bible clearly states …’ , exactly the same type of arguments are used to make their points. In another hundred years time, I hope that we will be looking back to this age and saying: ‘How could the Christians of that time really have argued in this way?’ The Bible is a document to read in order to understand the mind of Christ, but let us always read it with care, sensitivity together with an awareness that we might be reading our own political and psychological issues into the text when they are not there.

Tackling difficult Scriptural passages

The argument between supporters of exclusivity and inclusivity in the church is made more complicated by two passages in the Gospels that seem to say something diametrically opposite to one another. Does the Bible paint a picture of a church clearly identifying believers on the one side and unbelievers on the other? St Mark’s gospel appears to be on the side of the inclusive cause when Jesus in chapter 9. 40 states that whoever is not against him is for him. This is said in the context of a query by the disciples over a man said to be casting out devils in Jesus’ name but who is not part of the group. The exclusive case is given strength by the passage in Matthew and Luke (12.30 & 11.23) where Jesus says: ‘whoever is not with me is against me’. How often have I heard that passage being used in an abusive, even threatening, way against people who do not agree with the speaker who claims to be speaking the mind of Christ. The passage is used to marginalise all non-Christian religions, non-religious philosophies of life, New Age ideas and indeed anyone who is not a Christian within the speaker’s definition. Indeed it is one of the passages most often used to defend a Christian against perceived attacks from others. John’s gospel is also mined for quotations that seem to support the exclusivist case.

The issue that we need to face first of all in noticing these two apparently contradictory passages is that they seem to reflect a difference of opinion within the New Testament church itself. I do not have the reference books to go deep into the question but my commentary notes that Matthew and Luke, in using this identical saying, here draw on a common source known to scholars as ‘Q’. This abbreviation is taken from the German for source ‘Quelle’. Mark did not have access to this particular document which is mainly a source for a tradition of Jesus’ words and teaching. The ‘exclusive’ passage ascribed to Jesus is thus a ‘Q’ passage while Mark drew from elsewhere for his material. We may speculate that there was, at the time of the early church, a difference of opinion over the question of whether the church was to be open or very strict about its membership. Each side appealed to the words of Christ for support and we are heirs to both traditions. The texts suggest that the Marcan traditions favoured the inclusive understanding of the church while the traditions associated with ‘Q’ went with the idea that the church needed to preserve fairly strict boundaries with the outside world.

The question then arises as to how we are resolve this divergence of opinion within the Biblical text itself. Which understanding in this question of inclusivity and exclusivity was Jesus likely to have had? The well tried answer to such a question is to look wider than just these single passages to discover Jesus’ attitudes. My readers will suspect that I am very suspicious of any argument that appears to be resolved on the authority of a single passage. I personally find the inclusive case to be supported strongly by other evidence in the gospel records. Jesus welcomed and ate with all kinds of people who were very definitely not ‘with us’. Eating with tax-gatherers and sinners was clearly not in the spirit of Old Testament purity laws as there were many rules concerned with ritual contamination. Impurity could come from many sources, some involving people with ‘unclean’ occupations and others particularly involving the contamination of shed blood. A readiness to subvert these purity laws is also to be found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The hero of the story, the Samaritan, was not hesitant to get involved with the contaminating blood and gore of the wounded traveller. Compassion played second place for the priest and Levite who passed by on the other side to avoid becoming impure. Jesus freely disobeyed other rules set out in the Jewish law, speaking to a woman, allowing his disciples on the Sabbath to roll ears of corn as they crossed a wheat field and healing a sick man on the Sabbath. The acceptance of the attentions of the woman from the street who anointed Jesus, was also outside an exclusivist stance. For me the picture of Jesus as the one who reached out bravely and courageously across barriers and man-made boundaries is summed up in the curious saying about him in Luke 7. Jesus is accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners’. Since most commentators agree that such an accusation would not be recorded unless it was an actual historical memory, this taunt is likely to have been made. The point is that Jesus, by being such a friend of these groups, was breaking the laws that would have kept him as a respectable law-abiding Jew.

It is clear that the evidence points to the tradition of Jesus reaching out over barriers of class and taboo during his life-time and this is very strong. Such a reading of Jesus’ life suggests that he was unlikely to have wanted strong barriers between his group and those outside to exist. But it is likely that the Jewish faction among the early Christians may well have wanted to re-erect the barriers that Jesus spent so much time trying to dismantle.

This examination of two apparently contradictory passages in the Synoptic gospels is a good illustration of at least two things. First it reflects that the gospels were put together by editors who were themselves caught up in debates and discussions about how the church was to be organised. There was for them more than one tradition of interpretation of what Jesus had said and taught. Secondly we approach the truth of what Jesus may have meant, not by the examination of a single passage, but by looking more widely at signs of coherence in the emphases of Jesus’ overall message. Such coherence does in fact exist and much of the historical evidence for the nature of Jesus’ ministry will show us the fact that while he followed many of the Jewish traditions, he also adopted a critical stance towards it.

I hope that this discussion of these two passages in the gospels has helped some of my readers to recognise that there are issues beneath the text as we have it which cannot be easily resolved by simple text-quoting. The exclusive text of Matthew and Luke needs to be balanced with that appearing in Mark. Whether we like it or not, important issues about who is or is not a Christian are not sorted by text quoting outside the context of a thorough understanding of the whole. It also, needs, dare I say, some access to the work of critical scholars who have been working on this and other problems for the past 200 years. The work of biblical scholarship cannot be wished away to flatter the opinions of conservative Christians who use texts to support their particular agendas.

The Yes-No question

scotland-flag-1_2103925bThe Yes-No Question
The upcoming Scottish referendum is causing real heart-ache for many of the residents of Scotland. They are under pressure to make a decision which may be life-changing, not only for them but also their descendents in generations to come. As a former resident of Scotland for seven and a half years and now living within twelve miles of the boundary (frontier?), I am obviously going to have feelings on the matter. I can in fact see both sides of the argument, even if for personal reasons, I hope the union of the countries is not broken. It is clear that the debate has engaged many passions and divided families. The reason for the family divisions is quite simply that some members of the family think more of the emotional side of the arguments and others think more of the practical. Which side can claim to have the best arguments in both these areas is not for me to say, but there is clearly a complex interaction between the arguments being presented and the personalities of the voters.

In the opinion polls there is one group that stands out which are the ‘don’t knows’. I am in fact surprised that there are not in fact far more of them that the 15- 18% recorded. If the arguments are as finely balanced as they appear to be, then it would seem likely that a lot of people would not want to be committed until they enter the voting booth. Many, I would suspect, might actually want to vote ‘don’t know’ as they can see both sides of the argument. This blog post is perhaps a plea for people who are in the ‘don’t know’ category, not just in the Scottish referendum but in other areas of life.

The nature of politics means that the ‘don’t know’ category has no power beyond that of not voting at all. In Synods and other church bodies, there is the slightly stronger power of abstention but this is still seen as a weak gesture. In practice then a voter has to commit to a Yes or a No. Often that will be taken one way or another for the most small reason. The genuine ‘don’t know’ voter will vote yes or no for such reasons as wanting to please a partner, or because she approves of the choice of fashion worn by a representative of one of the parties who speaks on television. Clearly the vote in the Scottish referendum may go either way and it may be won or lost for the most trivial of reasons.

Although in the case of the referendum I am on the side of the Union side, there are many occasions where I want to keep my options open indefinitely. This may sound like a weak decision but I question whether that is in fact the case. The nature of politics requires people to make up their minds and choose a particular political party but in making these decisions they perhaps lose something. The undecided individual in a voting booth may feel they have to follow a family tradition in the choice of party, thus never working their way through to finding out what they think as a mature adult. I have already spoken much of the way that Christians sometimes make decisions out of a loyalty to a ‘tribe’ or particular fellowship. In last Friday’s Church Times there was an interview with the Director of the Evangelical Alliance, Steve Clifford. In the interview he made the statement the ‘vast majority of Christians around the world’ take a ‘biblical view’ in their attitude to homosexuality. I question whether this statement is even true of self-identified evangelicals, let alone other Christian groups. I would maintain that among the ‘vast majority of Christians’ are many who embrace the ‘don’t know’ category. Many, many Christians have simply not engaged with the issue properly, let alone come to a mind about it.

The question of who is right and who is wrong on the gay issue is not here important. My own position, whatever my post on Vicky Beeching may have suggested, is to side with the large company of ‘don’t knows’. What exercised my passion at that point was the pretence, even fantasy, that there was an inevitability that all Christians should side with the so-called biblical view which is set out by the Evangelical Alliance in their 2012 report, Biblical and Pastoral responses to Homosexuality. The implied implication is that I and anyone who does not agree with the received point of view is somehow not properly Christian. I experience that kind of pressure to think in a particular way in the same way as a political dissident in a dictatorship. My hackles rise on behalf of my fellow ‘don’t knows’ and also of anyone who is unhappy to be lumped as assumed members of the ‘vast majority’. If I appear to side with the supporters of gay liberation, it is not because I agree with them totally but because I see them as persecuted minority, deserving of support in the face of tyranny.

Years ago as a student I lived almost a year under the fascist government of the Colonels in Greece. The government were not out to get me personally but I watched the effect of arbitrary tyranny on people I knew and that affected me deeply. I suppose I would claim that any attempt to tell me what to think, using any kind of pressure or force, sets up in me a reaction that wants to argue for the opposite as well as challenge that use of power. I want to challenge Steve Clifford with the observation that he does not have the right to assume he knows what people believe. He is entitled to hold a position based on his study of Scripture and I, for one, respect a well argued position. The fact that his position is based on use of Biblical texts does not mean that it possesses a specially privileged status in the debate and can ignore the arguments coming from the other side. The talk about what the ‘vast majority’ think would suggest he has not properly considered the position of the many ‘don’t knows’ in the discussion, let alone the people who argue that his use of the Bible is in fact deeply flawed. We are coming uncomfortably close to the kind of mind-set known to dictators and anyone who deals in absolutes which cannot handle difference or disagreement. The ‘don’t knows’ challenge such authoritarian assumptions and demand the possibility of free, open and fair debate. There is still a lot more debating to be done over the gay issue and perhaps the ‘don’t knows’ are those who are most championing the need for continuing discussion. Talk about the ‘vast majority of Christians’ holding a particular position does not create the best environment for that debate to happen. Closing down or discouraging discussion is the behaviour of authoritarian groups, whether political or institutional. It will not do either in our nation or in our churches.

Responding to Iraq’s horrors

1359564497_muslim-riotsA letter in the Times today (Thursday) makes the point that the ability by young British men to commit murder on video is the result of the failure of the policy of multiculturalism in this country. This word ‘multiculturalism’ is a word that needs to be unpacked a little. It is one of those words that gets freely bandied about so I need to be clear for myself and for the reader what the word actually means before considering how it might relate to the themes of this blog. Multiculturalism is the promotion of diversity in society, the advocacy of equal respect towards minorities and their cultures. As a political policy it allows the growth of a rainbow of different cultures and attitudes in society, with none being given special privilege. As its best it allows for a huge amount of cultural variety in society, together with the promotion of respect for all that is different. At its worst it creates ghettos, intolerance and ignorance because some groups are tacitly encouraged only to know what is in their culture and be effectively trapped by it.

It is the aspect of multiculturalism that creates ghettos that is an issue that will exercise many of us. Ghettos serve the purpose of separating people and creating chasms of misunderstanding between groups. From the point of view of those within the ghettos, the barriers of separation are experienced as protection. The ‘other’ who lives beyond the ghetto is felt to be a threat to the particular way of life that is lived within it. Among the negative aspects of multiculturalism in Britain are the sight of women wrapped up in Muslim headgear who are never allowed beyond the areas around their homes, or given any help in learning English. The walls of protection that are offered by their ghetto way of life are walls also of an effective prison.

Multiculturalism in education has also, arguably, given rise to the promotion of attitudes that have allowed 5-600 young men to travel to Syria and behave in the most extreme way having the capacity to commit appalling atrocities. These young men were in our State primary schools as little as 15 years ago. These same schools were teaching them, we all hoped, kindness, tolerance, sharing and a respect for others. The actual reality was that the influence of certain extremists within their culture and sometimes ghettoised communities effectively overrode the gentleness and tolerance of a British education to produce something indeed monstrous.

I have allowed my angst over what is going on in Iraq to take me longer than usual to come to the point of this blog post. The issue over ghettos is one that should be faced, not only by immigrant groups, but also by all Christians and churches. In a recent post I talked about the seductive appeal of puritan ideas, the thought that we can and should separate ourselves from the impure, whether people or ideas. The ideas of multiculturalism seem to encouraging this tendency to be puritans by every religious group. We are all guilty to some extent of this. How much easier to live only with people like us?

My reader will not be surprised when I point out that some manifestations of Christianity, the conservative in particular, promote ghetto values. But as I write this, I see that it is in fact an issue for all Christians to resist allowing themselves to retreat back into their comfort zones. These are all too often ghettos of some kind. So-called fellowship groups or any gatherings of the like-minded in a church can all too quickly become exclusive and ghettoised. In short, if we are to challenge the negative aspects of multiculturalism, which the Times letter referred to, we will have to spend much more effort in refusing to collude in the separatisms that exist in so many aspects of our churches and in society.

One point that the Times letter writer demanded was that the values of democracy and respect to be promoted in British schools and other extreme forms of behaviour to be declared to anathema to British values. By democracy I understand him to mean a whole cluster of values that I believe this blog also is passionate about. Democracy is the right to debate issues. It is the right to be heard, even when an institution deems your point of view or insight inconvenient. Democracy in short is against systems of thought or belief that are intransigent and incapable of change. It supports the right to go on discovering and exploring even though those around you declare that the values that the group holds, whether Christian or Muslim, are fixed because they can be extracted from a book. The democratic, dare I say it, British liberal tradition, will want all children to see that values belonging to their society are still being discovered, still being refined by each generation. Education in schools is to be become party, not only to a tradition from the past, but to an ongoing process which will continue for generations to come. Everyone in society is invited to this process of learning how to live creatively and well with people who are different in terms of belief and culture. We will all be changed by the quality of that encounter and perhaps understand our own traditions better through the process.

In my attempt to make some sense of the awful things going on in Iraq, I find I have to return to this restatement of values that are intrinsic to the liberal quest. Truth is a value that continues to be uncovered and cannot be said to have reached its final form. Chris mentioned to me recently the idea of ‘progressive revelation’ and it is a topic to which I will return. While we have the encounter with Christ as in some way definitive for Christians, it is a personal relationship and that cannot ever be complete in terms of words and concepts. The same is true of any human relationship; it goes on revealing new facets for as long as the parties are alive. When Jesus talked about the Spirit, he pointed out that work of revelation was not complete but would go on into the future. The Holy Spirit ‘will lead you into all truth’. That promise in the future tense means that I, with many others. look as much to the future as to the past for my understanding of truth. What lies in the future is of necessity incomplete. In the same way my version of truth is incomplete and can never be any other way. Hopefully all those who do not have final truth can never be tempted to be fanatics. Who, with a profound grasp that truth is incomplete, could ever want to kill another for their version of truth or even abuse them verbally? One day beyond the grave, we may see truth clearly and completely but not yet.

The Vicky Beeching Affair

beecingI have to confess to having never heard of Vicky Beeching until about five days ago. Vicky is a Christian popular singer who has a massive following on both side of the Atlantic among Christians of a conservative persuasion. Last week in an interview with the Independent she declared that she was gay. Why the fuss when so many other prominent names in show business have followed the same path? But this particular ‘coming-out’ could have massive significance for the evangelical world as it struggles to make sense of this particular defection from the ‘clear’ path of Scripture.

In my perusal of the web-site, Thinking Anglicans, there was a fascinating vignette recorded about a meeting at Holy Trinity Brompton from about a year ago. An invited speaker, no doubt carefully vetted for his correct views, tried to get a reaction from his audience by talking about the evil in society for its tolerance of gay marriage. Instead of the sounds of approval for his upholding the teaching of scripture, the speaker was greeted with total silence. Are we in this small incident witnessing the end of the assumption that all evangelicals are totally united in condemning gay relationships? Is this the Ceacescu moment when suddenly the hitherto obedient crowd stop cheering their leaders?

Within the evangelical world there have been precious few issues on which all their constituent members agree on. The Evangelical Alliance in the UK has tried to give the impression that evangelicals have basic common understandings even though they differ radically about almost every theological issue under the sun. It has always been a point of joking that two fundamentalists on a desert island would build at least three churches. There would be one each for the fundamentalists and a third to be the church that would be the one that did not preach the gospel and could be the object of condemnation by the other two. The Evangelical Alliance does in fact have some ‘dodgy’ groups among its members who then proudly proclaim their membership as a sign of respectability. Occasionally certain groups are expelled for gross violations but it is only fairly rare. Recently the point of breaking with the Alliance has been over the gay issue. Steve Chalke, a highly respected evangelical leader, came out in support of gay relationships. His organisation, the Oasis Trust, immediately had its membership of the EA withdrawn. This action leads one to assume that the gay question is the point of departure between ‘acceptable’ evangelicals and the rest.

One watches this fault line within the evangelical world with enormous interest. If there is a breaking of ranks among evangelicals then that will be of enormous significance for everyone else. Hitherto the evangelical world has been able to present a fairly united front in spite of their many squabbles over doctrine. The gay issue has been the one thing that has been held up as being distinctively Christian for many of them. The bed and breakfast couple who went to court to defend their right to refuse hospitality to a gay couple, declared that to do so was against their Christian beliefs. For them and for many evangelical Christians, the Christian faith stands and falls on the acceptance of the condemnation of gay activity.

To return to Vicky Beeching. Her coming-out is a significant moment for the evangelical world on both sides of the Atlantic. At the age of 35 her popularity is likely to be great among the younger evangelical set. It has already been indicated that younger people, regardless of their religious beliefs, are more tolerant to the gay question than older people. Is it not possible that the Beeching affair is the beginning of the end of evangelical unity over this issue? We watch the fall-out from this story with interest. Meanwhile there is an intriguing footnote for Anglicans in the UK. Vicky is a close personal friend of one of the daughters of Justin Welby, the Archbishop. Presumably she is known to him personally. Is this incident going indirectly to cause a further shift in Anglican attitudes? The attitudes of many evangelicals all over the world, will be affected. That is a small mark on the journey that readers of this blog look for, an acceptance of difference, a greater tolerance and inclusivity in the church as well as in society as a whole.


This ugly word, featured in my title, represents a belief among a certain strand of evangelicals that men and women have different but complementary roles in society and in the church. In practice, it has meant that the role of women does not allow them to take positions of leadership in the church and that their position in the family is one of subordination to a man. The reader will know by now that I am always keen to establish where such ideas come from and in this case we can date very precisely the moment when the doctrine in this particular form was born. It was at a conference of leading evangelicals, notably Wayne Grudem in 1986 when the issue was debated. Following the conference a report, known at the Danvers Statement, was published and promoted in 1989. The idea of women being unable to accept positions of leadership in the church has of course been the teaching of older communions, notably the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, for centuries. Nevertheless the formal way in which a body of evangelicals decided to make this a formal part of their understanding of ‘truth’ is interesting. The Catholics and the Orthodox have always had a problem in changing elements of any of their teaching or worship without appearing to admit that they may have not got things right in the past. But we have here a body of evangelical scholars deciding that they ‘know’ the mind of God and Scripture on a particular matter, while having to acknowledge that large numbers of other evangelicals simply disagree with them.

Going further in my internet perusal of this theological position I noted that it had been adopted by the charismatic New Frontier group of churches in the UK until recently under the leadership of Terry Virgo. If you google the New Frontier family of churches you will find that they are effectively a denomination in their own right with around 200+ congregations up and down the country. It has in the past few years changed its structure and organisation but congregations large or small within the network clearly believe that their Apostolic leader’s original adoption of the Danvers Statement is part of the package of their affiliation. I find this situation of a leader deciding to choose, on behalf of many others, a particular reading of Scripture in preference to another disturbing. If it was just a matter of an obscure doctrine that was at stake, then perhaps this fact of this choice could be quietly ignored or put to one side. But the issue of complementarianism does matter to the whole atmosphere of a congregation, not to mention the feelings of the women who are there. If women are excluded from leadership and encouraged to think of themselves as subordinate to the men in the home, that matters very much on a practical level. Do Terry Virgo, Jim Packer and the other teachers of this doctrine not recognise sometimes that the decision to adopt this teaching is only one opinion out of several, even among their fellow conservative interpreters of Scripture?

I suppose the point of this blog post is to point out, first of all, that certain facets of evangelical teaching can and do make a tremendous difference to the lives of actual people within the congregations who follow that particular line of teaching. Second this issue of discrimination against women is not just a matter being argued between conservatives and liberal but it is also an inter-evangelical debate. It goes without saying that liberals do generally support a generous theology of the role women play and their place within the church and the family. But they are not alone in this. Many evangelicals also support what is disparagingly called by some ‘biblical feminism’ Clearly the position of Wayne Grudem, Jim Packer and Terry Virgo is a political one. At the very least we can say that it is not the only way the bible can be read and interpreted.

As a further comment, I ask the question as to whether the position of the New Frontier Churches will ever change on this issue and whether there is even discussion among these congregations on this topic. Without knowing the answer, I would find it incredible if no one within those churches had shifted their position at all in the past 25 years. If the position, as stated by one commentator, that the writers of the Danvers Statement ‘framed their position as a clear and accessible reading of scripture’ is held on to, then there is no possible room for change. Thankfully some Christians are not tied to statements of truth for all eternity, and social movements and changes of attitude do change the way that Christians understand and interpret the Bible.

If one were to write a history of the Church through the ages, one might wish to include a chapter on cul-de-sacs of understanding and teaching. Sometimes Christians have been able to exit from grotesque cul-de-sacs without too many people noticing. On other occasions, like the support of Franco in the Civil War in Spain or the upholding of artificial birth control, the church has placed itself in a corner from which it wants to escape but does not know how. Let us welcome the statements of Christian bodies who are prepared to say ‘We got it wrong, please forgive us’. Sadly even the Anglican church finds this hard to do. But one thing is certain that when an individual admits to getting something wrong and admits it, then the wider public is both forgiving and understanding. In twenty or thirty years I would expect the Danvers Statement to be quietly or publically disowned. It is so tragic that in the meantime the holding on to this reading of Scripture causes directly and indirectly so much suffering, if not abuse, in its wake.

A recovery from cult membership.

manson1_1458950cOf all the stories of cultic activity, the one that has seared itself most into people’s memories, alongside Waco and Jim Jones, is the saga of the followers of Charles Manson. I do not propose to do more than mention the murders that he and those recruited into his cult committed, as the details are not for now important. I was, however, reminded of this cult which flourished for a short time in the early 1970s, when one of the women who had been convicted with Manson for murder spoke on television about her experiences in prison. After 40 years being locked up, she appeared to be in a reasonably good place. The prison had not brutalised her to all appearances, but it had allowed her to ‘grow up’ in certain important ways. I am sorry that I have not got the you tube reference as it was a quite moving piece of film.

The woman who had committed murder at the behest of Manson with the other women who were totally under his control, seemed to have a very clear understanding of what had happened to make her do these terrible things. She realised that, at the age of 19, she had allowed herself to become a puppet in the hands of the stronger personality of Manson. The language she used was interesting; she spoke about handing over her identity to Manson. In the years that had followed, even though in the context of imprisonment, she had learnt to reclaim the identity that she had given away so many years before. Her words on the video were ones which celebrated her recovery of what had been lost, even though she had not regained her freedom. One felt that the person who was speaking was not a convicted murderess but a highly articulate insightful woman.

The reason I bring up this interview on the blog is so that I can reflect on this idea of an individual handing over their identity to a stronger personality. I have made attempts to study the psychology of adolescence. It seems that it is a common situation for a young adult to lack the courage to claim the identity of adulthood because it is potentially the cause of much anxiety and pain. How much easier to find someone who you admire and live through them. This is a way of not having to bother with the struggle to be your own person. It is a bit like a caterpillar deciding that the struggle to become a butterfly is just too much and so it chooses remain in the chrysalis for ever. They are, in other words, caught between the dependence of childhood and the beauty of adult identity. One of my strong criticisms of Christian work among young people is that the individuals who are caught up in active churches are sometimes being encouraged to remain at the level and functioning of a chrysalis for long periods of time. Being adult, making decisions and having your own identity is all much too difficult. It is much easier to allow someone else to make those decisions just as your parents did when you were a child and this living the dependent life is a feature of Chritian fellowships as well as actual cults.

The former member of Manson’s group spoke of the way that she had handed over the most precious thing she possessed, her identity, to another person for the doubtful privilege of being made to feel that she fully belonged in the murderous dysfunctional group that surrounded Charles Manson. Somehow, over the years, out of the ashes of that terrible choice, a new woman had been born, one who had never been allowed to taste the freedom of a life in society. Her words, nevertheless are a warning to the rest of us, particularly those in churches where the cult of celebrity is practised and taught. Rarely, if ever, do Christian celebrities tell anyone to commit murder, but the same dynamics of surrender are still present in some situations. The admiration that borders on worship of the Christian gurus still stalks the platforms of great gatherings and conferences. It is very much a feature of our contemporary Christian scene. Little good can, it seems, come from this type of admiration and adoration. The more we worship another individual for being what we would like to be, the more our personalities are depleted in the process. A bible quotation comes to mind which I may be misquoting. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’. It is certainly impossible to work out anything by following, aping and attaching enormous idealisations on to individuals who have been thrown up by the Christian celebrity culture. I have to confess that it is easier to say this from the perspective of being at the retirement end of life than it might have been in my teens and twenties. Nevertheless it is still worth contemplating the terrible wrongs perpetrated on the followers of Charles Manson who committed murders on his instruction. Ultimately, although their crimes were massively horrific, their motivations to be part of something bigger than themselves are recognizable to anyone who lives within the orbit of a celebrity culture, whether Christian or otherwise.

The fact that at least one of Charles Manson’s addicted followers has been allowed to ‘grow up’ in the unlikely setting of an American prison cell gives us grounds for hope. I end with the thought that many who have learnt the practice of idealising one Christian celebrity after another through exposure to large conferences and Christian broadcasting may in fact never achieve a recovery from this insidious and addictive quest. They are doomed always to remain in the shadowlands of looking at a shallow form of ‘greatness’ from afar and never discovering what they themselves are meant to be and to become. A quotation (not biblical) from a wise person ‘Be yourself so that God can be Himself through you’.

99 Ultimate Puritans

islamic_state_of_iraqThe news from Iraq has filled us all with horror. Extreme Muslim groups under the banner of the Islamic State are killing and displacing all religious groups, including Christians, that do not agree with their version of Islam. As we ponder the senseless cruelty involved in these events, we need to ask what is at the heart of this savagery. The key to our interpretation of this tragedy is to be found in the title of this piece. The leaders of the Islamic State want to be the ultimate puritans.

The word puritan that we use today is one that has its origins in the 16th century and later. Groups of Christians believed that it was desirable and possible to separate from the contaminating influence of others, even fellow Christians who did not agree with their ‘pure’ version of the faith. There was a strong sense that mixing with non-believers would contaminate them with their ungodly beliefs and ways of life. The emigration to America on the Mayflower in 1620 was powered by the belief that to be ‘pure’ involved a physical separation from other human beings. I am not sure which is more important in this 16th century understanding of ‘purity’. Was it purity of doctrine or purity of community? The reality of life in America did not turn to be as pure as the Mayflower pilgrims would have liked. At least one dissident Quaker who failed to conform with the dominant theological beliefs of the colony was killed by the religious leadership in the 1640s.

Today the ideals of the early Puritans are still powerful among Christian circles and the self-description as puritan is a badge worn with pride by the leaders of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. There is a verse in Scripture much quoted by people of a puritan turn of mind which goes along the lines of ‘separate yourself out from among them’. There was of course a strong tendency for seeking purity at all costs among the Jewish people of the post-exilic period in the 5th century BC. Ezra insisted that all non-Jewish wives and their children should be forcibly removed from the city of Jerusalem. We are not told what happened to them afterwards. There is an uncomfortable similarity between what happened among the returned exiles to Jerusalem and in the Islamic State today.

Returning to our own times there is an important moment in the history of Anglicanism in 1966 among evangelicals in London. Speaking from memory a large group of evangelicals wanted there to be a general withdrawal of evangelicals from the historical denominations to form a new grouping. This suggestion was led by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Opposing him was John Stott, the Vicar of All Souls Langham Place, who argued for evangelicals to stay embedded in the denominations. John Stott won the argument and the Anglican church continues to be a home for many evangelical congregations, including some who would be proud to wear the puritan label in many other respects.

Puritanism as a working theological model belongs, in my opinion, to the realm of fantasy. It is impossible for practical reasons to link up only with people who believe identical things. Many times in history groups of Christians have gathered together with the best of intentions with others of the same persuasion. For a time these experiments seem to work. But it is only a short time before those in charge have to start making rules to keep everything together. Gradually the idealism and freedom of the beginning gives way to authoritarianism, if anarchy has not already destroyed it. I remember interviewing a woman for a section of my book, Ungodly Fear, that did not make the published version. She described the process of coming out of an Anglican parish with a group of 50 others to form a new House Fellowship. After 18 months, in their case, the group started to impose strict rules in an attempt to stop the fellowship disintegrating. The Anglican framework of episcopacy seems like a good deal when compared to charismatic anarchy at the one end or authoritarianism at the other. But the Anglican model does insist that Christians not only tolerate those who think like them but exist in a congregation or a denomination that is prepared to welcome diversity and difference. That is why Anglicanism has stood out against the attempt to make everyone think in an identical way. Elizabeth I famously said that she ‘did not pry into men’s souls’.

The puritan impulse exists in many forms, as we have seen, and across a wide spectrum of religions. At one extreme there is the total inability of some to have people of a different religious belief or behaviour living in your town or land. This is seen in the book of Ezra chapters 9 &10 as well among the Islamic State jihadists. This extreme is marked by violence and total intolerance. At the other end of the spectrum is a vague feeling of discomfort when forced to cope with people that are different from us. Many Christians occupy a place in, if not at the violent end, the intolerant manifestation of this common religious tendency. We prefer to have people around us who are like us, believe the same things and do not challenge us or make us ever feel uncomfortable. This desire can sometimes express itself in some quite unpleasant behaviour by Christian groups. Shunning and verbally maligning others because they are different from you is not as serious as killing them, but it is still damaging and harmful. I recorded in my book the behaviour of church members towards a couple who had left their fellowship. People would cross the road so as to avoid having to talk to them. Puritanism, the fear of being contaminated by ‘backsliders’, was alive and well among such people.

I need once more to emphasise that I do not accuse any Christians of the sort of horrific behaviour that we see today in Iraq. But I do see among Christians the same hankering for ‘purity’ whether of doctrine or community. People fear the different in terms of their colour, social position or belief system. We have to ask what would Jesus think about the underlying ideas that are implicit in the puritan thought world. The answer is, I believe, surprisingly simple. When Jesus said ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who despise you’, he was rejecting the very foundations of the separation doctrine. He wants us to mix with others, not on the grounds of whether they have the same beliefs and world views but on the grounds that they share our humanity. ‘Love your enemies’ makes impossible any cliques, any separation doctrines and indeed any justification for the whole puritan edifice. Of course the puritan impulse is wrong in jihadists; it is equally wrong in all of us as we practice it in a variety of ways within our own version of trying to separate ourselves from others.

98 Use and abuse of Scripture

ft-lauderdale-fiveIn a comment made to me recently, it was suggested that many of the cultic facets that afflict parts of Christianity in Britain are the result of the Charismatic movement. Whether this general point is or is not true, what is apparent is that many charismatics in Britain took a severely wrong turning when they embraced the shepherding movement in the mid-70s. There was a particular gathering in Britain in 1975 when a large numbers of British charismatics heard an American speaker, Ern Baxter, address them on the topic of discipling. The idea that ‘submission’ was a necessary part of Christian discipleship was enthusiastically welcomed and it passed into the mainstream of charismatic thinking for a number of years. The Fort Lauderdale four (or five), who were a kind of overseeing group to this movement the USA, in fact soon found that what had been unleashed on both sides of the Atlantic was a kind of monster. To summarise the history of Shepherding, the original four, Derek Prince, Don Basham, Bob Mumford and Charles Simpson, all in different ways repudiated the teaching that they had promulgated in the early 70s. Officially it was dead by 1985. But the genie had been let out the bottle. Too many people had benefitted from the cultic notion that submission of all Christians to a leader was necessary and biblical, for it to die that easily. The Bible had been mined to extract passages to support these ideas and many leaders who had started to run their churches in a cultic, authoritarian and controlling way chose not to tell their people that the ideas had been discredited, both on biblical and psychological grounds.

I may well return to this topic of the history of the discipling/shepherding movement as it is a fascinating one. But in this blog I want to talk about a book that appeared as recently as 2001 trying to revive the appalling ideas of shepherding on biblical grounds. The focus of this post is to demonstrate the principle that individuals who want to prove some theological point from their reading of the bible will use and abuse the words of Scripture when it suits them.

In 2001 Thomas Nelson published the book by John Bevere entitled Under Cover. I understand that it has become a best-seller, being translated into 20 languages. It could be seen to imply a revival of all the ideas and practices that made charismatic Christianity so unhealthy and cultic in the late 70s and early 80s. Perhaps this toxic side of Christian leadership has reasserted itself so that the ‘sheep’ can once again be brought into submission. I need to do a lot more reading to discover whether the shepherding impulse is equally strong as it was thirty years ago. But we need to look at the Bevere book to see if the biblical material has any credibility.

The title of the book uses a concept that is itself not biblical. The only time the New Testament talks about covering is in connection with women’s heads. But the word sounds biblical and can disguise that what is being talked about is in fact old fashioned submission and shepherding straight out of the 70s. The book is, as far I can tell from the summary, an examination of the biblical texts, both well-known and obscure, which appear to support this position. I have not, of course, got the space to examine more than a handful of these texts but I want to give some examples of the abuse and distortion of scripture that Bevere goes in for. This is, in this instance, not a case of conservative interpretations being chosen over more liberal ones but examples of what seems to be wilful manipulation of the Bible text to suit the writer’s purposes.

One of the texts examined is the account of the council held in Jerusalem and recounted in Acts 15. In some translations the summing up by James is described as a ‘judgement’. From the whole context of the passage it is clear that there has been a debate and discussion and that James was articulating the consensus of the gathering. That the council was a consensus-led affair is also indicated by the fact that immediately after James’ words of ‘judgement’, the ‘apostles and elders’ decided to choose people to support Paul and Barnabas in Antioch. There is absolutely no way that this passage reads like a hierarchical theocracy which is what Bevere wishes. Such misreading of Scripture, to further a support for submission, is dangerous and sloppy to put it mildly. The use of the word ‘judgement’ does not mean that everyone was in submission to James as some kind of hierarchical apostle. It is worth noting that Derek Prince, mentioned above, uses this passage to argue for the complete opposite, that ‘the final decision…… was a unanimous decision of the whole group’.

Teachers of covering theology find various examples from the Old Testament with which to buttress their arguments. The confrontations between Moses and the Israelite people in Numbers might suggest an excessive use of power to many of us. The shepherding writers quote the fact that the followers of Korah were swallowed up and burnt for opposing Moses in Numbers 16 with approval. Watchman Nee, an early and influential proponent of the submission theology ideas, declares ‘God and his delegated authority are inseparable … If they would submit themselves to the authority of Moses and Aaron they would then be in subjection to God.

Many of us would not see Moses, as revealed by the book of Numbers, to be a blameless paragon to be followed by Christian leaders today. Bevere wants to press for the infallibility of Christian leaders and suggest that any rebellion against a Christian leader is not only out of order and can even be seen as a kind of witchcraft. To arrive at this startling conclusion, he takes an idiosyncratic interpretation of I Samuel 15.23. Most translations render the passage as ‘rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.’ Samuel wants to get Saul’s attention by making such a comparison. The natural meaning of the Hebrew (I am told) is to compare the two things but not actually to equate them as being the same thing. Because the King James version has the ‘as’ in brackets, Bevere thinks it is optional to the meaning and so he is able to say that disobedience to Christian authority is opening your self up to the demonic realm. That is a very strong claim but Bevere really wants to beat down the idea that the Christian ‘sheep’ have any right to challenge their leaders. He arrives at this conclusion by his ability to misread and mistranslate the actual words of scripture. (There are other examples in my sources)

I have now crossed my thousand word limit for a blog post, so I cannot go further in examining this highly discreditable and distorted use of the Bible to resurrect a highly dangerous form of cultic theology. Sadly, particularly as my American readers will testify, shepherding theology is alive and well among some Christians who occupy the world of charismatic theology. Thankfully for those who find themselves trapped in this dreadful place of shepherding, there are resources to help the individual read other approaches dealing with the well worn texts, and see that there are other ways to be a Christian.

The Portable Seminary

portable seminaryIn my local charity shop earlier this week, I encountered a large volume called A Portable Seminary. Curious I opened it up to see how two or three years (as it used to be!) of residential training could be crammed into a single volume. The title also suggested that one who finished the book would have an overview of theology at ‘Master’s Level’. Although my initial thought was to leave the book on the shelf, my curiosity has sent me back to buy it although the experience of reading it is making me thoroughly depressed.

In the first place, the whole volume begins with a short chapter on the doctrine of Scripture. Part of this is written by a dinosaur of conservative theory, Carl Henry. As is typical of this kind of reasoning, the arguments go round in circles. The Bible says that it is ‘God-breathed’ or inspired and so this argument for its absolute authority is taken as a fundament. it is a similar argument to the idea that we can ‘know’ that an individual is not a liar because he declares this to be the case. All arguments about the cultural context and accuracy of Scripture can be wished away because of the utter reliability of God’s word in the text. Before we go on to look at the Bible is actually dealt with, we should pause at this point to consider the way the conservative ‘creed’ is set out in this book. If there were a such a thing as a creed based on this book, it would begin with a statement I believe, not in God, but in the Bible. I remember an evangelical joking about the doctrine of the Trinity. He said that for evangelicals, the three persons were God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Bible. From the Portable Seminary, we might deduce that for some conservative Christians, the Bible was the first person of the Trinity.

The book does remind the reader that it does not offer a substitute for a proper college-based training. But even having made this apology for the lack of depth in some of the material, the sections on the Bible are extremely thin. By contrast the doctrine sections and even the summaries of Church history and other religions have some substance, even if you disagree with much of it But to return to the summaries of the books of the Bible. The overarching authority of Scripture enables the unwitting reader to assume that God revealed the entire first five books of the Bible to Moses, apart from the account of his death. The Pauline authorship of Ephesians is assumed without discussion. The Gospel of John, summarised in a single page, is an account of the ministry seen from his ‘inner circle’. After surveying the New Testament in 20 pages, the reader is directed to just three books for further reading, two of which contain the word ‘survey’ in the title.

I have long held a theory that the only way that it is possible to hold on to a theory of ‘plenary inspiration’ for the Bible is by not actually studying it at depth. In a book of 707 pages, to give 20 pages to the whole New Testament is totally out of proportion. Needless to say the Bible does play a major part in the book in being quoted constantly to support different areas of theology and doctrine. That is perhaps the way to characterise the use of the Bible by conservative Christians. The Bible is a mine from which to extract ‘treasure’ which supports doctrines that you already hold. I am reading another document off the net which shows the cavalier way that biblical texts are misread to support the ideas of shepherding or ‘covering’ as it is sometimes called. This will form a separate post in due course.

To summarise my brief perusal of this massive tome, is to see something of the way the ‘system’ works. The Bible is placed on a pedestal. Once that ‘worship’ is inculcated in a congregation, the task of creating a system of teaching that they will be forced to follow, can begin. To repeat what I said on the gay issue in a previous post, this topic is in fact of minor interest to the totality of Scripture. Nevertheless it has become important because, for political reasons, conservative Christians in leadership have chosen to make it so. Having coerced their congregations to ‘worship’ Holy Scripture, even the obscure passages that speak about gay topics can be blown up to take on an immense importance.

To repeat points made elsewhere, the Bible is being used in this and other works as a tool for control. By discouraging study of the Bible as having an integrity of its own, people are being conditioned to seeing it only as a source of authority for those in the pulpit. No one is allowed to question pronouncements from the pulpit, because the ‘the Bible says’ has become the final word in every discussion. The way I studied scripture is to see that, before you can extract teachings from it, the text must be allow to speak for itself in its cultural and historical context. Not to do that is to distort it and render it ultimately meaningless and empty. Having owned the Portable Seminary for a full 24 hours, I am thinking of taking it back to the shop where I found it. The only thing holding me back is the thought that some unwitting Christian might actually believe that Christianity can really be learnt in the way!