What does the Bible say about Sin?

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Why do we need to understand sin?
Very few words are so confusing and controversial as sin. For some the word resonates with feelings of shame that shut down conversation. And yet the same word can appear in a commercial about chocolate ice cream to describe a particularly good caramel sauce.

Many churches have stopped using the word “sin” in recent years. There are several reasons for this, but the main reason is the negativity of the word. I have even heard Christians say things like: “The gospel is about grace, not sin”; or “We need to preach forgiveness, not sin”.

The obvious problem with those statements is that words like “grace” and “forgiveness”, make no sense whatsoever without sin. Why do we need grace? What is God forgiving? Preaching grace properly is only possible if we preach sin, and if we don’t talk about sin then we are short-changing the gospel’s offer of forgiveness.

If we do not understand our problem, we cannot understand the solution.

Some people will agree with this, but will still suggest that we should avoid the word “sin” and use other words instead. While we do need to use a wide range of language to describe sin, the trouble is that no other word fully encapsulates its meaning. If we only talk about “brokenness” then we will think ourselves only as victims of sin, and forget that we are also guilty of it. Words like “rebellion” have the opposite problem. The answer is not to throw out the word sin.

But we need to carefully examine what sin is. Sin will always carry a feelings of guilt and shame, and this is not a bad thing. The gospel gives us the security to confront our shame, not avoid it. From the safety of grace, we can be honest about our greatest guilts and shame. Forgiveness gives us the deep security necessary to process these realities, and come to a richer understanding of ourselves and God through them.

What is sin, at its most basic?

“Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness.”
1 John 3:4

Put simply, sin is disobeying God. The Hebrew and Greek words most commonly translated as “sin” literally mean “missing the mark”. Sin is a kind of failure which may or may not be deliberate, but always reveals a personal inability to obey God. Sin is breaking God’s laws, and rejecting His authority. It is not the laws in themselves that matter. Rather the breakdown of relationship between us and God is the heart of our problem.

“Against you, you only, have I sinned
   and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
   and justified when you judge.”
Psalm 51:4

We are not less guilty if we are ignorant of God’s laws. Even if we do not know the laws that we are breaking. We all have enough evidence to be without excuse. The reality of God is present in every human conscience, and yet we suppress this reality. Excusing and deceiving ourselves so that our hearts are hardened toward God, we no longer desire to know Him or worship Him.

“What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
Romans 1:19-20

All people are guilty of sin. Since Adam and the first sin, all who descended from him have inherited a condition called “Original Sin”. Original Sin is an inner leaning toward sin that we are born with and cannot change. God holds each of us accountable for this inner desire to dethrone Him, as we are individually judged and all found guilty.

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
   there is no one who understands;
   there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
   they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
   not even one.”
Romans 3:11-12

A good way of understanding how sin works is to break it down into three steps. First the heart desires, second the mind chooses, and third the body acts. I will detail these steps below.

How does sin work?
1) It begins in our hearts

“The heart is deceitful above all things
   and beyond cure.
   Who can understand it?”
Jeremiah 17:9

Sin at its most basic is a lack of desire for God. At a fundamental level, all of us do what we desire. We eat when we are hungry, we sleep when we are tired. “That’s not right! I do all sorts of things I don’t want to do”, you might say. “I study, I train for sport, I clean up my house”.

This is true, but desire is more complex than that. You study even though you don’t “want” to, because you desire success, and because you don’t want to get in trouble, and because you want to please your teachers and do well. You overcome your lack of desire to study because through study, you get other things that you want. In this case you are still very much “doing what you want”.

All of our human behaviors start in the heart. It is complex, but we always do what we want. When we sin we do so because in our hearts we do not desire God. Jesus teaches this, saying that sin doesn’t come from external influences but rather that it begins in our hearts.

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
Matthew 15:17-20

All of this means that avoiding sin requires more than rules or even a rational change of mind. Unless our heartfelt desires change, we will always choose sin.

The word we use to describe this lack of desire for God is pride. That might seem strange. But when you consider that God is the source of all good things, that He is the most powerful being in existence, and that He has commanded us to live a certain way; then it makes sense that a lack of desire to do so should be called pride.

Pride occurs when in our hearts, we shrink down the goodness of God and we puff-up ourselves to fill the void. Pride was the door through which sin first entered the world. The serpent tempted Eve with the promise of sin making her like God. Had Eve’s heart not been proud, she would not have desired this. But because Eve desired to become like God she took the fruit and ate.

All sin then begins with a proud heart which does not desire God, and then it moves to the mind.

How does sin work?
2) It corrupts our minds

“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.”
Romans 1:28

In a sense, Christians believe in free will. The Bible teaches that all of us are responsible for our choices, and that we are all judged according to our actions (Romans 2:6). But there is a big caveat to that, as the Bible is also abundantly clear that before choosing to follow Jesus, we were “slaves of sin” (Romans 6:16-19).

Some people have very complicated ways of trying to reconcile the universal sinfulness of humanity, with the idea of free will. But actually it is very simple. Our “will” is our minds capacity to make choices. Our will does this by searching our desires, observing our circumstances, and making choices that will get us what we want.

The will is in this sense “free”. It can make any choice which it is able to carry out. But, the will is captive to the desires of the heart. We will always choose those things we want most, and so the will is not “free” to choose things which the heart does not desire. Not because it cannot, rather because it will not.

Because of this a heart which desires sin will always lead to a will which is enslaved to sin also. The mind here becomes “depraved” (Romans 1:28), applying all of its God given intellect and creativity to the purpose of sin instead of worship.

This in turn corrupts our consciences, as we try in our minds to justify our desires. We make elaborate excuses for ourselves, and construct clever arguments to justify our actions. Our ability to recognize right and wrong is distorted by this, and our consciences themselves become unreliable (1 Timothy 4:2).

But we cannot silence our consciences alone. In order to reassure ourselves we find others who will affirm us. Our minds are reinforced by culture, as groups of people with shared sinful desires celebrate sin together. Together we silence our shame and mute our consciences, as we do things which God created us to naturally recognize as shameful.

“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
Romans 1:32

The result is that our minds always choose our desires, and our hearts never desire God. This means that unless our hearts can be changed, our choices are always tainted by sin. The lengths we go to to justify our actions, also guarantee that we cannot even recognize good or evil if we try.

We disfigure these categories in our project of self-justification so much, that over time we don’t even think of what we are doing as sin. This means that when we are confronted by God’s word, we hate it. God’s word casts a light onto our actions and reveals them as evil, but we devote our minds to concealing sin and keeping our actions in the dark.

“The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
John 3:19-20

In this sense, all sin leads to deception and lies. The Devil is called “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and sin is summarised as a “lie” in Romans 1:25 and Colossians 3:9-10. Lies are the misrepresentation of truth, and sin results in ignorance. Ignorance of God as we ignore His word. And ignorance of ourselves as self-justification replaces honest self-assessment.

These lies then manifest in our bodies, when we act in ways that reveal our ignorant minds and wayward hearts.

How does sin work?
3) It acts through our bodies
What we think of most often as “sinning”, is actually only the tip of the iceberg. As you can see, sin affects much more than just our outward actions. Nonetheless, a sinful heart always leads to sinful actions. And these sinful actions will always take the shape of idolatry.

Idolatry is the word we use to describe wrong worship. The word is taken from the practice of worshiping an “idol” or statue; but we use this analogy to describe any kind of worship which replaces God with something else. This summarizes all sinful actions.

The Bible portrays idolatry as an extremely degrading practice. This is because mankind was created in God’s image, to rule over all of creation (Genesis 1:28). The only thing above mankind was God Himself, who ruled over mankind.

When replace God and worship something else we are lowering ourselves, bowing beneath things we were meant to rule. In this way we deface the image of God within us, and become less than human.

To quote St. Augustine: “nothing could be more wretched than mankind being ruled by the work of their own hands. Since man by worshiping his own handiwork may more easily cease to be man, than his handiwork through being worshiped can become God.”

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”
Romans 1:21-23

As we exchange true worship for idolatry, we live to serve inferior things and we become small and vulgar. Our idolatry can look exciting, but actually it is common and droll. There is nothing brave or exciting about living for self gratification. When our lives are characterised by sin we disappoint ourselves, we disappoint others, and we incur the anger of God.

Through idolatry we forfeit our dignity. Dignity is the inverse of pride. Pride is a puffed up conception of self that displaces God. Dignity is the right sense of worth that comes through imaging God. When we replace dignity with pride, we are replacing substance and truth with bravado and lies. We reject the worth that God gives us and replace it with a cheap counterfeit.

This is the nature of sin-in-action, to promise much and deliver disappointment. The pleasures we chase leave us more and more dissatisfied. Happiness is always just around the corner, and the heart is never whole so long as it feeds itself with sin’s empty calories.

What are the consequences of sin?
The primary consequence of sin is death, which is entirely fitting when you have considered all of the above. We have cut ourselves off from life at the source by failing to worship the God who creates, sustains, and judges.

In pride we forget our purpose. We were made to enjoy God but we replaced him with things which left us deeply dissatisfied and anxious.

We fuel this sinfulness with deception, obscuring God’s word. We lie to ourselves about our situation and push thoughts of death aside. When our consciences cause us to feel shame, instead of changing we find voices that will comfort and affirm us.

Because of this, we degrade our bodies and distort God’s image through idolatry. We commit false worship as we act out our sinful fantasies and cheer on others who do the same.

For these reasons, God cuts mankind off from eternal life. He does not continue to sustain those who use their lives to rebel against Him. He allows sinful humanity to live for a time, but then withdraws His life-giving Spirit.

“My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are corrupted.”
Genesis 6:3

Because of sin, God also gives suffering that we might become aware of how inadequate our lives are. God desires us to be dissatisfied with this world, in order that we might turn away from it and seek Him. But instead of repenting in light of the dissatisfaction of suffering, we double down in our sin and hate God even more.

“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Luke 13:1-5

The ultimate consequence of our sin is not merely the absence of life or a separation from God. It is judgement as God pours out His divine wrath. Jesus spoke more about Hell than any other figure in the Bible, and used the analogy of a burning wasteland to describe it. A state of complete desolation and regret, God’s judgement is still fair and right. Mankind continually resists and rebels against God in every way, even going so far as to ridicule and kill those whom God sends to warn them. Even going so far as to kill God’s Son, Jesus himself.

‘“You are just in these judgments, O Holy One, you who are and who were; for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.”

And I heard the altar respond: “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments.”

The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.’
Revelation 16:6-9

What can be done about sin?
The problem is more than skin deep, and so repenting of sin requires more than a change of behavior. The writers of the Old Testament struggled with this realization. They realised that what we really need is not another chance, or a little more information, but rather new hearts.

“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
   and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
   or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
   and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
Psalm 51:10-12

Thankfully, God in His grace offers us exactly this. Humbling our pride, renewing our minds, and returning us to real worship; God has acted to transform us through the gospel. The good news is that Jesus offers us full forgiveness, complete mercy, and eternal life. By dying in our place, Jesus has taken the punishment that we deserve. We receive this grace in full, if we only turn and follow Him.

But of course, grace is a big subject. Thankfully, even bigger than sin. Grace will be the subject of the next article. But if you can’t wait til then, turn to Jesus now and you will find it.

What does the Bible say about women preaching?

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
(Genesis 2:18-25)

***

You would be hard pressed to find a more divisive issue in the twenty-first century Sydney Church than women preaching. Of course, this is hardly surprising given that gender and sexuality are broadly speaking, the most divisive topics in western culture.

Because of its divisiveness, it has become popular to present views on women preaching open handedly. Ministers are encouraged to present all opinions in a balanced way, and allow people to take the view that they find most appealing. This approach to doctrine and teaching should raise alarm bells for mature Christians. We might recall that Micah rebuked Israel for choosing their prophets based on whether they prophesied things that sounded good to them.

“If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ that would be just the prophet for this people!”
(Micah 2:11)

We find this to be a problem for people today and throughout the whole Bible. People prefer to choose prophets that fit their hearts desires, rather than change their hearts and set them on God. Yet you will not find in the whole of scripture a single prophet of God who holds out doctrine as a matter of opinion. Nowhere in the Bible does a Godly preacher present a range of opinions and invite their hearers to decide for themselves. Nowhere does a prophet follow up “thus speaketh the LORD”, with “now what are your thoughts on the matter?”

What the Bible says, God says; and God never speaks just to make small-talk. We should not be content with significant disagreement over what the Bible teaches. Together we need to honestly and carefully challenge our “interpretations” against the literal sense of the page in front of us.

However, this is only the first step. It is not enough for us to agree with Biblical viewpoints. The Christian should aspire to do much more than “agree” with God’s word, they should love it. If we believe that God really does know best, then we should trust as men and women that obeying God’s word will do us no harm. We need to trust that as we seek to apply the scriptures to our lives and community, we will be richer for it. But we need first to be humble, and to ask God to change us. Our goal is never to find teaching that fits our hearts, but to change our hearts to fit God’s teaching.

Nonetheless, while the Bible provides a radically different portrait of gendered relationship than our default twenty-first century western culture; sometimes different is better. God’s word is good news for women and men and it always has been. Whether or not women should preach is only one small part of the Bible’s bigger picture for gendered order and while for some of us it seems out of place, we need to trust God (he is trustworthy!) that every detail of his plan for our community serves the ultimate goal of His glory and our greatest satisfaction.

***

So what does the Bible actually say about women preaching? The primary passages which address this question directly are 1 Corinthians 11:2-5, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Titus 2:3-5, 1 Timothy 2:11-15. There are others I will relate after addressing these, but these are the most directly relevant texts. I will also supply a short interpretation of each passage to answer common questions as we go.

“I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.”
(1 Corinthians 11:2-5)

Head coverings were worn in the first century by women in the Church as a sign of modesty, but also as a sign of headship. Our customs of showing femininity in the western world have changed, but head coverings remain to this day in many non-western cultures. Put that aside for a moment though; this passage highlights a couple of useful things.

Firstly, it is clear from this passage that headship and authority are separate from dignity and worth. God the Father is the “head” of Christ, that is to say he leads Christ like a head leads a body and yet the Father and Christ are perfect equals. This forms a particularly Christian principle that worth has nothing to do with authority or power. Our world tells us that to be equal, you need to have equal power. We assume naturally that those who are strong or in control are greater than those they lead.

For this reason, our cultures best solution to the oppression of women is to put women in power. In our culture women are encouraged to pursue career over family, to marry and have children later, and to derive value from success and self-empowerment. To attain the status that men are perceived to have in patriarchal society, women are encouraged to imitate patriarchs. “Why should all of the violent action heroes be men?” Our society asks. Then instead of questioning whether men should have such violent role-models, we set about creating violent role models for women. In an equal opportunity world, women should be able to punch their problems into submission just like men do.

Our world is sinful and broken. Its solutions are just as tainted by sin and brokenness as its problems are.

On the other hand, the Bible clearly teaches an order between men and women that mirrors the order between the Father and Jesus. The Father is the “head” of Jesus and he leads him, but his leadership is characterized by love. The Father seeks Jesus’ glory above his own, and directs all creation to worship his Son. The Bible also teaches us that power is accountable to God and that we will be judged for how he we use it (James 3:1), and that God gives it to us so that we can serve others (Ephesians 5, Philippians 2). This is why we call our Church leaders “ministers”, which is the Latin word for servant. This is not a secular western principle, it comes from the Bible.

The word “headship” is used to describe male/female order in the Church, to remind us that while men are called to lead, they are not greater. A head is useless and dead without a body. A body is lost without a head. Both are one, and yet distinct. Both are necessary and precious, but not interchangeable.

Secondly Paul rebukes women who “pray or prophesy” in Church without their heads covered, that is without reference to headship. Notice that Paul does not rebuke the act of women publicly praying or prophesying, which involves speaking God’s word to God’s people. We should assume then that Paul approved of women occupying certain offices of word-based public ministry, within the parameters of headship. In our Church we have many avenues for women to speak God’s word publicly, and to teach others.

We have an order in how we do this, and this involves setting aside congregational preaching as a male role. But! It is not as though women are discouraged from teaching the Bible publicly in other ways. The principle of this passage in Corinthians, is that while men and women are both encouraged towards public Bible teaching, they each have distinct roles. I will explain this later in the essay.

***

“Women should remain silent in the assembly. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the assembly.”
(1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

Assembly here is often translated as Church. The word “ecclesia” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) refers literally to a gathering, but does often take a specific meaning in scripture. In this case it doesn’t refer to a building, or to every gathering of Christians, or even the whole Church service. If it did, how else could women prophesy or pray in Church? But it must refer to something.

Most probably it refers to the time of preaching and discerning. That is to say, women are commended not to interrogate the preaching of elders in the gathering, which is something that male elders are encouraged to do (Acts 17:11, 1 Cor 14:29). One of the primary roles of male eldership in the early Church was to preach and publicly critique false teaching (1 Timothy 1). This particular role in the Church is not given to women, just as some roles are not given to men.

Some well meaning commentators want to suggest that this no longer applies. They claim that Paul gives this instruction because women in the first century were more rowdy and less educated than the men. This is toxic and derogatory. Women in Church history were valuable and intelligent contributors to the life of the Church, just like today. Women through all of history have had intelligent things to say, and to claim that first century women without formalized education, had nothing positive to contribute in the way of wisdom and insight to the scriptures is an insult to the Godly women who went before us… many of whom died for the faith. They were wise and Godly saints, not bickering hens.

First century women were encouraged to teach and lead others in the Church (Titus 2). Paul praises many of them as worthy servants of the gospel (Romans 16:1-2, Acts 18:26, Philippians 4:2-3, Romans 16:7). Paul does not order the women such because he thinks that women are rowdy or stupid. Rather the Church has a theological mandate to embody the full image of God, which consists in the asymmetrical but equal union of men and women. We order ourselves in a way that emphasizes the particular strengths of each. Men are called to model fatherly strength and bold certainty in teaching, while women bring maternal stewardship and deeply empathetic wisdom to the life of the Church.

***

“Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”
(Titus 2:3-5)

Mature women here are commended to “teach what is good”, which shows us clearly that Paul envisioned women to have responsibility for teaching and leading in the Church. Furthermore this close, discipleship oriented teaching of younger women is a role that is not given to men.

On this principle, we have structured a youth leadership program at St. Stephen’s that ensures our younger women all have female leaders, and that any of our mixed gender bible study groups contain both male and female leadership. The primary spiritual responsibility for leading and discipling women, is given to women. Furthermore, mature women should occupy positions of authority and be recognized and respected within the Church.

***

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

This passage makes a similar point to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. For this reason it cannot be referring only to a very specific context in Timothy’s home Church. The same instruction is given to Corinth, a long way away. Furthermore, Paul gives his explanation. The reason why women are not permitted to preach (that is teach authoritatively), has to do with God’s ordering of man and woman in creation.

There is reference here to the special role that women have in Christian community as mothers. I am referring to the covenant with Eve in Genesis 3, “you will be saved through childbearing”. Mothers being leaders of households, who are equal to Fathers in value and necessity but have a different role. Some people object here that not all women are mothers rendering the division unfair. But then all men aren’t preachers either; in fact very few are. There is much more that could be said about this but we should recall that God’s plan for salvation came through a mother, Mary.

In any case, Paul frequently refers to the Church as a family, and mentions motherhood to describe the maternal leadership that all mature women have in the Church. In the same letter he encourages Timothy to “treat mature women as mothers” (1 Timothy 5:2), to say that they have a place of honor and dignity as different leaders alongside the fatherly male eldership.

To make one final point from 1 Timothy, people commonly object to the traditional interpretation because the passage uses the word “authentein” (αὐθεντεῖν) to refer to “assuming authority”. This is the only time that this word is used in the Bible, and because of this some people claim we cannot reliably understand it or form doctrine based on it.

I would suggest that even if you remove this word from the passage the meaning remains clear enough, but you don’t need to go this far. The word is not hard to understand and has a clear meaning in other Greek texts from the time this letter was written. It has a negative connotation and commonly means something like “usurp” or “take authority which isn’t yours”. Authentein is the word we would use to describe somebody taking a particular leadership role which is prohibited from them. It is exactly the word we would expect Paul to use if he were prohibiting women from preaching over men in public assembly.

***

The above obviously isn’t a complete treatment of what the Bible says about women in ministry. There are for instance, many more passages that positively encourage women into teaching the Bible than the couple I did include. With that said, we don’t have much trouble agreeing with those bits. In our post-gender Western context, we struggle with why God’s word would withhold any kind of leadership from women at all.

How can any rule which limits the freedom of an individual on the basis of gender be a good thing?

But God’s word is good. And his rules are wise.

The position we hold when it comes to what the Bible says about men and women is loosely referred to as “complementarianism”. That’s a big word I know. It confuses people because it sounds like “compliment” which means, saying something nice. Actually the word comes from “complete”. The Biblical view of gender is called “complementarianism” because it teaches that while men and women are different, they each bring different strengths and deficiencies so that only together are they complete. The differences between women are therefore not something to be minimized or rejected, but to be celebrated and embraced.

This is why I opened this short essay with Genesis 2. The question of whether women should preach over men is only one small part of God’s much larger plan for men and women as different equals. A real complementarian theology is as much about embracing what women uniquely bring to Church life as what men do. For this reason it is fitting to begin our theology of gender in the way that the Bible does: “It is not good for man to be alone”.

It is worth, at this point mentioning that in all areas of youth and young adult ministry at St. Stephen’s, women are involved, proactive, and indispensable. Of our young adults, we have just as many women as men serving regularly in various ministry areas ranging from leadership over youth and children, to singing, to service leading, to hospitality and welcoming.

We have women on staff in various roles ranging from kids ministry, to pastoral care, to administration. We have young women being encouraged to consider paid vocational ministry, and being trained and equipped to do it. We have young women preaching to youth and children most weeks between Fixes and Impact youth ministries.

Women bring invaluable contributions both to our public, up-front services as they lead in various ways. 7pm in focus ensures that every week, we have women involved in up-front ministries to actively model men and women leading together. We also have a multitude of women serving in volunteer capacities behind the scenes doing everything from internet admin to preparing bible study content. Without the contributions and proactive involvement of women serving in ministry, St. Stephen’s would quickly wilt to a pale shadow of its present thriving self. Without my wife, my female co-workers, and my female volunteer co-leaders I would be unable to do anything of much use.

***

Our Church is the richer for the active involvement of its women. Without them our ministries and teams, both staff and volunteer, would be inadequate and deficient examples of the body of Christ, which is only made whole when men and women partner together. We are not the same because God did not make us the same. At various points the scriptures ask different things of us that we might each make the most of our differences.

Our prayer should not be that we would be the same, but rather that our differences as men and women would make us stronger together.

To say that because women don’t preach at our Sunday services, that women are held back or not encouraged in ministry, you would have to be attending blindfolded or seriously under-valuing the ministry which many women are actively doing. Yet we do take seriously what the Bible says about how we order ourselves as men and women. The charge that women *should* pray and prophesy publicly is taken seriously in this Church, and there are no shortage of women involved in speaking both in Sunday services and various other settings through the week. But the roles we take and the way we order is distinct, the preaching of a male eldership is one small part of that distinction.

If you are a woman at St. Stephen’s, and you want further opportunities to serve in ministry and grow in your gifts, you don’t have to look far. Come talk to the ministry team and see.

Three reasons why God includes suffering in his plan for our lives.

“Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause.” Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. However, put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to Your face.” So the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd to scrape himself while he was sitting among the ashes.”
Job 2: 1-8

***

Passages like the one above confront us, in part because many Christian preachers and teachers have embraced a sort of theological blindness on the subject of suffering. “We just can’t understand everything about God, but we can trust Him”, is something we’ve all heard before in some shape or form. It has the appearance of wisdom, but it’s the sort of hallmark non-answer which you never actually need to open a Bible to come up with. Much of the Bible is devoted to explaining the relationship between God and suffering, in fact there are few subjects that the Bible gives us so many answers for as suffering.

I can’t help but think that people who say things like “we don’t know why we suffer, but we do know that God one day will end it”, must be doing their Bible reading with a blindfold on. If we want to be Christians who are committed to the scriptures and not just vaguely spiritual optimists, we need better and more satisfying answers to suffering than a smile and a shrug of the shoulders. I know I’m being blunt here, but it isn’t for no reason. This matters. Deeply. And it matters because in this life you and others you know will suffer. If you cannot see God in the midst of it, and the best answer you have to your life’s greatest question is “beats me”, then your faith will not survive. Don’t shy away from this question because it seems hard. Do the hard thinking, and you will have joy in hard times.

With that preamble done, here are three reasons the Bible gives for why God includes suffering in His plan for our lives.

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1. Suffering produces character. For Job in our story above this meant humility. This sentiment is echoed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 when Paul tells us that God has sent Satan to put a proverbial “thorn in his flesh” in order to torment him, but that God has done this not as punishment; rather that he would learn God’s greatness in his own weakness.

This said, suffering is a good teacher and good teachers have more than one lesson. Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that suffering also produces hope. Persecution is compared by Peter to a refiners fire which burns away dross and leaves the gold which endures. That is to say, suffering actually strips away bad character by causing us to rely on faith. All of us can testify that at various times suffering has driven us to prayer. Furthermore, suffering produces compassion for the needy. Hebrews even goes so far as to connect Jesus’ own compassion with His suffering. “He has been tested like us in every way, and so is able to empathize with our weakness.”

We have several words in our own language for people who have never suffered. Brattish, naive, sheltered, spoiled, privileged, cocooned, nannied, babied, precious, or sweet summer child. None of these paint a kind portrait, and all of us have perceived at some point that an easy life does not necessarily make for a wise or kind individual. Wisdom most often, is borne of hard knocks. Of course this isn’t universally true. Hardship can produce bitterness as well as empathy, but that comes down, not to whether one suffers, but to how one responds to suffering. I think it is something like the old saying “with age comes wisdom, but not always”.

That is to say, nobody is truly wise unless they have lived a while, but not everybody who lives a while grows wise. So too, nobody has genuine character or grit unless they have suffered some, but not everybody who suffers will learn from it. This point is made in the Bible’s wisdom literature, both in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs emphasizes individual response. Fools never learn, even when taught wisely, wise people learn from everything that happens to them. Ecclesiastes however emphasizes the special value of suffering as a teacher.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
Ecclesiastes 7: 2-4

God has made us in such a way that we should learn this readily. Good things come through hard lessons. Physical training is difficult, but we know that without hard training teams lose games. Study is hard, but we know that without mind-numbing hours in books, exams are failed. Surgery requires cutting but without it people die; and in a similar manner suffering is hard, but without it we do not learn life’s most precious lessons.

When we suffer we often become angry with God. We might even be so naive or foolish as to question His goodness or His kindness. Know this. To question God when you suffer is more foolish than questioning a coach who tells you to run, or a teacher who tells you to study. Losing soccer games or failing exams can be bad, but neither are so bad as the eternal death that awaits us if we do not walk the hard path the Jesus has called us to. Unless we follow Jesus by Calvary road and learn its hard lessons, we will not reach our destination at His side. But if we do remain on the path and we do persevere, we will be rewarded not only with character, faith, humility, compassion, and the grit that comes from knowing a hard life; but also we will receive the prize that Jesus has promised us. An eternal and perfect world after a hard climb teaches us to appreciate what’s coming.

“The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
Hebrews 12:6

In summary, God causes you to suffer because He doesn’t want His children to be entitled fools. He wants more for you than that. He wants you to strong, wise, and deeply rooted in the kind of joy that can only come through also knowing sorrow.

***

 

2. Suffering warns us that nothing in this world can satisfy. When Jesus is asked about a group Galileans who were killed in persecutions and why God allowed this to happen, this is more or less the answer He gave. Not that their deaths were some kind of punishment from God specifically for something that they had done, or that they were more guilty than anyone else of sin (we all are). Jesus tells us that God willed this atrocity that all should learn from it, take warning, and repent.

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Luke 13:3-5

Suffering is compared in Revelation 8 with an army’s trumpet, blowing from heaven and signalling a coming invasion. When we suffer the message cuts through. The things you have are not enough. Your health is not enough. Your small joys in worldly things are not enough. Death is soon coming. Turn aside from worldliness and be prepared. Suffering in this sense performs the role of a smoke alarm, or an air raid siren. It saves our life in an obnoxious way. Nobody hears a smoke alarm, and thinks “what a great sound, I could listen to this all day”. The noise is designed to be as obnoxious as possible so that we will act. If a smoke alarm played pleasant lullabies instead of banshee screeches, it wouldn’t rouse us to action, and we would die in perfect comfort.

Pain in our physical bodies serves the same purpose. Nobody (without a psychological disorder) enjoys pain. And yet if we didn’t feel pain, we might lean with our hand on the hotplate and not notice. Inflammation around the site of an injured ankle is not just there to spite us. Pain reminds us not to run when our bodies need time to heal. Likewise on an existential level, suffering prompts us to change with its shrill and obnoxious noise. Suffering hurts. That’s the point. Like pain hurts. And sirens hurt our ears. It is there to stir us to action, and Jesus tells us that the right action in response to suffering is to repent. Not because God is specifically judging us for some particular sin, but because all suffering is there to remind us that death is a near reality for us all and that we need to be right with God.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote in Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

In summary, when you suffer and you are wondering why God put it in His plan for your life, consider. If He has made you dissatisfied with this present world, it is because He wants you to inherit a better one. He does not wish you to be so happy on this sinking ship that you would sink with it also. He wants you to scrabble for the life raft, to do anything you can and with great haste and urgency, even braving great wind and waves that you might find yourself safely with Him ashore.

***

3. Suffering reveals to us the depths of God’s love. If you do not understand the suffering that Jesus experienced for your sake, then you do not know what it means that God loves you. When I tell you that God loves you, I am not saying something trite and meaningless. I am not saying that He is sending you thoughts and prayers. I am not saying that He thinks you are cute or that He wants to give you head scratches and treats. You love your pets in a sense, but if you died for your pet you would be a fool.

When I tell you that God loves you I mean that you are His child. And that because you are His child He took upon Himself the consequences of your actions. He took responsibility for your sin. He took the nails which were driven through His palms. He took the bristled crown of thorns as it was plunged down upon His head. He took whips across His back and a spear into His side. When I tell you that God loves you I mean that He chose to be tortured and to die rather than that you should face any judgement for your sins.

If you have never felt pain then you will have no comprehension of what Jesus endured for your sake, and you will not know the height the width and the depth of God’s love for you. Children can know Jesus, and to some extent can appreciate God’s love for them. But it takes an old and battered heart, pruned by many years of discipline and hardship, to know joy in suffering and hope in the face of death. To know the answer to the question which Jesus asked upon the cross: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Your appreciation of God’s love which was demonstrated not in a hallmark card but upon a rugged wooden cross is proportionate to your own comprehension of Christ’s sufferings. Your comprehension of Christ’s suffering will only grow as you learn to suffer for His sake. To mourn death like He did when He wept at the tomb of Lazarus. To be sickened with grief at the Godless immorality of our culture like He was as He looked toward Jerusalem. And to groan with pain in your own body as He did upon Calvary hill.

And I hope you can see by now with some clarity, that suffering is not the opposite of joy. Both the saddest and most joyful moments in our life are marked by laughter and tears. We laugh often as not, when everything falls apart. We cry as we watch our bride come down the aisle, or at the birth of our first child. God has given us both, suffering and joy, laughter and tears, as His gift to us that we might know the fullness of His goodness in the span of our lives. Just as there are no stars without a dark night sky, there is no true joy which does not come from also knowing suffering; because ultimately there is no life-giving, faith-sustaining, joy-inspiring, heart-swelling, worship-magnifying, and knowledge of God that does not radiate from the Man He has appointed to reveal His glory. Jesus Christ, the man of many sorrows.

All of this to say, in summary: no pain, no gain.

What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?

Much has been written on the Bible and homosexuality, ranging every opinion under the sun. I am in no way under the delusion that I can meaningfully contribute new ideas to this discussion. I have two primary reasons for writing this. Firstly, I would like to give some clear and accessible responses to common arguments against the plain reading of the Bible, which teaches that homosexual sex is a form of sexual immorality. Secondly, I would like to empower you and give you confidence in your own Bible reading. It disturbs me that the way we interpret scripture in the modern world so often dismisses plain and obvious readings of the text, in favour of complicated and unintuitive alternatives. This mode of interpretation takes the scriptures from the hands of ordinary people, insists that only scholars can read them correctly, and in effect creates something like a new Roman Catholicism. Only certain professionals can understand God’s word, they insist. You wouldn’t appreciate the necessary contexts after-all.

My simple take-home point that I want you to understand is this: you as a Christian are able to read the Bible for yourself and understand what it means. If you are honest with yourself, and you have basic comprehension skills, you will be able to agree on the basic meaning of the text. I don’t mean you will always be right, or that interpretation is always simple. But I do insist that the Bible itself provides you with sufficient context for you to understand it, without you needing an ancient history degree.

For all my study of the original languages, the historicity of the Bible, the philosophy of interpretation and application, and historical theology… my main conclusion for you, as someone who has looked closely at these issues is this: most of the time with occasional exceptions, your popular English translations of the Bible mean what they look like they mean. Where there are nuances and tidbits of insight that you are missing in your English translations, they are not huge and earth-shattering. They do not often completely change the meaning of the text; though they will add clarity and nuance to your reading.

If someone interprets the Bible in a way that completely changes or reverses the apparent meaning on the page in front of you, your alarm bells should be ringing! It is easy for those with fanciful imaginations and the least amount of actual scholarship, to invent some possible context which completely deforms the text. The kinds of things people get away with when interpreting the Bible wouldn’t be tolerated in any other kind of deliberate communication. Suppose my wife Lani sent me a text asking me to hang out the washing, and instead of doing so I thought:

“Well in our household linguistic context, washing actually refers to a range of activities. This certainly includes the clothing in the washing machine, but could also be taken to refer to the cups by the sink. Lani is also well aware that she is speaking to me, an Anglican clergyman. And in Anglican clerical contexts washing actually has a technical meaning, as in baptism. Taking this with the historical linguistic context of the 21st century: ‘hang out’ is also a euphemism for ‘relax’; I think it’s fair to say that Lani is telling me to relax because I am baptised, and I no longer have to worry about condemnation”.

This is obviously absurd. Nobody would take my interpretation of Lani’s text message seriously. And yet this is not that far from what some do to the Bible when it comes to controversial issues like gender and sexuality. People scrabble to find some way that it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means, because what it looks like it means makes them uncomfortable. So when you come across passages which address homosexuality, and they make you feel uncomfortable because they say something unpopular, you need to avoid your basic inclination to find an interpretation which changes the meaning to be more convenient.

Remember that Jesus was not liked, and his teaching was not popular. When you step into God’s light which is his word, and it makes you feel ugly or uncomfortable by revealing how far your inner thoughts are from those of God, you will be tempted to step back into the darkness. You will be tempted to do this by either avoiding those parts of the Bible entirely or by obscuring them behind layers of interpretation until they no longer resemble that light which first made you uncomfortable.

Resist this temptation to hide like Adam did when he first knew his own sin and nakedness. Instead, love God enough to hear his rebuke. You will find things in the Bible that confront you This is okay. You are a human on a journey to become like Jesus, the more you experience these feelings of dissonance between your own life and God’s word the more you will see the Holy Spirit at work in yourself. Revealing the things in yourself which must change, and the areas in which you have room to grow.

When the light shows you that something inside of you is ugly, don’t turn out the light, and don’t change God to suit your own desires. Follow the leading of God’s spirit and change yourself, by seeking to understand God’s word in the context of the gospel of grace; and making it your project to actually see the beauty and goodness in God’s intended design.

With that in view, I am going to give three key texts from the new testament which address the topic of homosexuality before I engage with a sequence of questions. I hope that when you read these you will see for yourself the clarity of what is being said; that it is not actually obscure or difficult to understand, but that its message is plain enough. Plain enough that it may, as I have mentioned, make you uncomfortable.

(English translations below are from the NASB, but they are not dramatically different from what your NIV, or ESV will say. The NASB is however slightly more literal and direct in its approach to translation, which I prefer. I have changed one thing in the 1 Corinthians translation. The NASB translates “μαλακοὶ” as “effeminate”. This is not incorrect, but I feel it is unclear. The word is not referring to cultural effeminacy in all forms, but I think is particularly referring to men who present themselves as women either culturally or sexually or both. As such I have translated “μαλακοὶ” as “men who present as women”. The NIV does not include mention of “the effeminate” because the translation committee felt that this word referred to men who take on “female” roles in homosexual sex as the receiving partner. I think that this is somewhat unlikely as the other word used for “homosexual” would already refer to both parties in the act, (ἀρσενοκοῖται – literally “those who bed with men”).

***

Romans 1:18-32
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural purpose for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned natural relations with woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who present as women, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

1 Timothy 1:8-10
8 But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers 10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.

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After you’ve read these texts closely, and thought about the clarity of what they say; then with these texts in mind we can get to the questions. What I am going to do is ask and answer a series of questions, as briefly and succinctly as I can, which are commonly raised in objection to the plain reading of the Bible. I am not going to be giving the most thorough answers that I am capable of giving, but instead trying to be brief and clear so that you won’t get bogged down in an overly technical argument. If my reasoning below does not satisfy you, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that I have mustered every argument that could be made. There is much more that could be said than the below, but I hope that the concise form of my reasoning will be sufficient to convince you. If you do want more information about any of my responses though, please just ask and I can happily go into further detail with you.

***

Q1: Isn’t homosexuality just a sin like any other? We all struggle with different sins in our lives, isn’t it unfair to single this one out and demand change if we are more tolerant of other sin?

A1: Good point! And yes, homosexuality is grouped in as one of many sins, you can certainly see that in the lists above. While we are people who seek grace and forgiveness before judgement and ostracization, the overwhelming teaching of the New Testament is that Christians must not tolerate sin in their own lives or in the Church. Now of course not all sin is equal and the Bible doesn’t teach that it is. Though all sin is serious, different sins have different consequences. Murder for instance, generally has more serious consequences than dishonoring your mother or father. Sexual sin is singled out as being particularly destructive in the life of the Church. Paul says “flee from sexual immorality!” and reminds us that we misappropriate our own bodies, and experience great shame and confusion when we dishonor ourselves by participating in immoral sexual behaviour. With that said, all sin needs to be repented of. A Christian cannot call themselves a Christian and go on unashamedly in lying, or greed, or hatred, or any sin; including homosexual sexual activity and identity. James tells us that “faith without works is dead”, and we are reminded that simply believing in Jesus and paying him lip service is not actually what “faith” is. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 7 that not all who claim to be his followers will be saved. Faith is desiring God and living a life of repentance. We will slip up. We will need forgiveness time and time again. But if we cease to hate our sin, and instead celebrate it or practice it without guilt in the name of so-called “grace”, then we have lost sight of the gospel and lost sight of Jesus.

Q2: Is it true that most homosexuality in the ancient world was pederastic? That is, exploitative relationships between older men and younger boys. If this is the case then is Paul rebuking these exploitative relationships rather than homosexual relationships in general?

A2: While it is true that pederastic relationships were extant in ancient contexts (and remain so today), it is unreasonable to assume that these represented the overwhelming majority of homosexual relationships. In Greek culture for instance, it was not at all uncommon for adult males to have sex with one another; consider Sparta. In any case, Romans 1 also includes mention of lesbian relationships (v26) which certainly do not fit this category, unless we are to assume that there was in Rome a historical problem of lesbian pedophiles (hint, there really wasn’t). Furthermore, if we look closely at Romans 1 it is clear that the reason that homosexual sex is sinful is not because it is pederastic, but because it exchanges the natural order for an unnatural one. In verse 27 men “abandon natural relations with woman”, and replace these desires with lust for other men. It is the exchange of man for woman, and woman for man that represents this disorder. It is also clear that nowhere in the text of the Bible is pederastic exploitation connected with homosexuality, in fact, nobody in all Church history ever made this argument or thought that the Bible was saying this until the last century. Furthermore, age gaps are not unique to homosexual relationships! Many heterosexual relationships in the ancient world were exploitative and involved young girls marrying older men; this being the case, if Paul wished to rebuke age differentiated sexual exploitation, why would he specifically address homosexual relationships when this was not a uniquely (or even mostly) homosexual problem? Pederasty is certainly bad, but that has nothing to do with why God prohibits homosexual sex.

Q3: When the Bible uses the word “abomination” isn’t it usually referring to idolatry? If this is true, then when homosexuality is called an “abomination” in Leviticus then couldn’t that also be a specific case in which homosexual sex was part of pagan idolatry? As in the case of a shrine prostitute?

A3: The word “abomination” is often connected with idolatry, but the word doesn’t refer to it exclusively. It is also used to refer to other forms of sexual immorality such as incest, and adultery; none of which were commonly associated with pagan worship rites.  The language here in Leviticus is also quite clear, “men who lay with men as though with a woman”. This descriptor is to the point, and I think precludes much speculation of specific cases that might be underlying the relationship. The act itself, just as in the case of fornication (sex outside of marriage), adultery, bestiality, or incest, is expressly forbidden.

Q4: There are so many laws in the Old Testament. Aren’t we just picking and choosing by focusing on sexual immorality?

A4: This argument might work if the New Testament didn’t include several specific references to homosexuality, but as it stands even if we entirely ignore Leviticus there is enough in the writings of Paul, which were applied to Christians, to show that homosexual activity is sin. With that said, we should not completely discard Leviticus, and we shouldn’t pick and choose from it arbitrarily. Christians are not under “the Law” of the Old Testament, this is true. We are saved by grace, through faith. Many parts of the Law have also been explicitly fulfilled and called no-longer applicable to Christians in the New Testament. Namely things like sacrifices, food laws, and circumcision. But when we say that Christians are no longer “under the Law”, what we mean is that Christians do not have to uphold the religious and civil consequences of the Law.

So for instance, Christians should not stone people to death for committing adultery. Does this mean that adultery is not a sin? Absolutely not. Does this mean that God does not judge adulterers? If they do not repent He absolutely judges adulterers. With that said, it is not our job to uphold the consequences of the Law or to assume that by keeping the Law we can make ourselves righteous. Only faith in Jesus can make us righteous, but real faith will lead us repent, and to follow the “moral Law” which refers to those parts of the Law which are concerned with with moral behaviour; namely the ten commandments as they were understood in Israel.

Q5: But Jesus never even mentioned homosexuality!

A5: Jesus never specifically mentioned all sorts of things. Jesus never specifically mentioned pedophilia, pornography, or speeding in school zones. Apply this logic to any of those cases and see how it goes. But seriously, he did mention sexual immorality multiple times and quite conservatively. Jesus was notably more sexually conservative than others in his time. He even forbade divorce when most sadducees and pharisees permitted it. He was also far stricter than the other Jewish rabbis in his teaching on lust, even saying that lust in the heart was more or less equivalent to adultery. We need to remember that when Jesus uses the phrase “sexual immorality” he is referring to a list of sexual behaviours that are called immoral in the Old Testament. Homosexual activity is definitely included in this list.

Q6: In Romans 1, Paul is rebuking people who give up what is natural to them. If it is natural to someone to have homosexual sex, then isn’t that different than what he is describing?

A6: If we follow this logic, and assume that Paul is really saying that the problem is those who have homosexual sex when it is not “natural” to them, are we to take that he is talking about heterosexual men engaging in homosexual activity? This would be rather strange. I can’t imagine that this problem is an especially common one. Especially when Paul describes that they “burned with lusts for one another”, which would seem to imply strong same sex attraction. This argument is probably the silliest one on this whole list, and thankfully people have stopped using it as much in the last few years. Natural sexual relations refers not to that which “comes naturally to you”. Paul is very clear that to sinners, sin comes “naturally”. The word here is quite evidently referring to God’s intended design being replaced with our own misuse of our bodies, which can take many other shapes than homosexuality, but certainly includes it.

Q7: Jesus and Paul were both teaching in a different time and place than we are living in today. Their cultures were far less developed than our own, and in their time their own teaching was radical. In Judaism for instance homosexuals were stoned to death, so Paul teaching Christians to leave their judgement to God was actually progressive. If we want to be faithful to their teaching, don’t we need to be progressive in our interaction with our own culture?

A7: This is called the “moral trajectory argument” and it is commonly applied to other issues too, notably gender and Bible verses addressing women. The first problem with it in this case is that it is simply not true. Jesus was far more conservative on his teaching concerning sexuality than were the Jewish teachers of his time; I indicated this in A5. But furthermore, books like Romans and Corinthians were written to largely gentile audiences, who were far more sexually permissive than even our society is today. Prostitution, homosexuality, and even pedophelia were largely tolerated in these cultural contexts. Homosexuality much as it is today, was celebrated; this is pointed out in Romans 1. Paul is not writing something that would be seen as “sexually progressive” in his time. Furthermore the notion of social “progress” is a modern one, and ancient writers did not think along these terms. If you wanted to make this argument in a more consistent and honest way, you should say that in his own time; Jesus’s teaching on sexuality was radically conservative. In a world today where our culture is even more conservative than his was, we should be even more conservative and ban sex entirely!

Thankfully this is a stupid way to read and interpret the Bible, and I will not be making this argument. We must acknowledge that the Bible was written to address a particular people in a particular context, but we also believe that the word of God is enduringly relevant and continues to speak today. Furthermore we believe that the fundamental problems of human sinfulness have not really changed. Sexual immorality for the most part looks much as it always did and so our application of the Bible needs to respond to new problems, such as internet pornography, but the principles are already there for us to do this without wildly dislocating the text from its meaning and applying it in ways which would have obviously horrified Jesus and Paul.

Q8: The Bible is just one of our sources of theology. We also need to look at our experiences in life and listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t the evidence of faith and belief among gay Christians show us that God’s Spirit has accepted homosexuality and that we should too?

A8: Absolutely we ought to look at our experiences in life and reconcile them with what we believe. I actively encourage that we think about God in the whole context of our lives and not just in our times spent reading the Bible. With this said, the Spirit of God does not contradict the word of God. And if our experiences are found to contradict God’s word, then we have misunderstood something. The Bible at numerous points refers to homosexuality as a form of sexual sin; and this being the case, if we feel that we have seen genuine repentance and faithfulness among practicing homosexual Christians, then I think we have a skewed definition of repentance and faithfulness. I have known unrepentant adulterers, liars, gamblers, and all kinds of people living in sin without remorse that have called themselves Christian, this does not legitimize their behaviour and Jesus taught us to watch out for all forms of hypocrisy.

I am of course not talking here about those who struggle to repent of their sin, we all do. If someone is same sex attracted, this is no barrier to their genuine faith and repentance any more than heterosexual lust is. The desire to sin sexually in some way or other lives in most of us. But all of us must align ourselves to God’s word and not allow sin to reign in our mortal bodies. If you want to look for evidence of the Holy Spirit in somebody’s life, look for repentance according to the word of God. That’s what the Holy Spirit looks like when he works. Not showy spirituality, fancy words, emotional prayers, or even Church attendance alone… look at their life and ask yourself, is this a life of repentance and desiring God’s will first. Do their lives match the scriptures? If you can answer yes, then you have met a genuine believer.

Q9: Homosexual people have a choice between two sins. Lying is spoken of more in the Bible than homosexuality. Shouldn’t they rather be honest to themselves and who they really are, than lie about themselves to prevent a smaller sin?

A9: If you are a Christian, then you are not lying about yourself when you live like a Christian. All of us struggle with sinful desires, but these do not constitute our identity. The real you, the one whom God knows, the you who you are called to be, is not like the old man Adam who followed his own heart; but is shaped in the image of the new man Jesus who in all things obeyed God. Sin in Romans 1 is described as “exchanging the truth of God for a lie”. When you live a life of sin you are not being true to yourself, even if it’s what you naturally desire; you are telling lies about your true identity which ought to be in Christ. Live honestly, openly, and stand in the light. Tell no lies. Keep no secrets. Live in faith and repentance.

Q10: The Biblical authors never envisioned that a homosexual relationship could be monogamous. What they were rebuking was promiscuity. Shouldn’t we permit homosexual relationships if they are still waiting to have sex before marriage and pursuing sexual purity?

A10: All sorts of homosexual relationship existed in the ancient world, and while none of them were called marriage, much as today, monogamous homosexual relationships have always existed in some form or other. In any case, Paul explicitly singles out the natural exchange of genders in sexual activity, and makes no reference to promiscuity in his characterization of homosexuality in Romans 1. Neither does Leviticus. Furthermore promiscuity is already addressed multiple times and in other places, why would Paul refer specifically to homosexuality in addition to promiscuity if he was really only rebuking the same thing?

Q11: All love images God. Faithful, other centered, homosexual love is not different. Why should we oppose any form of love when God is love?

A11: Love as God defines it is other centered sacrifice. True love has none other than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends. The height of love in the world is not romantic love, but Jesus’ love for you and for me. Please be aware, Jesus’ love was obviously not sexual! We need to be very aware that in our culture, it is common in our politics to intentionally shift the use of words so that we can creep new meaning into them. Like a legislative “rider” that politicians will sometimes employ (attaching a controversial law as a small part of a bigger bill to get it voted through parliament), post-modern social commentators intentionally restrict and alter the definitions of words in order to conflate dissociated concepts. This is nothing new, Aristotle referred to this as a “revolution within the form”.

The word love has become all but meaningless because by this process. Love when defined Christianly is not sex, and when we say “God is love” we are not saying “God is sex”. Sex and love should have something to do with each other, of course. But sex practiced “lovingly” and with consideration for God’s love, has many boundaries and restrictions upon it.

We do not and never will oppose genuine sacrificial love between any two people on earth. Love everyone more! And when a gay couple marry it is not their love which we should oppose. We can hope and pray that these two people really will love each other. Nonetheless, we oppose the idea that sex (and consequently marriage, which is explicitly a sexual union), has any place in this relationship. Don’t let people trick you by sneaking sex into your definition of love. Love is love! Sex is not. Parents should love their children, and yet if a parent used the excuse that “love is love” to legitimize a sexual relationship with their child, we would obviously see that something had gone wrong in their use of the word. Men should love men. Women should love women. The way that love plays out in all of our varied and different relationships will look different in each context, no two are quite alike; and yet sex has a very particular purpose in God’s order which should always exist alongside love, and yet is not love in itself.

Why is God so violent in the Old Testament?

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” – Genesis 6: 5-8

Why is God so violent in the Old Testament?

It’s a question i’ve heard people ask time and time again. The New Testament is full of forgiveness, acceptance, and Jesus petting lambs. The Old Testament is full of fire, brimstone, and rivers of blood. Why? Did God change at some point in history?

Our first response is usually to point out that God is a God of grace in the Old Testament too. We could speak of God’s unconditional rescue of Israel out of Egypt, even though they continually grumbled and rebelled against him. We could talk about God’s patience with Abraham, Noah, or Sarah; whom God loved unconditionally and forgave though they sinned. We could even point out that the coming of Jesus is established and continually reiterated in the Old Testament. All of God’s grace in the New is promised first in the Old, and also demonstrated in his many acts of forgiveness and love.

This is true and right. It is good to point out that God is a God of grace the whole way through the Bible. But there is something missing from this picture, and anybody who has read much of the New Testament will know what. We must point out that God remains a God of holiness and wrath in the New Testament also.

Jesus speaks more about eternal judgement and hell than any other figure in the Bible. Much more. The fact that a final judgement for sin is coming and repentance to faith in Him is the only path to forgiveness, is THE major theme of Jesus’ ministry. The kingdom of God is coming! A welcome arrival for the faithful to be greeted with cheers and enthusiasm… but also an invading army that signals doom for his enemies. Setting the world right also means condemning its wrongs.

The New Testament is also full of appeals to repent and live a godly life. Anybody who thinks that the Christian faith being about “salvation through grace alone” leads us to be uncaring about how we think, live, and act; hasn’t understood the gospel. Yes, Christians are saved by God’s grace alone; but God shows us his grace not only by forgiving us, but also by changing our hearts.

God’s grace is not abstract or legalistic, forgiving us on paper and leaving our lives unchanged. It transforms us inwardly and makes us live lives of obedience. This is so much the case that New Testament writers frequently point out that anyone who claims to be forgiven, and yet continues to live a life of disobedience to the word of God, has not actually accepted Jesus and is not yet saved, (Rom 6:1-4, 1 John 1:5-7, Matt 5:17-20, 1 John 3:1-10, 1 Cor 6:9-11). While Christians aren’t saved by works but by faith, the gospel is clear nonetheless. “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).

With this in view, I hope it is clear that the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old. Not only because in both God is graciousn, but also because in both, God is holy and judges sin.

When I answer this be prepared. I won’t lie to you by pretending that God is never violent. It is plain that the world around us is violent. If God is sovereign over all things and has a good purpose in all things, we must conclude that he has a good purpose even for the violence which his world is subject to while it awaits redemption. With that in view, I would like to suggest three ways in which the violence of God reveals his goodness.

1: God’s justice empowers us to make peace.

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” – Romans 12:19

Nobody really doubts that wrongdoing deserves punishment. In fact, one of the great moral hurdles that time and time again our species needs to overcome is the human desire for retribution. Humans have an innate need to bring down and judge those whom they perceive as having done wrong. Humans innately desire justice. In the context of the Bible ancient people were tempted to seek revenge when they were wronged. To kill their enemies and repay evil with bloodshed in a brutal world full of injustice.

In our present setting, our resentment and outrage is not lessened. We want to squash the people who do wrong in our eyes and this sense of injustice all too easily spills over to violence. We aren’t actually that different for all our courts and civility.

If we as people are going to carry our hurts without taking revenge into our own hands, we need to have confidence that justice will be served. If we are not confident in our judicial systems and processes, we seek our own forms of justice. The knowledge that God will one day judge with absolute truth and justice is then a great comfort to us. And in the Bible, the violence of God is actually given to us as the basis for our own non-violence.

In short, do not take life; not because evil doesn’t deserve death but because taking life isn’t your job. God will judge in time. Be confident in his justice and wait. Christians are free to live in the world as people of peace. Not because we delusionally think that nothing is worth fighting for, or that evil should not be punished. Rather we trust God so much that we put off violence, knowing that he will in time set all things right and repay evil.

We have strength to endure wrongdoing and still rejoice, because we have a God who will avenge us.

Furthermore if we have done wrong, we know that our God will not only judge sin… but that he has already done so on the cross. We cannot talk about the violence of God for long without mentioning the crucifixion where God did violence to himself on account of his people. If your conscience troubles you for the wrong you have done, look at Jesus. See his wounds, his hands, his feet. There is your punishment. Jesus took it for you. God has already punished your sins if you have turned to faith in Jesus, and guilt has no home any longer in your heart.

2: God brings suffering to reveal our real problems.

“I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps yet you have not returned to me, declares the Lord. I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, yet you have not returned to me, declares the Lord. Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel, and because I will do this to you, Israel, prepare to meet your God.” – Amos 4:10-12

Nobody enjoys the sound of a fire alarm. That’s why they work so well. When the fire alarm sounds, you know to snap to action and get away from the fire. Nobody with a healthy mind enjoys physical pain. And yet, without physical pain we would cause all kinds of damage to our bodies through carelessness. We complain when we feel pain in a joint injury that prevents us from doing sport, but that pain is our body’s natural way of telling us to rest that part. Ultimately although it is unpleasant, feeling pain at certain times is important for our wellbeing.

Suffering in all its forms is similar. It alerts us at an existential level to the shortcomings of life in this world. If we do not suffer, we do not see our need for something greater than the present. Our need to return to God and seek something bigger than ourselves. We all intuitively understand that those who have never suffered any hardship in life usually lack wisdom. In my experience, most people who come to faith in God apart from being raised in a Christian family, have been prompted by suffering in their life. This isn’t universally the case, but it is common enough that i’m sure you will have noticed it also. But this isn’t only an anecdote, the Bible makes the same point.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” – Ecclesiastes 7:4

We don’t often look for God’s kindness in suffering, but the Bible is happy to draw that connection even when speaking about exceedingly dark things. If we think that God has no right to take away good things from us like health or wealth, then we are exactly the people who need to learn the lesson which suffering teaches. Nothing in this world really belongs to us. Nothing in this world can really last or satisfy.

Money goes. People die. Health fails. Homes change. Experiences are forgotten. Pride runs to ruin in time. But love the giver and not only His gifts, and you will have a hope that no power on earth can conquer.

 

3: God is right when he withholds life from a humanity which corrupts its purpose.

When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever,for they are corrupt; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”’ – Genesis 6:1-3

This point may appear blunt or oversimple, but it is the most important of all for us to understand. God has the right to take away that which he gives. Even Job who suffered more than any of us saw through to this.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” – Job 1:21

We need to clearly understand our place as we ask this question. We are not within our rights to accuse God of any injustice when he takes away something which he also created and which we have no inherent right to. It is only by his grace and his Spirit that we live, move, and have our being. The breath within our lungs and every beat of our heart, is his free and undeserved gift and should he choose to measure these he has every right to do so. God is just. To accuse God of injustice or challenge his rule is the very nature of sin.

And as it so happens, God is so just that when the thing which he sustains is corrupted and ceases to achieve its purpose in his perfect order, he cuts it off. If a power tool catches hair and starts to pull, you hit the kill-switch. If a car is veering off the road and toward a tree, you hit the brakes. If a dog becomes dangerous so that it bites and attacks, you put it down. And when humanity rejects God and lives to serve their own decadent and disordered desires, God withholds his Spirit from them. He no longer gives them eternal life.

This is not grounds for us to call him unjust; rather he does this because he is just.

It might help us here to realize that “death” doesn’t exist. That’s a rather strange thing to say isn’t it? But I mean it in the same sense that I would say that darkness doesn’t exist. Or that cold doesn’t exist. Or that poverty doesn’t exist. These things have no form in themselves, but they are words which describe a lacking. Darkness is what we call the absence of light. Cold is what we call the absence of heat. Poverty is what we call the absence of wealth. So too, death is what we call the absence of life.

God accordingly does not “bring death” in any literal sense. Rather he ceases giving the life which constantly proceeds from him as much as light constantly proceeds from the Sun. His decision to condemn us in death then is really not a commissive action, but rather an unwillingness to enable us to continue in sin.

***

Consider all of the above when you come across God’s judgement in the Old Testament and the New. But realize, that even if you understand these things perfectly, you still won’t be perfectly comfortable with the Canaanite genocide. No gap in understanding can account for the depth of emotion you feel when you consider the death of an entire people. God knows this, and this is actually the Bible’s intention. You are supposed to feel the horror of these moments, and you are supposed to consider that these people could be you. When God commanded Israel to take the promised land it came with a warning.

“After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” – Deuteronomy 9: 4-6

We are told numerous times that the Canaanite people practiced forms of idolatry so obscene that even God, long-suffering and patient, could tolerate them no longer. Israel are warned that if they do the same, God will also drive them out in a like manner. This is made clear.

“The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” – Deuteronomy 12: 29-31

As such, the horror of what was done to the nations whom God judged was used by God as a warning for the people of Israel. You are not supposed to pass over these events unmoved. They are supposed to disturb you. You are supposed to wonder what it would be like to be these people. You are supposed to realize what a terrible thing it would be to oppose the living God.

If God’s wrath in the Bible disturbs you, then don’t turn away from him because of it. See that his justice is not only right, but also terrifying.

It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:31

And consider also that this terror was exactly what Jesus faced, as he carried God’s wrath which was reserved for us. Consider that if we know God as a Father, it is only because we have been forgiven and adopted first. And if we have been forgiven and adopted, it is only because the terrifying wrath of God has been emptied upon Jesus Christ the Son of God. We are people of the cross. God’s violence is not secondary or a side point to our faith. We are not free to shy away from or disagree with this thought. The very basis of our faith is redemption through judgement, and mercy through wrath. Jesus’ death for our life.

So what I want you to do most of all when the violence of God confronts you, is to consider the one who took it in your place. As Israel was instructed to remember Canaan, so that they would not repeat their sins and face a similar fate… you are instituted to remember Christ. And yet, not only so that you should be careful but also that you should be glad. You are heirs of a greater hope than the Israelites of the old covenant, and this hope was bought at a great price.

Discovering yourself in the knowledge of God

Nosce te ipsum et Deum
“Know yourself and God”, The personal motto of Thomas Cranmer.

People are obsessed with identity. From star-signs, to Myers & Briggs personality types; we as human beings have a near compulsive obsession with the pursuit of self-identification. This is a problem for all of us, but I think young people most of all. Have you ever noticed that rigid identity typings are a major feature of most Young Adult literature? The sorting hat, the colour-groupings of the Darkest Minds, Twilight’s vampire powers, and the districts of the Hunger Games. Young people are obsessed with being pigeonholed. I believe this speaks to a pervasive anxiety in our culture. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know where we belong. We don’t know what is right for us.

For a long time I thought that doing Christian Theology and reading my Bible properly meant ignoring this impulse. Putting aside my desire to know myself , and turning my attention toward God. Doesn’t that sound like a Godly impulse? To turn your attentions away from yourself and toward God?

But that’s missing something isn’t it. God often speaks about who we are, and a good deal of the Bible is concerned with how we ought to think of ourselves. For instance, the entirety of the Wisdom literature is drawing lines between knowing God and knowing how we ought to live. Of course this wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, but it doesn’t stop there. God’s will is that as we learn more about him we will actually realize things about ourselves. Through contemplating God we realize a lot of things about what it means to be human, and many of our identity anxieties are put to rest.

What I’m saying is that your impulse to understand yourself isn’t there to be ignored, but that pursuing it properly should lead you to your Bible. If you want to know more about yourself don’t settle for an online personality test; know God, and then you will know yourself. With that end in view let me give you three ways that knowing God helps us discover ourselves.


Knowing God reveals who we are not

The Lord is exalted over all the nations,

   his glory above the heavens.

Who is like the Lord our God,

   the One who sits enthroned on high,

who stoops down to look

   on the heavens and the earth? – Psalm 113:1-6

Until we actually encounter God it is rather easy for us as humans to think highly of ourselves. In practice when I stop to consider whether or not I’m generous, i’m not measuring myself against an abstract set of principles to make a decision. In reality I’m most likely going to be comparing myself against other people I know, and asking if I’m more or less generous than they are. We do this with all sorts of things in life before we encounter God. We measure our behaviors against other people, and so long as we are similar or better than others we come to think of ourselves as good people. This is obviously a flawed method of self-scrutiny. When you think of goodness as the median behavior of the people around you, the easiest way to see yourself as good is just to surround yourself with bad people. Problem solved.

Meeting God changes this with the addition of a single new person in our life. Jesus. A man who is so good that the comparison game becomes untenable. As we learn more about who God is and what he is like: His perfection, His power, His glory; we forfeit our high ground. Because I know just how patient God is I know just how much I lack patience. Because I know how powerful God is I am well aware of my own creaturely limitations. In this way, knowing God grounds our sense of self and gives us a sense of humility. It becomes hard to judge one another when God is so high above us that the view from the top levels out the differences between us.

 

Knowing God reveals who we ought to be

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16

The humility that knowing God produces doesn’t end with self-loathing. God actually invites us to move beyond our recognition of sin and into a life of Holiness which he not only shows us, but also empowers us to follow. It is a profound truth that being “created in God’s image”, means that while we are only creatures… we are still called to a grand and noble purpose. There are ways in which we are unlike God, this is certain. But God’s plan for us is to grow us toward him. To make us more like him, over time as we study the blueprints of his Son Jesus so that we might more and more resemble him in our character. Of course we don’t do this on our own steam, God promises that his Holy Spirit will change us as we grow in knowledge of God. His promise is that we will eventually live up to our calling.

 

Knowing God gives us a resilient sense of self

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old man, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new man, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24

And finally, as we learn more about God and grow in our confidence that He is working in us, we learn to ground ourselves in a resilient sense of self that isn’t tossed around or easily budged. I have heard preachers say more times than I can count, that “our identity should be in Christ”. If I can freely admit something now, for the longest time I had no clue what they were talking about. I suspect that I’m not alone. It’s a very strange thing to ask someone to “put their identity in Christ”. What are you even asking them to do? I hope you will use clearer language or at least explain what you mean if you ever decide to adopt this line for yourself!

If I might suggest a definition though, I think that when people talk about “putting your identity in Christ”, they really mean something like this: The thing that matters most about you is what Jesus has done for you. The way that God sees you is not shaped by your own sin, but by the perfect work of Jesus. The way that you should see yourself should not be characterized only by your failures. You are a beloved child of God. You should consider yourself and act with a dignity and self-respect that comes from the respect of Jesus… in whom is your “identity”.

And most importantly for your own sanity, you are free. You don’t need to obsess over whether or not you fit into this identity-grouping or that. It’s okay if you aren’t quite like everyone else, or if you don’t look like James Dean. What matters most about you is what Jesus did for you… and because of this you have gone from being a dying person who was worried about the things in this world; to a person who will live eternally and should be concerned with eternal things.

To have your identity in Christ is to think about yourself in the big-picture of God’s plan for your life; and to derive comfort, hope, and a sense of assurance from the knowledge that who you really are can’t be shaken. You are secure, whether you know it or not. God is holding you tightly. He will not let you go.

Because of this, you can be comfortable in your own skin. A Christian has every reason to feel at home with who God has called them to be. To pursue Godliness, and give their greatest efforts to living God’s way and growing in their faith; and to have the perspective and self assurance (which comes from knowing God) to absorb criticism, failure, disapproval, or even shame. A Christian whose identity is in Christ, does not derive their sense of self from the acceptance of those other than Christ. As such, they are free. They are not driven by a need for approval; they have God’s approval. They are not driven by need at all, but rather by delight. Joy should be the central motivator in the Christian life; joy which rises up from knowing what God has done and from intentional reflection upon God’s word… a joy which leads to sharing that same love with others.

What Could I Have Done? A Call to Responsibility as Christian Leaders

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

– 2 Corinthians 12:6-10

 

***

This week I’ve been listening to a crime-expose, produced and distributed by The Australian Newspaper, called: “The Teacher’s Pet”.

Have you ever heard a news story so awful that it changed your whole mood and outlook, and yet for whatever reason you were compelled to dig deeper and learn more? I find stories of crime mesmerizing; and I know i’m not alone in this. For some reason which is difficult to identify, staring into that abyss of human evil is not only painful, it also fascinates us.

Teacher’s Pet is a true crime expose, uncovering the horrific culture of abuse and exploitation that was going on in a Sydney Northern Beaches high-school in the early 1980’s. In the wake of an enormously destabilizing “sexual revolution”, amid a culture where people were valued more for their bodies and “beach-worthiness” than for their being image-bearers of God; Sexual misconduct was normal enough that even though it was happening with the full knowledge of multiple authorities and members of the community, nothing of consequence was done about it and nobody seemed to care; even after it escalated to murder.

What strikes me most about these cultures of abuse which we have grown used to hearing about in the wake of the Royal Commision, is the bizarre combination of inordinate power afforded to community leaders, alongside a complete lack of personal responsibility in those leaders for anything.

On the one hand, for an abuser to effectively exploit a victim we would expect that they would need to be operating without any oversight, transparency, or accountability. You would think that say, a teacher in a public school with numerous agencies operating above them, and with limited authority and a public community that is constantly watching… it would be difficult for an abuser to operate over a span of years without being disciplined. You would be wrong.

In the story named above and sadly in many others, there was sufficient transparency that everybody knew the abuse was happening. There was sufficient authority in the hands of community leaders that something could have been done. And yet, nobody did anything of consequence to stop the abuse. As school principals, parents of victims, friends of perpetrators, fellow teachers, and even police officers are interviewed… one haunting phrase stands out more than any other: “What could I have done?”

The absurdity is palpable when in a school of approx. 1,200 students with a large teaching staff, in which abuse was common and known about. Not a single individual felt that they had the authority to actually do something about it.

This should challenge the conventional secular wisdom on cultures of abuse. That the power structures are too rigidly centralized. That greater visibility and democratization is needed. These sins were not committed for lack of visibility, or for any lack of accountability either. The abuse was sustained, not only because a few individuals had power in a given community. But because all of those who had any actual power to affect the situation, didn’t perceive the problem as being their responsibility. Which is it? Was there too much power in the hands of community leaders? Or perhaps not enough? Or could it be the case that irrespective of the power structure itself, human sinfulness can make the best (or rather worst) of either situation.

It would seem to me that a single principle, or deputy, or police officer, or even a parent wishing to escalate the issue and go to the media; likely could have blown the whistle loud and clear. And yet none of them apparently had the courage or gall to take a stand, exercise what power they did have, and say “enough is enough”.

And now, years on as the blood calls out from beneath the ground; as buried secrets come to light and sin comes home to roost. Those who once said “what can I do”, now bear the burden of a great and intractable guilt.

 

***

I can’t help when I hear stories like this but consider how the gospel might come to bear on them. It’s this strange sickness I have where for some reason, some fanatical and obviously deranged part of me can’t help but look for Jesus in everything.

What might the gospel of grace say to those who now cannot carry the weight of personal guilt they feel for having done so little? How would the fear of the Lord have affected a sense of duty in those who ought to have intervened? How can Christian leaders demonstrate the Christ-like and humble exercise of authority? And why in so many occasions have Christians proved no better at preventing cultures of abuse than the world at large?

These latter questions are particularly biting when I consider my own life. A Christian leader, with some small authority in a very large organization. It is a sobering reality to reflect that people in my position have in past either been perpetrators of abuse, or passive enablers who probably remedied their own guilt with those same poisonous, five words: “What could I have done?”

The answer to that question should be obvious. You could have been a leader. You could have stood up to injustice. You could have been faithful.

But of course, this kind of critique is easy from afar.

Our primary question as we engage the subject of leadership is not “what ought others to have done”, but rather “what kind of leaders ought we to be”.

With that in view let me take a moment to reflect on the passage from two Corinthians above, as I make a few points about a Christian theology of leadership; which I hope looks neither like the brazen abuse of power, or the weak and bureaucratized abdication of responsibility already mentioned.

 

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Christian leaders are servants

Has it ever struck you that it is a rather strange thing to call our Church leaders “ministers”, and our Church work “ministry”. The word “minister” doesn’t actually mean leader, or king, or anything close; it means “servant”.

Notice that Paul doesn’t boast in himself. His boast is in Jesus, and he is secure enough in Jesus, that he himself can admit weakness. It often puzzles me that so often, those who attain positions of leadership in the world are so insecure. So unable to tolerate criticism and unwilling to admit weakness or failure. Then again, this makes sense I suppose if you see your own dignity and reputation as the most important thing in your life. Pursuing the gospel which makes Jesus look great is liberating, precisely because we can be free to admit weakness. We are only servants, we are not great or particularly important. We serve one another, because we serve a God who is himself a servant king.

In our life this has many implications but within any institution, it means that our own reputation, advancement, and success… must always take a back-seat to doing good. We must not be afraid of repercussions in our careers, in our relationships, or even in the Church itself when we speak out against injustice and evil. The reputation of Christ is not planted on lies or watered by deception. We are to be people of truth and light, exposing sin and calling it to account. If you lose your job in this life because you have called attention to harassment or abuse, then you can still feel glad. You have gained much more in Jesus for your integrity in the gospel.

 

Exercising leadership is important for all Christians

You might not think of yourself as a “leader” in the the Church but actually, in a Christian community we do not look for great power or titles to identify our leaders; we seek to be shaped and influenced by those who serve and live by example. In fact Paul even says that God’s power is made perfect in weakness! There is no such thing as a Christian who is too “weak” in their influence or stature to make a difference for the gospel. The same Holy Spirit who was at work in Paul, is also at work in every Christian.

We do have formalized forms of leadership, and of course the bible teaches that this order is right. There should be overseers, and specially appointed teachers, administrators and paid staff to watch over and maintain the Church as a whole. And yet, we also believe that there is an order which permeates the life of the Church all the way through, so that in some sense, everyone except perhaps our littlest infants are called to both lead and to be led by others. Older women lead and instruct those younger, likewise the men.

Formal or informal, what matters is that all of us take seriously our charge to be humble servants who follow, as well as being courageous leaders who take their call to follow Jesus personally; being wise with whatever measure of influence we do have. All of us who are saved by the gospel of truth, have a responsibility for the truth. To champion the gospel, to discern false teaching, and to denounce evil. Not one person in a Church community should ever say “what could I have done”, all of us who have the Spirit of light are responsible for shining a light on sin. 

 

We recognize that real power, is God’s alone

A Christian should never aspire to power, God’s power consists in our weakness. I am careful when I say this. I don’t mean that a Christian should never aspire to a formal position of leadership. What I mean is that Christians who recognize that God is in control, and that whatever else they might think people really aren’t, should see leadership as an opportunity to call attention to God’s authority; seeking to lead in obedience to his word and wisdom. We do not seek power, in fact we can never really have power. The only power is God’s, and he is sovereign over every moment of our lives. If we lead, it is by his will alone.

You might have heard the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I think this is backwards. There is one absolute power and he is God, and he is not corrupt. Power in and of itself does not corrupt people. Power is inert in itself. Neither good nor bad, what matters is the person wielding it. Christians, believing in the universal sinfulness of all human-beings, should recognize that any human authority will wield power with some measure of corruption. All of us will find ways to sin within the system we are in. There is no way to distribute power so that human evil is no longer a problem; and yet there are ways to mitigate the worst behaviours of individuals.
What this means to us is that we should not buy into that thinking which says that human evil is only the result of rigid, normative, power structures. We do not have to deconstruct and democratize every aspect of human authority to pursue justice. In fact, I think it could be well demonstrated that the relative anarchy which arises when the hands of authority are tied can result in its own form of evil. When too much power is in the hands of too few, we see excesses and abuses on account of the sinfulness of the powerful. When too little power is in the hands of too many, we see evil proliferate in cultures of abuse wherein nobody has the authority to affect change.

Whatever system we are within. A Church episcopacy. A constitutional democratic monarchy. A McDonalds staff team. Whatever it may be; Christians recognize God’s authority and power over whatever authority structure they find themselves in. They acknowledge the reality of human sinfulness which which cannot be fixed on a deep level by any systemic intervention. And Christians commit to truth and justice, as far as they are able within the system they have received, not by turning the wheel of power this way or that, but by calling all people to repent and follow the real power. The one king. The risen Lord Jesus.

It is every Christian’s job to call out sin. It is every Christian’s job to call for obedience to God. It is every Christian’s job to speak the gospel of grace. I pray that you will be leaders. I pray that you will never ask when confronted with evil: “what could I have done”.