Challenges for 2014 and Fighting Back

The challenge

The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10.3-6 these words:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”

Undoubtedly there is a spiritual war going on in the West. Last year the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed by Parliament in July and due to come into force in March. Then before Christmas there was a Report of the House of Bishops’ (of the Church of England) Working Group on Sexuality, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling. This recommended services in the Church of England to celebrate permanent same-sex relationships, although it says there could be no formal liturgy for this, until the Church changes its teaching. Of course, that is tantamount to recommending a free-for-all and allowing churches, where the Vicar and PCC agree, to have blessings of Homosexual Marriages. Of this Working Group, shockingly, only one member objected – the Rt Rev Keith Sinclair, the Bishop of Birkenhead. The Bishop declined to sign the document. Instead he submitted an appendix outlining “his understanding of Scripture’s teaching on same-sex relationships”, as one Newspaper reported his submission: and that description in itself is an indication of spiritual drift. For even the Bishops’ (theologically liberal 1991 Statement) Issues in Human Sexuality, after examining the teaching of Scripture, had to admit the following:

“There is, therefore, in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable.”

So Keith Sinclair’s appendix was not just “his understanding of Scripture’s teaching on same-sex relationships”. It was that of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ” – the church down the centuries that follows the Bible - a library of Apostolic teaching. (The Bible as we have it was in contrast to the spurious books of a host of Gnostic sects - the early versions of which are being opposed in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, John’s Epistles and the early chapters of the Book of Revelation).

The fight back and Pannenberg’s advice

How we need to fight back because of the damage done to our society by these innovations. We must take seriously those words from Paul in 2 Corinthians 10 (above) and then campaign to repeal this new marriage legislation that comes into in March. (For a fuller explanation of the damage this redefining of marriage will cause, see the Coloured Supplement, April 2012).

In one sense what is happening has been going on for years. There has been little change in Europe, except for a worsening, over the last 20 years since the distinguished German theologian, Professor Wolfhart Pannenberg gave his 1994 important and helpful Erasmus Lecture and said this:

“There are compelling reasons for Western Societies to try to recover their religious roots … Given alternative religious possibilities Western Societies are well advised to recover their religious roots in the cultural tradition informed by Jewish and Christian beliefs. Western ideas of human rights and especially the underlying conception of human freedom have their basis in these beliefs: in the Christian teaching that the individual person is the object of God’s eternal love and that human freedom has its source in the individual’s communion with God through faith, and in the Jewish understanding of the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God. In the light of these teachings, individual freedom cannot be unbridled licence.”

He then went on to speak about the acids of secularism:

“Secularism’s greatest success, however, is in the widespread demoralization in the ranks of the clergy and theologians who are supposed to proclaim and interpret the truth of the gospel but delude themselves that they are achieving that purpose by adapting Christian faith and life to the demands of secularism. What the situation requires, I am convinced, is precisely the opposite of such uncritical adaptations. The further secularism advances the more urgent it is that Christian faith and Christian life be seen in sharp contrast to the secular culture … What is needed is a strong reaffirmation of the central articles of Christian faith against the spirit of secularism and then a joining of that to a renewed commitment to rationality and ecumenical openness. Needless to say, such a combination is not easy.”

Some explanation and comment

In the West secularism is particularly identified with sexuality and gender issues. These undoubtedly have been, and are, the motor for not only the disintegration of sexual ethics but of ethics in general. Looking back those 20 years since 1994 and the incursions of this sexualized secularism, it is easy to see how right Pannenberg was in his analysis. And how right he was in his call for “a strong reaffirmation of the central articles of Christian faith against the spirit of secularism.” However some further comment is necessary for 2014.

First, it is noticeable that Pannenberg, when rightly talking about one of the sources of human freedom being the “individual’s communion with God through faith”, omitted to say that it is “through faith in Jesus Christ”. And, secondly, a “renewed commitment to rationality and ecumenical openness” is absolutely essential, but needing more to be said.

On the one hand, the commitment to rationality has to go hand in hand with prayer for the Holy Spirit to open blind minds. What has happened since the 1990s has been a plethora of evangelically minded Christians seeking theological doctorates, which if they are good pieces of work, are indeed valuable. But they are not sufficient to win this spiritual war. The Book of Acts is clear that you need human witnesses to Jesus Christ to change minds but also, and vitally, the Holy Spirit to change hearts and wills. For the Bible’s anthropology says that what the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind rationalizes. So Peter and the Apostles, referring to Jesus’ life and work, said “we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5.32). We also read about the conversion of Lydia, a great woman in the Church at Philippi, in these terms: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16.14). That is why, to be a church of 2000 over the next four and a half years, at Jesmond Parish Church we need both a new concern for discipleship (literally, “learning”) but also faithful prayer - faithful in terms of our vision of the God who can do more abundantly than all we can ask or think.

Secondly, ecumenical openness means learning from other Christians in different denominations and, especially, other parts of the world, and being, as far as is possible, united with them. But ecumenical openness must also involve learning from, and being united with, the whole “church militant” – to use the old Book of Common Prayer phrase. That means learning from, and being united with, the Church down the centuries where the churches in history have been learning from, and united, with the Apostles and their teaching. And you are united with the Apostles as you read their teachings and records about, and witness, to Jesus in the Bible. Jesus’ famous prayer for unity in John 17.20-21 was in these terms:

“I do not ask for these [his Apostles] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word [Churches down the centuries], that they may all be one [the Apostles together with Churches down the centuries] just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us [the Apostles together with Churches down the centuries united intimately with God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit], so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Respect and conclusion

With regard to the omission of “through faith in Jesus Christ”, and a caution in mentioning the name of “Jesus” (other than as an expletive), this is too frequent today from a fear of giving offence in a multi-cultural society. But this is often due to a wrong notion of “respect” for those with other beliefs or behaviours.

We must distinguish “respect” from “esteem”. As Christians we must “respect” everyone, whatever their beliefs or behaviours, as a human individual made in God’s image. Such respect does not admit of degrees. However, because of human sinfulnesss how we “esteem” or evaluate others (and ourselves) does, and should, admit of degrees. For it needs to be based on fact and reality. And the reality is that God is there; Jesus is risen and reigning; and Christian faith and ethics are the best for human flourishing (as social studies prove). So ignoring Jesus’ teaching on marriage and voting for homosexual marriage scores zero. Christian love, therefore, should motivate us to wage war, of course, not with lethal weapons or violently like some religious extremists, but peacefully with spiritual weapons – our teaching, our prayers, and our consequential action, where necessary.

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