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The Church Less Gathered

The Church Less Gathered: A discussion of Scripture’s implicit theology of the local people of God

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TLDR: For a local church to be a ‘local people of God’, it will usually need a structure which puts believers into identifiable, small, diverse (e.g. intergenerational) and enduring groups, with the call that members at least love those within the group.

Can you really cancel church?

In the last few months churches have had to cancel church – or more precisely they’ve had to cancel church services, or gatherings. Most of us, though, have an instinct, and a hope, that church isn’t just the gathering, and that it includes a community. If you like, we hope that church is not just an event we go to, but also a community, or a family, we belong to. And yet our language regarding ‘church’ differs from our language around ‘family’ in important ways. The short hand of ‘cancelling church’ for cancelling services is widely used, but the same language isn’t used regarding family. Most weeks my immediate extended family (i.e. including children that live out of home) get together for a meal, but when we cancel this meal no one thinks to say, ‘we’ve cancelled family’[1] – the family continues to exist even without family dinner.

That is, while we have an instinct for Christian community, we should admit how dominant Sundays are in our thinking and practice. Sometimes it seems we have loaded up all the New Testament exhortations for how Christians should treat each other, and laid them at the door of the Sunday service. They are no longer just a gathering where I am taught and encouraged, through reading Scripture and hearing it expounded, and through song, prayer and communion. Now they are where we love one another, where we are discipled, where the most important worship happens, where intergenerational relationships happen, where we can confess sin, where all our gifts are used, where mission occurs and so on. A gathering cannot bear this weight.

We need to reflect on what Scripture says about our common life outside gatherings. More specifically, while Scripture has much to say about specific types of relationships, such as parents and children, and while it has much to say on how to conduct all relationships, we are concerned here with a narrower question; whether it anticipates the existence of specific identifiable local communities of believers, and then secondly, if so, what shape or features must these communities have?

The Local People of God

I want to suggest that Scripture presents the local people of God as a real aspect of reality with real implications.  In a moment, I will unpack this suggestion, before that, though, I have three brief comments about the nature of the task itself.

Firstly, an aspect of reality is something which exists in the world, and can be observed. Marriage, for example, exists as an aspect of reality. It is a concept or category, with specific features, that exists separate to any one marriage. It is, amongst other things, a relationship between a man and a woman, from different families, who freely enter a lifelong exclusive sexual union. With this in mind, we are then able to make two kinds of observations about any specific relationship. Firstly, one of health – is it a good marriage? And secondly, one of existence – is it even a marriage? Note they are observations. There is no verse in Scripture telling us that this or that relationship is marriage. Scripture provides the category of marriage, but whether it exists, or whether it’s healthy, is discerned by observation. Note too, that it’s not enough to claim a relationship is a marriage. Scripture alerts us to the possibility of dissonance between our claims and reality – ‘though they claim to know God, they deny him by their actions’. And we’ve found ways to respond to this truth regarding marriage. We have annulment for when a marriage is claimed but doesn’t exist, and de facto legislation for where none is claimed, but does exist.

Similarly, I claim the local people of God is an aspect of reality that exists separately to any specific community. Once its salient features are understood, we can observe a specific Christian group and discern whether it’s healthy on the one hand, and whether it’s a local people of God, on the other. As with marriage, this observation is informed by the claims of the group about itself, but it is not determined by them. That is, it’s possible to claim to be a local people of God, but not be one[2].

Secondly, as hinted at in the sub-title, I have adopted the phrase ‘the local people of God’ as a term to describe the type of identifiable community I claim Scripture presents. This is simply because the English word ‘church’ has so many uses. For example, if I say, ‘the church is the bride of Christ’, I’m talking about all people who have ever and will ever belong to Jesus; if I say, ‘the church faces difficult times today’, I’m referring to all people who identify as belonging to Jesus who are alive now; if ‘the government isn’t listening to the church’, I’m referring to appointed leaders of denominations; if ‘I’ll meet you outside the church’, it’s a building; if I ask ‘how was church this week?’ I’m asking about a church service, and when I inquire ‘how is your church handling the current circumstances?’ I’m asking about the local church. There is nothing scandalous here. Words change. Even now our language is shifting again. We’ll still say, ‘welcome to church’, rather than ‘welcome to our online replacement of church’. It does mean, though, when we ask, ‘what does the Bible say about church?’ we are asking several separate questions. Specifically, I don’t think we yet have adequate language to describe the questions of this article, and so I’ve proposed a new phrase – the local people of God (‘the local household of God’ would also work). The closest current terms are ‘local church’ or ‘church community’, but each of these have limitations. The ‘local church’ is inextricably linked with local legal entities and the governance and formal membership questions that attend them. The word ‘community’ has morphed to mean almost any group. That is, any Christian group is likely to be a community, according to current English usage, but may not be the type of community presented in the New Testament.

Lastly, again hinted at in the sub-title, is that ‘the local people of God’ is an implicit theology.  That is, there isn’t a specific New Testament Greek word that refers to this category, nor is there a single passage providing an explanation of it. As with changing language, there is no cause for concern here, many theologies are implicit. For example, the Trinity is an implicit theology. As far as I know, there is no Biblical language equivalent for the word ‘trinity’, and neither is it spelt out in any single passage. Rather it is a concept that explains and synthesizes various things that are said about God. Something similar is happening with ‘the local people of God’. Rather than laying out a specific template, Scripture offers various clues, commands, constraints, and contours regarding how Christians should relate with each other, and from these emerge a picture of the local people of God. We might wonder why Scripture doesn’t address this directly. It’s speculation, but it may be that it wasn’t needed. It was simply an assumption that everyone lived in a certain type of community. It is only in modern life that attending a local church service where I wouldn’t know almost everyone is thinkable, let alone possible. Our search is for those clues left latent for a time when the question became necessary.

We turn now to consider three claims I think Scripture presents, albeit implicitly, followed by a suggestion for how to ensure a local church is a local people of God.

i) The local people of God exists as a real aspect of reality

As we indicated above, Scripture’s data doesn’t appear in a single passage, but is rather to be found in ‘clues’ in various passages. So, for example, consider the widows’ list in 1 Timothy 5.

No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, 10 and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.

Firstly, note the criteria for getting on the list. They are to be noted for ‘good deeds’, but these good deeds are not specifically associated with an event, but ones undertaken in the context of various relationships – some within a family (such as being faithful to a husband), no doubt some towards anyone, and some amongst Christians. The passage doesn’t insist those deeds were done within an identifiable group, but the fact that they are ‘well known’ suggests they were. This is reinforced by the creation of the list itself. Again, creating a list, and enacting it, does not seem like the activity of a gathering. Certainly, the list could have been made at a meeting, but it’s not a list for a meeting to act on – it’s not a ‘this is how we should treat widows on Sundays’ list, but rather a ‘this is how we should care for widows all the time’ list. Neither does it seem like a list for a random group of Christians to act on – ‘we should each create our own widows’ lists’. Paul does encourage Christians to do good to all as we have opportunity. But the framing of Paul’s instruction to Timothy does not have the tone of a general opportunity for individuals to do good, but rather a specific obligation for a group of Christians to do so. When you put together who the list is for, how the widows are known, who is expected to act on the list, the breadth of expectation, and the necessity of acting on it, all this makes the most sense if there is a specific identifiable community of Christians.

Similar dynamics are at play in Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 5 regarding disciplining an unrepentant believer. He exhorts the Christians to pass judgement on the man concerned, and to exclude him with the hope that he will repent. The judgement itself (if it happened) could have taken place at a gathering. But the scope of exclusion was to be beyond the gathering, as Paul says, ‘with such a man do not even eat’. It is technically possible to read it as all Christians everywhere to exclude all excluded Christians everywhere, but to be meaningful this would require a global list of excluded people. Paul, and elsewhere in Scripture (more below), is concerned with what is actually possible. I referenced earlier his exhortation for Christians to do good as they have opportunity, which embeds the idea that some things are not opportunities, and therefore not possible. It makes more sense to read Paul’s exhortation to exclude, as exclusion from a group, enforced by a group.

Perhaps the strongest clue that the local people of God exists is found in New Testament’s language around elders; it points to elders having responsibility for Christians and not only a gathering, but responsibility for a specific group of Christians, and not for Christians in general. They are to be shepherds, to pray for the sick, to work amongst the people of God, and to direct affairs. It is not that they are not also responsible for a gathering, just that they are more responsible for more than a gathering.

It’s possible that elders are called to be elders in the people of God generally, rather than elders within a specific community, but it’s not likely. There are textual clues. Christians are called to submit to elders, and elders called will be held to account for how they have discharged their responsibilities. It’s hard to make sense of this language if, either elders are given responsibility for all Christians, or if Christians need to submit to all elders.

This is reinforced with the Biblical language around ‘neighbour’. Perhaps most simply, God loves the world, we are called to love our neighbours. It’s part of Scripture’s acknowledgement that we are given to a time and a place, and this comes with opportunities and constraints. ‘Better a neighbour nearby than a brother far away’ reinforces that while a brother has stronger relationship, if you need practical help it will come from those who are actually able to provide it. If we imagine that elders are appointed to the whole church, rather than a specific community, we need to reckon with the fact Christians have the scope of their responsibility to love limited to neighbour, but that elders are somehow responsible for everyone. A better reading is simply that elders are appointed within specific communities; that they know who they are responsible for, and in turn Christians know which elders they should cooperate with.

ii) The local people of God is at least an open, public[3], enduring, diverse, local community of believers committed to loving each other.

It is not enough, though, to note the local people of God exists, or to name it as a community. The meaning of the word ‘community’ has expanded considerably. It now means ‘any identifiable group of people who have some common bond.’ In recent years, I’ve heard the following used: the academic community; the rugby community and the Northern Territory cyclist community. It’s now a word used to evoke a feeling rather than describe a relational reality. But the local people of God does have a relational reality. It is, at least, an enduring, local, open, diverse community of believers committed to loving each other.

Scripture goes further than just anticipating Christians belong to a community, it provides guidance on what shape that community needs to take. Firstly, it must be a community committed to loving each other. There is of course the general call for Christians to love each other, with specific shape provided by the New Testament’s many ‘one another’ statements[4]. Christians are, amongst others, to be devoted to each other, and to accept each other, as well as more pointedly, to forgive one another, and to bear with one another. These are commands for how we should relate with all Christians we encounter, and so if the New Testament anticipates that Christians belong to a community, they must be commands for how we will relate within these communities. This doesn’t mean we always will. Scripture provides evidence, and the expectation, that Christians won’t love each other, and that even when we do it may be difficult – the commands to bear with each other, and forgive each other, for example, presume difficulty in relating. The key distinction here, for a group of Christians, is between welcoming the call to love, and failing, as opposed to refusing the call to love at all. The first is a Christian community, perhaps even a very healthy one, the second has refused to be a Christian community.

The sheer range of ‘one another’s’ implies that we will have meaningful intensive relationships; that we will see some people often enough, across enough domains of life, over a long enough time, for opportunity to have displayed more than one ‘one another’ towards each other. This is not spelt out explicitly in the New Testament, but it is hard to make sense of the New Testament if it is not the expectation. We do not need to ‘bear with one another’ if we are never going to see each other again, for example. Of course, not all our relationships will be multi-dimensional, and even single dimensional relationships provide opportunities for love; I may one day be able to again treat a parking volunteer at a conference with courtesy, I can respond graciously to a harsh remark on social media, and I can pray for people I’m never going to meet. But the New Testament assumption is that, bar an emergency, some of our relationships will be mulit-dimensional. And so, in the normal course of events we should expect some of our relationships within a local people of God to be friendships; we should expect some of our relationships not to be optional; and, we should expect many of them to be enduring.

Secondly, as well as being a community committed to loving each other, the local people of God must be a local community. This is an implication of the command to love, and the reality of ‘neighbour’. It is not enough to simply wish the people of God well, they must actually be loved. And so, our communities need to be local. We need to allow that in modern life ‘local’ is somewhat flexible. The answer won’t be an arbitrary distance, but rather the discernment as to whether it is possible to be neighbourly towards others in the community. Geography no longer starts our relationships in the way it used to, but it still does place a constraint on how possible it is to develop them. If I meet two people at work in the CBD, and one lives an hour’s drive from me, and the other fifteen minutes, I’ll have more opportunities to extend my relationship with the person who lives nearby. We need to ask if it is realistic for us to build relationships, serve, and be served, beyond Sundays.

Thirdly, the local people of God must be open, public and diverse. That is, any believer, and any kind of believer, must be free to belong, which in turn assumes and requires that the community can be discovered. The primary New Testament data arises from the interplay between the nature of the Christian message and the concept of neighbour. That is, Jesus is not just rescuing and forming individuals, he is rescuing and forming a people. Neither is he rescuing people privately; ‘Christ is Lord’ is a public message for all people. And he is rescuing all types of people, he is rescuing slaves and masters, Greeks and Jews, men and women, adults and children. When we belong to Jesus, we not only belong to him, we also belong to each other, and we belong to each other whomever we are. This belonging has two forms. Firstly, it is a status. We are now brother and sister with everyone else who belongs, or will come to belong, to Jesus. But secondly, and this is where neighbour is salient, the limitations of time and space mean we cannot, in this creation, enjoy or experience this with everyone who belongs to Jesus. Rather, we experience it with some people, as we belong to specific people, and as we belong to a specific group of people. Just as the status of belonging to a family brings with it the expectation of the experience of belonging to a family, so too the status of belonging to all kinds of people who belong to Jesus brings with it the expectation that we’ll be able to experience belonging to all kinds of people who belong to Jesus. In other words, unless some emergency is in place, it is unthinkable that we would enjoy the status without the experience.

This theological grounding is reinforced with various textual exhortations in the New Testament. James speaks harshly to those who show favouritism to rich people. Paul speaks harshly to Peter when he withdraws fellowship from the Gentiles. The New Testament assumes we know leaders well enough for them to be a model. It assumes the older will teach the younger. Paul, in his letters, directly addresses different groups; men and women, adults and children, and slaves and masters. Together these build a picture of a community where anyone could belong, and in turn where anyone who belongs is expected to relate with any kind of person that does belong

iii) The experience of the local people of God needs to be real in practice and not just on paper.

When we belong to Jesus, we have the status, but not the experience, of belonging to all other followers of Jesus. The local people of God provides the context where we can experience now, with a few followers of Jesus, what we will be able to experience in the future, with all followers of Jesus. But for this experience to be real, and for the local people of God to exist, it must be possible to build relationships with people, and it must be possible to build relationships with a diverse range of people. It is not enough for it to be a community we can formally join, and it is not enough to share a meeting with people we don’t know. Belonging to a community requires relationships, and belonging to an open, diverse community requires the possibility of relationships with a range of people, including the possibility of non-optional relationships. In other words, the local people of God must exist in practice, and not just on paper; it is a community determined not just by what it intends, but what it makes possible.

To make it more concrete, if it is practically impossible, or nearly impossible for older people to build relationships of love with younger people, or if it is impossible, or nearly impossible for new people to build any relationships, or if it is practically impossible for believers of one ethnic group to build relationships with believers from another ethnic group, then, the community, while claiming to be a local church, is not in fact a local people of God. Typically, when we notice these features in a church we treat them under the rubric of health rather than existence. It would be nice if the older and younger got together, it would be nice if new people could join, it would be nice if some of our relationships had depth, or it would be nice if the locals were more welcoming of internationals, and so on.

A key reason why we view these challenges under the rubric of health rather than existence, is that we tend to privilege the precision of a formal policy over the reality of an actual situation. For example, when I was studying at theological college, there was some discussion as to whether our college chapel services were public. The argument was that anyone was allowed to come. And this was true, if you turned up uninvited, or otherwise, to a chapel service no one would ask you to leave, whereas if you turned up to a lecture you may have been politely asked to leave. But the chapel service times were not advertised to the wider world, the times and locations were liable to change, there was no sign placed on the street closest to the service, and the door to that street was kept locked. Note though, the issue of whether an event is ‘public’ is not about whether people came – plenty of public events don’t have new people turn up to them, but whether it was possible for them to come. If you relied on the formal policy college chapel services were public, but if you observed reality they were not.

It’s more difficult when a group claims to be a church. Consider the following example. I remember talking to a friend on the edge of tears explaining how she hadn’t been able to build any new close friendships at church in eight years. She is a much nicer person than I am, and her kids are all the right ages. It’s just that somehow this is a church where it’s practically impossible for ‘newcomers’ to integrate. We could simply say ‘the church is not very healthy’, but I think it would be more accurate (if not precise) to diagnose that, in some meaningful way, her church was not a local people of God, at least not for her.

There are three challenges of discernment here. Firstly, it’s difficult to see people not relating. That is, if a church declared they were running a gathering at a certain time, and then didn’t run a gathering, it’s easy to see. But if a church claims it’s welcoming, but then isn’t, it’s hard to see, Of course, it’s easy to see if a church is unwelcoming to an event, but that is not the question the example above raised, rather it’s whether its relational structure can welcome new people over the longer term. In fact, the two may not be correlated. Some years ago, friends had cause to change cities twice over a couple of years for work. In the first city, the church had great systems for welcoming people at an event, but after a few weeks they quickly realised it would be almost impossible to build any new friendships. In the second, the church was hopeless at formal welcoming, but after a few months they had many friends.

The second challenge is that some good work is always happening. You cannot have people called by Jesus, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, without those people doing some good. Some good things will be done, and some good relationships will be built. But we are tempted to use the ‘some good’ as the evaluation of the overall state. In a recent conversation, I was told the church they had newly arrived at had great community, and they’d made good friends already. But in the same conversation I was told the people they’d just had over for Sunday lunch indicated this was the first time in seven years belonging to that church they had been invited into someone’s home. A local people of God does not exist because of the strong relationships a few people have (any community can generate that), but because of the types of relationships it enables everyone to have.

The third challenge is discerning whether a good just isn’t happening, or whether a good is practically speaking impossible to happen. To return to the earlier question of college chapel. The question of whether it was a ‘public’ meeting wasn’t determined by whether anyone came, but whether it was possible for anyone to come – the college could have provided more consistent and better advertised times, a sign on the road could have put out, the door could have been unlocked. It’s likely that no one would have come. But it would have been possible to do so.

A similar dynamic is at play with church services that target specific demographic or ethnic groups. They do not formally exclude people from belonging, but practically they do. There is of course no in-principle reason why some Christian activities cannot exclude people: a leaders’ meeting can exclude people who aren’t leaders, a women’s convention can exclude men, a crèche can exclude primary school children. The problem with church services that target a specific demographic is not the service itself, but in the fact that, for many, the service constitutes the community; it is not just a gathering, but a ‘congregation’. And while it is appropriate to run any number of activities for specific groups of people, it is not appropriate to exclude certain kinds of believers from a community. The very structure of the good news of Jesus Christ has a ‘from many to one’ movement. Jesus is rescuing people from many backgrounds to become one, united with him, and with each other. When our churches preclude oneness across demographic and ethnic boundaries our collective actions undermine and deny the message we proclaim. Most of us, I hope, would recoil in horror if ethnic or demographic segregation were part of our formal policy, and yet we are quite comfortable with its practical reality.

How we discern the problem will have big implications for what solutions we propose. If a good thing simply isn’t happening, then the problem is cultural or spiritual. We’ll think we need to be more captivated by the grace of God so that we’ll in turn extend his welcome to us, to those others he has also welcomed. We’ll exhort people to be less selfish, or to develop a new habit, or perhaps to learn a new skill.  In each case, we’ll think the solution is located with individual initiative.

But if we think it’s impossible, or nearly impossible, then the problem is structural. It’s the difference between Christians not going to a church gathering before COVID and not going to one during COVID. Before COVID we could be sure if we weren’t there, there was either something wrong with the service, or something wrong with our motivations, or perhaps something wrong with how we had constructed our lives, or some other condition related to us individually. But during COVID no one has thought this, we all know the reason no one is going to church services is that there haven’t been any church services to go to. The problem in other words is not one of individual initiative.

Living as the local people of God

I think the diagnosis is at least structural. It is likely cultural as well, but just as it would be futile to motivate people to attend a service that doesn’t exist, so it is futile to exhort people to live as the local people of God, investing in non-optional, diverse, enduring and new relationships, whileever it is practically impossible. Simply, modern life bequeaths us too many relationships, with too little overlap. In a village, the people I knew from one sphere of life, I knew from another. This is no longer the case. Typically, the people I know from work, I do not know at church, and the people I know from church, do not overlap particularly with the people I know in the community, and none of these overlap with my extended family and so on. It is not possible for me to invest in all these, and so I end up, through direct choice or happenstance, relating deeply with only a few, or sometimes with none. To put it differently, in modern life everyone is our neighbour, and to misquote The Incredibles, ‘when everyone is your neighbour, no one is your neighbour’.

We need a structure. A structure is required when something good will not happen organically. Most of us find this concept uncomplicated when applied to scheduling or physical structures, but we baulk when applied to social structures. We would roll our eyes if someone thought the Spirit would lead people to gather at the same time each week without announcing when the service was. And we would think it lunacy if someone planned to run an event for 100 people in a living room designed for 10, who ‘just’ trusted that God would provide the space.

And yet, when a large group of Christians, all with more relationships than they could ever possibly invest in, fail to organically coordinate themselves so that the older know the younger, so families build relationships with single people, so there’s a mix of mutual and difficult relationships, so different ethnic groups relate and so new people are welcomed, we are still tempted to locate the problem with individual habits and priorities. In the New Testament times they needed, in at least one place, a widows’ list. We need a neighbours’ list, or ‘neighbourhood’. That is, we need a simple structure that places us in identifiable, enduring (but not static), diverse groups with the call that we love at least these people.

If you are familiar with recent trends in church structures you may think I’m about to suggest ‘missional’ or ‘gospel’ communities. But my suggestion is more modest than that. The Missional Community movement correctly identifies that the local church should consist of communities, and that these communities would not arise accidentally, and that Christians should undertake mission and blessing in the world together rather than alone. Its mistake (in my view at least) was to imagine that Scripture mandates, or that modern life makes possible, for these to occur in a single structure.

Alternately, we may think existing small groups, or Bible study groups, are already providing the solution. And no doubt some are. But most small groups are designed as learning occasions, with relationships as a hoped-for by-product. Our verbs betray us here, they are typically something we go to, rather than something we belong to. Further they are often built around specific demographics, never include children, only exist for part of the year, and are usually too small to sustain a community.

Rather I think a single purpose structure that enables Christians to commit to and love a specific group of believers is required. Let me offer a precise suggestion as opposed to a proscriptive one. Namely that churches form groups:

  • Of between 15 and 25 people (including children)
  • Which include adults and children, married people and single people, and where possible, people from different ethnic groups
  • Who live close enough to each other to be neighbourly
  • Who commit to love each other
  • That meet at least 8 times a year for a meal
  • That encourage opportunities to relate outside the formal meal
  • That have a method for identifying needs within the group, and for attempting to see them met
  • That run continuously
  • Which have little expectation of formal teaching
  • And which have little expectation of the group together blessing or undertaking mission in the wider world.

Firstly, note, this is no return to the New Testament. New Testament Christians would probably be shocked at how little we would be relating with each other. It is rather an attempt to fulfil the minimal requirements of enabling Christians of any kind to relate and belong to Christians of any kind. To borrow from an earlier metaphor, it’s a structure to unlock the door. Secondly, by itself, this would not meet the requirements for a church; it does not include teaching, elders or mission for example. It is a structure which assumes the existence of other structures. As such, the details of how groups are constituted will vary from context to context, according to what other structures and circumstances are present. In some places groups can be bigger, in some they will need to bear most of the teaching weight, in others they will include obvious opportunities for mission or blessing.

None of this is to stop or discourage Christians from loving beyond the bounds of this group. In fact, the very design of the group presumes we all have opportunities and responsibilities to love them. The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that anybody could be our neighbour, regardless of ethnicity, class or religion. This structure is not designed to eliminate serendipitous opportunities to love, rather if we imagine for a moment 100 Samaritans walking past 100 victims of assault, the structure is to help coordinate it such that every Samaritan stops for someone, and in turn every victim has someone stop for them.

Such structures are of course just the beginning. Just because a widow had their name put on a list doesn’t mean anyone bothered to care for them. While, as I have argued, they make it possible for the local people of God to exist, this doesn’t mean the local people of God will be healthy. There will still be the long slow work of calling people to commit to each other, and of by the grace of God developing new hearts and new habits. To put it differently, if the teenagers and the old people find it impossible to ever even meet each other, then maybe the local people of God doesn’t exist; but if the teenagers and old people hate each other, the local people of God is unhealthy. The first is whether it’s possible to relate, the second is whether they relate well.

Leading the Local People of God

There are always individual actions Christians can take. We can commit properly to a fewer people from a wider range of backgrounds, or attempt to create an informal community group. However, when overall structure is concerned, it is hard to make much progress as an individual without appearing to, or in fact, undermining the church leadership. And so, inevitably discussions about this kind of topic end up being for leaders. I’ve laid out a suggested structure which attempts to solve one thing. And we could have further discussions about other structures, or about how to implement them, or about how to develop a culture to live alongside them. But I think such discussions would be unproductive without a shift in thinking about the role of a leader of a church.

That is, amongst other things, in modern life, a church leader will need to take responsibility for creating structures, and with it a culture, that makes relationships possible and probable. This is to require from leaders more than the requirements for elders set out in the New Testament. This should not surprise us. In each age, the requirements for church roles exceed the requirements for elderships. In our own age, most church leaders are required to have a theology degree, have spent some time learning original languages, be able to preach (as opposed to other kinds of teaching), understand budgets, have some familiarity with human resource and child protection legislation, be a competent manager of volunteers, and understand various issues regarding property. None of these are requirements of eldership in the New Testament.

I know here, I am at risk of turning a largely undoable job, into an even more undoable job. And I feel it all the more keenly as someone who doesn’t have anything close to the range of skills required for most modern church roles. It is why, although I have advocated for the creation of smaller groups, when it comes to the legal entity of the local church I am an advocate of larger ‘churches’, where staff and volunteers are able to use fewer gifts amongst more people. Our current model requiring generalists seems to cut against a theology of gifts, and against observation of people.

Taking responsibility for such structures requires an additional shift in thinking. Competence is measured less by how well a leader does things directly, and more by how well they enable other people to do things. In other words, they prepare us for works of service, and help create the contexts where we can undertake those works of service.

More than gathered

COVID helped raise the question of what to think the people of God are when we can’t gather. And here our instincts were correct, community does matter, the local people of God exists. Church, in that sense, can’t be cancelled, but it can be revealed, and we were perhaps either surprised or disappointed by what we discovered. In the coming weeks and months, as our restrictions are slowly lifted, we will God willing, be able to meet again. But I hope we won’t just gather, but take the time to ensure we are more than gathered.


[1] Although children and families being what they are, if any of them read this article, they will almost certainly start using the language of ‘we’ve cancelled family’.

[2] That is, this essay follows in a long tradition of asking what are ‘the marks of the church’?

[3] I acknowledge there are complications surrounding how to be public in persecuted contexts – the whole church is in an emergency. It’s beyond the scope of this piece to discuss how to navigate that.

[4] A quick google search will yield more than 50 examples.

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Redemption Work

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The resurrection of Jesus Christ introduced a new kind of work; the work of proclaiming that Christ is Lord, and with this, approaching God in prayer, making disciples, and building communities of his followers. It’s an essential work, and it’s also an urgent work; when we declare ‘Christ is Lord’, we include his imminent return. As 1 Peter says, God is delaying judgement so people may have time to repent and turn to him. It’s a work all Christians need to be involved with, but it’s not the only work that needs to be done. The resurrection of Christ brought in a new age, but it has not yet brought a new creation. We still live in this creation. And while we live in this creation, this creation’s work still needs to be done.

All work is love. Sometimes the love we show arises out of our call to steward God’s creation, such as farming, or to alleviate the effects of the fall, such as weeding (‘creation-fall work’). And sometimes from the call to make disciples (‘redemption work’). Whatever our primary occupation, all Christians will do a mix of both. Consider the work of raising children, it involves: creation elements (e.g. changing nappies and reading stories); fall elements (e.g. discipline, treating illness); and redemption elements (e.g. reading the Bible, teaching them to pray).

This still leaves the question of how the two works relate to each other. The first step is to reinforce that both are essential. We cannot live on bread alone, but neither can we live without bread. Or take the earlier example of parenting: if I fail to do the redemption work of raising my children in the fear and instruction of the Lord, you might charge me with being an unbeliever. But if I fail to do the creation work of providing for them, I’m worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8). Christians should not choose between being ‘an unbeliever’ and ‘worse than an unbeliever’.

Secondly though, we need to resist the temptation to rank them; to label, for example, one as ‘more important’. Consider the relationship between childhood and adulthood. It doesn’t make sense to ask which is more important. However, that doesn’t mean useful things can’t be said about how they are connected; childhood precedes adulthood, or childhood prepares for adulthood, and so on. The New Testament’s insistence that both types of work are essential means that attempts to rank them are of very limited use.

Much of the problem stems from the fact the framing of ‘most important’ cannot bear the weight under which it is put. The metaphor of priority — which kind of work is ‘more important’ — is a good way of describing what needs to be done in the next two hours, but is just misleading when you have a range of tasks that are all necessary.  In life, we are given a multitude of responsibilities and opportunities. I have a piece of writing to finish, roads to cross, friends to pray for, a bill to pay, food to eat, clothes to put on, a Bible Study to lead, children to play with, parents to stay in touch with, and a car to register. Any one, if left neglected, could have serious consequences. Any one, at the proper moment, is the ‘most important’ thing I could be doing. Even when Scripture sums our lives it resists the collapse into one ‘most important’, rather we are called to love God, and love our neighbour. We might be tempted to narrow love for our neighbour, with ‘the most loving thing I can do for my neighbour is tell them about Jesus’, but it is not a narrowing that Scripture endorses.

Rather, the two works are mutually dependent. For example, the redemption work of preaching a sermon requires the prior creation-fall labour of thousands: to study ancient languages, to develop and manufacture computers and microphones, to raise and furnish a building, and (often) to pay the preacher’s salary. And when this sermon is preached, it should give rise to better creation-fall work: one of the main goals of redemption work is to prepare the saints for works of service (or ‘ministry’; Ephesians 4:11–12). As Paul seeks to prepare the Colossians for works of service, he enjoins them: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1–2) However ‘the things that are above’ turn out not to be otherworldly. It isn’t a call for them to abandon their jobs in favour of all-day Bible studies and prayer meetings; rather, it’s a call to “put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3:3–8). And the immediate context for this new, godly way of life is the very earthy domains of family and work (3:18–4:1).

Preparing believers for works of service includes helping them to better understand the role and value of their creation-fall work — i.e. everything they do, both in church and in the rest of life. And as they better grasp the love of God for them, they’ll be motivated and empowered to love others more deeply and sacrificially, including loving them by speaking about the redemption bought and brought by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And with that, we’d expect to find, perhaps, that even in their jobs, Christians’ distinctive lives might raise questions in their colleagues’ minds, creating opportunities to give an answer for the hope that they have (1 Peter 3:15).

And so, if our primary occupation is of this creation, we’ll have opportunities in our lives (if not our work), to speak about Jesus and to make disciples. And if our primary occupation is redemption work we will still spend a good deal of our time upgrading software, opening and closing buildings or preparing budgets. In either case, the important thing is that individually, and corporately, we do both well.

When the Christian community does both well, we build a great witness to what God has done in Jesus Christ. This involves words and deeds – we show and tell how good it is to belong to Jesus. One of the purposes of good works is that unbelievers may see them “and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12; cf. Matthew 5:16). But deeds alone can be misinterpreted: we need words to explain why we do what we do.

Together, our lives now, provide a picture of God’s good future, much like the way an architect’s model provides a picture of a future building-to-be built. Our life now is not irrelevant to the future, but neither is it a stepping stone, rather it’s a picture. Although even the word ‘picture’ may be too strong. Rather than a pristine model we should imagine a poorly constructed and damaged model, which despite its limitations, manages to provide a ‘glimpse’ of the future. The life of the new age has started already (Colossians 3:1–14). The Scriptures don’t dwell on the details of the new creation. But we do know that there’ll be no more sin or mourning or crying or pain, and we’ll be in the presence of God again (Revelation 21:1–8). The way that we live now provides a foretaste of, and bears witness to, that sinless future: as we rejoice in our forgiveness in Christ, resolve conflict, speak words of grace and salt and light, share with one another, seek the good of others, and work for the Lord, we experience now something of what the new creation will be like. And as we share our lives and words with people who don’t know Jesus, they, too, will hear of and get a glimpse of that good future of an eternity with Christ.

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When Marriage Ends

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Tim Adeney & Rick Creighton

God loves marriage; he made it good and he made it a commitment for life. He often describes himself as a faithful husband to Israel, committed to her despite her infidelity. In the New Testament, Jesus explicitly grounds his teaching about divorce in the creation of marriage:

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:6-9)

If we believe in marriage then we’ll hate divorce.

And yet divorce happens. Jesus notes that Moses permitted divorce due to the “hardness of hearts” (Matthew 19:8). In a fallen world, not all marriages last for life. Sometimes divorces happen and some divorces should happen. In each case the cause is sin. Sometimes it’s a single obvious sin, sometimes smaller persistent unrepentant sins eroding the marriage over time. Sometimes it’s clear both parties are to blame, sometimes it’s clearly one party, and sometimes it is predominantly one party, but with a strong minority report from the other. The marriage relationship has built into it incredible capacity for forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation; incredible but not infinite capacity.

Of course, it is one thing to acknowledge that divorce happens, but quite another to discern when it is appropriate. First though it is worth noting the language of divorce is used in two ways. Firstly, there is divorce as the final step in a process. For example, in Australia, “you need to satisfy the Court that you and your spouse have lived separately and apart for at least 12 months, and there is no reasonable likelihood of resuming married life.”[1] Here the ‘divorce’ comes after the marriage has ended. It functions like a death certificate; it doesn’t make anything happen, rather it acknowledges the reality of what has already happened. We might call this ‘recognitional’ divorce’.

Recognitional divorce makes sense of Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7. An unbelieving spouse leaves a believing spouse, no longer willing to be married. The believing spouse is then ‘not bound’, or put differently, free to recognize the marriage has ended. However, this is very different to Jesus strong words against divorce. In Matthew 5:31–32, Jesus talks about a husband issuing “a certificate of divorce”. Among Jesus’ contemporaries, a husband could issue such a certificate for a wide range of reasons — infertility, sexual unfaithfulness, material or emotional neglect, or, for some rabbinic schools, ‘any matter’. This seems to be ‘proactive’ divorce: a real marriage is in place, but the husband issues a divorce certificate in order to proactively end the marriage.  The divorce is more like issuing an execution certificate rather than a death certificate. The certificate sets out to make something happen, rather than to recognize something that has already happened.

This distinction helps us then understand Scripture’s word on divorce. It is never right to proactively divorce; it is never right to take actions that lead to the end of a marriage. However, when a marriage has already ended, Scripture reluctantly allows this is be acknowledged and clarified. Proactive divorce is a sin. Recognitional divorce is telling the truth about the impact of sin that has already occurred.

Paul reinforces the words of Jesus,

“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband… And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

The simple message is don’t divorce. When we get married we commit to a lifelong relationship, and we should do everything possible to honour that commitment, even when our spouse hasn’t been faithful to us. Unfaithfulness may well end a marriage but it doesn’t always have to. And if we manage to rescue a marriage in such circumstances, then we’ve been a little like our heavenly Father, who remained faithful to a faithless people.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul highlights how important marriage is; even if a Christian is married to an unbeliever they should stay married if the unbeliever is willing to do so (v12ff). It is only when the unbeliever is not willing to be married that the Christian is ‘not bound’ We think the key word is ‘willing’ (v13). Marriage starts when we agree to be married. This should be for life, but it is impossible to be married to someone who refuses to be married, and so marriage ends when one or both spouses no longer agree (or are willing) to be married. This doesn’t mean a marriage ends when someone in a flash of anger says: “I don’t want to be married”, but rather when there is a permanent unwillingness to remain married. In such cases the Bible reluctantly permits us to acknowledge that there is no longer a marriage. This will change the questions we ask when a marriage is in trouble. We won’t ask “Would you like a divorce?” or “Am I allowed a divorce?” Instead we’ll ask: “Is there a still a marriage here?” or “Can this marriage be rescued?”. This does not mean the task is simple. Determining when a marriage has ended is difficult.

Two types of circumstances pose a particular challenge. Firstly, when someone declares they are willing to be married, but their actions show they have no commitment to a real marriage. In Titus 1, Paul notes some ‘claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him’ (v6). Similarly, some claim to be willing to be married, but by their actions deny it. They want the word ‘marriage’ attached to their relationship but not the reality that goes with it. But when we ask whether a marriage exists, we are investigating the reality of the situation, and not simply the words people might like applied to their relationship. In such cases, while they are saying they agree to be married, they are not actually agreeing to be married.

A different challenge occurs when someone is unable to agree to remain married. Sometimes the hurt and damage caused by sin is so extensive that the relationship cannot be rescued. The wronged spouse may even at some level desire reconciliation, but due to the hurt are simply unable to do so. Christians may be suspicious that this person is just avoiding a difficult path (and indeed some may be) but we must not underestimate the impact of sin. Some damage is too great to be healed in this creation.

Divorce is messy. Our capacity to hurt each other is barely limited by our imagination, and our capacity for self-deception is likewise great. As such, it is better to take decisions with the help of others. In fact, the opportunities for the people of God to help marriage are extensive. We can:

  • prepare each other to be married;
  • model a culture where getting help in the early stages of difficulty is welcomed;
  • call each other to repent;
  • offer special assistance as marriages end, including helping clarify when marriages have ended
  • mourn the end of a marriage, and
  • care for those who are divorced, both victims and perpetrators.

We are anticipating that the help can be provided through both the formal structures of the church and through the generosity and wisdom of God’s people acting as they have opportunities presented to them. We suspect if God’s people (formally and informally) were better able to help marriages, then perhaps more marriages could be rescued.

In all this we should remember firstly, the Bible’s call to honour marriage. Our instincts and efforts should be devoted to rescuing marriages. And when we can’t rescue them, we won’t cheer, but rather weep. We know it is a concession, and never part of God’s plan for marriage. And so, when it comes to divorce, compared to the society at large, Christians will be slower, more cautious, looking for signs of life where none can be found. Our society feels a little anguish and rushes off to the divorce courts. We won’t rush. We won’t end marriages – not ever – we won’t even end unhappy marriages. But sometimes we’ll have to notice — reluctantly, slowly — that a marriage has ended.

Secondly, we’ll also remember the world is fallen, and be reminded again of the good news that Jesus Christ has died to reconcile us to the Father, and we’ll long again for the new creation when there will be no more tears and the healing not possible now will be given then.


[1]http://www.familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fcoaweb/family-law-matters/separation-and-divorce/divorce/divorce. Accessed 5 July 2020

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Old Blog Articles

Are you about to buy a puppy? Or when to say No

A Modest Curriculum

Slime and Punishment

I Will Crush Your Dreams

‘Adequate Skills’

No One Goes To Heaven, Not Even One

Four Powerful Words

I’m used to it

Fingers & Fingernails

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Does This Apply To You?

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‘No application’

It’s a common refrain amongst those who listen to sermons. And one with some justification. I ‘joke’ with friends ‘it’s one thing to be able to predict the application when you know the passage, quite another to predict it before you do’. Such a joke is of course only possible because there is enough truth to it.

The task of the preacher is to teach godliness from Scripture (Titus 1:1). As Paul says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)”. Our sermons have plenty to say about Scripture, as they should, but many many of them have little to say about life and godliness. And if they do speak about life, it’s from a very small palate; go to church (although not so much right now), pray, read your Bible, give money, and tell people about Jesus. And it does seem to be many sermons. I know of someone who listened to hundreds of sermons as part of a pastoral search committee. Their judgement, which they documented, was that one sermon had application. I want to believe they were just really unlucky. But that seems a very brave position to take.

I hope though not just to moan but to graduate to at least ‘wounds of a friend’ (Psalm 145:1), and so to offer some reflection on why our preaching is so barren and how to improve it.

Some of it may be that we have collapsed the necessity of exegetical preaching with the sufficiency of exegetical preaching. Yes, we need to interact with Scripture as it is written, but we also need to hear what the whole scripture says about various aspects of reality.  The theological colleges express this with curriculums that include subjects other than the exegetical study of particular books. Subjects like systematic and historical theology, biblical theology, church history, mission, philosophy and ethics. But for some reason this hasn’t transferred into our preaching. Where is the 12-week series on the Apostle’s creed? The 8-week series on marriage & family? The 5-week series on work? and so on. Yes, there is a danger when we preach on a topic that we will proof text, but we seem to have forgotten that when we preach on a text we might ‘proof apply’.

And even when we do preach exegetically, our passage breakdowns hobble us before we start. It seems to me that the chapter is very often the wrong unit to preach on. We should usually go much bigger and much smaller: preach on the whole book of Proverbs and then on a single proverb.

Overall I think both will be necessary. Sometimes this means speaking about a topic, and referencing a text, and sometimes about a text, referencing a topic. In the last year, three of the best talks I heard were a topical talk on friendship (springing from John 15:9-17), an exegetical talk on Luke 6:1-11 (with an extended reflection on rest) and a topical talk on children which referenced verses all over Scripture.

But even if we were to make these changes (more topical preaching, and different sized texts for exegetical preaching) there is a deeper reason why our applications might not improve.

We have, I think, misconstrued the nature of godly action. Most simply we tend to privilege the intention of the action over the action itself. The goodness of the action is determined by what’s inside us, and not by the action that eventuates outside us. We are familiar with the secular version: if it feels right, it’s good. But we haven’t reckoned with the Christian version: if it’s properly motivated it’s good. Of course, the motivation tells part of the story of a godly action, but it does not tell the whole story. A good action will be more than the action itself, but it won’t be less than the action.

We should note that Scripture affirms good actions with bad motives (e.g. Christ being preached with bad motives in Philippians 1:18), rejects bad actions that spring from good motives (the danger of ‘zeal without knowledge’, e.g. Proverbs 19:2), and rejects good intentions that don’t lead to good actions (‘faith without works is dead’, James 2:17). In other words, actions matter.

No doubt we are influenced by the way the secular culture has progressed, but I think there have been two factors specific to our Christian culture which have influenced this shift. A fear of legalism, and the promotion of the best at the expense of the good.

Legalism, as we rejected it, construes the Christian life as arbitrary rules, at best rules which were necessary for godliness, and at worst rules which were necessary for salvation. We dismissed the second explicitly with ‘good works will not save you’, and first more subtlety with ‘it’s what’s on your heart that matters’.

And yes, it is true, good works will not save you. Arbitrary rules will not save you, neither will non-arbitrary rules, nor any other kind of action. We are saved by faith. However, good works, while not necessary for salvation, are necessary for godliness. And while a good work might sometimes include keeping an arbitrary rule, most of the time good works will take the form of other actions. We rejected two false ways of thinking about godly action (that it saves you, and that it consists of arbitrary rules) but didn’t replace it with a proper alternative.

The second move we made was to say, ‘the good is the enemy of the best’. By this we meant, that yes, there are many good things in life, but the best, the most important thing is that time is short and people need to hear about Jesus. We were, if you like, encouraged not to do good, but to do the best. It is an article itself to discuss this framing, but let me note quickly that ‘best’ or ‘most important’ are great ways to think about what needs to be done in the next two hours, a good way to summarize a long-term mission (say ‘win the war’), but almost always terrible ways to think about ordering priorities over any other timeframe.  

The result was our conversation narrowed. We preached, and talked, about fewer things. There are many good works, but only one salvation; there are many actions, but only one proper motivation; and there are many good things, but only one best thing.

We might have known about them, but we didn’t talk about them. We didn’t talk about marriage, about children, about how to suffer well, about work, about wealth, about politics, about blessing, about friendship, about longing, about patience, about exercise, about stories, about endurance, about games and so on. And if you don’t talk about something for long enough, eventually you forget about it.

Take a virtue list. How many of these have we heard or given a talk on?

Or a vice list, how many of these have we heard or given a talk on (take ‘lovers of pleasure will not inherit the kingdom of God’ – I’ve always never wanted to hear a talk on this)?

Yes, there have been some good talks on some good things. Just not enough on enough.

It’s like out Twitter feeds right now. In normal circumstances, a decent Twitter feed covers a multitude of topics. But now everything is about COVID-19. Well our Christian culture’s Twitter feed has had one topic for a generation.

Things came to a head with the same-sex marriage debate. We faced a hostile secular culture, unsurprising, but it wasn’t as though our Christian culture was all on the same page. I won’t play out the specifics of the various camps, but I think a coherent position on such legislation requires at least, in addition to understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf, a view of the created order, of marriage and sexuality, of the relationship between the church and society, the role of government, the nature of legislation, the relationship between church and state, and a view on language. We were not equipped for such a conversation. One friend noted we weren’t speaking the same language as the secular culture, true, but we weren’t speaking our language either.

Same-sex marriage isn’t the point. The point is, if we only speak about things when they’re needed we’ll only speak about things when it’s too late.

Yes, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to our theology, and it’s central to history. But it has implications for how we live all of life, and not just for how we, and others, become Christians in the first place.

Application is speaking from Scripture about life and godliness. And life and godliness requires lots of details. This lack of detail wouldn’t matter if details didn’t matter, or if they emanated automatically from a few general principals.

Consider the word ‘love’. It is the summary description for how I am to relate to other people (and to God, for that matter), but while it gives me a disposition to others – I want to do what’s best for them – it doesn’t automatically turn into specific action. For example, I am called to love both my parents and my children. But one of these requires that I don’t give instructions, the other requires that I do, at least until they are adults. Nothing in the word or concept ‘love’ tells me which is which – only the details of knowing how God has designed parents and children.

And getting the details right matters.

In 1 Timothy 4, Paul provides an example of false teachers who have got details wrong. These teachers ‘forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods’ (v3). It seems fair to assume that they got some other things wrong too, but Paul doesn’t draw attention to them here. Instead the things they get wrong seem almost prosaic; a detail about marriage (it shouldn’t be forbidden) and a detail about food (it also shouldn’t be forbidden). Any yet, this is equated with ‘things taught by demons’ (v1). The devil, it seems, is in the lack of detail.

These details, found in Scripture, don’t just appear as random items in a list. Rather they’re built into frameworks, and in turn, into a connected and comprehensive view of godly living. As the theologian Oliver O’Donovan says,

‘We will read the Bible seriously only when we use it to guide our thought towards a comprehensive moral viewpoint, and not merely to articulate disconnected moral claims, we must look to it not only for moral bricks, but for indications of the order in which the bricks belong together’[1]

We are not just interested in the bricks, but the whole house. And in between the bricks and the house are walls.

So, for example, ‘Do not covet’ (paraphrase of Exodus 20:17). It is a command, with a boundary line, a ‘moral brick’, if you like. But as with all boundaries, it is not just a boundary telling me where I must not go, it is also a sign post to where I should go and why. So, to understand and apply ‘do not covet’ I will probably need a theology of possessions and gifts, and maybe also work and wealth.  Perhaps something on thankfulness, contentment and generosity, maybe a discussion on when jealousy is appropriate, or how to respond to poverty and huge disparities in ownership, all the while with a reminder of repentance, and the forgiveness offered by Christ. 

This is where specific topical talks may be most useful. Bricks can be learned in any context, but every now and then they must be put together into a wall. It’s the difference between a list of things to do in a city, and putting those things on a map. One points out some things to look for, the other helps you get around.

All this, needs to connect with to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf, and with it, the wider Biblical narrative. The way we summarise the central narrative of Scripture will enhance or detract our ability to speak about godly living. So, for example, we may focus on how we are saved, at the expense of noticing what we are saved from (evil), or what we are saved for (good). We may truncate the message. I have heard often enough the phrase ‘you can’t understand grace if you don’t understand sin’. It’s true enough, but it misses the step before: we can’t understand sin if we don’t understand good. When we miss this step, we’ll tend to note how sin is wrong, but we’ll miss how sin is also bad for us, which in turn will lead us to think of godliness as arbitrary right things, rather than intrinsically good things.

Perhaps a key point to remember for godly living is that, while post-resurrection we live in a new age, we still live in an old creation. We see this play out in Paul’s discussion of singleness in 1 Corinthians 7. In light of the resurrection and the shortness of time, he commends something new, namely, remaining single. But notice the novelty he contemplates. The resurrection provides reasons why you might choose to remain single, but it does not actually change what being single, and being married are.  Marriage (articulated directly in 1 Corinthians 7) remains an institution which includes sex, singleness (implied) remains one which does not. These categories were given in the old creation, and remain until the new creation.

Even with this though, a sermon has still not applied. Yes, from time to time, we may receive a direct personal command from God, but typically this is not the case. As O’Donovan notes,

‘though we may credibly claim to receive such commands from time to time, by far the greatest number of our concrete obligations are discerned by understanding how a generic demand applies to our circumstances’[2]

It is this discernment we need help with; to understand our circumstances, and in that context, suggestions for what godly action looks like.

Good preaching will anticipate the challenge I will face in applying Scripture. The human heart is an objection machine, manufacturing reasons not to do good. Inspired by the general human condition, compounded by the specific air my culture breathes and topped off with my own personal history, there will be a swarm of fears and delusions that keep me from doing good. And even when I know what’s good, untackled, these fears and delusions will see me snap back after a week or two of white-knuckled reluctant obedience. Good preaching helps me not just apprehend what is good, but appreciate it as well. It names my fear, anticipates why I won’t want to obey and navigates between false alternatives. It demonstrates that is has understood the world I live in, and both the real and imagined challenges I face in trusting Jesus with joy.

Good preaching will understand my circumstances. To pick up the earlier example of coveting, it will not be enough to say, ‘don’t be materialist’ or ‘don’t be consumerist’ (if I had a dollar for every time I’d been told not to be materialist). These are too abstract. We live in a material world. I need to eat, I must live somewhere. If a preacher wants me even to listen, let alone change, they will need to do more. They’ll need to acknowledge we need to consume, that possessions are a good gift from God, that we live in an expensive city, that this makes for complicated trade-offs and so on. Of course, not every circumstance can be articulated in every sermon, that would be death by a thousand qualifications, but some circumstances. Then, they might be able to challenge me on how I feel about my possessions and experiences, on whether I am thankful or envious for what God has given others, and then regarding my own wealth on whether I’m using it for relationships or just for myself, on whether the only things I sacrifice for are work and my family or whether I also sacrifice for the name and people of Jesus.

And good preaching will make concrete suggestions: perhaps I should get off Facebook, or move to cheaper city, or learn to budget, or talk to someone who coveted someone else’s wife, and ask them how that went, or intentionally note some things to be thankful for each day. It’s not so much that a specific action is required to apply a particular piece of Scripture, but some action will be.

The suggestions may even be contradictory. In one month, I remember noticing one father who left for work really early so he could in turn leave work early and be back for dinner. But I recommended to another father that he try and get to work a little later, to be there for breakfast and school drop off, but stay later and miss dinner – his work, editing, didn’t start until after others had done their work, and continued until, well, it was finished. Both were implications of the same reality; it’s good to eat meals with family, and properly being at one and missing one, is better than half being at two, or not being there at all.

A sermon could cover both options and more in a paragraph or two, and without the risk or being legalist, without ignoring motivation, and without detracting from the importance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yes, a one on one conversation is the best context to be direct and specific. But a sermon can provide suggestions that help me imagine the types of actions I can take.

The task seems big, but I’ve often found pastors have well thought out policies on any number of issues, it just doesn’t often make the talks. In one sense a good sermon will just walk us though how a piece of Scripture has affected their lives, with a little imagination for how it would be different if their circumstances were different.

All this cannot be taught in a day, which is my point. It’s not about doing a talk on a topic once, it’s about many many talks (and other forms of communication) filling out our understanding of the world God has made, his plans for it, and how we follow Jesus.

No one is expecting sermons will do all the work. There are books, podcasts, articles, discussions and the like. But good sermons provide the permission and language for all the other conversations, as well as an indication of what is worth talking about. They are a gift that gives twice, in the moment, as we are exhorted to respond to some truth in Scripture, and later, in the rest of life, with the conversations they promote and enable.

But there is a dark side to this. Unapplied preaching robs twice; in the moment, and in the all the conversations that don’t happen. It is not a good silence.

Jesus Christ gave himself for up for us to redeem for himself a people who are ‘eager to do good’ (Titus 2:14). The challenge for us is to help prepare each other to do good, without forgetting how we are redeemed, or who we belong to, without resorting to arbitrary rules, while also caring about whether we are eager. The bar, if you like, is not that we resentfully or reluctantly do good, but rather joyfully and eagerly.

We need help doing this. If you’d like the job, please apply.


[1] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection & Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics 2nd Edition 1994 Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, p200

[2] Oliver O’Donovan, Finding and Seeking: Ethics as Theology Volume 2 2014 Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, p30

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Ideas about ideas

Links to articles, books, tweets and podcasts about ideas – will be updated from time to time.

2020: Idea Generation by Sam Altman – a few questions you can ask to help find good ideas.

2019: The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius by Paul Graham – “If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters.”

2018: How to Get Rich (without getting lucky): by Naval Ravikant (tweetstorm) – the implication is to look for ideas and/or develop specialized knowledge that take advantage of the leverage of code and content.

2015: Aggregation Theory followed up in 2017 with Defining Aggregators by Ben Thompson – this is not so much an ‘idea about an idea ‘ but rather, one of the single important ideas to understand about the nature of the internet.

2014: Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel, with Blake Masters – great book, lots of interviews/talks on the web as part of the book tour – here’s a pretty good one from Wired UK

2013: The Idea Maze by Chris Dixon – ideas aren’t usually singular points, but rather part of a maze

2012: Secrets by Peter Thiel – from Blake Masters’ transcription of Peter Thiel’s Startup course given at Stanford University, which in turn led to Zero to One (see above)

2005: Ideas for Startups by Paul Graham – classic essay on finding ideas.

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The Idea Rules

Ideas about Ideas (links to articles, tweets, books and podcasts about ideas)

Articles about creativity and business

The Increasing Value of a Good Idea (at thatleverage.com)

Why do accelerators (except Y Combinator) have co-working spaces? (on Medium)

Zero to 1 and 1 to N (at nigelgordon.blog)

Two Types of Investors (at nigelgordon.blog)

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Fingers & Fingernails

I think cutting fingernails is OK. I think cutting fingers isn’t. As far as I know there isn’t a verse mandating the cutting of fingernails, nor a verse prohibiting the cutting of fingers. And yet, if there was a cult that refused to cut fingernails we would think it odd at best, and if we came across a cult that insisted on cutting fingers we would call it evil.

The point here is that you can’t do ethics without observation. You cannot do ethics with just Scripture. That is because you cannot say whether this or that is right or wrong if you do not know what this or that is. Are widgets good? I don’t know. It depends on what they are, and I can’t tell you what they are until I’ve had a look.

Which is not to say that Scripture is insignificant or peripheral to observing the world. In the first instance Scripture will tell us a lot of what we will find, and secondly, if by God’s grace we have been redeemed, then we will also have a regenerate heart which is willing to see what there is to be seen (I’m also wondering if Scripture, thirdly, gives us a way of looking, but I’ll leave it as a query for now).

But it is not enough to see the world, it must also be described, described in morally relevant ways. O’Donovan (in ‘Christian  Moral Reasoning’ in Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology) suggests there are two steps to doing ethics. Firstly a reflective or descriptive step, where you describe the world (set of circumstances) in which you need to act, and then secondly deliberative thinking, where you think towards action.

Most bad ethics, and most ethical disagreements derive from poor and differing descriptions of what we see. In other words, often the most difficult task is not knowing what to do per se, but rather describing the circumstances in accurate and morally relevant ways. Let me give one example:

If two unbelievers are living together, and one of them is converted, should the Christian stay in the relationship. The resolution to this question turns on whether or not their relationship was a marriage. That is, even if they have not formally married, does their relationship resemble marriage or not. So the backpacking couple who share life for six months because it is fun and convenient but who have no intention of ongoing commitment because they live at least three hours from each other in the UK are in a very different situation to the couple who have had a child and bought a house together. In the former we would probably advise the young Christian to end the relationship, in the latter not. The point here isn’t so much the specific issue rather just to note the significance of description.

A large part of ethics, then, is to describe the world we see utilizing the morally relevant categories we discern in Scripture. Thus we can approach and describe situations and circumstances not covered or conceived in Scripture.

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Caesar, lend me your ears!

When the US called its response to 9/11 ‘Infinite Justice’, it was that something was rotten in the state-church relationship. Either the state wasn’t listening to the church, or the church wasn’t speaking the truth to the state. This urgently needs to change.

The thought may trouble you. The very phrase ‘Infinite Justice’ has religious connotations and suggested that perhaps the state has been listening a little too much to the church. In the West we’ve grown up believing in ‘the separation of church and state’. Religion, we believe, is a private affair and no place in the government of a democratic nation. The church, we suspect, is lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce and impose its dogma on an unsuspecting and unwilling nation. We might grudgingly concede the church’s right to speak (it’s a free country) but we can’t imagine actually encouraging the state to listen.

But this is just what I’m proposing: that the church speak truth to the state, and that the state listen.

Let me first clarify that by no means am I suggesting that the church should run the state – heaven forbid. But that the church is called to speak to the state, and it has two main things to declare.

The first is simple that the state is not God. This might strike you as odd, surely the Australian government isn’t about to confuse itself with God. But states haven’t always been so ready to concede this. This is a message the president of North Korea needs to hear.

Atheists should be especially appreciate of this of this role of the church: if there’s no God, it’s all the more tempting for the state to imagine itself in this role.

This doesn’t mean the only option available to the Australian government is to formally acknowledge God and declare itself Christian – to become what me might call a ‘confessing state’. It has two other options. It may be agnostic in its view (a ‘non-confessing state’), or it may be atheistic (a ‘secularist state’). In practice this difference is this: a non-confessing state will allow the airing of all kinds of views, including religious ones: the secularist state will insist that any religious discussion or expression be removed from the public square.

In this way, the secularist state is in fact very similar to one which imagines itself as God. It will neither recognize nor tolerate the possibility of any authority higher than itself. It will demand ever-increasing loyalty from its citizens. The French decision to ban women from wearing their headscarves seems to fit this pattern.

When a state suggests that it can deliver ‘infinite justice’, it may have similar pretensions to grandeur. Infinite Justice is the preserve of God alone; no state can claim to deliver it. If the US government had been listening to what the church should have been saying, they might instead have called their response ‘limited justice’ instead. It’s not particularly catchy, but it’s suitably humble.

Once the church has declared the negative message of what the state is not, it can also declare the positive message of what it is. The state’s primary role is the administration of justice – promoting good and restraining evil. This will include a concern for such things as fair and accessible courts, a stable currency, preventing exploitative monopolies, and the treatment of prisoners (even bad one’s).

In this respect, we wonder if the church might have something to say to the US government. In the US’s dealings with prisoners from the ‘War on Terror’, they’ve sometimes failed to administer even limited justice. They’ll claim that instances of mistreating prisoners are isolated events. But isolated events happen in isolated places.

We have good cause to be concerned for the prisoners help in Cuba. The US may claim that they are doing nothing illegal in the matter, but this is irrelevant. Laws don’t create justice, they seek to acknowledge and express it. It’s this fact which enables us from time to time to cry out that this or that law is in fact unjust.

The US has admitted that the War on Terror is a new situation requiring new rules. Might these new rules include how to deal justly with those accused of terrorism?

If the church’s messages isn’t heard, we should expect more of the same.

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Can $84 beat the Holy Spirit?

(Originally published in Eternity in 2009/10)

I don’t think anyone like parking police. We love the feeling of beating them.

And perhaps with good reason.

As I was leaving work the other day, I noticed the parking police marking the cars around me. I thought this might create the opportunity to beat the police. Whoever parked there after me wouldn’t get marked and could stay there for the rest of the day. I rang my colleague, who was still at work, to let him know his good fortune. He hurried down and parked in my spot.

However, when the parking police returned, the fined him $84 for staying more than an hour. They’d cheated: the ticket indicated that the infringing hour had started before my phone call.

This sort of behaviour seems to justify our ongoing dislike of parking police: it fuels our suspicion that it really is all about revenue-raising.

But this dislike and anger – even when justified – obscure the good that parking police do.

Consider this, If I find a park, I take it. I check after an hour, and if the tyres aren’t marked, I stay. If I happen upon an all-day parking spot, I snap it up. And after a few hours – as regenerate as I am, as transformed by the Holy Spirit, as redeemed by the blood of Christ – I don’t start thinking about whether it might be kind to give someone else a turn. My car stays put.

But the sight of chalk or a uniform will succeed where inner motivation failed. The parking police are there to help me share.