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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.

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Untitled

(Originally published in Eternity in 2009/10)

Untitled

Do job titles matter?

A friend of mine – I’ll call him Steve – recently started a new job. This was good news, he had been retrenched, and it was great to have any job, but more than this, he had by God’s grace landed a job with increased responsibility – Steve had a team of five to lead.

A good job, with some lead lining – two of the team had wanted his job, as had another older man in the organization.

For the two in the team there was no shortcut, just consistent good leadership and communication, hoping over time to win them.

But for the older man – let’s call him Bruce – Steve was able to do something more immediate. He realized that the Bruce didn’t really want the job of Team Leader. That is, he wasn’t particularly interested in leading people and it wasn’t a matter of money – he was already getting paid more than Steve as the team leader. Rather Bruce wanted role because he wanted the respect that came with the role.

So Steve negotiated with his manager to give Bruce a new title. At first Bruce was coy about the change – there is no respect  in admitting you would like respect – but this was soon replaced with appreciation.

Of course if the title change had been an attempt to create an appearance where there was no reality, it would had been received as a fraud. But Bruce was older the team Steve led, he was more experienced, more skilled and was certainly paid a lot more – yet he shared the same title with them. The new title gave everyone a way to say what they already knew to be true. The new title gave respect.

Steve had tapped into two great truths: the sheer goodness of respecting those who are older; and the power of words – to at once express and reinforce reality.