Sunday, February 21, 2021

Living by Grace

I just began a new sermon series at our own church - Freeschool Court Church.

My aim is to consider the words of Romans 5:2 in particular and what it means to stand in grace.

As before, I will add links to messages as they come up.

1. How to Have Peace with God (Romans 5:1)

2. The Foundation of Discipleship (Romans 5:2)

3. Rejoicing in Hope (Romans 5:2)

4. Hope in Suffering (Romans 5:3-4)

5. New Life (Romans 6:1-4)

6. New Lifestyle (Romans 6:1-14)

7. Our Spiritual Conflict (Eph 6:10-24)

8. How to Outfox the Devil (2 Cor 2:11)

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Should All Missionaries Be Elders?

Phil Remmers has recently published an article - Biblical Eldership and Global Missions A Vital and Necessary Unionon the 9Marks website, on the selection, training, and funding of missionaries, and especially on the relationship between missionaries and their sending church.

Remmers has had extensive experience of ministry in Asia and now is involved in publishing reformed literature in many Asian languages.

He writes many good things in the course of the article, for which I am thankful. The comments on funding are especially helpful, though hardly groundbreaking - people have been saying stuff like this for decades. But it is worth banging on about the broken system that has been developed and continues to be pursued. In fact, in my opinion he could have gone much further. Why, for instance, is a family needing $8000 a month for their salary? I can imagine some situations - ministry in Singapore or Tokyo, for instance, where this level of support is necessary. But if, as I have observed myself many times among certain mission organisations, the family is living in a posh compound with a brand new imported jeep, in a community in which even well off locals can only dream of that lifestyle, further questions need to be asked.

He says that at least half of the missionaries he encountered in his ministry location (unspecified for security reasons) should not have been there at all because they were unqualified for the ministry and in any case tended only to stay for 2-3 years and leave without bearing fruit. And that is not counting 'short-term missionaries'.

Although I can see how he can come to such a judgment, I am uneasy about this. He affirms, in a footnote, that God is sovereign in salvation. But he nevertheless is happy to sit in judgment on the fruitfulness of others in ministry. How can he have sufficient knowledge about the relationships these folk had developed in their short time? And even if he did have that sort of data, real spiritual fruit is often unseen. I hope he is not ashamed on the Last Day for having written that.

The main burden of the paper, though, is to argue that all missionaries should first of all be elders of the local church back home before they are appointed to their ministry overseas. I get the sentiment. After all, as the argument goes, why would we send out people for ministry in hard places overseas if we wouldn't have them be involved in ministry at home? Fair question. He has diagnosed a serious missionary malady.

But Remmers' remedy is unbiblical, naive, and worldly.

Unbiblical

In Acts 13 the Antioch church sent out two of their 'prophets and teachers' - Barnabas and Saul. There does seem to be something of a paradigmatic character to this story, situated as it is in the unfolding story of the expansion of the gospel to the ends of the earth. And yet Paul was happy to have all sorts on his apostolic team: Luke the doctor, for example; Timothy, who, we are told, was a 'disciple' when he was taken on by Paul as a travelling companion (Acts 16:1-3); Erastus, who along with Timothy is called Paul's 'helper' (Acts 19:22).

When Paul left Corinth he was accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18). Now I suspect (since this is on 9Marks) that Remmers would not be happy with female elders. So what does he do with Priscilla? Is she not a missionary?

Naive

This leads on to the training of missionaries. The best missionaries the author has encountered tended to have been trained at Master's Seminary, where the training is explicitly for elders. Now, as I have said, much that he says here is valuable. Better, he says, to have fewer, better trained, and proven missionaries, than the mess that he has seen.

But he overstates his case. And the reason he does that is this: he has not diagnosed the malady correctly. The disease is much more serious than he realises. It is not just the two- to three-year, untrained, unqualified missionaries who are caught up in the problem. It is a whole lot more, including, perhaps Remmers himself.

Worldly

Remmers is operating out of a paradigm for cross-cultural ministry that has been weighed in the balances and been found wanting.

It comes out in numerous ways and is exemplified in the uncritical use of the term 'missionary'. As I have explained here before, this term, and the notion it represents is seriously problematic. It is not a biblical word and continues to have much baggage that seriously compromises a healthy approach to cross-cultural ministry, including the financial aspect mentioned earlier.

Remmers observes that Master's Seminary has no missions professors but that their graduates are "both biblically qualified and​ are able to use their gifts in a foreign language and culture" - without any training in intercultural communication, or in understanding how other cultures operate, or in appreciating anything about how other workers have fared in previous generations, or in examining the state of churches in the nations to which they are sent. (This is an issue I have addressed frequently, such as here.)

Remmers' seems to have no appreciation of how culture-bound his view of cross-cultural ministry is. This lack of self-awareness is the chief weakness of the article and why I do not commend it.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Donald Mitchell


A week ago, around this time, my friend Donald Mitchell was cycling home to St Brides Major from his job as librarian at Union School of Theology. He never made it. He was struck from behind by a car on the A48 and killed instantly. 

This is how the BBC reported it.

We got the news later that evening. It was devastating. Donald was a former colleague of mine from when I worked at WEST (as Union used to be called). He was also a fellow church member at FreeSchool Court in Bridgend.

People have stated how they enjoyed his banter. He could take it as well as give it out. Others have also chipped in of how helpful Donald was to students in the library. I think Donald always felt a little frustrated in the library with the lack of resources. With his experience he could have led a team doing the work that he did. As it was, he was the sole librarian, with help from volunteers. He didn't complain but just got on with it.

One thing I really appreciated about Donald was that he always arrived early, I think by a whole hour, in order to have quiet time with the Lord before the work started. 

He was also a disciplined man: he clearly struggled with staying trim so he watched his diet closely and I think twice a week had 'control days' in which he hardly ate anything at all.

But the thing I appreciated most about Donald, along with his widow Sian, was that he gave himself to generous hospitality. Many are the students and church members, and others I am sure, who were invited to their home for a meal. 

Hospitality is a neglected gift in the Western church. We have so much but many of us don't share that with others. Donald was a busy man and could easily have said that he works hard during the week so he needs his Lord's Days to rest. Hospitality doesn't blend with that mindset. Donald never complained about people coming over to his house - he enjoyed it. I think he and Sian simply saw a need and sought to use their energies and gifts and time to address that need.

I am sure many lives have been enriched as a result. And unbelievers have seen faith in action. At least one Korean student came to faith while taking a one-year course at the college. It is in the home that those who don't know Christ see his loveliness tangibly expressed - who will pick up the mantle that fell from Donald's shoulders?

Home - he never made it back to that home. But he did make it home in the truest sense of that word. "This world is not our home, we're just a-passing through." Donald understood that and lived by it. And now he stands in heaven enjoying unbroken communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with the angels and with the rest of that glorious multitude.

To close, I want to add the words that our former pastor, Stephen Clark, wrote a few days ago:

And the stately ships go on                                                                                                To their haven under the hill;                                                                                                        But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,                                                                                             And the sound of a voice that is still.

     (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)                                                                                              

For the many who knew and loved him, Donald’s death has left an aching void in their hearts. The terrible pain which his dear wife and children feel must surely be indescribable, as is the great loss to his parents and to all of his family, to all of whom he was utterly devoted.

Donald had so many sterling qualities. As his pastor for 22 years, it was always sheer, unmixed joy to spend time with him, whether this was just chatting after a Sunday or mid-week meeting, at the Union library, or in his home. My wife Lynne and I spent many happy hours in Donald and Sian’s home because they were very much given to hospitality and together they were an ideal host and hostess. On numerous occasions we enjoyed a sumptuous Sunday lunch or a Saturday evening meal, sometimes just ourselves and at other times in company with others. The fellowship was always perfectly natural and spiritual: at one moment we could be sharing aspects of our Christian experience, then discussing the meaning of a passage of Scripture or the significance of a biblical doctrine, only to move on to family matters, aspects of gardening, current affairs or world history. The conversation was always interesting because Donald – and Sian – were so interesting.

God’s grace was very evident in Donald’s life. We were in the same home group for some years, a group which I led. He confided in me that he was aware of the fact that he may at times say too much in the study and that if this were so, I should ask him to be quiet. He was at pains to stress that he would not be at all offended if I were to do so but that he would be grateful: he was concerned for the benefit of the whole group. I was struck by his humility in speaking thus.

Donald had taken a course in what used to be called the Glasgow Bible Institute in the days when the godly and scholarly Geoffrey Grogan was its principal. Consequently Donald was more aware of certain theological issues and trends than would otherwise have been the case and he was concerned that he would not, in his comments in a home group, burden others with contributions which they might not find that relevant. I thought that this revealed the sort of sober self-knowledge which Paul commends in Romans 12:3 and which is encapsulated in the ancient Greek adage, ‘Know thyself’. At the same time, it meant that he was able to be of help to other believers who may not have seen as clearly as he that their understanding of a passage might be somewhat off beam. 

Donald was a conscientious information resources manager and librarian who, in the world’s eyes, must have taken a demotion by abandoning his career in secular academia to become the information manager and librarian at what used to be known as WEST and is now Union. It was, however, the opposite of demotion, for Donald had a sense of vocation to serve the students and faculty, as well as the wider church. To have a man of his qualifications and experience was surely a God-send. He worked hard and untiringly and was utterly devoted to the college. I can still see the flash of righteous anger in his eyes and the tone of indignation in his speech when, from time to time, unjust accusations were made that the college had abandoned evangelical truth. It was the more striking because Donald was essentially a gentle person.

Although a serious Christian, Donald did not take himself too seriously and had a great sense of humour and of fun. The fact that both he and I would be quite happy to wear clothes which others would regard as sartorially off the wall became the source of much amusement between us. In explaining to him why I had bought a pair of Italian trousers which others in the church thought to be more like pyjamas, I said that they had been a tremendous bargain. He replied, ‘Some bargains are best left where they are!’ We both roared with laughter. Apparently, given the Austrian blood in him, Donald had once been minded to buy a pair of Lederhosen – the kind of leather shorts which some Austrians wear, as well as being worn by Bavarians at their beer festivals. Sian had put her foot down. Mindful that Donald also had Scottish blood in him and having heard that it was possible to buy tartan Lederhosen, I playfully suggested to him that he should be the man in his house and the next time he went to Austria he should buy himself a pair. Sian said to me that if he did, she would never forgive me for having planted such an idea in his head. Again, there was hilarity all around.

One of the great things about Donald, to which I have already alluded, was that there was no dualism in him. I mean by this that he knew that the God of salvation is the God of creation and that God has given us all things richly to enjoy. This was why he was every bit as much at home in the garden or riding his bike through breath taking scenery, as he was when tracking down an obscure theological article for me or praying in a prayer meeting. 

Donald was a true friend and the Scripture says that faithful are the wounds of a friend. On two occasions he gently remonstrated with me or exhorted me, on both occasions in his capacity as librarian at Union. The first time was when I was explaining something to him on the phone which I had already explained in the past. We were both busy at the time and he felt that I was, therefore, wasting his time and mine. The second occasion related to my having kept a book longer than I really should have: it was Spurgeon who, with his characteristic wit, once said that many Christians were great book keepers but poor accountants! This having been said, Donald would let me borrow books on his card when I had reached the limit on my own. This was but one of the ways in which he served the wider church, for I know that I was not the only pastor to benefit from him being the librarian at Union.

And now he is no longer with us. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Truly God’s ways are inscrutable to us. Who can fathom why Donald should have been taken when he was taken and in the way in which he was taken? Surely the only comfort for dear Sian, the three girls and the rest of the family is to be found in Jesus’ remarkable words to Peter about ‘the beloved disciple’, who was almost certainly the apostle John: ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’ Ultimately when we die is in the hands of Jesus Christ. Donald had long since placed his trust in Jesus for life, for death and for eternity. He was safe and is safe. He shall be sorely missed. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Mystery of Godliness


This is my second series for Freeschool Court church, of which I am an elder. I decided to do a series on godliness, a.k.a. spirituality, after we studied 1 Timothy in our home groups over the past year. Godliness is an important theme of that letter and I felt compelled to explore it further for my own benefit as well as for the benefit of others. The more I meditated on this theme, the more I found in Scripture so that I developed a whole series on it, that frankly could go on a long time! Although I had quite a bit more material that I could have developed on this theme, I decided to bring it to a close with 10 messages. The last thing I would want is for people to get bored of godliness! Better to leave people wanting more.

I have found the writings of Jerry Bridges - especially, The Practice of Godliness - helpful, as well as various writings I have been able to pull off my shelves from over 40 years of buying good books. These include works by J. I. Packer, Thomas Watson, John Owen, Tim Chester (Enjoying God), Iain Hamilton. But mostly I have sought to meditate on Scripture and not try to reproduce what others have said. 

You can click on the links below to access the videos:









Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Tie That Binds


With the retirement from our church of our minister, Stephen Clark, I have been doing a fair bit of preaching, which, predictably, has been a challenge and a joy.

I decided to preach a series on fellowship to start with. (I have only preached one other series in my life before - 25 years ago in Nepal!)

I thought it would be helpful for the church at this point in our life together for three reasons: 
  1. In a time of transition for the church while we pray and search for a new pastor it is important for us to understand what we are and why we are still a body of believers covenanted together even still;
  2. We have been able to meet only on Zoom for months now. What is fellowship when you can't even touch each other and you only get to meet each other virtually? Can we even call our gatherings that when we are not in the same physical space?
  3. Our cultural moment - what the Bible calls the 'world' - is one of increasing fragmentation. Everyone is encouraged to do their own thing, be yourself, 'do you'. What are we in this context? How can we swim against the tide and watch out that we don't get pulled downstream instead?
So that is what I have preached on over the last six weeks.

I called the series The Tie That Binds, from the hymn:

Blest be the tie that binds
  Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship our spirit finds
  Is like to that above. 

Before our Father's throne,
  We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one--
  Our comforts and our cares. 

We share our mutual woes;
  Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
  The sympathizing tear. 

When we asunder part,
  It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
  And hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives

Our courage by the way,

While each in expectation lives,

And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
  And sin we shall be free;
And perfect love and oneness reign
  Through all eternity.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Theological Distancing and the Problem of Tribalism

This is the last of my series of posts on The Southgate Fellowship. You can use the label at the bottom to find the others. Here I pick up on yesterday's thread...

Harvie Conn (1933-99) taught at Westminster Theological Seminary after a significant period of ministry in South Korea. In his seminal and still important book, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue, Conn argued that it is precisely because the faith “has travelled to Asia in confessional carts and wagons made in the West for a Western context” it has never taken root in Asian soil as it should have done (p. 246). As so few have taken heed of Conn’s warning, it is no surprise that it is still seen as ‘foreign religion’ to the vast majority of Asia’s people.
Sadly, Conn’s august institution no longer even has a resident missiologist. As I have argued before, since Conn went to be with the Lord, there has been a retrenchment of Reformed thinking on mission. I can only hope that, with the publication of the TSF statement, this slide has reached its nadir. But I am not confident of a change any time soon for the following reason.
I have already noted that the TSF statement is endorsed by a panoply of the great and the good of the Reformed world, many of whose works have greatly blessed this writer and some of whom I have had the privilege to meet. These leaders had the opportunity to read the statement before its publication. It is worrying enough that they were happy to endorse it.
What is more worrying, however, is that a number of additional endorsements have been made astonishingly quickly since its publication. Did these signatories read and digest the entire document and give it the thought that it demands before endorsing it?
I make no judgment, but it strikes me that, who would want to jeopardise their ministry by being accused of ‘error’ for not signing up? Sometimes leaders get in touch to give me some encouragement for writing material like this. And they tell me they can't speak out publicly. In at least one case, they have been subject to a barrage of unrighteous emails for stating views like those that I have stated.
I don’t know the hearts of those who drew up the TSF statement, so I don’t pass judgment. However, I am concerned that some who endorse the statement will do so purely out of an evangelical tribalist motivation.
I am concerned that many are far too quick to make judgments about ministries and their statements on the basis of the endorsements of celebrity leaders than on hard, prayerful listening and thinking. Aping the polarized politics that has characterized both the UK and USA recently, we retreat into our favourite conferences and, like the Pharisee, pride ourselves on who we are not. 
While we are busy nailing our theses of theological precision on the front door, the devil sneaks in the back door and infiltrates our attitudes. Our worldviews are nicely sanitized, but the virus of evangelical identity politics catches us unawares. 
Paul had some strong words to say about such posturing: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul” (1 Cor 3:5)?
The men of the TSF council (there are inexplicably no women) may have had no intention to exacerbate this problem. But the law of unintended consequences may well kick in.
So, I plead with my brothers to avoid such tribalism with the same effort we are giving to saving lives in the current pandemic. Let us learn to listen not only to each other across the North Atlantic, but also to those who are in Asia, Africa and Latin America; not only to those with whom we get along but also to those with whom we do not. And may the Lord use such brothers and sisters to sharpen our thinking and make us more faithful and fruitful.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Categorical Fallacies

I want in this post to wrap up my series on The Southgate Fellowship by going back to the core convictions of the group. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I will make a final plea.
Under ‘Who We Are,’ the TSF states that it “exists to advance biblical thinking and practice in world mission.” And their aim is “that God’s name will be glorified among the nations.”
Very good, and something I truly rejoice in. We all need to work, by the Spirit, on our understanding and application of the Word on our ministry practice.
It is their observation, however, that,
due to a convergence of forces in contemporary theology and the global church, many in the study and practice of world mission have strayed methodologically from the sure foundation of Scripture; they functionally deny the categorical uniqueness of the Christian faith, and impose non-biblical and even anti-biblical interpretive grids upon people, religions, culture, and the work of mission.
It is my conviction that the TSF have made precisely the mistake that they accuse others of making, in that they too have imposed a “non-biblical interpretive grid on people, religions, cultures and the work of mission”.
After all, as I have repeatedly asserted, they are looking at traditions through the Enlightenment grid of ‘comparative religions.’ I have argued this before in my critique of Dan’s book:
A major problem with Strange’s construction, then, is his failure to distinguish sufficiently between “religion” and “religions”. This is most plainly seen in his explanation of his approach (36-38). Acknowledging that the term “‘religion’ as a defined category is more ‘Western’ than biblical”, he nevertheless wants to use it inclusively “in terms of one’s ultimate heart commitments and presuppositions concerning reality” (37): so far so good. But Strange then explains that his “focus will be on what are often called ‘world religions’”. The argument is suddenly and with little explanation turned away from ultimate heart commitments to “rival social realities... that are competitors to Christianity”. And so we are introduced to the world of “‘other religions’”. J. H. Bavinck, as Strange himself recognises (70), warns us that, in dealing with the “adherents of other religions” “[e]ach generalization, every systematization, carries within itself the danger that one will do injustice to the living person.”[15] But Strange is happy to argue that “Religions are hermetically sealed interpretations of reality (worldviews) and as such are incommensurable” (242). No place seems to be allowed for the phenomenon of syncretism or of someone following Christ within a non-Christian religious tradition.[16] This, it seems to me, is a problem inherent in the method that Strange has adopted.
And this is a problem inherent in the method of the TSF. 
I have argued that the TSF has elevated systematic theology to such a status that it becomes the rule to interpret every other theological and missiological endeavour. Only Scripture should have this status.
And so, the question arises as to what we should make of the great confessions and creeds of church history. In an important chapter in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, edited by Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, Kevin Vanhoozer has this to say about the great confessions of the faith:
At their best…confessions are more than ephemeral performances, more even than a series of local theologies. Confessional theologies are rather ‘great performances’—responses to their own historical context that contain lessons for the rest of the church as well.” (“‘One Rule to Rule Them All?’ Theological Method in an Era of World Christianity,” p. 109)
This is precisely what I am arguing for. Let us give the ‘great performances’ the attention they deserve. Yes, let’s even translate them into the vernaculars of our brothers and sisters in Cameroon and Cambodia. But let us give our brothers and sisters the freedom to express the truths that they find in the Scriptures in their own ways and not burden them with having to sign up to a statement that has ‘From the West to the Rest’ written all over it.