|Index of Articles|
the Ruins of the Church
reprinted from the Spring-Summer 2003-04 edition of Essentials
|In the book of Nehemiah chapters 1 and 2, when Nehemiah, who is in exile, learns of the ruined state of Jerusalem he is deeply distressed and calls out: "Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned with fire." (Neh 2:17 & 1:3). He is moved to two responses: a profound prayer of repentance and a decision to return and rebuild the city and its walls.||Peter Corney is a past President of EFAC Victoria|
|This is a metaphor for the contemporary Australian Church. We find ourselves at this point in our history in a serious crisis. Unless this crisis is confronted and dealt with then the ruin of the church will continue and our crucial and unique contribution to the nation will be so weakened that we will become almost completely ineffective.|
|The future and the relevance of the Australian Church lie in our response to the following crises:|
|If we are to rebuild the Australian Church so it is once again a credible and effective witness to Christ, then like Nehemiah we need to begin with repentance and commit ourselves to the decisions and actions that are raised by these four crises.|
|Let me begin with the first crisis of integrity and credibility.|
|Much is currently being done around the Australian Church to put in place protocols and structures for reporting and dealing with sexual abuse.|
|In my own denomination in the Diocese of Melbourne, in addition to new protocols and structures, all licensed clergy have participated in a series of excellent seminars entitled Power and Trust. Regular police checks are now mandatory and commitments are required to new professional codes of conduct, including regular assessment. All of this is commendable, necessary and long overdue.|
|But there are other matters that must also be faced. The toleration of abuse and the justification of immoral and disordered sexuality can only be deeply and radically challenged by the recovery of the Biblical vision of God's holy love. The call to the distinctive Christian lifestyle originates in the vision of God's holiness and that vision is found in God's word. That is why I believe that the first crisis is a crisis of holiness.|
|With regard to relationships and sexuality between adults the following predictable pattern has emerged. When certain sections of the Church have arrived at a view that is inconsistent with God's Word and the historic belief of the Church, they then pursue the following approach to justify their view. First they construct a creative hermeneutic that alters or circumvents the clear meaning of the text. They do this, I believe, not because they themselves feel overtly constrained by Scripture, but because they know the majority of the church still does. Then there are those who think the texts are so ambiguous that the matter is not settled by the Bible. They of course conveniently exclude from the discussion the wider context of the Bible's teaching on sexuality such as Genesis 1 and 2. So the first step is to neuter Scripture.|
|Second, they create a false contrast between the orthodox view and the new view. The orthodox view is caricatured as excluding, intolerant, rejecting, and therefore unlike the Gospel of grace and loving acceptance. On the other hand, the new view is portrayed as inclusive, tolerant, accepting and loving. This is of course a deeply flawed and deceptive approach. Acceptance, tolerance and inclusion when applied appropriately are good and godly. But not everything should be tolerated and accepted. Indeed when applied inappropriately these attitudes can be deeply destructive. It would take only a short time for any of us to compile a list of attitudes and actions that ought to be rejected, excluded and never tolerated.|
|We must not accept within God's people relationships and behaviours that God has declared as unholy. The call of God to us in all our relationships is to holy love. Love and truth cannot be separated without the distortion of one or the other.|
|The great Syrian Christian St Ephraim wrote: "Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated, for truth cannot fly without love, nor can love soar aloft without truth, their yoke is one of friendship."|
|The ancient baptismal questions and promises make it perfectly clear that while all are invited to the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven, there are decisions to be made, things to be rejected and things to be embraced when we accept the invitation (1 Cor 6:9-11). The parables of Jesus and the apostolic preaching make it very clear that inclusion in the people of God is not unqualified (Acts 2: 37-39). A community without boundaries is destined to disappear. As Thomas Oden has written of the circle of faith, "A centre without a circumference is just a dot, nothing more to eliminate the boundary is to eliminate the circle itself."1|
|On the matter of practising homosexuals being in positions of Christian leadership a new argument has been advanced recently to suppress debate. It is argued that this is a second order issue and we should be focussing our attention on more important matters like world poverty and aids. The implication being that those who want to address issues of sexuality are more concerned about sexual morality than the morality of world poverty and aids.|
|Let me make the following points in response to this:|
|(1) Issues of sexuality are first order issues. They go to the heart of human identity and the heart of marriage and family, the keystone of society. At the conclusion of the creation account in Genesis 2 the divine creation order for human sexuality is made very clear: "...for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and they will become one flesh." This is the passage Jesus turns to when teaching on marriage.|
|(2) Aids and world poverty are very serious issues that demand the attention of Christians, and for many of us who are concerned about both sets of issues we find this argument deeply offensive. I come from a congregation that is very concerned about the sexuality and leadership issue - this same congregation will give approximately $318,000 away this year (approx. 23% of its income) to projects that include overseas aid and development. It is very involved in an Aids project in South Africa. Its extensive youth and young adult ministry has just launched a new youth focussed overseas aid organization called "Oak Tree" concentrating on education in the developing world. It has a significant number of people both on the field and at home involved in aid and development. I could go on!|
|Many of us find it possible to focus our energy and attention on more than one serious issue at a time! It should also be noted that it is the Third World Christian leaders who are leading this discussion on sexuality and leadership in the Anglican Church.|
|(3) The argument that this is a second order matter seems insincere, more like a ruse to stifle debate. For if those who use it do not see this as a fundamental first order issue, why have they pursued it so consistently? Why are they willing to threaten the unity of the church over this? Why are they so willing to override the opinion of the majority of church members over this? Why are they so willing to overthrow apostolic tradition and two thousand years of Christian practice for it? The answer is obvious! Behind their rhetoric they know this is a first order issue.|
|(4) This matter is very important because the current proposals and actions on this matter by some sections of the Church are a clear consequence and example of a very deep theological divide that has been opening up for years now between orthodoxy and the liberal reductionists. This is a very revealing issue. It illustrates where large sections of the church have arrived and the direction they intend to continue in because of their theological and philosophical convictions. This is a moment when you can see the fatal pattern and its implications so clearly. There is more at stake here than just one issue. This is a moment of choice for the church.|
|In the Old Testament immorality is frequently the bi-product of idolatry. When the gaze of the people of God is distracted from the vision of God we become vulnerable to the temptation to turn our gaze toward unholy things (1 Cor 10:1-12).|
|We need to re-establish in our hearts and minds the Biblical vision of God's blazing purity.|
|"Worship God acceptably with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire."|
|"Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth." (Ps 96:9)|
|"Oh Lord, who is like you? majestic in holiness, awesome in glory." (Ex 15:11)|
|"The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy; he is the one you are to fear and dread." (Is 8:13).|
|"Stand in awe of the God of Israel." (Is 29:23)|
|So many of us in the contemporary church are like the man in Plato's story who was chained to the back of a cave. He was so manacled that he could only face the rear wall, condemned to live out his life seeing on that stone wall only dim reflections and shadows produced by the brilliant light outside that sometimes filtered through the entrance of his cave his understanding of reality, his imagination, his knowledge of himself, hardly touched by the light, the beauty, the seasons and the vast landscape outside.|
|We need to unshackle our minds from our contemporary accommodation to the spirit of this age. Turn around and go the entrance of our cave and look out on the Biblical vision of the glorious and holy God.|
|When our minds and imaginations are gripped once again by this vision we will find ourselves rediscovering not only the foundation and the motivation for godly sexual ethics but also, and perhaps surprisingly to some, the true motivation for social justice and a renewed passion for preaching the cross. Let me explain:|
|The essential motivation for Christians to work for social justice is not liberal humanism or Marxism or some political agenda of the left or the right, but the Biblical vision of God in his absolute righteousness and justice. There is an intimate link in Scripture between God's holiness, righteousness, and justice, and the ethical demands he makes on his people, especially in their social relations.|
|The command "Be holy for I am holy" occurs in Leviticus 19:1-37, Isaiah 5:16, and 1 Peter 1:15-2:1. In each case it is followed by ethical and moral directions focussed on our social relations. The moral source of social ethics lies in God's holiness. It is located in the heart of God who hates injustice, who defends the poor and exploited, who is repelled by immorality and deceit, and loves truthfulness and goodness. (Ps 146:7-9; Prov 6:16).|
|As we rehabilitate the vision of God's holy love the other priority that will re-emerge is the preaching of the Cross. Once again we will see that the cross is the pre-eminent place of access to God's grace.|
|The reasons are as follows:|
|First, when we reassert God's holiness, in contrast we begin to feel and see the "heart of darkness" with greater clarity. The pervasive monstrosity of evil and its immense destructiveness is pressed in upon us again.|
|Second, we see the absolute necessity for evil's judgement and defeat.|
|Third, we see the desperate need for redemption and grace by those caught up in its corrupting and destroying power.|
|Fourth, we realise afresh that the only point at which we can meet God in our unholiness is in judgement and grace, and the place where judgement and grace meet is in the cross. Here is the heart of holy love (1 John 4:10).|
|In Exodus 33:18 when Moses was personally trying to come to grips with the shattering apostasy of the people of God in their manufacture and worship of the Golden Calf, he cries out to God: "Show me your glory". God's gracious answer to Moses' desperate prayer enables him to go on and to lead the people out of their crisis of faith and disobedience. That must now be our prayer.|
|The second crisis is the betrayal of historic Christianity a crisis of truth and faith.|
|The future of the Church lies in the recovery of a vital orthodoxy. The recovery of biblical and credal faith. The recovery of classical Christian belief.|
|Let me be very clear that I am not calling for a retreat into fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not the only alternative to theological liberalism. There is a third alternative 'intelligent orthodoxy'. The other side of the action to recover classical Christian belief is the rejection of much of what liberal-reductionist theology has constructed by its relentless accommodation to modernity and the spirit of the age.|
|By 'liberal-reductionist theology' I mean an approach to Christian truth that critiques the Gospel with the prevailing worldview rather than other way around. Liberal reductionism allows the spirit of the age to overly influence its interpretation of the Gospel. It then seeks to reduce and revise the Gospel to fit what the surrounding culture finds plausible or implausible.|
|It claims to be broad and open but it is frequently intellectually narrow and provincial, trapped in the immediate landscape of current thought. It is frequently reactive rather than proactive. Having lost its confidence in orthodoxy it then fails to offer, from the perspective of classical Christian belief, an intelligent critique of the prevailing intellectual fashion. It rolls over to the pressure of the spirit of the age.|
|Thomas Oden, whom I quoted before, describes himself as a "recovered liberal theologian". He is from the liberal American Methodist tradition. He explains his past captivity in this way, "We sought to be inclusive but managed to be so only within the strict limits of modern ideologies trapped in secular premises. In this captivity we systematically excluded most pre-modern wisdom."2|
|Let me list some of the touchstones of classical Christianity that liberal-reductionists are most uncomfortable with and equivocal about. These are frequent targets for their relentless revisionism:|
|a) The Virgin birth and the incarnation - that Jesus was God incarnate.|
|b) The divinity of Christ and his supreme Lordship the one before whom, as Philippians 2:9-11 says, "every knee will bow".|
c) Salvation through Christ alone.
d) The atonement and Christ's substitutionary sacrifice for our sins as clearly expressed, for example, in the letter to the Hebrews.
e) The bodily resurrection and transformation of Jesus
f) The return of Christ to judge the world and fully consummate the Kingdom of God.
g) The fallen nature of humanity.
h) The supreme authority of Scripture as God's living word to us.
i) The unity of the Old and New Testaments and the centrality of Christ to both.
j) That the NT Gospels tell us clearly about Jesus rather than the idea that the Gospels tell us a lot about their writers and the community of faith in which they emerged and relatively little about the real Jesus.
k) The Biblical description of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
l) The Biblical norms and boundaries for sexual ethics both hetero- and homosexual.
|Frequently the critique and revision of classical Christian belief is led by people who were trained in the sixties and seventies and who remain locked in a theological time warp still reacting to modernity's critique of Christianity. All they have to offer a postmodern world are the tired responses of liberal reductionism. It's the 'Jack Spong syndrome'- still tilting at the windmills of modernity and trying to answer the questions raised by their own personal loss of faith in orthodox Christianity. Meanwhile the world has moved on to another place. In fact for many young people today their search and sensibilities are moving back to the ancient wisdom, into rediscovering the deep answers of the past to the eternal issues of good and evil, the quest for redemption and why we are here. This is the generation captivated by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings with its rich texture drawn from ancient images and classical categories. At the heart of this matter are two fundamentally different ways of viewing revelation.|
|The paradigm for orthodoxy is Moses and the burning bush. The revelation of God to Moses in that extraordinary and unexpected event creates the response of faith and obedience in Moses. It is not Moses' faith that creates the burning bush! Orthodoxy begins with God's revelation of himself to us. In this encounter, God is at the centre, God has the initiative, God is challenging and disturbing our fallen human categories and perspectives, God is calling for our submission and our obedience.|
|Our task as Christian teachers, preachers, apologists and conversationalists is not to revise and reduce the Gospel to make it credible to the contemporary world but to challenge the most precious assumptions of the contemporary world with the Gospel. Certainly we must find every possible point of contact, tap into every human longing expressed in literature, art, music and popular culture. We must learn the language of contemporary people so we can communicate the Gospel intelligibly and intelligently but we fail the world if we revise and reduce the Gospel so it fits the landscape of contemporary belief.|
|Alister McGrath in his systematic theology, Christian Truth, defines heterodoxy as: "That which preserves the appearance of Christianity but contradicts its essence."3|
|This tendency in the contemporary church has had a devastating impact. Because liberal theology retains the language and the symbols of faith but changes their original meaning, the damage to the faith of ordinary church members is subtle and devastating. The heritage of classical meaning is removed by stealth. But worse: the power of the Gospel is also destroyed because the power lies in the original meaning. Once evacuated of their first order meaning, the words and symbols are emptied of their spiritual power because they are emptied of truth. So the people are robbed and the church rendered powerless.|
|These first two crises are leading a number of people in the Australian Church to seriously consider the formation of a confessing church within the mainstream denominations that would cross denominational boundaries. Recent events in the Uniting Church have sharpened this discussion.4|
|The third crisis is our failure to focus on our core values and purposes a crisis of purpose and mission.|
|Each denomination and tradition has in its own way allowed its own denominational culture and preoccupations to deflect it from our prime mission directive.|
|In Anglicanism, my own tradition, our emotional attachment to an anglophile and sentimental nineteenth century ethos of the English village church and cathedral has trapped too many of our congregations in a quaint cul de sac of irrelevance to Australian culture.|
|The whole Vicar of Dibley Syndrome, through which the watching world can say "how eccentric, harmless and amusing" and by which the Gospel is trivialised, marginalised, and dismissed. Our polite discomfort with enthusiasm and evangelism has left us powerless and ineffective in communicating the Gospel in our generation. The unstated cultural snobbery frequently reflected in precious liturgy and music that appeals to an almost invisible percentage of Australians. The failure of large numbers of Anglican clergy and their leaders to understand, learn or even be open to the wealth of insights and skills available today for leading and growing effective churches is a sad fact of ignorance and sometimes just plain arrogance. As someone once observed, too many Anglican clergy fit the description of the "bland leading the bland"!|
|I will risk just one anecdote from another tradition. I have been privileged to be involved in a number of consultations and training events with the Salvation Army. I remember one corps where they were grappling with change. In the end the process became focussed on an issue of enormous importance - the wearing of bonnets in the choir! Here is a movement that in the nineteenth century was a radical force for mission and evangelism. The army metaphor, the uniforms, the brass bands were up to the minute culturally contextualised tools for mission in the British Empire. Now, what was a radical methodology has become a tradition locked down in a time warp with all the force that a military organization can bring to bear. The Army is currently engaged in a battle to recover the radical passion for mission in which it was born. I deeply admire the Salvation Army and pray they will rediscover their heritage.|
|In a period when socially and culturally everything is in dynamic and rapid change, where we have to largely reinvent the way we do ministry, church and mission, we have to be clear about what is essential and non-negotiable and what can be left behind.|
|Much of the denominational baggage we have carried with us into the twenty-first century is frankly non-essential, indeed much of it is a weight and a hindrance. The mission is primary. The mission is more important than the denominational culture. The mission has priority!|
|The irony is that the very tradition we should have preserved the tradition of the faith large sections of the church have been busily revising, reducing or jettisoning. On the other hand, the traditions we should be leaving behind we cling to desperately. Perhaps this is what happens when you empty the signs and symbols of faith of their content. You are left clinging to the outward trappings of belief.|
|Our prime mission directive was given on a mountaintop (see Matthew 28:16-20). Mountaintops are magical places; they give you perspectives and inspiration, they fill you with awe and a sense of majesty. They are also exciting, scary, dangerous, and unforgettable places. We need leaders who have received and heard the prime mission directive on the mountaintop, those who have been to the mountaintop with Jesus. On the mountain top the distance between heaven and earth seems short. The possibility and the hope of drawing the nation to God seem possible.|
|There has never been a time in this nation when we needed Christian leaders more who have been to the mountaintop and heard the prime directive from Jesus, "go and make disciples baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."|
|I said earlier that without boundaries the Christian community is destined to disappear. It is also true that a Christian community that is not focussed beyond its boundaries is equally destined to disappear. Our future lies in our obedience to both imperatives, to distinctiveness and mission. We must live and work in the creative tension between the two commandments "Be holy for I am holy" and "go and make disciples."|
|The fourth and final crisis we face is the need for a whole new generation of young leaders with ability, integrity, creativity, and a passion for the Gospel a crisis of leadership.|
|In 1913 and 1914 two Polar expeditions were launched, one to the North Pole and one to the South Pole. The 1913 expedition to the North Pole was mounted by the Canadians and led by a man called Steffanson in a boat called the Kaluk. But it was an unusually cold winter and their boat was trapped in the ice and crushed. The expedition ended in tragedy, the team disintegrated into a rabble, men turned on each other in the extreme conditions, stealing food and fighting, eleven of them died in the ice.|
|The next year, in 1914, a British expedition led by Ernest Shackleton with a team of 28, including one Australian, set out for the South Pole. Almost the identical circumstances befell them. Their boat The Endurance was also trapped by the ice and eventually crushed and sunk. Twenty-eight men found themselves camped on the ice in the most extreme survival conditions.|
|But from there on the two stories are completely different. In fact, the Shackleton Expedition is probably one of the most inspiring and amazing stories of survival ever recorded. Alfred Lansing tells the story in his gripping account entitled, Endurance.5 Shackleton led his party across the ice to Elephant Island on the edge of the Antarctic land mass. There they survived under upturned lifeboats. Shackleton then took five men and sailed a 20-foot open lifeboat eight hundred miles to the Island of South Georgia to a whaling station to organise a rescue party.|
|For the sailors among us this is one of the most treacherous and storm lashed pieces of open sea in the world. They had to constantly knock the ice from the boat with a hammer to stop it weighing them down and sinking them. The temperature was below freezing and the conditions appalling. The feat of navigation alone in those conditions was extraordinary. But they made it! It took two attempts to rescue the men left on Elephant Island but they finally succeeded this whole process took over eighteen months. Every man was rescued and no one was badly injured or became critically sick.|
|And here is a significant fact when sometime later Shackleton raised a new expedition almost every man volunteered again!|
|What was the difference between the two expeditions? LEADERSHIP!|
|In a situation of great danger and in extreme conditions Shackleton's leadership was outstanding. It is no surprise that in today's world this leadership example has become the focus of much attention by students of leadership.|
|The difference between the Australian Church having a creative and effective future or drifting further to the margins of Australian life is leadership - leadership that responds decisively to the crises I have described.|
|I want to suggest 6 principles that should guide our strategy for leadership development:|
|Let me conclude with this quotation from David Wells:|
|"What has most been lost needs most to be recovered namely, the unsettling, disconcerting fact that God is holy and we place ourselves in great peril if we seek to render him a plaything of our piety, an ornamental decoration on the religious life, a product to answer our inward dissatisfactions. God offers himself on his own terms or not at all. The deity who now appears to lie so limply upon the church is, in fact, the living and glorious God. His hand may be stayed by patience and grace, but it is certain that he will eventually pass judgement on the world. It is this holy God, glorious in his being, doing wonders, who beckons his people to a deeper working knowledge of himself, and it is he who breaks the power of modernity."6|
Lord, lead us to:
A holiness without legalism,
A discipline with celebration,
An unworldliness that is life affirming
A simplicity of life that is aesthetically aware,
A frugality that is not mean,
A distinctiveness that is hospitable,
A clarity of belief that is gracious,
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Harper Collins, 2003, p.131
|2 ibid., p.87|
|3 Alister McGrath, Christian Truth, Blackwell, 1994, p.147|
4 See William Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, Abingdon, 1989, p.24, 25.
5 Alfred Lansing, Endurance, McGraw Hill, 1959.
6 David Wells, God in the Wasteland, Eerdmans, 1994, p.145.
|All Biblical references from the NIV|
|Index of Articles|