Friday, 5 June 2015


The Church, Culture and Change

There is no doubt that we are living in momentous days. Historians might well look back in years to come at the late 20th/early 21st century as being a key time of seismic cultural shifts.

A growing individualism, fueled by rapidly advancing technology, and an even more rapidly advancing secularism has left many bewildered by the speed of change in our society.  The flagship for many of these changes and perhaps most indicative of them is the changing attitude towards marriage and in particular same-sex marriage.  A very short generation or two ago it would have been an unheard-of and very remote possibility – now it is fact, even in the traditionally culturally conservative republic of Ireland.  What is even more obvious is the self-evident reality that to oppose such a move puts you on the wrong side of history and in danger of being labelled homophobic.  You are hardly allowed to use terms like “right” or “wrong” anymore.  Nothing is wrong as long as it is loving! A ‘modern’ society, we are told, allows people to exercise their rights in whatever way they want and we shouldn’t interfere with that.  To do so is unloving and after all “love” is the ultimate ethic.  To say otherwise makes you weird, old-fashioned, uncaring and brutal.  The long-heralded virtue of “tolerance” is not generally extended to those who dare to hold different opinions. 

This is but one demonstration of the changes taking place under our very noses.  These shifts probably have their conception in the early 60’s and the growth of the sexual liberation movement, advanced by the excessive rebellion against authority, demonstrated in the music of the 60’s particularly.  Take a look for example at some of the grainy footage of the hippy movement and open drug use of those days.  Many of our current day influencers and opinion formers and cultural shapers were children or teenagers in those days.  Many in politics, the media or music grew up with a very tenuous link or understanding of the Judaeo-Christian ethic that their parents and grandparents would have known.  Hence, the moorings have shifted and we are now reaping the consequences.

Churches have been (rightly in some cases) derided for a dead legalism, an out of touch mysticism or for feeble attempts to copy the world’s liberalism.  As a result many Christians have been left reeling with a dizzy unease as to how to respond to such criticism, how to communicate into such a bizarre world and how to defend what seems like an increasingly out of touch message.

Some have reacted by becoming a kind of ‘pietistic enclave’ – burying their heads in the sand and having their meetings in their own time-honoured way and letting the world outside their door go to hell.  Others seem to have become over-friendly with the world, seeking to win approval and acceptance by flattery and assimilation.  None of this works of course and leads the Christian church to further derision by a world which is diametrically opposed to Christian things (still not sure about that? Read Jude vv 8-11).

Truth is, we live in Babylon now.  Any thoughts that this is still Jerusalem can be forgotten. We stand with Daniel and his 3 friends.  We are faced with our own cultural Nebuchadnezzars and we are going to need enormous courage to refuse to bow down to the man-made enormous idol and to say instead, “….we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3 v18).

Truth is truth and no amount of cultural shift can change that.  The gospel is absolutely true, not just relatively so.  It was, is and ever will be true.  We may tremble at the moral and ethical consequences of further decline in our society, but God is God and ultimately he will have the last word.  That is why to stand with him, his gospel and his truth is ultimately the safest place to be.  Even if it makes you unpopular

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Changed Forever!

Within the last 3 months I have lost both parents.  In fact they passed away 30 days apart.  In those 30 days I was orphaned; I became the patriarch of the family.  Life changed forever.

Grief affects people in all sorts of ways – it is not uncommon for there to be physical side effects such as headaches, nausea, itchiness, sleeplessness, cold sores etc.  On the emotional side there can be such a sense of loss and desolation that the loved one can experience a sense of darkness, fear and loneliness.

To some degree I experienced some of those physical and emotional effects of grief.  I still am dealing every day with the loss and will continue to do so for a very long time to come - possibly always.

Everyone has to deal with such losses, for death is no respecter of persons, reputations or ages.  In the good providence of God our loved ones die suddenly or slowly and life becomes different overnight.  And life takes on a “new normal”.  I now have to live in the new normality of being without parents for the very first time in my life – as I noticed obviously when on my birthday a few weeks ago, I was without a “son” card for the first time in my life.  Above all though I have experienced grace – in many different forms.  I have felt the overwhelming support of God’s people praying for me.  I have experienced kindness in dozens of ways, in comments and cards and coffees and callers; in messages and emails; in freezer food and practical gifts. 

The grace of God appears in many forms.  Above all I have known God’s grace in reminding me again that nothing ever really stays the same for any of us and life is constantly moving on.  So I, like you, had better make it count for something that really matters!

Monday, 12 January 2015

Women in the Church

Here is a summary of my message in NBC on Sunday 11/1/15 to explain our elders position on this important subject.

An important decision for churches to make is to ascertain the exact role that women play in congregational life? So what can we say about the Bile says?

Genesis 5 vv1,2 “When God created mankind he made THEM in the likeness of God.  He created THEM male and female and blessed them.

So right at the very start God affirmed the identity of women.  He blessed both male and female.  Yet Judaism didn’t always value or recognise the dignity of women as it ought to have done. Jewish men used to pray “I thank you God that you have not made me a Gentile a slave or a woman!”.  Yet God reminds us through scripture of the value, role and identity of women in the world. He used Moses sister and Naaman’s servant girl; Deborah served as judge, Esther was used to save her own people and Rahab and Ruth were brought into the Saviour’s line by grace.  In the New Testament we see the inner circle of Christ included women. It was women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection and in the early church women like Dorcas (Acts 9) Lydia (Acts 16) Priscilla (Acts 18) were to the fore.

In essence with regard to male and female the Bible teaches

  • Equality of Worth – all are valuable in his sight 
  • Diversity of role – we are naturally made different.  He created THEM.  He blessed THEM

The complementarian position teaches that men and women are to complement each other.  There is equality in marriage but also diversity, highlighted in Ephesians 5 teaching regarding the roles of husband and wife. 

Jewish men might have prayed that prayer but the truth is that the gospel of grace brings all of us to the foot of the cross and at the cross we find forgiveness in Christ and we are equal sinners and find equal grace to save.  Hence Paul says in Galatians 3 vv26,28  “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus....there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gentile) slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.
So with regard to the church specifically.... (and here we are talking about the local church, the local expression of the universal church, the church which meets somewhere and which has people gathered together for purposes of worship, discipleship, evangelism, mission and pastoral care, the 5 purposes of our church – we must be careful to distinguish AUTHORITY and FUNCTION.  It is when we confuse these two that problems and confusion arises.

  1. AUTHORITY – final human authority in the local church lies with the elders. It is they who have ultimate responsibility for spiritual oversight and the teaching and the general witness of the church in the community. Eldership has its roots in the Jewish tribal system, where there would be heads of families and of tribes. They would bear serious responsibility for the conduct and business of the tribe. Likewise synagogues would be ruled by respected men. Christ too only chose men to be his apostles, charged with the responsibility for carrying the gospel message to a needy world. Early Christianity grew out of Judaism and so early spiritual leadership was male as it had been in Jewish heads  of tribe and synagogues. The very early believers had originally thought that the gospel message w as only for Judaism . Remember how Peter’s thinking had to be challenged by a vision in Acts 10 and he later had to defend his ministry to the Gentiles before the early Jewish believers.  Spiritual leadership is entrusted to males and for that reason NBC concludes that our elders should be male. 
  2. FUNCTION – this however is entirely different . Paul teaches us in 1 Cor 12 that ministry is for the whole body and is on the basis of GIFTING not GENDER .  All have a role to play in the body of Christ – as noses or feet or ears or hands. This actually is one of the most powerful witnesses of the local church in the community and demonstrates the power of the gospel to transform lives and to see them unified under the cross and in service of the Master.  So both men and women can perform many functions in the body of Christ.  Naturally, physically and socially men are different from each other and whilst more men than women might want to wield kango hammers to knock down walls, and more women than men might want to serve in the creche, actually there is nothing to stop either performing those roles if that is their gifting.  Men and women can teach Sunday school or lead youth or help prepare bulletins or operate sound and visuals. Likewise both men and women can perform the simple task of passing offering bags along rows or passing our pieces of bread and wine to help believers remember the Lord’s death.

With regard to the functioning of the body “Deacons” are important.  Many see the origin of this role in Acts 6 (though the word ‘diakonos’ or ‘deacon’ is not mentioned).  The early leaders turned over practical caring work to godly men as they were in danger of being overwhelmed by the needs of the church.  So the original function was caring. The role of deacon has often been misunderstood, so much so that it almost differs from church to church and from culture to culture.  It has also been affected by prevailing cultural understandings of men/women.  Neither male chauvinism nor liberal feminism should be allowed to dictate the church’s position.  It should be BIBLICALLY REASONED not CULTURALLY DETERMINED.

As the Bible is progressive revelation its in the pastoral epistles that Paul outlines some significant qualities for those in certain positions.  This climaxes in 1 Tim 3, where writing to the young pastor of the church in Ephesus, Paul outlines the qualities of elders in vv 1-17, and the qualities of the ‘diakonoi’ (deacons) in vv 8-10 So far so good but v11 is problematical “In the same way, the women (Gk = Gyne) are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” Who are these women here?

There are 2 possible interpretations .....

They could be wives of the deacons OR they could be ladies who are raised up to special service as deacons of the church in assistance of the work of the elders. In NBC we lean towards the latter. So do many other very conservative Christian leaders.  Others do legitimately differ.  But we favour the understanding of lady deacons here for the following reasons

  1.  The use of the word “hosautos” in v11 as in v 8 Translated  ‘in the same way’ or ‘likewise’. It points to the same idea, the same concept 
  2. In vv 1-7 women are not mentioned re eldership. This makes sense if, as we have seen elders are to be male. If those referred to here in v 11 are wives of deacons, it would seem strange that Paul would not make any reference to elders wives, - surely at least an equal responsibility 
  3. Phoebe is referred to as a ‘diakonos’ in Romans 16 v2 (the word is neither masculine nor feminine) 
  4. We have to interpret scripture by itself. Since deacons do not have authoritative roles in the same way as elders, but functional roles , it seems to fit with the general tenor of scriptural teaching about service being open for all

For these reasons we take the position that both men and women may serve as deacons on the local church.

Whatever any church’s position on this, it is important that every church honours God in the conduct of its affairs.  That is the overriding principle.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Christmas is History

So many people get ‘wrapped up’ in Christmas and talk about their feelings at this time of the year – generosity, festivities, goodwill, warmth, family, gratitude.  Many say, “the world’s in a bad state so let’s have a little more Christmas spirit, let’s all try to be a little nicer at this time of the year, let’s smile at the person on the bus, let’s not growl at the nice girl behind the desk.  After all, it’s Christmas”.

Nothing wrong with that.  We could all do with a little more kindness and a lot less harshness.  But if that’s all it is, then it is in danger of becoming just entirely subjective and personal.  When people talk about how it makes them feel and how they hope to behave then they miss one important fact - Christmas is first and foremost something OBJECTIVE, not SUBJECTIVE.  It is HISTORY not PHILOSPHY.  It is FACT, not FEELING.

Paul said, “For the grace of God HAS APPEARED that brings salvation to all men” (Titus 2 v11). That was it.  HAS appeared.  The appearing.  God has done something in history.  He has acted.  Man was lost in sin and darkness and no amount of feeling or different spirit or attempt to change behaviour would help.  God acted because he had to.  There really was a virgin, there really was Joseph, there was an actual birth, there was Herod, there were shepherds and there were Magi.  There really were.  FACT.  These were not fictional characters in some made up legend – a created, simple and beautiful story - but actual, real, historical, flesh and blood figures, who lived and breathed and eventually died like the rest of mankind.

We are in grave danger in 21stC society of losing the real historical basis of the Christmas message.   Secularists play around with it as if it can be put in the same category as Cinderella, Toy Story or It’s a Wonderful Life.  “We love the characters but we know they are not real!”“It’s a shame Christians peddle this story every year, we’re past that now”.  Really?  Might as well dismiss the founding of the USA, the world wars or the sinking of the Titanic as fiction.  He has spoken.  He really has.  And grace has appeared – only when we have grasped that, can our behaviour really be changed forever by the wonderful Babe of Bethlehem.

Friday, 14 November 2014


It's not often I get to write about science.  I like science.  Good science always confirms what the Bible says.  There never is a real contradiction between God’s truth and what honest scientists discover and Christians have nothing to fear from science – quite the opposite.

But you will have heard in the media the last few days the fuss over the landing of the probe Philae on the comet 67/P.  It was 25 years apparently in the planning, Philae has traveled 4 billion miles since 2004 and the overall cost is estimated at around 1.4bn euros.  I watched incredulously as some scientists jumped about like overgrown schoolboys in their excitement, when the probe finally landed.  It was like they were playing a rather sophisticated video game.  A phrase came to mind, “The only difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys”.  What a load of nonsense and what a total waste of time and money.  

I wondered why they were doing it – what was the point of it all?  Ah.......then I heard someone explain that on the radio.  One of the main purposes, he said, is to help us understand more about the origin of the universe.  Ok, so let me save them all a lot of time and trouble and expense.  Genesis 1v 1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.  There you have it in a few succinct words in all its glorious simple complexity and complex simplicity.  Any inexpensive copy of the revealed word of the living, eternal, supreme, creator God tells us more about the universe than all of this expensive pointless nonsense.  

“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1 v 22)