Article for In Gear

This article was published in In Gear, the magazine of the Group for Evangelism and Renewal of the United Reformed Church. It concerns the question: How should churches who believe that marriage is only between a man and a woman respond to a church-wide consultation currently ongoing?

Be sure of your ground
The United Reformed Church confesses that “the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the supreme authority for the faith and conduct of God’s people.” As evangelical ministers, elders and churches we must be sure of the Biblical foundation for marriage. Continue reading

The Reformation and why it matters

With the recent kerfuffle over Mr Ratzinger’s decision to step down as bishop of Rome, coupled with a new attender asking me why I keep talking about the Reformation I thought it would be good to put down why I think it’s still important. But even more than that, why it is absolutely necessary today.

The Medieval Roman Church had descended into great corruption. Bishops received multiple dioceses and never visited them, let alone preached in their churches. The common people were barred from true partaking of the Lord’s Supper by the use of Latin and the denial of the cup. Many innovations had been added to the faith of the church. One such innovation – that of purgatory – led to a system whereby people could buy the prayers of monks to knock a few years off for themselves and their loved ones. It just so happened that this innovation also raised a fair few coins for the building of a fancy new basilica in Rome.

But thanks to the providence of God there were many faithful believers who were unhappy with the state of things. Many of these proto-reformers efforts were crushed but the time was coming when the tide of reform could not be held back. By the providential coming together of a dissatisfied German monk, local rulers wanting to flex their muscles and the technological advance of the printing press, God brought about a movement that swept across Europe and the world. This movement was the Reformation.

Everything was up for grabs from 1517. And the fundamental principle, seems to me to have been: What is the supreme authority for what we believe as Christians? The Roman Church said that it was scripture coupled with Tradition as embodied in the Magisterium that was the authority. Of course, in practice, it was clear that tradition trumped scripture. Praying to Mary and the saints, resacrificing Christ in the Mass, indulgences and purgatory were all inventions of men, with no scriptural warrant whatsoever.

The Reformation, on the other hand, declared that only God could say what we were to believe and practice, which would be a problem had God not definitively spoken. Thankfully he had. In Scripture.

And so the Reformation was about putting God in his rightful place. We were not saved by our works but by God’s abundant grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And scripture alone was our highest, supreme authority.

All this has an impact on us today and in part 2 I will explore some of the ways in which the Reformation is more important than ever.

It is the duty of the minister not only to teach the people committed to his charge in publick, but privately; and particularly to admonish, exhort, reprove, and comfort them, upon all seasonable occasions, so far as his time, strength, and personal safety will permit. He is to admonish them, in time of health, to prepare for death; and, for that purpose, they are often to confer with their minister about the estate of their souls; and, in times of sickness, to desire his advice and help, timely and seasonably, before their strength and understanding fail them. (Directory for Public Worship)

Turn off the screens!

Screens, screens everywhere and not a thing to see.

Modern life is dominated by the screen. Our living rooms – and increasingly bedrooms – have the television in the corner which we stare at for hours. We spend more hours at work looking at a computer screen. We fill our spare time with playing Angry Birds on our smartphone, and if we’re really cool we read our Bible on a tablet computer.

If we work in an office environment then it’s often the case that when we’re not in front of our own screen we’re in front of another as we look at the latest PowerPoint presentation that our middle manager has spent the last three weeks preparing.

There’s no getting away from these screens. The outside of my local shopping centre has a continuous loop of a Boyzone concert playing on a giant screen. The advertising boards inside said shopping centre are now screens with multiple moving images. The SureStart centre connected to one of my church has a TV on in the reception churning out trite parenting advice even when the only person there is an increasingly exasperated receptionist.

The screen is ubiquitous in much the same way that statuary was ubiquitous in the first century world. I had the great joy of visiting Ephesus a few years ago and saw the streets lined with images of the great and good, and shrines to various gods every 100 yards.

You’ll hear the comment made nowadays that we live in a visual age and therefore the church needs to adapt. And so, increasingly over the last 30 years we’ve seen our previously austere churches put up banners and now screens. (And to be fair, this started even earlier with stained-glass windows. It’s probably best not to get me started on those.)

And on these screens are not only put the words for hymns but the preacher will have prepared a lovely PowerPoint slide display to accompany his sermon. I’ve heard of some ministers say how the presentation takes up as much time as the preparation of the sermon itself.

So now people not only have to put up with rubbish PowerPoint at work but they get another one on the Lord’s Day too.

I think our capitulation to our visual culture is a sign of our loss of Reformed convictions. We worship a God who speaks. We worship a God who, although revealed in the visible things he has created, is only fully revealed in his Word. As Reformed Christians we should be fully aware of this fact and celebrate that the way God ordinarily works is through the preaching of that Word. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17).

Visuals can deflect from that. The Reformers understood this when they urged the destruction of idols and the whitewashing of church walls. Images distract the worshipper from the true God. Images distract the preacher because they’re more concerned with the next slide and guiding us through their points than proclaiming the Word with power and authority.

I’m sick of screens. My eyes hurt. But my ears are crying out for the Word of God. Please, preachers, give it to me. Unmediated. Without distraction. Our souls depend on it.

Run the race

As we gather around our tv sets to watch the Olympic games we will hopefully see Great Britain win many medals. We’ll be cheering as we watch athletes we’ve never heard of, competing in sports we’ve never seen before, come close to winning the prized gold medal.

Those athletes will have given their whole lives for the cause. They will have been ferried to training by their devoted parents. They’ll have sacrificed the nights out at university to ensure they were fresh for the 5am start the next day. They’ll have gone through real pain and hardship to get where they are today.
But as we look at the elite athletes we need to spare a thought for those who aren’t there. Those who missed out on the qualifying time. Or weren’t selected. And that’s without thinking of the people who did not have the discipline, self-sacrifice and single-mindedness to pursue the ultimate goal.
The Christian life is compared to an athlete’s training on many occasions in the Bible. It is compared to a race that we need discipline for if we are to reach the finishing line. And this leads us to think about the way we’re going about living our lives. The Bible tells us that we need to persevere and work through hard times because the ultimate goal is within reach and more glorious than even an Olympic gold medal.
If we call ourselves Christians then we need to ensure that we are continually moving forward. We need to be disciplining ourselves in reading scripture, praying, attending church and keeping ourselves away from ungodly things.
The Christian life is one of discipline, self-sacrifice and single-mindedness to pursue the ultimate goal.
And the wonderful thing is that we have the greatest trainer. Jesus has travelled the road before us. He suffered to the point of death so that he could restore our relationship to God. And he gives us everything we need to complete the race.
Will you join us this summer to find out more about him?