French burkini ban exposes the myth of neutral secularism

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France, that bastion of liberal values, free expression and equality, has come under fire from just about the whole of the Western world for imposing a beach ban on burkinis. For those who don’t know, a burkini is an alternative to the bikini. It is a burka-esque form of beach attire that allows women (predominantly Muslim women, it must be said) to cover their bodies on the beach whilst still giving the ability to swim and such. Though the ban itself has not been well received outside of France, it is a particular incident involving armed police officers forcing a burkini clad woman to strip off in Nice that has really brought the opprobrium to its current levels.

Although the ban was initially introduced in Cannes as a temporary measure, clearly this was a knee-jerk reaction to a particular terrorist atrocity in a nearby town (see here). What is much less clear is how a ban of burkinis could have stopped it from happening or will in any way prevent it from recurring. Even more perplexing is quite why this is now being rolled out across France.

The argument from proponents is that a burkini ban protects ‘security and secularism’. The Mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, who first mooted the ban claimed he wanted to prohibit ‘beachwear ostentatiously showing a religious affiliation while France and places of religious significance are the target of terror attacks’ to avoid ‘trouble to public order’. The next commune to enforce a burkini ban, Villeneuve-Loubet, insisted on clothing that ‘is respectful to morality and secular principles’. Authorities in 15 towns and cities have since brought in the ban, with many more considering a similar prohibition.

It is right to point out that none of the pieces of legislation specifically outlaw, or even mention, the burkini. What seems apparent to most people is that the ban has been triggered by events in Nice. Equally, many question whether a nun in full habit would face a similar fine. That is to say, is this about secularism or Islam in particular? Clearly former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, makes no bones about this when he says ‘Wearing a burkini is a political act, it’s militant, a provocation’ (see here). It has led many Muslims to feel singled out and vilified, though it bears saying the French authorities may well crack down on any other overtly religious beach attire in an effort to appear evenhanded in the enforcement of laïcité.

It is this that rather strikes at the heart of the false claim that secularism is neutral. Secularism, as defined by the National Secular Society, stands on the twin principles of the separation of church and state and that all people, regardless of religious or non-religious affiliation, stand equal before the law. Of course, such things are often supported by faith adherents – it has been a consistent feature of most dissenting Christian views for several hundred years. These two principles are not terribly contentious (unless you’re Anglican or a theocrat). What is contentious is the supposition that religion (define that however you will), or at least countries built on religious principles, cannot cope with tolerating opposing views and opinions whereas secularism allows all views to thrive.

Whilst secularism would claim it is not about curtailing religious freedom, France are doing a pretty good job in undercutting that presumption. In a bid to maintain equality, secularism seeks to expunge all exhibition of anything tinged with religion from public view. This would, in a sense, be a version of equalité if it weren’t for the obvious elephant in the room. There is no such thing as a valueless society. If anything emanating even a whiff of religion is prohibited in public, something will inevitably fill the void. If not the symbols and expressions of faith, it is the symbols and expressions of individualistic consumerism (or, if you’re in North Korea, totalitarian collectivist communism). But don’t be fooled into thinking no expression of faith in the public square means some empty void in which no values take centre stage. At the very least, such a prohibition on the active expression of anything remotely religious inevitably means the only public expression of faith permissible is the public non-expression of faith, or Atheism. And if religious values must be expunged from public life, we are only permitted to enforce non-religious values or those values consistent with no faith (Atheism again).

What is more, Secularistic Atheism – and be under no illusions, that is what most secularism inevitably ends up being – cannot permit the very freedom that most Western Liberal democracies crave. As France are currently proving, in a bid to maintain secularism, religion is pushed to the fringes. As night follows day, what begins as a clampdown on one particular religion (rightly or wrongly) will, in the name of even-handedness, be rolled out to all faiths save of course for that consistent with the Atheistic/Secularist agenda. The very aim of equality is undercut when expressions of faith are not permitted while anything consistent with non-belief is not only acceptable but actively enforced. That is why France are now in the ludicrous position of forcing those who wish to be modest, in accord with their religious belief, to strip off to immodesty, a value which only accords with secularist atheistic agenda. In removing the religious right (dare I say, the universal right) to modesty, secularism imposes its own value which many would deem particularly immodest, a value which can only be derived from a principle of individual liberty which, ironically, they simultaneously impede for all who do not share secularistic/atheistic views.

It is not secularism that will guarantee equalité but a system that has some basis upon which to uphold universal human rights. Secularism, far from establishing universal human rights, has no underpinning on which to hang them. There are no universal secularist values. A Protestant Christian theism, however, has inbuilt within it a view that all human beings are endowed with the imago dei. Moreover, the Bible is fairly clear on how such inter-personal relations ought then to be worked out. Further, Protestantism – especially dissenting Protestantism, even more especially those committed to independency – have a history of defending equality of religion for all borne from their very own experiences of having been locked out of office and the like.

Of course, nobody is here arguing that Christianity is unbiased or Protestant dissenters are somehow neutral in all these matters. It is only to say that Christianity has both the underpinning, framework and experience to make genuine tolerance of dissenting opinion possible. Secularism simply does not have the tools available to ground universal rights in anything substantial nor to genuinely permit dissenting views and opinions. Secularism can only insist that anything ‘religious’ be prohibited in the public square, the problem being it has no inherent values to bring to the table nor does it have any foundation on which to build a case for human rights (why do some rights exist and not others? How are they grounded?).

Notice the difficulties the British government have been having trying to define ‘British values’. Also note how any measures imposed in response to Islamism – often an individual terrorist act – are clearly aimed at Muslims (as if all of them are a problem anyway) but then extended to all religious groups regardless of whether they have ever shown any inkling of such tendencies or how likely they are to suddenly take them up. Consider, in the marketplace of competing rights, why some consistently win out over others. Such things are rarely grounded in anything very much at all. Everything except non-belief – whether Deist, Agnostic or Atheistic in flavour – is prohibited, or at the very least, granted second-class status. Such is the fruit of secularism.

And now, in France, we see secularism’s logical end. Laïcité, Egalité and Fraternité so long as you don’t express any actual opinions that might offend against secularism. Theocracy, thy name is secularism.

Mike Ovey on the Eternal Functional Subordination controversy

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If you in any way follow the blogosphere, it cannot have escaped your notice that an awful lot of electronic ink has been metaphorically spilt on issues pertaining to the trinity of late. Although a raft of things have been up for discussion, an awful lots of focus has landed on the issues of Eternal Functional Subornation (EFS) and Eternal Generation (EGen). The furore was kicked off by Carl Trueman and Liam Golligher at the Mortification of Spin blog back in June (see here and here). Particularly in their sights were the doctors Grudem and Ware, but others have since been pulled into the fray.

Much back and forth ensued, with accusations of heresy, heterodoxy and unsuitability for academic posts in evangelical institutions – with counter-claims that those who bandy around such terms are at least unkind and, most likely, in unrepentant sin on the issue – being levelled at the key players. A division appears to have opened up (at least within American evangelicalism) between Presbyterians on the one hand, who reject EFS and uphold EGen, and Baptists on the other, who often uphold EFS and differ on the issue of EGen. Outside the USA, things have not quite so neatly delineated along denominational lines.

Of course, this discussion was not really kicked off in the blogosphere, it has been trundling on in the academy for some time. Jürgen Moltmann and Kevin Giles have sought to stand against proponents of EFS, particularly those who also subscribe to complementarianism (the argument being that EFS advocates are ‘tinkering with God’ in order to uphold a culturally derived view of male/female relations). Although Dr Mike Ovey has also found himself on the wrong side of Trueman and Golligher’s electronic ire (see here and here), and has acquitted himself electronically, his latest book Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility was written principally to address the concerns circling in the academy, primarily those posited by Moltmann and Giles.

With his usual clarity of thought and straightforward writing style, Ovey assesses the central claims of those who wish to label EFS subscribers as heterodox and heretical. He offers helpful sections on the historical, biblical and theological questions. That is, was EFS supported or rejected in church history, is EFS supported or rejected in the biblical data and does EFS uphold or undermine vital matters of theology? Ovey begins by considering the issue of Divine Monarchy and the defence of it by Tertullian. This paves the way for his particular focus on Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine of Hippo to show that EFS is, far from being either novel or anti-Nicene, was the very basis upon which Divine Monarchy was defended. His case is bolstered by considering the Cappodocian Fathers and, despite some of their different emphases, the fact that they uphold the Divine Monarchy and the Son as a true son. Ovey helpfully places various councils in their historical context to explain the problems before each of them and the nature of the carefully constructed language used to refute the issue at hand without falling foul of any antithetical heresy (usually the poles between Arianism and Sabellianism).

Biblically, Ovey focuses in on John. Following Hilary of Poitiers (#1&2) and Karl Rahner (#3), Ovey notes: (1) it is for God to disclose the nature of the trinitarian relations, not for us to speculate as to what we hope they might be; (2) Arianism and Sabellianism both deny the true sonship of the Son in a bid to defend monotheism; and (3) the economic trinity reveals the immanent trinity, that is the trinity revealed to us in salvation history does not contradict and does reveal the trinity in eternity and vice versa. With these comments firmly stated, Ovey surveys the centrality of sonship in John within an asymmetrical and co-relational relationship.

Ovey considers the dyolthelite controversy – particular as stated at Chalcedon following the arguments of Maximus the Confessor – and how the two wills of Jesus the Son fit with EFS compared with more egalitarian models of the intra-trinitarian relations. Naturally, this discussion centres on Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer and the emphasis on ‘not my will, but thine’. Ovey considers how both Moltmann and Giles fail to fully account for the text, focusing discussion on the unity of the person of the Son, the genuineness of his humanity and the nature of his obedience.

Theologically, Ovey offers helpful insights on how EFS speaks directly to issues of power relations and authority. Specifically, he explains how EFS best accounts for the biblical imperatives for us to develop humility. He notes the difficulties associated with denying eternal humility, suggesting such a denial would mean there is a good virtue God demands from us which is not essential to his own character. Ovey convincingly argues that true, humble, other-personed love finds its root in the eternal relations of the three persons of the Godhead. He notes egalitarian models of the intra-trinitarian relations entirely undercut such virtues.

Ovey offers a helpful overview of the issues relating to EFS and EGen. He defends both as entirely consistent with Nicene orthodoxy, showing that such positions are neither novel nor heterodox. He skillfully develops his argument, showing that history, biblical data and theological considerations do support EFS. He also helpfully outlines the problems associated with rejecting EFS in favour of other models.

I am by no means an expert on trinitarian theology but, with the exception of a few sections that required perseverance and re-reading, found the material helpful, stimulating and relatively easy to follow. Whilst I did pick up the book leaning toward some form of EFS, Ovey provides a helpful, reasonable and ultimately convincing case for the eternal functional subordination of the Son. Though I was never convinced that those shouting heterodox and calling for the heads of EFS advocates were legitimate to do so, Ovey offers a compelling case for why they really ought to repent of what appears to be the sin of schism.

Why lists of Christians in the public eye aren’t always helpful

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The Olympics are well and truly upon us. America leads the medal table while Great Britain, at the time of writing, seems to be putting on a credible show. As with every Olympics, now is the time to begin a brief, but highly obsessive, relationship with an otherwise obscure sport you never watch. Yes, we can all be “experts” in Equestrian Dressage, Handball and Race Walking now, only to forget all about them in a fortnight for another four years.

Along with newfound interest in sports that were never on our radar, now is also the time for various organisations to wheel out their list of Christian Olympians, presumably for other believers to especially cheer on (yes, truly ours is a higher citizenship than that which corresponds to Team GB). You can see one from The Gospel Coalition and another in Christianity Today. Not entirely sure about the legitimacy of cheering on a Christian athlete as opposed to the one representing your country. Which kingdom takes precedent? Alas, there is no medal table entry for the Kingdom of God.

Which leads me to my question, what is the point of such lists of believers in sport? I in no way want to denigrate the particular athletes who are living out their Christianity in the public eye. In fact, not only do I not want to denigrate it, I actively applaud it. For sure, there is no value in a Christian witness that isn’t witnessed.The Bible is pretty clear about the phenomenon of “secret Christians” (cf. Mat 10:32f) and equally clear about those who profess faith with it having no bearing on their life (cf. Jm 2:14-26). So for those athletes who are believers, it follows that they should be public about their belief.

But, with that said, what are we supposed to do with these lists? If they’re not offered for the purpose of cheering on Team Heaven, what are they there for? I suppose some might say the platform afforded sports stars offers a great chance to witness. We may even point to such stories as that of David Boudia (see here) and their witness to Christ. And whilst I applaud the openness of Boudia in his interview, and really do think his comments were precisely the sort of thing someone whose hope is in Christ really ought to be making under such circumstances, there is a world of difference between such comments being the natural consequence of real belief in Jesus and this being a genuine opportunity for the gospel. That is in no way to belittle Boudia or his comments – I really do think they were honest and spoke to the nature of his real faith – but, though we do know the Lord can use all sorts of means to save some, I suspect his words of themselves will not lead to hordes of people clamouring to find churches to answer the burning question what must I do to be saved?

I am all in favour of Christians talking naturally about being Christians. And what could be more natural than a Christian who wins an event giving thanks to the God they believe gave them the ability to win it? And it seems perfectly natural to be clear that one’s identity is found in Christ, not in the number of medals won. Yet I fear we overstate the value and impact of that as witness. That’s not to say it’s valueless, for under the auspices of an almighty and sovereign God, very little is. But it doesn’t strike me as an overt gospel opportunity nor as terribly likely anybody is going to be saved by such things. These sorts of things seem to be the natural thoughts and views of a Christian person being stated in a natural and ordinary way. And while there is value in that – as there is value in any Christian doing so – I’m still not sure how these lists of Christians in sport, asking us to look out especially for them, add to this.

I guess if that’s all there was to it, it would be no big deal. Pointing out that someone is a Christian, who already publicly says they’re a Christian, is not in itself a problem. But there are two potential problems. The lesser issue, which is nonetheless an issue, is when those who profess faith have a spotlight pointed upon them as “Christians to watch” who then seem to bear no fruit. Often, those desperate to find Christians in the public eye, are too quick to consider those who make professions of faith – or who publicly cross themselves before races – as definitely, one hundred per cent, bona fide Christians. Of course, such thinking causes problems for the everyday witness of ordinary Christians when such people show by the fruit of their lives that such claims were baseless.

But that’s surely a problem we encounter anyway? I hear you cry. Well, to some degree, yes. But that hardly gives us carte blanche to add to the problem. It doesn’t mean we should never ever suggest sports stars and celebrities are Christians, but it should make us a little more circumspect about desperately seeking to claim those in the public eye as our own. Surely better to say nothing at all than to co-opt to the cause of Christ one who ultimately undermines it.

But that really is the secondary, lesser issue. The much bigger issue comes when, seemingly for no other reason than being famous, such people are given platforms that they perhaps ought not to have. I wonder if you remember this man?

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That’s right – one time world record breaking Triple Jumper, Jonathan Edwards. You may also remember that Edwards professed faith in Christ and had a real conversion story. You may also recall that Edwards, by virtue of his celebrity, was called upon to write a number of Christian books, beginning with his conversion story and even being given opportunity to write bible study notes and the like. He now says he no longer believes in God and does not miss his faith (see here and here).

Leaving aside his now open atheism, one must ask what on earth qualified him to write those books? Offering a testimony of your conversion, sure, we’re all qualified to write our own story. But bible study books and/or commentaries? Really?!

And, unfortunately, I fear this is often where these sorts of endorsements lead. A sports star or celebrity identifies as a Christian. Let’s say, by God’s grace, that is a real and genuine result of regeneration. Does being in the public eye qualify one to write Christian literature? I do not recall ‘famous’ or ‘has far-reaching platform’ as a criteria laid down in either 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1. It is usually the allure and potential of a celebrity to reach both their fan base and others who know of them that leads others to ask them to write books and try to use their platform for the gospel. Now, as I said earlier, the likes of David Boudia speaking as a Christian in the public eye in a normal way is quite legitimate enough. But to move beyond that into the realm of commentary and teaching for which you are utterly unqualified on the basis of your platform seems odd at best and totally misguided at worst.

So, by all means, let the Christians in the public eye speak as Christians. Let them witness to Christ’s work in their own lives through the normal things they say and the perfectly natural way in which a Christian might give thanks to the God in which they believe. But let’s be a little circumspect. Let’s not assume every one who points to the heavens or crosses themselves truly know Christ or understands the cross. And perhaps these lists are best left to one side. Let those who witness to Christ do so on their own terms and these lists be anathema.

Response to Kelvin Mackenzie’s odious comments on Fatima Manji display the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the mainstream media

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There has been something of an outcry regarding Fatima Manji reporting the recent attacks in Nice on Channel 4 News in a hijab. I say outcry, I really mean one man campaign waged by the ever-odious Kelvin Mackenzie. The same man who, whilst editor of the Sun Newspaper, printed outrageous lies about the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, and who for decades refused to so much as say sorry, now uses his regular column in that same obnoxious rag to rail against a Muslim woman, looking like a Muslim woman, for reporting on an issue concerning a Muslim man. It is entirely unclear whether Mackenzie believes all people of faith are entirely incapable of offering any balanced reports, just unable to offer balance if issues that (potentially) concern their particular faith beliefs are involved, or whether he specifically believes Muslims alone are incapable of balance.

Outrage can be clocked at The Guardian and the BBC. Manji herself complained to IPSO and Mackenzie’s comments have been condemned by Channel 4, ITN and the National Union of Journalists. Tim Farron added his two penneth here, claiming the comments were ‘beyond belief’. The Conservative Sayeeda Warsi and Labour MP Diane Abbott have both condemned Mackenzie’s views here. Outside of the Sun Newspaper itself, condemnation has been pretty widespread and relatively consistent. I can only echo the sentiments. Clearly a reporter’s personal views and faith do nothing of themselves to determine whether they are able to offer a balanced report. The NUJ’s General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, put it well in her statement:

To suggest that a journalist is incapable of reporting on a terrorist outrage because of the colour of her skin, her religion or the clothes that she wears says all you need to know about the contemptible views of Kelvin MacKenzie.

Likewise, Channel 4’s News Editor, Ben De Pear, rightly stated he ‘cannot accept … an employee being singled out on the basis of her religion [and] subject to acts of religious discrimination’. All quite right and entirely appropriate.

So why, pray tell, is condemnation for Kelvin Mackenzie’s repugnant comments about Fatima Manji almost universal in the mainstream media yet these same outlets, far from condemning similar suggestions, led the charge against my friend, Dan Walker, when he ascended to the BBC Breakfast sofa because he was an Evangelical Christian? I refer you, dear reader, to my earlier comments here and here.

If Ben De Pear, Channel 4 news editor, is correct that it is unacceptable for an employee to be ‘singled out on the basis of her religion [and] subject to acts of religious discrimination’, on what basis were the repeated reports that Dan Walker is an ‘Evangelical Christian’ and a ‘Creationist’, with no real explanation of what either of those things actually mean, deemed acceptable? If Kelvin Mackenzie’s views of Fatima Manji are rightly deemed ‘contemptible’ simply because she has a stated (or, at least, known) belief, why were Rupert Myers’ comments that Dan Walker ‘now has a stated opinion, he is no longer a dispassionate and objective journalist’ not similarly condemned? How can the same organisations who pilloried Walker for his Christian beliefs now condemn Kelvin Mackenzie for criticising Fatima Manji’s Islamic beliefs? Why do these outlets defend a Muslim as a dispassionate reporter (as, I am sure, Manji is) whilst condemning a Christian as a biased reporter (which, I have no doubt, Walker is not)? What is it about Christian reporters that make them intrinsically untrustworthy and Muslim reporters inherently objective?

Could it be that the faith commitments of both Manji and Walker make them no more, or less, naturally inclined to bias than one another? Is it not possible that people of all faiths and none are entirely capable (so far as any of us are capable) to report objectively and provide balance as necessary? To listen to the views of the mainstream media outlets, the distinct impression is that a Muslim reporter reporting on a Muslim terrorist is entirely capable of being dispassionate whilst a Christian reporter, seemingly reporting on anything factual at all, is utterly biased and categorically unable to present basic fact. If Walker’s ability to present the news as a Christian is in question, then Manji’s ability to present the news as a Muslim must also be questioned. If Manji’s Islamic belief is irrelevant to her presentation of the news, then so must be Walker’s Christianity.

The mainstream media contradiction and hypocrisy on this issue is telling. The irony is that in accusing Walker of lacking objectivity because of his religious beliefs, whilst defending Manji in hers, it is the mainstream media outlets themselves who show their fundamental lack of objectivity on the issue of faith. One must note the BBC, who employ Walker and also reported on Mackenzie’s comments with some sympathy toward Manji, giving them some semblance of credibility and consistency. The same can hardly be said of Manji’s employers, Channel 4, who (rightly) defend her position but failed to offer Walker the same courtesy. Others were clearly sympathetic to Manji despite having made highly critical comments about Walker’s appointment.

Who, dear reader, do you detect lacks objectivity?

Sadly, being labelled a Christian has now become an effective smear

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There is no faster way to label someone in the public eye a nutjob than to bring out the fact they are a Christian. Of course, there are those ‘Christians’ who get away with it by claiming to be believers while simultaneously doing everything within their power to show that they are in no way devout. David Cameron’s lame ‘Magic FM in the Chilterns’ comment readily springs to mind. But if you can highlight that someone is a Christian, who actually goes to church and believes the sort of things that Christians believe, then you have managed to sidestep the word nutter whilst simultaneously inferring exactly that. They did it with Tim Farron on becoming Lib Dem leader (see here), my friend, Dan Walker, when he ascended to the BBC Breakfast sofa (see here and here) and now, Conservative Party leadership hopeful, Andrea Leadsom.

Several media reports have made something of Leadsom’s Christianity. In particular, you can listen to this Channel 4 interview below. Having asked questions about her policies, raised some concern over her allegedly beefed-up CV, the interviewer decides to end on one particularly pointed question: ‘Do you ever think that you have been spoken to directly by God?’. You can hear it at around 10:40.

I think Leadsom was quite right to suggest the interviewer was seeking to ‘laugh at’ and ‘poke fun at’ her. It was undoubtedly mocking and framed in such a way as to effectively ask ‘to what extent do you accept the stupid things Christians believe?’. As David Robertson rightly says ‘it is an accusation, not a question. It’s along the lines of what kind of religious nutter are you?‘. The questioner was clearly implying that belief in an immanent, knowable God is tantamount to admitting you need to be committed.

Clearly, Christians do believe God speaks to them. But that does not mean they necessarily believe they hear an audible voice telling them how to make decisions like what to have for dinner. Most Christians believe God speaks to them primarily through the pages of the Bible, which were written down by ordinary men. Many would argue God also speaks through circumstance. Again, that is not through divine sky-writing telling you what job to take. Rather,  a sovereign God who controls all things, and who has given each of us our own mind and volition, places us in particular circumstances so that, alongside reading his word, to make decisions that (as far as we can tell) are within his divine will. This is what we might call ordinary providence. God speaking to us through ordinary things.

Clearly, as was made clear in her answer, Andrea Leadsom does not believe she has audible conversations with God whereby he tells her to do certain things which she is duty bound to do without any rational basis. That’s not Christianity, that’s schizophrenia. Christians believe God speaks, but they believe he does so primarily through the pages of the Bible (meaning Christian and non-Christian alike can hear from him). Many also believe God guides through circumstance, putting us in situations knowing our volition and inclinations as well as – in some instances – closing certain doors and opening others. This is a natural belief for anyone who believes in a God powerful enough to do or change anything. It is a far cry from hearing voices and irrational behaviour. It amounts to reading the Bible and assessing our circumstances.

There is a patronising view that says people of faith in politics is fine, so long as they are Christians who properly conform to my views. They must accept and assent to culturally determined right thinking, or we will hound, harass and hunt them down. The mainstream media will be used to attack, mock and abuse and social media campaigns will be used in a similar way.

It is the unfortunate tendency of self-appointed modern liberals. In opposition to anything that could credibly be considered liberal, they are happy to accept and welcome anyone who assents to the predetermined orthodox views and opinions they have deemed acceptable. This way, they aver, they tolerate everyone because everyone ultimately share their views.

The heart of liberalism is tolerating the views and opinions of those with whom we deeply disagree, that is permitting people to hold and voice such views despite what we may believe ourselves. Modern liberalism says you are only permitted to agree with me. Tolerance is no longer tolerance if we all share the same opinion; that is agreement. Tolerance can only exist where people hold opposing views. Christians are only tolerated insofar as they assent to the modern liberal orthodoxy we are all told we must accept. If they do not, they are mocked, belittled and, in some cases, stopped from voicing dissenting opinions. In the name of tolerance, Christian views are often not tolerated.

As David Robertson rightly points out:

Witness poor Stephen Crabb, being forced to confess he was wrong about Same Sex Marriage and promising to introduce it to Northern Ireland. Witness the frightened party candidate who asked me to remove their name from a blog I had written seven years earlier, in case their Party HQ got sent a copy of it sent by one of the gay activist groups who trawl the internet, sniffing out any connection at all with homophobia or ‘extremist militant Christian groups’ which apparently includes CARE, SU and UCCF! Yes – we really are at that level of thought police and intimidation.

As Christians – especially dissenting, low-church Christians like myself – we know all too well the importance of genuine freedom of thought and religion (whether Christian, secular or otherwise). We know, because the history of our churches tells us so, that if we are so marginalised others will be treated the same as well. Modern Liberals are not democrats, they are happy with freedom of thought as long as the plebs assent to the right thoughts. Just look at the recent EU referendum as a case in point. Notice the Liberal Democrats (that’s the LIBERAL DEMOCRATS) vow to fight to overturn the democratic will of the people. It is truly astonishing. Whilst it is anybody’s democratic right to go on making the argument, it is highly undemocratic to simply reject the democratic will of the majority. This is but one recent example. Witness what happens whenever somebody dissents from cultural orthodoxy, whatever it may be. If they are a Christian, it is simply easier to presume you know what they believe already and much more efficient to consider them bigoted and credulous in advance. Saves a lot of time in the long run.

I am not a Conservative. I am not particularly in line with many of Andrea Leadsom’s views. But, as I said when I commented on this same phenomenon with Tim Farron (here), I can see a witch hunt when I see one. Make the C-word stick and you may as well have photoshopped a picture of them in a tin foil hat trying to commune with extra-terrestrials. Here’s a radical thought: why don’t we interact with people’s actual thoughts and ideas rather than simply according to whatever label we’ve decided to stick them with? Rather than just presume someone a nutter, would it not be more helpful to consider their policies and judge them on that basis?

Good pastors serve God’s glory and lead their churches such that their church doesn’t need them very much at all

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Click the picture for a link to purchase the book.

I previously posted an early comment on Jared Wilson’s book The Pastor’s Justification. You can read that brief post here. I purchased the book on the recommendation of an experienced pastor who posted a comment on facebook. Having now finished reading it, I found the book insightful, helpful, challenging and encouraging in equal measure. It has helped me to formulate thoughts and adjust my outlook on several areas of pastoral ministry. I would heartily recommend it to you if you are either in pastoral ministry, training for ministry, considering entrance to ministry or simply want to better understand (and hopefully pray for) those who labour in ministry for you.

Here, I want to offer two extended quotes that I found particularly helpful. The first comes from Wilson’s chapter on The Pastor and the King:

 

[P]astor, take care you are not positioning yourself, or allowing yourself to be positioned, as your church’s functional savior [sic].

In my neck of the woods, the traditional Congregationalist, one-pastor model of church ministry is still quite common. This model has its distinct advantages, and it is certainly preferable to the figure-head pastor isolated from his flock that is so dominant in the larger churches in the West. But this approach to church ministry has its drawbacks and can create a diseased discipleship culture in the church.

The solo pastor model is so hard to root out because it is so ingrained. In New England congregational churches, this model is a holdover from the old days of travelling ministers. Lemuel Haynes, a great pastor for a lot of reasons, is just one example of the pastor who travelled between towns to minister to multiple congregations. Many pastors continue to do this today. This model is also difficult to root out because folks figure that the pastor is the one who is being paid to do ministry, so he’s the one who should be doing ministry. It puts the body in a passive role and the pastor in an overactive role.

This model of church ministry is a perversion of biblical soul-care, because it goes against the biblical establishment of a plurality of elders and the priesthood of the believer. And because this model is deformed, it can have serious negative consequences when left in place too long, including, but not limited to, individuals in the church not receiving the level of pastoral care they need, expectations being placed on the pastor that lead to workaholism and then depression and then burnout, and the usurping of Jesus Christ as the Saviour of a church’s soul.

What often results is presumptuous and idolatrous levels of expectation on the pastor, and even codependency. Pastor, you must shepherd wisely to keep your congregation from becoming codependent with you (and you with them).

How this plays out is through a strategic withholding of oneself. Not a distancing, not a neglect of real duty and care. Not an insulation or isolation. That would be directly violating Peter’s commands in 1 Pet 5:1-11 and Jesus’s commands to feed the sheep. But the pastor’s role is to equip the saints for ministry, and this can’t happen if he does all the ministry himself. It is good to regularly hold back enough that if you were hit by a bus today – or worse, have an affair with your secretary – your church could live (and grow!) without you. Very few churches advertise for a pastor who will lead the church in such a way that they don’t need him very much.

On a related note, Wilson offers the flip-side of this in his chapter on The Pastor and Glory. Again, forgive the long quote but I thought he was clear and helpful:

One of the worst things a pastor can do is test his popularity among the flock. There are times when your entire church may love you… for the wrong reasons. And there are times when your church may hate you… for the wrong reasons. This is something the gospel does: it afflicts the comfortable, and comforts the afflicted. While we aim to stay winsome and kind, self-deprecating and congenial, and loving to our neighbours, seeking the approval of everyone is futile. Likewise, seeking the approval of most at all times is futile. Sometimes a pastor’s faithfulness to God’s Word will set him at odds with his flock. The shallow, cowardly pastor will side with the flock against God. It might seem the safe thing to do in the moment, but it will prove dangerous at the final judgement. It is better to be fired than to court hellfire.

He goes on to argue:

As Western culture increases its speed in the race away from Christendom, as hostility to orthodox and evangelical Christianity increases and becomes increasingly legislated, we will eventually see a separation of the men from the boys. Which pastors will cave to wordly wisdom in fear for their own livlihoods and comfort, and which will fear God, rather than men? The ones who find their justification in the definitive proclamation of God’s grace in Christ instead of public opinion polls will stand firm.

This problem is not new. Hitler knew the ministers of his day would be easy to walk all over because they were lily-livered men, protectors of their own wellbeing. (He did not count on Bonhoeffer.) In every major cultural revolution that has spurred the on the church or harmed it, there has been a revelation of which ministers pursued God’s glory and which pursued their own. In the days of the Reformation, devotees of soli deo gloria risked death from Catholic authorities and counter-Protestant churchmen. Glory-monger pastors were a problem even then. Martin Luther is particularly incisive:

“The trouble with these seekers after glory is that they never stop to consider whether their ministry is straightforward and faithful. All they think about is whether people will like and praise them. Their is a threefold sin. First, they are greedy for praise. Secondly, they are very sly and wily in suggesting that the ministry of other pastors is not what it should be. By way of contrast they hope to rise in the estimation of the people. Thirdly, once they have established a reputation for themselves they becomes so chesty that they stop short of nothing. When they have won the praise of men, pride leads them on to belittle the work of other men and to applaud their own. In this artful manner they hoodwink the people who rather enjoy to see their former pastors taken down a few notches by such upstarts.

‘Let a minister be faithful in his office,’ is the apostolic injunction. ‘Let him not seek his own glory or look for praise. Let him desire to do good work and to preach the gospel in all its purity. Whether an ungrateful world appreciate his efforts is to give him no concern because, after all, he is in the ministry not for his own glory but for the glory of Christ.’

A faithful minister cares little what people think of him, as long as his conscience approves of him. The approval of his own good conscience is the best praise a minister can have.” (Martin Luther, Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians)

The pastor who will see God’s glory is the pastor who pursues God’s glory in exclusion of everything that falls short. All lesser glories may be placed on the altar.

I say again, the book has been fascinating. It is an excellent look at the role of the church minister. It will encourage and challenge those in pastoral ministry and will certainly give insight to those who wish to care and pray for their pastors more meaningfully. Do buy yourself a copy, you will not regret it.

The morning after the brexit before: some conclusions to draw

great briitain leaves european union metaphor

The results are now in. Two nations within the UK voted to leave the EU while two voted to stay. Every region in England outside of London voted to leave the EU. My own area of Oldham voted over 60% in favour of withdrawal. The Prime Minister, who campaigned vigorously for us to remain, has tendered his resignation. We now enter a period of complete uncertainty.

The Conservative Party will shortly need a leadership contest. Some are also calling upon the leader of the opposition to resign (though brexit has merely provided the latest opportunity to make such a call, it is not new). Quite why nobody is calling upon the leader of the Liberal Democrats to resign as well, given he campaigned to remain, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it is a symptom of their general political significance these days. This uncertainty may well trigger a general election and it is highly likely that Scotland will also press for a second independence referendum, the result of the first they aver being predicated on continued EU membership. The markets have responded to the uncertainty in kind and the pound has taken a significant knock overnight.

Given all of this, how ought we to respond to the result? What conclusions can we draw even at this early stage? I want to suggest a few.

A vote to leave the EU is not a mandate for brexiteers to govern the UK

It was much trumpeted in the run up to the referendum that a vote to leave was a vote for Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Such a suggestion is clearly nonsense. A vote to leave the EU was a vote on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. No more, no less. Agreeing with Farage, Johnson and Gove on the very specific question of whether we should remain in the EU does not, therefore, mean each vote also counts as an endorsement of every other view they hold.

In fact, the suggestion is demonstrably false. My own area of Oldham had a by-election shortly before the EU referendum. In that by-election, UKIP held a very public and prominent campaign. In the end, they garnered only around 4000 votes. Compare that to the 60% of the area, with a higher turnout than at the by-election, who voted to leave the EU. The Conservative Party candidate came in with a woefully low number of votes, behind UKIP and the Lib Dems. Clearly the people of Oldham West & Royton, staunch Labour supporters, were in favour of leaving the EU without offering support to the Conservative Party or UKIP. The same can be shown quite clearly across the country. In fact, it was noted time and again throughout the election coverage that the Labour grassroots were strongly weighted towards leave despite the position of their party leadership.

The point here is that a vote to leave the EU has nothing to say to any mandate any individual has to govern the UK. There is a case to be made as to why David Cameron had to resign (a similar decision was taken by Alex Salmond after he lost the Scottish Independence referendum). However, it should be noted that even those advocating brexit within the Conservative Party’s own ranks called upon Cameron to remain in post regardless of the result. Nevertheless, resign he has. But his resignation, and the result of this referendum, does not automatically give a mandate to brexit advocates to govern the UK people. Only a general election can do that.

Given the many grassroots Labour supporters who wanted out, it seems unlikely this referendum will translate into substantial gains for UKIP whenever the next election is called. In fact, the result of this referendum may make UKIP obsolete. Their raison d’être will ultimately be no more. Let me say it again: this referendum is not a mandate to govern the UK.

The nature of the debate and the reaction to the result has been ugly

The great sadness of this whole referendum is that much of it descended into mudslinging, lies, half-truths and pejorative. In the wake of the murder of Jo Cox, Jeremy Corbyn (rightly) called for a gentler, kinder politics. People on all sides of the house united to condemn the bile and hatred that led to her death. Yet, for all the rhetoric, the nature of debate hardly changed and the reaction to the result remains deeply unpleasant.

I was very clear about my reasons for voting leave (which you can read here). I would like to think anybody that knows me would consider my logic fair-minded and borne out of genuine principle. I would also like to believe (but may be deluded) that those who know me can honestly attest to the fact that I am not a racist and such thoughts played no part in my decision. I may like to think these things but reading comments from many friends – though not directed at me personally – rather challenge this perception.

Even if you are the sort of person who believes everyone who has ever considered voting UKIP must of necessity be a bigot, it is surely not tenable to consider over half the country all racist bigots in equal measure. Nor, as we have already said, can over half the country be considered in any way supportive of UKIP (4m votes will not get you into government, even on a more proportional system). Is it really inconceivable that most people might have voted leave for reasons totally apart from nationalism? Is it not at least possible that people may have voted leave for reasons that were not racist and xenophobic? Even the most basic understanding of charity and human decency insist we must at least concede the possibility.

A good friend of mine quoted me in the run-up to the vote. He has today given an excellent summary of the nature of this debate. So, I quote Joe Byrne below:

In what probably represents some kind of poetic justice after my own reaction to the last General Election, I find myself understanding a lot more why so many Conservative supporters were hurt by unsavoury comments made about their motivations/reasons for voting the way they did.

As someone who was genuinely wavering between Leave and Remain right up to the point I voted, I could easily have gone either way. So it is disheartening this morning to read so many comments from friends assuming that those who did vote to Leave the EU did so for racist, bigoted, isolationist, small-minded, idiotic or ill-informed reasons.

Sadly, this was characteristic of a debate where it felt that neither side was really listening or interested in engaging or respecting the other perspective. I fear we are heading down the route of becoming as sharply divided politically and completely entrenched as the USA seems to be.

We need understanding and dialogue, not accusation and labelling. As someone who has been guilty of the latter, I find this morning a stinging rebuke to my own arrogance and presumption.

Politics is still London-centric

While every region within England voted to leave the EU, Londoners were keen to remain. We could analyse and assess all the whys and wherefores of that particular anomaly but others will do that elsewhere. What is worthy of comment is that it further shows how London-centric our politics remains. Our Westminster-focused politicians were, by and large, in favour of remain. This manifestly reflected the views of metropolitan Londoners but was clearly out of step with the rest of the country.

The only part of the UK where the politicians and people seemed in line with one another was Scotland. There, every party leader favoured remain and so the people voted. Now, one could argue that it was the unity of the political leaders what won it. But, with the exception of UKIP, evidently that same unity within the English parties did not translate into a remain vote. It further underlines the distance between our elected representatives and the people they represent. Politics so easily gets dominated by London and what Londoners think so often gets mistaken for what everyone else must think too.

With Scotland likely to want another referendum, our exit from the EU making a decision to cede from the UK more probable, the issue of regional parliaments must surely be considered. We have already seen a seismic shift in the popular vote for any government, the rise of SNP has further clouded election results and this referendum cements the view that Britain is not a monolithic cultural bloc. Scotland does not think as Wales, the North does not think like the South, most of the UK does not think like London. Devolved regional parliaments are surely the next major constitutional question.

The markets will recover

One of the issues when people speak of ‘the markets’ is that they are not tangible. People presume it is some abstract entity utterly beyond our control that fluctuates at will. But the pound going up and down, the strength of markets, revolves around the confidence of certain people trading. Naturally, when there is uncertainty, they are not inclined to plough their money into things. When the future is more certain, and profits more readily perceived, then things settle down.

So it should come as no surprise that the pound has taken a battering overnight. Interestingly, just before the result when everyone was convinced we would remain, the pound shot up to its strongest position in months. The brexit result quickly saw it fall again. The reality is not that brexit will topple the markets. The issue is that the market, for the meantime, is uncertain. What will future trade look like? How will sales be affected in Europe? Will trade from outside outweigh the any loss from inside the EU (if, indeed, such a loss come to pass)? These are all unknowns at the moment. Economists have offered their best guess but, in truth, their economic models are not much more than this. All of them have to make certain presumptions that are anything but sure.

Nonetheless, the markets will likely recover. What needs to be regained is certainty. Eventually, somehow, certainty will be regained. We will not be in flux forever. The UK was the worlds 4th biggest economy before joining the EU. We are now the world 5th biggest economy. Now, I don’t say that to lay the drop of one place at the door of the EU (none of us know where we would be had we not joined), it is to say that we had a big and strong economy before EU membership and there is no reason to believe our economy will not remain strong outside. In their more honest moments, even the remain side said during the campaign that Britain would be economically fine. The markets will ultimately recover. An overnight drop in the pound does not mean we are staring another Great Depression in the face.

God remains sovereign

In the run up to the vote, I spoke a lot about the importance of sovereignty. More important than democratic sovereignty is that held by God himself. He still remains in sovereign control. Whether you voted to leave or remain, God’s sovereignty has not diminished. We can still entrust ourselves to him and his good care.

As a total and complete eschatalogical aside (such as you, dear reader, are interested in such things), I wonder what brexit does for the (typically) premillenial view that the EU represented the beast of Revelation? If our leaving does not lead to the breakup of the EU, I suppose one may still hold the position though we would stand outside of it. But if our leaving the EU does lead to its ultimate demise, as some predict, the premillenial view famously advanced by Ian Paisley (amongst others) will surely have to be reassessed. Not being premillienial myself, our leaving the EU (nor its potential future breakup) does very little to affect my eschatology but the question does strike me as interesting nonetheless.