Friday, 31 July 2009

Packer: Biblical unity is not unity at any price

Continuing with my thoughts on Christian unity, here's a quote by the great JI Packer on when visible unity is not the thing to prize above all. He looks back to the Reformation as a time where it was right to break fellowship:

Where the gospel is, faith is, and where faith is, there the Church us, whatever institutions may be lacking; but no group or organisation can be acknowledged as the Church while it lacks the gospel. The Church becomes visible and identifiable, not by flaunting some historical pedigree of ministerial succession, but by professing and proclaiming the apostolic gospel by word and by sacrament.

On this basis the Reformers held, first, that their separation from Rome was no sin since Rome had effectively unchurched herself by corrupting the gospel; second, their separation was no breach of the Church's unity, since neither papal government and order, nor any other particular form, was essential to that unity; third, by recovering their own church-character through their renewed confession of the gospel the Reformed churches had actually recovered unity, and were now waiting for Rome itself to join their new-found fellowship.

[...] To separate for truth's sake, at the summons of a biblically enlightened conscience, is not sin. When, without failure of love or respect, men dissociate themselves from their previous church connections in order to be free to obey God, this is not, and never was, schism. It may be their duty - as the Reformers thought it their duty to break with Rome over the gospel, and as the Baptist and Independent dissenters of 1662 thought it their duty to stand apart from the re-established Church of England and gather churches according to what they held to be the biblical model.

For such separations the word 'schism' is a pejorative misnomer... It can only engender a false sense of guilt about divisions which are rooted in the cleavage of principle, and encourage an ungodly attitude of 'union at any price'. Union between separated churches in the same area is certainly to be sought ... but it may not be bought at the cost of truth, or the compromise of conviction.'

[The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity]
I guess it will come as no great surprise to many readers here that I believe along with Prof. Packer that there are times to break fellowship where the gospel is at stake. But what about in other situations? Are there other times in which it is right to break a form of fellowship? And how does this work in an inter-church partnership (or 'parachurch') situation like the ministry I am involved in? These are the questions I plan to turn to over coming days, with the help of other believers that have gone before us.

In his comment on my previous post, Chris highlights a more up-to-date expression of Prof. Packer's theology here, which considers questions of the contemporary 'Anglican realignment.'

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Schaeffer: showing love to Christians with whom we disagree

Over the next few days I want to gather together some quotes and thoughts on Christian unity. It's been a subject that I've been thinking about in recent weeks, both in theology and in practice.

Here's a quote to start the series from Francis Schaeffer, whose starting point for this discussion is John 13:33-35:

Not all differences amongst Christians are equal. There are some that are very minor. Others are overwhelmingly important.

The more serious the wrongness, the more important it is to exhibit the holiness of God, to speak out concerning what is wrong. At the same time, the more serious the differences become, the more important it is that we look to the Holy Spirit to enable us to show love to the true Christians with whom we must differ. If it is only a minor difference, showing love does not take much conscious consideration. But where the difference becomes really important, it becomes proportionately more important to speak for God's holiness. And it becomes increasingly important to show the world that we love each other.

Humanly we function in exactly the opposite direction: in the less important differences we show more love toward true Christians, but as the difference gets into more important areas, we tend to show less love. The reverse must be the case. As the differences amongst true Christians get greater, we must consciously love and show a love which has some manifestation the world may see.

So let us consider this: is my difference with my brother in Christ really crucially important? If so, it is doubly important that I spend time upon my knees asking the Holy Spirit, asking Christ, to do his work through me and my group, that I and we might show love even in this larger difference that we have come to with a brother in Christ or with another group of true Christians.
[The Mark of the Christian, pages 46-47]
I'm challenged as I read this passage, especially the final paragraph. As I enter into a new job with UCCF, I am only too aware of the need for visible Christian unity and love with other true believers with whom I (and maybe UCCF) disagree - in theology, in methodology and so on. What will it look like to love these brothers and sisters? Schaeffer is right: the work of prayer is vital.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Inside Out: Forum film discussion

I'm hosting a short film discussion at UCCF's Forum conference in September on the track designed to showcase to students how they can use the arts in CU events.

The film I've chosen to show is Inside Out, directed by Tom and Charles Guard.

Here are a first draft of some questions I've come up with for the discussion afterwards. They've been written so that they can be fairly easily transferred to a discussion after pretty much any film:

1. What was your initial reaction to the film? What was it that prompted this reaction?
2. What impressed you most about the film? (e.g. plot, script or screenplay, an acting performance, film making technique, cinematography, soundtrack etc.)
3. Did any part of the film stand out to you as particularly meaningful or powerful in any way? Why?
4. What is the message of the film, or view of life and the world that is presented in the story as it unfolds? (Try to state this in a sentence). How did the film-maker’s technique seek to make this message plausible or compelling?
5. To what extent do you agree with the message of the film?

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on my questions... or on the film for that matter!

Inside Out is availableto buy on the excellent Cinema16 collection of short British films.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Ten important things I learned in Moldova: part 2

Following on from this post...

6. 'Do not forget to entertain strangers' - One of the unique things about the Moldova summer team is that, after the camp, we go home for a short stay with a Moldovan. I wrote about this experience last year. This time, I went home with a non-believing guy called Valentin to his home in a village called Cojuşna. Once again, I was reminded of the poverty that exists even in Europe. The different this year was that Valentin's grasp of English and my grasp of Romanian were on a par (i.e. very low). However, I was blown away by Valetin's hospitality and discovered that it's actually possible to communicate a large amount, even when verbal communication is very limited (although I am hugely grateful for a Romanian phrase book I had, and an ancient Russian-English phrasebook that Valentin owned!).

7. 'I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want' - Last Sunday the team split into three groups and attended three different evangelical churches in Chişinau. I had the opportunity to attend Christos Pentru Moldova, a Pentecostal church in the city centre. It was a really interesting experience. Perhaps the thing that will stand with me longest was the sermon, on trusting in Christ in financial difficulty. Moldova is Europe's poorest country and the pressures of lack of money are very real. It's tempting to think that something other than the gospel is needed when there is severe financial pressure. Of course it's right to aim to alleviate these problems, but the sermon reminded me that Christ is sufficient even in times of great lack.

8. 'But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us' - My friend Cathy Midmer, who'd co-led two previous trips with me, used to always say that being in Moldova makes a British person feel their weakness. It's true. Everyday activities that would normally come very easily all of a sudden become things that are risky and hard. Add the inevitable bout of illness to the mix and you're made to feel very weak. But with the difficulties we faced this time, it was more obvious than ever that the British team were frail and, like everyone, possessing their own honest shortcomings. One of the CSC staff workers commented that she'd always secretly thought that the British teams in Moldova were somehow super-human. This year she'd realised that we struggled like everyone else. But I think this led to greater glory to Christ. It was Christ that kept us going, and when we were whittled away he remained, just as Paul wrote about in 2 Corinthians 4.

9. 'We live by faith, not by sight' - As I mentioned in the previous post, we spent early morning team times on camp studying 2 Corinthians 1-6. I'd looked at this letter a number of times before, but it came alive as we moved through it methodically. The 'gospel' and 'ministry' of the super-apostles impacted me like never before: a gospel of glory and ministry that celebrated present comfort, the seen and the special. I was convicted by how easy I find it to slip into super-apostle thinking, where I am bothered most about what I see, and lose confidence in the Spirit's gospel transformation being what really matters. Even on the camp, it was easy to get most excited by external things rather trusting the Lord's work in people's hearts. And so the experiences of difficulty were helpful, refocusing me (and the team) onto what really matters: the eternal, internal work of gospel transformation, when the heart is God's true target. As well as some Moldovan non-believers, members of our team were moved to real openness, honesty and repentance regarding a wide range of areas of their lives. When Christians are honest about their lives, it can be tempting to despair at all the messiness. But we live by faith and not by sight. And so it is much more wonderful when hearts are changed than when Christians live a false life that outwardly looks sorted.

10. 'And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit' - Perhaps the thing above all that I will remember from Moldova 2009 was the deep work of transformation that the Lord did through his Word and by his Spirit. Nearly every member of our team experienced deep spiritual renewal as they were shown their weakness and sin and driven back to the cross. Several members of the team came face to face with sin and with situations that they had buried for years. The Lord granted some of our team members deep forgiveness. At the same time, at least four Moldovan students professed faith for the first time on the camp, and several others left the camp counting the cost of following Jesus. I have returned reminded once more of the powerful transformation of the gospel and the life that it brings.

Perhaps the three weeks in Moldova this time were three of the most intense weeks of my life. It's difficult to find words to describe some of the things that went on. But please join me in praying that this summer team might prove to have the long-term fruitfulness that I think it might have had, both in Christians and in non-Christians. Pray that the Moldova 2009 summer team might prove of tremendous value for the kingdom.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Ten important things I learned in Moldova

Yesterday evening the UCCF Moldova summer team arrived back in Luton after 15 hours of travelling. It was the last stage of an incredible three weeks.

I'd rarely - perhaps never - previously had the opportunity to see the gospel at work so powerfully in the way that it was during our time away. To be honest I'm still finding it a bit difficult to process everything that went on. But here are ten things I'll remember:

1. 'He who began a good work in you will carry it on to the day of completion' - It was so encouraging to see ongoing growth in many of the students I'd met in previous years. Ştefan (a room mate on camp three weeks ago) now works as an accountant and is active in his local church - I was so grateful to God for letting me bump into him again. Another former roommate, Artur is about to start as a volunteer with CSC (the Moldovan equivalent of UCCF) on a programme a bit like UCCF's Relay; Victor (who became a Christian on the camp two years ago) is to start training as a priest in the Orthodox Church, looking to apply what he's learned and serve the saviour he loves there; Tanea (who became a Christian on the camp last year) is going strong as a believer. It was also amazing to see how several friends from last year have softened to the gospel over the past twelve months. There are other stories just like this. It's brilliant to see that our ministry is not 'hit and run' and makes a real difference in the long term.

2. 'I urge that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for those in authority' - Until this trip I guess I'd had quite a romantic view of the former Soviet regime. But over the course of the trip this time it became evident how in Moldova - a former Soviet country with an elected Communist government - this sort of governance plays out. It's a strange time in Moldova. The upcoming elections are the most important in the country's history. Meanwhile, the government seem paranoid about 'destabilising influences'. As Westerners working with students - perhaps those amongst the more politically active in Moldova - we were viewed suspiciously. Roll on endless bureaucracy given to our Moldovan hosts. The whole system works on fear: a real fear of negative consequences if you don't do as you are told. Having had just a taste of this, I've realised how difficult it is to be in this sort of system (especially to be a Christian). Pray for the upcoming elections, especially for the Christians standing to reform the system.

3. 'Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn' - Due to the culture of fear that I described above, our team ended up having an ultimately unnecessary brush with the authorities. What followed was really invasive and painful for some of the members of our team. One of the things that I'll remember, though, was the way in which our team pulled together. I've never really been part of a group of Christians that has modelled all suffering when one part suffers in the same way. Deep love for each other and deep love for Jesus was behind the deep emotional response that the group showed.

4. 'We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the hardships we suffered in the Republic of Moldova. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure... But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God' - I felt out of my depth for nearly all of our time away. Day to day different situations emerged where things just seemed to be spinning out of control. I know that several other individuals experienced this too, especially in the situation I sketched above. There were a whole series of pressures that I'd never experienced in leading other summer teams. On the mornings of the camp, the British team studied 2 Corinthians together. It was very appropriate. Together we realised the great blessing of being made to cast ourselves once more upon Christ and his Spirit. In our time of debrief, several people shared that they had experienced the joy and freedom of this, even in situations of pain and pressure.

5. 'I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh' - In the evangelistic Bible studies on the camp this year, we used an adapted version of The World We All Want course. In my opinion, one of the real strengths of the course is the way in which it emphasises that real change is impossible without the Holy Spirit, but with the Spirit change of heart and desires is possible and realistic. As this truth penetrated people's hearts, we saw amazing things happen. In our orientation, the British team were convicted of deep sin as we went through these studies - especially regarding trust in works, rules and law to change oneself, rather than the Spirit. On the camp, many Moldovan non-believers camp to crave this indwelling of the Spirit, realising their helplessness to see real heart change without his special work. One girl, just before she trusted Christ, asked a member of the group how many times she needed to pray to receive the Spirit's indwelling. She was amazed to hear that, if the prayer was genuine, she needed to turn to Jesus only once to be forgiven and receive his Spirit. What a privilege it was to bring this good news!

Part 2 follows in due course...