Excluding people from the Church

Photo by unaesthetic

food-23453_1280A couple of issues recently have raised the question of when and why Christians might exclude others from the Church.

One issue arose when I was to address a combined churches group (in an overseas context) and one or two influential people looked at my 5 minute Bible site and (as far as I can tell without actually listening to the “offending” podcast) decided that I sounded as if I might deny the (according to their understanding) biblical truth that hell is a place of eternal horrible punishment. If true, this for them would exclude me from speaking in such a setting. So, is denying the doctrine that hell is eternal horrible punishment, or alternatively holding that view, a good and proper reason to exclude someone from the Church? I can understand that either might be sufficient reason for someone to cease to have desire to fellowship with the person who holds the view. But should that lack of desire for fellowship translate into exclusion for Church?

The other issue concerns attitudes to homosexuality, and in particular to the marrying of homosexual couples, some among NZ Baptists today certainly see a difference of opinion on this issue as grounds for exclusion from the fellowship of NZ Baptist churches, if perhaps not from the Church.

In both cases the potential excluder sees the issue as the “offender” being unfaithful to Scripture. In both cases the “offender” claims that their understanding of Scripture is different. In one case the disagreement is around the meaning of words and whether certain phrases are to be understood as literal or metaphorical, in the other case (while this sort of issue is in play) the main issue is more around the relative priority of different aspects of the teaching of Scripture and ways our social setting differs from the original contexts of Scripture.

My take is that neither issue is sufficient grounds for exclusion from the Church, and that the second (at least) ought not to be grounds for exclusion from the fellowship of Baptist churches in NZ. So, what sort of issue might give such grounds?

Asking the question in reverse, i.e. on what grounds do we include people in the fellowship of the church. We include people in the fellowship of communion, very commonly in NZ Baptist churches, by an invitation like “those who love the Lord Jesus Christ and seek to be his true disciples”. If that is sufficient grounds for inclusion in Communion, why is it not sufficient grounds for inclusion in the Church? Or what is the Church except the community of those who share communion in Christ?

I also wonder what Paul, in the light of his comments about the relative merits of theological truth and salvation, in relation to the issue of food offered to idols (1 Cor 8, esp. vv.1-2), would say.

New blog well worth adding to your lists

While I have been away fromn home, and so busier than usual, Brian Harris has started a blog. Since Brian is a clear, creative thinker with a sense of humour his blog is well worth following. I have not read all his posts – I’m sure I could find something to disagree with if I did/when I do, I’ve read enough to know it’s an exciting addition to the blogsphere, with already lots of solid content.

Another must-read


41mJsqaskSL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_Yesterday I was given two books, both of which I really want to read (neither biblical or theological). Today I read Scott McKnight’s review of Brian Harris’ new book The Big Picture: Building Blocks of a Christian World View (Paternoster, 2015). Brian is a lovely person, an effective pastor, but I have not yet got a copy of his book, Scott McK’s glowing review adds it to my growing list of must-read serious non-fiction that does not relate to biblical studies. He wrote:.

One of the least known and most insightful theologians and Christian leaders I have met is Brian Harris, at Vose Theological Seminary in Perth, Western Australia. He’s not only a delightful person and Christian, not only a President of a seminary, but he established a flourishing church that encompasses far more than the typical come-to-our-church kind of ministry. In short, when Brian speaks, I listen.

41JItDqo5xL._SX279_BO1,204,203,200_517TWMZEEBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_PS Those who know me will know I mean no disrespect, indeed the opposite by mentioning Brian’s book alongside Pooh and the Philosophers, recognising my affection for the “Great Bear”, Rendering unto Caesar, described by Amazon as “An intimate look into the private and public lives of 50 years of Sri Lankan presidents and prime ministers is provided in this memoir by a long time advisor to Sri Lanka’s highest government officials.” which as well as it’s content is recommended to me by reviewers who praise its self-effacing wit, feeling and concern for people.


Mrs Noah’s Ark (Women from the Bible #2)


Among the women in Scripture we glide over and miss thinking about, what about poor Mrs Noah? Eve gets discussed ad nauseam often asking whether her share of the blame for the first sin is bigger than her mate’s, Cain’s wife gets asked about all the time… But Mrs Noah, another anonymous woman, only named and known for her relationship to her husband. Not even as mother of her sons, who are regularly named as HIS.

Back in Gen 3, when Eve ate the apple (or whatever the anonymous fruit really was) we quickly get told that Adam is right there beside her (Gen 3:6), but when something good happens, and God warns Noah to build the Ark (Gen 6:8-21) we aren’t told if God included Mrs Noah in the instructions. In fact although her boys are mentioned already in v.10, she herself (who bore them and nourished them) is not mentioned till v.18.

Preachers love to embellish the story of the flood. They often imagine Noah’s heroic, or ironic, conversations with the skeptics as he built an enormous gigantic boat miles and miles inland in a desert where “sea” was a word the neighbours hardly understood. Do they ever imagine the work required, most of it probably done by Mrs Noah, with Mrs Shem, Mrs Ham and Mrs Japhet helping out (and they are as unnamed as their mother-in-law) to collect and preserve food for all those people and animals for the half-year long voyage of the NS1 Ark.

Noah and the boys could never have done it without their “other halfs”, yet these hard-working and courageous women don’t get named, in fact their description “your/their woman/women” is in Hebrew just the same as that of the animals “mates”.2

  1. Noah’s Ship. []
  2. e.g. Gen 7:2 uses the same word as Gen 8:18 []

Good Gossip? (Women from the Bible #1)


On Facebook Robyn Mellar-Smith responding to Lindy Jacomb’s guest post at Sacraparental promised to post about a woman from the Bible every day for a week. I doubt I’ll manage that, we are finishing teaching and beginning traveling…

But one of my favourite unsung heroes from the gospels is Anna, after the two old folk have seen the baby Jesus, their responses could hardly be more different.

Simeon gets all poetic and sings a song about being so happy he could die happy, Anna tells all her friends the good news (Luke 2:22-38)

29 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32

While dear Anna simply tells all her friends and family the good news….

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:36-38

There is a sermon here, folks :)

PS: How delicious and ironic (at the same time) I had not read Lindy’s post that started the series when I dashed off the note above (I finish teaching the intensive tomorrow and was preaching in college chapel today…) but when I did I discovered she had chosen my friend Anna to mention in her post!

Deeper and more urgent than the fights over “gay marriage”

Discussion among Christians (especially Christians who found their faith on Scripture) of “gay marriage” have been bitter and acrimonious. This issue cuts deep. There are of course for some participants personal reasons why this issue is emotional. Yet it cuts so deep not only for that reason, I think, but also because it reveals a lack of coherent practical theology of marriage and sex. Thus in discussing this issue too often Christians have to fall back on tradition, or traditional understandings of Scripture.

Colleagues to whom over the years I have lamented our lack of such a practical theology of marriage and sex have often responded by denying that there is a lack. They seem to believe that the traditional standards are still being upheld. Yet, the acceptance of no fault divorce, uncertainty about what advice (except avoidance of full intercourse before marriage) to give to young people, the less than clear role of single adults in most churches… are just a few symptoms of the absence of such a theology of sex.

“Traditionally” Christians have held that marriage is a lifelong exclusive faithful sexual relationship between two people whose goal is to procreate and bring up the next generation. Yet little or none of that seems reflected in the ways churches behave today around marriage. Social changes like no fault divorce and contraception have altered our practice hugely, yet they are poorly integrated into our theology. In much of our talk about marriage companionship has replaced talk of procreation and child rearing. We have accepted our society’s definition of humans as sexual beings to such an extent that we have little or no place and certainly no clearly understood roles for single adults in church (except as in New Testament times “widows”).

Although (with the exception of the “wedding at Cana”, which contains no teaching about marriage)  there is little said in the Bible about marriage. Yet we are not left without resources, Genesis 1 and 2 provide two quite different and complementary possible starting places. Yet most conversations start with one or the other, seldom both. The core biblical virtue of faithfulness is clearly important, but how is it to be outworked today? In a traditional view sex outside marriage is wrong because it risked children outside marriage, how does widespread and usually effective contraception affect this? On what basis do we today advocate sexual exclusivity?

I have linked to it before, but Richard Beck’s post “The Icons of God in Marriage: Nature and Election” is a helpful thought starter, providing as he does at least a useful and deeply theological way of framing the questions.

The Tri-une God and Motherhood

I have not yet pointed to the series of posts on The Tri-une God and Motherhood by kbonikowsky at The Happy Surprise, I should. They are very good, offering a careful, gentle presentation of the topic. .One of the things I like is that she approaches the theology simply, yet insists on a Trinitarian understanding. So many people thinking about emotive topics, like gender or like God, let alone when we mix echoes of our relationships with parents into the mix, seem swiftly to lose  their sense of proportion and theological “niceities” get thrown to the winds. I saw this years ago when I briefly explored Catholic theologians treatment of Mary when preparing my thesis. Catholic dogma concerning Mary is careful (to a lifelong Protestant it is odd, but it is careful), yet once these otherwise sensible theologians started to write about Mary the mother they seemed to lose all the restrictions their tradition had put in place to ensure that Mary did not seem to enter the Godhead. kbonikowsky avoids such emotion-driven excess in her talk of the Tri-une God and Motherhood, so far it is good stuff!


Scripture and the “gay marriage” debate

Photo by Dennis Bratland

I had an unexpected visit from a friend this evening. Among the wide-ranging and inspiring (as well as depressing since we talked of the plight of the Rohingya) topics we addressed was the question facing the Baptist Churches of NZ of what to do faced with many churches who believe that to perform the marriage of a gay couple would deny the truths taught in Scripture and other churches convinced that to refuse to perform such marriages would in itself be a denial of truths taught clearly in Scripture.

I do not want to address this issue directly, but rather the similar issue of divorce – also a question of sexual ethics that can be addressed from Scripture fairly directly.

The Bible seems to me to speak with only two voices on divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…” which allows divorce. The translation of the grounds is open to some debate (for an idea of the range cf. NIV and NRSV) but but in Jesus day the issue resolved into a debate between “conservatives” who only allowed unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse, and the “liberals” who allowed divorce for “any reason” (pretty much the position the laws of most Western countries take today.

Jesus seems (Matt 5:31; 19:7; Mark 10:4) to take a hard line. Arguing that divorce contravenes God’s intention expressed in Gen 2 and concluding: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9)1

I am ignoring Mal 2:16 as this passage (in which God says “I hate divorce”) may not be speaking of literal divorce but rather Israel’s unfaithfulness to her covenant partner, God.

In terms of a Christian position on this issue I can see no justification for setting aside Jesus words and returning to the law of the Old Testament. One common approach to the “problem” of OT law for Christians is to argue the opposite, that only what is affirmed in the NT applies to us. I believe that position to be wrong, but still cannot accept setting aside a saying of Jesus (repeated three times)  in favour of a difficult to translate OT law.

Yet somehow almost all churches today in NZ accept divorce certificates issued by the NZ state as a result of a “no fault” process. They then remarry these divorced people.

I would be grateful for someone who can explain to me how the hermeneutics that allows this flagrant breach of Jesus’ clear and strong teaching applies to “gay marriage”!

[This is a genuine question, I am still unsure where I stand on the question of churches performing “gay marriages”, but I am quite clear on the biblical teaching on divorce. I do not understand how one can allow churches that practice the remarriage of “no fault” divorced people to remain in communion yet argue that churches that practice “gay marriage” should be excluded.]

  1. There is a case to be made that Jesus’ position is not as stark as it seems but that he was siding with the “conservatives” and only allowing divorce for unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse. []

Sex as “Sacrament” – Making Babies and Making Love


Paul bases his teaching about sex and marriage on Genesis. As usual, he is in some ways less of a dreamer and more down to earth than Jesus. His argument does that if sex makes two “one flesh”, then sex outside marriage would make you one flesh with the “prostitute” (1 Cor 6:15-20).

This talk of infidelity (un-chesed) is the basis of Paul’s teaching about sex and marriage. Sex unites, making love – makes two into one. Already this idea is foreign to the Western world with its “serial polygamy”1  and frequent divorce. Another of Paul’s conclusions is even less comfortable for modern thought:

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does” – a shocking thought (which confirms some people’s bad opinion of Paul?), except that, for Paul, the reciprocal is equally true “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (1 Cor 7:4)

You see sex is like a sacrament. One consequence of making love is making babies. With God’s blessing, sex makes a new being, in His image, see Gen 4:1; 5:1-3. But (as many infertile couples know) this is not what makes sex sacramental. Making love cements two beings together in partnership. It both celebrates and produces chesed – a covenant relationship.

While the marriage ceremony marks the beginning of this process – of itself it does not create the partnership. Sex and the ongoing co-operation of daily living are the effective agent that builds union. Rather like the relationship between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism affirms our desire to be covenant partners of Jesus. Communion continually seals this as we drink the “covenant cup” declaring our continued desire to be faithful, as he is.

  1. As my African colleagues used to call the all too common Western experience of marriage plus divorce plus re-marriage. []