A new daily blog

It’s been a while since a post has appeared here – and I’m hoping to get a proper one up soon. But in the meantime, I thought I’d highlight a new blog that I’m writing on my church’s website. At our church, we encourage everyone to follow a programme of reading the bible on a daily basis, and to this end we provide suggested readings following the M’Cheyne reading plan (as modified by Don Carson). In the “Daily Bible Thoughts” blog, I’m writing a short thought for one of the passages we suggest for each day. There’s nothing ground-breaking there – just my own reflections on a chapter or so of the Bible. In many ways, it’s just a way for me to spend more quality time in God’s word. But I’m hoping that it is at least somewhat helpful to others too.

You can find the blog here: http://www.cometbaybaptist.org.au/category/daily-bible-thoughts . Alternatively, you can follow us in feedlyin feedly.

Without You

Found this old poem languishing as a draft from 2010. It’s not particularly brilliant (in fact it is absolutely AWFUL), but here it comes from the “Drafts” graveyard!

Where would I be without you, Lord?
Where would I be without your love?
Without your tender care?

I don’t know what I’d do
if it were not true:
if you weren’t alive to reign.
But you promised to love me.
Promised you care.
Promised you’ll come back,
and In that hope I do dare.

Where would I be without you, Lord?
Where would I be without your love?
Without your tender care?

Thank you for your love.
Thank you for your love.
Thank you that you’re still right here

Thank you for your love.
Thank you for your love.
Thank you that you’ve always cared.

On same sex marriage

With the Australian election around the corner, one of the issues that has been raised by the incumbent PM is that of gay marriage (which, for some reason, is being spruiked as marriage “equality”). I think Skye Jethani is right arguing that the church dropped the ball on this way back in the 70s when no-fault divorce was introduced. Marriage as an institution in the eyes of society is certainly not the symbol of God’s love and relationship with his people that it should be.

The argument for same sex marriage seems, in part, to be one of “I have the right to be happy”. But is happiness a human right? And is happiness now the most important thing in the world? I would argue that ultimately we will only experience true happiness when Jesus returns and makes everything new. Yes, we can have glimpses of joy now, but they are only glimpses. Happiness is something that is worth longing for, because God desires it. But, like all good things, we can become so besotted with the glimpse, that it becomes an idol to us.

As a society, I think we’ve fallen for a lie we’ve been telling ourselves: that in order for people to be happy, they need to be sexually fulfilled. If someone has a same-sex attraction, then I believe that they can still live a fulfilling, celibate life. I would say the same thing to those who have a hetero-sexual attraction but who aren’t married. Just because you have an attraction doesn’t mean you have to act on it in order to have a fulfilling life.

God wants people to be happy. But even more, God wants people to be holy. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus died to save me. And so I want to honour him in the way that I live. I believe that anyone who seeks to do this will not be disadvantaged by their choice to honour God and live their lives according to his mores.

Matthew 19:27-29 sees Peter saying to Jesus, “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?” Jesus replies, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life.” (NLT)

That last bit, I think probably also applies to those who give up following their gay desires. Yes – it’s a giving up. But I believe that whatever we give up for Jesus’ sake will seem insignificant in the light of all the good that God has in store for us. If you give up a bit of temporal “happiness” now for the sake of following Jesus, then the joy of an eternity with him will make it seem as naught.

Would my opinions change if I had a child who said he or she was gay? I would hope not. Theology starts not with my experience, but with God’s self-revelation. Not that my experience isn’t important; it’s just that what God says or reveals about himself and us carries infinitely more weight. But… wouldn’t I want my kid to be happy? Yes! Would I ever abandon a child if they told me they were gay? Would I shun them or treat them badly? Never! In fact, God would never do that. Jesus spent most of his time hanging out with the people the religious crowd thought were dodgy. I would hope that I would treat such a child with just as much love and compassion as before. I hope that I can also be a good friend to anyone – regardless of their sexual orientation. But would I be so concerned for someone’s happiness now that I was unconcerned about the potential greater happiness that they were shunning? No. And that goes for anyone who deliberately chooses to live a life contrary to what God desires – be they heterosexual or homosexual. We all have a choice to make. And that choice has eternal consequences. Happiness now for an eternity apart from God isn’t an option I would choose for my worst enemy.

As part of the “Make a stand” campaign, I wrote a letter to my local MP. In my letter to the minister, I noted that one of the things that saddens me about Australia is the state of marriage between men and women. That so many marriages fail is a travesty. I don’t just have a problem with gay marriage. I’ve got a problem with heterosexual marriage being treated as something inconsequential.

It’s fair to say that my stance on this comes from my theology. I think it’s so easy to get caught up in the “now” that we forget the “eternity”. Of course, if one doesn’t agree that there is an eternity – or that God exists and wants us to live our lives according to his purposes, then what I’ve said here doesn’t make sense. But if it’s true, then surely it’s kinder to take the long view?

A return to blogging

Wow! It’s been almost two years since I last blogged! Time for a return! I’m planning to blog at least once, maybe twice a week from now on, sharing some of my thoughts on the reading that I’ve been doing!

Looking forward to putting some thoughts to words!

 

Luke 9 – The benefit and the cost of following Jesus

A new thought for the blog: I’m going to be writing some thoughts on passages of Scripture…. These are just my own musings and thinkings – what’s your opinion?

Luke 9 is an interesting chapter to read. It starts with Jesus giving his disciples authority and power to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Half way through, we’re told of their inabilty to heal someone (Luke 9:40). And then a few verses later, they admit to stopping others from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. From being given power to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases, the disciples end up being unable to heal – and jealous of another’s casting out demons. Why?

In verse 1, Jesus gave his disciples power and authority to do the kind of work that he himself was doing. Surely this means that he gave them of the Holy Spirit? Notice, it wasn’t just authority that Jesus gave them – but also power. God’s own power. The power of the Spirit. Was this a pre-empting of Pentecost? No, I don’t think so. Pentecost was when the Spirit was poured out. It was the inauguration of the age where the Spirit dwells within us in a permanent way. Rather, I think the power that Jesus gave his disciples at the start of Luke 9 was similar to the outpouring of the Spirit in the Old Testament – a temporary endowing of the Spirit for a specific purpose. In this case – to tell of the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick (verse 2). The reason the Spirit was given was so that the disciples might be effective in telling about Jesus’ kingdom.

Often, I tend to think of the Holy Spirit in ego-centric terms. He is the Spirt of adoption – the indwelling Spirit of Christ, uniting me to God the Father through Jesus. And in uniting me to Jesus, the Spirit brings to me the justification which Christ has earned. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:2, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. He is the Spirit of sanctification – prompting me to put to death the misdeeds of the body and leading me in holiness; For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. (Rom 8:14). All this is true – marvellously true. But we need to remember that the Spirit of God is also given us that we might be effective witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Are we all given authority to cast out all demons and heal all diseases. No – of course not – that’s clearly not our experience. But we like the disciples have also been entrusted with the task of telling others about the kingdom of God. The disciples were given power and authority over demons and diseases, I believe, to demonstrate the power and truth of their message. We are given the Spirit for the same reason. Why does God sanctify us? Well, to conform us to the image of Christ. But perhaps also so that when we tell of the life-changing gospel of Jesus people will see how our words are backed up by our own lives.

Consider Luke 9:3-5. Apart from the power and authority given them by Jesus, his disciples were to take nothing for their journey. As they told others about the marvellous kingdom of God, they were to do it in absolute reliance on God. Why does Jesus insist that they take nothing with them? And how does this apply to us today? How many of us would be willing to risk everything for Jesus. And this is a risk. These disciples had nothing to fall back on should things go poorly. If they spent the whole day walking to a town – and were there rejected, they would go hungry. They would go thirsty. They would suffer. And can you imagine the state their clothes would be in after just a week? One change of clothes: and you’re walking in a hot, dusty environment. They’d stink!

What do we do today? If someone wants to be an overseas missionary, we insist that they first get all the monetary support that they need to survive in the mission field. In effect, we tell prospective missionaries: take all you need for your journey. Take a plane ticket. Make sure you’ve packed everything you might need. Make sure you’ve got enough to eat. And enough money to live on – everyone needs to survive! And clothes – who’s going to listen to you if you look like a beggar. Take all you need. Is this contradictory to the command of Jesus? Certainly, we need to remember that Luke 9:1-10 was about short-term missions. And the disciples were going to towns and people that should have been waiting for news of the Kingdom of God. It had, after all, been long promised in the scriptures. Today, however, an overseas missionary is quite a different beast. Usually, we’re talking a long term commitment to an unreached people group – a people who have no personal – and sometimes no cultural – history with God. In light of that, I don’t think it’s wrong for us to insist that missionaries are fully equipped for their mission.

So does that mean Luke 9:3-5 is meaningless for us today? That it was simply a one-off set of instructions for a specific group of people (the disciples) long ago? No – of course not! Because the underlying message to us is still very valid. Jesus is telling his disciples – and us – to rely on him and his power and his authority to do his work. It’s so easy to get busy tryyng to do kingdom work in our own strength. How is our church going to reach our community? By being really attractional – a place that people want to come to; that yells: “Here’s success” to a success-driven society. Says Jesus to us: just trust me. All the stuff you think you need to succeed in ministry: you don’t. My strength is enough. I’ve given you power and authority – what else do you need. You have my Spirit, what else can you need? Will you trust me to provide for success in your ministry? Will you trust me to provide even for the basic needs of your life.

Why don’t we risk everything for Jesus? Why don’t we risk giving all we have? Why aren’t we like the Macedonians – giving even beyond what we can? After all, God will provide.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’re called to recklessness. But maybe we are called to Christian recklessness. To a surrendering of all that we have to Jesus – and trusting that he will provide. Because he does! The disciples returned in verse 10 telling Jesus about everything they had done. Their mission trip – their ministry – had been successful. Yes – I’m sure there were a few instances where they left a village shaking its dust from their feet. But on the whole, the big picture was one of success. The kingdom grew – and Satan fell!

Jesus speaks all this to the crowds a bit later on in verse 23-26: If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed? If anyone is ashamed opf me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in his glory and in the glory of the Father.

To be continued…. 🙂

The church

It was the church father Cyprian (3rd century AD) who famously posited that if we are to think of God as our Father, then we ought to think of the church as our mother. There’s certainly something to be said for that analogy: the church is the bride of Christ. She is responsible for teaching us about Jesus. When she makes decisions, she does so with the intent of following the Father’s wishes – something she’s able to do because the Spirit of God lives in her. She strives to see us grow up in our faith – to see us grow in Christ-likeness. She celebrates with us when life goes well – reminding us that is God’s loving kindness that has blessed us. She comforts us when we need comfort – not by her own power, but by helping us to see Christ anew. She is with us in both the highs and the lows of life. She encourages us to bring our friends home. In fact, she longs for nothing more than to have an extended family – offering the father’s adoption to all she comes into contact with. She stands against those who hate the Father – not to harass them, but to demonstrate the Father’s character to them.

But – and this is a big but – we cannot merely think of the church as an abstract “she”. For while all of the things said above are true of the church as an institution, we need to recall that the church consists of none other than ourselves. We are the bride of Christ. We are the ones who represent the father – not only to the world outside, but also to one another. As individuals, we have the gift of the Spirit – who variously gifts us for the edification of the congregation. And by this same spirit we are united – we are the church of Christ – the body of Christ.

Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”

In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honourable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honourable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honour and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.

All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.

Darkness

Tomorrow is Christmas, and I’m preaching from Isaiah 8:20-9:7. A truly wonderful passage. In my preparations, I tried to capture something of the good news in some poetry. I think there’s an interesting rhythm to what I’ve come up with. It’s probably not ready to share yet, but here goes anyway!

Darkness.
Shadow on shadow
hanging deep upon the soul
of the world;
of those who claim strength
to be all they need by themselves.

Useless.
Every wandering trial
mocking desperate hungry souls.
Without hope
roaming throughout the land
where gloom, it seems, never ceases

Darkness.
Seeming without end
smoth’ring all bar discontent
Yet fear not
for the gloom: it has dimmed
as light intermingles with night.

People
walking in darkness
have seen a wonderous light:
A child born;
A son to us gi’en
Eternal God with us fore’er

Have a wonderful Christmas everyone. May your  life be dazzled (anew?) by the great light of the world!

When Christians Disagree

Last night, I was reading through John 13 – John’s account of the last supper. Towards the end of that chapter, Jesus tells his disciples once again that he is about to go to the Father. And in light of that, verse 34, he commands them to love each other they way he loved them. Because that love would prove to the world that they were his disciples.

Surely that commandment from Jesus is true to this day. As Christians, we are those who have experienced what it means to be loved. A love that makes even the most extravagant of human loves seem pale by comparison. We know the love of him who, though God eternal, died for our sakes. And that kind of love – self-sacrificing, other-focussed, deep, godly – is what should inspire and indeed define our love for our fellow Christians. When we love one another like that, what we’re really doing is rephrasing God’s love for the world to see.

In every church that I have been associated with, there has been this element of love present. In fact, I fondly remember particular people whose lives were a living advertisement for God’s love. But I have to be honest and say that there have also been occasions when there was a distinct lack of love “one for another”. And it leaves a bitter taste even to observe.

In Philippians 4, Paul writes to a couple of ladies – Euodia and Syntche. These were godly, Christian women. They’d spent many a long hour working hard alongside Paul, Clement and a bunch of other Christians in sharing the good news about Jesus with others. They were united in purpose – and together inspired to tell forth Jesus’ love for the world. When Paul had been in town, their love for Christ must have obvious for everyone to see. And, as John reminds us in 1 John 3:11ff, to love Christ is to love each other. (And vice versa, to love one another is to “proves that we have passed from death to life” [verse 14]).

But as Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, something had gone far wrong between these two godly ladies. So big was their disagreement that Paul, sitting miles away, heard tell of it. I think it’s reasonable to assume that a fair number of people in Philippi (non-Christians as well as church members) would have clicked that things weren’t right between them.

If  our love shows that we are Jesus’ followers, what do our arguments and disagreements prove?

When Christians disagree, we are reminded that we are sinners saved by grace. When Christians disagree, our faith and unity in Christ is masked – to the detriment of the church and the gospel. How can we share Christ’s love for the world when we deny it reign in our own inter-personal relationships?

Paul doesn’t tell us in Philippians what Euodia and Syntche were arguing about. And I don’t think it really matters what it was that caused this breach. I think it’s fair to surmise it was a fairly major disagreement. But consider the consequences.

I believe that Philippians 4:4-5 are written as an instruction to counter disunity and disagreement between believers.

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. (NLT)

Think about it: where there is disagreement – how much joy is there? How often do aggrieved parties try to be considerate towards each other? No. Disagreement robs joy and fosters self-righteousness and self-interest.

If we would follow Paul’s instruction in verse 4-9, how could disagreements endure? If we were to rejoice in God’s goodness and mercy, how could we live in enmity with one whom God loves and rejoices in? God takes joy in his people. To be considerate in all we do likewise means putting the other first. Disagreement and consideration are in some respect antonyms. Indeed, if we lived knowing that Jesus was coming soon – would we be focussed on our disagreements – or would we recall that we are to spend eternity together as brothers and sisters?

Yes – Christians do sometimes disagree. We are still sinners this side of eternity. But I think it behoves us to strive to love one another. (Something which God can and will and does empower us to do by his holy Spirit.) Perhaps when somebody pushes our buttons, instead of putting up dividing walls between us, we should instead follow what Paul says in verse 6-7; we should pray about it. So often our disagreements cause us all manner of worry. Why? – when we can take them to God, who loves us and the other person – and who is already at work to make both of us more like him. That’s the way to peace.

And this peace of God does more than just settling our hearts and minds. It also guards them against our sinful inclinations. If I know God’s peace – I don’t have to defend myself; I can rejoice even when falsely accused. I can be considerate toward the other because I live in Christ who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but humbled himself, becoming like us… dying for us. That’s our prince of peace.

Philippians 4:8-9 suggests one further step. To focus our thoughts on what is true, honourable, right, pure, lovely and admirable. When we’re in disagreements, it’s easy for us to lose sight of these things, and to focus on negatives. Yet we need to recall that our brother or sister in Christ is in Christ. And Christ is in them. Let’s focus on that. Let’s focus on the fruit of Christ’s Spirit growing in their lives. Let us be united in him.

Sometimes – when the disagreement is long in the tooth – it does need a third party to step in. Paul here calls upon Syzygus to act as a mediator. But wouldn’t it be better to not let disagreements wart out to that stage?

They were singing…

They were singing. That’s the last thing I heard as I walked away from the cold darkness where I’d put them and made my way into the warmth of my house. Despite everything that had happened, those two blokes were singing. And for the life of me, I didn’t get it. I couldn’t get them. They were weird-as: when they should have been nursing their wounds, they were praying and singing!

But let me back up a bit. My name’s Claudius Markus. Middle aged. Fair hair, brown eyes. Resident of the beautiful Philippi for – oh; it’s been a while. Great place to live; about as close to Rome as you can get. In fact, for all intents and purposes it is part of Rome – one of the outer suburbs, if you like. Because we get all the same perks and benefits as if we were actually in the capitol itself – rather than here in Macedonia. Kind of like Christmas Island – far away from Australia – but very much Australian.

I spent my whole life working in the army. Thought Philippi would be a good place to finish off; you know: settle down, raise the family. Retire even. All I’ve got to do is look after the local klink; make sure the prisoners don’t escape. How hard can that be – all I have to do is make sure they’re chained up properly. I don’t even have to bother with feeding them – their friends come and do that… and if they don’t got friends; meh – shouldn’t have got caught doing the wrong thing.

Let’s be honest – people don’t throw you in jail if you haven’t done the wrong thing. I mean, you deserve it. And yes, my little jail certainly wasn’t 5-star accommodation. But, hey: I was just doing my job. Keeping the scum off of the streets.

Well, that’s how I used to think. Things have changed for me the last couple of weeks. It all started when a bunch of blokes arrived in town – they were heading inland from the coast. There were like 4 main blokes who came: umm: a Doctor Luke; a Timothy – they were all right. You know, people like us. And then there were a coupl’a Jews. Yeah, I know. Paul and Silas. Now, I wasn’t a racist, but Philippi was a pretty civilised, religious kind of place. And there really weren’t many of those atheist Jews around. You know -the one’s who said they don’t need any idols.

Anywho. These newcomers – first thing they did when they got to town was to suss out where the local Jews met – down at the stream just outside the city limits. apparently – whatever they said – it was pretty convincing. Because before you could say “snap” word got around that Lydia – you know, the lady who sells that expensive cloth – she’d taken up their religion – she was calling herself a Christian. A follower of the Christ – of the Saviour.

If they’d kept to just speaking to the Jews, I don’t reckon there’d have been any problem. But that’s where things started to get a bit tricky for the newcomers. I mean, they should have known that when they walked into Philippi, they had walked into territory where all kinds of forces and powers were at work. They should have known that this city wouldn’t just let them come in and turn everything – our society, our beliefs, our economy – on it’s head. But that’s exactly what they came to do. They’d come to encourage everybody in the town to leave their old way of life and to instead become followers of some dead Jewish bloke.

I mean, look at what happened. This one day, they were going to that Jewish prayer place when they were met by Euodia. You know Euodia; Julius’ slave. She was world-famous in Philippi as a servant of the great god Apollo. She had one of his spirit’s in her. Doc Luke wrote that down in his book. She could tell you the future like spot on pretty much every single time. Nice little money earner for her owners, of course. The future wasn’t cheap! And she wasn’t a scammer. She was the real deal. Like trunk line through to the supernatural. Everybody used her. I myself had paid over the fee to hear her predict what was in store for me.

But the strangest thing? From the day she met the newcomers, she started following them around yelling out at the top of her voice some nonsense about them being servants of the Most High God who were telling us the way to be saved. If I were that Paul bloke, I’d be pretty thrilled to have her on my side. I mean, it’d be like getting Today Tonight on side. Everybody knew her – trusted her. What a bonus for the newcomers! Free advertising and endorsement.

Which makes what Paul did a bit odd. Like 3 days after she started following them around, he turned on her. From what I hear, he’d been getting like more and more irked by her as the days wore on. Like he didn’t appreciate what she was doing for him. And on that third day, he just snapped. He turned around, looked at her, and he spoke – not to her, but to the spirit in her. Euodia told me what he said. He said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!”

The other day, at Lydia’s house, Eudodia was trying to explain to me what happened. She struggled. She said it was like… like something dark left her. Like, you know, that moment when the sun breaks through the clouds. She felt different. Free, somehow. I mean, yeah – she’s still a slave, but for the first time in a long, long time she felt like she wasn’t. Like the thing inside of her was evil, and had gone. Had run away as fast as it could as soon as Paul – in the name of Jesus Christ – told it to. Euodia’s thrilled of course – wouldn’t you be if you’d spent more than half of your life with an evil spirit inside of you?

But Julius and his partners, her masters – they weren’t quite as thrilled. Because turns out that when Paul exorcised the evil Spirit from Euodia, he’d also exorcised their paychecks from their pockets. Which was not something that they took kindly to. They couldn’t have cared less that Euodia felt so much more alive and free – all they cared about was that she couldn’t do her job anymore. And she wouldn’t even fake it for them. Said she wasn’t following the old gods anymore, that she was following the powerful one; she was following this Jesus Christ.

You know what they did, of course. Got some heavies to grab Paul and Silas – the Jewish newcomers. And dragged them off to the town square to face some justice. They couldn’t, of course, accuse them of casting out a spirit. Exorcism wasn’t a crime. But Julius and his partners were clever clever men. They accused Paul and Silas of 2 things. First off: they were Jews. Not just foreigners, but Jews. Atheists, those people who claimed that the Roman gods weren’t really gods, who said their God was invisible. That’s always a good card to play in Philippi – play the man, play the race card. And the second charge was like the first. These blokes, Julius claimed, they had come in and were trying to get people to be un-Roman. They were undermining the social fabric of society. And they had to be dealt with before it was too late

Not surprisingly, that got the crowd all riled up. I mean, we were in Philippi. Our brighest ambition was to be as Roman as we could. Last thing we wanted was some blokes trying to undermine that. The magistrates really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. If they didn’t punish Paul and Silas – those Jews – they would be accused of being anti-Roman. And the town might turn against them.

So they grabbed them. Stripped them naked. Flogged them and handed them over to me to throw them into jail. Which is fair enough. That’s how everybody came to me. Stripped and beaten almost senseless. And I’d always take them in give me a roof for the night – with free manacles on the stone pillow.

These two – Paul and Silas – I was told to guard them extra carefully. But… it was a cold night, and I wanted to go home and be with the family. So I took them into the max-security part of the jail. Right in the middle, in the darkness, with their feet locked in stocks. Made sure they weren’t going anywhere. And started off for home.

That’s where I started the story today. Because as I left the jail, I could hear them singing. Now you got to know, when you get thrown into jail after a beating, you’re sore. Nobody treats your bleeding wounds. You can barely move. Toilet facilities are, umm. Yeah, well. Suffice to say there was a slight aroma to the place No water to drink. And Paul and Silas, with their feet in stocks – they must have been in agony. Over the years, many of my prisoners had killed themselves it was such a soul-breaking place.

And I went home. Had dinner. Sat in the warmth. Went to a warm bed. Until just after midnight. There was an earthquake. I rushed out, across to the jail. If any of the prisoners had escaped, my head would on the blocks – literally. Guards who let prisoners escape were always punished in the most extreme way possible. I got there – and the earthquake seemed to have hit the prison head on. The prison doors were all open. I took my sword out, and was about to fall on it; kill myself.

When I heard, through the midnight still Paul’s voice. Claudius – stop! We’re all here. How he knew I was there; how he knew what I was about to do – I have no idea. I suspect I’ll never really know. I mean, he was in the very middle of the jail. There’s only one way he could have known… But as for me, when I hear him, it just blew me away. I rushed in, right to max security. All the prisoners on the way, they just sat in their cells, their chains all off. I got to Paul. I fell down before him, overwhelmed. Brought them out from the cell, sat them down outside, and asked the question I had to know. Sirs, what must I do to be saved.

And he told me. Believe in the Lord Jesus. I took them home, washed their wounds. They told me and everybody in the house all about Jesus. How he is the son of God, who loved us so much that he was willing to suffer and die for us – to take my punishment for him. And you know, I could see that those two blokes took it seriously. Because they themselves had been willing to suffer for the sake of telling us about this good news. They’d been beaten, falsely accused, imprisoned. And through it all, their faith in God didn’t waver.

And now, everything’s different…

(Based on the events of Acts 16)

On the separation of church and state

Historically, one of the defining features of Baptist belief has been an insistence on the separation of church and state. These two God-ordained institutions, it is held, having distinct mandates and loci of authority, should not encroach on one another. Upon first appraisal, this principle seems simple. Yet, as Prevost notes, the separation of church and state is “probably the most misunderstood and the most controversial” of all Baptist distinctives. Indeed, the separation of church and state is complex, “not neat. It’s messy, difficult, inconsistent, and it always has been.”

John Smyth, a key Baptist founder, proposed that  a “magistrate is not by vertue [sic.] of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force and compell men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions.Theologically, Baptists argue that one’s faith comes from a personal experience of and relationship with the risen Christ. Logically, this cannot be enforced by a third party. People must be free to choose for Christ or not according to their own consciences and convictions.

For the church and state to be separate implies that no religious group should be given preferential treatment. As Grenz wryly notes, the gospel, bearing witness to the power of God, “does not need to be bolstered by state power or given preferential treatment.” Nevertheless, the state is to ensure freedom for all religious to conduct their business without fear of persecution or reprisals.

In Romans 13, Paul notes that all authorities – including states – are established and instituted by God. Indeed, he calls state authorities God’s servants; the same Greek word being used in the LXX of priests rendering religious service to God. Both state and church, then are divinely ordained for service. Yet they are not ordained for the same service. The church exists to call people to faith in Christ, the state’s function is to maintain social stability. Where the church seeks to maintain social stability, it is in danger of losing sight of the coming kingdom of God. Likewise, “no king can turn his people to God’s love – all he can do is hang them.”

Although called separately, the church and state are mutually beneficial to one another. States, in seeking a well-ordered society, provide an environment in which churches can thrive. Churches, seeking to grow people in Christ-likeness, produce through the gospel “the type of Christian character conducive to a well-ordered society.

The primary scripture on which Baptists base their theology of distinct civil and religious realms is Matthew 22:15-21. When Jesus instructs his disciples to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, it seems that he is affirming the existence, rights and functions of the state. Further, by implication, different things are owed to the state than are owed to God. For, as Jesus announced to Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. Isaac Backus, an early American Baptist rightly questions how one “can hear Christ declare that his kingdom is NOT OF THIS WORLD, and yet believe that [a] blending of church and state can be pleasing to him.”

Biblically, then, it seems that there is a strong argument for the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, the biblical witness does not go into overly much detail of just what that separation looks like. Some, like Southern Baptists in America, have no qualms about openly supporting certain political candidates. Others bemoan even accepting donations from politicians. All Baptists, however, would still claim obedience to the principle of the separation of church and state.

This principle was born not only out of theological conviction, but also out of historical experience. In the ancient world, religion and culture were twinned, reinforcing each other. To deny the state religion was paramount to treason. Like first century Christians, Baptists arose as dissenters against state mandated religion. Historically, the western church had been politically intertwined with state authorities ever since the “conversion” of Constantine. Prior to that, the church had been a persecuted, powerless minority. Yet within a short space of time, it itself became the persecuting, powerful majority.

Unlike other protestant groups, European Baptists tended not to seek support from local governing authorities. The idea of seeking to become a state church was inimicable to them; for early Baptists, the government was too “bound up with the world’s evil” to even countenance a liaison. Even had they sought support, it is most unlikely that they would have found it; Baptist theology and practice challenged too many political and social structures.

Dissatisfied with the theology of both other protestant and catholic religious thought, Baptists were usually denied the right to practice their faith according to their own convictions. Rather, “it was everywhere [in Europe] illegal to practice Christian faith as a baptist. Consequently, those who bore open witness to their faith were repeatedly hauled into court, imprisoned, fined, and in many cases put to death.”

Baptists, then, had a strong experiential motivation to ensure that others not have to endure the evils of state-sponsored religion as they had. In the United States, Baptists continued their support of church-state separation. Amongst other things, Baptists there are recorded as refusing to pay either taxes in support of established churches or licenses for their own churches. The situation in America differs from much of the rest of the world in that the Baptist-inspired principle of the separation of church and state was incorporated into that nation’s constitution, even if many citizens weren’t in favour of it. The Danbury Baptists, an association of twenty-six Baptist churches are known to have supported President Thomas Jefferson  politically because of his unflagging commitment to religious liberty.” Unfortunately, it could be argued that in providing political support to him, they themselves were undermining the very principle they were seeking to encourage.

The Danbury Baptists, situated in Connecticut, found themselves in a state where Congregationalism was the established church. Indeed, many American states – like nations in Europe – had established, state-supported churches. The question of how distinctively Baptist a distinctive the separation of church and state is, is at one level, then, simple to answer. This distinctive is very much a child of Baptist thought. It is, necessarily, not shared by any denomination which has embraced or sought state sponsorship as an established or mandated religion. Many American Baptists, for instance, were persecuted by Puritan state governments; ironic given that the Puritans themselves left England to escape state persecution themselves. The Anglican church – having as it does political power enshrined in law – can likewise not be said to share the distinctive in any real sense.

Given it’s historical hold over European political affairs, it is perhaps not surprising that the Catholic church does not favour the separation of church and state. In 1864, Pope Pious IX went as far as to call “liberty of conscience and of worship… most pernicious to the Catholic church and to the salvation of souls.” Baptists would argue back that simply being a mandated member of a church has no import for the salvation of one’s soul; salvation is a personal matter between God and one’s self.

Over time, the idea of church and state being separate – at least in the western world –has been accepted by society as a given. We live in a post-Enlightenment age, where individualism reigns supreme. Given that state-mandated religion infringes upon the individual, it is perhaps not surprising that many churches – and indeed many other religions situated in the West support the separation of church and state. Nevertheless, whilst many would agree with the principle of the separation of church and state, there remains much disagreement regarding the “distinct line of demarcation in the separation… Obviously there are “gray” areas which account for these differences.” Baptists being a diverse conglomerate, there is even disagreement within the denomination regarding the degree of separation required.

Hobbs argues that “the greatest progress in Baptist witness in history has come under” the principle of the separation of church and state. Tellingly, though, Hobbs only allocates a page and a half to this principle. It would seem that although Baptists fought hard for state and church separation, it has ceased to become an important issue. Indeed, as McDaniel suggests, there has been a “general demise of church-state separation as a principle integral to the Baptist conception of religious freedom.”

Interestingly, if the American situation is anything to go by, it is conservatives who are moving away from this principle, and moderates who are clinging to it. This is perhaps due in part to the conservative emphasise on morality. Given a perceived decline in social morality, some Baptists see it as their duty to put society right. And indeed, Christ would have people living upright lives. Yet righteousness cannot be legislated. Having failed to effectively call people to Christ, one cannot use the state to make them live as disciples.

Perhaps another reason why church-state separation is no longer a priority is the distance in time from occasions when Baptists themselves endured abuse at the hands of church-states. The 1689 Act of Toleration gave Baptists freedom to openly meet together and worship; over the intervening years, it is possible that this freedom has become taken for granted.

There is also, seemingly, a reaction in some Baptist circles against the strict separatist tendencies of other Baptists. Hobbs, for instance, demands that no church should either pay taxes or receive tax funds from the state, but should instead rely on the generosity of Christians. Yet, “it is possible that church and state have a cause in common that does not involve state support of religion per se.” As long as the government does seek to control or dictate church activities, it is surely not inappropriate to accept state assistance. “However, even in such cases, churches should be very cautious about accepting government money if doing so might lead to government control.”

One of the key social changes over the last century has been the growing secularisation of society. On the one hand, this has resulted in a situation where states more often than not have no desire to be associated with the church; there is little political advantage to be gained. On the other hand, with secularisation has come a growing demand for toleration. Unfortunately, much of the gospel is perceived as being intolerant; demanding as it does that Christ is the only means of salvation. There is a danger that Christians lose their freedom to speak Christ in a society where such pronouncement is seen as inappropriate.

In terms of Australian Baptist denominational life, many churches still honour the church-state separation principle. Others, however, are more than happy to instruct members to vote for “Christian” parties. Yet to do so is to assume a position of authority over political matters. Surely this was not what the early Baptists intended.

Although church-state separation is a valuable biblical principle, it does not seem to me to be of such importance that one would form a separate denomination to safe-guard it. Ideally, church and state should be distinct; yet even were they not, the gospel would not be fettered. Rather, one would have a situation where there would be both Christians and non-Christians within the state-mandated “church”. The visible church and the invisible church might not correlate as precisely as we Baptists might like, but God’s church would remain.

If the Baptist denomination still exists a hundred years from now, I suspect that the principle of church-state separation would still find support. Nevertheless, the degree of support would probably depend on the social situation in which the church finds herself. If society is then as stridently secular as it is today, the issue of church-state separation would be largely theoretical. Should there be a religious resurgence in society, Baptists will need to ensure that the rights of individuals to choose faith is safeguarded, lest history repeats itself.

References

Blount, Douglas K., and Joseph D. Wooddell. The Baptist faith and message 2000: critical issues in America’s largest Protestant denomination. Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Daniel L Dreisbach. “Sowing useful truths and principles”: The Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson, and the “wall of separation.” Journal of Church and State 39, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 455.

Freeman, Curtis W., James William McClendon, and C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva. Baptist roots: a reader in the theology of a Christian people. Judson Press, 199

Grenz, Stanley J. The Baptist Congregation. Regent College Publishing, 1985. Hobbs, Herschel. What Baptists believe. Nashville Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1964.

McDaniel, C. “The Decline of the Separation Principle in the Baptist Tradition of Religious Liberty.” Journal of Church and State 50, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 413.

Prevost, Ronnie. A Distinctively Baptist Church: Renewing Your Church in Practice. Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2008.

Smyth, John. The Works of John Smyth. Edited by W. T. Whitley. Cambridge University, 1915.

Tidball, Derek, Gerald Benjamin Ball, and Baptist Foundation of New South Wales. Baptist basics. Baptist Foundation of NSW, 1996.

Wood, Will C. Five problems of state and religion. Boston: Henry Joyt, 1877. Wunderink, S. “When Caesar Renders.” Christianity Today 54, no. 3 (March 2010): 16.

Blount, Douglas K., and Joseph D. Wooddell. The Baptist faith and message 2000: critical issues in America’s largest Protestant denomination. Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Daniel L Dreisbach. “Sowing useful truths and principles”: The Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson, and the “wall of separation.” Journal of Church and State 39, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 455.

Freeman, Curtis W., James William McClendon, and C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva. Baptist roots: a reader in the theology of a Christian people. Judson Press, 1999.

Grenz, Stanley J. The Baptist Congregation. Regent College Publishing, 1985. Hobbs, Herschel. What Baptists believe. Nashville Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1964.

McD

Blount, Douglas K., and Joseph D. Wooddell. The Baptist faith and message 2000: critical issues in America’s largest Protestant denomination. Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Daniel L Dreisbach. “Sowing useful truths and principles”: The Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson, and the “wall of separation.” Journal of Church and State 39, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 455.

Freeman, Curtis W., James William McClendon, and C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva. Baptist roots: a reader in the theology of a Christian people. Judson Press, 1999.

Grenz, Stanley J. The Baptist Congregation. Regent College Publishing, 1985. Hobbs, Herschel. What Baptists believe. Nashville Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1964.

McDaniel, C. “The Decline of the Separation Principle in the Baptist Tradition of Religious

Liberty.” Journal of Church and State 50, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 413.

Prevost, Ronnie. A Distinctively Baptist Church: Renewing Your Church in Practice. Smyth &

Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2008.

Smyth, John. The Works of John Smyth. Edited by W. T. Whitley. Cambridge University, 1915.

Tidball, Derek, Gerald Benjamin Ball, and Baptist Foundation of New South Wales. Baptist basics. Baptist Foundation of NSW, 1996.

Wood, Will C. Five problems of state and religion. Boston: Henry Joyt, 1877. Wunderink, S. “When Caesar Renders.” Christianity Today 54, no. 3 (March 2010): 16.

aniel, C. “The Decline of the Separation Principle in the Baptist Tradition of Religious

Liberty.” Journal of Church and State 50, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 413.

Prevost, Ronnie. A Distinctively Baptist Church: Renewing Your Church in Practice. Smyth &

Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2008.

Smyth, John. The Works of John Smyth. Edited by W. T. Whitley. Cambridge University, 1915.

Tidball, Derek, Gerald Benjamin Ball, and Baptist Foundation of New South Wales. Baptist basics. Baptist Foundation of NSW, 1996.

Wood, Will C. Five problems of state and religion. Boston: Henry Joyt, 1877. Wunderink, S. “When Caesar Renders.” Christianity Today 54, no. 3 (March 2010): 16.