The other day I attended the Evangelical Ministers' Fellowship at Bradley Stoke. The speaker was Stephen Clark, Minister of Freeschool Court Evangelical Church
, Bridgend and lecturer in Systematic Theology at the London Theological Seminary
. His theme was the need to be fixed and flexible. Here are some notes.
When Stephen Green appeared on BBC’s Question Time in 2005 and persisted in answering questions with reference to the Bible, the audience became increasingly hostile. What happened was an indication of a turning against the Christian faith in UK society. How are we to carry out evangelism in this post Christian world?
When Christian guesthouse owners were found guilty of breaking the law for refusing to give a homosexual couple a double room, the judge said that these days, the law will not necessarily reflect Judeo-Christian standards. Times they are a changing. How can we best connect with people for the gospel in this context? Is it via political and social campaigning such as with Christian Voice and the Christian Institute?
What was the approach of the church in the New Testament? In Acts 1:6, Jesus' disciples asked if the kingdom would be restored to Israel in the sense of the theocracy under king David, cf Luke 1:68, 74. Note the disappointed hopes of Jesus’ followers after his death, Luke 24:17, 21. They had expected a political redemption.
Jesus answered the question concerning the restoration of the kingdom in his programmatic statement in Acts 1:8 – the church will be empowered by the Spirit to bear witnesses to Christ from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The narrative structure of Acts is determined by Acts 1:8, concluding with Paul in Rome “preaching the kingdom of God”, Acts 28:30-31. In Acts the kingdom is restored via gathering of the church, the Israel of God. It is a distraction for the church to get hung up on social and politic issues. As citizens Christians may and should get involved in politics and campaign on social issues, but that is not the task of the church per se
Like the old motto of Youth for Christ we need to be “Anchored to the rock geared to the times.” In other words, we need to be fixed and flexible. But what is flexible and what is fixed? The Emerging Church is flexible where it needs to be fixed. Traditionalists are fixed where they need to be flexible.
1. Fixed: the gospel message never changes
1 Corinthians 15:3-5 is a succinct, yet full statement of Paul’s gospel.
A big and glorious gospel. As 2 Corinthians 3 demonstrates, authentic new covenant ministry is more effective than Sinai. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Christ – his person and natures. He is God, but not all of God, 1 Corinthians 12:3-6, the Trinity. Christ died for our sins. The more secular our society, the more superstitious it becomes. Mystical spirituality has little interest in facts. Experience is what matters, but the gospel based on events. Christ died for our sins. What is sin? Relativism speaks of values, not absolutes, but most people believe that paedophilia is absolutely wrong. Some who profess relativism will hold that their favoured cause, such as women’s rights is inviolable. Romans 1 & 2 tells us that man, made in the image of God has an inbuilt sense of right and wrong. Even Hitler raged against those who betrayed him. The transcendent God of biblical revelation guarantees the existence of moral absolutes. Sin is lawlessness, but Christ died for our sins to bring us back to God. His death was an act of penal, substitutionary atonement. The Evangelical Alliance held a debate on Steve Chalke's charge that PSA was tantamount to "cosmic child abuse", but PSA should not be a matter for debate amongst Evangelicals. It is fixed gospel truth. Would we discuss whether murder is right or wrong? According to scriptures. Peter Enns and Andrew McGowan are wrong to question biblical inerrancy and so undermine biblical authority. Raised the third day. The resurrection of Christ changes everything. The risen Jesus is Lord. The gospel demands a believing response, 1 Corinthians 15:1. We must preach with a verdict.
a) God doesn’t change
God is the Rock, Deuteronomy 32:3-4, he does not change, Malachi 3:6 neither does Jesus, Hebrews 13:8, or the Spirit, Hebrews 9:14.
b) The Word doesn't change
We hold to the faith once delivered to the saints, Jude 3.
c) Human need doesn't change
Romans 5:12ff. The problem of sin and death. Rich and poor, educated and uneducated may catch swine flu. People are different, but are afflicted by the same ailment that needs urgent treatment.
It is not the job of churches to conduct surveys to see what the world wants, but to make disciples. The church must set the agenda, not the world, 1 Corinthians 1:22-23.
d) The gospel method doesn't change
The 1st century was a highly visual age – temples, idols etc, but the apostles preached the gospel, Acts 13, 17. Even with modern day technology TV, internet etc. people can still listen. The Reformers preached in a context where people were used to religious imagery. The Puritans preached in the theatre-going age of Shakespeare. Likewise Whitefield preached when stage actors like Garrick were hugely popular.
We must practice what we proclaim, Matthew 5:13-16, Colossians 4:5.
Even in churches with large Sunday congregations, relatively few turn up for the midweek Prayer Meeting. Why is this? Are we building work that will last the testing fires of judgement, or will our efforts go up in smoke, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15?
The gospel message that sets the church’s agenda is fixed.
2. The need to be flexible
David “served God in his generation”, Acts 13:36. The context in which we serve is changing. The task of preaching is to build a bridge between the world of the biblical text and the twenty first century.
Knowing the times.
These days many are ignorant of the Bible and suspicious of the gospel. We seem like fundamentalists in a relativistic world. Following the utilitarian philosophy of J.S. Mill, the law only forbids what compromises liberty of others. Relativism absolutizes freedom. The rise of Islam in the UK. Immigration has made the Britain a multicultural society. Aggressive atheism – Dawkins and Hawkins. The trivialisation of society - X-Factor etc.
All this presents us with an opportunity to serve god in our time.
The natural man always will reject the gospel, but 1 Corinthians 1:22, there are cultural differences. Presenting symptoms are different, but the disease is the same. Jesus dealt differently with Nicodemus and the woman of Samaria in John 3 and 4. We need to be “all things to all men” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Gospel flexibility. Paul became a Jew to reach the Jews and was "as without law” to the Gentiles. Is our chief concern for British values or the gospel? Our primary identity is in Christ. This gives us the freedom to be flexible in reaching different cultures and people with the gospel. The church is a multi-ethnic community. It may be right to target specific groups in evangelism, but all converts need to be integrated in the church.
Paul preached in a synagogue, lecture hall and at Mars Hill. We also need to be flexible on where we hold our evangelistic meetings. In Acts 13 & 17 we see that Paul was willing to adapt his approach for different audiences.
The apostle had a good look around Athens and noticed the people's religious practices, Acts 17:23. We need to be familiar with the contemporary culture in order to connect with people for the gospel. But we must not be unnecessarily coarse in order to win a hearing. (Mark Driscoll's mistake). We want “stuffy” as well as “cool” people to be saved.
Paul quoted pagan poets as a point of contact, Acts 17:28. Van Til was wrong to suggest that there is no point of contact with the non-Christian.
Let us be fixed in our message – the gospel, and flexible in serving God in our generation, so that by all means we may save some.