Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Anniversary Services with John Stevens

We had FIEC National Director, John Stevens, preach for our 208th Providence Baptist Church anniversary services over the weekend. He spoke very helpfully on the Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:1-20, The Parable of the Lost Sheep, Luke 15:1-7 and The Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30. You can find the messages here, which are well worth listening to. During the Saturday afternoon meeting I quizzed John on the mission of FIEC and his role as director. We had John for lunch on Sunday, so it was good to chat to him about what's going on here and the wider evangelical scene. See here for a blog interview I did with John a while back. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forwards?

The Commission on Religious Education Chaired by Dr. John Hall, Dean of Westminster has published its report, Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forwards. Governors would do well to reflect on its proposals, which, if adopted by the DfE would involve substantial changes to the way in which Religious Education is taught in schools and academies. I am RE link governor in a LA maintained secondary school.

In many ways the report is a solid piece of work, surveying the state of Religious Education in a fast changing educational environment. Put simply, the subject is in decline. The figures cited on p. 10 of the report tell their own story. The total number of RE GCSE entries has dropped from 425,000 in 2010 to 255,000 in 2018. In part the decline is due to the near extinction of the short course RE GCSE, for which many secondary schools used enter their students with a nod to locally agreed SACRE requirements. In 2010 there were 255,000 entries, now 26,000. The increased take up of the full course has in no way compensated for the flight from short course entries.

The life was choked out of the short course RE GCSE because the qualification barley registered on schools' Key Stage 4 performance measure tables. That was the Department for Education's doing. Neither is RE included in the EBacc group of subjects, meaning it has to jostle for students' attention alongside a plethora of diverse options in the Attainment 8 'Other Element'. The government's academisation programme hasn't helped. Academies don't feel especially bound to follow the SACRE syllabus agreed by Local Authorities. According to the report, many academies don't teach RE at Key Stages 3 or 4 (see p. 8). On that basis it is proposed that a National Entitlement to a Study of 'Religion and Worldviews' replaces the current locally-based system. 

Things have certainly changed since the 1944 Education Act mandated the teaching of Religious Instruction in all schools. And that meant the study of the Christian faith, irrespective of whether or not a school was denominational in character. The report notes that the UK has seen massive demographic changes in the period following the Second World War. Not to mention huge shifts in religious adherence and social attitudes. With this in mind, the subject has for many years taken a multi-faith approach, with Islam, Buddhism and other world religions being taught alongside Chrristianity. Now, the report argues, RE must evolve still further in order to reflect the contemporary situation. 

Note the title of the report, Religion and Worldviews. It is proposed that 'worldviews' such as  secularism and atheism, should be included in the RE syllabus alongside religious beliefs and practices. In a way this is a welcome development, underlining that secularism is not a neutral norm, but a belief system with its own set of presuppositions that should be subject to the same critical scrutiny as religious beliefs. 

But there are nevertheless concerns with the 'Religion and Worldviews' approach. One is that Religious Education is struggling for curriculum space as it is. If the subject is also to cover non-religious outlooks in some detail as well, the time devoted to studying religious faith will diminish still further. It could be argued that virtually every other subject on the curriculum is taught from a secular standpoint. Does God get a mention in Science lessons? Is History interpreted as the unfolding story of God's providential action? Do Geography teachers tell their students, 'The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof'? Um, no. Not unless we're talking about a school with a dedicated Christian ethos. Humanists UK and the National Secular Society have welcomed the report. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

Besides, if students are going to understand life in modern Britain and where our most cherished values come from, they are going to need a solid grasp of the Christian faith. Secularism often piggy-backs on historic Christian teachings, while at the same time dissing the piggy. Ideas such as the unique value of each individual human being, and the notion of universally applicable human rights are rooted in the biblical teaching on human beings created in the image of God. Historian Tom Holland is currently working on a book that explores the Christian foundations of Western culture (see his article in the New Statesman on Why I was wrong about Christianity. Note also David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Faith and its Fashionable Enemies. Contemporary Western secularism cannot be understood unless it is set against the backdrop of a culture that has been permeated by Christianity.  

You would not have guessed this from the report, which is something of a lacuna, given that the commission that produced it was chaired by a high up Anglican ecclesiastic. I fully understand that Religious Education is not theology, which is my academic discipline. Theology proceeds from a position of faith in God's self-revelation seeking understanding. RE attempts to help schoolchildren understand various religious (and non-religious) beliefs and practices, without stipulating that any one of them is true. But that does not mean all belief systems are worthy of equal attention in terms of enabling students appreciate their own history and culture.

The commission's approach signals a move away from the stance of the Education Act 1996, which says that RE should "reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions represented in Great Britain." In line with that, the Agreed RE Curriculum for Wiltshire aims to develop pupils' "knowledge and understanding of, and their ability to respond to, Christianity, other principal world religions, other religious traditions and world views". That seems about right to me. 

Where Christianity is mentioned in the report, which is rarely, it tends to be in the context of the numerical decline of the faith in the UK. This is used to justify a greater emphasis being given to other faiths and worldviews. The decline of Christianity is an undeniable fact, borne out by the latest social attitudes survey (here). But the figures need a bit of unpicking. Where churches have embraced theological liberalism, attendance is dwindling. More evangelical churches that hold to traditional Christian beliefs and values are growing, albeit slowly. It is certainly not the case that the world as a whole is becoming more secular. Christianity is the world's largest faith and is continuing to advance across the world, even in Europe (here).

Christianity of an evangelical stamp is growing exponentially. In Mexico, to give one example from South America, evangelicals have grown from 2.1% of the population (800,000) in 1960 to over 8%, numbering over nine million by 2010. In China the evangelical church has grown from 2.7 million in 1975 to over 75 million in 2010. (Figures from Operation World, 2010). There is a danger with the 'Religion and Worldviews' approach that students will be given a parochial vision of religious trends that downplays the importance of Christianity as a vibrant, global faith. 

By all means teach Islam and Buddhism, secularism and agnosticism, even. But let's not neglect to inform our children of the incalculable influence of Christianity on our nation's story. Even Richard Dawkins has argued that the Bible should be taught in schools, "European incomprehensible without an understanding of...Christianity" (here). The writings of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy are full of biblical allusions that can't be grasped unless one is on nodding acquaintance with Scripture. 

It's difficult to agree that the 'Religion and Worldviews' proposals outlined here will chart the way forwards for RE. For the way forwards to be clear students need to be given a sense of where we have come from in terms of our national history and culture, and also a sense of where the world is heading in terms of global religious trends. That's not going to happen if the Christian faith is reduced to a bit part in Religious Education. 

Having said all that, many of the report's recommendations are to be welcomed, including its proposals on ensuring all schoolchildren access a high quality a 'Religion and Worldviews' syllabus that is taught by knowledgeable professionals. Emma Knights of the National Governance Association has blogged on how governors should question senior leaders in their schools on 

  • How are we meeting our statutory duty to teach RE?
  • How are we supporting our RE teachers and extending their subject knowledge?

Monday, September 10, 2018

John Owen on excommunication and the gospel

As Mark Dever reminds us in his Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, biblical church discipline is an essential aspect of church life. Church discipline has two main elements: 

1. Formative, which involves teaching the disciples of Jesus to observe all he has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20).  

2. Corrective, which involves rebuking those who are straying from the faith, and may even include removing people from church membership on account of serious error, or open sin. 

Puritanism was a movement dedicated to the further reformation of the Church of England along biblical lines. Independents wanted to churches to comprise not of everyone who lived in a parish, but of people who had been truly converted, and whose lives adorned the gospel; congregations of visible saints. Early 'Reformed Baptists' would have agreed, while they parted company with their Independent brothers over infant baptism. Given that the Puritans were by definition zealous for the purity of the church, it is not unexpected that they were sticklers for church discipline. Their opponents sometimes labelled them 'Donatists'. 

Donatism was a movement in the early church that refused to readmit into the membership of the church Christians who had renounced their faith during periods of state-sanctioned persecution. Augustine of Hippo was a great opponent of Donatism. He argued that the church is made up of saved sinners. The holiness of the church is not maintained by the unwavering faithfulness of believers, but by renewed application of the gospel. Augustine held that the Christian life is one of constant repentance from sin and faith in the blood of Christ. Lapsed believers could therefore be restored to the church on expression of sincere repentance and a pledge of renewed faith in the Saviour. Augustine's pastoral realism and compassion for straying sheep is rooted in the witness of Scripture, 1 John 1:5-10, Luke 17:3-4. Donatism was condemned as a gospel-denying heresy. 

Puritans like John Owen contested the charge that they were Donatists. In his The True Nature of a Gospel Church (Works, Volume 16), Owen sought to set out his mature thinking on church life from an Independent perspective. As the title suggests, the divine wanted to work through how the gospel is to permeate every aspect of ecclesiology. That includes church discipline in its corrective element. The gospel must be allowed to determine the purpose for which a person might be removed from church membership and the basis upon which they may be readmitted. 

Owen readily acknowledged that corrective church discipline had been subject to much abuse. Under the Roman Catholic system excommunicated people could be deprived of their livelihoods and property, arrested and even killed. If the pope excommunicated a ruler, subjects were within their rights to rebel against their prince or even assassinate him. Owen insisted that excommunication from the church was a purely spiritual matter, having only to do with removal from the privileges of church membership. A church member could be excommunicated for persisting in serious doctrinal error or for flagrantly sinful conduct. 

The process of excommunication should be overseen by the elders to whom the rule of the church was committed. But the consent of the whole church was to be sought before a person was put out of the fellowship. And their consent gained to readmit someone who had been excommunicated, but had been brought to repentance. Owen gives special attention to Matthew 16 & 18, 1 Corinthians 5, and 2 Corinthians 2:6 in this regard.

The excommunicated person is to lose all the privileges of church membership. They are “handed over to Satan”; that is put out of the church and placed back into the world. Excommunication is a most solemn use of the keys of the kingdom. What is bound on earth will be bound in heaven. The whole process is to be bathed with prayer. Should a wayward member withdraw from the church to avoid church discipline, they are still to be formally excommunicated, Owen advised. 

The aim of excommunication is not to punish the straying believer, but recover them to the fellowship of the church. Should the person in question genuinely repent during the disciplinary process, it must be halted, and they should not be put out of the church. This is in line with the gospel, which promises forgiveness on the basis of repentance and faith. Similarly with those who have been excommunicated and then repented, “the principle design of the gospel…is to evidence that all sincerely penitent sinners… are and shall be pardoned and accepted.” “It is no dishonour to any church” says Owen “to have sinners in it who have evidenced sincere repentance.” (16:176-177). Church discipline must be gospel centred. Owen for one was no hard-line, unforgiving Donatist.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

3rd edition, 2013, Crossway, 300pp

'The Turning'. It's a big thing, apparently. Started in Reading. The founder Yinka Oyekan received a vision from the Lord telling him that unless he managed to get all the churches in his locality working together on a mission, there would be no blessing. But if he managed to unite them, the Lord would surely bless. That's all the churches, mind, whether Roman Catholic, middle of the road Church of England, Liberal Methodist, Baptist and not forgetting Evangelical fellowships.

People who expressed an interest in the Christian faith as a result of the mission would then be directed towards church that aligned with their preferences. Quite how churches who don't agree on the evangel are meant to do evangelism together isn't explained. Neither is how a church can be a church in any meaningful sense if the gospel isn't preached among them. Ecumenical pragmatism, it seems, is the order of the day.

What we need is a turning back to Scripture to see what constitutes a gospel church. Mark Dever's work will help to point us in the right direction. I'd long heard of the 'Nine Marks' principles, but never quite got round to reading this seminal text.

As mentioned in an earlier review, someone who has been coming along to our church asked if I could recommend a simple introduction to Baptist history and beliefs. That was Erroll Hulse's Introducing the Baptists. While rummaging around in the study, trying to find something suitable, I picked up Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. I think a friend must have given me a copy a little while ago. It wasn't quite what I was looking for when it came to a Baptist intro, hence the Hulse title.

But having flicked through Nine Marks, I thought I should give it a proper read. It's a well known work on Baptist Church principles, focusing on the features of a healthy church, not simply on the details of church polity. Many of the 'marks' no doubt feature in non-Baptist churches. Congregationalists would probably agree with much of what's written here. Dever writes from a  'Reformed Baptist' standpoint. But if anything, greater attention could have been devoted to Baptist distinctives on baptism, membership and the relationship between church and state. 

Now, the Reformed tradition holds that there are two essential marks of a true church: the pure preaching of the Word of God, and the right administration of the Sacraments. Church discipline is sometimes taken as a third mark, although if marks one and two are applied properly, church discipline should also follow.

Dever accepts the two traditional  marks, but goes beyond them to address the issue of what a healthy congregation looks like in practice. In all, as the title suggests, he sets out nine marks of a healthy church. I have heard some people criticise Dever's attempt to boil things down in this way as somewhat reductionist. Selective would be a better way of putting it. The writer doesn't profess to have put together an exhaustive statement  of New Testament teaching on the life and government of the church. But if we wish to see thriving and healthy Bible-based churches, we will do well to give attention Dever's Nine Marks. Especially as some of these marks are sadly neglected in contemporary Evangelical fellowships. I'm not going to discuss each one in turn. You can find a summary of them on the Nine Marks website:

The work is America in its setting, so it takes a little effort to contexualtise its teaching for the UK church scene. But the underlying principles are biblical and therefore applicable to all cultures.  Some points seem counterintuitive. Dever argues that making it more difficult to become a church member and being willing to remove people from membership will help ensure healthy growth. How can being picky about who can come in and getting some out lead to growth? Because that's what the Bible teaches and the gospel demands. It is therefore vital that we have a clear understanding of biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism and church membership. Churches should comprise of what the Puritans used to call 'visible saints'. The church is most effective in reaching the world when she church is distinct from the world. 

In these individualistic times it is encouraging to read a book that emphasises the importance of church life for evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth. The basics of biblical church leadership are also spelled out, literally. In relation to local congregations, leaders are the BOSS, B=Boss, O=Out Front, S=Serve, S=Supply. Practical tips and a variety of other bits and pieces are included in the appendices. 

Dever offers no 'silver bullet' that will guarantee overnight church growth. His is a call to the long term task of forming gospel-centred, biblically faithful churches in which believers may thrive and where non-Christians can encounter the message of salvation. The writer offers the Puritan pastor William Gouge as an example of longevity in ministry. He was minister of the same church from June 1608 until the day of his death, 12 December 1653. The height of the preacher's ambition was 'to go from Blackfriars (his church) to heaven', and so he did after a forty-six year pastorate. No quick fix, but long obedience in the same direction is the order of the day. Read and consider whether the fellowship in which you are involved bears the marks of a healthy church.