A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 2

The second phrase I want to look at is one I picked up from Americans. I think it’s brilliant, but I have found that there are English folk who have a problem getting their heads round. It’s this: I always think I’m right, but I don’t think I’m always right! So let’s take this apart and find the sparkling gems of important biblical principles so succinctly and brilliantly stated by it.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which Christians can fall concerning how they apprehend the truths of scripture. One is to be so un-definite and wishy-washy that it’s difficult to know quite what they believe about anything. Many believers are so ‘shades of grey’ through fear of being thought of as being too black and white, so woolly- and double-minded in their desire to avoid ever being thought of as being overly dogmatic, they end up virtually conviction-less and pretty much useless as far as serving the Lord goes. Evangellyfish with no backbone! In his letter James states that a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways, and this is one of the major reasons why so many Christians are so hopelessly compromised and cowardly in their discipleship and witness to the surrounding culture. Because they are not clear on even the basics of the faith, they just wobble all over the place having little to saying just keeping their heads down and to avoid controversy.

The opposite error, however, is when believers hold understandings and convictions regarding the teaching of scripture which, once embraced, become fixed and unalterable in their thinking. They then deem their doctrinal positions to not even be open for discussion, let alone possible re-examination and re-assessment in the light of increased scriptural awareness and knowledge. And of course there is a spectrum in-between these two extremes which, given that none of us are ever in perfect balance, each of us is somewhere along at any given time. It is, after all, quite possible to have intractable convictions regarding those bits of the Bible we take a liking to and especially agree with, whilst being conviction-less – indeed, probably just completely ignoring – those parts about which we might simply not be bothered. All this is error and imbalance, and we need to be doing everything we can to get it right. So let’s break our phrase down into it’s two constituent parts.

First, I always believe I’m right! Think about it! Why would we believe certain things, thereby acting and behaving in whatever way those beliefs demand, if we didn’t believe those things to be right? Definite biblical conviction is meant to be the very basis upon which we live! Jesus said, “They shall know the truth and the truth shall set them free.” So if I am living on any basis, in any area of my life, that is not a positive embracing of, and obedient response to, clear biblical conviction, then I am not, by definition, being faithful to the Lord and am living in bondage in such regard. If we claim to be disciples then the only thing that should matter to us is being in conscious obedience to scripture. Jesus also said, “If you love me you will obey my commands.”

This is obviously an ongoing process which progresses over time, but once we are saved our whole intent should be to be continually adjusting our thinking, and therefore our lives, in order so as to conform with our growing understanding of what the Bible teaches. Wherever we find ourselves at variance with it, whether in belief or action, then the evidence of discipleship, as opposed to us proving to just be carnal Christians, is that we duly repent. That is, that we change both our thinking and our behaviour accordingly.

There are obviously also going to be those things concerning which, at any one time, we are genuinely unclear on regarding what scripture teaches, the jury, so to speak, still being out, but even then we should still be continually seeking to understand more and more of its teaching in order to adjust ourselves and our lifestyles accordingly. We cannot truly follow the Lord and grow in Him without also growing in clear progressing biblical conviction regarding every area of life.

So yes, of course I always think I’m right. If I didn’t think I was right regarding whatever I believe, such being the basis for how I live, then what business do I have believing whatever it might be in the first place? James also states quite clearly in his letter that if a man knows what is right but doesn’t do it, then that to him is sin. Notwithstanding, as we have already seen, there will always be things we don’t yet understand from scripture (but of course one isn’t then claiming to be right regarding them), we are nevertheless meant to be crystal clear on the basics. Should such not be the case, then we should realise how important it is that we start putting that right as soon as possible.

Secondly, but I don’t believe I’m always right! This is crucial! The safeguard to always believing that we are right is the ongoing realisation that we should only believe anything at all should it be what scripture actually teaches. So we must now introduce another thought, and it is simply this: I don’t know what I’m wrong about! And neither do you! Think about it! If I thought I was wrong about something then I would, presumably, correct it, put it right and therefore not be wrong any more. Should we ever remain knowingly and wilfully wrong about something then that is obviously sinful and without excuse, but even when we truly are being as genuinely honest as we know how, it still remains the case that we are sinners who are naturally prone to deception, and who could therefore be wrong about absolutely anything, at any time, without realising it! And of course the answer to that is what the Bible teaches concerning humility, and about the importance of us being genuinely correctable and willing and open to having others show us where we are wrong. But of the course the important thing then is that any such correction must itself be demonstrably what scripture actually does teach! In order to properly correct someone it must be made absolutely clear to them from God’s Word that they are wrong, otherwise there is no basis to even think they are wrong. The only basis upon which to expect a believer to change their mind concerning honestly held biblical conviction is to demonstrate from scripture that the conviction in question is actually wrong.

This is one of the reasons why being in close and significant fellowship with others is vital, and why it is so important that we never expect anyone to accept anything we say or teach just because we say or teach it. Indeed, we should always encourage others to satisfy themselves whether or not anything that has been stated is consistent with God’s Word. As a Bible teacher I have always insisted that no-one accept anything I teach unless they are satisfied for themselves that it is what the Bible teaches. I would rather believers disagree with me because they have honestly searched out scripture for themselves than agree with me just because I said it, or because I merely sounded convincing when I did. Conversely, however, if someone does disagree with something they hear taught, then it is for them to demonstrate from scripture that one teaching it is wrong, as opposed to merely rejecting something just because they don’t like it, or because it doesn’t fit in with their own pre-conceived ideas or pet doctrines.

I have certainly become accustomed to being thought of as being fay too definite about various biblical issues which many Christians seem to want to remain obscure, and concerning which they consider it offensive to be dogmatic because they don’t want to have to be in obedience regarding them! But whether it’s what I teach in regards to church life, the differing roles of men and women in family and church life or the scandal of divorce and remarriage, I have always made it as clear as I know how that I welcome correction, whether concerning those issues or anything else. My position has always been this: Like anyone and everyone else, I have no idea what I am yet wrong about! Therefore, if anyone thinks they can see where I am wrong about something then please, please, please, feel free to show me! I honestly and truly don’t want to be wrong about anything, yet am nevertheless fully aware that I am wrong about things which I genuinely and honestly think I am right about! But here’s the condition! You must show me what you think I am wrong about from scripture, and you must do so fully aware that it might also turn out that it is you who is wrong concerning the matter, and not me after all! To just say someone is wrong about something without clearly demonstrating your biblical basis and authority for so doing is actually an example of monumental arrogance and presumption. Do you really expect others to accept that what you say is correct merely because you say it? The whole point is that, in regards to what we are here talking about, it doesn’t matter what you think, or what I think, or what anyone else thinks! The only thing that matters is, what saith the scriptures? Am I right or wrong about this, or the other? Are you right or wrong about this, that or the other? The only way to establish anything is such regard is for all concerned to turn to scripture with as honest and as open a mind as we know how!

So yes, I always believe I’m right, but I don’t believe I’m always right! And that should be the deal for every believer. Every Christian should be able to honestly say such of themselves. It simply boils down to this: We must be definite about, and therefore faithful to, our biblical convictions, yet whilst being genuinely humble in our acknowledgement of our, as yet, unrealised and unacknowledged ignorance and error!

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A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 1

It has been well noted that England and America are two nations separated by a common language, and as an Englishman who spends much time there I can confirm that this is indeed the case. But although English is my first language I’ve managed to pick up some Americanese and can occasionally bridge the gap!

There are a couple of turns of phrase which I use quite often that seem to cause confusion in both countries, but for completely different reasons and depending which side of the Atlantic I happen to be when I use them. One is a phrase very commonly used in England, which oft-times raises eyebrows amongst American believers, and the other is a phrase I picked up from American believers which causes a bit of confusion in the Motherland. So in an attempt to undo the confusion I continue to cause on both sides of the Atlantic, let me define these terms (hopefully) to the satisfaction of both my American and English brothers and sisters. I will deal with one today, and the other in the morning.

The first phrase, which I have used since childhood, and which I have never known an Englishman to misunderstand, is the simple phrase, ‘Agree to differ.” And this comes up because I often teach that one of the most important things Christians need to learn to do is to master is the art of being able to agree to differ. However, what Americans seem to hear when I say that is that is the suggestion that Christians should just avoid addressing difficult issues and not try to come to one mind, so as to reach agreement in order to maintain the unity of our faith. They perceive me to mean that we ought to accept a kind of lowest-common-denominator-type stance on things, pretty much just ignoring what scripture teaches regarding them thus leaving the tough issues undefined, ambiguous and un-dealt with so as to keep the peace. Such would, they say – and quite rightly too – be to not take what the New Testament teaches about striving to be of one mind very seriously. So let me clarify what I mean by saying that believers need to learn how to agree to differ.

I think it is is probably the case that there aren’t two followers of Jesus alive on the planet at any one time who would agree with each other about everything. Indeed, how many even godly husbands and wives tick the same boxes about absolutely everything? It is therefore vital that we understand that what holds us together in fellowship is obedience and faithfulness to the Lord, and not the need for comprehensive or complete agreement on what that necessarily looks like in every circumstance. Further, because everyone is at a different place in their discipleship, it is simply ridiculous to assume that every Christian will share the same outlook and understanding regarding everything, even though we are all reading the same Bible.

This is not, of course, to say that there are no red-lines. But it is to say that a lot of Christians seem to have so many red-lines it’s just crazy. I have known believers to fall out and break fellowship with each other over such secondary matters as differing understandings of the relationship between election/predestination and free-will, whether it’s alright to read Harry Potter books or not (and even the writings of C S Lewis), the timing of the Rapture and even over which political party o one votes for. And such fallings out and divisions between Christians, which scripture condemns as being actually carnal and sinful, occur precisely when we don’t properly understand what it means to be able to simply agree to differ.

I am not implying that such differences shouldn’t ever be pursued to see if things might be resolved and agreement reached, but it is simply the case that often, no matter how much discussion and debate ensues, neither party has a change of mind (why should they?), and to try to then pursue matters beyond that point is at best simply a waste of time (having the same old debate again and again and again and again and again), but at worst to actually risk introducing the temptation to end up with wrong feelings towards one another and actual relationship breakdown.

Definition: agreement to differ is simply the mature biblical response to intractable disagreement over issues that are not foundational, thus guarding the wider unity of the relationships being put potentially at risk because of the ongoing discord. I don’t mean that we dumb everything down and continue to just fellowship willy-nilly with believers in serious unrepentant black-and-white chapter-and-verse sin, or who push serious doctrinal error such as denies the very foundations of the Christian faith, but what I do mean is that there are somewhat wider parameters and scope for acceptable differing understandings of things, both doctrinal and practical, than we often think. Whatever our understanding might be regarding, for instance, the timing of the Rapture relative to the Second Coming, or whether the Church has replaced Israel permanently or temporarily Or anything else of a similar vein), it doesn’t make any qualitative difference to the godliness, or lack of it, of our everyday lives. Likewise, if a truly godly family likes Harry Potter as entertainment whereas you disapprove, then what does it ultimately matter? If they aren’t demanding that everyone else approves, or that others ought to do likewise, then what possible harm is done?

In both Romans and Corinthians Paul teaches that there are things regarding which the Lord has not provided any black-and-white-chapter-and-verse definitive instructions. The way to handle such things, he says, is for each believer to simply be true to their own conscience and to leave everybody else to theirs. Whether it’s meat-eating versus vegetarianism, or observing or ignoring special days such as sabbaths, Christians are to just leave each other alone and make no judgement. I must do what my conscience dictates regarding such matters, and you must do likewise. And although Paul obviously gives examples that pertained then, there are a gazillion ones that would fit the bill today. and which are therefore our equivalents. Drinking alcohol or not, watching TV or not, celebrating Christmas or not, reading Harry Potter books or not – the list is endless!

Regarding such matters scripture teaches that there is no necessity whatever for Christians to be in agreement, or to even try to come to agreement. Each is free – indeed, commanded – to be true to their own conscience and we must never interfere with other believers freedom to do the same. So this is what I mean when I say that, when biblically appropriate so do do, Christians need to learn how to just agree to differ.

I will deal with the second of these phrases in the morning. So see you then!

Christians, border walls, Brexit, politicians, hypocrisy et al!

As someone who divides his time between the UK and US, I find it both extraordinary and fascinating to see the two nations in such complete governmental chaos at exactly the same time. As America endures the longest government shut-down in its history, the British government suffers the most devastating parliamentary defeat in our nations’ political history. If, like me, political observation is somewhat of a hobby for you, this is all great fun, but it doesn’t change the fact that such events are monumental. As a result a perennial question is now on the lips of ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic even more-so than usual, and it simply this: Why can’t politicians just be honest, open and transparent about what they believe and then behave consistently with said beliefs? Why do they have to so often be so utterly disingenuous and hypocritical?

But the question all this provokes me to ask is somewhat different, and it is this: Why are so many Christians, and especially Christian leaders, so like the politicians I have just referred to? Why can’t we, as the Lord’s people, just be honest, open and transparent about what the Bible teaches, and stop being so dishonest and disingenuous regarding the bits we keep desperately trying to avoid because of the increasing disapproval of the surrounding culture? Why can’t we just surrender to the Lord once and for all and submit to what scripture teaches irrespective of the profound changes we would have to make in our lives?

For over 40 years I have seen again and again and again that many Christians, leaders included, simply ignore what the Bible teaches regarding certain things it simply doesn’t suit them to address. Even regarding such biblically fundamental issues as the sanctity of marriage and family life, and the differing role of gender within it, believers by and large just turn a blind eye to, for instance, the fact that remarriage after divorce, with some very limited exceptions, is adultery, and that God has ordained the husband to be the head of the family, and that leadership in the church is exclusively male. Because Christian leaders know that many in their various congregations would vote with their feet if they taught what the Bible says regarding such things, and especially if biblical church discipline was being properly exercised where disobedience to such prevailed, they therefore either never even refer to such offending passages in the New Testament or, should such issues ever be raised, just summarily dismiss them by repeating the knee-jerk ‘christian’ mantra that we are not to judge, and that grace and forgiveness means we should leave anything offensive or controversial well alone and just accept whatever way things are. The fact that scripture teaches the exact opposite of such thinking is thereby also avoided, and church attenders are spared unwanted biblically-oriented teaching and thinking entering their consciousness. This is what I mean when I say that so many Christians, and especially Christian leaders, behave more like self-serving politicians than they do disciples of Jesus.

Picking and choosing which bits of the Bible’s teaching we approve of and which we don’t, thereby simply ignoring and disobeying the bits we don’t like, is hypocritical, disingenuous and utterly dishonouring to the Lord. Paul the Apostle told the elders of the  churches in Ephesus that he had taught them the ‘whole counsel of God’, yet how many church leaders and Bible teachers today could even vaguely claim to be doing that. Indeed, they know only too well that to do so would cost them not only their treasured popularity, but possibly even their salaries. Christians sit listening to sermons from their leaders week-in-and-week-out for decades without ever being taught some of the most important things scripture has to say. As a result their minds are not being continuously renewed and they therefore remain in conformity to the world and its thinking rather than living in holiness and obedience to the Lord. The New Testament refers to such believers as being carnal Christians! Genuine believers, for sure, but believers who are nonetheless utterly retarded in their spiritual growth and development. The New Testament likens such to grown men and women who still need to be breastfed. A sorry situation indeed!

Across the Atlantic Democratic politicians who just five years ago voted for funding for a wall along the Mexican border are now keeping the government in shut-down by declaring that such a wall is fundamentally immoral, and that they must therefore refuse to grant it. Irrespective of your political stance on immigration and border control, whichever way you cut it, they are being completely and utterly hypocritical! Likewise, here in the United Kingdom politicians who just two years ago pledged commitment to honouring a referendum decision to leave the European Union have since done everything they possibly can to sabotage it and are now, having seen their chance, trying to kill it off completely. Like their American counterparts they are simply demonstrating what self-serving hypocrites they actually are! And Christians who stand firm on whatever aspects of scriptural teaching they happen to agree with, yet who avoid and ignore, and therefore disobey, those aspects which don’t suit them are, equally, similarly behaving like self-serving and disingenuous hypocrites.

Remarriage after divorce, with exotically few exceptions, is adultery, and to not bring church discipline to bear upon those planning to illegitimately remarry is to disobey God’s Word. But how many believers and church leaders are exercised in insuring such a standard prevails in churches?

God has given headship of the family to husbands, and commands that wives submit to it. Likewise, in church life leadership is for men, women being barred from eldership or teaching the gathered church. Yet how many Christian leaders and believers at large are standing firm and strong against the increasing rejection of this truth amongst God’s people?

The New Testament also makes clear that we should imitate the practise of the apostles of Jesus regarding such things as how we conduct church life, how evangelism and baptisms should take place, plus numerous other things which most Christians just ignore and take absolutely no notice of.

It is simply a fact that one of the things that characterises modern Christians is that they simply ignore important and significant teachings of the very Bible – the ‘whole counsel of God’ – whilst purporting to be fully following it! Claiming, as all believers do, the authority of scripture, they then proceed to sit in judgement on it, carefully editing out whichever aspects of its teaching they don’t approve of, or which they know would be too costly and too inconvenient to have to obey.

In the Old Testament one of the constant themes of the judges, and later the prophets, was that, “Every man did what was right in their own eyes.” Having, as they did, God’s Law, they nevertheless had a ‘pick and choose’ attitude and approach to it. Through both judges and prophets the Lord called that exactly what it was, rebellion! Yet today the Church of Jesus Christ, and I mean genuine believers, continues to do much the same thing. Unlike Israel at the time of the judges and prophets we are not under the Mosaic Law but under the new covenant of Grace, yet exactly the same principle applies. We seem to think, just like Israel of old, that we have the right to just pick and choose which scriptural teachings we obey and which we don’t. As with God’s people in the Old Testament we are merely doing what’s right in our own eyes! It is, however, the same now as it was then – rebellion!

But hey! Am I being just too tough here? Is it reasonable to expect Christians to change so radically given that the Christian Church has been going against scripture regarding such things for so long? Is it fair to expect believers to implement su h profound and wide-ranging changes? But hang on a moment! Didn’t Jesus talk about His followers denying self, picking up their crosses and following Him? Didn’t He teach that we would be hated and treated badly by others precisely because our lives are so different, and therefore condemning, of the culture around us? Didn’t Paul command us to be transformed from living a worldly life to living a godly life in Christ Jesus in full obedience to Him and His Word? Doesn’t the New Testament demand that we be willing to forsake everything in order to follow the Lord?

The question for Christians who are actually disciples as well is never whether something is too hard, or too tough, or too costly! The question for them is only ever, “What saith the scriptures? How does Jesus want us to live? What does He want me to be like in every aspect of my life?”

I leave you with a principle I have sought to live by, however failingly and poorly, since the Lord brought me into His kingdom. It is simply this: If I am not standing on God’s Word and living in definite and clear obedience to it at those specific and precise points where others around me, Christians included, have rejected what it teaches, then I am not actually standing on His Word at all!

It is, of course, irrelevant to us as believers that there are politicians who are hypocrites! Of course there are! No surprises there! It should, however, be of the absolutely greatest concern to us to truly test whether or not we, as those who claim to be disciples of the Lord Jesus, and who therefore claim to be committed to be living under the authority of the teaching of scripture, are any different to them!