The whole gospel addresses the world’s wrong thinking, not just the church’s comfort

Nov 12, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Is there a crisis in the nation, with a desperate need for radical change in government policies concerning the environment, health and social care, law and order, education, and our relationship with the EU? Or is there more a sense of ennui, of weariness with a stalemated political process, a disappointment with leadership, a longing to be “godly and quietly governed”? As we approach a general election which may potentially result in a continuation of the same rather than resolution, can the church (the faithful people of God, not necessarily the institution) offer any positive contribution? Should it do so, or should it avoid trying to be merely another group trying to shape the polis, and focus instead on ‘the gospel’ and communities gathered in spiritual fellowship?

In a recent editorial for Churchman, former theological college Principal, Archbishop of Sydney and Gafcon General Secretary Peter Jensen appears at first sight to argue the latter point. he’s looking specifically at the task of preaching and teaching in the local church – which he calls “the hardest job of all”. Acknowledging the many demands on a full-time pastor, Jensen sees the preparing and delivering a message based on exposition of the biblical text as central to all ministry, whereby “the people off God submit to the word of God, so that the Lord may truly rule his church.” 

I have questions in my mind which are not immediately addressed here: Is there any connection between this understanding of the church as community oriented towards Christ, and the godlessness and confusion in the wider world? Is there a danger that a focus on a local group gathered around the bible is not only irrelevant, with no power to influence the nation and society as a whole – it actually makes a virtue of this, creating a spiritual retreat or escape from a secular and even hostile world? Does the gospel of Jesus in the life of the church address our personal, economic, political, moral problems in society that are being brought into sharp focus during the endless election-oriented debates? Or is emphasising the centrality of word ministry the way in which we can get away from the ‘worldly’ concerns?

But Jensen does answer these questions by implication in his piece, with quite a sharp criticism of much evangelical preaching today. There is a tendency, he says, for a sermon to consist of two parts: the explaining of the text, which if care is not taken can sound like a lecture, followed by “application”. Because of a desire the include “the gospel” and a message of encouragement, for many evangelical preachers the application is the same whatever the passage of Scripture being expounded, along the lines of “be assured of God’s love, because Jesus died for you on the cross”. [One might add: “and make sure you tell others about the forgiveness available through Jesus’ death as well!”]

Archbishop Peter says that while of course this message is central to the good news, it fails to feed the sheep with the varied rich diet of the whole of Scripture with its many themes, narrowing down the word of God. This will have the effect of boredom in the congregation, as the faithful “come to church knowing what the vicar is going to say and how it will be said, no matter what the bible reading is”. This reinforces the picture of the church as irrelevant to the real issues that people face in a society with social tension, economic and political uncertainty, psychological stress and moral collapse.

Instead, says Jensen, because “we are faced with an ignorant and hostile context”, we must not in our preaching and shared study of the word neglect “the major ethical and apologetic implications” of the bible. He doesn’t expand on this, but the most recent history of his co-leadership of Gafcon, and his successor’s role as Archbishop of Sydney illustrate an understanding of the Lordship of Christ as relevant to the whole of life, not just the forgiveness of sins and assurance of eternal life for the individual believer. The gospel is God’s word to the whole world not just the local church.

So for example the Sydney leadership have recently publicly opposed same-sex marriage and liberalisation of abortion in Australia, and have gained worldwide coverage in the secular media for insisting on the Anglican Church uniting around single, traditional understandings of primary theological truth, rather than tolerating or celebrating a plural diversity of ‘gospels’.

If we’re not seeing evangelicals in the UK speaking out in the same way, if we’re surprised at the silence in the pulpits about, for example, the government’s introduction of relationships and sex education programmes in schools which explicitly favour secular ideology and seek to repress Judaeo-Christian morality, it’s not because the gospel itself is irrelevant to these concerns in society. It’s because of a voluntary restricting of the gospel to a private message of relationship with God. The message of the cross, instead of being seen as the core truth of God’s justice and love giving salvation, assurance and power, a basis from which Christians can confidently proclaim God’s gracious wisdom and challenging demands to the world and receive strength in the face of persecution, has somehow been twisted to justify an escapist, pietistic separation of “world” and “church” which allows us to be doctrinally ‘sound’ but avoiding having to say anything addressing the nation’s beliefs and behaviour which might upset people.

I recently preached a sermon as part of a series on the book of Ruth. One commentary I read was helpful in a number of ways, but the emphasis of the interpretation was on Ruth and Naomi’s encounter with the “kinsman redeemer”. Just as they met Boaz in their deepest need and he cleared their debts and took them into his home, so Jesus does the same for the believer today. While this is no doubt a glorious truth which must be one of the points of application of the text, the preacher must surely point out that the redemption is not just of individuals, but of Israel. The book of Ruth begins with a situation of famine, exile, death and lack of children – is it too much of a stretch to see this reflected not just in the life of an individual without Christ, but a nation that has lost its way and has embraced idols like our own? And the transformation that occurs: harvest plenty; praise and obedience towards God, marriage, intimacy, children and a future – can this not inspire vision beyond the spiritual health of the local church, into society as a whole?

The worthy commentator to whom I referred emphasised the legal aspects of Boaz the redeemer fulfilling his obligations, just as for us, the centre of the gospel is justification. For him, there is nothing ‘romantic’ in the story. I said:

I’m sorry, but there clearly is! They don’t end up getting married just out of duty… there is a whole theme in the bible of how the marriage relationship, man and woman, is a picture of God’s relationship with humanity. There is the distance – difference inherent in male and female, difference in status, wealth and class just as there is distance between us and God…God seeks out those lower than him for intimate relationship in a way that seems impossible – even more impossible than Boaz and Ruth getting together. One writer, Christopher West, claims that the gospel can be summed up in five words – God wants to marry us!…The metanarrative – the bible begins with human beings being created for dignity and flourishing, but soon there’s a massive gulf between God and human beings. The story ends with the church as the bride of Christ – once poor, in the dirt, without much to commend it, but now elevated, given respect and honour, cleaned up, united with the Lord of the Universe. It’s not difficult to see how Ruth and Boaz, a human story, is a picture of that reality.

The importance of preserving ‘heteronormativity’ in society, and of protecting and nurturing marriage and children (especially when the unborn are under threat); the wider commendation of a god-given vision for human flourishing at a time of national stagnation – these are therefore not side issues, nothing to do with ‘the gospel’, issues to be placed in the box marked ‘politics’. The gospel is contained in the church’s witness to the truth in these areas. These are important parts of the message the church should be preaching and embodying, as it listens to, obeys and communicates the whole teaching of the bible as Archbishop Jensen encourages preachers to do.

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