Sunday, 30 September 2012

How to study the Bible

David Nilsen has a great post here. When I first became a Christian, I was told, like so many people, that the Bible is the Word of God and all that. I don't like the term, though it's better than calling the sermon the Word, because the Bible actually calls Jesus the Logos. He's the revelation, the Bible is the witness to that, and preachers come a very poor third. I should know, I'm a preacher myself. Let's not get them confused!

My response at the time was (and still is) that if we want to call the Bible a holy book, however that's phrased, we ought to take it extremely seriously, and know what's in it. My pastor decided to promote one of these guides to reading the Bible in a year, so I got a copy, and started reading. My immediate reaction was that I was being fed some very strange ideas. I never believed, for instance, that Ezekiel 28 was about the fall of Satan, though it took a few years before I worked out what it's really about. Much of what I read seemed as dull as ditchwater, especially the genalogies and all those regulations in Leviticus, and the pastor admitted to being bored as well. After that, I was determined never to let anyone tell me what the Bible 'meant' again.

So I started reading through it consecutively, over a year. This was a bit better; I read through it twice, and at least got some idea of how books fitted together. I didn't get much more than that, though, and wanted to look at individual passages more deeply. What, for instance, was that wretched stuff in Ezekiel actually meant to communicate?

So I started collecting commentaries. A quarter of a century later, I'm still collecting them, and I have more questions about the text every year. It never ends.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Called to Love and Praise (1)

My attention was recently drawn to this Methodist sttement (available via the link halfway down the page here) on ecclesiology, adoped by Conference in 1999. 'Adopted' in Methodistspeak means that it's been accepted by British Methodism, as opposed to 'recieved', which means it's been noted, but doesn't have quite the same official standing. I've read a lot of these documents over the years, and have rarely been happy with any of them. One abiding fault is the lack of accessibility, which raises the question of the intended audience. The report is dense, divided into numbered paragraphs, and requires a certain effort to read. So was it written for Conference, for theologians, for the Methodist people, or who? The introduction hopes that it will be useful to two groups; 'those involved in ecumenical conversations' and 'all Methodists'. I suspect the real intended audience is the former group, and if so, it's a pity. If we want ideas to be available to our congregations, then we have to package them better than this. A high point was reached in 'Faithful and Equal', on racism, which was published in 1987. It was practical, accessible, and was published as an attractive booklet. We need to maintain the standard.

It's a long document, 33 pages after removing a stray copy of an order of service which I managed to staple onto the back of it. I won't be able to deal with the whole thing in a single blog post, but God willing, I'll work my way through it.

It starts, in Part 1, by noting the changes in the church and the world around us since the last such statement, The Nature of the Christian Church, 1937. Patterns of life have changes, as has our understanding of the world around us. We're more international, more multiracial. Churches have become more ecumenical. Biblical scholarship has developed; Black, Liberation and Feminist theologies have developed, though it may be a little difficult to discern their influence.

The document is a response to a Memorial received by Conference 1991, and this will have determined some, at least, of the emphasis.

‘The Medway Towns (4/20) Circuit Meeting (Present 49. Vote 42 for, 1 against, 6 neutral)
requests that a review be made of the Church’s policy and Standing Orders concerning
membership (Reception into Full Membership), considering: 1. the importance of baptism as being
‘received into the congregation of Christ’s flock’; 2. the contemporary understanding of the term
‘membership’ and the searching questions posed by non-Methodist Christians participating in our
acts of worship; 3. the bearing of office and voting rights; 4. the importance of ecumenical cooperation and emphases (e.g. inclusion of members of other Christian denominations without
‘transfer’; 5. the questionable use of membership as a basis for statistics, assessments, finance,
etc.; 6. that sharing in the Lord’s Supper (with counts and averages if need be) and/or baptism
(with certification) would be more appropriate possible criteria.’

Section 2.1; 'The Triune God: God's Reign and Mission' is probably the weakest, perhaps partly because of its brevity. It runs through Old and New Testaments, presenting a traditional view of God's relationship with his people, bolstered by numerous Bible references. The problem here is that it would require a book, or a great deal of work on the part of the individual reader, to get much out of it. Then we need to ask ourselves how relevant it really is. This is where practical experience becomes vital to theology. Paul, for instance, fought hard to get Jews and Gentiles to live together within single congregations, despite the cultural differences. This barely acknowledged in the report. The picture given of the first-generation church is the optimistic one presented in Acts, written at the end of the 1st Century AD, rather than that which we get from Paul's letters, which present first-hand evidence of what he had to deal with.

In Antioch, Peter (Cephas) was persuaded by some strict Jews who came from James, leader of the church in Jerusalem, to stop sharing table fellowship with Gentiles. Presumably the point was that the food wasn't kosher. Paul's reponse seems to have been explosive (Galatians 2:2:11-14); table fellowship was vital to his understanding of what it meant to be church, and the issue arises repeatedly in his letters. In Corinth, he found that some (presumably the family hosting the church, and a few of their friends, as it's hard to see who else could have been involved) were eating their fill, while others, coming late, who may well have been slaves who had to work all day, went hungry (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). This looks like a class issue, but once again, Paul's response is explosive:
'For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!'

Romans, written out of years of experience of these tensions, is largely devoted to the issue of Jewish-Gentile relations. The church was, in all probablility, set up by Jewish believers, but Claudius expelled them from Rome in 49 AD. The church survived, but can only have been run by Gentiles. In 54 AD, Nero came to power. Despite his subsequent reputation, he was a popular, liberal ruler. It's worth noting that history was written by senators, or in other words the mega-rich. Their assessment may have something in common with the Republican take on Barak Obama's presidency. He allowed the Jews to return, but meanwhile they'd lost their status and their property. some of them went back to the church, but there were tensions which Paul addresses directly in chapter 14.

Some people are eating 'everything' (14:2), presumably including the roast pork which originated from the local temple of whoever it was. Meat was expensive, and routinely came from temple sacrifices. At festivals, it was often given away to the poor. Hence, of course, the issues Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Gentile food was intrinsically non-kosher, so the Jewish members of the congregation would have followed the line taken by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 1, and eaten only the vegetables. Then some 'observe the day' (14:5-6), while other don't. No doubt this is a reference to the Sabbath. The 'works of the Law' Paul refers to repeatedly in Galatians 2-3, and again in Romans 3:28, are the things which distinguish Jews from Gentiles; principally circumcision, Sabbath, and the food laws. These are the things which cause tensions in the churches Paul addresses, but, to him it's vital that table fellowship, which he sees as foundational to the single community of the local church, be maintained. Paul appeals to both sides not to put 'stumbling blocks' in each others' way. Each should do whatever they believed right, and they shouldn't judge each other' (14:8-23).

In a somewhat different way, this advice is just as relevant now as it was then. We have congregations where elderly stewards insist that 'We don't want to be happy-clappy', meaning that there's no room in 'their' church for the livelier worship which might help to attract younger people. They're excluded, almost guaranteeing that the church will die with their generation.  A black congregation may decide that they want livelier, more participatory worship, and there may then be tensions between them and ministers or Local Preachers who don't want other people participating (except perhaps a 'good reader'), or insist on starting 'on time' at eleven, leaving no space for the church's sceduled chorus leader, and finishing 'on time' at twelve, when the congregation dislike one-hour hymn sandwiches. I speak from experience here!

We have multiple cultures within our churches, and without, and if we're to rebuild them, then we have to find ways to incorporate them all, and deal with situation where individuals con't or won't adapt. Not many people are going to be attracted by a traditional hymn sandwich, led by a one-person band preacher, but when we try to move away from that model, there's opposition. A more practical report, dealing with issues like these, which arise in the daily lives of congeegations and circuits, would be more than welcome. What's needed here is an ecclesiology which, like Paul's, emphasises not only the indivisible nature of church, but the equal status of all. To him, neither Jew nor Greek was better than the other: 'God shows no partiality' (Romans 2:11). We, in our context, need to insist that neither black nor white, old nor young, is superior to the other, and insist that that's worked out in our practice at every level. An ecclesiology which is not spelled out in ways which are accessible to the people in the pew, who most need to hear what it says, and which does not directly address the situations in which our congregations find themselves, has to fall short.

I'll continue this in another post.


Saturday, 1 September 2012

Worship Wars

There's some real wisdom here from Michael Spencer, with a follow-up here. The thing that jumps out at me is just how similar, and yet dissimilar, this is to the situation I'm familiar with. In British Methodism, the challenge is to include younger people; to find ways of making the church attractive to those who aren't living in a former age, like the perplexed octogenarian who once asked me why something which worked when she was in Sunday School wouldn't work now. Like Michael, I'm convinced that a healthy church makes room for all ages, in worship and elsewhere.

I've also been told that if I didn't like the way a church did things, or I didn't agree with the leadership, I should go elsewhere. I've even been told that in a Methodist church, and we're suposed to be broad-minded. I couldn't disagree more strongly with that approach, and I can't see it as being remotely consistent with what we read in the Gospels about the first being last, etc. Leaders who think everyone has to agree with them are unfit to lead. Far too many people fall for this nonsense; often, the most valuable people in a church are the ones who see things are going wrong, and stick it out until they can put things right.