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Movember Myth #3: Mental Health is Caused by Demonic Oppression

The Medical Model
When I was in year 10, I began studying psychology at school. One of the very first topics we looked at was the overarching medical model of mental health that is used today to discuss conditions that prevent people from a ‘normal’ functioning of the mind. One of the criticisms of this model is that it can be overly simplistic, and I distinctly remember reading that some compared it to the ‘ancient’ (in their mind) view of demonic possession. Where once we saw people acting or thinking strangely as ‘possessed’, we now classify them as ‘mentally ill’. What once was solved by a priest and an exorcism is now solved by a doctor and medicine, but both are simplistic attempts to explain the unexplainable (Wikström, 1982). I have some sympathy with this assessment. On the one hand, many religious people attribute symptoms of disorders such as schizophrenia to demonic activity, while on the other, clinicians are encouraged to redirect their patients attention to more natural phenomena (Pietkiewicz et al, 2021). Because the focus of this series is on misconceptions Christians have with mental health, I will focus on the former, but both extremes can be corrected here.
 
The myth of monocausal explanations
The biggest issue with attributing mental disorders solely to demonic oppression, or conversely to the nebulous concept of ‘mental health’, is that it simplifies what can be a complex equation. If you were to ask why I am looking at green grass out my office window, how should I answer? Because we have lots of land here at church? Because we have had an abundance of rain and sunshine in the last few weeks? Because I’m staring off into space, trying to think of an adequate analogy? Which one factor explains me looking out the window at green grass? Of course this is silly! All can be true and contribute to the end result in different ways. The same is true with what causes a disfunction in the normal mental activity of any given individual. Genetic predisposition, experiences and trauma, alcohol or drug abuse, sin, physical sickness, and demonic activity can all play their role. It is overly simplistic, if not outright false, to assume that demon-possession or oppression is the only, or even predominant explanation for someone exhibiting psychotic symptoms. This however does not mean that there should be no distinction between possession and sickness, but that these two can interplay more than our carefully crafted categories would like to admit.
 
The Christian Hope
The hope we have in Christ is that regardless of what is the underlying cause of the symptoms someone is showing, the ultimate healing can be found in Christ. His Lordship and power over all causes of sickness, mental or otherwise, is clearly demonstrated in scripture. That is why Jesus often heals people from physical maladies by casting out demons (Luke 11:14; Matt 9:32-33; 12:22-23). Similarly, those who have been exorcised are often described as healed (Matt 4:24; 17:18; Luke 6:18; 7:21). To top this all off, Jesus is even once described as casting out (exorcising) a physical sickness (4:29). Therefore, whether the cause is predominantly spiritual or physical, Jesus is the master physician! Regardless of whether we view disordered or psychotic thinking as demonic or as mental health, neither is removed from the sphere of our Master’s control. He can and ultimately will bring healing to both. For a Christian, the hope we have is that whether we live to see the return of our King or not, these mental disorders are not permanent. When He wipes every tear from our eyes, there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away (Rev 21:4). At that glorious time all causes and symptoms of mental health will be defeated and be nothing but a distant memory.
 
Wholistic Care for those Suffering from Mental Illness

In the meantime however, with this hope set before us, we should continue to strive against sin and its ill-effects on the world. That means seeking to provide wholistic care for those who are suffering from mental illness, and seeking it ourselves when we find ourselves in the same predicament. As a pastor, I have been approached by those who consider themselves oppressed or possessed by a demonic entity, as well as those who have struggled with serious mental health issues, even psychosis. After taking into account why someone thinks they are being demonized, I normally approach both scenarios in a very similar way. I pray for relief from demonic activity in the mighty name of Jesus (Mark 9:29), and encourage them and work with them to remove scope for the enemy to work in their life in this way (Eph 4:27). If there is no demonic activity, what have I lost? I then also encourage the person to speak to their GP (preferably a Christian one) about their concerns. If there are no medical issues, at least that has been ruled out.

My role as a pastor is to walk them through this journey in a loving and compassionate way, knowing that God has given us doctors, medicine, and a brain that works in a prescribed way. I hope this mimics Paul, who relied heavily on Luke, his doctor (Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11), but also prayed for healing (2 Cor 12:7-10). If you or someone you care about is going through serious mental illness or demonic oppression, I strongly suggest this route: Speak to your pastor or trusted, mature Christian about praying against demonic activity (which may or may not include a spectacular exorcism), and speak to your doctor about what health conditions may also underlie these symptoms. As a general rule, I would not suspect demonic activity without their being an aversion to the Holy, supernatural knowledge, and/or occult involvement or phenomena.
 
 

If you or anyone you know is struggling with serious mental health concerns or demonic oppression, I encourage reading up with the following resources:

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christian-reflections-on-mental-disorder/

http://www.webtheology.com/books/Strength_For_His_People-A_ministry_for_the_families_of_the_mentally_ill.pdf

https://www.desiringgod.org/topics/spiritual-warfare

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/topics/psychology-and-disorders/

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/demon-possession/

 

Other Resources (referred to or consulted, but not necessarily recommended):

Kemp, S., & Williams, K. (1987). Demonic possession and mental disorder in medieval and early modern Europe. Psychological Medicine, 17(1), 21-29. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291700012940

Pietkiewicz, I. J., Klosinska, U., & Tomalski, R. (2021). Delusions of Possession and Religious Coping in Schizophrenia: A Qualitative Study of Four Cases. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 842-853. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.628925

Wikström, O. Possession as a clinical phenomenon: a critique of the medical model. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensi, 11, 87-102. https://doi.org/10.30674/scripta.67132
 

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Movember Myth #2: Anxiety is Just a Lack of Faith

In our second Movember Myth, I am going to be tackling a similar issue to last time, but instead of focusing on depression, it will be her close cousin anxiety which will be the focus.
 
Be Anxious for nothing
On the surface, it is simple to see and say that anxiety and faith are on opposite ends of the faith spectrum. If God is completely in control, (Prob 16:33), then he won’t allow anything to happen to me beyond what is for my ultimate good (Rom 8:28), because He is good and has demonstrated His love in the sending of Jesus (Rom 8:32.) Not only is worrying about a given issue proof that you don’t trust God’s sovereignty or goodness, it goes against the clear command of the New Testament. On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes clear: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matt 6:25) He goes on to explain illustrate God’s providential care for birds and flowers, and their lack of anxiety about the basic needs of life. If this is the way God cares for the most fleeting elements of His creation, surely we as the crown of his creation can trust Him to look after us? Paul doubles down on this in Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Here we see the command to not be anxious, followed by an alternative of thankful prayer to God. What these verse tell us is that there is absolutely a type of anxiety that is sinful, disobedient to scripture, and a failure to trust in the providential care of God.
 
Jesus’s dark night
I say some, and not all, because of what I see when I read of Jesus’s dark night in Gethsemane. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:42-44). Last week I mentioned how Jesus experienced the depths of human sorry in this moment, but Luke’s mention of anguish and sweat like blood is more indicative of a great anxiety. It is not that Jesus didn’t trust His Father, and there is absolutely no way we can interpret this anxiety as sinful. Jesus was rightfully anxious because he knew in the coming hours that he would go through physical torment, but worse than that, face the full wrath of God against sin. He would find Himself, for the first time in all eternity, separated from His Father. In this moment, Jesus was rightfully anxious.
 
Defining anxiety
This apparent discrepancy comes from the many varied ways we use the word anxiety. Jesus here is facing two kinds of anxiety. We may use the same word to describe these, as well as the different, sinful anxiety talked about above, but we are describing different phenomena. The first is the God-given gift of fear that we have of danger. It is this type of anxiety that keeps us from wandering up dark alleys in dodgy areas of town, and keeps us safe from predators, both animal and human. If you don’t have anxiety when you are about to skydive, that’s a problem! God has given us this fear to protect us, and as Jesus was fully man (while remaining fully God), of course this type of fear would beset Him. Jesus also faced a second type of anxiety, a fear of the consequences of sin. This is the anxiety or fear we experience when we know our misdeeds are coming back to bite us. An affair is uncovered by a spouse, a lie is shown to be false, we are caught stealing or we have hurt someone we care about in our anger. Perhaps we are anxious about meeting our financial obligations because we have been wasteful or even sunk it into gambling. Jesus felt this same anxiety, but not for His own sin (obviously), but for the consequences of ours.
 
Neither of these two types of anxiety should be thought of in the same way as a wilful ignoring of God’s care and sovereignty. The final type of anxiety that is worth us bearing in mind, is the one that could be classed under the issue of mental health. Joe Carter describe this type of anxiety this way: “For some people, anxiety manifest as a physiological malfunction that has become both disordered and debilitating. Some symptoms include persistent anxious thoughts on most days of the week for six months, when the anxiety interferes with daily functioning, or when you have anxiety-related symptoms (such as trouble sleeping). These are often symptoms of a medical condition such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or social anxiety. In such cases a person should seek help from a counselor or physician.” It is important to note that what is going on with this type of anxiety, which should be considered a disordered physiological response rather than sin, can be as much a biological and hormonal sickness as depression, asthma or cancer.
 
Holding the Tension
If you accept my reasoning above, hopefully you will see there are times where anxiety is simply a natural response designed to protect us, at other times a malfunction of that natural response outside our immediate control, sometimes a consequence of our sin, and sometimes a sin in its own right. Therefore, we must be able to hold the interplay between faith and worry with a bit of tension. The way I do this as I talk to others will thus have to differ on a case-by-case basis. When talking with those who are anxious, I must be slow to judge their fears, as there may be complications or layers to their anxiety that I don’t understand. In the midst of this however, it is quite ok to gently remind them of the trust they can have in their all-good, all-powerful God. This isn’t designed as a rebuke but an encouragement! They really don’t have to be worried about the outcome in any situation given the certainty the have in the gospel. However, when their anxiety is beyond the realm of normal response to threat or danger, it is not enough to simply say “have more faith!”. I encourage them to prayerfully seek the medical help they need to help overcome this sickness, while concurrently work on building their trust in God’s sovereignty and benevolence. After all, It just may be that this clinical anxiety is the tool God is using to draw them to Himself in greater levels of faith and reliance.
 
 

If you think you might struggle with clinical anxiety, I encourage you to speak to your GP or a counsellor. Some resources that might be helpful as you battle with anxiety can be found below:

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/topics/fear-and-anxiety/

https://www.desiringgod.org/topics/fear-and-anxiety#

 
 

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Movember Myth #1: True Christians Don’t Struggle with Depression

Why I’m doing this
Each week in Movember, I’m going to be tackling a common misconception that Christians have when it comes to mental health issues. But before I launch into this week’s myth, I thought I better lay my cards on the table and explain why this is so important to me. I am not a neutral observer and commentator on this issue. Nearly 7 years ago, I nearly lost both my wife and beautiful boy during his traumatic birth. After the room full of doctors and nurses finally got Malachi out, with a broken arm and severely oxygen deprived, they raced him off to the ICU. Dani was raced in the opposite direction to begin life-saving surgery. I was left in a hallway, on what was supposed to be one of the happiest moments of my life, seriously believing my entire family might die that day.
 
While I am no prosperity theologian, I unconsciously believed that God would protect us from such a fate, and I felt my faith and emotional stability shaken. In the years since, I have had an ongoing battle with depression that has been relatively hidden from all but my family and the eldership of the church. As I began growing the Mo again to draw attention to Men’s health concerns, especially the issue of mental health, Dani asked me to share my own story as part of my advocacy. So, if you are a Christian who knows little about mental health, these posts will mainly be for you. I hope they answer some of your questions, and help you think more biblically about an issue that affects many of your brothers and sisters in Christ. If you are one of those who are affected, I hope and pray these answers would be an encouragement to you in your struggle. I will begin today by touching on depression, as it hits close to home, and something that many Christians consider incompatible with our faith.
 
Jesus and Joy
There is a valid truth at the core of this misconception. The bible speaks often about joy, and especially strongly of the joy that is found in Jesus Christ. For instance, Peter describes joy as the result of loving Jesus and trusting in Him: “you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,” (1 Peter 1:8-9). Joy is also listed as a fruit (or inevitable result) of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), and is commanded in numerous places (i.e. Phil 4:4, Rom 15:11). We could end the discussion here by saying that any “Christian” that is depressed does not truly love Jesus nor believe in Him, they do not have the Spirit and are being disobedient to the clear command of scripture! Even if you might stop short in saying all this, trust me when I say that this is often what those who struggle with depression tell ourselves!
 
Depression Among the Saints
Despite this emphasis in scripture, a mechanical understanding that “true Christians” would never struggle with depression is something that is untenable. How would a modern-day doctor diagnose a morose man who doesn’t speak for a whole week (Job 2:13), and when he finally does, it is only to lament his very existence (Job 3)? How about a man like David who can write psalm 13, or whichever downer wrote psalm 88? We could add to this list Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Solomon (his whole book of Ecclesiastes being on the futility of life) and Jeremiah (Lamentations)! Even in the New Testament, we see Paul’s brokenness and sadness in letters such as 2 Corinthians, and Jesus himself declares on the night before he dies: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt 26:38).
 
Throughout the history of the church, many of the people that God has used most powerfully have also been beset by what could easily be characterised by depression. This includes, but is not limited to, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon and even C.S. Lewis. Even someone like John Piper (who literally wrote the book on Christian Joy), describes his experience this way: “I’ve tasted these kinds of seasons many times: don’t want to get out of bed, dread doing the things we have to do, no motivation for anything, don’t feel like fighting the fight, loss of joy in what we thought God had called us to do, [and] oppressed by what feels like demonic darkness.” (https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/gods-work-in-your-depression) So unless you are willing to admit that all the above are not true believers, we need to find a different way forward.
 
The Fall and the Cure
For me, the way to reconcile the necessity of joy with the experience of many depressed Christians is found in looking at both the fall and the cure as presented in the bible. The fall of Genesis 3 shows us the origin of all bad things in this good world that God has created. This includes sickness, as I’m sure all Christians would agree. Depression, like all mental illnesses, is such a sickness. Depression and other mental illnesses have many causes, but they can include chemical imbalances in the brain, genetic predispositions, physical and emotional trauma, as well as alcohol and substance abuse. Some of these factors may be a direct result of sin, but all are a result of sin in an ultimate sense. Therefore, depression can and should be treated by Christians in a similar way to how we treat cancer. A tragic reminder that we live in a broken world because of the enduring presence of sin.
 
Thankfully, the bible offers the cure of Jesus Christ, who rights the wrongs, reconciles us to God and undoes the curse. The problem with believing that Christians could never have depression stems from assuming that this cure has already taken full effect. It was what us nerds like to call over-realised eschatology. While Jesus has set us free from the punishment of sin (separation from God) and is currently setting us free from the power of sin (Spirit-empowered sanctification), we must await His return to be free from the presence of sin. On that day, when all Christ’s enemies are beneath his feet, sin will be no more, and its dirty stain on God’s world will be removed. Until that time, the results of the fall, in this case depression as a sickness, will continue. This is the case even amongst those that know and love Him. Therefore, we should not be surprised that Christians (even pastors!) can and do struggle daily to find joy.
 
 
 
If you struggle with depression, I suggest you begin your fight for joy with one of the following resources:

https://www.desiringgod.org/topics/depression

Spiritual Depression by Martin Lloyd Jones (I have a hard copy if you’d like to borrow it)

When the Darkness will not Lift by John Piper (available for free from https://www.desiringgod.org/books/when-the-darkness-will-not-lift)

 
 

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Are all sins equally evil in God’s sight?

I had an interesting conversation with my wife last week, where I asked her this very question. Her response is indicative of what many in our church might say: “Yes, but I wish they weren’t.” I followed it up with my usual follow up question “why do you believe that?” After thinking for a while, she appealed to the sermon on the mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-29)
So the logic goes, if lust can be equated with adultery, there is really no distinction between different types of sin. However, this wasn’t said for this purpose. Rather it takes place in a setting where Jesus is teaching about a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees (5:20).
 
The issue with them is that while they were nice on the outside, on the inside they were full of sin (Matt 23:28). They were also quite self-righteous, claiming that their sin wasn’t as bad as someone else’s (Luke 18:9-14). In response to this type of attitude, Jesus teaches that the internal motivation for the sin is enough to put you in the category of adulterer or murderer, and thus in need of repentance.

External action is not the be all and end all, the heart matters to God. That does not mean however that adultery and lust are equal, just that both are a violation of the 7th commandment. What most people think when they say that all sin is the same in God’s sight is that all sin separates us from God, and all sin left undealt with will lead to hell. There are not different levels of hell, reserved for the worst type of sins (at least as far as we are told in the bible). But to say that a liar has the same eternal destiny as a murderer if unrepentant is not to say that lying and murder is equal. This goes against both the teaching of the bible and our own common sense.

Evidence against the claim
No one would suggest that someone who lies, or who steals something in order to feed their family should be treated the same way by the police or the criminal courts as a rapist or a murderer. This natural sense of justice and the punishment being proportionate to the crime comes from an inbuilt sense of justice. Hence why Dani said she wished God viewed sins differently.

But this is also a biblical concept. For instance, the Old Testament law tells us “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” (Exo 21:23-24). The point is that you cannot take a life for someone who took a foot, the retribution needs to be fair. Likewise, in the Old Testament Law there was various levels of punishment for different sins, ranging from fines, to banishment to death. This only makes sense if God views some sins as being worse than others. But perhaps the clearest indication from the Old Testament Law that not all sins are equal is the use of the word ‘abomination’. When used, this delineates a regular sin (which separates us from God), and an extra vile sin that God abhors.

The New Testament maintains this distinction as well. Even within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” This differentiates between a ‘plank-sized’ sin and a ‘speck-sized’ sin. Likewise, he differentiates between ‘camel-sized’ sin and ‘gnat-sized’ sin. Jesus tells Pilate that “he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:11). John likewise differentiates between different levels of sin (1 John 5:16).
 
Why is this important?
If all sin separates us from God, why is it important to let people know that not all sin is equally evil in His sight? Well firstly, it speaks to the nature of God. It is destructive to our witness to suggest that the sin of speeding is as evil to God as the sin of a paedophile. This gives a distorted, unbiblical picture of God (consider Jesus’s strong language in Matt 18:6).

But it is also important for us not to minimalize the seriousness of our sin. When we commit large-scale, destructive sins, it may be tempting to think we are just as bad as someone who has told a lie, and thus our sin isn’t ‘too bad’. This idea might even lead people to committing worse sins, such as: “I have already committed lust, so I’m guilty anyway, I might as well have the affair now!” This is a major distortion of Jesus’s teaching! Likewise, for those who grow and change, treating all sins as equal can lead to a downplaying of God’s sanctifying work in your life.

If you have come from a life of drugs and violence, and now you still struggle with lying and petty theft, you are not unchanged! Rather God has been successful in changing your heart and reducing the severity and external impact of you sin.
 
The good news for us all, regardless of the severity of our sin is that Jesus has paid the price on the cross. All who turn to him in faith and repentance will be forgiven. So whether it is a small white lie, or a big, life-altering sin, Jesus waits with open arms to take away your sin and welcome you into his family.

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Where is God in the desert?

Many of you would be familiar with the famous footprints in the sand poem. For those that aren’t it is worth a read:

“One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD.   Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to him, and the other to the LORD.
 
When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints.   He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it:
“LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”
 
The LORD replied: “My son, my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

What is conveyed here is actually an important biblical theme that is seen particularly in light of the ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ theme of the Bible. As can be expected, the wilderness in the bible is not portrayed as a nice place. It is the place that the Israelites must travel through before reaching the promised land (Exo 15:22). However, the people sin and are judged with 40 more years in that wilderness (Num 14). Throughout the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the bible), the wilderness becomes a place of place of rebellion (Num 12), suffering (Exo 14:11), quarrels (Exo 17:1-2), judgement (Num 11:1-3), and temptation (Exo 17:7). The New Testament picks up this theme again in the temptation of Jesus, where he is hungry, thirsty and assailed by the devil. It is for this reason Christians often use the imagery of desert to describe times of great trial or difficulty.

One such ‘desert’ for me was the submission of my Master’s thesis this morning (I actually quite enjoyed it but probably will need a few weeks to get over the strain). I focused intently on the use of location in Stephen’s speech of Acts 7, and particularly how it pertained to God’s presence. I noted something interesting that bears out in other scripture as well. The ‘wilderness’ might be time of great strife, but it is also the most common location for God to appear to his people. This is seen in how God appears to Hagar, not once but twice in the desert (Gen 16:7, 21:14-17) Likewise, it was in the desert that God first appeared to Moses (Exo 3:30-33).
 

 

Throughout the rest of the wilderness narrative, perhaps the most common theme is God’s presence with his people through the tabernacle. As Alec Gilmore writes, “wilderness is a place for theophanies”! Perhaps the clearest indication and encouragement of this truth is found as Moses summarises the people’s time in the desert: “The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’” This verse is even said to be the motivation for the famous poem above.
So what are we to take out of the times of spiritual dryness and darkness in our lives. My encouragement to us all would be to look for signs of God’s sustaining presence. It is in the valleys, not the mountains, that God is most shaping us into the people he wants us to be. No one likes to be caught in a desert, but it very may well be the place that he comes to you. To experience his glory is to render all trials and difficulties comparatively meaningless (Rom 8:18). The final hope that we have as Christians is that the desert will not last forever. Isaiah 35 paints this reality with beautiful promises that “he desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;” (35:1) and “waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;” (35:6-7).
Jesus ultimately fulfilled these promises, but we live in the time of now but not yet. His redemption of the world, and the removal of deserts (at least the metaphorical ones) is almost upon us. In the midst of such turmoil we need to take these words addressed to a people stuck in the wilderness: “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”
 
Pastor Dan
 
 

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I don’t care if you liked ‘worship’ on Sunday!

Perhaps my most provocative title, but don’t worry, it was more than just trying to grab your attention. It also isn’t a slight against our fantastic music team and all the effort they put in (except for maybe the lousy drummer). Rather it is a blanket statement that should be able to apply to any week at our church, as ultimately, our music is not there to please you, but to please God.

While we all know this instinctively to be the case, it is still a struggle for our hearts accept. I remember last year as we re-formed the music team and had many beginning musicians and experienced musicians who were new to church music. I was excited about the heart and passion that was developing, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t cringe at least once or twice and wonder what a newcomer thought. Thankfully, the quality of our music has improved dramatically since then, but I’m less sure on the quality of my heart. This morning I read these sobering words by R. Kent Hughes:

“Why do we worship? – is it for God or for man? The unspoken but increasingly common assumption of today’s Christendom is that worship is primarily for us – to meet our needs… The telltale sign of this kind of thinking is the common post-worship question, “what did you think of the service today?” the real question ought to be, “What did God think of it and those who worshipped?”” – R Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly man – pg 138-139

I would add to Hughes’s tell-tale sign my own question: “what did I get out of worship today?” rather than the more important “what did I give to God in worship today?”. I think we often make music into the attraction or entertainment element of our church services, the thing that might differentiate between us and another church. This is not just a problem for younger Christians who like the latest worship hit out of the Pentecostal megachurches. Even hymns can be used to this effect as they are often chosen to be the familiar one for the ‘oldies’ or simply to “keep the old-timers happy”. This is a man-centred approach to worship rather than a God-centred one.

So what is the solution? Well I think we need to re-frame how we talk about worship. On Sunday, Simon from Compassion said, to enthusiastic applause, that we don’t treat our music like a performance. But here’s the thing, I think we should. Except it isn’t the band performing and the church the audience. The church is performing and God is the audience! We should be asking what God wants to hear, and the type of music he likes. Unfortunately, the bible is scant on scores and musical compositions. However, it is big on lyrics! We do need to make sure the things we sing to God and about Him line up with worship in the bible. But perhaps even more important than the lyrics, is the heart.

Jesus, when addressing a controversy over worship had some powerful words to say. I’m going to re-write and paraphrase this (a dangerous thing to do to the bible), but I think the parallels are there: “Our ancestors worshipped with hymns, but you young‘uns claim that we must worship with loud pop music” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, it’s not about whether you worship in hymn or in Hillsong… Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.” (taken loosely from 4:20-23 with 4:23 unchanged). The remarkable thing about this passage is that it is the only time in scripture that I am aware of God actively seeking something from believers. It is remarkable that we may actually (as C.S. Lewis writes) “be a real ingredient in the divine happiness”. Therefore, it is not the polished-ness of a performance that impresses God. It is the love of each and every Christian and adoration for Him that he cares about. It’s a bit like receiving a card from my 4-year-old telling me that I’m the best daddy in the world and how much he loves me… and me pulling him up on the spelling. God just isn’t that interested in how we sound, or even what style we use, as long as those things stem from a love for him and a love for others.

So what? What are you to do with these meandering musings of your jet-lagged pastor. Well, for one, I think we need to start to change how we talk about Sunday music. We shouldn’t even ask ourselves if we ‘enjoyed’ it, rather we should seek to focus and surrender our hearts to God’s enjoyment of it. After church on Sunday, ask each other if God enjoyed that, or “what did you give to God during worship”? The other thing we should do is remove the focus completely from ourselves. I know how easy it is to judge the band, the quality of the music, the song selection, and just about everything that happens up the front on Sundays. But here’s the newsflash that I need to remind myself of often: the band isn’t singing to you. They aren’t playing to impress you, and no sorry, they don’t really care if you enjoyed it or not.

We gather on Sunday’s to sing to God. If you have to do it in a way that isn’t really your cup of tea, I think that would be an even greater gift to our God who sees the obstacle you face, and the sacrifice you make in order to praise him. Soli Deo gloria!

Pastor Dan
 

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Did Jesus Even Exist?

I had a great chat this week with a well-read non-Christian about whether Jesus actually existed or not. Now obviously, as a non-Christian, I had no expectation that he thought Jesus was divine, but I was still surprised that some people held the view he didn’t exist. From my perspective it was as preposterous as believing the world is flat. Bart Ehrmann, a noted agnostic and often vocal critic of Christianity puts it this way: “I think the evidence is just so overwhelming that Jesus existed, that it’s silly to talk about him not existing. I don’t know anyone who is a responsible historian, who is actually trained in the historical method, or anybody who is a biblical scholar who does this for a living, who gives any credence at all to any of this.” On the other hand, famous Christian scholar N.T. Wright puts it this way: “I have taken it for granted that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Some writers feel a need to justify this assumption at length against people who try from time to time to deny it. It would be easier, frankly, to believe that Tiberius Caesar, Jesus’ contemporary, was a figment of the imagination than to believe that there never was such a person as Jesus.” While N.T. Wright might not see the need, I think it is prudent to give you some background about why Christian and non-Christian scholars and historians alike are so certain about the actual existence of a man named Jesus, who was believed to be the Christ
Biblical Material
Some people who take the argument that Jesus never existed would like to just throw out all New Testament texts as simple figments of the imagination. The problem is that even historians consider them to be highly accurate historical records, even if they view the miracles and divine intervention to be a form of ancient mythology. There are many reasons for this, the main one being the early copies we have found of these documents. The earliest manuscript fragment we have of the New Testament dates to the first half of the second century. It is a fragment of John’s gospel, that scholar’s believe reached Egypt around 100AD. This is remarkably early, probably within 20 years of it first being written. This most certainly means that there are earlier copies that have since been lost, and note that John is universally considered as the last gospel written. That means that Matthew, Luke, and especially Mark are estimated to have been written before 70 AD. Paul’s letter pre-date even that, with most compiled in the 50’s, less than 2 decades after the events they depict. That puts them well within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. If these events were completely fictitious, without an historic figure at the centre, it is impossible that the Christian movement would have taken off as it did. Especially under the persecution of the sectarian Jews and the pagan Roman empire, a non-historic Jesus simply makes no sense. Why die for something that everybody knows you simply made up?
 
Christian Material
There are many other sources in the century or so following Jesus’ death that aren’t included in the bible. These include:
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The double-sided P52 fragment
Clement of Rome, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Didache, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Fragments of Papias, Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Quadratus, Aristo of Pella, Melito of Sardis, Diognetus, Gospel of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, and Epistula Apostolorum. The sceptic might point out that Christian sources 100 years after the fact should be given little weight. They might be surprised to learn that two of the most important sources for Julius Caesar are Suetonius and Plutarch. Both are bias in their pro-imperial propaganda, and are written over a century after the Caesar’s death.
Josephus 37-100AD
 
Non-Christian Material
Perhaps the most convincing material for the sceptic is the various historical documents that attest to Jesus of Nazareth that are from a non-Christian or even anti-Christian perspective. Perhaps the most well known of the historians is Josephus, and particularly startling is his main reference to Jesus: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receiving the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was called the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct to this day.
Those that are aware of this text might know that it likely to have been revised somewhat by a later Christian copyist. What historians don’t doubt is that this was a changing of material to be more flattering to Jesus, it wasn’t inserted completely from scratch. A recent Arabic manuscript of Josephus reveals what might have been the original message: “At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die, and those who were his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them 3 days after his crucifixion. Accordingly, they believed he was the Messiah as the prophets had told wonders”. A lot less flattering, clearly less Christian, but equally certain to his actual existence. Later in Josephus there is an undebated reference to Jesus when he is talking about the high priest: “he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.” As a Jew, Josephus held no affinity for the Christian movement, and his reference in his historical book date around 95 AD are a pretty convincing proof of Jesus’ existence.
Beyond Josephus, Jesus was also mentioned in Roman works, completely hostile to this upstart religion. There are many, but one needs a special mention. Tacitus writes that “Christus, the founder of the name, was Put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign Of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time Broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief Originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things Hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their Center and become popular” This is not exactly a glowing reference, but includes the bare facts of Jesus life with 80 years of his death.
 
Perhaps the earliest non-Christian reference to Jesus however comes from the Syrian Mara Bar-Serapion in 73AD. “What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their 
 
Tacitus 56 – 120AD

wise King? It was just after that their Kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.” Not exactly a belief in the resurrection, but there is little doubt, even from secular historians, that the wise king referred to here is none other than Jesus Christ. Other secular sources that I don’t have time to go through now but I encourage you to look up if interested are Pliny The Younger, Lucian, Phelgon, Celus, Suetonius, and Thallus. I quoted at the beginning a quote from N.T. Wright that it would be easier to deny the existence of Tiberius Caesar than Jesus Christ. A bold claim, but this is why he can make it. Jesus’s existence is supported by 9 secular sources, 20 Christian non-biblical sources and all 27 New Testament texts. Compare this to the measly 10 historical references we have to the emperor that was in power at the same time. Furthermore, the quality and quantity of the historical documents supporting Jesus far outstrips roman leaders of the time. Take Julius Caesar, the most famous and unarguably historic of the Roman emperors. Historic information about his life is contained mainly in four different sources. These sources have between them around 53 manuscripts to work out what was actually written. The earliest of these dates to a good 500 years after Julius Caesar supposedly lived, with the majority being over 1000 years after the fact. Compare this to Jesus, with his 56 different sources, 5800 different manuscript, dating from as early as a few decades after they were written. To deny Jesus’ existence altogether is completely unfeasible from an historical perspective.

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Jesus looked like many other Jews of his time. This is perhaps the most accurate artist rendering to date

The Problem of bias

As we have seen one of the main arguments against the existence of Jesus is that early reports about him are biased. As we have seen, that criticism doesn’t discredit his existence, but it is important to keep in mind. The earliest historians of Jesus couldn’t help but be biased, because what they saw transformed their life. This leads to the true problem of bias we see today. Many non-Christians find the claims of Jesus and the bible hard to stomach. It is not that they are unbelievable, it is simply that they find them undesirable. An historic Jesus raises the real possibility of an historic resurrection. An historic resurrection means a risen Lord who needs to be trusted in and listened to, and who will one day judge the world. People trying to escape this reality would much prefer to put their heads in the sand and deny Jesus ever existed, against the overwhelming weight of evidence. The question of Jesus’ existence is well and truly a settled one. The more important question for us is what role will he play in our life today.
 
Pastor Dan Bassett

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Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

It is little wonder when Boney M used Psalm 137 as the basis for their 1978 classic “By the Rivers of Babylon” they stopped before they reached the shocking last verse. While perhaps the most vivid example of cursing prayers (or what scholars call imprecatory psalms) in the bible, it is by no means unique. We spoke of Nehemiah’s prayer in Nehemiah 4 during church on Sunday, which is very similar to Jeremiah’s prayer in 18:23. The psalms however are absolutely rife with these curses (Ps 12, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137 and 149 to give but a selection)
 
The Challenge of Imprecatory
While the ancient world was bloody and unsophisticated (supposedly) we are much more mature as humans today and baulk at this kind of prayer. Particularly as Christians we can write these prayers off part of the Old Testament that is completely irrelevant to us. They are part of an inferior ethic, and we can shy away when critics of Christianity bring them up today. However, I don’t believe this does justice to why God has put them in the bible. Yes, psalms are human words to God, but as part of scripture they are God inspired words from humans to God. We know God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, so there must be some use of these psalms today. Even New Testament author’s saw their value and quoted from them in their writings. We too need to consider the challenge of these prayers and how where they fit in our prayer life.
 
Initial Solution
One thing worth acknowledging at the beginning is that not all imprecatory psalms are created equal. Many are quite soft in what they wish upon their enemies, and a good deal of them are simply a cry for natural justice to happen. For instance, in Psalm 35:8 we read: “Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it—to his destruction!”. At its core this is a prayer that what the enemy intended to hurt David befall himself instead. People today might call this Karma, but there is no leaving it up to Spiritual forces of the universe for David, he calls God to bring about justice. Even the dreadful words of Psalm 137 can be considered in this light. When Israel was sacked by the Babylonians, many innocent women and children were slain ruthlessly. The psalmist is saying simply that God will have a special place for those that give the Babylonians the same treatment they gave the Jews.
 
The heart behind the prayer
However, these prayers at times go beyond the simple principal of eye for an eye. They call for the full weight of God’s wrath to come upon those who oppose and speak against God’s people. What is going on then? Well I believe at the heart of these prayers lies two factors. Transparency and God’s sovereignty in justice. When we have been personally hurt, or see our family or people get hurt, it is natural to have strong feelings of revenge. We want those to hurt us to suffer, and at times, suffer even more than we suffered. When we feel this strength of emotions, we can either bury them inside and pretend to be more loving then we are or take them to God and acknowledge how we feel. The psalms show us that God can take the full range of our emotions and we can talk to him when we feel joy, when we feel hurt, when we wonder what he is doing, and when we want people to get taken to the cleaners. But beyond transparency, these prayers focus on God’s sovereignty in judgement. He is ultimately the one who will hold everyone to account. By taking our hurts to him, we are giving up our own opportunity for vengeance and placing it in his hands. We can ask God to smite, because we know God will indeed smite when necessary, and he will not allow his people to be downtrodden forever.
 
The curse of the cross
Many of you might be wondering, “but how does this fit in to the New Testament ethic of turning the other cheek?” As we discussed on Sunday, by handing our hurt to God, I believe we free ourselves up to move on and indeed turn the other cheek. Imprecatory prayers and forgiveness aren’t mutually exclusive, in fact they can go hand in hand. We see this ultimately at the cross. Every time someone prayers an imprecatory prayer they are asking God to curse someone that deserves it, to bring about a swift end to sin. We know God accepts this type of prayer, because He himself outlines blessings for when his people keep the covenant and curses for when they reject it. The Hebrews were given the law through Moses and told: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut 30:19). Wherever there is sin therefore, in ourselves or in others it can be appropriate to call out for God to keep his word and bring a curse upon the perpetrator. But the good news of the New Testament is that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”” (Gal 3;13). Therefore, whenever we pray for a curse, or when we call out for justice against those who oppress God’s people, we must acknowledge that the same curse of judgement should fall upon us – But for Jesus Christ. He took on the curse that should be upon us, so that all who look to him in faith may receive the blessing of unbroken relationship with God.
 
Our deepest longing for our enemies
Often in Christian ethics we are debating between black and whites. Something is sinful or bad, the other thing is good and proper. I don’t think that is the case with imprecatory prayers. They in themselves can be good, they accord with the justice of our God. But our deepest longing often should be for the curse of our enemies to come upon Jesus. In other words, have our enemies transformed into brothers and sisters as they too trust in Christ and are forgiven. However, I don’t think it is sinful to not desire that in every circumstance. Ultimately, how best to pray in each situation is a work of the Holy Spirit. If you lived during World War 2, would you have prayed for Hitler’s salvation or his demise and judgement? I don’t think there is a wrong answer. What about how to pray if your spouse is attacked or you children murdered? I think both a prayer for retribution and a prayer for forgiveness and repentance can honour and glorify God in their own unique way. When dealing with enemies, we need to recognise that as humans made in the image of God, we desire justice. But we should also aspire to be more like God, who while we were His enemies died for us, and brought us to Himself.
 
 

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Why read or preach on the Old Testament?

As we embarked on our new series through Nehemiah this week, I had interesting conversation with visitors to our church. They pointed out that their old church never preached on the Old Testament, and it was refreshing to see that ours did. Many have commented both positively and negatively on how much Old Testament we use in our sermons. For those who are unaware, we do four main series throughout a year (based roughly on the school terms), and we spend half of them going through an Old Testament book. Sometimes, this may feel dry, sometimes even reading the Old Testament can be a challenge. So I thought in this post I would provide some key reasons why we as a church preach from the Old Testament, and why it would be good for you to include it in your personal bible reading.

It’s the bible that Jesus and the apostles read and preached from
Not many Christians realise that Jesus and Paul weren’t walking around with a fully formed bible in their pocket (though that intuitively makes sense). When Jesus would teach the crowds, his launching point was often the scriptures as he knew them. Every time the Lord says “it is written”, or “You have heard that it is said”, he is referring back to the Old Testament. It is what He read and what He was steeped in from birth. If it’s good enough for him, it is good enough for us. Likewise, when the apostles preached and were seeking to explain the saving significance of Jesus, they did so using the Old Testament. Even when it came to writing the New Testament, the apostles quoted, borrowed and were influenced heavily by the scriptures of the Old Testament.
 
It shows God’s faithfulness and human depravity
The New Testament largely follows the story of Jesus and His apostles. Jesus is perfection itself and the disciples largely get things right through the power of the Holy Spirit. Read in isolation, the modern Christian may underestimate the power and pull of human sin! The Old Testament in some respects is much more relatable, as we see the people of God give in to envy, anger, lust, pride and bitterness. But it is not at all discouraging, as the more we grasp the sinfulness of people, the more brightly God’s faithfulness shines. The New Testament is full of examples of people doing incredible things for God (obviously through the power God gives them), but in the Old Testament we see more clearly the incredible things God does for a people that doesn’t deserve it.
 
It gives us a deeper understanding of the gospel
In line with that last point, the deeper our understanding of human sin and God’s faithfulness, the deeper our understanding of what Jesus did for us. In fact Jesus himself was able to go through the Old Testament and show how all of it pointed to himself (Luke 24:25-27). Not only does the Old Testament provide the context for why Jesus came, it foreshadows and provides types and prophecies that he later fulfils. A gospel without the Old Testament is anaemic; it can lead to an individualistic, personal understanding of what Jesus did. “Jesus came just for me, to fix my problem of sin”. While that is in some respects true, Jesus also came to fulfil the covenant with Israel, the promises to Abraham, and to undo the fall and bring about a new creation (amongst many more reasons!).
 
Its largely untouched by Christians and churches
Nothing is a bigger killer to interest than doing the same thing over and over again. Because the Old Testament is rarely read or used, its stories and points can be fresh and interesting. We have all heard sermons on the good Samaritan or the prodigal son. We have all read Philippians 4 or Romans 8 in a time of crisis. Often these texts are read and preached on more because they are easy to understand on a surface level, though we can run the risk of making them seem mundane. I’m not desperately looking forward to preaching on John 3:16 for instance, because what could I say that you have not heard 100 times already? That isn’t to say these passages aren’t important, it’s just that the same message said from a different passage might have twice the impact.
 
It is the majority of God’s inspired word
God in his providence has seen fit to make two-thirds of our bible Old Testament. It may be that the Old Testament is more important to Him than it is to us, in which case we would do well to rectify our neglect of it. If we simply are “New Testament Christians” then we miss out on most of what God would seek to say to His People. Furthermore, if Paul is right and “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17), then we can starve ourselves by avoiding it.
 
Stories cut through in a society that largely rejects authority
Once upon a time simply saying that “the bible tells us so” was enough to convince most people of a claim’s truthfulness. Not so anymore. Much of the New Testament is set out in epistles, which are based on the authority of the apostle, and are letters trying to convince the reader of a certain truth they should accept and live by. This type of claim to authority and exhortation to live in light of the truth doesn’t necessarily relate in a post-modern culture that rejects authority. Narrative makes up the bulk of the Old Testament and subvert the defences of the sceptic. By not setting forth any proposition or expectation on the reader, they can be enjoyed, yet still teach the audience. They provide examples, are relatable, teach moral truths, and subvert our understandings about ourselves and God.
 
 
So where should I start?
So maybe I’ve convinced you and you will rock up and listen to our current series through Nehemiah (or follow along online). But what about in your private bible reading? Some different options are available. One common one is to start in Genesis and work your way through. The main problem with this style is that many get bogged down in Exodus in Leviticus (which can be heavy going, I admit!). This can be countered by reading the Old Testament alongside and with your New Testament. Otherwise, skip the books in the Old Testament you find hard, and come back to them later! You could also pick out a section of the Old Testament and read that (eg. Minor prophets, major prophets, Pentateuch, the writings, Deuteronomic History, Chronicler history). Perhaps the easiest suggestion is to download the YouVersion app on your phone and simply browse the bible reading plans for a whole bible plan, or an Old Testament book plan. There are many good options out there that will help boost your faith and depth of biblical understanding.

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Should all Christians speak in tongues?

I recently preached on Acts 2 in church (listen here). Knowing the controversial nature of the passage, I expected to be harangued as I left church. Surprisingly, I only got positive feedback from both charismatic and conservative minded people alike. However, I am aware that not all in the wider Christian community would be so appreciative. Particularly controversial I’m sure is my assertion that tongues is not the only and definitive evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. I thought I would post this article explaining why I believe that is the case, to give some support for what I said in church. Afterwards, I quickly cover why I think that regardless of our difference on that one issue, why the Charismatic revival has been a blessing on the Lord’s church. So, these are 12 reasons why I don’t think tongues is ­­the evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit.

  1. The emphasis of Acts 2 is on the message not the method. They do indeed speak in tongues, but Luke draws attention that it was to “declare the wonders of God” (Acts 2:11). This is clearly in line with the emphasis in the first chapter as to why the needed the Spirit, to be empowered to witness (1:8). Drawing attention away from the message to focus on the tongues goes against the essential meaning of the passage.
  2. The reception of the Holy Spirit is tied to salvation. We see that in Romans 8:9 that “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.” The New Testament is also clear on what brings salvation: Faith alone. To insist on another step, such as speaking in tongues, is to go to dangerous territory.
  3. Only 3 conversion stories in Acts explicitly include the note of speaking in tongues (2:2-4, 10:44-46 and 19:6). The salvation of the Samaritans in chapter 8 doesn’t explicitly include it, but safe to say it probably happened there too. There are at least 9 occasions of conversion where it isn’t included (8:36; 9:17–19; 13:12, 48; 14:1; 16:14; 17:4, 34). Saying it did because all Christians speak in tongues is circular reasoning. I’m not saying it didn’t happen in any of these cases, at least one went on to speak in tongues (Paul), but we no nothing of the others. 4 of the 13 conversion stories in Acts is simply not enough to determine a precedent.
  4. The specific circumstance of those 4 stories have alternative reasons why the speaking of tongues makes sense. They all are the first time a people group have received the Spirit, and thus are evidence that they have received the Spirit in the same way as the first Christians. The point is that Jew, Samaritan, gentile and converts of John are all accepted by God and should thus be accepted by the church.
  5. Paul writes the only connection between the term “all” and “speaking in tongues”, and his point is that ­not­ all speak in tongues (1 Cor 12:31). It takes a certain amount of mental gymnastics to explain around that.
  6. Later in 1 Corinthians 14, when Paul says he wishes his readers could all speak in tongues (14:5), it suggests that they can’t. He doesn’t rebuke them for that and suggest they need to work on it, rather he directs their focus elsewhere.
  7. When Paul tells us to desire the greater gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:31, he has just finished listing gifts, starting with “first…, second…, third…, and then…” This suggests and order of pre-eminence or importance. He puts tongues at the end of the list. When Paul says desire the greater gifts, he is clearly trying to draw their attention away from tongues to more useful gifts for the life of the church. If Paul doesn’t consider tongues a ‘greater’ gift, it hardly can be considered the foundational, evidential gift many assume.
  8. When we are told to judge as to someone’s faith and hence salvation, the focus is not on gifts but on fruit. Hence the way to tell if someone has the spirit is not whether they have any particular gift, but whether they manifest love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)
  9. It is important not to jump to the conclusion that narrative portions of scripture are prescriptive and not just descriptive. Unless we have solid reasons for believing otherwise, narrative in the bible is telling us what happened, not telling us what we should do. Otherwise, we could look at the book of Joshua and justify genocide, or at Isaiah 20 and justify public nudity.
  10. If Acts 2 is taken as prescriptive, (i.e. what must always happen in the life of the church), we should also expect wind and fire and our language to be a known, understandable human language. That is not to deny there might be other form of tongues, but to say those other forms of tongues are the evidence of the Holy Spirit is not ignore the example in Acts 2. One could argue that only known languages are the evidence of the Holy Spirit, and this would line up more closely with what happens in the four tongue events of Acts. However, the sceptic in me thinks this can’t be the measurement because it is harder to fake.
  11. It is not taught anywhere in the New Testament. If indeed tongues is the evidence of the Holy Spirit, you would expect that to be clearly taught in any of the epistles, or even foreshadowed in the gospels.
  12. It has not been the history of the church. It’s dangerous to base arguments purely on tradition or church history, however when you are saying that tongues are for all Christians, you would expect the Holy Spirit to maintain that witness across history

 

Now I know not everyone will agree with my reasoning above, and that’s ok. Feel free to email or leave a comment on the church facebook page leaving (constructive) feedback. But even if I’m correct about tongues, we would be wrong to reject everything that has come out of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement. They bring a healthy and much needs emphasis on the following things:
  1. The power of Worship. Until the Charismatic renewal, worship tended to be a reserved, reverent affair. While trying not to lose the reverence, Charismatics have brought a much need vigour and excitement to our music in particular. David sung with instruments and percussion, and even danced before the Lord. With our deeper understanding of God’s love for us in Christ, we surely should not be less enthusiastic.
  2. The power of the Holy Spirit. It is a life changing power. In Acts we witness lives being turned upside down, and we read of the power, and the boldness that accompanies those who received the Spirit. Many evangelicals think the Holy Spirit is merely a doctrine and forget that He brings power!
  3. The power of experience. Christianity is not simply about agreeing to a set of propositions, it is about experiencing the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit didn’t subtly sneak in to the first Christians, He filled them!
  4. The power of community. My personal (and indeed subjective experience) is that Pentecostal churches tend to be places where the marginalised, the single mums, the low socio-economic and the outsiders feel welcome. It was in a Pentecostal church I gave my life back to God and the biggest reason was because it was there where I first felt like I had a church family.

 

We need to learn from each other, encourage each other and keep our focus on the gospel. I think it’s a real pity that the Holy Spirit has been so divisive over the last century, as where the Spirit appears in Acts, we see unity, loving witness, and power. Our understanding of the Holy Spirit and tongues will not save us nor doom us. Faithful Christians indeed sit on both sides of the fence. It is up to us to love and learn despite those differences.

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