Fuller is ‘hugely relevant for today’


BEING A PASTOR:
a conversation with Andrew Fuller
By Michael Haykin and Brian Croft
Evangelical Press. 236 pages. £11.70 at
Amazon
ISBN: 978 1 783 972 746

Spurgeon referred to Andrew Fuller, the 18th-century Strict Baptist pastor, as ‘the greatest theologian of his century’, and at least one seminary Principal claims Fuller was ‘the most influential Baptist theologian between John Bunyan and our day.’ However, few of us have either time or energy to travel the 2,500 pages of his complete works!

Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) was much more than a clear thinker and plain-writing theologian; he was above all a warm-hearted pastor and a powerful preacher whose life mentored all who came under his influence. As minister at Kettering Particular Baptist Church for 33 years, he was frequently invited to preach at ordination and induction services. It is the wise and practical teaching in these sermons that Haykin and Croft have so helpfully distilled for us.

After a short history of English dissent in the 16th and 17th centuries, and a brief survey of ordination sermons from the likes of Matthew Henry, John Gill and Philip Doddridge (Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational), we have Fuller’s sermon at Thorn Baptist Church on 31 October 1787, and from there on summaries of many more sermons.

These sermons, though preached for a different age, are hugely relevant today.

Subjects include: the value of purposeful visiting; relying upon the Holy Spirit, but with the warning not to ‘so trust in the Spirit as to neglect personal preparation’; the need to understand people if we are to preach effectively; the private and home life of the minister; preaching the true character of God and its implications without fear of man – and so much more.

Typical of the relevance of Andrew Fuller to the church in the 21st century is his observation that: ‘A large church is like a large family, in which there is a necessity for constant labour and continual attention, to keep things in proper order. But a small church may be compared to a little boat, floating on the waters – a single wrong movement may overset it. In either case we have need be endued with righteousness, godliness, faith, love, meekness, patience, and forbearance’; and then follows a warm encouragement for pastors of small congregations.

Pithy and challenging quotes abound. Here is an inadequate sample:

‘Eminent spirituality in a minister is usually attended with eminent usefulness’ (p.86).

‘Aspire not to be a great man, but a good man’ (p.95).

‘To be able to surmount a difficulty by Christian patience is a greater thing in the sight of God than to remove a mountain’ (p.95).

‘Preach the law evangelistically and the gospel practically’ (p.125).

‘Dare to teach unwelcome truths’ (p.126).

‘Every sermon, more or less, should have some relation to Christ, and bear on His person or work. This is the life of all doctrine, and it will be our own fault if it is dry’ (p.183).

‘Many people will take our personal religion for granted, as though a man who teaches others must needs be religious himself; but woe unto us if we reason in this way! Tremble at the idea of being a graceless minister…’ (p.191).

‘There is not a more dangerous foe to the truth than indifference’ (p.206).

Thoughtful and profound

This book is not a ‘how-to’ of preaching, but a thoughtful, profound, spiritual assessment of the quality of life and ministry of a Christian preacher/pastor. It is a full challenge to the heart and mind, and Andrew Fuller penetrates as few of us are able to in these highly ‘professional’ and technological days. I recommend you set aside your contemporary books on the subject and immerse yourself in the life of this 18th-century Strict Baptist pastor.

Fuller referred to Abraham Booth, a contemporary preaching in East London, who lamented: ‘I fear there will be found a larger proportion of wicked ministers than any other order of professing Christians.’ If that is sadly true more than 200 years later, the sermons of Andrew Fuller are all the more significant. The final summary chapters by Haykin and Croft should not be overlooked.

No short review can begin to do justice to the value of the sermons of Andrew Fuller. If I were to recommend only one book on the life and preaching of an evangelical pastor, it would be this one. Church members, buy it for your pastor and check up that he reads it!

Brian H. Edwards

Itinerant preacher and author, and member at Christ Church, Dunstable.

Harry Potter and the half-baked laws


It was reported in June that the UK government intends to drop plans for allowing people who claim to be transgender to self-identify as such.

This proposal was first mooted by the government in 2018 (en September 2018). The result of the consultation has never been published*.

Concerns were raised that self-ID would allow men to legally access women’s only spaces. Although this is the case at present**, the emergence of so-called trans rights activists in the past few years has moved the debate beyond addressing the issues presented by a group of people who know they remain the sex of their birth. It has become a movement where predatory and abusive men who deny biological facts, claim to be women, and who verbally and physically attack women all in the name of establishing their ‘rights’.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike series of books, was perhaps the most high-profile woman who hit the headlines for asserting the need for biological women to have protected spaces. For stating this, she (and others who endorsed this view) received death and rape threats. Such threats have frequently been made as the debate has become increasingly, and inevitably, polarised. Some claimed they were burning her works, and a number of bookshops have refused to sell her books. Actors whose careers she made, lined up to denounce her views.

Space invasion

Biological males have been accessing refuges for women. Rowling, a survivor of domestic abuse herself, noted that it was vital that spaces remained for biological women only.

Male sex offenders have been moved into female prisons (e.g. en Nov 2018) after identifying as women. Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures in November 2019 said there were 139 transgender prisoners in 44 jails. Of the 42 in women’s jails, 22 were men who identified as female, while in male prisons 92 of the 97 were men identifying as women. Harry Fletcher, director of the Victims’ Rights Campaign, said he was convinced that ‘for some this is a total try-on’ with the prospect of a more relaxed regime. Separate prison wings were created for transgender prisoners in 2019 (The Daily Telegraph, 2019).

Outside of prison, men who have gone through male puberty have been allowed to compete in women’s sporting events including cycling and athletics (e.g. en August 2019). The pressure for organisations to capitulate to the demands of activists is immense. Any organisations who do not undertake training run by Stonewall or Mermaids risk being seen as bigoted, and face negative publicity.

Twitter: good or bad?

Twitter gives anyone with a keyboard and an opinion a voice, and is filled with disturbing comments about women, sex and gender. Staggeringly, it has people denying biology, and claiming that transgender women (i.e. a man who claims he is a woman) are more female than ‘cis women’ (women born female). Some have noted that in the same way that ‘blackface’ (white people donning black make-up) is offensive to people who are black, so ‘womanface’ (men donning ‘female’ attire) is equally offensive to women.

Twitter is where the debates are being held. People are being drawn together to lobby the government, share information and challenge explicit and dangerous sex education that has slipped into classrooms. It is not however, for the fainthearted. As activists attacked J.K. Rowling with such odious comments, they don’t blink at doing the same to anyone who attempts to reason with them.

*https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/reform-of-the-gender-recognition-act-2004

**To be given a gender recognition certificate under the current system, a person needs to have satis-fied a few criteria including: having lived as a trans person for two years; taken medication/ had some treatment to modify their body; planned to live for-ever as the new gender; have had a medical report written about their gender dysphoria. In 2018 when the government launched the consultation on chan-ges to the law, it estimated that half of the people who could apply for a certificate wouldn’t meet the current requirements. A change in the law would mean that a person could just declare themselves as ‘transgender’. Although exact figures aren’t known, it was noted in US medical data from 2019 that 90% of trans women (ie biological males) keep their penis.

Think you’re not racially biased? Really?


Recently I managed to shock myself in a way which unsettled me.

A screenshot of an online video discussion flashed up on Facebook and I looked to see who the participants were, as the subject being talked about was of interest to me.

One of those taking part was someone whose name and writing I have been familiar with for years – and much admired. But I had never seen a photo of them before so had no idea what they looked like in person.

As I put a face to this long-known name I had an instinctive reaction which afterwards left me rather disquieted. That fleeting, instantaneous, immediate thought was this: ‘But that can’t be so-and-so…’ Why? Because they were of a different ethnic background from that which I had ever imagined.

Unconscious consequences

I had made the assumption that this particular individual whose insights I much appreciated was white – and they were not. Now, you may or may not regard this as instinctively racist. But either way I do think it is an example of what is called ‘unconscious bias’. I was quite shocked by my own assumptions in this situation.

Oxford academic Kate Kirkpatrick explains it like this: ‘Explicitly, few of us would own up to sexism or racism, or to thinking that the rich are more worthy human beings than the poor; nevertheless, when tested on the implicit level, we do.’

She cites two interesting examples. One is of a frequent air passenger, a high-flying (in every sense) woman in an important role, who admitted that when she hears the voice of the pilot and it is female, her first instinctive reaction is: ‘Gosh, I hope she can fly the plane’. She then consciously says to herself: ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Of course she can. She’s had the training; she’s just as good as anyone else.’ But that is not her unconscious initial reaction.

The second example is from 1999, when 238 male and female members of the American Psychological Association (APA) were sent a single CV to evaluate. Half the psychologists got one with a male name, while the other half got one with a female name. Apart from that, the CV itself was identical. So did both CVs receive an equal rating? The answer is no: in the survey, both men and women in the APA rated the one with the male name higher. Kate Kirkpatrick concludes: ‘If we, like the majority of humans, have discrepancies between our conscious and unconscious commitments, these may have damaging consequences for other members of Christ’s body, and these need to be redressed.’

But how do we find out whether or not we have implicit bias, and if so, how much? Well, one thing you can do is take part in ‘Project Implicit’ which is a research scheme to test just this very thing through an interactive questionnaire which is quite fun to take. You can find it online here: https://implicit. harvard.edu/implicit/ It’s a survey which is thought-provoking and enjoyable, though not necessarily easy!

Why is all this important? Because as Christians we are called to be free from favouritism. The New Testament has some pretty strong warnings on this subject: ‘My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you”, but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet”, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?’

Of course, we would never do that – would we? But I heard of one major evangelical conference where a potential steward was barred from stewarding because he was wearing a tracksuit rather than a jacket… And I recall one church where most people took care to avoid the very smelly elderly gent who sat at the back on the right. You might think you are not biased. Think again.

David Baker

David Baker is also Rector of East Dean Church

Last Word: farewell!


‘Money can’t buy life’ (Bob Marley). ‘We are beggars – this is true’ (Martin Luther). ‘Happy…’ (Raphael). ‘Now God be with you, my dear children; I have breakfasted with you, and shall sup with my Lord Jesus Christ this night’ (Robert Bruce).

As the regular writer of this column, I believe that last words are important. Although I confess both a foolishness and a propensity to go over my word count, I disagree with Karl Marx, who on his deathbed apparently barked: ‘Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.’

Over the past 18 months, it has been a great joy and privilege to write this ‘Last Word’ column. Yet, in a few weeks, Lord willing, my family and I shall be moving to the USA. There I will be taking up a pastoral position at Trinity Church Nashville. Nashville is where my wife hails from, where my in-laws live, and the opportunity to serve a rapidly-growing church with two of my closest friends was too great to pass up. I shall miss Britain so very dearly, but in a few weeks, we head across the pond. I am, hence, laying down my editorial red pen this week. This is my last issue before the Revd David Baker takes the en baton. I wish him all the very best.

‘So, what will be my last ‘Last Word’? Well, rather than one last word, I’ve gone for two final exhortations. They are not spoken by some insightful artist or theologian on his deathbed, but rather a young minister sailing away from a British evangelicalism that he loves.

1. Be narrow-minded and be wide-hearted

This astute imperative is not my own, but one that a dear friend in ministry gave me. I’ve always remembered it. The phrase is neatly balanced, yet it’s not a call to avoid two extremes. Evangelicals should be ever narrowing their minds and widening their hearts. Of course, we should not be narrow-minded in the sense of being blinkered or bigoted. But we should be looking to grow deeper in every aspect of our faith – Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, Christology, Ecclesiology,

etc. – in order that we can prepare the next generation of British evangelicals. My current impression, however, is that many Christians in our country just have just two gears: primary and secondary. There is, of course, great wisdom in thinking through issues that stop someone being raised from death to everlasting life and issues which are not so grave.

However, I fear today these gears have become: What I must know and what I don’t really need to think about; or worse, important and irrelevant. These sentiments often fall under the holy guise of ‘we must not be divided… we must preach the gospel… we must not move on from it’. Yet we are called to serve up ‘solid food’ to those growing in Christ. Indeed, if we want the next generation of British evangelicals to be strong in the face of a muscular secularism, we must not be afraid to feed them with more than just evangelistic sermons.

Yet coupled with flabby-mindedness amongst some is a swelling narrow-heartedness amongst others. In some quarters, sadly, uncharitableness and unkindness thrive. This mindset is not just confined to evangelical circles or in fact this country. Many Christians have adopted the values of the Western world when it comes to how we handle our disagreements with one another. Either we take someone aside and try to silence them in a corner. Or we go online and seek to destroy them with 280 deadly characters, or perhaps a cutting gif downplayed as ‘British banter’.

But, by interacting with one another in such immediate and shorthand form, we minimise genuine theological or pastoral issues; or the unkindness causes the brother or sister to be more aggrieved than reflective. What happened to the long walk with the brother or sister with whom we disagree? Or a carefully-worded letter filled with encouragement that simply seeks to understand another’s position better? Or a phone call that ends in a time of prayer? ‘Be peaceable and considerate, and always be gentle towards everyone’ (Tit. 3:2).

2. Focus on your local gathering as you patiently wait for the one glorious gathering

There are some wonderful parachurch ministries in the UK, which have been a huge blessing to me. And in the coming years British evangelicals will no doubt have to increasingly club together to keep theological institutions and mission agencies afloat. Some of us may well need to abandon isolationist tendencies and serve those who are not in our constituency.

Nevertheless, the right aspiration to work together, and the understandable desire to be a part of something bigger than our Sunday gathering has squeezed the importance of the local church.

Some local pastors wonder if they might ascend to be the next General Secretary or Director; many lay elders spend their time planning the next campus of the big hub church; and church members now speak primarily about people in their network/ tribe/affiliation. Consequently, for many the local church is no longer the primary domain of their discipleship. This all seems somewhat odd to me when Jesus designed the local church to be: the earthly institution that would represent him to the world (Matt. 18:15-20); the place where we may practice submission to our leaders (Heb. 13:17); and the loving home where it is easiest to live out the many ‘one another’ commands of the New Testament.

Yet such a focus upon the local gathering must not stoke a forgetfulness about the universal gathering. One day, all local churches will close as the universal church is gathered up to worship our Lord and faith becomes sight – what a glorious day that will be!

Accordingly, British evangelicals must remember that happy tomorrow. Nurturing that hope in a perfect tomorrow helps us to live well in an unfair world today. It helps us act well when it comes to social-political issues. British evangelicals, and Christians everywhere, should not do nothing as they face increasing persecution from a society that moves further away from Christian morals, but remembering our heavenly gathering with Christ will help us to act like Him when more injustices come. ‘When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.’ (1 Pet. 2:21).

We long for heavenly justice to be seen on earth and Christians in every era must faithfully uphold the truth; but our political influence will wax and wane. And, however disillusioned we may be with our current political climate, we don’t deride God-given authority, nor do we correlate Jesus’ Great Commission with cultural transformation, nor do we presume earthly victory.

Until that great day we remember that God is watching us and is with us every day. Let me borrow the last words of John Wesley: ‘The best of all is, God is with us. Farewell! Farewell!’

Jonathan Worsley

Jonathan Worsley is also pastor of Kew Baptist Church, London

Sins that ruin a nation


Like many of us, I have been pondering the question of Covid-19 and God’s judgment.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is clear in its prayers for such occasions that natural disasters are something ‘we for our iniquities have worthily deserved’ and that ‘we do most justly suffer for our iniquity.’ Death, famine, plague and sickness are all instruments of God’s ‘wrath’ through which we are ‘for our sins punished’ and ‘justly humbled’.

Yet the BCP does not zero in on any particular sin as if it alone was responsible for a specific act of judgment. That, after all, would take the kind of prophetic insight possessed and demonstrated by the Old Testament prophets, which it is somewhat dangerous to claim for ourselves. I’ve noticed that people who do presume to do this will often say God is judging us for all the things other people are doing (but not them), and which they themselves have often complained about before. Clausewitz famously said that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’; for many, plagues are too.

Jesus tells His disciples in John 9 that the blind man about to be healed was not born that way because of his own sins or those of his parents (John 9:1-3). He also tells us in Luke 13 that when we suffer from disasters or atrocities it is not because we are necessarily worse sinners than anyone else. But ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’, He says (Luke 13:3, 5). Every pandemic, every crisis, is an opportunity to repent of our own sins, which all deserve the righteous judgment of God.

A sinful nation

John Owen preached a sermon on this passage in Luke 13 in 1681. It was a tumultuous year for the country politically and religiously, as people fought over whether to exclude the Roman Catholic Duke of York from inheriting his brother Charles’s throne. Owen’s sermon was subtitled ‘The only way to deliver a sinful nation from utter ruin by impendent judgments.’

There are four sins which will ruin a nation, says Owen.

The first is atheism. He includes in this ‘practical atheism’, thinking and acting as if there was no God, whether you say you believe in Him or not. There have to be sub-points, of course, because this is a puritan sermon, so he gives two examples of this: blasphemy or cursing; and bold, confident sinning. People take the Lord’s name in vain without a second thought (as they do on our streets and on TV every day); and they ‘boast of the vilest of sins’, proclaiming their sins like Sodom (Isa. 3:9).

The second sin which ruins a nation is having the form of true religion without its power. We are all Protestants, perhaps, and abide in our national confession of faith (The Thirty-nine Articles) he says. Maybe we even publicly brandish our Bibles. ‘But are men changed, renewed, converted to God, by the doctrine of this religion?’ he asks. Do they experience the power of it in their own souls?

Third: open contempt of the Spirit of God. The one who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (Matt.12:32). Some deny His divinity or speak of Him as an ‘it’ which can be used, rather than as God (who, if anything, uses us). And His work in regeneration, in making people ‘born again’, is openly mocked and scoffed at.

Fourth, says Owen, the nation is judged because of ‘the abounding of uncleanness, which, having broken forth from a corrupt fountain, hath overspread the land like a deluge’.

Who can deny but that these four sins are still prevalent amongst us at this day – even amongst evangelicals now? And so we ought to pray:

‘Lord God, our heavenly Father, the healer of nations and judge of all: give us grace to humble ourselves under your mighty hand throughout this time of anxiety and discomfort. In your anger, remember mercy, not giving to us all we deserve for our many sins, but strengthening us to repent and recover from all we must endure. For we ask in the name of our precious Saviour, Jesus Christ, who bore our sicknesses and carried our sorrows that we might experience new life in the Spirit, Amen.’

Lee Gatiss

Lee Gatiss is Director of the Church Society

Broad Brushstrokes


A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO CHURCH HISTORY
By 
Philip Parsons
Day One. 175 pages. £8.00
ISBN 978 1 846 256 424

The study of church history is sometimes regarded with suspicion. Even some Christians with a keen interest in biblical and theological studies perceive church history as confusing, dull, and disconnected from ‘real’ life and ministry.

In A Beginner’s Guide to Church History, Philip Parsons rebuts these misconceptions and demonstrates the accessibility and interest that the subject holds out for every believer.

The book provides a fast-moving introduction to the story of Christianity, progressing from the apostolic age all the way through to the incredible global expansion of Christianity during the 20th century. Along the way, Parsons introduces a diverse range of figures, events and themes, including the persecution of the early church, proto-Reformers like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, and the explosive 18th-century preaching of Whitefield, Edwards, and Wesley. To cover this wide swathe of history in such a small space is a considerable achievement, and Parsons ably blends broad-brush descriptions with brief biographical sketches, colourful details, and points of application for contemporary evangelicals.

As this is not an academic book, the author’s conclusions may occasionally strike some readers as too hastily drawn and overly simplistic. Likewise, a project of this sort will inevitably disappoint some by what it chooses to include and exclude. I was surprised, for example, not to find some treatment of the Council of Chalcedon (451). But while such criticisms are not without validity, they ultimately miss the burden of a work like this one: namely, to present a brief, easily accessible, unabashedly evangelical overview of major movements and developments within church history. Readers seeking more substantive treatments of specific issues can find them elsewhere, but Parsons writes for those who are seeking a point of entry into the Christian story, especially those who have found past attempts to broach the subject of church history intimidating and unrewarding. To that end, A Beginner’s Guide to Church History provides a great service for Christians who are curious about church history but do not know where to begin. The book will surely spark interest and help readers to construct a basic framework which they can then build upon as time and inclination allow.

Dr Matthew Bingham

Dr Matthew Bingham, Lecturer in Systematic Theology and Church History at Oak Hill College

How would you answer Betty’s question?


There are some tunes which, once heard, are never forgotten. Unfortunately.

One such melody occurs on an album of early 1970s Christian children’s songs which I remember well, despite my best endeavours to forget it.

The LP is one produced by the redoubtable Betty Pulkingham, who features on the album sleeve in a luridly technicolour picture. She is pictured seated on some steps, with her guitar and a determined smile, surrounded by children in improbable early 70s attire. Of course, because of her guitar, we called her Betty Plucking-em.

The good Betty doesn’t look like a woman to mess with – a combination of Mary Poppins and Gladys Aylward in her prime, perhaps. I imagine that if some freak tear in space and time had dropped her and her young companions into a jungle, Betty would grasp the neck of her guitar firmly in both hands and scythe a way through, swinging the instrument back and forth, using a few spare guitar strings to swiftly dispatch any hostile beasts. She’d still have the kids all clean and shiny and sat round a campfire singing Christian songs by nightfall.

The album was entitled Hey kids, do you love Jesus? and this was also the name of the main song. If I remember rightly it went something like this… Betty (singing brightly): ‘Hey kids, do you love Jesus?’ Kids (uncertainly): ‘Yes, we love Jesus.’ Betty (with forceful joy): ‘Are you sure you love Jesus?’ Kids (dolefully): ‘Yes, we’re sure we love Jesus.’ Betty (almost hysterically): ‘Are you sure you love Jesus?’ Kids (determinedly now): ‘Yes, we’re sure we love Jesus and please can we have some candy and go home now?’ Ok, I made that last bit up.

But the saintly Betty was on to something. Sometimes when I read articles written by evangelicals or scroll down comments online left by us Bible-believing people I find myself asking the question: ‘Where is love for Jesus in all this?’ And that’s because too many of the things I read seem more concerned with ‘being right’ than ‘being righteous’ – or defending a party line rather than pointing to Christ.

John Newton put it well many years ago when he wrote: ‘I cannot see it my duty, nay, I believe it would be my sin, to attempt to beat my notions into other people’s heads. Too often I have attempted it in the past; but now I judge that both my zeal and my weapons were carnal. When our dear Lord questioned Peter … he said not, “Art thou wise, learned, eloquent?” Nay, he said not, “Art thou clear and sound and orthodox?” but this only: “Lovest thou me?”.’

I looked up Betty Pulkingham online and was interested to see that she had died only last year – at the grand age of 90. The obituary spoke of her ‘her love, faithfulness, strength, grace and beauty’ which touched many lives.

The article then went on to quote Colossians 3: ‘Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another … And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.’

That’s rather a good tribute to have. I wonder whether the same verses will be linked to any of us in our own obituaries. And despite having a bit of a joke about Betty’s song, ‘Hey kids, do you love Jesus?’, the fact that the question posed in it has been remembered through the decades since I last listened to it is a terrific legacy.

So – how would you answer her question? How is your own love for Jesus? Is it time to pray for a restoration of that first love (Rev.2:4)? Whatever we do, and whatever we write or say, let us keep love for Jesus at the heart of it. And do you know what? If you have an Amazon account and a record turntable you can still buy a copy of Betty’s LP. So you could play, ‘Hey kids, do you love Jesus?’ for yourself. And you’ll never forget it. I promise.

David Baker

David Baker is Rector of East Dean Church

Mysticism in the Local Church


Bernard Palmer discusses the place of feelings and the desire to be close to God

Mysticism is the belief that a direct knowledge of God or of ultimate reality is attainable ‘through immediate intuition or insight and in a way differing from ordinary sense perception or logical reasoning’ (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).

Some look for this experience by turning inwards and emptying their minds of all external influences as much as possible. Others meditate on some particular idea or mantra, such as words of their scriptures. In both forms the desire is to feel intimately involved with the divine. Mystics can be found in most religious groups.

One of the concerns over its increasing popularity is that it can be associated with both pluralism and syncretism as, whatever the religious background, they tend to speak in similar terms and have similar experiences, which can blind people to the underlying doctrinal differences. Mystics try to wean themselves away from the physical world, and long for deeper and deeper experiences of the spiritual world.

The question needs to be asked whether these experiences are genuine evidence for and of God?

Aids to mystical experiences

Throughout the generations there have been countless techniques used to help people receive mystical experiences. Ascetic practices such as fasting, flagellation, and sensory deprivation can heighten people’s experiences. One investigator reported: ‘Recent physiological investigations … tend to confirm the notion that provoked alterations in body chemistry and body rhythm are in no small way responsible for the dramatic changes in consciousness attendant on these practices.’1

Systems of posture, breathing and meditation are used by some devotees of Yoga (now frequently practised in primary schools) and Zen Buddhism to help give mystical experiences. Muslim dervishes, who follow Sufi Islam, have obtained ecstatic states by controlled breathing, chanting and dancing to rhythms with repeated whirling.

Drugs have also been used to give rise to psychic experiences that have been interpreted as experiences of God or at least of a spiritual realm.

The question Christians should be asking is whether these feelings or experiences are genuine experiences of God. Such experiences are commonly sought by Hindu devotees and, to a lesser extent, were sought by some in ancient Greece. Some early Christian mystics lay considerable emphasis on their experiences, as do some Sufi Muslims today. There has been a resurgence in Christian circles of seeking experiences. The experience of ‘being slain in the Spirit’ is remarkably similar to the Hindu Kundalini experience, as many YouTube videos have demonstrated. In some modern church services some people are clearly trying to ‘feel the presence of God’. Whether they are encouraged by the repetitive loud rhythmic music, dynamic direction from the leader, emptying the mind of any thought, or just concentrating on a mantra, questions should be asked whatever the religious environment they occur in. Christians need to answer them in the light of Scripture.

The Bible’s emphasis

The Bible certainly talks of the Christian’s experience of God. Paul wrote:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings, becoming like him in his death… (Phil. 3:10)

The difference of this experience is that it is long-term. Paul is wanting his whole life to become like that of Jesus, his Lord. This is the experience he prays that others may have:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:10-11)

Central to the Christian faith is the person of the Lord Jesus. He claimed to be God, come in the flesh. He claimed that His death was the real purpose for which He came – to be the ultimate sacrifice for sin. To be forgiven and have a certain future in heaven, each person must personally become one of His followers and then live accordingly. But it is possible for people to have great religious experiences and not be personally committed to Christ.

Aldous Huxley, in his book Perennial Philosophy, takes a diametrically opposite view to that of Jesus and His apostles. The only form of Christianity he could conceivably accept was one based on mysticism which ‘…went some way towards liberating Christianity from its unfortunate servitude to historic fact.’2 He preferred, instead of apostolic Christianity, ‘a spiritualised and universalised Christianity’. Such a religion would be focused on experiences instead of on obedience to the person of Jesus.

No man can ever become at one with God in this life. What we can do is enter into a relationship with Christ now and enjoy the deepest satisfaction of living as He requires, with His commitment to us that we will live in full joyful harmony with Him in the next life. For Christians the secret of life is obedience to the person of Jesus Christ as revealed to us in Scripture. We cannot make up our own version of Christ – he has already been revealed to us. We are here to obey. Paul’s own experience of God was profound and all-pervasive of his whole life; at times this meant suffering just as his Lord had. This was Paul’s experience:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal.2:20)

It is not that God doesn’t give us great experiences. He has, after all, created us as emotional beings. Paul knew a man, possibly himself, who was given an experience of heaven (2 Cor.12:2-10) but he refused to brag about this. God does thrill people at times in a wide variety of transient ways, but the evidence of the Spirit’s presence in our lives is not ecstasy, but obedience. We should not be seeking experiences of God, they are His gift; what He wants to see is obedience. The fruit of the Spirit’s presence is long-term evidence of:

…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (Gal. 5:22).

These are all changes in our character, not short-term experiences. The higher gifts we are told to seek are long-term character changes and skills, especially love (1 Cor. 13:13), those characteristics that come from this (1 Cor.13:4-7), and teaching gifts by which we can help others to understand what the word of God teaches (1 Cor. 12:31). These are not short-term thrills, but gifts to serve others.

It is noteworthy that the emphasis of the New Testament is to teach people the facts about Jesus and what He taught, to encourage everyone to become His follower and to urge us to obey God, whatever the cost. This teaching of biblical truths, and encouraging others to obey what the Bible teaches, should surely be the priority of all churches that want to remain apostolic. Encouraging people to chase experiences is not a priority encouraged by the Bible.

In the Bible, words such as ‘obey’, ‘obedience’, ‘obedient’ and ‘follow’ are very commonly used about the relationship God wants with His people. In contrast words such as ‘feelings’, ‘feel’ and ‘experience’ are not used about our everyday relationship with the Lord. The evidence for having a genuine relationship is not to be found in feelings or gifts, but in the practical outworking of the presence of the Holy Spirit, in holiness and obedience. Scripture is clear about this.

Paul urged Timothy to make Bible teaching the priority of his life:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

Bernard Palmer

Bernard Palmer is consultant surgeon at Lister Hospital in Hertfordshire. and is an elder of Christ Church Baldock.

1. R.E.L. Masters and Jean Houston, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, New York 1966 p.248
2. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, London 1946 p.63

UZBEKISTAN: A NEW SPRING


Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over as President in 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has been experiencing something of a Spring.

The new President has opened up the country to tourism by relaxing the visa regime, has begun to tackle corruption and cronyism, and has lifted the heavy hand of persecution of religion.

In 2019 a number of churches were registered with the government, including two majority Uzbek-speaking churches, in Syrdarya and Samarkand. This is a historic development, as before now the government has tried to hinder churches from attracting ethnic Uzbeks, forcing Uzbek believers to meet secretly and face punishment for doing so. Some changes to the law on religious associations have also been made, such as reducing the cost of registering a church, and stripping the Ministry of Justice of its power to annul a church’s registration. A church can now only lose its registered status through the decision of a court.

Religious leaders have now requested that the number of members needed to found a church be reduced from 100 to 10; and that the current requirement, for the local neighbourhood committee to agree to a church’s registration, be waived. These local committees are often strongly prejudiced against Christians. However, frustration has been expressed at the secrecy and apparent lack of progress in the consultation process which closes on 1 July.

The new outward-looking, friendly-faced government of Uzbekistan is being severely tested in 2020. And as the Uzbek churches continue to emerge from a long wearying period of persecution, they too find themselves faced with new challenges and opportunities.

First, the Covid-19 crisis began to paralyse the economy, as quarantine restrictions hit wage earners both inside Uzbekistan and abroad, primarily in Russia. Many families suddenly found themselves with no income as day labourers could no longer work. Migrant workers in Russia could no longer send back remittances.

Then, at the end of April, a hurricane struck the west of the country, particularly causing damage in Karakalpakstan (an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan) and over the border in eastern Turkmenistan. The newly constructed Sardoba reservoir in the region of Syrdarya overflowed, and the dam collapsed, causing massive flooding. The reservoir was the largest in Central Asia, providing irrigation water to a vast area of farmland in the region. More than 70,000 people had to be evacuated from the area.

Christians have been caught up in these disasters along with everyone else. In response, the churches have organised relief efforts. In Tashkent, Uzbek churches organised a central collection point to which food and clothing could be brought for those who lost their homes in the Sardoba flood. Christians then took this aid to Syrdarya and distributed it. This gave many opportunities to share the gospel with those in need. In Karakalpakstan, Christians have organised distribution of food relief to families with no income. To date, over 80 believing families have been helped. Many testimonies of God’s miraculous provision have been shared, and the effort has been noticed by the local authorities. Local church leaders in Karakalpakstan are praying that this will also bolster their efforts to register one church in the city of Nukus; currently there are no registered churches in the whole of Karakalpakstan.

People International