Should we own property?

One of the most influential Europeans in the past two millennia has to be Benedict of Nursia.

He was born in Italy around 480 when the Ostrogoths ruled the peninsula, and died in 547 at the monastery he founded at Monte Cassino. He established an order of monks and gave them a rule of life that shaped the world of medieval monasticism till the rise of the Franciscans and the Dominicans in the 13th century.

Owning personal possessions

Benedict’s Rule, which sought to regulate the life of his monks and is still employed as a guide to Christian living by some today, makes for fascinating reading. Recently reading through it, I was struck by Chapter XXXIII, which is headed thus: ‘Whether the monks ought to own anything as their personal possession’. The answer is then given: ‘The root of this vice [the ownership of private property] has to be especially excised from the monastery’. After detailing what this entails, this chapter concludes with a Biblical reflection from Acts 4:32: ‘Let all things be common to all, as it is written. And let no one call or take to himself anything as his own’.

Does the Rule believe that personal ownership is intrinsically evil and should be dispensed with entirely? Notice, it says, personal ownership was to be removed ‘from the monastery’. So, we are not talking about the entirety of society. But nonetheless, in the monastery, where it is assumed that the monks are truly committed Christians, private ownership can only be seen as ‘a root of vice’. And thus, personal property is seen as potentially dangerous for a person’s formation and growth in Christ.

Given the influence of the Benedictines upon the Middle Ages, it is clear that a passage like this will have enormous implications for the medieval world’s thinking about personal property and the money that acquires it. It is obviously quite a different way of thinking from that undergirding capitalism, which currently dominates the West.

Contemporary implications

Initially, when I read Rule XXXIII, my concern was to understand what was being said and why. But I quickly realised that many contemporary evangelicals have a very different take on private ownership, as I do myself.

Many of us see free-market capitalism as Biblical economics in action: it is ‘transformative’ in the minds of some, while others see it as a natural reading of the Bible. Of course, if it is a natural reading of the Bible, why does Benedict, a passionate reader of the Scriptures, not read it so? And there are a host of other readers in the monastic world for a millennium who would have agreed with him in this regard.

This chapter in Benedict’s Rule forces me to ask: is my Western evangelical reading of the economics of the Bible actually true to Scripture, or have I baptised my culture’s assumptions? Now, let me say definitively, that I do not think the Rule is right at this point. I do think the Bible supports the right of private ownership, but this little exercise reveals one benefit of reading the past: it forces me to ask, are my convictions actually Biblical or am I unthinkingly following the path of my culture?

A danger to my soul

But there is more here. This portion of the Rule also compels me to realise that the acquisition of possessions and the desire for the money that buys them can be dangerous to my soul.

Unlike Benedict I do not think private ownership automatically clashes with spiritual formation per se, but nor can I ignore the reality that by owning things and having the means of purchasing them, I am exposing myself to significant temptation even to the point of spiritual ruination. As the apostle Paul recognised in 1 Timothy 6:10, five centuries before Benedict: ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…’ (CSB).

Professor Michael Haykin

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

It is too easy to think like our vitriolic, polarised world

Some Christians may be surprised to hear that not everyone in their church relishes the prospect of regathering at the moment.

The reason for this is worth understanding if we are to truly ‘bear with one another in love’ and ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit’.

Godly obedience?

For some Christians compliance with lockdown rules was an act of obedience to God. Romans 13:1-2 states: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves’ (see also Titus 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:13).

For these Christians, to not obey UK law may not have been a mere act of rebellion against human government, but an act of rebellion against Almighty God. The very same passage explains that it is ‘necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience’ (italics added for emphasis).

Righteous rebellion?

Other Christians, even within the very same church, might argue the exact opposite. They may point to Jesus Himself, who did not always submit to the religious or the secular governing authorities of His day: examples include healing on the Sabbath, overturning tables in the temple, publicly denouncing religious leaders, eating with people of questionable character, socialising with disreputable women and Samaritans, and touching lepers. The latter example may be seen by this Christian group as particularly pertinent.

The same Bible that commands us to ‘be subject to the governing authorities’ commands us also to care for those who are sick, poor or suffering. There is no doubt that for many the isolation of lockdown has caused sickness, poverty or suffering. A further layer of complexity is added if we consider Biblical principles for parents to care for their children.

Time for an eye test?

‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ (Matt. 7:1-3).

Whatever nuanced version of these two camps we belong to, it is worth pausing for a moment to:

a. Examine our motives for being in that camp, and,

b. Examine our attitudes and feelings toward Christians from the opposing camp.

For those who remained obedient to our governing authorities, did you camp where you did out of love and obedience to God or out of mortal fear? Did your lockdown glorify God?

For those who rebelled in some way, did you do so out of love and obedience to God or for self-centred reasons? Did your lockdown glorify God?

It is all too easy for us to think as our polarised and vitriolic world thinks; that one camp is right and the other camp is wrong. But Scripture warns us that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’, and implores us to examine ourselves.

So, let us for a moment remember the words of Paul in the book of Galatians: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!’ (Gal. 2:20-21).

Can righteousness before God be gained by our lockdown camp? Are Christians of the other camp who truly followed their convictions ‘as a matter of conscience’ lesser Christians than we are?

Whilst it is true that some Christians will falsely claim holy motives for adopting their viewpoint, it is also true that some Christians, despite being in opposing camps, will have been genuine and heartfelt in attempting to honour God in their decision making.

Our vitriolic culture encourages us to pick a side and look upon our ‘opponents’ with scorn. But this is a false choice. God sees the heart.

Love transcends law

The very same passage quoted previously as a possible justification for compliance with lockdown (Romans 13) continues thus: ‘Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law … Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.’

As we continue to unlock, it is therefore impossible to bear a grudge against Christians who did not share our viewpoint on lockdown compliance.

For the ‘rebels’, the God who speaks through 1 Corinthians 12, encouraging Christians to use their gifts (including healing) concludes ‘and yet I will show you a more excellent way’.

What is this way? It is love. Love! Paul, after speaking of all the gifts God gives to His people to bless one another, goes on to spend an entire chapter telling us that all these gifts are ‘nothing’ without love. Jesus did not break rules to be rebellious, He broke rules to demonstrate love.

If we return to church from the ‘righteous rebellion camp’ with resentment for those of the ‘godly obedience camp’, we completely contradict the very justification for Christian rebellion.

Repent and unlock your heart

Knowing that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’, I suspect that all of us, regardless of whether we have lived in ‘godly obedience’ or ‘righteous rebellion’ have, if we are completely honest, had mixed motives. Some godly, some not. If we are honest enough to admit this, I hope that we can together do two things. Repent and unlock our hearts.

‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord’ (Acts 3:19).

‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity’ (Colossians 3:12-13).

David Jones

David Jones is an A&E doctor who spent six months working in Intensive Care during the first wave of Covid-19.

Tibet: what challenges under Chinese rule face the few believers?

As a precocious youngster I devoured Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian climber who after World War II became tutor to the young Dalai Lama in Tibet.

I still have the newspaper clippings of the thrilling escape of the Dalai Lama into India from Chinese troops in 1959. I then had no idea that over 50 years later I would myself see the golden roofs of the gigantic Potala Palace in Lhasa and cross the vast plateau with its nomads and herds of yaks.


Tibet has had a mystique for centuries and still has. Under the rule of the Dalai Lamas, foreigners were kept at bay and Christian missionaries forbidden. This has led many in the West to romanticise Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, under the old regime, even if we rightly reject Chinese propaganda which glosses over the horrors inflicted during China’s brutal occupation, life for the majority of the population who were serfs was abject poverty. A large percentage of men and boys were sent to the monasteries, and superstitious beliefs hindered the development of science and modern medicine.

Tibetan Buddhism followed after the original Bon animism, in which placation of demons played a large role. In its present Tantric form, demonic forces are still evident and the sexual element is apparent in many of the images for worship, which are frankly obscene. During my visit it was heartbreaking to talk to one young girl who said she had performed 1 million prostrations to earn merit and escape from the wheel of karma. Many temples have been rebuilt, after most were destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Outside the Jokhang temple, Lhasa’s most holy place, pilgrims circumnavigate clockwise and some prostrate themselves for hundreds of miles. Goose-stepping Chinese soldiers march periodically through the crowds in the opposite direction to show who’s boss and, in the old quarter, armed police stand sentinel in pill-boxes every 100 yards. Sadly, probably a majority of Lhasa’s population is now Han Chinese, as there has been mass immigration. Even the use of Tibetan has declined, as Mandarin Chinese is now enforced as the language of education, science, officialdom, and everyday business.

Little gospel impact

Tibet remains one of the few countries where the gospel has yet to make a significant impact. In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries made heroic efforts to enter with their brand of Catholicism; for a short period they made converts in the kingdom of Guge in western Tibet and won over members of its royal family. But, due to the implacable hatred of the lamas, this venture collapsed leaving barely a trace.

Virtually all subsequent ventures were forced to concentrate on reaching the many ethnic Tibetans who live on the edges of central Tibet, in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan and in northern India and Nepal. The Moravians were the first Protestant missionaries to bring the true gospel to the Tibetans in the 1850s, establishing a thriving work in Ladakh, which today numbers several hundred believers.

Missionary hospital

As the 20th century advanced, the Christian and Missionary Alliance established a work among the Tibetans in southern Gansu; the China Inland Mission set up the Borden Memorial hospital in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, which treated many Tibetans. When I visited a few years ago, I was touched to see that Chinese doctors had created a small museum in memory of the missionaries, long after it had been taken over by the communist state, and had lovingly tended the grave of one little girl, the daughter of missionaries, who had died there in the 1930s.

Chinese impact

In 1950 the Chinese communists invaded facto Tibet, destroying 50 years of de independence. The systematic destruction of Tibetan culture and religion led to the abortive uprising of 1959 and the Dalai Lama’s flight. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) even more atrocities followed and hundreds of thousands died. Thousands of temples were demolished and diplomats in Beijing reported that a glut of valuable objects could be found in antique shops. But many precious books and images were destroyed.

Gospel inroads

Paradoxically, in the 1980s, when Beijing somewhat relaxed its control and limited religious freedom was again granted, for the first time the door was opened, if only ajar, for the gospel to reach Lhasa and the Tibetan heartland for the first time. There have been two main ways. Firstly, tourism and business and teaching opportunities have allowed overseas Christians to visit. Many have brought with them Bibles, gospel tapes and CDs in Tibetan. In fact, I was told that many temples have received large quantities of Christian literature. This has borne fruit – at least one high lama, at considerable risk, has been converted. I met another young lama in a remote village on the high plateau who has shown interest in the gospel. Some Christians have been able to teach, open cafés and other businesses, and discreetly share their faith.

Secondly, and more importantly, Han Chinese house-church Christians have arrived in Lhasa and other towns. They may have come on business as part of the growing immigration of Han Chinese into Tibet. But some have a real sacrificial calling to gospel outreach. This means learning Tibetan and Tibetan culture and humbly abandoning the typical Han Chinese feeling of superiority over the Tibetans. Some evangelists have been arrested and even disappeared.

There are now a few house churches in Lhasa and elsewhere, with a few Tibetan converts or enquirers. While I was there I met two Chinese Christian ladies who had come with their non-Christian husbands on business. They were very lonely and lacked fellowship having been unable to find one of the few house churches. There must be many others in similar positions. Tibetan converts are even worse placed; if they live in remote rural areas they may be hundreds of miles from the nearest fellow-believer. They may rely on gospel broadcasts in Tibetan by FEBC and other Christian stations.

Systematic destruction

In 2021 Premier Xi Jinping visited Tibet and there has been a renewed crackdown on Tibetan religion, with even the ubiquitous prayer flags now banned. According to one researcher maybe 500,000 Tibetans have been relocated and forced to work in designated factories. On my visit I saw evidence of the beginning of this systematic destruction of the centuries-old nomadic form of life.

Wrestling in prayer

For the near future, opportunities for gospel outreach in Tibet – whether by Han Chinese house-church believers or foreigners – appear to be severely constrained. Yet we may take heart from the wisdom of a veteran American missionary who taught briefly in Lhasa: ‘Even though I may have few opportunities to openly witness, I can wrestle in prayer against the powers of darkness over this land.’ Satan’s stronghold in Tibet will yet fall, as so many others have. And always this has been preceded by earnest, prevailing prayer in the name of Jesus.

Those wanting in-depth details of the history of gos-pel outreach to Tibet are recommended to read Paul Hattaway’s Tibet: The Roof of the World published in 2020 by SPCK.

Killing the human machine

Yet another Assisted Dying Bill is currently in the House of Lords.

While it is unlikely, although not impossible, that it will become the law of the land, one thing is certain: more attempts will come. In fact, in the last decade, there have been at least ten Bills introduced at Westminster alone, not to mention at least three attempts in Scotland.

Yes, assisted suicide is a controversial, emotive and sensitive issue to talk about and debate. But the church must speak into this debate because it touches on so many things. In the Lords, when the Meacher-sponsored Bill was debated last month, much focus was given to so-called ‘safeguards’. There was an almost dispassionate, mechanical way some discussed how you could improve public safety if any such law was passed.

But the debate is really about death, dying, suffering, compassion, and control – all of which Christianity speaks directly to. Take two of the most common arguments put forward by those in favour. The first is the choice argument. In our society, where individualism and autonomy are two of the great idols, it makes sense that you would extend choice to the end of one’s life. Why not give some people the option, if they meet certain criteria?

What is a Christian response to this? Firstly, we must explain that we are not in control and that the idea that we are is an illusion. Recognising this is actually liberating! Especially when allied to the truth that the person who is in control is the living God, the slow to anger, compassionate, faithful, and all-powerful God of the Bible.

Secondly, we must then look deeper and explore the fear of suffering and death. We must point out that such a fear of suffering stems from an unsatisfying worldview that says we are no more than a collection of chemicals. It’s a radically impersonal view of human bodies and one that assumes we are really just machines. So, if the machine breaks, you kill it.

Here, we can talk about a God who entered into suffering and in fact, tasted death and experienced a suffering far greater than anything we will ever have to endure. It’s not an easy truth to accept or believe, but it is vital in our response. Christianity believes in a God who draws near to people. From there, we can also explain how, in partnership with God, suffering, of any kind, is never, ever wasted. There is a purpose in all suffering. Even non-believers experience this, as times of suffering can perhaps especially strengthen relationships.

Then, take the argument from compassion. This argument seems to be clear and logical on the surface and so, so appealing. Is it really compassionate to allow someone to suffer so much at the end of their life? What’s so wrong with a carefully drafted law that will compassionately give some people the option of an assisted suicide?

How do you respond? I think firstly we have to be upfront and say that the Bible never commends killing as a compassionate response to anything! God has put eternity into the heart of human beings, so we have something to work with. To prematurely end someone’s life is to usher them into eternity where they will meet their Maker. On this basis alone, it is utterly wicked to support laws that will do this more quickly. Moreover, it is not compassionate to pass a law that opens the door to the possibility of people being coerced or exploited.

At the end of the day, from a Christian standpoint, the Bible says very clearly: ‘You shall not kill’. Therefore, at the most foundational level, assisted suicide and euthanasia are and always will be wrong.

James Mildred

James Mildred is the Communications Manager for CARE (Christian Action Research and Education)

Faith in everyday life

(with Professor John Lennox)

In these interviews, we see Christians from all aspects of the working world and beyond interviewed about the difference Jesus has made in their lives.

The particular interview I have chosen to review is one with John Lennox. However, the back catalogue of interviews include athletes, musicians, army majors, former drug addicts and many more!

John Lennox is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and is known for debating high-profile atheists, including Richard Dawkins.

The interviews in this series sit between 45 minutes and one hour. This one with Lennox is just over an hour, but the anecdotes and smooth flowing conversation make the time fly by!

I had the privilege a few years ago of attending a lecture and debate with Lennox (the debate included Richard Dawkins). Some points and arguments I still remember to this day.

The interviewer, Michael Ots, guides the session well, with questions that keep the conversation flowing. With this interview being post-March 2020, Lennox discusses coronavirus extensively, including his book Where is God in a Coronavirus World?

Lennox excels in his answers presenting a broad spectrum of arguments before making his point of Biblical truth. This naturally brings sceptics and atheists into the discussion, allowing for healthy debate and the preaching of the good news.

The initial interview with Lennox lasts for around 40 minutes then a short gospel message is given before Lennox takes questions.

Lennox is able to answer all questions brought to him with wisdom, grace and convincing argument.

Having only watched one episode in this series, which is freely available on YouTube, I am hopeful that the other episodes will be as insightful and edifying.

Jordan Brown

Jordan Brown part of New Life Church in Biggin Hill and is training to be a pastor.

Why is hate-filled abuse ‘Within community standards’?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ (Who guards the guardians?) is the question the Roman poet Juvenal asked, at just about the same time as the New Testament church was rapidly expanding.

It’s not often that Latin phrases come to mind (mainly because I know so few), but this one seems entirely appropriate for the increasing tendency we are seeing in our major internet platform providers to decide that they, and they alone, are the arbiters of truth.

I no longer put the word vaccine in the title of any article I write or podcast I produce, simply because whenever I do, Facebook will automatically put up a warning directing people to their ‘independent’ vaccine centre. YouTube announced at the end of September that they would ban any video which makes claims about any vaccine (not just Covid) which they regard as ‘misinformation’.

Dangerous hubris

In one sense this is understandable. The most ridiculous conspiracy theories are often widely circulated. So why shouldn’t the big tech giants stop the harm that they cause? Because the cure is worse than the disease. There is a way to deal with misinformation – tell the truth! Banning misinformation soon leads on to banning truth. Which is why the self-appointed guardians of truth in our post-truth age are so dangerous.

Firstly, there is the danger of having a single authoritative source, backed up by big money, which no one is permitted to question. What if that source is wrong? Facebook, YouTube and Twitter blocked articles several months ago which suggested that Covid 19 might have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. Their ‘independent’ fact checkers just knew that this was nonsense. Now it is considered to be the most likely source. Imagine if Facebook’s fact checkers had been around in Galileo’s day – they would have banned him for not going along with the experts!

The hubris of Big Tech thinking that they can arbitrate on every matter is astonishing. But that is not the only problem. Not only do we not have any individual or organisation which is omniscient (it may come as a shock to some young people – but Google does not know everything); we equally don’t have any organisation or individual who is pure or good. Google used to have a motto ‘Do no evil’, but that had to be dropped. The fact is that fact checkers are as biased and sinful as the rest of us.

Money, algorithms, and technology

Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. The nearest thing to absolute power in the 21st century are the few, mostly white male, tech multibillionaires, who operate out of California (and incidentally promote the ideology that being a white male is something to be repented of – except in their case). With their money, algorithms, and technology, they have enormous power and influence. Twitter has decided for example that to ‘misgender’ someone is a serious crime deserving banning – yet every day on Twitter I read hate-filled abuse which is considered to be ‘within our community standards’. I was once banned from Twitter for suggesting that abortion was killing babies. Yet those who called me ‘some creepy, old, fat, misogynistic, religious nut who makes me want to puke’ were considered acceptable.

There is also the power of money. I was recently sent an advert for a book called Let Harry Become Sally which purported to be the other side of the story portrayed by the socially conservative political philosopher Ryan T. Anderson in When Harry Became Sally, a book that is critical of modern transgender theory. When I went to Amazon to have a look and possibly purchase – I discovered that whilst Let Harry Become Sally was for sale, the book which it was supposed to answer was banned. The ability to buy, sell or advertise will be restricted to those whose ‘facts’ fit the progressive agenda. As will the ability to fundraise.

Covid vaccines and transgender ideology are not the only criteria the ‘fact’ checkers will focus on. Soon we will find that those who question any aspect of the climate change ideology will be subject to ‘fact checking’. If they don’t go along with the prevailing orthodoxy they will be out.

Knowing how little we know

What about in the church? Surely as the ‘pillar and foundation of the truth’, we want truth? The difference for us is that we accept that all truth is God’s truth, and we are not fazed by ‘facts’ which seem to contradict any of our beliefs, because we know how limited we are in terms of knowledge, and we know that there is a bigger picture. Whereas the fact checkers of the global media corporations consider themselves as the ultimate fount of all knowledge, we have the privilege of knowing how little we know, and knowing the One who really is omniscient.

Not least we must follow the injunction of Paul in Romans 12:2: ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.’

David Robertson

David Robertson is the Director of ASK (ENC) in Sydney and blogs at

Reflections on a year of scandals

With disappointing regularity Christian leaders from the conservative evangelical world fall from grace. True, the great majority of such leaders do not fall. It is those who fall who hit the headlines.

I have been the son of a pastor from the day I was born and a pastor myself for the last 30 years and more. The conservative evangelical world is my world and I feel these things deeply from the inside.

Over the years and particularly in the light of recent revelations, I have reflected on the fall of Christian leaders.

1. I am sad

i. Because it brings into public disgrace the worthy name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When a pastor leaves his wife to go off with his lover or disguises his abuse as ‘spiritual discipline’, or, more commonly, commits adultery, the great and wonderful name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, is brought into public disgrace.

If Christian slaves were to behave so that God’s name and the teaching of the apostles were not slandered (1 Tim. 6:1), how much more should pastors.

ii. Because it causes Christians to stumble

Jesus said: ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones [that is, those who believe in me] to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung round their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea’ (Matt. 18:6)

God forbid that we should cause a little one, a fellow Christian, to stumble. And Christians are made to stumble when leaders fall. The behaviour that causes it varies. Some Christian leaders are economical with the truth. So it’s OK for me to be so, too? Some flirt. So it’s OK for me to flirt? Some Christian leaders are greedy and some fleece other Christians. So it’s OK for me to be on the make? Deeply inconsistent, let alone abusive behaviour from Christian leaders, especially pastors, has an incalculable, adverse impact on those directly affected, whom we must do everything we can to support.

iii. Because those who had suspicions did not have the courage to challenge

The Lord Jesus modelled an openness of friendship with a few close followers. They knew His heart, even though, obviously, there was never going to be sin to discover in Jesus. Nonetheless Jesus challenged His opponents and asked if any could prove Him guilty of sin (John 8:46).

How much the more should fallible Christian leaders be willing to invite such challenge. And if they fail to invite it, mature Christians around them must still be prepared to ensure they are accountable and to challenge them where reasonable suspicions arise or genuine allegations are made.

iv. Because of a lack of clear repentance 

God alone knows the heart of each one of us and ultimately He is the judge of everyone’s secrets (Rom.2:16). However, when there seems to be a lack of clear repentance, it is a grievous thing and only prolongs the pain of everyone involved. And it contradicts the gospel that has been preached by such people over the years.

My wife and I lived for nearly 20 years in the Republic of Ireland during the period when it seemed that every week there were fresh revelations of terrible historical abuse within various Roman Catholic institutions. The awfulness and the pain of this wicked behaviour was often magnified by an initially defensive, self-justifying position, followed by a grudging, gradual retreat through various stages of inadequate apology. It seems that some of our fallen leaders have learned nothing from history. They only exacerbate the problem by their refusal to come clean, confess all without reservation or excuse, beg for forgiveness and seek God’s grace to do some good in God’s service in whatever time is left in their lives.

Wonderfully, sometimes, this can happen. Think of King David and Psalm 51.

v. Because of the fearful prospect of judgment on unrepentant offenders

The apostle Paul, writing to professing Christians, said: ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.’ (2 Cor. 5:10)

This is not to negate the grace of God or the assurance of salvation. But it is to warn of our inescapable accountability as Christians for our attitudes and actions. We must shudder at the fearful prospect of God’s judgment on unrepentant offenders.

2. But not surprised

i. Because of the sinfulness of the human heart

The human heart is by nature wicked and deceitful. We know the Scriptures:

Genesis 6:5 – ‘The Lord saw … that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’

Jeremiah 17:9 – ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’

Mark 7:21 – ‘It is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come…’

The regenerate person has the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to say no to ungodliness at any given moment. But if anyone claims to be without sin they only deceive themselves.

Within each Christian believer the battle between the sinful human nature and the Holy Spirit rages without respite from the moment of regeneration to the moment of death.

I have been a Christian for over 50 years by the grace of God. But I daily battle with sin and am regularly plagued by foul thoughts. Sure, the Christian only needs to be born again once in a lifetime. But every day of their lives they need to fear the Lord and repeatedly turn from evil.

This applies to the maturest Christian leader as much as to the newest Christian convert. I know I am as capable of sin as any fallen Christian leader. Therefore I do not trust myself and try to watch myself like a hawk.

‘Watch your life and teaching closely’, says the elder statesman, Paul, to the young church leader, Timothy. In that order: life first, teaching second. And both, closely. ‘Persevere in doing this’, says Paul, ‘because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.’ (1 Tim. 4:16). This is not merely godly wisdom. This is divine command.

ii. Because the devil has always seemed especially to attack Christian leaders

Maintaining steady faith and a clear conscience are vital for all Christians, but especially for those in leadership. Sadly, from the earliest days of the church, some Christian leaders rejected these and made shipwreck of their faith. They were handed over to Satan, deliberately placed outside the warm and protective embrace of the church family, to learn not to blaspheme, not to dishonour God’s name. This is what happens in a spiritual war zone (1 Tim. 1:18-20).

3. Some things to reflect on

i. The fear of the Lord must have a central place in Christian living

When in Deuteronomy 4:10 the Lord referred Moses back to the national Bible convention at Sinai, He reminded him that He had said: ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’

The gathering was to hear God’s words. But that was only a means to an end. The end was to fear the Lord all the days that we live on the earth. If in our Bible conventions, in our regular Sunday preaching, there were more emphasis on the fear of the Lord, would that not help limit the fall of Christian leaders?

ii. Humility and gentleness need to taught and modelled by Christian leaders as the true hallmarks of Christ-like maturity

It is all there in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The humility of Christ. The need to have the same mind as Christ. Gentleness that should be evident to all.

Supercilious attitudes, caustic comments and sharp, bantering tongues are not marks of Christian maturity. They are sins to be repented of.

iii. Severity to the body is of no value in promoting godliness

The apostle Paul could not be clearer – ‘severity to the body… [is] of no value in stopping indulgence of the flesh’ (Col. 2:23). Zero value. Zero. When a Bible teacher so blatantly contradicts this crystal-clear teaching in his pastoral practice, why are the alarm bells not heard ringing?

iv. Most leaders do not fall

Let us maintain perspective and a sense of proportion, awful as the behaviour of some leaders is. Let us rejoice in the lives of men like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott and Dick Lucas, well known in their day but who remained faithful to the end.

v. All leaders share the same fallen human nature

It doesn’t matter whether you are educated in a state school or a private school, come from the wrong side of the tracks or from a privileged background, are free church or Anglican. All Christian leaders share the same fallen nature.

vi. Pastors should never be put on a pedestal or treated as celebrities

There is great danger in being considered a prestigious pastor of a strategic church. Words like ‘prestigious’ have no place in Biblical Christianity. God will not give His glory to another (Isa. 48:11).

There is great danger when members of churches are proud to have such gifted and high-profile pastors. What churches need is not pastors who are ’celebrities’, but pastors who cultivate warm, open, reciprocal, transparent, mutually accountable relationships.

Far too often it seems that the church has been squeezed into the mould of the world and its celebrity culture. We cannot have a conference without a big name and glossy promotional material to draw the crowds. A church with a celebrity preacher as its pastor may have growing numbers, but does it have growing love and maturity?

‘Celebrity pastors’ are more likely be riding for a fall since the pastor is easily treated as above criticism. What he needs to be is above reproach. Otherwise there is fertile ground for abuse to grow and for pastors to fall.

Christians only have one celebrity and His name is Jesus.

vii. There is a risk of simplistic analyses of why pastors fell

‘The problem was “muscular” Christianity.’ True, physical training does have some value, but training in godliness is what really counts. That is always the case.

‘The problem was “intellectual” Christianity.’ True, the mind matters. We should use the one God gave us. But cleverness counts for nothing. What God values is faith like a little child’s.

‘The problem was … ’ Fill in the blank from your own observation. But the reality is almost always more complex.

viii. Snobbery cuts both ways

What makes ministries aimed at private schools questionable while ministries aimed at inner-city council estates are OK? Those in private schools may be privileged in this world’s terms, but, in terms of spiritual [dis] advantage, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

The challenge for both kinds of ministry is to end up integrating converts into local churches where there are no dividing walls of hostility, be it class or race or anything else, but all are one in Christ Jesus; churches where no believer looks down on anyone and the only one we constantly look up to is Jesus.

ix. The truth of Scripture still matters

There is still such a thing as truth and error. Scripture can be correctly handled or incorrectly handled. To point out incorrect handling is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. But it should be done gently and humbly since no preacher can claim that they have never handled Scripture incorrectly.

The truth that the Lord Jesus bore my sins in His body on the tree, the righteous in the place of the unrighteous, is not a ghastly form of powerplay or the use/ sanctioning of abuse, but the precious heart of the gospel. Christ crucified. The Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. That is a truth I hope I would willingly die for.

x. Trial by social media is a cruel thing

I don’t post on social media for a variety of reasons. I don’t follow it much. But it seems to be a place where some Christians set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner, with much selectivity of material, often out of context, and with little room for listening patiently and impartially to both sides of a story.

Some of the ostensibly Christian posts I have read were censorious if not slanderous, self-promoting and Pharisaical – ‘I am glad I am not as others…’

Rather – ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’

Every time a Christian uses social media there should surely be an unmistakable flavour of grace and graciousness, the aroma of Christ. And treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated, every time, every Tweet, every comment, every post. And a deep concern for justice for all, without exception.

xi. Repentance is vital and needs to be constant

Martin Luther rightly discerned that the whole of the Christian life involves repentance. Some of our fallen leaders seem to have forgotten this. We all do well to remember the necessity of renewing before God’s throne a daily fresh repentance and a daily fresh dependence on the Lord.

And repentance goes hand in hand with forgiveness.

Christians are those who have repented and found forgiveness. Christians should be people who freely forgive all who repent. Christians need to be those who constantly seek fresh forgiveness for fresh sins and renewed strength to keep fighting the good fight of repentance and faith.

And we know where to go for help.

‘Since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ (Heb. 4:14-16)

John Samuel

John Samuel is senior minister of Duke Street Church in South West London.

Photo: iStock

Singable Modern Hymns

A ministry of St Paul’s Castle Hill, Sydney

In a music training session recently, I asked people if they could name songwriters from the Old Testament. The first answer was ‘The Gettys’!

Keith and Kristyn still serve us well with congregational songs, even if they don’t quite sit at the same level (or era!) as David, Solomon and Deborah, but more recently it’s wonderful to have been given such strong input from CityAlight, who are similarly committed to writing songs that congregations can actually sing. Not only that, but the average church musician is able play their songs too!

Here are (what I consider as) the strongest of their songs. They are faithful to Scripture, are deeply Christ-centred, and cover a depth of theological truths without being turgid or dry:

Jesus, strong and kind (a collaboration with Colin Buchanan): a simple children’s song, but suitable for adults too, about relying on the loving and faithful strength of Jesus.

Christ is mine forevermore: perseverance in Christ through temptation, darkness and persecution.

See him in Jerusalem: the horror and victory of Jesus over death and sin at the cross.

Ancient of Days: the sovereign rule, power and glory of God.

Yet not I, but through Christ in me: unconditional grace won through Christ’s victory over sin and His indwelling of the believer.

Only a holy God: a call to honour and worship the Creator, Lord and Father.

And my personal favourite, Grace: a very simple but profound song about the work of Jesus bringing salvation to sinful hearts ‘by blood and not by merit’.

I wouldn’t recommend a whole meeting full of CityAlight songs as the tunes can sound a little samey, but the predictability and simplicity of those tunes have proven to be real strengths as many congregations have quickly warmed to their songs. Who knows – one day, will CityAlight be considered as part of the pantheon of Old Testament songwriters along with the Gettys?!

Richard Simpkin

Richard Simpkin Director of Music at St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

An ‘execrable sum of all villainies’

John Wesley judged rightly when he described slavery in America (and by implication, that of other parts of the New World) and the British slave trade as ‘that execrable sum of all villainies’.

Now, it is intriguing to note that he made this judgment not long after the death of his good friend George Whitefield, who had been entangled in the introduction of slavery into Georgia.

In making the judgment that he did, Wesley was drawing upon the now-unknown work of the Quaker Anthony Benezet (1713– 1784), whose abolitionist writings were equally and certainly available to Whitefield. Quaker opposition to slavery was well known in Whitefield’s world. It is thus an easy out to say that Whitefield’s involvement in this sinful activity was owing to the fact that he was a child of his time. For there were those in Whitefield’s day who would have rightly criticised the evangelist.

Edwards’ inconsistency

The same holds true for Jonathan Edwards, who was critical of the slave trade, but who somehow managed, sinfully and wrongly, to justify slavery. Edwards did not view the ownership of slaves as sinful. He did, on the other hand, castigate the Atlantic slave trade as morally reprehensible.

For white Europeans to use the Bible – as some did – to justify the stealing of men and women and children from various parts of Africa was ‘monstrous’ and unbiblical, Edwards argued. And yet, Edwards owned slaves and never denounced such as sin.

‘God is blasphemed’

And yet, it is significant is that one of the stoutest critics of slavery in the last third of the 18th century was Edwards’ mentee and first biographer, Samuel Hopkins (1721– 1803). Following Edwards, Hopkins was horrified by the savage inhumanity of the slave trade. But he went beyond Edwards and rightly applied Edwards’ arguments against the slave trade to the institution of slavery as a whole.

At the outset of the American War of Independence, Hopkins denounced the hypocrisy of the Americans fighting for freedom (and Hopkins believed that this cause was just) when they kept Africans in slavery. Hopkins argued for immediate abolition of the vile institution.

As Hopkins stated: ‘Not only the merchants who have been engaged in this trade, and for the sake of gain have sacrificed the liberty and happiness, yea, the lives of millions of their fellow-men, and the captains and men who have been tempted by the love of money to engage in this cruel work, to buy, and sell, and butcher men, and the slaveholders of every description, are guilty of shedding rivers of blood, but all the legislatures who have authorized, encouraged, or even neglected to suppress it to the utmost of their power, and all the individuals in private stations who have in any way aided in this business, consented to it, or have not opposed it to the utmost of their ability, have a share in this guilt. It is, therefore, become a national sin, and a sin of the first magnitude – a sin which righteous Heaven has never suffered to pass unpunished in this world. For the truth of this assertion we may appeal to history, both sacred and profane.’

‘By slavery,’ Hopkins said succinctly in a recently-discovered sermon, ‘God is blasphemed’.

This remark and the longer quote above are patent critiques of the failure of his mentor, the elder Jonathan Edwards, to name slavery for the abominable sin that it was. Hopkins had lived in the Edwards home for more than a year and would have seen some of those African-Americans who were kept enslaved by Edwards.

In this year, the tercentennial of the birth of Samuel Hopkins, and in our current context of tension about past British and American involvement in the enslavement of Africans, we would do well to remember Hopkins and his friends who were pioneers in the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. And we should thank God that there were those who saw the evil of this institution in that day.

Michael Haykin

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.