Spend a day in prayer!


Things are not going to be better by Christmas. The pandemic continues.

The country is in trouble. The churches are under strain. We need help and encouragement. This ought to be one of those occasions when Christians give themselves to prayer in a concentrated form – perhaps for a day or half a day. But how do you do that – especially if you are not used to such things?

Here are some ideas to consider.

1. What’s the point? An extended time of prayer at a time like this is for reflection, repentance and calling on God for His mercy.

2. Scheduling the time and place. Make a date in your diary. Find a place where you can be quiet and alone. This may be in your own house or at a friend’s who is out for the day.

3. Make a worry list. Sometimes all that will happen if you have time on your own is that your mind will fill with your problems and your worries – and there is a danger of spending the day focused on them instead of on God. So beforehand write down your worries. Then say to yourself: ‘I will pray through them for a limited time – but I’m not going to let them dominate the day.’

4. Take some equipment. Think through what you might need. You will need a Bible and a pencil and paper. You will need some lunch, etc.

5. How to stay alert. Make sure that you get adequate rest the night before. When you are engaged in your extended time with God change positions – sit for a while then walk around, and so on. Have variety in what you do. Read the Bible, pray, sing a hymn. Praying in a soft voice will help you to concentrate and save you from your thoughts wandering.

6. Taking notes. If while you are praying you feel the Holy Spirit impressing something on your heart, write it down for further thought.

7. What has happened? Don’t feel you must end the day with some amazing discovery or palpable life-changing experience. Remember that prayer is about waiting on God (Ps.27.14), not Him fulfilling your agenda.

It can be good to start by thinking in terms of three one-hour slots. Use an A4 sheet of paper. In preparing, select a few verses or a passage of Scripture which will act as your compass for the day. You can focus your thoughts around those verses and keep coming back to them if your mind wanders. At the centre of the A4 sheet draw a fairly big circle and copy your verses into it.

Then around that centre circle draw three other circles. Each of these circles will represent an hour in prayer. So you choose three areas to pray over. They might be: 1. Worship/thanksgiving; 2. The state of the nation; 3. Other people.

Or they could be completely different things which you feel you need to pray through. Say: 1. Family; 2. Church leaders; 3. Church.

Label your circles. Then from each of the three surrounding circles draw five lines (or spikes). At the end of each line name a person or a situation related to the subject of this circle. You are then going to spend ten minutes praying for each of those. Of course, five x ten minutes doesn’t quite make a hour. But that gives you leeway to stretch your legs or to pray about some other matter which the Lord might bring to mind as you pray through the subject.

After each hour in prayer give yourself a break. After the first circle have a half-hour coffee break. Or go and clean the house. Or do some physical exercise if that helps to refresh you. After the second circle it may be lunch time – take an hour, relax or read. Then it’s time for the third circle. Again, follow this with a tea break or similar.

A fourth hour is good. Here you can leave the circles behind. Maybe go for a walk to pray. There may be things on your spikes you feel you need to pray for again. You may want to pray through your worry list at this point. There may be other things that God has brought to your attention. It is always good to finish this time with a few moments in worship and thanking God for who He is – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God forever.

John Benton

John Benton is Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, http://www.pastorsacademy.org

Apologetic about marriage?


At the beginning of the year, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York apologised because of a Church of England document which said marriage is between one man and one woman.

There followed a strong backlash from the evangelical community. Given that the statement simply articulated the historic, orthodox, theological and Biblical position of the church on the question of God-honouring sex for the last 2,000 years, it did strike me as odd, if not downright absurd, that the Archbishops felt the need to say sorry.

Now, I’m not an Anglican and I’m very aware there are ongoing discussions within the Anglican Community with respect to human sexuality. But this habit of apologising for marriage is not unique to the Archbishops. It’s a problem inflicting many of our politicians as well.

Sadly, there’s been a complete failure within Westminster to join the dots when it comes to connecting family breakdown and societal problems. For example, family breakdown has been rising within the UK for some time. The cost is estimated to be £51billion. We also know from research a few years ago that family breakdown is one of the direct causes of poverty within the UK.

Good for all of society

Based on the abundance of evidence out there, it’s a simple enough conclusion to reach that marriage is good. It’s good for children and young people. It’s good for adults. It’s good for the whole of society. It is something we should unashamedly celebrate. And it’s also something our government should support through public policy.

For far too long our politicians have been afraid to champion this force for good. Afraid of being judgemental of single parents and others they have instead become judgemental of marriage itself. Speak too loudly, or too proudly, of marriage as having a social benefit and you’ll quickly be shot down.

Public policy

This backward attitude towards the institution of marriage has reflected itself in public policy. Take the marriage tax break. Currently, it’s a mere 10% and it only reappeared in the UK tax system in 2015 after decades of absence. On the one hand, praise God it’s there at all. On the other, it’s too small to be meaningful and offers little by way of any real incentive. Despite ample evidence that increasing it would be, surprise, surprise, of huge benefit, the government continues to resist calls for a larger one. Research a few years ago also demonstrated that there is no lack of desire among the general population for marriage, but for too many it’s financially unobtainable.

Easier to divorce

Another prime example of how little the government thinks of marriage is the divorce law ‘reforms’, which will soon apply in England and Wales. These were rushed through Parliament, minimising the time for proper scrutiny. The reforms will make divorce easier and not provide adequate time for reflection, which is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing.

So, what’s to be done? A government Minister with responsibilities for families should be created. The marriage tax break should be expanded. And politicians should stop hiding behind ‘political correctness’ and start using the evidence to inform policies. Pro-marriage, pro-family policies will help strengthen social cohesion in our country.

This is no surprise. God invented marriage. Praise God for adoption, praise God for fostering, for brilliant single parents who work so hard in such difficult circumstances. And praise God for marriage, a glorious institution and one we should all celebrate, loudly and proudly.

James Mildred

James Mildred is Head of Communications for CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) www.care.org.uk (and was recently married)

Photo: iStock.

Fancy a ‘Necrostar with chocolate person’?


2084: 
Artificial Intelligence and the Future of
Humanity
By John Lennox
Zondervan. 240 pages. £14.99.
ISBN 978 0 310 109 563

John Lennox is a well-known and accomplished Christian apologist and communicator, especially in the realm of science and Christian faith.

In this book he tackles the opportunities and challenges posed by Artificial Intelligence (AI), this term denoting machines – computers, robots – which mimic human intelligence. Clearly such machines have great potential to benefit humankind, for example in medical diagnostics or in providing digital assistants such as Alexa. But there are also great dangers – from the surveillance state (witness the Big Brotherstyle oppression of the Uighurs in China) to driverless cars, or autonomous weapons – raising many ethical, and hence theological, questions.

There is a great deal of hype surrounding the subject, as Lennox brings out well. Are AI devices really intelligent? No, they are not: they merely simulate intelligence. Indeed they are a very long way even from simulating what humans can do. One important restriction, though it is one that AI technologists aim to improve on, is the limitation to one task. An example I came across recently was when an AI system trained to generate the names of heavy-metal bands was asked to generate ice cream flavours: it came up with the ludicrous ‘Necrostar with Chocolate Person’.

One heavily hyped application of AI is human enhancement – the use of technology to augment our minds and bodies. In its most extreme form this project aims at doing away with death. As Lennox rightly points out, eternal life is available only because of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God through whom the universe came into being.

Lennox covers the territory well and has many good arguments. Where I would demur somewhat is with regard to his seemingly literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis, and what looks like a ‘God of the gaps’ invocation of special divine intervention to create life and humans (despite his criticism of ‘God of the gaps’). Can life not arise by natural processes if, as Lennox rightly asserts, the universe and the laws which describe the matter within it are designed by God, so that the natural processes themselves are God’s creation? Still, Lennox is surely right that, rather than mimic the Christian story through AI, our only hope is to embrace it.

The Revd Dr Rodney Holder,  Emeritus Course Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge.

Angels of mercy in a fiery furnace


Recently converted Afghan and Iranian Christians have been using their own money to buy and distribute emergency provisions to fellow refugees after Greece’s largest migrant camp burnt down, it is reported.

A blaze, which ripped through the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, forced its 13,000 former occupants to sleep rough in abandoned buildings, on roadsides and even rooftops.

Yaser, an Afghan Christian who regularly visits the refugees, told Christian broadcaster SAT-7 how the new believers prepared and took food to those they knew, before a full-scale United Nations programme was in place.

What little they had…

‘Dear friends who were new believers and had come to faith in the camp were doing this ministry,’ Yaser told Pastor Shoaib, the presenter of a SAT-7 programme. ‘They were using their own money – the little aid money they were receiving from the [Greek] government, to help in this way. Thank God for the heart that He has given them.’

Yaser commented on how the camp’s destruction meant that living conditions for Moria’s 13,000 migrants and refugees (which is more than four times its official capacity and of whom an estimated 70% are Afghans) had become even harder, and most were then sleeping in the open. But he added that ‘with the Lord in their hearts, the Christians have more peace than others’.

Growing tensions

Authorities later arrested a group of suspects. Reports suggested a fight had broken out between different ethnic groups amid growing tension in the camp following rumours that more migrants would be sent to Turkey. The fire took place in September.

A group of volunteers from Christian NGO Remar were in Moira during the fire, and stayed there trying to assist the refugees.

Meanwhile, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud in Brussels said transfers from Lesbos to mainland Greece would remain limited. An EU-Turkey deal requires migrants to stay on five islands before their asylum requests are processed. Under the deal, migrants who have their asylum requests denied are deported to Turkey.

Evangelical Focus / SAT-7

Getting your five-a-day


FIVE PSALMS  
Apple/Android 
Free

Billy Graham apparently once said he couldn’t make it through the day without reading at least five psalms. Now, as Apple’s catchphrase goes – ‘There’s an app for that’.

Soaked in the Psalms

You may be familiar with Don Whitney’s ‘Psalms of the Day’ method of reading all 150 psalms every month (taken from his highly-recommended book,  Praying the Bible). On the first day of the month, Whitney advocates reading/praying Psalm 1, then repeatedly adding the number 30 onto whatever the date is (e.g. reading 31, 61, 91, and 121 on the first of the month). If you’re wondering, on day 31 he suggests reading portions of Psalm 119!

Anyway, you can now forget about the maths: Whitney’s friend Bryant Huang has designed an app that does all of that for you. Upon opening, the app presents you with a menu of the day’s five psalms and you simply swipe between them to read each one. Font and size can be changed, and there’s a night mode for less glare if reading in bed. Of the mainline translations, ESV, CSB, NASB and KJV are all available. (There’s also the bonus of a chapter of Proverbs for each day too).

Simple and effective

Anecdotally, lockdown seems to have highlighted the importance of ‘tuning our hearts’ to the Psalms. If you like the sound of Whitney’s method, weaving the psalms into various points in your day (e.g. waking, starting work, lunchtime, ending work, bedtime), then Five Psalms is a real gift.

It’s often the simplest apps that are the best.  Five Psalms  is a perfect example. No frills, just doing one thing really well. Have you had your five-a-day?

Robin Ham

Robin Ham is pastor of Grace Church Barrow in Cumbria and blogs at thathappycertainty.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @rhamage.

If you’re not a natural evangelist, listen to this!


PEP TALK
http://www.solas-cpc.org/category/podcast/pep-talk/

I’m not a natural evangelist. I find it hard and the outcomes are rarely encouraging. I need regular pep talks in order to keep persevering with it.

That’s where the PEP Talk Podcast comes in! The Persuasive Evangelism Podcast, aka PEP Talks, comes from the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, based in Scotland. The podcasts are hosted by Andy Bannister and Kristi Mair, and take the form of 20-minute interviews with guests ranging from a comedian (Joel Turner) to a Professor of English Literature (Karen Swallow Prior). Each shares something of their own work and life, as well as their passion for evangelism. For me, that’s the real ‘pep talk’ – hearing others who are brimming with enthusiasm for sharing the good news of Jesus fans my own feeble flame.

Where to start?

Naomi Dawson has been one of my lockdown heroes, championing the opportunities of online as she exemplifies and equips others to reach out with the gospel in creative ways. She’s the founder of an organisation called Passion for Evangelism, which is committed to empowering women in public evangelism, through conferences, training, book clubs and other events. Her episode was a great encouragement – she makes evangelism seem like the most natural thing in the world – and also a great challenge for churches to consider how they are equipping and encouraging both men and women in their congregations to be evangelists.

Do check out some of the other podcasts from Solas CPC on the website too.

Dr Ros Clarke

Ros Clarke hosts the weekly Church Society podcast available on iTunes, Spotify and all good podcast apps.

Are we listening to the brokenhearted?


Our country’s 200m sprinter, Bianca Williams, said she was ‘heartbroken’ to be dragged from her car by police, and away from her baby.

I watched the video and found it hard to watch and hear a mother’s cries for her baby. There were a variety of public responses – can I gently ask how you responded?

Some people claimed she must have been doing something wrong to be stopped by the police. Some said she needed to be more compliant. Some dismissed her claim of being racially profiled, with a ‘Yeah, but the police stop more black people because more black people commit crime.’ And some said ‘Heartbreaking’.

What does the Bible say?

I think the Bible guides us with how to respond to the ‘heartbroken’.

Psalm 34:18 says: ‘The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.’

So, if God is close to them, and saves them, can I suggest that we also should move towards the brokenhearted in compassion?

Now, some might argue: ‘But this verse is only for the covenant community!’ And if that’s the line you’re going to take—and do be careful with the ‘who is my neighbour’ blind-spot (Luke 10:25–37), then please consider the following brokenhearted voices coming explicitly from the covenant community:

One of our brothers in Christ, Guvna B tweeted The Guardian news that 80% of stop and searches on black men led to no further action, with the challenge: ‘You can turn a blind eye but you can’t say it’s a lie.’

And my question is, how did you respond when you saw this tweet? I hope it was to desire to move closer with compassion. But I fear that some want to move further away, throwing rebuttals in the process.

Another brother in Christ, Ben Lindsay, wrote the excellent book, We Need to Talk about Race. As a black pastor of a white majority church, he shares the pains of black brothers and sisters in the church, and invokes 1 Corinthians 12:26: ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it’ (NIV).

Listen to black brothers and sisters

Can I gently ask how you’ve responded to his challenge? I suggest, if any of us don’t see the need to compassionately move closer, that’s all the more reason to read it with ears to hear.

I hope that the church in the UK can recognise that many black brothers and sisters are heartbroken over racism. I hope that white-majority church groups will listen to the cry of a minority, just like the apostles did in Acts 6:1-7 (cf Ps. 34:17). And that Christians can trust the judgement of Spirit-filled minority groups, just like the whole church did when they voted for Hellenistic deacons to sort out the problem. And I hope that we can be like God, in hearing the cry of the brokenhearted and acting accordingly.

Duncan Forbes

Duncan Forbes is a pastor on a council estate in London, and runs the Urban Ministry Program to equip people for ministry in urban areas.

Evangelical leads couple to faith in chance Rome meeting


An English evangelical led a German man and his Bolivian wife to Christ after he met them by seeming chance in the very highest point of St Peter’s Roman Catholic basilica in the Vatican.

Greg Downes, Director of Ministerial Training, and Dean of The Wesley Centre for Missional Engagement at the evangelical training college, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, says:

‘I was on the cupola [dome] of Saint Peter’s basilica in the Vatican, high above the tomb of the apostle Peter (tradition tells us) recovering from the exertion of the 551 steps and slightly regretting not taking the lift. A 49-year-old tourist called Holger struck up conversation with me to ask me if I knew the residence of (fellow German) Pope Emeritus Benedict as we surveyed the scene of the Vatican gardens below. Slightly embarrassingly I did, and after pointing out the Mater ecclesiae monastery 135 metres [450 foot] below, I told them that I was an ordained minister.

Turned to the gospel

‘Conversation seemed to naturally go from the ecclesiastical to the theological and I was able to share the gospel with my new friend and his Bolivian wife, Natalia. Both had come from a Catholic background and had been disillusioned by aspects of that. Holger was now agnostic, while Natalia had dabbled in various New Age philosophies. I asked her candidly: “Have you found what you are looking for?” to which she replied: “No – something is missing”.

It was 40 years ago that I became a Christian myself as an 11-year-old boy in an English public school after looking at a beehive and the words popped into my head (seemingly from nowhere) “Sin stings, but Jesus can take away the sting”. I shared my story with them and the difference personal faith in Christ had made in my own life before I threw out the question: was this something they wanted for themselves? They replied that they did and we prayed there and then, both surrendering their lives to Christ.

‘As is my practice, I then prayed for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit. At this point Holger was holding back the tears and Natalia was more verbally expressive, saying: ‘I feel so emotional – as you prayed I was slowly filled with a deep sense of peace.

‘We are still in touch on Facebook (I received a message from Holger today) and I’m connecting them with an evangelical church in their city.

Divine appointment

‘Shortly after our encounter, Natalia sent me this message: ‘I want you to know that I’m still thinking about our meeting – this didn’t happen for nothing. I have told my closest friends about it’. I like to use my Facebook page for testimony and so with their permission I included a photo of the meeting with the post “Had a divine appointment today on the upper balcony of the cupola of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican when I met Holger and Natalia from Germany. What a spot for them to pray and receive Christ and be tangibly touched by the Holy Spirit”.

‘As well as the comments from Christians, the couple themselves decided to post. Holger wrote: “Thank you very much indeed for this divine encounter”. Natalia commented: “Thank you very much, Greg. As I told you I have been for a long time sceptical and doubtful, but at the same time looking for answers and some kind of guidance. I went to the Vatican mainly because my husband asked me: ‘What if the Pope gives us his blessing?’, to which I answered: ‘Well, I would receive them, but I don’t think they would mean much to me because he does the same to everyone at the same time’. I tried to explain that I was waiting for something more meaningful than that. A while after this we met you. As we started praying I must confess that I was tense and not receptive (it might be because I don’t pray), but later I got this feeling of comfort and warmth. I realised that this was the blessing that I wanted to receive. I’m truly grateful thanks again”. My reply was simply “I do believe you have now found what you have been searching for all your life”.

‘What an encouragement to see two dear people experience the truth of what Paul had written to the church he founded in that very city two millennia before: “If you declare with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom.10:9)’.

Photograph: Greg Downes with Holger and Natalia. Photograph by Greg Downes.

How to meditate effectively during the pandemic


Linda Allcock looks at different techniques for finding tranquillity at this uncertain time

At risk of stating the obvious, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a great deal more anxiety and stress than usual for each of us.

Statistics are now providing evidence of what we already know to be true – that mental health has worsened substantially throughout the UK. These effects are not distributed randomly across the population, but are affected by people’s social and economic position within society. ‘We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat’ comments one survey by the Mental Health Foundation. At the end of June, one in ten people in the UK reported having had suicidal thoughts or feelings in the past two weeks.

Mindfulness meditation is one of the therapies recommended by the NHS to help alleviate the distress caused by mental illness. Which means increasingly Christians are being taught how to practice mindfulness meditation. It is therefore imperative that we understand what mindfulness meditation is, its roots and its effects, in order to wisely help ourselves and other believers struggling with deteriorating mental health. What would be even better would be for Christians to be taught how to meditate in a way that is Biblical. This article explores what mindfulness meditation is, how it differs from Biblical meditation and why Biblical meditation is better.

Mindfulness meditation 

The mindfulness boom began when Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn – an American researcher with a PhD in molecular biology, and a student of Zen Buddhism – realised he could bring meditation to a much broader audience by stripping it of its Buddhist elements. In the 1970s Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week course teaching secularised meditation. The model he built was simple, replicable, and effective. Since then it has been woven into a number of medical therapies and is widely used by the NHS to treat conditions from depression, drug addiction and binge eating, to pain management.

Mindfulness is about learning to be satisfied in the present by noticing the smell, sight and feel of our immediate environment. It’s something I can do to escape from the incessant voices in my head. If I can practise the techniques, and discipline my mind not to react to the negative thoughts passing through… if I can forget the pain of the past and disengage from future fears… then I can find peace.

Secular meditation offers a way to manage the guilt, fear, stress, resentment, sadness, pain. But it will never shine the truth of God’s word on my thoughts and expose what I’m thinking.

Which means that secular meditation will never lead me to the cross, to see that there is forgiveness, and peace and power to change.

But there is a way of meditating that can.

Biblical meditation is better

‘Useless, worthless, guilty, failure’ is the mantra relentlessly reverberating around my head when I’m low. For a long time I assumed that ‘useless, worthless, guilty, failure’ was how God saw me too. I thought He must be so disappointed with me – I was such a terrible wife, mother, friend and Christian. Until one day, when I was in the bathroom humming one of those irritating kids’ memory-verse songs… and the words hit me like a ton of bricks. ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him’ (John 3: 17). I looked into the mirror and I realised that though I condemned myself, that was not God’s verdict. The contrast between what God said and what I thought was stark. Was He wrong? Or was my thinking wrong? He sent his Son to save me – to take my sin in His body on the cross and give me His perfection. I believed that truth. And in that moment, it was as if the ‘useless, worthless, guilty, failure’ thought disintegrated. Peace flooded my heart and mind.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was meditating.

Exposing lies

Meditation on God’s truth exposed the lies that I was believing about myself – that I was useless and worthless because I didn’t feel I was coping with motherhood – and led me to the cross. I saw that any and all my failures were taken by Jesus. He had given me His perfect life, and had sent His Spirit to empower me to love and care for little children as He did.

I could have managed my negative feelings through secular meditation. I could have allowed the thoughts of ‘guilty, worthless, useless’ to pass by without engaging them. I could have stood in the bathroom and felt the cool tiles under my feet, smelled the bleach from where I had recently cleaned the toilet (if only), noticed the sounds of children beating each other up in the distance and, relaxing my muscles one by one, focused on my breathing: IN for as long as it takes to say this sentence, OUT for as long as it takes to say this sentence.

But that wouldn’t have exposed the lies I was believing and it wouldn’t have led me to the cross. It wouldn’t have flooded my mind with the truth – and it is the truth that sets me free (John 8 v 32).

Biblical meditation does not exclude appreciating God’s creation, noticing the sight, smell and sounds of what is around us, but it goes further. Psalm 19 describes not just one voice that lifts our eyes from the pain of our struggles, but two. The voice of creation and the truth in God’s word.

Biblical meditation is not as difficult as you might think. It’s not about making Bible reading more complicated, rather making it simpler. It’s about filling our hearts with the truth of God’s word. Focusing on one truth, learning that truth, and coming to Jesus for help to live it out.

Life in the lockdown imposed by the pandemic was hard, but for many of us easing out of lockdown is proving even harder. Face masks, uncertainty, economic downturn and job instability inevitably fill our hearts with anxiety. Through Biblical meditation we can choose instead to fill our hearts with God’s truth. The truth that enables us to face and fight the anxiety. Which will we choose?

Linda Allcock lives in Central London with her hus-band Jonty, and loves working alongside him in The Globe Church. She lectures on marriage at London Seminary’s Flourish course, and teaches at various Christian conferences.

Her latest book, Deeper Still: finding clear minds and full hearts through Biblical Meditation (The Good Book Co.) was published on 1 Sept 2020.

Photograph: iStock

How do church leaders become spiritual abusers?


Spiritual abuse by church leaders can be deeply damaging to those who experience it. Some are ‘scarred for life’ by what happens to them.

A working definition of spiritual abuse would be something like this: ‘Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context. This abuse may include manipulation and exploitation; enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, coercion to conform, control through the misuse of Scripture, requirements of obedience through a suggestion that the leadership has some kind of ‘divine’ position, isolation as a means of punishment, and superiority and elitism.’

Often the rationale of protecting the reputation of the church (and the Lord’s name?) or preserving the unity of the church is used to cover over or ignore the mistreatment of the individual or individuals.

Well-worn path

How do pastors and church leaders become those who hurt and abuse their flocks?

No doubt this can come about in many ways. But the Bible indicates one very common path. Sometimes God’s blessing on a church triggers it. We think of King Saul who began as a humble man, chosen by God (1 Sam.10.21,22). But having a victory over the Ammonites and a taste of glory, he could not get enough of it. God had blessed and Saul began to bask in the attention that came his way. He wanted more even if it meant disobeying God. He was desperate to keep his public profile

(1 Sam. 15.30,31) and was jealous of all rivals, famously persecuting David and mistreating his faithful son Jonathan. He was a leader who abused others for the sake of prominence.

Sadly, some pastors and elderships walk the same path. A preaching ministry is blessed by God. People get saved. A church grows. Humility and ascribing all the glory to God somehow gets forgotten. The congregation put their leaders on a pedestal. People are talking about this church and the leadership team adore it. And if they have to exploit or coerce willing helpers behind the scenes, or deal roughly with others to get done what they think needs to happen, so be it. And that becomes not just a forgivable one-off, but a regular occurrence. They have become jealous for their reputation and suddenly individuals don’t matter. You begin to hear things like: ‘Well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.’

Overstepping the mark

But God says: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.’ (Ezek. 34)

The path of ‘success’ can lead to abuse, and King Saul is not an isolated case. Doesn’t blessed King David pull the rank of kingship to summon Bathsheba to his palace bed? (2 Sam. 11). Isn’t it after Uzziah became powerful that his pride became his downfall, thinking that he could overstep his brief and take on the functions of priesthood as well as kingship? (2 Chron. 26).

And there can be a certain social background which encourages men to see themselves as the ‘officer class’ who have almost the right to push others around. A few years ago en published the findings of research into how single women missionaries and women church workers get treated by leaders. I’m afraid churches headed up by men from public school and Oxbridge did not come off well.

Headlong hubris

As a young pastor/editor I remember being invited to a senior leaders’ conference in the North of England when evangelicalism was facing a crisis. At breakfast, I was on a table with a very high-profile pastor and conference speaker.

To my consternation, using the example of Winston Churchill, this man started kicking around the idea that those in particularly senior positions, perhaps nationally known, should not be held to such high moral standards as ordinary pastors. He was speaking ‘theoretically’ of course, he said. ‘After all, they are under such terrific pressure. They should be cut some slack.’ When that man fell calamitously, it was heart-breaking but no surprise. Success can bring a certain foolish hubris. Let us not use God’s blessing to excuse sin, or as a platform from which to abuse others. However well-known a minister or his church may be, the rule of God’s kingdom is ‘Blessed are the meek’ (Matt. 5:5).

John Benton

John Benton is Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, http://www.pastorsacademy.org

Photograph: iStock