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After breakfast this morning, I listened to the second of the 2020 Reith Lectures by Mark Carney. I did not understand all of it, but what I did understand seemed good. However, it reminded me of a scene from the 1983 Film Trading Places starring Eddie Murphy. The nub of the film’s plot centres around a bet by two commodity brokers who have a small wager to see if they can reduce their firm’s manager to poverty and then successfully give his job to a beggar from the street (Murphy). After removing the previous manager, they carefully try to unravel the mysteries of commodity broking to a now smartly suited Murphy. Explaining that their clients wish to buy or sell commodities (gold, coffee, pork bellies, frozen orange juice etc.) in order to speculate whether the future prices will rise or fall, the two brokers then smile and tell Murphy that, whatever happens, they will take a percentage cut for handling the deal. After patiently asking him whether he understands, they see Murphy grin back and exclaim, “sure, you guys are just a couple of bookies!”
When I was a young teenager, my father (who ran a pub) used to take bets over the counter and relay them to a local bookmaker. With an aptitude for figures I became involved, and by the time I left school I had a fairly sound working knowledge of the world of gambling. So I have to confess that Murphy’s explanation of the world of commodity broking made sense and it seems also to helpfully cover stocks and shares, property, banking and the whole world of high finance.
In this year’s Reith lectures, Mark Carney seeks to explore the relationship between financial values and human values. Whilst emphasising that they should be moral, Carney said that we believe a lie, if we actually think the markets really are moral. Perhaps that is why I so readily identify with Murphy’s response, for it does seem that the world of high finance may be fronted by a number of well-tailored bookies.
In the years after my early introduction to gambling, I became a buyer working for three large international companies and an international charity. They all encouraged honesty in their business dealings, and I learnt that it is possible to trade in a way that is good for both buyer and seller – what is called a win/win situation. But by its very nature, gambling is always a win/lose situation. For someone to win, someone else has to lose. If you have read my previous blogs, you will know that I am not averse to gambling as such. When carried out between two people who know exactly what they are doing and who are both in control of what they do, I see nothing wrong in it. However, it seems to me that most high finance gambling is based on peddling the lie that we can all be winners. The bitcoin adverts declare that you can become a millionaire very, very quickly. No doubt some people will, but at some point the bubble will burst, and some will become broke just as quickly. The Bank of England printing presses may churn out £20 notes as fast as they can to ‘quantitatively ease’ our economic crisis, but the lessons of history teach us that we may end up needing a suitcase full of those notes to buy a pound of butter.
In the Reith lecture, Mark Carney highlighted three lies of high finance. One, mentioned above, is that markets are moral, a second that the market is always right and, perhaps the most pervasive and deceptive of them all, this time it will be different.
In the light of the (fairly good) human perception of Mark Carney and Eddie Murphy we may well realise that more fortunes are made by the bookies than the punters. I believe there are two elements of wisdom that we can learn from this – one human common sense and one spiritual. It is common sense that if you are going to be a punter (and it can be fun) it is crucial to plan to fail. Whether at a back street bookies or a high street brokers, never speculate with money that you cannot afford to lose. Write your money off as soon as it changes hands. Any return then becomes a pleasant bonus, not an urgent necessity.
But much more importantly, go back to some of the lessons that Jesus taught:
Do not lay up treasure on earth, for where your treasure is there will your heart be also.
It is better to give than to receive.
How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the Kingdom of God.
We live in a fallen world and we deal with fallen systems. It may well be that we need to, or wish to, get involved in some measure and in some circumstances. If we do so with a quickened conscience, enlightened by the Word of God, and with a wholehearted trust in Jesus, we will be safe and secure, certainly as far as eternity goes and probably also in the present. However, if we trust in human systems, governments and our own wisdom – well your bet is as good as mine as to who will win and who will lose.
I read two books last week, both of which approached the subject of the nature of the Church, but from completely different viewpoints.
‘The Glory and the Shame’ is an overview of the (mainly) Twentieth Century Pentecostal/Charismatic movements by a Peter Hocken, a Roman Catholic Priest. Well researched and sympathetically written it endeavours to highlight the positive and negative aspects of the Church’s response to the move of the Holy Spirit over the last hundred and twenty years or so. Hocken is perhaps one of the most able commentators on this subject and in other books he has shown a commendable thoroughness and the ability to grasp a very broad subject.
There is an integrity in his writing and he embraces the Spirit’s moving on both a personal and theological level. However, at the end of the day it is clear that he is a card carrying Roman Catholic who considers the papacy, the threefold apostolic ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon, and the historical continuity of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as foundational.
The other book, ‘So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore’ is a novel by Wayne Jacobsen. The book is structured around a series of encounters between a disillusioned church pastor and a mystery stranger who gently asks leading questions that help unravel and tease out what is happening in the pastor’s life. The book continually focuses on the relationship of an individual with their heavenly Father, and minimalises all formal church structures and offices. I am less at home with novels – especially Christian novels – than I am with historical theology, but I did find that this approach enabled me to imagine what a Church without structure or formal leadership might look like.
There appeared to be no conflict between the two books in one respect: they both emphasised the need for a Spirit led life in relationship with the Father and Jesus Christ. However, they stood in stark opposition to one another as to how that might be achieved and what it would look like as Church.
Hocken clearly believes that a hierarchical led Church, based on apostolic succession is essential to the final purposes of God. He hopes and possibly also believes that all believers outside such a Church should be gathered again within its fold. He appears to believe that even when such a Church is partially or even fully corrupt, it is in a New Covenant relationship with God (on a similar basis to Israel in the Old Covenant) and what is therefore needed is renewal and some measure of reformation in order to move it out of corruption into the place that God wants it to be.
Jacobsen on the other hand, whilst never actually mentioning Covenant, appears to believe that an individual relationship with the Father (never fully defined in the book) is central to the purposes of God, and that any Church will only be valid if it arises out of a multiplicity of such relationships.
If I were to put the contrast in my own terms, I would push it to its extremes and ask the following questions:
Does God set up and validate an organisation, and then move people to fit into it, renewing the people from time to time to ensure that the situation does not ossify?
Or, does God draw people as individuals and allow them to form an organisation on the basis of their relationships which he then subsequently validates (more or less whatever shape and form it has taken)?
I have recently become involved in a project to re-start a village church that closed down. One of my daughter-in-laws asked me how I would like it to develop and what sort of shape would I like it to take. As I thought through how to answer her (I have not done it yet) I realised that I did not really know, and had not really addressed the issue as there were too many other things to deal with at present.
Reading these books has helped me to identify what I need to think about, but they have not given me the answer. The problem is that it is not simply a question of either or. I find that setting out the extremes nearly always shows that to be the case, and forces me to try and find another approach.
As mentioned in another blog, I was brought up in a pub, and a friend recently asked me whether it was a positive or a negative experience. It was not like a pub in a modern chain, but an old fashioned village pub that primarily served folk who lived within walking distance of it. It was more like an extended family with everyone knowing everyone else and (at least to some extent) everyone else’s joys and sorrows. I learnt several life skills from it. I knew how to relate to adults from a young age, I learnt the need to accept different people and to put up with their foibles and, perhaps most importantly, I learnt that whilst my dad and mum ran the place, they did so in a way that served the people who came there. As I reflected on these things in replying to my friend, I realised that, on a human level, life in the pub was very much what I wanted to see in the church, but on a spiritual level and centred in Jesus.
The pub did have some structure, it was centred in, though not restricted to, a building, it did have set hours of opening and it did have a recognition of who was in charge. However, without the people, the local community, it would have been nothing.
So, when reflecting on the Church, I guess I am looking for something similar. A group of people regularly relating to each other, putting up with our various oddities and always being ready to welcome strangers. There is a place for having folk in charge, but their main function is to serve people, not to be served. A building and a degree of organisation can be really helpful, but again, both things should serve and be helpful to people. Once they become a burden, something has gone wrong.
I am still wrestling with this one. I cannot accept the position which appears to be held by Roman Catholics such as Hocken, which starts with an organisation and then seeks to breath life into it. That does seem to be more Old Covenant than New. But, though I find it quite attractive, neither can I reduce the Church down to the sum of individuals in relationship with Father as Jacobsen appears to do. Going back to scripture, it seems to me that, whilst we come into the New Covenant as individuals, the focus is on the people of God, which seems to be clearly a corporate entity.
In practice, as I endeavour to work with re-starting a church, I am also conscious of the almost suffocating pressure of legal rules and regulations that have been imposed on churches over the past twenty or thirty years in respect of both people and buildings (particularly as they relate to safety). These necessitate a level of organisation that may make church life much more difficult in the future.
Perhaps it is an appropriate time for us all to re-evaluate our understanding of Church and what it should look like. Whilst they both helpfully teased out things to think about, neither Hocken nor Jacobsen clearly rooted their views of Church in the Bible. Maybe that is where we need to begin again.
It is not easy defining what we mean by a cult. The term is sometimes used of a group of dedicated followers of fashion who unthinkingly embrace the latest offering from a particular designer and who must have the item at all costs. It can be used of the followers of a particular sports team, who perhaps believe the unbelievable facebook statement by Bill Shankly that ‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that’. However, I want to home in on a particular use of the term as it relates to religious groups.
It is sometimes used when a group is considered heretical in its beliefs, perhaps denying the Trinity or proclaiming salvation by works instead of grace. A religious cult may indeed be heretical, but they can also be surprisingly orthodox when it comes to matters of doctrine, so that is not a good definition. Accepting that the term may have wider meanings, I want to consider how a Church can become a cult when it denies the meaning of a key aspect of the New Covenant. The particular aspect I have in mind is the clear prophetic statement in Jeremiah Ch 31and re-stated in Hebrews Ch 8 v 10 – 11
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbour,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
The key element in this passage is the fact that God will teach us individually without the need to rely on our neighbour or anyone else. He will be able to do this because He will have given the Holy Spirit to all followers of Jesus in order to enable us to understand Him. In I Corinthians Ch 2 v 9 -12. Paul says:
“No one has ever seen this. No one has ever heard about it.
No one has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love him
But God has shown us these things through the Spirit.
The Spirit knows all things, even the deep secrets of God. It is like this: No one knows the thoughts that another person has. Only a person’s spirit that lives in him knows his thoughts. It is the same with God. No one knows the thoughts of God. Only the Spirit of God knows God’s thoughts. We did not receive the spirit of the world, but we received the Spirit that is from God. We received this Spirit so that we can know all that God has given us.
It is a common fallacy to believe that Churches go wrong when everyone ‘does what is right in his own eyes’. That was indeed true in the Old Covenant before the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, but in the New we can all hear from God for ourselves. That does not mean that we can do what we want – pursuing our own agenda is a pretty sure sign that we are not hearing the voice of the Spirit. But it does mean that anyone of us who has fully surrendered to Jesus and become his disciple has the potential to learn directly from him.
The main mark of a religious cult is the denial of this possibility. It is where a man or women usurps the role of the Spirit and insists that others must listen to them and obey them, as they (and by inference they alone) are the mouthpiece of God for the Church. It is not uncommon for such a person to have begun their walk in great faith and perhaps be used of God in areas of healing or the miraculous, but the perverting factor is very often pride. This alone can turn a good church leader into a leader of a cult. The only sure fire safeguard is humility, without which even the best of us are in constant danger.
We do need great leaders, we do need those with the gift of prophecy, we do need bible teachers, but there is a proviso. What they say and do needs to find an echo of truth in the hearts and minds of all who are walking in the New Covenant. If a Church is walking in life and seeking the mind of God, a suggestion by a leader should come like plucking an apple when it is ripe – it will yield to the hand with little or no resistance and be evident that it is of God. When a leader begins to cajole, insist or stress their position, even to the point of bullying, it should be received with caution. If it is a temporary trait – well we all get it wrong sometimes, but if it becomes a long term attitude, then it may well be that the church is changing into a cult.