Don’t Cling To The Bible

“Don’t cling too closely to the Bible. It’s not that important.”

That’s a paraphrase of something said to a friend of mine as he attended a Christian course. Both he and I agreed that it’s that sort of comment that immediately puts us on the defensive. It wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds though. In essence, this person was saying that we shouldn’t hold the Bible so tightly that it becomes more important than God.

And there’s a lot of truth in that isn’t there? We don’t want to become people who effectively say we worship God the Father, God the Son and God the Bible (a very real danger in conservative circles). At New Word Alive a few years ago I attended a series of Wayne Grudem’s seminars on the Bible and he said it’s all to easy to make it sound like we worship the Bible rather than Jesus. His answer to those accusations was to invite people to come along to church and let them see for themselves if that really was the case.

So that initial paraphrased quote (I’ll just call it a quote from now on), despite its unfortunate wording, seems quite reasonable doesn’t it? It seems to occupy that hallowed middle ground between the Liberals who don’t really seem concerned with the Bible at all, and the fundamentalists who read everything 100% literally. But I’m not sure it does. For all it’s well meaning intentions, I think it highlights a misunderstanding of what the Bible really is, and so rather than occupying a middle ground, actually ends up in a sort of biblical no mans land.

It’s 100% right to say that our love should be directed towards God and we must avoid the very real danger of worshipping a book, rather than it’s author. But there in lies the issue. God and his word are not that simply divided. The quote sounds like a reasonable thing to say because many of us slip into the trap of thinking in terms of God and the Bible as completely distinct entities. I mean, one’s a person and one’s a book for goodness sake. Why wouldn’t we think like that? But the reality is subtly different. Try thinking in terms of God and God’s word and suddenly that quote begins to look absurd.

Look at it this way, the basic premise is “love the person (God), don’t end up just loving a book.” But it’s not just a book. It’s the words of the person. What would it look like if I applied that thinking to my relationship with my wife? If I told you that I love Becca but I don’t really need to pay that much attention to what she says, or that what she says isn’t really that important, I think you’d begin to question the reality of my love for her and the nature of our relationship. What would it say about my love for her if I think that her words may be worth listening to but I shouldn’t cling too closely to them? And so more importantly, what would it say about my love for Jesus if I feel that way about his words, the Bible? Suddenly, we begin to realise that divorcing the two from one another becomes a little bit silly.

…and so by extension think what he says is quite important too!

After all, the disciples seemed to realise loving Jesus didn’t mean having intense feelings about him in some abstract way, but listening to his words and then putting them into practice. As Peter says:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

We can’t leave Jesus’ words behind (I mean, where else would we go?) therefore we can’t leave the Bible behind. There’s no other place to go if we want to know Jesus and hear what he has to say to us today. This isn’t a 2000 (or more) year old document simply recording a bygone age but it is something living and active.

So do make sure you love Jesus and not just his book. But do treat Jesus’ words as important, do cling to them, because these words are the only way we know anything about Jesus in the first place, these words are the words of the person we claim to love most & these words are the words of eternal life.

The Depth of Brotherly Love in Philemon

The letter of Paul to Philemon strikes me as such a wonderful example of the love Christians should have for one another. Just look at the relationship between the two men:

  • Paul calls Philemon “dear friend” (v1).
  • Paul is so clearly encouraged by Philemon’s walk (v4-7).
  • Philemon had clearly helped Paul in the past (v13).
  • They would consider each other “partners,” suggesting a close friendship and relationship as fellow gospel workers (v17).
  • Philemon was likely converted by Paul (v19).
  • Paul desires to come to Philemon in person and stay with him(v22).

The two men are clearly close friends but once Paul begins to talk about Onesimus, we really begin to see the extent of the love that Christians must have for one another. Onesimus was seemingly a valued slave of Philemon’s (v16) who had in some way wronged his master, most likely stealing some of his money (19) and then running away (v12, 15). It seems that at some point after fleeing from Philemon, Onesimus had come into contact with Paul and been converted (v10-11). The transforming effect that the gospel had on his life is clear to be seen. He became a fellow worker for the gospel alongside Paul (v11, 13) which led to a close relationship between the two of them:

  • Paul calls him his “son” (v10)
  • Paul describes Onesimus as “my very heart” (v12).
  • Onesimus had helped Paul during his imprisonment in a similar way that Philemon did (v13).
  • Paul says that Onesimus is very dear to him (v16).
  • Paul is willing to pay back what Onesimus owes (v19).

Clearly Onesimus’s life has changed for the better but Paul is writing to Philemon because he knows that the broken relationship between the slave and master needs to be addressed. We’ve already seen two great examples of the closeness Christians should share in their relationships but it’s in Paul’s plea for Philemon to welcome back Onesimus that we see how much deeper that love must go:

  • Paul has commended Philemon on his love for the other brothers and how he has ministered to them (v7). He appeals to Philemon to love Onesimus in the same way, despite the wrong he has done him (v9).
  • Philemon is to welcome Onesimus back not as a slave but as a fellow Christian brother (v16).
  • Philemon should welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul, as a partner, as if Onesimus was the man who had converted him and as a dear friend that he’d prepare a bed for (v17).

Paul and Philemon were clearly dear friends who had great love for one another and Philemon clearly had great love for other Christians too. But Paul’s challenge to him is to welcome back a thieving slave (who no doubt had cost him lots of trouble and money) as if he were Paul himself. Any previous wrongs in the relationship are to be put behind them and they are now to love one another as Christian brothers and not slave and master. Paul even suggests that by doing this, Philemon will refresh his heart (v20) which is surely a reference back to the joy and encouragement Paul had from Philemon’s love of his Christian brothers and sisters in v7.

I find this little letter profoundly challenging. Not only does it show the depth of relationships we should share with other Christians but it challenges us to forgive those who have wronged us and love them as if they were our nearest and dearest. It also shows the encouragement that this can be to others around us and therefore the discouragement that a refusal to do so can be.

This whole letter shows the incredible love Christians are to have for one another and in doing so, points to the greatest love, shown by Jesus on the cross. In many ways, we are all like Onesimus, having wronged our master and done our best to flee the scene of the crime. But where there is true repentance, Jesus welcomes us back like an old friend, like a brother.

No longer as a slave but…as a dear brother.

Just Another Guide Or A Father In Christ?

During my quiet time this morning I was reading 1 Corinthians 3-4:7 and I was struck by one verse in verse, 1 Cor 4:15:

“For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers.”

The Corinthian church is probably the most unruly church we read about in the Bible. It’s full of division, quarrelling, factions and pride, and so Paul doesn’t hold back in putting them in their place. But this verse really struck me for what it says about guides and fathers. There was no shortage of people in the church wanting to lead others but very few of them took on a fatherly role in their leadership, which probably goes some way to explaining why the church was in such disarray.

So this got me thinking, “what does it mean to be a father to people in my ministry?” Helpfully, I think Paul shows us at least 5 things in the passage surrounding this verse. Here it is in  it’s wider context:

“14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent  you Timothy,my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ,  as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”

This guy might have some interesting facts, but he doesn't love you!

Firstly, a father loves his children. In verse 14, Paul refers to the Corinthians as his ‘beloved children.’ These people, despite the mess they’ve made of their church and their very obvious sinfulness, are people who Paul loves dearly, as if they were his own children. This is in stark contrast to a guide. I might hire a guide to lead me up a mountain or take me on a tour of the Tower of London, but that guide has no love for me. He’s simply doing his job, detached from any real feeling for me. A father on the other hand, loves his children dearly, no matter what they might do to disappoint him. This love should be a mark of any ministry we are involved in.

Secondly, a father leads by example. Paul urges the Corinthians to imitate him, just as he imitates Christ (v16-17).Fathers realise that their children imitate them and are distressed when they see their child picking up their bad habits. As Christian leaders we need to realise that people see what we do and imitate us. If we really love the people under our care, then we’ll strive to be as Christlike as possible in our actions, leading people to imitate that.

Father's want to impart the right knowledge to their children

Thirdly, a father teaches their child. In v18, Paul stresses that he has been teaching everywhere in every church. Teaching is such an important role of the Christian leader. Not long ago, I met some young people who went to church every week, attended their midweek bible study every week, went on summer camps and did every Christian festival going. Their exposure to Christianity was seemingly huge. But not one of them had any real grasp of the gospel which got me thinking, “if not the gospel, what are people actually teaching these kids week in, week out?!” My suspicion is that there were a lot of guides but very few Fathers around these people.

The teaching aspect brings me to the fourth thing a Christian leader does as a father. It’s not only that the leader must be a teacher, but he must teach the right thing. Paul says when he comes to Corinth he’ll come not to hear people’s talk but to find out their power (v19), “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (v20). So what’s this power that Paul is referring to? Well helpfully he’s talked about this at length in chapter 1:

” For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18

The power Paul talks about is the message of Christ crucified. That’s the message that seems foolish to the world but is actually the power of God. When Paul gets to Corinth he wants to see whether people are preaching the cross of Christ, because that is where the power of the Kingdom of God comes from. If the gospel message is not being taught in our churches, our youth cell groups, or camps, then our message is drained of power. But someone who is a real father to those in his care will preach the gospel.

A father loves his children and wants to spend time with them.

Finally, a father spends time with his children. Paul tells the Corinthians he is coming to them soon (v19). The guide arrives at youth group at 7:30pm and checks out at 9:00pm, job done until next week. The father desires real relationship with his children and so spends time with them face to face, sharing his life with them. Facebook, twitter and texting are all great but they can’t compare to meeting face to face and that’s a real challenge to us in our increasingly isolated communities.

This verse challenges me to be a father to my young people. I hope it’ll challenge you too.

Preach the Word & Care for the Flock

I’ve just got back from my second year at the Bible Centred Youth Work Conference run by the Good Book company. It’s been a really encouraging few days and it was great to be able to meet with other youth workers who are in the same position as I am and who are facing similar struggles. It was also a useful time to be able to gather my thoughts on my ministry and where it’s strengths and weaknesses lie.

The teaching at the conference has been really helpful in focusing me back onto what I’m actually here to do and really helped in getting some perspective on my situation. Basically, I like a bit of a grumble, and whilst my church is far from perfect, hearing about the situations that some people are in made me realise just how good I have it.

In many ways, I still haven’t had much time to really process what I heard at the conference and so anything I say now may just be reactionary, but there was a lot of food for thought, some of which I referenced in my mini-blogs during the conference. It’s the comments of Phil Moon and Dave Fenton in relation to how they’ve seen youth work change over the years that have really stuck in my mind and I’d like to make some comment on what they said and how I feel this speaks into my situation.

Firstly,

More Work, Less Progress

This was something I could immediately identify with as it’s something that a number of us have often said plagues our own church. I personally associate the ‘more work’ with a couple of different things. Firstly, busyness. It’s an incredibly worldly idea to think that you can only be doing things properly if you’re busy and rushed off your feet. That’s not to suggest that we should be sitting around doing very little; of course we need to work very hard at what we do and give our all to it. But when your youth group or church starts to decline or growth slows, the temptation is to start thinking about what new things we can add to the calendar and eventually we end up with a weekly schedule where we just rush about from one thing to the next in a state of heightened stress. There’s a lot on offer but it’s not really moving anyone forward, just stressing us out and putting pressure excess pressure on us (and probably everyone else too).

Secondly, I think this shows that we can be working really hard, but if there’s no progress, perhaps the work we’re doing isn’t the right kind. Maybe we’ve got our priorities wrong. I marvel at churches whose young people are never taught the Bible in any real depth and yet  they can’t understand why their youth ministry isn’t growing. It’s cause you’re working hard at fun and games but not teaching the word.

I think both busyness and our work being misdirected, actually hinder progress and are the reason so many youth workers burn out. Apparently the average UK church youth worker lasts 17 months before they burn out which is shocking. I was definitely struck by that and I need to examine what parts of my week are actually things which are just clogging up the diary and actually hindering the youth work at my church. Anyway, the next thing was:

More Focus, Less Sacrifice

Being, for the most part, a conservative evangelical and part of a solid Bible teaching church, it’s unsurprising that my ministry has a heavy focus on preaching and teaching the word. If you’ve read some of my other blogs you might have picked up on my conviction that it’s the word of God that speaks to people and opens their eyes and that basically, youth work without the Bible is pretty much unthinkable to my mind. However, what Phil Moon seemed to be saying, was that as conservative evangelicals we have prioritised the word so much, that it’s actually been to the detriment of our relationships with our young people. We’ve become so embroiled in knowing how to handle the Bible correctly, how to give good talks that are faithful to the word etc, that we just don’t have much of a focus on sacrificing our time and selves to be with our young people and really get alongside them. Both Phil and Dave recounted various outings they’d gone on as young people and later with their own young people, and how important those times were. Even those times were teaching times because ministry is incarnational. We have to share our lives with our young people, not just an hour and a half at bible study each week. 1 Thessalonians 2:8 says this:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.

Paul is saying ‘there was more to our ministry that just telling you the gospel. We lived amongst you, we laughed with you, we cried with you, we shared every part of our lives with you. Why? Because we love you.’ We all know (or should do) that youth work is relational, but somehow, despite knowing that, we’ve gradually pushed that out due to our heavy focus on the word. The key for us now is to keep that evangelical word focus but also get back to sharing our lives with our young people; making sacrifices for our ministry. Sharing the gospel and our lives with our young people because we love them. I think this is a real weakness in my ministry and one that needs addressing. We do have some great relationships, but they could be so much more. And making that a reality can be a lot simpler than we might think. An example was mentioned of how one leader used to take her kids to the shopping centre. She was going shopping and asked if anyone wanted to come, so she drove them in and they simply went about their shopping. They didn’t have to spend the whole time together. They went their separate ways and then re-grouped for refreshments and such like, but it was a great time of relationship building and an opportunity to have some really good chats in the car and over coffee. I’m already mulling over what I can do with my kids and I think adding more of this kind of stuff in could make a huge difference. The third change was:

More Training, Less Practice

Basically we have a generation made up of a vast number of people who have been heavily trained in how to handle the Bible and lead Bible studies, and somehow an attitude has grown up that you basically have to have a PhD to teach the Bible. It’s all become quite academic and we’ve become training reliant. We’re afraid to let those without the right qualifications get up and teach. But the reality is that we now have a lot of people who have been taught how to do things, but haven’t actually done many of those things in the real world. They’ve been taught how to do it but they’ve never really done it. When I look back over the years and the various things I lead at, I know I got up and made a real mess of stuff sometimes. But if I hadn’t been given the opportunity to have a go, mess it up, learn from it and try again, then I wouldn’t have had any chance of moving forward or growing. The challenge for me now is to not be afraid to let others have a go and fail. We still want to support and train our leaders as best we can, but we need to realise that they don’t have to have done three years at Bible college before they can get up and lead. Sure, they won’t be the finished product, but then who the hell is? I’m certainly not. I’m thankful I was given the opportunities to try and to fail and so now I’ve got to learn to trust God enough to let others do the same.

The way Dave Fenton summed up Christian youth work was this: Preach the word and care for the flock. Those are the only two things we need to do. It’s really that simple but yet we often make it so much more complicated. When someone sums up our ministry so succinctly and so concisely, we can’t help but look at our ministry and realise that we just need to go right back to basics. All we are to do is to preach the word and share our lives with our young people. We show them Jesus and we care for them, we listen to them, we laugh with them, we cry with them, we pray with them, we support them and we have fun with them. Why? Because we love them.

That’s what will make a great youth ministry.