Tuesday, October 30, 2012

shadows to the left, shadows to the right

Where do you feel the greatest threat to having a healthy and Biblically weighted Christianity comes from? Do you feel the most pressing threat is from ‘the right’ (those more conservative than you) or is the danger you feel most keenly, from ‘the left’ (those more liberal than you)? I use the word ‘feel’ deliberately, because while we would all say that any extreme would be unwelcomed – we tend to have a stronger emotional reaction to one of them than the other.

We all like to assume that ‘where we’re at’ (theologically speaking) is the best place. Indeed it’s a logical necessity of holding a viewpoint or position that you think it is right one to have. If you felt your opinion on some matter was wrong or deficient you would change it to one you felt was better – obviously! So we think that those on ‘our right’ (regarding theology & practise) would be better to move a bit to their left – i.e. to where we are! And vice versa, as regards those on our left.

But it doesn’t take long to realise that one of those (as we see it) off-balanced positions tends to arouse stronger antipathy in us than the other.  For myself feelings of emotional up-tightness and anxiety come predominantly when faced with those on my ‘left’. But that’s not because there is no-one to my ‘right’, or that I would want to be pulled in that direction. Nonetheless, the views & practises of those on my ‘right’ tend to unsettle me less psychologically. I might see extremes on my right as, ‘not helpful’, OTT, even a bit quaint – but I can engage with them feeling fairly relaxed. In contrast, when I feel pulled to the ‘left’ or sense the views and practises of those to my ‘left’ are pressing in or gaining ground, I can start to feel physically uneasy, tense and agitated. For me the theological shadows that I fear most are very much to the ‘left’ of me.

However, I observe the opposite in others - folks whose theological positions are pretty much the same as mine – that is, we would both want essentially the same kind of church and have the same general position re: our beliefs and practises. In contrast, however, the shadows they fear most are on their ‘right’. So while they can be relaxed when confronted with liberal-leaning theology and practises – they can quickly get stressed when they feel more conservative influences are knocking at the door. For them the ‘bogeymen’ they fear most come with black suits & hats as opposed to goaty-beards & toe-rings.

Past experiences will often play a big part in determining where our main fears lie. Of course, all this has implications, because even if the starting point is the same, those with an emotional aversion to the ‘right’ are more likely to get tugged over time ‘leftward’ and vice versa. Interestingly the drift of the church over past decades has generally been ‘left-ward’. Some of the reasons why ‘moving left’ theologically is much more common than ‘moving right’ are outlined HERE. In a subsequent post I’ll argue that the two directions are not equally dangerous in one key regard. But, for now, let me conclude my main point here with a final observation...

I think it’s helpful to see the part that our emotions play in how we react to different positions (at least it is for me). As noted, I personally start to feel uncomfortable when I feel the defences to the left are being slackened by those around me. This can happen in a discussion when the predominant criticism is towards more conservative thinking & practises, while liberal-leaning positions are more generously entertained. The reality though, is that often the essential beliefs of those in the discussion are the same as mine – the difference is in how individuals are reacting emotionally to alternative views. Recognising this is a big help in dissipating the social tension that can creep in at such times.

Which means that the next time you’re in a church/theological discussion, remember it may be that the tightening in your stomach is more experiential than exegetical, and that sometimes apparent differences are not so much about the light we should stand in but the shadows we fear. 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

An elder's children

Some notes I prepared a few years ago on the need for elders to be good fathers and how we assess such a requirement. 

1 Tim 3
1Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. 2Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5(If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?) 6He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap.

Titus 1
6An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7Since an overseer is entrusted with God's work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

The requirements of elders are set high. God’s under-shepherds are to be godly, stable in character and men of the Word. It is also evident that a man’s home life is regarded as a key testing ground of his suitability to be an elder.

…the logic is plain. Parents cannot be expected to manage God’s family well if they have failed to manage their own. (Stott, BST p176)

In Timothy this requirement is expressed in terms of ‘managing’ his family, in Titus it is elaborated in terms of having believing or faithful children – who are (consequently) not open to accusations of being ‘wild and disobedient’ (variously translated: dissolute, unsalvageable, uncontrolled conduct, undisciplined, rebellious).

Thus like all of the requirements laid in Scripture for elders – we need to take these ‘family requirements’ seriously and test ourselves against it. That said, none of us will ever fulfil these characteristics perfectly – and we need to be wary of selectivity in the eldership requirements we focus on.

As with all characteristics – they actually need to be characteristics! That is, persistant and recurrent – the stuff of reputations. Kent Hughes expresses it well…

While standing firmly for this parenting standard, we must ensure that we are operating Biblically and not on first impressions alone. A number of distinctions are important to note in the apostle’s terminology. First the term for children is tekna, and it generally relates to children in the home, under parent’s authority. We should not hold leaders as accountable for the actions of independent children as we do for children under their care and supervision.

Second the word for children is plural. We are not necessarily looking at the beliefs and actions of one child but at the character of the family as a whole… our assessment is to be based on observations of children’s conduct and convictions made over time, not on isolated statements or actions….

We should all recognise that there are periods of life when raising children is more difficult and when beliefs of parents are naturally questioned… We are to make an assessment of leadership appropriateness on the basis of overall patterns, not exceptions. The parallel passage in 1 Tim 3 enriches our understanding of this standard. There Paul says that an elder should ‘manage his own family well’ (v4). How could this be determined if there were never any struggles in the family? Good leadership is not determined by the absence of difficulty but in the prudent discipline and handling of problems when difficulties come. Patterns of disbelief and unruliness in a man’s household should cause questions about his aptitude for church leadership, but occasional or exceptional difficulties well handled should not disqualify. Rather, they are precisely what do qualify.  (p296/297)

I would further add that the injunction to children ‘to obey parents’ (Col 3:20) means that the Bible doesn’t take it for granted that they will.  

In Greenview we have a young eldership and consequently some elders have younger children – this means that we are appointing elders in some instances before their ‘family management skills’ are able to be fully assessed. However, even with younger children, who can often be quite wild and unruly by nature, it is possible to observe ‘good parenting’ by observing how such behaviour is approached or dealt with. That is, it would not be ‘encouraging’ to see a potential elder allowing their children (of any age) to go unchecked when behaving in a disruptive or inconsiderate manner.

Elders because of their profile are subject to greater scrutiny in the church – hence the need to avoid being a source of disrepute. Clearly if patterns of disreputable family behaviour persist over an extended period of time or if there is a clear negligence on the part of an elder in addressing such issues – then an elder’s position can become a hindrance to ministry and thus need reviewed.

However, we need to recognise that elders are especially vulnerable to unfair criticisms, accusations and indeed the attacks of the devil. Therefore, elders need to take special care of each other in the inevitable times of adversity that come in life – family problems being a classic example. Difficulties arise and recede in life over the years – the crises of past years can quickly feel very distant. Ministry is always long term.