An Italian odyssey I
I returned from Italy with my family last Monday evening, having been away for almost a couple of weeks. It was a busman’s holiday of sorts, trading off hospitality from friends for preaching engagements.
We arrived at Milan’s Malpensa airport on Wed 28 May, and were collected by Pastor Andrea Ferrari of Chiesa Battista Riformata Filadelfia. We went to his home overnight, before being sent away to Venice for a two day break. The Eurostar train took us from Milan (Milano) to Venice (Venezia) in good time, and we spent two wonderful days wandering through the city (although pushchairs and canal bridges are not the best of combinations), travelling around and about the island by boat (including a visit to the famed Island of Murano, where much glass is blown).
From Venice, we returned late on Friday night to Milan, and stayed with the Ferrari family (Andrea & Cristina, and their lads Simone and Daniele) until the following Wednesday. On the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, the church had organised a family conference, originally due to be held in Turin (Torino). However, by the time we had returned, persistent heavy rain in the Turin area had caused the cancellation of these plans, and so some swift re-jigging led to our meeting in their church building (they have been meeting there for only a few months). The topic of the conference was “The Christian family.” With such a large topic, I could only deal with some basics, and concentrated on the relationship between the Lord God and a husband and wife, issues that we have recently covered in our adult Sunday School. I did this under five headings, drawing heavily on material by Albert N. Martin from old Banner of Truth magazines, and also bringing in material from Alan Dunn‘s Headship in Marriage in the Light of Creation and the Fall.
We considered the Scriptural approach – how do we serve God in our families? Where do we begin? Concentrating on the foundation and the framework, we assessed four flawed foundations and one firm foundation. The four flawed foundations are: rationalism (making human reason the ultimate authority); traditionalism (doing what has always been done, either unconsciously or deliberately); pragmatism (doing what seems to work, usually a series of short-term fixes with no long term goals); and, fatalism (can we really know what can be done, and is there any point anyway). Opposed to this is Biblicism – taking the Scriptures as our rule of faith and life. Here we went back to the gospel dynamic that governs our entrance into and progress in true Christian living. We can do nothing apart from Christ, and it is in the tension between Biblical idealism and Biblical realism, resolved by the grace of God in the forgiveness of sins and grace for cheerful obedience, that we make progress in this struggle.
We moved on to look at the essential equality that exists between men and women. Many texts in Scripture say that men and women are different to each other, none say that one is better than the other. Men and women are equal in their created dignity (both are made in the image of God), their native depravity (both are equally fallen, both are equally lost), and in redemptive reality (both are equally saved by the same Christ, and receive the same redemptive privileges). There are four consequences of this equality: a joint commission together to be fruitful, to multiply, to have dominion; a genuine correspondence (men and women were made to complete and complement each other); a profound cleaving (the intimacy of the one-flesh union of marriage, true togetherness); and, a total commitment to one another within the bonds of marriage.
From there we went on to consider the distinctive roles, looking first at women of God. Our four key texts were 1Cor 11.3-16, Eph 5.22-33, Col 3.18-19, and 1Tim 2.8-15, where we observe the created order and the redemptive pattern. On these two pillars the distinctives stand, without denying or negating the essential equality. The keynote for women is submission, a positive and active yielding of her gifts to her husband and employing them for him. The particular nature of this submission is religious – “as to the Lord”: it is an expression of our attitude to God. We saw its broad extent: “in everything” – it is extensive, not occasional or selective. Nevertheless, it is not absolute. She is to submit in everything except when her husband requires what God forbids or forbids what God requires. We also looked at some of the distortions and perversions women must labour to avoid: effacement on the one hand, and domination/manipulation on the other.
From there we moved to the distinctive role of Christian men. We used the same key texts and observed the same order and pattern. The keynote for men is love. We considered the character of this love: it is Christlike – it is intelligent, realistic, sweet and (above all) sacrificial. We looked at the quality of this love: it is purposeful – it seeks a wife’s highest development and greatest blessing. We identified the anchor of this love: union – it is grounded in a husband’s being one flesh with his wife. We then looked at the activity of this love: “nourishing and cherishing” – a profound tenderness and principled care. There are also distortions and perversions here for men to avoid: abdication on the one hand (a failure to lead lovingly) and tyranny on the other (a failure to love in leading).
In the final address we considered the Christian family as the living sermon - does my home, my relationship, preach Christ and his church to those around me? What does my relationship to my wife say to others about how Christ acts toward his church? What does my relationship to my husband say about how the church acts toward Christ? A Christ-exalting marriage is full of gospel blessing. We find blessing for ourselves when true happiness and harmony are established in the home. We bring blessing to our families by our testimony to gospel realities, and in providing a model for Christian homes. We bring blessing to our churches, for a healthy Christian home is a vital building block in a healthy congregation, and an example of grace and a centre of ministry to others. We also bring a blessing to our societies – both common blessings (good citizens having an influence) and saving blessings (true Christians testifying of Jesus and enjoying God’s favour). But we must pursue gospel transparency rather than entertain gross hypocrisy. The kind of Pharisaic hypocrisy we see in Matthew 23 will destroy all blessing. Reality matters more than appearance and performance. We must face the facts of sin, embrace the Christ of grace, and go in the strength of gospel grace along the way of gospel obedience in the exercise of the gospel dynamic.
With this, the conference closed. Andrea translated throughout, and we were both weary. The church then watched the film The Pursuit of Happyness, and there followed a discussion about the particular roles and values demonstrated in the film in the light of the material delivered from the Scripture. We looked at what we might learn positively and negatively from the examples we saw.
With that, we went home and slept. On the Tuesday we had our next rest day, wandering round an open market before a relaxed afternoon, then packing our bags for the next leg of the trip – south to Sicily.