To be honest, I was not quite sure what to expect from this book. I wondered if it would be a sort of rambling reminiscence or a series of strident assertions from a heavily fortified redoubt. I was pleasantly, even delightfully, surprised.
The book is, unashamedly, a personal history and contains much in that vein. But it is not a series of anecdotes, either limned in the halo glow of past glories or shadowed with defeatist gloom. It begins with what comes across as a thoroughly honest and painful testimony about what it was like to be converted and to serve in doctrinally mixed denominations in which gospel distinctiveness and Christ-centred preaching and living were at a premium. This was an era in which you might hear the gospel rarely, because a church had accidentally invited someone to preach who believed the Bible, and who – once the fearful fact was discovered – would never again darken that building’s doors.
The author goes on to describe what felt like a second conversion when, training in a liberal theological college, he heard a certain Welshman preach … really preach, and preach truth … real truth. He describes the early years of life in a Baptist Union church, battling with unconverted members and labouring with confused Christians. I have heard some of these horror stories from others. Here is a further brief catalogue. Under such circumstances, men of God would gather eagerly in London from month to month, to enjoy fellowship at Westminster Chapel with likeminded brothers, and to enjoy the wisdom and engage with the opinions of one of the few senior leaders they knew and trusted, Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
Such history gives way to the most theologically oriented section of the book, an assessment of the arguments of evangelicals in various mixed denominations (not just the Anglicans, it must be remembered, but among various free church associations and denominations as well) to remain ‘in it to win it’. All this leads up to the night of Tuesday 18th October, 1966. There Lloyd-Jones did what he was invited to do: he delivered, as a sermon, his opinion on the question of true church unity, calling evangelicals to come out of their compromised bodies. Infamously, the chairman – John Stott – took it upon himself to respond in the negative.
We tend to view the outcomes of that night in terms of macro-ecclesiology. Howlett gives us a window into the micro-ecclesiology. He and the church he served were evicted from their building by the Baptist Union; he and his family were evicted from their home by the same group. As all the latent conviction of the preceding years precipitated the exit from many denominations of godly men, so all the latent animosity of the preceding years against biblical conviction and action seemed to be released against them. Refreshingly, the author names names, allowing us to see just what was going on, and with whom, and why. It is neither gossipy nor vindictive, but it is plain and sometimes painful.
We also then see the smile of God. We hear of churches blessed as they continued down their difficult path, and of opportunities for ministry and service that might otherwise have been denied, as preachers and churches sought to establish themselves upon the truth of God rather than the opinions of men.
In all this, Howlett takes pains to underline that Lloyd-Jones, in many ways both standard-bearer and catalyst for much of this activity, was never the object of mindless hero-worship from a bunch of brainless acolytes. Rather, we see a man who was flawed but faithful, as are all true men of God, one whose wisdom, humility, kindness and firmness were treasured by those who had few other models to which they could look. The whole finishes with a generally positive survey of some of the evangelical institutions and the gospel endeavours in which the historian has participated and still participates, the fruit of the often costly investments of those preceding years.
Most of us, especially those who have (hopefully) matured after the dust had begun to settle on these events, or who pontificate about these things from further afield, have no real idea of the battles fought and the blood, sweat and tears shed by those who have gone before, the sacrifices made by men faithful to their convictions. Perhaps some of those who are even now fighting similar battles for the souls of their own churches will have some insight. But honestly, most younger men probably lack any real awareness of the horrific grip that liberalism had on British churches, just what fiendish froth and filth the Downgrade had eventually spawned.
As the author draws his conclusions, different readers will draw theirs. To those, like some evangelical Anglican brothers, still wrestling in a fatally compromised denomination, Howlett’s proclamations may read like the ‘same old, same old’ criticisms, long since shown to hold no water. To others, Independents for whom the FIEC is less hitting its stride as a denomination and more developing the hallmarks of an anodyne but self-aggrandising octopus, his celebration of such organisations might ring a little hollow.
However, what should become clear to those in the former camp is that Lloyd-Jones’ call was not, in itself, an anti-Anglican statement but a pro-evangelical declaration. Howlett, not merely echoing but sincerely communicating the issues and the points of departure, presses home the same questions upon the conscience of those who remain in doctrinally and practically compromised denominations of all stripes. To those of us in the latter camp, it would do us good to realise what a haven the FIEC might have felt like to those men and women who paid such a high price for their faithfulness and unwillingness to compromise. You might still not agree with what the FIEC is, and you might still be unimpressed with what it seems to be becoming, but you will have greater sympathy for and understanding of those who lived through these years and have invested in it. There are also bigger issues for us all. For too many, questions of soteriology and ecclesiology are seen to have almost no bearing upon one another. Very often the former are elevated and the latter denigrated. The former unite, the latter divide, we are told. But they are more closely linked than most of us consider. The book hints at this, without, in my opinion, pressing it particularly far home. It remains a significant and often overlooked or swept-aside tension as Christians continue to ask questions about cooperation and connection in gospel endeavours.
There have been a number of other contributions to the history of these events in recent years, and especially recent weeks and months. There is value in trying to look back from a greater distance and make cooler assessments. There is also great value in listening carefully to the recollections and experiences of the men who were there, who lived through and fought through battles within and around genuine evangelicalism. Such histories ought to teach us, that we might build upon what we have inherited, consider what remains to be addressed, and resist the same compromise and confusion that once characterised the congregations of our country.
If you were asked to identify the primary quality which defines a true man of God in his specific relation to a true woman of God – distinctively within the marriage relationship – what one-word answer might you give? What if the opposite question were asked: what single quality ought to characterise a woman of God in relation to her husband in particular?
In pondering the answers to those questions, rest assured that I am not having a sly dig at anyone or seeking to make unreasonable or unfair assumptions. I am on record in The New Calvinism Considered (US and UK) as being what is generally now defined as a complementarian, but also as being uncomfortable with some of the excesses that I have perceived, and those in both directions.
Most germane to the purposes of this post are those excesses in which biblical masculinity is celebrated but potentially or actually exaggerated toward a caricature of (Western?) masculinity – “a sort of hairy, Neanderthal, chest-beating machismo.” This caricature, it seems, is now being used by some to justify not just a strangely exaggerated form of masculinity but a horribly perverted abuse of it.
I wonder if this can be traced in some instances to a fundamental misunderstanding of what true masculinity looks like in relationship to true femininity? As so often, perhaps there is a danger of reactionary theology: a position formed not from the Word of God but from a response – proper in kind but not in degree – to some opposite aberrance. So, for example, think of someone so (rightly) horrified by the suggestion that the Lord Jesus, in some way, was not fully human that he responds in such a way as actually (wrongly) to undermine his divinity. Such is the skewed reaction to the cultural pressure by which many men have become milk-livered geldings that the goal becomes the embodiment of the rutting stallion. Neither is it a matter of finding some kind of middle ground. The aim should not be some anodyne mean, but a biblical fulness.
But what does that look like with regard to male leadership, especially leading to and in marriage? A simple passage like Ephesians 5 helps us here. I will not go into the substructure of male-female relations, grounded in both being made in the image of God, both being fallen in Adam, both able to be redeemed and restored in Christ. In such a relationship there is a genuine correspondence, a profound cleaving, a total commitment and a joint commission. Furthermore, I am persuaded from the Word of God that there are some distinctive roles within that relationship. In Ephesians 5, the apostle sounds two abiding keynotes, one for the woman and for the man. The primary element for the woman of God is submission, and I recognise that that must be carefully and scripturally defined and worked out. Paul, in this passage, then moves on to the keynote for the man. And what is it? If we make a merely reactionary leap (and I fear this is, in essence, what many are doing) we start looking for the counterpoint to submission. The husband is to be marked by … what? Authority? Rule? Headship? Leadership? Some other near-synonym for being in charge that emphasises the difference between the sexes?
No, the distinctive feature of masculinity in this relation to femininity is love. Leadership or headship may be implied, but the focus of the apostle is on the motive and nature of the husband’s relation to his wife. This love is neither physical lust nor romantic delight, and neither one can or will supply a lack of intelligent and principled love.
Let me briefly spell out several things about this love. Note first its character, for it is Christlike. As such, it must be principled, realistic, intelligent , sweet and – ultimately – sacrificial. Its great pattern is Christ’s coming for and dying for his church. This is not a matter of occasional spectacular demonstrations, though it may include them. It is not a notional knight in shining armour who, fortunately for the husband, never actually needs to make an appearance. It is to labour for the good of your wife regardless of the cost to yourself, a daily death of a thousand cuts to male selfishness and laziness.
Secondly, see the quality of this love: it is purposeful. Like Christ’s love to his church, it aims not at a wife’s slavish subjugation, but at her proper liberation. A husband’s love aims to raise his beloved wife to the highest point development and her greatest blessing. He invests in and serves her so as to bring her, by all legitimate means, to the highest pitch of spiritual and moral excellence to which she is able to attain, as defined by God himself. There is a deliberate goal in such love.
Thirdly, consider the anchor of this love: union. Paul grounds this love in the one-flesh union between husband and wife. For the married man, she is one with me. Whatever I would do or have done for my true good and real blessing, by God’s estimation, I should pursue for her. As it would be both unnatural and ungodly to ignore, neglect, despise or injure your own flesh, so – if our love is remotely Christlike – it ought to be recognised as unnatural and ungodly to do the same with regard to our wife.
Finally, observe the activity of such love: it is a nourishing and cherishing affection. Whatever the origin of this language, it is clearly not meant to be demeaning, because it refers both to the way in which a man is expected to be caring for himself, and representative of the way in which Christ cares for his church. The words communicate a profound tenderness and principled care, to develop by nurture and to envelope with affection. Some men show more of this toward their car or their home than they do toward their wife – investing more time, energy and money in a hobby than in their God-given wife. The call is for words backed up by deeds, and deeds adorned with words, just as with Christ.
So, brothers, how do you assess your distinctive relationship toward your wife? What ought to lie at the root of your dispositions and actions toward other women who are not your wife? Do you perceive your relationship toward your spiritual sisters (or, indeed, unconverted women), and especially with regard to (but not merely) your wives, to be characterised primarily by rule – by the robust exercise of the authority which has been so largely abandoned by our generation and culture? If so, you are missing the mark. The characteristic quality of the true man of God is a Christlike love, first and primarily with regard to his own wife, and then to other women in appropriate measure and framed by the parameters of a legitimate relationship. If, to paraphrase the apostle elsewhere, you are getting other things right but have not love, you have failed to follow and to show Christ at this point.
In the light of recent controversies, I am revisiting this:
The magpie (at least, the one I have in mind) is a striking European bird of black and white plumage (as Jeeves might say, “The species pica pica of the family corvidae, sir”) – a sort of jazzed up crow, if you will, although I imagine many magpies would be thoroughly offended by the description. An even worse sobriquet attaches to this unfortunate bird: “the thieving magpie,” a reference to its alleged and rather unfortunate habit of flying away with anything shiny that takes its fancy and is not firmly tied down.
It is the sort of heist of which preachers are often accused, a connection all the more unfortunate if you also go in for monochrome livery. But is it a legitimate accusation?
Preachers are easily criticised, and sometimes rightly so, for taking short cuts with preparation. Many years ago a peer sent me a sermon he was…
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Sound words from John Eadie in his commentary on Ephesians (355):
If Christians shall persist in falsehood and deviation from the truth — if they shall indulge in fitful rage, or cherish sullen and malignant dislikes — if they shall be characterized by dishonesty, or insipid and corrupt language, then do they grieve the Holy Spirit of God; for all this perverse insubordination is in utter antagonism to the essence and operations of Him who is the Spirit of truth; and inspires the love of it; who assumed, as a fitting symbol, the form of a dove, and creates meekness and forbearance; and who, as the Spirit of holiness, leads to the appreciation of all that is just in action, noble in sentiment, and healthful and edifying in speech. What can be more grieving to the Holy Ghost than our thwarting the very purpose for which He dwells within us, and contravening all the promptings and suggestions with which He warns and instructs us?
The brochure and booking form for the Westminster Conference 2016 is now available for download. An excellent programme involves Ken Brownell, Peter Beale, James Mildred, Ian Hamilton, Geoff Thomas, and Iain Murray speaking about the life and labours of Luther, the doctrine of repentance, the impassibility of God, the recent history of British Evangelicalism, and J. C. Ryle.
It is due to take place on Tuesday 6th and Wednesday 7th December this year in central London.
That was interesting.
After all the argument, debate, discussion, bombast, hubris, scaremongering and threatening of recent months, some of it – it must be said – rhetoric of the highest order, Britain woke this morning to the news that we are almost certainly leaving the EU in the next couple of years. I say “almost certainly” because the timeframe is uncertain, and because we should probably be careful before we make absolute statements in such things. Apparently it was so important that even Lindsay Lohan was getting stuck in. At one point, it seems, she thanked Fife. I kid you not. This, it seems, warrants a fairly significant note in the BBC’s news coverage. Such is the world we live in.
But, regardless of such minor meddling, the deal seems to be done. Geographically, Britain is in Europe. Politically, it is on its way out. Philosophically, sociologically, culturally? Harder to say. It is too easy to look at the Leave/Remain map of the country this morning and to start making simplistic, rash and unfounded judgments, the kind that begin, “Well, it’s obvious that they would have voted to …” At the same time, the map is fascinating. Scotland, without exception, has voted to Remain. Wales, with the exception of a couple of westerly counties and more urban areas to the south, wanted to Leave. Northern Ireland was pulling toward Europe. London is overwhelmingly In. Most of the rest of the country, pretty firmly Out. My county was In. My town was Out. And now, indeed, we shake it all about.
Because if all that was interesting, what happens next is fascinating. I confess that one thing that I struggled to work out was the motives that people, especially some of the movers and shakers, had in their voting. It was fascinating, both politically and theologically, to listen to the voices. It was sometimes amusing, as men and women cut about them with two-edged swords, sometimes attacking arguments on this vote that they had stridently defended with precisely the same blade on other matters. So, what was driving us? Was it fear? Greed? Hatred? Anger? Pity? Sympathy? Pride? Perhaps, on both sides. Did people vote with or against certain personalities? That got difficult, because there were some compelling characters on both sides of the debate. What convictions, attachments, and principles, or lack of them, lay behind such emotions, on both sides of the debate? Did that unavoidable but almost-unquantifiable variable of class play a big part? These are not unimportant questions, because those realities and motives may now drive the practical outcome of this vote and colour the mood of the nation for years to come.
What that practical outcome, in all its far-reaching variety, will be, is much harder to predict. What that mood will be might yet change. Now that the die is cast, the strident voices will probably rise shrilly in the next few days. The prophets of doom will predict catastrophic meltdown. Some of their predictions might be right. I can only imagine that the mainland architects of the EU – France and Germany prominent among them – will do what they can to punish Britain, not least as a disincentive to others who are watching with interest to see what can be done and how it goes. The prophets of boon, on the other hand, are telling us that we are entering a brave rather than bleak new world, in which national sovereignty and good, old-fashioned British pluck will enable us to carve out a new and vibrant place in the global economy. The markets are already taking the mother of all kickings. Facebook is, doubtless, awash with populist banter and insult (I confess that I am still building up to having a look).
And then, once the dust immediately kicked up begins to settle, and people realise that society is not about to implode, the long and perhaps difficult reality will set in. Article 50 must be triggered, setting the date for the final act of departure. There will be two years or so of wrangling about what precisely it will involve. What does it mean that our borders might soon be harder to cross? How porous should they be? How much free movement do we want? How much will we get? Will it make Britain less susceptible to international terrorism or more susceptible to our inherent instability? What does it mean to be economically unyoked from the mainland and free to negotiate our own trade deals? Is it the dawn of a new age of innovation and bullishness? Is it the collapse of the pound? What will it mean for the ‘special relationship’ with the US? Will America find that they do not need us as their ally/lapdog now that we don’t have quite the same voice at the European table? Will the EU find it easier to forge ahead with some of their more radical proposals without Britain dragging its (Britain’s) heels while holding its (the EU’s) hand? Will the Little Englanders get their way? Will an ugly nationalism rear its head or a more positive patriotism inspire a measure of endeavour?
This vote radically changes the political landscape, and sets the political agenda for the next couple of parliaments at least, and perhaps the next couple of generations. It is a moment of real risk and real opportunity. Such usually walk hand in hand.
And what of the people of God? I confess that I have found some of the Christian and allegedly-Christian contributions to this debate curious and even distasteful. I believe that pastors should help their people work out why and for what reasons to vote, and not to tell them how to vote, implicitly or explicitly. Party and partisan politics does not belong in the pulpit. Aggressive and sometimes frankly xenophobic assertions of the UK as a Christian country are simply wrong-headed. Declarations of the brotherhood of man as a reason to pursue and promote global unity are also not looking good. The breadth and depth of our heritage and much of its Christian influence I will by no means deny, but the idea that we have somehow beaten back the antichrist with this vote I find curious. At the same time, there can be little doubt that the European influence was, by and large, one which tended to undermine Christian morality and promote a more secular agenda. Other Christian voices, more careful, have argued about the impact it will have on our capacity to take the gospel to the world and our ability to withstand some of the godless and idolatrous influences within and around our society. We might also need to be at least as much concerned about how to take the gospel to the many parts of our country, the cities and the parts of them, and the countless towns and villages, which are in almost entire gospel darkness, regardless of the national origin or cultural inheritance of the people who inhabit them.
You see, what seems to be overlooked by many, both within and without the true church of Christ (the company of the redeemed), is that nothing in this vote changes the hearts of men. It may change our circumstances. We have no idea how much that might prove to be the case. But it does not change our nature. If we think that Britain will rediscover a native rosy glow in the aftermath of this debate, and vaguely and confusedly patriotic strains of “Jerusalem” will once more arise from the corners of our sceptred isle, then we should get out more. If we fear, on the contrary, that we are now entering the darkest of days, we should look up more. In both cases, we need to read our Bibles more. We must not build our hopes or stir our fears on the words and deeds of mere creatures. It will invariably disappoint.
I write and wrestle with these things as the pastor of a church that rejoices in its happy variety: on any given Sunday, I am likely to preach to people from England, Wales, Scotland, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, the Ukraine, Romania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Italy, India, America, and possibly a few others. Our fellowship meals are a thing of many-splendoured wonder! I have had the privilege of travelling to various parts of the world to enjoy real fellowship with the family of God in countless places. I still remember with some fondness the first time I read Andrew Fuller’s sermon on Christian patriotism, delivered when Britain was under threat of Napoleonic invasion. Though these circumstances are vastly different, I think that Fuller’s guidance is still extremely valuable. John Newton, too, is fairly robust. I have made some sort of contribution to the literature with a chapter on “Respect the Authorities” and other related material in a recent book, Passing Through (see sidebar for details).
So what do we do now? Is now the time for triumphalistic bombast? For prognostications of disaster? I think not. It should make us pray for magnanimity and wisdom on both sides as we deal with the aftermath. We should remain profoundly concerned for the peace and wellbeing of the nation in which we live and of which God has made us earthly citizens. But none of this changes our fundamental identity nor our basic activity. The apostle Paul tells us that in the last days (the days between the ascension of Christ and his return) there will be perilous seasons, marked by people who are “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2Tim 3.2-5). In or out of Europe, it seems to me that this is a fairly accurate description of the dangerous time in which we live. In or out of Europe, that is the spiritual landscape in which we labour.
So what do we do? We do, in our place and according to our part, what the Lord Christ told us through his apostles: “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2Tim 4.1–5).
A proper and genuine patriotism, in the sense of a warm regard and earnest concern for the country where God has put us, is not just compatible with but required by a genuinely Christian soul. We are to serve where we are. Our battle is not so much for borders as for souls. Our gospel compassion must be extended to our neighbours, whoever they are. Our expectation is of a new heaven and a new earth characterised by righteousness, a city populated by the nations of the earth under the kingship of Christ. And that is not yet, though it is already glimpsed in the churches made up, Lord’s day by Lord’s day, of people from every kingdom, tribe, language and nation who gather to worship the King of kings and Lord of lords. In that sense, not much has changed. There may be some particular political challenges in the days ahead, and yet the challenges for the church – the demands upon and opportunities for the kingdom of God – will not change. We may yet have our City of God moments and seasons in the modern West, and God may yet grant us theologians like Augustine for such moments and seasons. Our hopes are not, and never should have been, in England or Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland, in the UK or Great Britain, in or out of Europe.
Perhaps you know the older English translation of “A safe stronghold our God is still,” written by Martin Luther, that German reformer? It was written at a time when much was shaking in the world, and Luther faced the spiritual realities of the time with candour and courage, and with this conviction and conclusion:
God’s Word, for all their craft and force,
One moment will not linger,
But, spite of hell, shall have its course;
’Tis written by His finger.
And though they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vanish all:
The city of God remaineth!
It is as citizens of heaven that we are to live and to love and to labour, for the glory of God and the good of men. We need not, we should not, panic. If we feel the need for some sort of radical change this morning, it may be because we were not being and doing what we ought to have been and might have been in the first place. These are not to be the first things in our hearts.
There will be, this morning, much fear and much uncertainty for some, much rejoicing and glee for others. Some, perhaps many, more phlegmatic or less engaged, will not give two hoots about what has happened. For so many, there is too much pain and too much pressure in the next hours to worry about the next years. But, if Christians, we always knew that the world shakes, and one day soon will so shake that nothing is left except that which cannot be shaken. This must be our confidence and our conclusion, too, and our hope for the future, and our message to our neighbours: the city of God remains!
For the Glory: The Life of Eric Liddell from Olympic Hero to Modern Martyr
Doubleday (Penguin), 2016, 384pp., cloth, £20
For most of us, the strains of Vangelis are the soundtrack to the dramatised life of Eric Liddell. And that’s pretty much it: effortless running on beaches … getting up after falling and beating the opposition … taking a stand on the Lord’s day … beating all comers at a less-favoured distance. And yet, for most of us, the truth lies largely hidden or slightly murky behind the veil of entertainment. That is where a book like Hamilton’s can be a real help. Though it lacks the explicit Christian tone of John Keddie’s Running the Race, for example, it provides a largely clear lens through which to view our subject’s life. I do not think that Mr Hamilton is a Christian. That makes his testimony all the more powerful, even if his discussion of Liddell’s Christianity sometimes seems to lack awareness or sensitivity. He seems to stand in awe of Liddell without being quite able to understand him. For those of us who believe we better grasp his motives, his simple pursuit of cheerful obedience leaves us, perhaps, as far behind him as men of God as many of his rivals on the track were as athletes. Hamilton seems stunned by Liddell’s consistent virtue, constantly having to explain that Liddell really was everything that people claimed him to be: a shining example of Christlikeness. In fact, he protests so much that one is even tempted to wonder if he has fallen under Liddell’s spell himself. It may be the sports writer’s desire for a hero or love of the underdog. Certainly Hamilton seems possessed of an animus against any institution, especially the more bureaucratic, which leads to the working assumption of something on the far side of incompetence though generally just short of actual malice. Where the book really excels is giving a straightforward and thorough account of the whole of Liddell’s life, probably rising to its peak away from the earthly glories of the Olympic running track and focusing on the tireless, selfless labours of Liddell the missionary and his experiences in a Japanese prison camp in China. It is, for various reasons, hard to tease out much of Liddell’s theology from the book, but his godly character lies on the surface. Some readers may wish to be warned that, in telling the tale, Hamilton slips in a couple of profanities and vulgarities, sparse but present. I genuinely enjoyed this volume and would warmly recommend it to anyone seeking to know the man behind the film legend. The specious romance of certain elements of the screen tale is stripped away to be replaced by the substantial beauty of the simple truth. In doing so, it is Liddell’s determination to glorify God by a commitment to consecrated obedience that is the lasting impress his life’s race leaves upon the reader.